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Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

.          “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
.          4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant  5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
            8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.  9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;  10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” – I Corinthians 13:1-13

love give away

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Today we’re only a week away from Valentine’s Day, and this morning we have for our reading I Corinthians 13 – the “Love Chapter”. This is probably one of the best-known passages in scripture if not the best-known. It’s often heard at weddings, and it’s one of my favorite passages of scripture – probably in the Top Five.

I fell in love with I Corinthians 13 when I was around 12 or 13 years old. At that age I had a gazillion questions about love and falling in love. What is love? What’s it’s like to fall in love? How can you tell when you’re in love? (I can still hear my mother saying, “when it happens, you’ll know.”)

It didn’t take me too long to figure out there’s a difference between being in love and love itself. And it didn’t take long to figure out that the love songs on the radio were about being in love. But finding a definition of love was a challenge. Not too many people want to have a serious conversation with a thirteen-year-old on the subject of “what is love?” When I finally tripped over I Corinthians 13 I thought: “Yesssss!!! A definition of love that I can work with!”

But my excitement faded quickly when I realized just how difficult it is to do the things Paul is talking about. What Paul describes in I Corinthians 13 is not humanly possible, because Paul is describing the character of God. We, as human beings, are made in God’s image: so these words describe what we were created to be; and they also show us how far humanity has fallen from God’s perfection. Wrestling with this text is not for the faint-hearted. I do recommend it though, with caution and care, because Paul’s words bring us closer to the reality of who God is, and to God’s purpose for our lives.

One other side note before I dive into the text. I love the old movie The Wizard of Oz – but there’s a line towards the end that always makes me cringe. It comes after Dorothy and her friends have returned to the Wizard with the witch’s broomstick, and the wizard is handing out the gifts. He says to the Tin Man, as he gives him a heart: “a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

This is NOT the kind of love Paul is talking about: just the opposite. Paul says love is self-giving and in some cases self-sacrificing. We see examples of self-giving love in people who risk their lives to save others, like firefighters and health care workers. We see self-giving love – if we’re lucky – in our parents and grandparents as they raise us. When we see this kind of love we look up to the people who give it, and we often take them as role models.

This kind of self-giving love is much closer what Paul is talking about.

love what is it

All that said, let’s dive into this passage. By way of background: Paul is writing to the church in the city of Corinth, Greece. And the Corinthian church is divided against itself (something many churches today can relate to). In this case the church is fighting over which spiritual gifts are the greatest – or to put it another way, which of them is the most spiritual.

Paul answers their questions about spiritual gifts in I Corinthians chapter twelve, where he talks about how the church is like a body, and it needs all its different parts. He says the hand can’t say to the foot ‘I don’t need you’. And the foot can’t say ‘because I’m a foot and not an eye, I don’t belong here’. The different parts of the body are all needed, and they are supposed to be different. Love is what makes it possible for the different parts to do what they’re designed to do, without being offended by or jealous of the other body parts. Love makes it possible to be different without being divisive.

Then at the end of the discussion on gifts, Paul says in the last verse of chapter twelve: “…and now I will show you a more excellent way” – and he launches into this beautiful poem about love.

I invite you to grab your Bibles if you have one nearby and follow with me, because I’m going to read the chapter a little differently this morning. There are three parts or sections to this chapter: Part 1 (vss 1-3); Part 2 (vss 4-7); and Part 3 (vss 8-13). This past week as I was studying this passage I discovered some new things thanks to a theologian who suggested reading it in the original Greek. She was right. Comparing the English to the Greek, the words are similar but the parts of speech are different. So I’d like you to be looking at the published translation as I dig into these differences.

Starting in Part 1 vss 1-3 (just a quick summary): Paul basically says: if I give away everything I have, if I sell all that I own and give the money to the poor, and if I even give up my life and die as a martyr – if I don’t love I gain nothing. If I’m able to move crowds to action with my words; if I’m the best teacher in the world; if I know everything there is to know; if I have all the power in the world; if I can even predict the future – without love I am nothing. Generosity and giving and self-sacrifice must be rooted in love or they are meaningless – mere self-promotion.

LoveBears

Part two, vss 4-7: This section is a description of what love is and isn’t, and this is where the biggest difference between English and Greek comes in. The English version has a lot of adjectives but the Greek version has a lot of verbs; so in English we hear a description of love, but in Greek we hear action. Here’s a rough translation from the Greek:

“(4) love has patience; love has kindness and shows mercy; love is not filled with jealousy or envy; love isn’t about showing off; love isn’t conceited, it doesn’t put on airs (5) love does not behave disgracefully or dishonorably; love does not seek itself; love is not easily angered; love does not reckon evil of others; (6) love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices with (alongside) the truth. (7) Love endures all (panta), believes all, hopes all, remains (hangs in there) with all. (8) Love never falls/collapses/is never destroyed; never fails.”

