Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘God’

Advent 2: Peace

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;  4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.  6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” – Isaiah 11:1-10

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.” – Luke 1:26-38

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I have a confession to make.

I have a weakness for Chuck Norris jokes.

Chuck Norris

Mind you I don’t usually watch martial arts movies. I don’t like watching fights. But I’ve seen probably two Chuck Norris movies and I get the idea: Chuck Norris is tough. Chuck Norris can’t be beaten.

Here are a few of my favorite Chuck Norris jokes:

  • When Chuck Norris slices onions, the onions cry.
  • There is no theory of evolution, just a list of animals Chuck Norris allows to live.
  • Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.
  • Chuck Norris was once exposed to COVID. COVID had to quarantine for a week.
  • Chuck Norris was once bitten by a cobra. After two weeks of agonizing pain the cobra died.
  • And my favorite: Death once had a near-Chuck-Norris experience.

This Sunday, the second week of Advent, we have two interconnecting themes. Our advent wreath brings us to the candle of Peace. And our advent series, From Generation to Generation, focuses on fear, and how God meets us in our fears.

The problem is, these two things – peace and fear – usually cancel each other out. If we’re afraid, we have no peace. If we are at peace we are not afraid. We need a Chuck Norris! (as in, “there is nothing to fear but Chuck Norris himself.”)

Let me shift gears for a moment. At the Advent service this past Thursday night we were talking about the first words God speaks in the time of Advent. In Isaiah 40, God says:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.”

These are the first words sung in Handel’s Messiah. The words to Messiah were pieced together from scripture: from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and Revelation; telling the story of Jesus the Messiah in God’s own words. These words from Isaiah are where the story begins.

Comfort Ye

As we live in these fearful days, where we see so many lives being pulled apart by hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes… and the cost of food going through the roof… and all the shootings… just to name a few things… people have a lot of reasons to be afraid.

But as Christians we have even better reasons to not be afraid. Before I get to today’s scriptures I’d like to share a scripture verse that tells us why we don’t need to be afraid.

This verse is Isaiah 45:12.

To give context: In Isaiah chapter 45 God is talking to Cyrus, the king of the Babylonians. Most of Isaiah was written for (and to) the people of Israel who were in captivity in Babylon. Whenever we read all the beautiful Advent and Christmas readings from Isaiah, it’s important to keep in mind God was talking to people who were in captivity in a foreign land. They were living in a dark world,  much like we do.

In Isaiah chapter 45, God takes the unusual step of talking directly to a king who is NOT from Israel. God speaks directly to Cyrus, King of Babylon, and God says basically, “look, you don’t know who I am, but I know who you are, and you don’t know who you’re dealing with.” (v. 3-5) (God is sounding a little Chuck-Norris-y here!) God says to Cyrus: “you have taken my people captive… and I am watching” (v. 4, 11) God also says: “it’s not your place to question Me, it’s My place to question you” (v 9-11).

And then comes vs 12. God says:

“I made the earth,
And created humankind upon it
It was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
And I commanded all their host.” (Is 45:12)

This verse puts me in mind of the old saying, “don’t tell God how big your problems are, tell your problems how big your God is.”

Let me add quickly: it is perfectly OK to bring our problems to God, large or small, because we are God’s children and God loves us. It is more than OK to share everything with God. But the saying is often true: it can be helpful to tell our problems how big our God is.

Turning to our scriptures for the day, there’s no doubt in my mind that Mary, the young Jewish teenager from Nazareth, knew how big her God was. We can see this in the way she handled herself when she met the angel Gabriel.

When Gabriel greets Mary, one of the first things Gabriel says is “do not be afraid”. This seems to be a standard greeting throughout scripture whenever angels talk to people. There must be something about angels that we humans find frightening, though the Bible doesn’t say why. Are angels physically big? We don’t know. We do know angels don’t have wings – wings were added by artists in medieval times to express the concept that angels move very quickly, and can appear and disappear in an instant. But there are no wings involved where it comes to meeting angels. So do angels have eyes that are fiery and penetrating? Do they have voices that resound and fill the room? Do they have something of God’s perfect nature about them, so that people fear angels the way we fear God? We don’t know.

Gabriel n Mary

We do know that most of the time in scripture, when someone meets an angel, their first reaction is to pass out and fall over. It is a testament to Mary’s courage and godly character that she stays on her feet during this whole conversation with Gabriel.

The writers of our Advent series point out that the phrase “do not be afraid” is one of the most commonly-spoken phrases in the Bible. It appears 75 times. By comparison, widows and orphans – who we are commanded throughout scripture to take care of – are mentioned only about half as often. But from generation to generation, God has arrived in the middle of our fears, in spite of our fears. And Mary’s reaction was exceptional.

For the rest of us, in today’s world, how do we get past the places of fear or pain or uncertainty? In our world fear is a common experience. We may fear for our safety, for the well-being of our loved ones. Many of us fear the things we see on the news at night. Some of us fear having too much month left at the end of the money. The list of things people might fear is extremely long. In fact there are over 400 officially recognized phobias in the world of psychology… and that doesn’t include just everyday garden-variety fears.

Where it comes to God, we may be afraid of not being good enough. We may be afraid that we’ve committed sins God can’t forgive. We may be afraid that God is like Santa, keeping track of who’s naughty and who’s nice. We may try to rack up some extra points in the “nice” column by volunteering or making a donation on Giving Tuesday.

(My take on Giving Tuesday:)

Giving Tues

Just in case it needs to be said: God is not like that. We who love Jesus do what we do, and give what we give, because God loved us first. And when you’re in a relationship with Someone you love, you want to do things for each other that will bring joy to each other.

But sometimes our feelings and worries go deeper than that. Sometimes we miss out on shalom – that deep peace and sense of well-being that Jesus talks about when he says “peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you: not as the world gives, do I give to you.”

How do we find peace like that, in times like these?

Let me get back to Isaiah 45:12, where God is talking to King Cyrus. God says two really important things:

  1. “I made the earth, and created humankind”, and
  2. “it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.”