Then in part three (vss 8-13) Paul says so much of what we invest our time and energy on in this life won’t last. Prophecies will come to pass (or not). Tongues and languages will pass. Even knowledge itself will be used up, set aside, brought to an end. What we know now is only partial, and how we think about the future – either here on earth or the future in God’s kingdom – is sketchy at best. When the perfect comes the imperfect will lose its meaning.

In a way I think it’s like expecting a child. We can know a lot about a child before the child is born: we can do ultrasounds, we can run tests, we can figure out the gender. But things like the personality, the characteristics, who this baby takes after – we won’t know these things until the child is born. And when the child is born, everything we knew before the birth looks so incomplete it’s irrelevant – because the kid is finally here!

It’s the same way with life in God’s kingdom. We can talk about heaven, we can talk about going to live with God, but we won’t really know what we’re talking about until we get there – and when we get there, anything we knew now is a mere shadow of the reality.

Verse 11 – this verse basically just tells us that as we grow we mature. And verse 12 speaks of ancient mirrors which were not made the way mirrors are made today – they were rough and uneven and only gave a person a general idea of what they looked like. This is what our vision and understanding of life and heaven are like right now.

If all this is true, and what we have and know in this life is sketchy at best, then what matters? What do we have and what can we do that will have any meaning? Paul will tell us in chapter 14 that God gives us spiritual gifts to bring good into God’s kingdom and into the life of God’s people; but here at the end of chapter 13, Paul says there are only three things that have any real lasting meaning:

  • Faith: which is not a fuzzy feeling but a rock-solid trust: ‘a knowledge of things hoped for’
  • Hope: faith in action; acting on what we believe
  • Love: the greatest of all

love these three remain

On a practical level, then, what would Paul have us do? I think he would have us think deeply on his words, about the kind of love he’s been describing. I think he would have us work on love: experiment, learn, try things, practice. Practice loving God, practice loving each other, practice enjoying the variety in God’s creation – not only in nature, but in the differences within the Body of Christ. Practice patience and kindness and mercy and generosity of spirit and hope and faith.

Paul is asking a lot here!! In fact what he describes in I Corinthians 13 really is impossible; so I think the very first thing is to not get discouraged by this passage. I Corinthians 13 drives us to the realization that we are not able to meet God’s gold standard of love. We must trust God’s love – we must trust that God will make up the difference – there’s no other way. What Jesus did for us here on earth, in living and teaching and caring and healing and dying and rising again, makes it possible for our imperfect love to be perfected. And as we grow in love, we grow in our ability to build a Christian community, the family of God, the body of Christ.

Let’s pray.

Lord, thank you for loving us. Thank you for sending Jesus into our world to show us how love is brought to life, and to take on himself all the things we’ve failed to do. Forgive us when we fall short. Help us to grow in love for you and for each other. Build us into the church that you have in mind, so we can share Your love with others, and so that others can come to know your love. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/6/22

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Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God.  2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors– Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor– lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.  3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.

     “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.  15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” 

     Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods;  17 for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed;  18 and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” 

     But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.  20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”  21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!”  22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.”  23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.”  24 The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”  25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’  10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.Matthew 25:1-13

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This is going to be one of those sermons that I need to preach to myself as much as to you, because these two passages really speak to people where we are.

The passage in Joshua talks about serving the Lord. The things God asks us to do aren’t impossible. It’s just… it seems like so many of them go against the grain! Where it comes to loving and serving God, sometimes I think it would be easier to be given some great task to accomplish: Go find the Holy Grail. Go toss the One Ring into the fires of Mordor. Go slay a dragon.

It is much harder to simply stay awake, as the bridesmaids discover in our second scripture. Or to worship God alone, as the people of Israel discover in our first scripture.

It’s all about choices. The things we choose today effect our life tomorrow and into the future: and not just our lives but the lives of those around us. It’s true as individuals, as a people, as a nation, and as a church.

So looking at our scriptures for today…

In the first we see Joshua, the successor of Moses, calling God’s people to loyalty. In the second we see bridesmaids waiting for a groom to arrive – and some think ahead and some don’t. In both cases the people involved had choices to make. They needed to be thinking: where are we now? Where do we need to be? And what do I need to be doing to get there?

In the first passage, Joshua, who took over the leadership of Israel when Moses passed, is now an elderly man. He has led the people of Israel into the Promised Land and has given them directions as to which tribe will inherit which parts of the country. But there’s a catch: there are people already living in the land. God’s command to the people of Israel is to “drive them out”. Not kill them. Not make friends with them. Just relocate them, forcibly if necessary.

Side note: I have heard people say that the Bible isn’t consistent – that the Old Testament God is a bloody and violent God but the New Testament God is a God of love and peace. And they point to passages like this.

Let me put a word in for God here! There are some verses missing from our reading today: Joshua 4-13, in which God reviews everything God has done for the people so far. We get a little bit of the history in vss 2 & 3: “a long time ago God took your ancestors – Terah and Abraham and Nahor – who lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods…” Hold that thought.

Side note to the side note: remember your world history from like 6th or 7th grade. Remember the “cradle of civilization”? Mesopotamia? Mesopotamia is a Greek word that means “between the rivers” – in this case, the Tigris and the Euphrates, where – to the best of our knowledge – the first human civilization appeared. God says “I took your forefathers from beyond the Euphrates”. In other words, God has been with humanity from the very beginning. From the beginning of history God knew us. And from the beginning of history people were serving other gods. [End of side side note.]

Back to our side note: God chose Abraham son of Terah, who was born in Mesopotamia, to build a family and a people for God: a people who would demonstrate to the world how good it is to worship and serve the one true and living God as opposed to false gods and dead gods like the Mesopotamians.

And then today’s reading jumps ahead to Joshua’s departing speech, but let me fill in the missing bits. God led Abraham to the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and gave that land also to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. But during Jacob’s lifetime there was a famine, and Jacob’s family moved to Egypt. At first the people flourished there, but after a few hundred years the Egyptians enslaved them, so God sent Moses and rescued them from the Egyptians.

On their way back to the Promised Land the people of God made a golden calf to worship in the wilderness. God destroyed it, and after some back-and-forth God forgave the people, and together they moved on. Also on the way to the Promised Land the people of God had to pass through the lands of other nations and tribes. A lot of times those other nations didn’t want strangers passing through their land, so they attacked. In verses 4-17 God says (summarizing): “the Amorites fought with you and I handed them over to you… King Balak of Moab set out to fight against you… but I rescued you… the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you,” God says.

Notice these battles were defensive ones. Nowhere did God say “go attack them.” In every case God says “I defended you. I handed them over to you.

The reason God wanted the people displaced was because they worshipped false gods and God knew they would influence Israel to worship false gods – to break Commandment #2.  As the Israelites moved into the Promised Land, at first they did what God said: they displaced the people living there. But as they traveled further north, the Israelites stopped displacing the people, and they decided instead to enslave them. This was never God’s plan! So now God’s people had slaves living among them who worshipped other gods.

Our reading today is from the last chapter of Joshua. In the very next book, the book of Judges, we discover it only took one generation after the passing of Joshua’s generation for the people to start worshipping idols again. God was right. God wasn’t violent; God was as merciful as God could possibly be.

So returning to the story of Joshua: Joshua speaks up for God in verse 14 saying: “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.”

From the time God called Abraham it had been well over 500 years. God had rescued the people from slavery, led them through the desert, defended them against enemies, brought them to the Promised Land… and still the people have idols! Why else would Joshua need to say “put them away”? Even while the people are standing in God’s presence in this scripture passage, saying “The Lord our God we will serve and him we will obey” they’re still holding onto their idols behind their backs!

Today, 4000 years later, idolatry is still the root cause of most of the evils we see in the world. That’s why, in the Ten Commandments, Commandment #2 is so important. Commandment #1 says worship God only, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Commandment #2 says have no other gods. Worship no-one else. Worship nothing else.

Idolatry is letting something be more important to us than God. To give a few contemporary examples (and I am not implying anything political here, just giving a very short list of examples) –

  • Global warming: the pollution of the good earth God has given us: a direct result of the idol of money. Greed.
  • War: the idol of domination.
  • Sexual sins: making idols of one’s own desires. “The heart wants what the heart wants” is the very definition of idolatry.
  • The sin of forcing women and children to live in poverty at our border while we live in comfort: the idol of security and/or the idol of me-first.
  • Celebrity-worship: rock stars, actors, athletes, politicians, media pundits – a form of self-worship in which we spend all kinds of money and time trying to become more like them instead of being who we’re created to be.

And here’s the thing: even good things can become idols, if they become more important to us than God. Food, for example, or clothing, or exercise or sports… or (for me) the delights of the mind: art, music, literature, education, travel. These are good things, and God knows we need them, but God must be in charge. If God says “not right now” I need to be willing to say, “OK Lord – what’s on Your mind?”