Our God – the God who teaches us to pray “Our Father” – created us. God also created this good earth. God designed and made the mountains, the canyons, the rivers, the waterfalls, the oceans, the animals: lions, and cheetahs (I love cheetahs – they run as fast as cars!) God made giraffes, and snails, and sharks, and whales, and trees, and strawberries, and grapevines… you name it. God designed and made everything on earth. And when God created us, God gave us the ability to create also. So we make houses and businesses and parks and cathedrals and so on – demonstrating that we are created in the image of God who creates.

God made the earth, and all humankind. And then God says: “it was my hands that stretched out the heavens.” I want to think about that for a moment. God didn’t create just this planet. God created everything we see in the night sky, and some things that we can’t see!

Where it comes to the stars, the star nearest to earth, Alpha Centauri, is about 4.25 light-years away. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year. To give an idea of how far a light-year is: someone traveling around the earth at the equator at the speed of light would go around the world about 7½ times in a second. That’s a light-second. Traveling at the speed of light, the nearest star is 4.25 light-years away. And that’s the closest star. There’s much more further out.

Alpha Cent

GOD MADE ALL THIS!!

In Psalm 8 King David says to God:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made [us] a little lower than divine beings, and crowned [us] with glory and honor.”

Knowing this – knowing what God can do – puts my mind at peace about a lot of things. I don’t know how everything in life is going to work out. I don’t know how the troubles in our world will be solved. But I know the power of the One we believe in, the power of the One who saved us. And I know God has called us to be part of the work to bring justice and compassion to people who are hurting, or in need, or find themselves alone in this world.

And I also know our reading from Isaiah 11:1-10 is talking about the coming of Jesus the Messiah when it says…

“The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD… He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;  4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth… 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” (Is 11:2-5)

This is the God who saves us. We don’t need to be afraid. And Isaiah’s prophecy assures us that when Jesus returns,

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” -and- “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”  (Is 11:6, 9)

From generation to generation, people have followed Isaiah’s example, and Mary’s example, and have said ‘yes’ to God, in trust and without fear. And the word of God, and faith in Christ have been passed down from them to us, and we in turn will pass it on to others.

And if we see anyone who afraid, God calls us to be bringers of peace in God’s power. One writer puts it this way: “Advent is a season both to long for God’s peace and to become lights of peace in the shadows.” 

So today two things today to take with us today:

  • Fear is common in a world that has turned away from God, in a world that does not listen to God’s call for love and justice. The closer we are to God – the closer anyone comes to God – the less fear there is in life, and the more we know how to bring peace and compassion into the world.
  • Peace comes from knowing the Prince of Peace. God, who created a universe bigger than anyone can imagine, loves us and hears our prayers, and by the power of Jesus has included us in the eternal Kingdom. We have nothing to fear.

Peace be with you. AMEN.

Peace

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/4/22

 

Read Full Post »

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.  2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.  3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.  4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.  5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.  6 From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.” – Lamentations 1:1-6  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

5 “The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7 “”Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?  8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?  9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”” – Luke 17:5-10

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to the first week following our Catching the Spark series. As we give some thought to our re-commitment to the faith and to our Lord, this week we come to two very challenging scripture readings. The first is in Lamentations and the second is in Luke.

Lamentations

Both of these readings are dark and difficult and a bit tough on the heart. Sometimes they raise questions without presenting immediate answers. But what we’re about to take on in terms of renewed ministry – and what we’ve pledged ourselves to do – will bring many challenges, so it’s a good thing to take a look at some of the things we may run up against as we continue to follow Jesus.

Starting with Lamentations: this book was written by the prophet Jeremiah as he was watching the Southern Kingdom of Judah fall into the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah had spent most of his life as a prophet speaking God’s words to the Kings of Judah – and warning them to change course and follow God – and the result was usually Jeremiah’s being thrown in prison. Now Jeremiah is out of prison – because there’s no one left to guard him – and he is watching all of God’s people being deported hundreds of miles away from their homes. And he weeps as they are marched out of the city, down the mountain Jerusalem is built on, and away off in the direction of Babylon. We hear Jeremiah’s lament:

“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper…” (Lamentations 1:4-5)

Jeremiah has been promised by God that some of the people will remain (the poorest of the poor will stay), and that God’s people will return someday, and the city will be rebuilt – but Jeremiah won’t live to see it.

As we listen to Jeremiah’s words, our hearts go out to him and to his people. We know that the people were disobedient to God, and God warned them many times to put away their idols and return to God (they didn’t)… but as we see fall of Jerusalem, this great tragedy moves our hearts in spite of everything that’s happened. And I think that’s what God wants us to see in this passage. God did not want this to happen to God’s people. God is not up there sitting on a cloud saying “you guys are getting what you deserve” – not at all! God is weeping at the loss of the nation he loves.

Today, in our world, as we watch the news and listen to the stories of various events, sometimes we hear people calling other groups of people ‘wicked’. For example, after the flooding in New Orleans a few years ago there was a TV evangelist who was quoted saying the city ‘deserved this flood as punishment because they’re so wicked’. This is totally NOT the way God looks at human suffering. God sent his Son Jesus to die for all of us imperfect people. Our society isn’t perfect. Our country isn’t perfect. There are things we need to change. And the word ‘repent,’ means to ‘change course’ and to say to ourselves, ‘God is right, let’s do it God’s way.’ ‘Repent’ is not a word to be used to guilt people into seeing our point of view.

So as we watch the exile of God’s people from Israel, as we stand with the prophet Jeremiah as he weeps, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder, human-to-human, and heart-to-heart, because no matter what went wrong, the people of Israel are now going through an incredibly painful experience.

Those of us who were born and raised in the USA have never (praise God) been forced to pack up everything and move to another country. We have never known what it is to be torn apart from our families and orphaned by a foreign army. Some of us, if we’ve lived long enough, may have known what it is to lose a family member during war-time. But what the people of Jerusalem are going through in Lamentations is something none of us has experienced. May God keep it so!

So why is it necessary that we look at this heartbreak with Jeremiah? Because as we go out to minister to people outside these walls, we will meet people with tragedies like this in their backgrounds. And our hearts should go out to them the same way our hearts go out to the people of Jerusalem.

refugees2

Just to give a few examples from real life today: first, Ukraine. It tears our hearts apart to see what is happening in Ukraine. If we walk just a couple blocks away from Carnegie UMC we will meet people who have family members still in Ukraine. Some of the family members are running from danger, and some of them are bravely staying to help those who are unable to leave. One couple I’m in touch with on Facebook pastors a contemporary church in the city of Kyiv. Every week they risk their lives to take donations of food to areas of the country that have been shelled or bombed.

Second example: Syria. Syria is not in the news much any more. About five years ago everyone was hearing about ‘Syrian refugees’. Most Syrians are out of Syria now, and waiting in refugee camps to move on to future destinations. The Syrians were – and are – running from their own government. Their president dropped bombs on his own people, in his own country. Even families of Syrian veterans have been bombed out of their homes. We now have people from Syria living in Pittsburgh – and as we go out to minister we will probably meet some. I’ve met a family who lives in Crafton, and they are some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. And as soon as they learn enough English they’re going to have some stories to share, and they will need people to listen with compassion.

The third example is closer to home. This past week we’ve heard about the flooding in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Ian. We’ve heard the numbers: over 75 people dead, thousands rescued, thousands homeless, and some of the greatest destruction in recent memory. I don’t know about you but I personally know at least three or four families who live in Florida who experienced flooding in their homes.

I’m glad to say that UMCOR is responding immediately to this, and is helping alongside other agencies, doing whatever they can do to meet the needs of the people there. So as we look for opportunities for ministry, we can remember UMCOR; and we can also make personal contacts with people we know there and ask what’s needed. We also remember what it’s like to live through the flood caused by Hurricane Ivan a few years ago. We have people living in our neighborhoods who still live in fear of the next big rain. As we go out to minister, we can listen to these fears and offer comfort.

We live in a world today that is often uncomfortable with deep expressions of sorrow. We live in a world where it’s often said that what happens is all down to cause-and-effect. But that is not what the Bible teaches. This passage from Lamentations invites us to enter into the pain of a nation, or the pain of a community, and be moved by their suffering. So as we go out to minister, when we see people suffering, Jeremiah’s words prepare our hearts to be moved with compassion as we share the word of God and the love of Jesus.

hidden-brain-compassion

We turn now to our reading from Luke, and something a little bit less dark but perhaps more difficult. In this passage the disciples ask Jesus to “increase our faith.” They ask this in response to Jesus’ command to forgive people seventy-times-seven. I think their reaction is a reasonable one given that context; I know sometimes it takes me a while to forgive people just two or three times. Asking for an increase of faith makes sense!

But if we stop and think about it, how would we be able to tell if the request for more faith has been answered? Do we have some kind of chart on the wall showing 25% more faith today than a year ago? If the disciples are thinking something like “heroic deeds require heroic faith” they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Mustard Seed

Jesus is not criticizing their request for more faith; he’s saying they’re on the wrong track. It’s quality, not quantity, that Jesus is after. Even the smallest amount of faith – like the size of a mustard-seed – can achieve great things. All we have to do is act on the faith we have.

Using faith to help others is practical and down-to-earth: the ability to share, the ability to forgive, the ability to empathize, the ability to nurture one another. Doing these things in faith, in the name of Jesus, brings liberation and healing and restoration into peoples lives.

In the second paragraph, where Jesus talks about the ‘slave’ or the ‘servant’ (depending on your translation) Jesus is giving a heads-up against thinking we’re cool because we have faith. If we start to think “MY faith, MY work, MY strength, MY abilities, MY skills – wow, I’m really GOOD” – that’s where Jesus’s words come in: a servant is not thanked for doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Our thought instead should be something like “I don’t deserve any special praise for that”.

We serve Jesus because we want to see God’s will done. God is perfect; God’s love is astoundingly perfect; God wants the very best for every person in the world… and we serve God because of who God is. And when we do, we say “I was just doing what needed to be done.”

This does not make us (as some translations say in verse ten) ‘worthless slaves’. To put it into today’s language, when we do what God asks us to do, we say, “think nothing of it”.

I saw a living example of this, this past week in a Zoom meeting. We were having a group discussion, and one of the women there who lived in the Midwest is fostering two 2-year-old babies. The babies were two of the children who have been separated from their parents at our southern border. The children are not related to each other, they just happened to have arrived at her home together. Their parents are still in the process of applying for asylum. The foster parents are (thank goodness) in touch with the children’s parents by cell phone. And as she was sharing her story, all the rest of us in this Zoom meeting expressed amazement at her courage and her generosity and her willingness to share her home and her life – to take in two two-year-olds from a foreign country for nobody knows how long. And her reaction was one of surprise… as if to say ‘what else would one do?’ THAT’s what Jesus is talking about. It’s a frame of heart that says ‘I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing… nothing more.’

That’s faith. And that’s the good news of the Gospel. We don’t have to be superhuman. We don’t have to have oodles of faith. We just need to do what God created us to do… in his power, in his name. All that’s needed is just a little faith… and a lot of being there and being willing. As Jesus says: “One who is faithful in little is faithful in much.” (Luke 16:10)

As we head into this new season in our Partnership, let’s go forward with empathy, and willing hearts, and just a little faith. AMEN.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Catching the Spark” continues

Preached at Carnegie UMC and Hill Top UMC, Sunday October 2, 2022 – Pentecost 17

Read Full Post »

Vineyard

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.  4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?  5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.  7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” – Isaiah 5:1-7 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.  30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.  31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

“32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets–  33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,  34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.  36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented–  38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

“39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,  40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

“Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Today I’d like to spend most of our time with the Isaiah passage because it builds on what we heard in Hosea a few weeks ago.

But I can’t let Hebrews 11 go by without saying a few words about it. Hebrews 11 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It starts off in verse one saying, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It goes on to talk about men and women of faith down through the ages – Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Joseph and Moses – the list goes on. Some of these people were great leaders but others would never have been known if their names weren’t in the Bible. And it says “by faith” they did what they did.

Cloud of Witnesses

These were people just like you and me. They weren’t saints in stained glass windows. They were human, they made mistakes, they weren’t always sure what God was up to. But they kept on keeping on because they knew God and they trusted God.

Then at the very end of the reading, at the beginning of chapter 12, the writer of Hebrews says:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

When I read this, in my mind I see a huge arena – like an Olympic stadium – packed full with all the saints of God cheering us on as we take our places and run the race of faith. Those saints up there in the stands include our parents and our grandparents and our loved ones and all the people of faith who have entered God’s kingdom before us, from Genesis onward, and they are cheering for us.