God challenges us to put away the idols and worship Him only, so that we can be truly free. I once heard someone say, “God is the only thing you can worship that won’t destroy you.” (I wish I could remember who said that!) Any other object of worship leads to chaos and death. It’s not that God’s on an ego-trip. It’s that God loves us and knows what we need.

Joshua says “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” and he challenges us to make the same choice. And it’s not just a one-time decision. Yes, we decide for Jesus at some point in our lives; but Joshua’s words are for every day. Choose this day whom you will serve. Make the decision fresh every morning.

Which leads us to the second reading about the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

In this parable the bridegroom represents Jesus. Jesus promised to return, and it seems to us like he’s taking a very long time. And the sights and sounds of this world are distracting. And because it’s human nature, all of us will nod off at some point waiting for Jesus to return.

The difference is in planning ahead. Don’t wait to build up your spiritual warehouse. Don’t wait until the flash of lightning breaks across the sky to pull out the Bible and start reading it.

A decision needs to be made: will we be ready, or won’t we? Ten bridesmaids had the honor of being invited to a great wedding feast. They had one job: when the bridegroom approached, go out and light the way to where the wedding was to take place. The five who were wise took extra oil just in case… because that was their one job!  The five who were foolish thought they could get by on what they had.

The oil, in scripture, corresponds to the Holy Spirit: God’s love poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5) We need to be close enough to God to be infused with God’s love. That’s our one job!

So choose this day… and be filled this day… and give it everything we’ve got. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/8/2020

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The same day some Sadducees came to [Jesus], saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”  Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching. 

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 22:23-40

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Proof text political questions: we’ve been hearing a lot of them lately. If you’ve been watching the debates you can’t miss them. I won’t give examples because proof text questions are meant to put people on the defensive, and that’s not why I’m here today!

What we really need in days like these is a breath of fresh air: some faith and hope and love. And our scripture passage is going to take us there today. But first let’s take a look at what’s happening in the conversations in this passage.

A proof text question is a question people ask, not because they want information, but because they think they already know the answer – and the answer is something they think YOU need to know. In my experience these assumptions are often mistaken…

…and that’s what we see happening in the 22nd chapter of Matthew. Jesus is being asked proof-text questions designed to intimidate, or to put the questioners one-up over Jesus, or to cast doubt on Jesus’ integrity.

In today’s reading we heard two proof-text questions: one being asked by the Sadducees and one being asked by the Pharisees. Immediately prior to today’s reading there was a third question: it was asked by the Pharisees and it had to do with paying taxes: “should we pay taxes to Caesar?” Last week’s sermon was on this passage so I won’t preach it again, but Jesus’ answer to that question is one of my favorite passages in scripture. He says: “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.”

The question “should we pay taxes to Caesar?” was a proof-text question back then. It was a hot potato issue, the kind of question that would get family members arguing over the holiday dinner table. And the Pharisees were really good at coming up with questions like these.

So were the Sadducees. The Sadducees and Pharisees couldn’t stand each other, and both of these groups were always throwing questions at each other. The Sadducees were the educated elite; the Pharisees were specialists in the law of Moses – educated but not necessarily elite – and they were popular with the people.

Jesus frequently criticized both groups. And in this passage we see Jesus being confronted by both groups.

The Sadducees came first. Their big hot-button issue was resurrection. The Sadducees thought the whole idea of life after death was silly. To make this point, they created a proof-text question that went like this:

The law of Moses says if a man dies without children his brother is to marry the widow and have children for him so his name doesn’t die out. This is true: this is what the law of Moses taught. As an aside: this could be a costly law to obey – financially costly – because the brother who married the widow provided food and clothing and housing for the widow and any children she had – but anything they had was not part of the second brother’s estate… whatever they owned belonged to the dead brother and his widow.

There’s an example of how this worked in the love story between Boaz and Ruth in the book of Ruth. You may remember it: at one point in the story we see Boaz saying to Ruth’s closest male relative “you are the inheritor; you have the right of redemption – if you want to redeem the land that belonged to Ruth’s dead husband land you may do so – but Ruth comes with it.” The relative at first said “yes” to the idea of inheriting land, but when Boaz said “and Ruth comes with it” he answered “no I can’t afford that” – which is exactly what Boaz was hoping he would say, because he wanted to marry Ruth. So redeeming a widow was an expensive thing to do, and it was a very selfless act of mercy and love towards family members who otherwise would have nothing.

But the Sadducees, with their proof-text question, made it into a joke. Their question went like this: there were seven brothers. The first gets married, and then dies, and his brother marries the widow. And the second brother dies and the third brother marries the widow, and so on until all seven brothers had married the widow. They all died, none of them had any children, and finally the poor widow died. Therefore, in the resurrection (the Sadducees asked) whose wife will she be? Because she had married all seven men.