It’s a vision to keep in mind, especially in tough times like these. When life gets rough and we find ourselves feeling discouraged, it helps to remember who is cheering us on.

It’s especially important to keep this in mind when we tackle passages like the one from Isaiah. These verses can be hard to spend time with because they’re dark; there is so little hope in them. Life in Israel during the years of Isaiah was not all that different from life in our world today.

In our reading from Isaiah chapter five, God sings a love song… but not the kind of love song we expect. It’s a love song of the broken-hearted. A somebody-done-somebody-wrong song.

WrongSong

God sings about his people. God says his nation is like a vineyard, a garden. God says he chose the best vines, and chose a fertile place to plant them, and cleared the land with care, and built a wall and a watch-tower for protection, and built a wine vat to make wine out of the grapes. But after all this work the grapevines produced wild grapes – and wild grapes are bitter, sour, not worth eating let alone making wine out of.

And God asks one question: “what more could I have done for my people?” Of course the answer is ‘nothing’.

In Isaiah God says: I will remove the protection from my vineyard, and tear down its wall, and stop weeding it and caring for it, and it will become an overgrown wasteland full of briars and thorns.

When Isaiah gave this prophecy, he was speaking in the Southern Kingdom of Israel. The Northern Kingdom, which we heard about in Hosea a few weeks ago, had recently fallen. The Southern Kingdom was now alone – just two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) remaining. Hearing these words must have made them stop and think: ‘Look what happened in the North. We only have two tribes left, and we’re not strong enough to stand on our own.’As it turned out, God protected the Southern Kingdom for many years before it finally fell; and when it did fall, God used non-believers to make sure a remnant of the people stayed in Jerusalem.

But back to Isaiah’s prophecy: Why is God saying these things? What was going wrong in the Southern Kingdom that troubled God so deeply? The first four chapters of Isaiah help answer these questions. God says in Isaiah chapter one:

  • Verse 23 – “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves… they love bribes, they run after gifts, and they do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.”
  • Verse 27 – “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.”
  • Verse 28 – “But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.”

The people who were in running the nation were practicing extortion and bribery; and they refused to take care of those who were in need, particularly the orphans and the elderly.

God looks for justice – for leaders who have compassion on the powerless. And God looks for people who do right things. A nation that refuses to do these things is like a grapevine that produces bitter fruit – and isn’t that what we see in our news every day?

In Isaiah chapter two, God looks at the nation of Israel and sees a land full of diviners and soothsayers – people who claim to have ‘special’ or ‘insider’ information. God also sees a land full of silver and gold and treasure: people have ‘chariots in every garage’. God also sees a land filled with idols: people worshiping what is not God. God sees people who think they’ve gotten past the need for God. (I hear that just about every day on Facebook these days!)

In Isaiah chapter three God explains what will happen in the near future if the people do not change course and return to God:

  • Verse 4 – “I will make boys their princes, and babes shall rule over them.” This could be taken either literally or figuratively. If it’s figurative, then God is talking about immature adults in leadership. If it’s literal – in a kingdom, if a king and queen pass away leaving a child on the throne, the kingdom is not secure. Without an adult on the throne, a kingdom is easy prey for conspiracies and invaders.
  • Verse 5 – “The people will be oppressed, everyone by another, and everyone by a neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the shameful to the honorable.”
  • Verse 14 – “the Lord enters into judgement with the elders and princes of his people: [God says to them] It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” says the Lord God of hosts.

God goes on in chapter three to describe how people of privilege decorate themselves proudly with fine clothes and jewels while the poor go hungry. This kind of thing is so common in our society today I think we sometimes become numb to it. To give just one example: a poor person in America is more than twice as likely to come down with diabetes during their lifetime than a rich American. And that’s not because rich people don’t eat junk food, but because a poor person doesn’t have access to (or can’t afford) fresh, healthy, unprocessed, sugar-free food. Poor people too often live in “food deserts” where there are no supermarkets at all. (I was very pleased to see the local farmers’ markets giving tokens to people with SNAP cards, to help families afford the best of foods.)

Then we come to Isaiah chapter 5, today’s reading, where we hear God’s love song for his vineyard, and God’s lament. After the song, in verses 8 and 9, God says:

“…you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no-one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land! The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant…”

But God does not leave us here, thank God. Isaiah continues to warn the Southern Kingdom that there’s trouble ahead. For now, though, I’d like to take us to a few other places in Scripture where God and Jesus talk about vines and vineyards. Vineyards are mentioned around 60 times in Scripture! Here are just a handful of the verses:

The first time a vineyard appears in the Bible is in Exodus and Leviticus, where God teaches the people about taking good care of the land. God says: plant vineyards for six years and in the seventh year, let the land rest. It’s like a sabbath for the soil, and it’s good farming practice. It allows the nutrients in the soil to build back up again. God also says: anything that grows by itself in the seventh year is to be left “for the poor and the alien”.  In the book of Deuteronomy God says: when you harvest your grapes, don’t go over the vines a second time: leave the rest for “the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”  When we see the word ‘alien’ in the Bible God is talking about foreigners: people from other countries.

Back in Old Testament times, foreigners and orphans and widows were particularly vulnerable because it was hard for them to make a living. We remember the story of Ruth, who did not allow her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, to go home alone. Ruth – who was a foreigner and a widow – went home with Naomi, and took care of her, and worked hard to put food on their table. Imagine what might have happened to Naomi if Ruth had not done that. Even today widows and orphans and foreigners are often exploited, and targeted by scammers and violent people. We as the people of God need to help defend and provide for people who find themselves in these situations.

Vineyard w wine press

Moving on to the New Testament, Jesus frequently talks about vineyards. In one passage he says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (John 15:1-4)  So we need to stay connected to Jesus in order to grow and thrive.

The last vineyard story I want to share today is the parable Jesus tells about a landowner and his vineyard. The beginning of the story sounds a lot like God’s love song in Isaiah, but Jesus gives it an unexpected twist. He says:

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’”  […] When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. (Matt 21:33-38, 45)

In this parable, the vineyard still represents Israel, and Israel is still God’s people, and the owner of the vineyard is still God. But this time we see tenants: people who God has appointed to take care of the vineyard and see to it that the vines are healthy and produce fruit. The tenants are paid by the owner and can expect to have a share in the harvest. God then sends his slaves – the prophets – to collect some of the produce… but the prophets come back empty-handed. In fact the prophets often came back beaten and tortured.

Finally the land-owner sends his son – Jesus – the heir, the King of Kings. And the tenants – the chief priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees – know Jesus is the Messiah! They know Jesus fulfills the ancient prophecies. But they won’t admit it, because if they do, they’re out of a job. If the Messiah has come then people don’t need priests any more. So they say to themselves “let’s kill him, and the vineyard will be ours”. And that’s what they do. Verse 45 says “they realized he was speaking about them” and they killed Jesus anyway.

There’s just one catch to their plan: Jesus came back!  There is no killing the Son. There is no claiming the vineyard for anyone but God. God wins in the end – and that means so do we. We grapevines, we who want to be fruitful for God, we who look forward to the great wine-tasting in God’s kingdom, we are safe in Jesus’ hands.

Which brings us back to Hebrews. By faith the saints of old did God’s will in spite of everything that was going on in the world around them. By faith the prophets spoke the truth. By faith we follow in their footsteps. By faith we bear fruit as we live in Jesus.

We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, cheering us on. So be encouraged: we are not alone. And the race has already been won. AMEN.

Preached at the South Hills Partnership of United Methodist Churches, August 2022

Read Full Post »

God’s Call

God speaks through the Prophet Hosea: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.  3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.  5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.  8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.  10 They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.  11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD. — Hosea 11:1-11