In the minds of the Sadducees this was an absurdity. They thought their question proved how silly the idea of  resurrection was. It was totally unworkable. It would pose too many logistical problems for God to work out.

Jesus immediately points out the flaw in their question. He says: “You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” (What a thing to say to your nation’s religious leaders! You can imagine their reaction.) Jesus continues: in the kingdom of God, people don’t marry. People will be like the angels.

This is new information – we don’t find this anywhere else in scripture. But Jesus knows it’s true because he’s been there. He came from heaven so he knows how people live there.

What it will mean for us to become like angels – we don’t know right now. You might as well try to tell a caterpillar what it’s going to be like to be a butterfly. All we know is the next life will be different – beyond our imagining at this point.

But then Jesus says something we can all recognize and relate to. He says: as for resurrection itself, God introduced himself to Moses in the book of Exodus as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” – and God is not the God of the dead but of the living.

So Jesus teaches resurrection from the scriptures, from the Law of Moses, in a way the people have never heard before. And the crowd is astounded.

God is the God of the living. For any of us who have lost loved ones in this life – fathers or grandfathers, mothers or grandmothers, spouses or children – knowing that God is the God of the living is the very best news.

The Sadducees are silenced. They had nothing more to say. And according to the Gospels, they never questioned Jesus again.

The Pharisees took note of this. And they thought maybe Jesus might be useful if he could be coaxed over to their side, so they gave him one of their proof-text questions. This particular question was not an either/or question but it was designed to find out what a person’s priorities were. They asked: “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” That is, which one takes precedence? Which one is the most important? In today’s world it would be kind of like asking: ‘Do you support pro-life or pro-choice?’ ‘Do you support letting immigrants in, or do you support building a wall?’ It was a way of asking ‘whose team are you on?’

Jesus went directly to the Ten Commandments, to the very first commandment, and he said: “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And the second is like it: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” This second law is not found in the Ten Commandments but it’s found in Leviticus chapter 19 where it sums up other commandments that have to do with bringing justice and mercy into our personal relationships with others.

Jesus says “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, do these two, and you’ve got ‘em all covered!

These two commandments are not easy… in fact they’re just about impossible… but I find Jesus’ words very helpful, because there are so many things scripture says to do and to not do. It seems impossible to remember them all, let alone do them all. In fact that’s what the Pharisees were trying to do: they spent their lives studying and memorizing the Old Testament, picking it apart for all the possible meanings, to the point that (for example) when they talked about tithing, they gave to God 10% of everything they owned right down to the spices in their spice racks! And Jesus pointed this out once: he said ‘you tithe your spices, but you neglect the weightier matters of the law, like justice and mercy and faith.’  (Matt 23:23)

So I find Jesus’ summary very helpful, because rather than trying to memorize every last detail of every last commandment, I can ask myself: does this action show my love for God? Does this action show God’s love for others through me? And if the answer is ‘no’ then I need to ask forgiveness and make some corrections.

Jesus’ words lead us away from that list of rules – all the ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ – and leads us into a living relationship with the living God.

So in these answers to proof-text questions, Jesus gives us hope for the future, which is a resurrection life with God – and hope for the present by summing up the law in the words “love God and love each other”.

That’s where the passage we read this morning ends. But immediately following this passage, Jesus asks the Pharisees a question. It sounds like a proof-text question but it isn’t. The question is this: “Regarding the Messiah – whose son is he?”

The Pharisees answer “David’s of course.” One of the names for the Messiah in the Old Testament is “son of David.” Jesus then asks: “How is it then that David calls him ‘Lord’? for David says ‘the Lord said to my Lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ If David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”

The Pharisees couldn’t answer that one. Or maybe they didn’t want to. They knew the scriptures. They knew the Messiah would be greater than David – greater than the greatest king Israel ever had. The Messiah’s authority and power would be greater than David’s.  And if Jesus was the Messiah, as he claimed – the Pharisees had been putting themselves above him, and that would have to change. Because Jesus isn’t just a nice guy, he’s also the king of kings and lord of lords.

The Pharisees never answered Jesus’ question. And after that they never asked Jesus any more questions.

For us today, Jesus’ words in this chapter give us great hope. In answering the Sadducees, Jesus gives us proof of the resurrection and the life that will one day be ours.  In answering the Pharisees, Jesus shows us why love is more important than memorizing all the laws. And in questioning the Pharisees, Jesus shows he has the power and the authority from God to make this love and this resurrection a reality in our lives.