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Apostle Paul writes: So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,  3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.  8 But now you must get rid of all such things– anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices  10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! — Colossians 3:1-11

~~~~~~~~~~~~

god-is-calling

Today we’ll be looking at both our Old Testament lesson and our New Testament lesson and the focus will be on the common ground between the two.

The prophet Hosea and the apostle Paul lived about 700 years apart, give or take a few decades. They weren’t born or raised anywhere near each other: so it is remarkable how much their messages amplify and support each other. Hosea focuses mostly on how very much God loves us; and Paul encourages us to love God back. Let there be a two-way relationship between us, and let us be confident that even when we fall short of God’s perfection, God’s love and compassion are always there.

God also reminds us throughout scripture that God’s people were called out of Egypt – out of slavery – and into freedom. Israel’s experience in Egypt is not just history; it is also a parable showing us what it means to be in bondage to sin and separated from God. Without God we find ourselves trying to satisfy people and powers who are not God but would like to take God’s place in our lives. These people and things can become idols, and we may find ourselves trapped: giving our best efforts and the very best of our minds and abilities to something that isn’t God. In every time and every age and every nation, our loyalty is to Jesus. Jesus came to set us free, and he died and rose again to bring us into God’s eternal kingdom.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! Let me back up and start with the reading from Hosea. Hosea was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel shortly before the kingdom fell. He lived in a time when the people of Israel had been living in the Promised Land for a few hundred years. They had made themselves at home, and now they’re forgetting God (who brought them there) and are chasing after the Baals – the local false gods. They have forgotten what God did for them in Egypt; and when Hosea talks about a “return to Egypt” in verse 5, it has a double meaning: (1) that the people are taking themselves spiritually back into slavery by disobeying God, and (2) that Israel at that time was negotiating with Egypt to help them fight the Assyrians who were attacking from the north. God is warning them that their alliance with Egypt will fail. In the end, Israel doesn’t listen and the Northern Kingdom falls. But at this point in time the Northern Kingdom is still standing, and God is pleading with the people to return to the one who loves them.

2 kingdoms

In the book of Hosea, chapter 1, God gives Hosea a very unusual to begin his prophetic task: God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute and have children with her. This is meant to give the people of Israel a living picture of how God feels, being the God of a people who are always chasing after other gods. The fact that this illustration doesn’t even touch the peoples’ hearts tells us how far gone the nation is.

But in chapter 11 God changes approach: God opens his heart to the people and speaks in a way that many theologians have said is “like a mother”. Our God is of course beyond gender and has qualities that could be described as either or both. So as we read these words, we can hear God’s words spoken as either a mother or as a father would speak them.

God says to Israel:

“From the very beginning I called you. I taught you how to walk… I took you in my arms… I led you with human kindness, with bands of love… I lifted you like a child to my cheek… I bent down and fed you… but you refuse me; and as a result you will lose your land, and Assyria will be your king.”

As we hear God speaking from the heart it may remind us of other children we know – children of loving parents who have turned away from their families. We know the pain it causes. It may lead the child into danger, poverty, addiction, sometimes even death. We know that any loving parent would do anything to save their child, would even take the child’s place, if only their son or daughter would come home. This is how God is feeling towards God’s rebellious people.

But Israel won’t hear it. They keep on worshiping Baal and other false gods.

Moses had warned if they did this, God would have to act in ways that would bring great tragedy on the nation. This may not seem very God-like to us today, but as CS Lewis pointed out in the Chronicles of Narnia, speaking about the God-figure Aslan, “Aslan is not a tame lion but he is a good lion.”  Likewise our God is not tame, but good.

In this situation with Israel, God must act, or the covenant with Israel will be broken. God could bring down on Israel all the curses Moses warned about. But God says to Israel in Hosea 11:8:

“How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? My heart draws back, my compassion grows warm and tender…” And finally God says in verse 9: “I will not act in my fierce anger; I will not destroy the people; because I am God and no mortal.”

God, being God, will find a way where from a human standpoint there is no way.

In verse one of this chapter God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  That’s how God will do it: God will fulfill the law of Moses and still spare the people. In the New Testament, the apostle Matthew quotes this verse to identify Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. This is how God will do it – through Jesus!

Our God refuses to get stuck in binary opposites. God does not get caught in either/or reasoning the way we often do. From our human point of view it often seems like every issue that comes along boils down to one of two positions: left-right, red-blue etc etc. God is not limited by this kind of thinking. To give just one example: when the Pharisees said to Jesus, “We just caught this woman in adultery – what should we do? Look the other way, or do what Moses said and stone her?” Jesus avoids the binary and he answers, “whichever one of you is without sin cast the first stone.”

With God there is always a third way. God does not get trapped in human dichotomies. God says, “I am God and no mortal”– and God finds a way.

As an aside, while I was writing this I saw a quotation which I thought was helpful.  There was a seminary professor who wrote, “Too often, contemporary Christian [thought] accepts the false… dichotomy between the “Old Testament God of wrath” and the “New Testament God of love.” Hosea 11 gives us a picture of God that includes both anger and love. God is the same throughout the Bible. God doesn’t change. When we turn away God hurts. God is a God of holiness and a God of mercy.

Which brings us to Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The Colossian church got off to a good start – one of their leaders was Philemon, who wrote one of the books of the New Testament. But after awhile false teachings started to slip into the church. The exact nature of these false teachings is lost to history, but we know in a general sense they included some asceticism (that is, harsh self-discipline and refusal of pleasure); and also human wisdom, tradition, and “secret knowledge.” Back then this ‘secret knowledge’ was often called Gnosticism, but today we have similar things: for example the recent QAnon phenomenon, where people were claiming to have “secret knowledge” about how things “really are” and lead people away from God.

Back to Paul’s letter: so far Paul has talked about things like God’s heavenly throne room, where Jesus is seated in victory at God’s right hand. Paul tells the Colossians to stay focused on this vision of the throne room, and to keep on doing justice, and to keep on remembering that God’s people are safe and at peace in God’s kingdom.

throne room

Paul also reminds us to listen to the Holy Spirit so we can see beyond appearances. The Holy Spirit lifts the veil from the false pretenses of the world’s powers and authorities. To give just one small real-world example of false pretenses from our own time: when we go to the store these days we are getting less for the same price: boxes of Kleenex are the same size but have fewer tissues in them. Bags of cat food are the same size bag but have less food in them. Bottles of medicine are the same size bottles but contain fewer pills. These are just some of the lies told by the powers of this world. Real truth and real freedom, come only from God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

As Paul continues his teaching, he says people are created to be in relationship: first with God and then with each other. As the old saying goes, “no one is an island” – we are all interconnected. Therefore, what we do with our bodies and minds and hearts has an effect on others and on the world around us. That’s why God must be #1 in our lives, so that God’s goodness and God’s kingdom and God’s truth can enter our world through us.

A good summary of this passage from Paul might be, in the words of the old hymn, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness”. The Greek word for “seek” – zeteo – means to desire, to want very deeply. It’s not “eh, I can take it or leave it”.  It’s more like how Jesus described the widow searching for her lost penny: she puts all her effort into it, and when she finds it, she calls all her friends to rejoice! In the same way we should seek for and find and rejoice in God’s kingdom.

So whatever we say or do, we say or do in Jesus’ name and to Jesus’ glory. In this passage, Paul gives as examples (not as a complete list) a list of things not to do – most of which are of a sexual nature – but I find it interesting that Paul includes “greed” in this list. Idolatry comes in many forms, often brought on by being dissatisfied with what God has given us.

So big picture, Paul is dealing with the same issue that Hosea is. God has called God’s people, and God’s people are turning away.

Paul says “since we have been raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Jesus is, where God is.”  As God’s people, our lives are hidden with Jesus in God. We don’t know yet what we will be when Jesus comes. But we do know when Jesus comes, what we really are will be revealed. So our goal is to live in God’s direction, moving toward Jesus. As Paul says, we need to “put away what is earthly” – get rid of anything in us that might hold us back or that might harm what God has created in us.

One commentator puts it this way: the time of the Roman Empire was a time of “insatiable consumption” – sounds a lot like our world today! And Paul calls this “idolatry”.

We need to take off the old self and put on the new self. Anything of this world that comes between us and God is an idol and needs to be gotten rid of. That might include, but is not limited to: unfaithfulness, greed, anger, slander, abusive language, speaking lies or half-truths – these all are forms of Baal-worship.

God calls us away from serving what is ‘not God’ and into worshiping the one and only true God. False gods – as with Pharaohs – only imprison and enslave us. Paul talks about putting on new clothing for our souls; he talks about “being renewed in the knowledge and in the image of our creator.” In God’s kingdom we are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, black or white, children of different nations: we are all ONE in Jesus. As Paul says, “Christ is all and in all.”

We won’t ever see this perfectly in this life. But in Jesus we make progress… which starts now and continues into eternity. In the meantime we trust in the passionate love of God that Hosea talked about. God loves us so much! God is faithful; God will do what God has promised; and God will never let us go. God will find a way. AMEN.

God Will Make a Way

Preached at the South Hills Partnership of United Methodist Churches, July 2022

Read Full Post »

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;  7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.  8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:1-9

Come to the Water

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” – Luke 13:1-9

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Preamble: Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In a parallel thought, theologian Matt Skinner recently said, “The Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy.” It’s a surprising thought, to think that repentance would lead to joy, but that’s the big picture thought for today.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Our theme for this morning, the third Sunday of Lent, is If It Bears Fruit – which is taken from today’s reading in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus teaches that as Christian believers, our lives need to be bearing spiritual fruit. And if our lives are not producing spiritual fruit then we’re not really following Jesus.

But two big questions come up right away:

  1. What exactly IS spiritual fruit? How do we know if we have it?
  2. How does one go about bearing spiritual fruit? How does it happen? How does it grow?

I want to start with the second question first, because I think this is where many people tend to get discouraged. How do we bear spiritual fruit? How do we bring this fruit into our lives? How much time does it take? What goes into growing it?

Fruit

I imagine it this way: spiritual fruit – like any kind of fruit, even the kind we eat – takes a lot of work but not a lot of effort. Here’s what I mean:

A few weeks ago I bought two dwarf cherry trees. I ordered them through the mail, and they arrived a few days ago. What attracted me to these trees is that they only grow to about 5 feet tall and you can grow them in pots!  We don’t have to dig up half the backyard just to plant some cherry trees!

But before I see a single cherry I have a lot of work to do. I need to buy LARGE pots, and dirt to fill the pots, and frost covers because the trees need to be protected from frost. I need to plant them and water them and trim them. And I probably won’t see any fruit for about three years: it takes that long for the tree to become strong enough to start producing fruit. Planting fruit trees is truly an act of faith! And it’s a lot of work.

But from the tree’s point of view, bearing fruit doesn’t take much effort. The tree grows, soaks in the sunshine, take in nutrients from the soil, and when the proper time comes it blooms and bears fruit. The tree doesn’t need to work up muscles to bear fruit. It doesn’t need to watch YouTube videos to figure out how to produce fruit. If the gardener (me) has done the work, fruit happens – because that’s what fruit trees do.

That’s what I mean by fruit takes a lot of work but not a lot of effort. The gardener does most of the work. The tree just does what it was created to do.

In our passage from Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. This particular fig tree is not bearing fruit. In the parable the man who owns the fig tree represents God, and the fig tree represents a human being (could be anybody). God plants this fig tree in his vineyard (the world). God comes looking for fruit and doesn’t find any, so he says to the gardener (Jesus, in this story) “three years I’ve been looking for fruit on this tree, and I’m still not finding any.”

Fig Tree

As we’ve just learned from our example of cherry tree, some trees don’t produce fruit right away. Some trees might take two years, three years, maybe even four years, to produce fruit. The gardener knows this. I think this is one of the reasons why it’s agreeable to God to give this fig tree another year, and to work with it some more. The work of producing fruit, for the most part, is the gardener’s. The tree’s job is to take what the gardener gives it and grow fruit.

What the gardener has given us is our skills, our talents, our families, our communities, everything that makes up our lives. There are times when something goes badly wrong and a tree never bears fruit. It might have been frost-bitten when it was small; it might have been attacked by animals or insects; it might not have been a healthy tree to begin with. In the same way, human fruitfulness is sometimes inhibited by sickness or violence or other difficulties that prevent people bearing spiritual fruit in their lives.

In either case, God, the gardener, digs around the tree and puts manure on it. I expect this is probably not a very pleasant experience for the tree. Trees don’t like having their roots messed with: no plant does. And nobody I know (human or plant) enjoys having manure thrown on it!

In some ways we can parallel this to life’s difficulties and challenges. God may sometimes allow difficult things into our lives to help us grow. Let me say quickly: not all difficulties, hurts, or sicknesses are from God. Some tragedies – for example the war in Ukraine – are the result of other peoples’ sins. Some tragedies – like the example Jesus gives of a building falling on people – are simply accidents. These are things God never intended.

But for everyday difficulties, God may allow them into our lives to help us grow stronger. If we face into them with prayer and with trust in God, God will bring about changes in our lives (‘change for the better’ is the definition of repentance) and use them to help us produce fruit. God has created every single one of us to be fruitful. Bearing fruit is what we’re created to do. It’s what we’re here on earth to do.

To take this from a slightly different angle: Jesus once said (in the gospel of John): “I am the vine, you are the branches…

“and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes [that is, trims back] so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:1-2)  And Jesus goes on to say, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; but apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:5-8)

The way we go about bearing fruit is to stay connected to Jesus – and we do that through Bible reading, and prayer, and fellowship with other believers, and worship. If we stay connected to Jesus, the True Vine, we don’t have to push fruit out like a woman in labor. It happens naturally because it’s what God created us to do.

So how can we recognize the fruit of the Spirit? What are we looking for?

First off, fruit is something that benefits others. Just like trees don’t eat their own fruit but rather give their fruit to the gardener, and the gardener then takes care of the tree and feeds it, and it becomes a circle of care:  the tree for the gardener, and the gardener for the tree. In much the same way the fruit we bear is for the good of others.

Fruit of the Spirit

The apostle Paul lists some of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. He says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” – Galatians 5:22-23. I don’t think this is a comprehensive list; it’s a list to start with.

Paul also lists seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in I Corinthians 12. He includes: wisdom, understanding, wise counsel, courage, knowledge, holiness, and fear of the Lord. He goes on:

 28 First, God has placed apostles in the church. Second, he has placed prophets in the church. Third, he has placed teachers in the church. Then he has given to the church miracles and gifts of healing. He also has given the gift of helping others and the gift of guiding the church. God also has given the gift of speaking in different kinds of languages. 29 Is everyone an apostle? Is everyone a prophet? Is everyone a teacher? […](I Corinthians 12:28-31)

The answer to these questions is assumed to be ‘no’. No one has all the gifts; no one has all the fruits. The point is to have some. And then Paul goes on in verse 31:

31 “But now I will show you the best way of all…”

…and he leads us into that beautiful chapter on LOVE, the greatest gift and the greatest fruit of all.

These things grow in our lives naturally, over time, if we stay close to God, pray regularly, read scripture regularly, and do our best to follow the teachings of Jesus. The fruit will come.