This is why we’re here today in worship – to say ‘thank you’ to God for these truths. AMEN.

~Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, 10/25/2020

 

 

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“When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus…” – Acts 3:12-20

“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.”

“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” – Luke 24:36-48

~

He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…” (Luke 24:44-45)

The scriptures Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to were the ancient Jewish scriptures, what we now call the ‘Old Testament’, or the ‘book of the law’. These names are actually sort of misleading, because God’s promises to God’s people have always rested on faith and grace, not on law, even in ancient Israel. The law was given to lead God’s people to grace. But Luke’s point is: Jesus dug into the nation’s history.

There are times when understanding history is the only way to understand what is going on in the present.

And I’m not saying that just because I’m a history buff. I am… but I like history because it is the story of real people doing real things, and there’s always something to learn from that. For example, today is Native American Ministries Sunday in the United Methodist Church. Today we remember a part of our nation’s history that we’re not particularly proud of. I can’t help but wonder how different America would be if our ancestors had been wise enough to learn from Native Americans rather than pushing them away. If, for example, they had understood and appreciated the Native American belief in treating land and animals with dignity and respect, how much cleaner would our water and air be today? How many animals would not be threatened with extinction today? Native Americans understood – and still understand – what it means to be good stewards of God’s creation – which is something, quite honestly, Christians have not been very good at throughout history. But knowing what has happened in the past can, if we’re paying attention, improve the present and the future.

In our scripture for today Jesus likewise finds himself in a moment where knowing history is absolutely essential. Of all the lessons Jesus taught his disciples, this one is probably the biggest and most important.

To set the scene: it’s late afternoon on the day after Jesus’ resurrection. In the morning some of the women had gone to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty and guarded by an angel who told them to tell the disciples Jesus was alive and to meet him in Galilee.

The disciples didn’t believe them.

Later in the day a couple of Jesus’ followers walked to the town of Emmaus, about seven miles away, and bumped into Jesus on the road. They didn’t recognize him right away but they talked with him for a long time, and when Jesus broke bread with them they remembered the last supper and realized who he was… and they ran back to Jerusalem and told the other disciples Jesus was alive.

The disciples didn’t believe them.

But while they’re talking about all this, Jesus appears among them. He shows them his hands and feet. The disciples are terrified and can’t believe what they’re seeing. They think they’re seeing a ghost. Jesus says, “why are you afraid? Does a ghost have flesh and bones?” And then he asks if they have anything to eat… something a ghost would never ask!

After the disciples settle down and realize this is really happening, Jesus begins to explain from the scriptures – from the Old Testament – what has happened in the past three days. Luke tells us Jesus talked about “everything written about himself in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms”.

There are many, many references to the Messiah in the Old Testament, so this would have taken some time. I like to imagine all the disciples sitting down to a fish dinner while Jesus is teaching. Luke doesn’t tell us which passages Jesus pointed to, but we can take an educated guess as to what some of them would have been.

Jesus probably started with Genesis chapter three. After Adam and Eve ate the apple and were confronted by God for disobeying his command, God says to the serpent who deceived them:

“Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals… I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15 edited)

Hidden within God’s judgement on the serpent is a promise: one of Eve’s offspring will crush the serpent’s head. Take a look at how one artist has rendered the spiritual reality behind this prophecy. (Credit: Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO)

"Eve and Mary"

“Eve and Mary”

On the left we see Eve, holding the apple in her hand, weeping. The snake is wrapped around her ankles, tripping her up as she tries to walk. On the right we see Mary, pregnant with Jesus, holding Eve’s hand to her belly so she can feel the baby inside her, while Mary’s foot is standing on the snake’s head.

Mary’s baby, Jesus, is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Adam and Eve that one of their children would defeat the serpent. Jesus is the one whose death on the cross pays the price for the human race’s addiction to sin.

Jesus probably also talked to the disciples about Abraham. The great Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – all look to Abraham as their founder, the man who believed in one true and living God. Abraham predates Moses and therefore predates the law. God says to Abraham,

“I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 26:4)

God’s promise to Abraham is for all the nations. That includes the disciples, and that includes us. The apostle Paul points out in his letter to the Galatians that God said to Abraham “by your seed all the nations will be blessed” not “by your seeds (plural)” (Galatians 3:16) – indicating that the seed is one person, one savior who is to come from the line of Abraham.

Paul goes on to point out Abraham’s salvation was by faith in God’s promise, not through the law (because the law hadn’t been given yet); and likewise we are promised salvation through faith in Jesus, not through the law. Paul writes: “if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from (the) promise; but God granted it to Abraham through (the) promise.” (Galatians 3:18) So salvation comes through God’s promise, not through the law… in both the Old Testament and the New.

Having reminded the disciples of this, Jesus no doubt would then have gone on to talk about Israel’s experience with Moses. He would have talked about the Passover, how God told Pharaoh through Moses that the firstborn of everyone in Egypt would die if God’s people were not allowed to leave Egypt. Pharaoh threw Moses out. Then God told Moses to tell the people: every household is to take a lamb and cook it and eat it and put the blood over the doors of their homes, and when the angel of death comes that night and sees the blood he will ‘pass over’ that house. So the people paint the lamb’s blood over their doors using a plant called hyssop as a brush. That night the first-born of every living thing in Egypt dies, except in those houses where the blood is over the door. The people of Israel are set free and begin their journey toward the promised land.

The Passover points to Jesus – the ‘lamb of God’ – whose sacrifice and whose blood protects us from death and brings us into God’s promised land of eternal life.

Hyssop is also mentioned in the Psalms, in David’s prayer of confession, Psalm 51. David writes:

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean…” (Psalm 51:7)

David understands that it is the blood of the Lamb over a person’s heart that saves life, like the blood of the lamb over the door did in Egypt. In writing this, David is pointing to the Messiah.

David was not just King of Israel, he was also a prophet, and many of his psalms look forward to the Messiah. Jesus would certainly have reminded the disciples of Psalm 22, which includes a description of the crucifixion 1000 years before it happened. David writes:

“All who see me mock me; they hurl insults… I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” (Psalm 22:7,14-18)

David has not only predicted the Messiah’s death, but he describes crucifixion, a form of capital punishment that won’t be invented for another 500 years. And Jesus directs our attention to this Psalm from the cross when he says, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – which is the first line of the psalm.

Having reviewed the Psalms, Jesus then turned to the prophets. He might have pointed to Isaiah, who said this about the Messiah:

“Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning… fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isaiah 9:5-7)

Isaiah also predicts that the Messiah will suffer. He says in Isaiah 53:

“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. […] He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death… After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied… For he bore the sin of many…” (Isaiah 53:5-6, 9, 11, 12b)

Isaiah predicted not only Jesus’ crucifixion, but also his burial in a rich man’s tomb, and that the suffering servant would ‘see the light of life’ after having borne the sins of his people.

Jesus probably also reminded the disciples of the parallel between the prophet Jonah – who was three days in the belly of a whale – and the Messiah, who was three days in the grave. He reminded them of the time the Pharisees confronted Jesus and demanded a sign, and Jesus told them:

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39-40)

These, and many other passages, Jesus shared with his disciples that night.

And so it was that a few weeks later, Luke tells us Peter and John are in the Temple and they heal a lame man in Jesus’ name and then explain to the crowd what’s going on, quoting the history Jesus has taught them:

“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate… you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know… God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…” (Acts 3:13-20 edited)

Peter and John now understood the history behind the events of Holy Week, and they were able to speak from that history with authority. They could point to what was written down – God’s covenants, God’s promises – as the foundation of their personal testimonies.

Like Peter and John we are also called to make the good news of Jesus known. And like them, we do not rely on spoken word alone, but draw from the written history. God’s covenant has been written – in all ages, for all ages, starting from Abraham and Moses and moving forward.

Luke says Jesus called on ‘the law, the psalms and the prophets’, and so can we. May God add understanding to our minds and hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit as we learn our spiritual history from God’s word and share it with others. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/19/15

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Recently a friend shared this Huffington Post article15 Things Not to Say to a Recovering Fundamentalist Christian – on social media. I jumped into the conversation, but I’m not satisfied that any of us really heard each other (or even stayed on-topic). It’s far too easy to react from the gut rather than listening from the heart, especially where it comes to personal matters like faith and religion.

The sad truth is too many religious groups are abusive to their members. And the abuse is not limited to Fundamentalism or Christianity. Fundamentalist Islam is training children to be killers while causing the deaths of thousands in the Middle East. HBO recently ran an expose of physical and psychological abuse in the Church of Scientology (Going Clear). And people around the world are still waiting for justice in child molestation cases in Catholic and Protestant churches alike.

What the author of the above article is saying is: remember who you’re talking to. Remember what we’ve been through. Be sensitive to what we’ve suffered.

Look at it this way: if someone we knew went to the city on an errand and was jumped by a street gang, robbed and beaten and left on the street, would we expect them to get up and run home and go to work the next day as if nothing had happened? Wouldn’t we take them to the hospital? See to it that their injuries were treated? Look in on them and visit? Understand if they didn’t feel like going to the city again for awhile?

The injuries suffered by people in abusive churches may not be visible but the scars are just as real, and the wounds need time to heal. Here’s what I mean:

If you had a life-threatening physical injury… If you have had a faith-shattering spiritual injury…
  • Would people expect you to go to work the very next day, ignoring the pain and the doctor’s orders?
  • Do people expect you to go to church the very next week, ignoring the pain?
  • Would people expect you to deny your pain and carry on as if nothing had happened?
  • Do people expect you to deny your pain and carry on as if nothing had happened?
  • Would people expect you to forgive the people who attacked you the very next day?
  • Do people expect you to forgive the one(s) who abused you the very next day?
  • Would people expect you to always have a positive attitude every minute of every day through months of rigorous physical therapy?
  • Do people expect you to always have a positive attitude toward organized religion as you work your way toward regaining spiritual health?
  • Would people look at your injuries and question your commitment to life and good health?
  • Do people hearing about your spiritual abuse question your commitment to God and spiritual health?
  • When you complain that you’re in pain, would people ask you why you’re not grateful for all the things you have?
  • When you say you’ve been abused, do people ask you why you’re not grateful for the good things about religion?
  • When you say “I hope they catch the people who did this to me” are you asked why you hate people so much?
  • When you say, “I hope they put a stop to the people who abused me” are you asked why you hate religious people so much?
  • When you say, “I need to speak out about gang violence” would people tell you to shut up and stop spreading bad news about the community?
  • When you say, “I need to speak out about religious abuse” do people tell you to shut up and stop causing hard feelings toward religion?
  • Would people tell you if you really had faith in God, you would pray and God would heal you immediately with no further need for medical care?
  • Do people tell you if you really had faith in God, you would pray and God would heal your heart and everything would be fine?
  • Would people dismiss or minimize your injuries and walk away?
  • Do people dismiss or minimize your abuse and end the conversation?

So if you’re a person of faith and you know someone who has suffered religious abuse, what can you do to help?

  • Pray for your friend (don’t make a show of it, just do it)
  • Listen, listen, listen.
  • Encourage your friend to share his/her story of what happened to them. Let them know you understand.
  • Don’t try to rush your friend back into church. It may take awhile. In fact your friend may never feel comfortable around organized religion again. It doesn’t mean they’ve lost their faith in God.
  • Don’t try to fix it. Your friend needs time to work through the pain and grieve the loss of innocence. Just be there while they do.
  • Remember your friend also needs time to assess what happened and rebuild healthy boundaries.
  • Do share positive spiritual experiences with your friend – answers to prayer, moments with God, spiritual insights, reflections on the life of Jesus – things that involve God but not organized religion.

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Worldwide Communion was this past Sunday, and in keeping with it I shared these thoughts with my Adult Ed class at church…

What does communion mean to you?  What do you think about when you’re taking it?  Is it a time of reflection? of confession? of remembrance? of cleansing from sin?

All these things are worthwhile and I encourage you to continue doing them.  Let me add two more thoughts that we in the Protestant tradition sometimes forget:

1) The elements of communion represent Jesus’ body and blood.  When we take communion, symbolically we are not only remembering Him, we are taking Him into ourselves.  This is a sacrament, which is defined as “an outward or physical sign of an inward or spiritual reality“.  As Protestants we do not believe the elements actually physically change into real flesh and blood, but we do believe Jesus is present in a spiritual way. 

2) We never take communion alone.  This is the church’s teaching, and it is also symbolic.  In communion we are to experience not only union with God, but also union with each other as well as His Spirit indwells each of us.

“…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” — words prayed by Jesus, John 17:21-23

This is the true meaning of worldwide communion.  Today we remember and worship the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke:

“Who has believed our message?
     and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

Surely he has borne our griefs
     and carried our sorrows,
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
   he was bruised for our iniquities,
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
     and with his stripes we are healed.”

— Isaiah 53:1, 4-5

 

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“The Church did not develop its creed and literature and then, one day, with everything neatly packaged and ready, begin to evangelize.  Rather… members of the early Church began to “make disciples”.  Through that process they developed a creed and literature…”
Reclaiming the Great Commission, C. Payne & H. Beazley

Keeping the main thing the main thing… it can be so much more difficult than it sounds.  How easily we get caught up in “churchianity”.   For the average person in the pew, it’s usually pride in one’s own church and/or denomination.  Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with being very happy and thankful to be part of a wonderful church or fellowship group.  But how often have you heard people say “well I’m Presbyterian…” or “well I’m Charismatic…” or “well I’m Catholic…” as if all other options are second-rate? 

(“Well I follow Paul…” 
“Well I follow Apollos…”)

(more…)

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