In the beginning of our reading Jesus points out that tragedies in life may come. If they do, it does NOT mean that anyone is a worse sinner than anyone else. In a world that has rebelled against God, sometimes bad things happen. And at times like these, prayer is our best response. Again looking at Ukraine – I have been moved to tears as I read and hear the people in Ukraine turning to the book of Psalms and reading the Psalms as prayers. In the face of unthinkable violence and tragedy they are staying close to God, and they are asking God to be their protection. And their faith is inspiring the faith of people around the world. Does God want this war? NO. Are the people bearing fruit anyway? ………….. oh yes!

At the end of our story, when everything has been said and done, there is waiting for us an amazing reward. Isaiah describes it in our reading for this morning:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  [2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?] Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”  (Isaiah 55:1-2)

This passage is a true and trustworthy promise of God. It is for all of us trees who stay connected to Jesus and through him and in him bear good fruit. So hang in there, Trees of God. Stay connected and trust the Gardener. The fruit will come. AMEN.

pretty tree

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 3/20/22

Read Full Post »

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,  5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,  6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.  8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” – Revelation 1:4-8

“Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”  36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”” – John 18:33-37

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Do you ever look around you and wonder who’s in charge on this planet? Who exactly is running this show?

Our immediate reaction might be to say “God is of course!” If we look around at nature – at the fall colors in the trees, at the creeks and the seas, and feel the crisp air that we know will carry snowflakes very soon – it seems clear that God is in charge. No human being could ever duplicate the beauty of nature. Only God could have created a planet where everything works so well together: crops and animals and ecosystems and human beings all supporting each other and all interdependent on each other.

On the other hand, if we walk into our cities, our towns, our neighborhoods, we often see people who are homeless or hungry, lonely or lost, sick or in pain. And we know that people are hurting because something has gone wrong in this world – things have gone wrong with the world of work (or the lack of it), with health and wellness (or lack of it), with integrity in businesses (or the lack of it), even with help from our government (or the lack of it). And watching the news – which is something I recommend only in moderation – reminds me of the old Pink Floyd song from Dark Side of the Moon:

“The lunatics are in the hall
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paperboy brings more…”  (Brain Damage, Pink Floyd, 1973)

…and they wrote that nearly 50 years ago! Things haven’t changed much.

So who exactly is in charge here?

As we look at our scriptures for today – from Revelation, and especially from the Gospel of John – the question boils down to one of two options: either Jesus is in charge, or Caesar is in charge.

Christ the King1

Taking a look first at the passage from Revelation, the apostle John opens his letter by sending greetings in the name of Jesus. He then describes God the Father as “the one who is and who was and who is to come”. God is also described in verse eight as “the alpha and the omega” – the first and the last.  It should go without saying that no earthly person or power could make this claim and still be considered sane. Only God lives forever, so only God is capable of being in charge forever.

John then talks about Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Son, the faithful witness. The Greek word for ‘witness’ is martyr, and that double meaning is deliberate. Jesus is “the firstborn of the dead.” Jesus has defeated death. And again, this is something that no-one else can claim and be considered sane. Jesus is given the title “ruler of the kings of the earth,” which puts Jesus in charge.

When Jesus returns – as he is prophesied to do in Revelation – everything on earth will be set right.  Revelation says Jesus’ followers will become “a new kingdom of priests” who will serve God and be holy people in God’s new community.

So the Kingdom of God is for real. God and Jesus are ultimately in charge even though the kingdom is not entirely visible yet. We live by faith in a world of the-now-and-the-not-yet.

There’s a problem though: power is not always understood or experienced as a good thing in our world. Many people on this earth have suffered under powers that mistreat or abuse – and to understand God as being ‘in charge’ through power can be a conflicting thought. Far too many people have only known power in its corrupted forms.

For this reason ‘Christ the King Sunday’ sometimes makes people feel uncomfortable. I hope this morning to be able to set that unease to rest. Jesus does not represent an ‘alternate empire’ where the kind of power we’re used to here on earth switches from human hands to God’s hands. Just the opposite: as Revelation says, Jesus “loves us and frees us from our sins.” Jesus is the antidote to abuses of authority.

We were made by God for an eternity with God, who created us and loves us. How do we know this? Scripture tells us God is love. Love is so much a part of God’s nature that if God stopped loving, God would stop being God. Just like there’s no such thing as fire that isn’t hot, there is no such thing as God that isn’t love.

So taking this reality from Revelation and throwing its light onto the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in John’s Gospel, we begin to see how this works out in reality, in daily life.

Christ the King East

The apostle John in his Gospel describes for us the scene: the leaders of the Temple have turned Jesus over to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, with the accusation that “he claims to be a king” – which was a half-truth at best. The Temple leaders wanted to see Jesus crucified, and they knew the only way they could do that would be to get him convicted of a crime against Rome – because only Rome had the authority to crucify.

So the Temple leaders trumped up a charge and accused Jesus of claiming to be a king. This accusation of course would have been considered treason (because Caesar was king) and treason was a crime punishable by crucifixion.

Of course the Temple leaders knew that Jesus’ claim was to be the Messiah, not a secular king. The Messiah predicted in the Old Testament would be both the son of God and the son of David: descended from both God and the royal line, which Jesus was. But many Jews in Jesus’ time expected the Messiah to be a military savior – someone who would kick the Romans out and kick the Greeks out and re-establish the nation-state of Israel.

All of these things were swirling in peoples’ minds; and none of these things had anything to do with what Jesus came to earth to accomplish – which was our salvation. With all this as backdrop, Jesus is taken to Pilate, who asks him: “are you the King of the Jews?”

This question is a bit racist BTW: a Jewish person would have asked, “are you the King of Israel?” The phrase “King of the Jews” was used only by people who looked down on Jews.

So Jesus asked Pilate: “are you asking this of your own accord or did other people tell you about me?” Jesus is giving Pilate, a man who is more pragmatic than truthful, an opportunity to be honest if he chooses to do so.

Pilate comes back with honesty, if a bit rudely. He says: “I’m not a Jew am I?” (as if that’s too low a thing for him to be.) “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Pilate needs a charge to charge Jesus with, and he wants to get this job over with as quickly as possible.

Jesus answers, “my kingdom is not from this world. If it were my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over… but my kingdom is not from here.”  And again we catch a glimpse of two kinds of kingdoms, two different kinds of authorities: earthly kingdoms, which maintain power through force and violence; and a heavenly kingdom which has a different nature entirely.

If Pilate had been a man of intelligence or curiosity the next logical question would have been “where is your kingdom then, if it’s not from here?” But Pilate doesn’t ask that. Instead he says, “so you are a king?” – which makes a very handy charge against Jesus. Jesus answers him: “you say that I am. I was born and came into this world to testify to the truth; and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate can’t say he never had his chance. Pilate couldn’t go home that night to his wife (who had suffered in a dream about Jesus the night before) and tell her that he had done what was right.

Pilate looked Truth in the eye and said:

“What is truth?”

That question has echoed down the centuries ever since: both in the sense of ‘what is the truth about Jesus?’ (which is a HUGE question), and in the sense of ‘what is truth?’ period. Does truth even exist? Why is it that even today our news sources can’t agree on the actual facts of events, let alone interpretations? We find ourselves today still asking what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

And Pilate turned Jesus over to be crucified. In a final act of insult against the Temple leaders, Pilate nailed the charge above Jesus’ head reading, “The King of the Jews” – a deliberate racial slur, mocking the nation Pilate despised – and yet ironically the first truth Pilate had spoken all day.

Christ the Truth

The Cross shows us the power of God cannot be defeated by kings or governors, by jealousy or hate, by prejudice or racism, by lies or corruption or any of the things the Temple leaders AND the Roman Empire brought to bear – and that our society today still brings to bear against Jesus.

The Cross is the final word of the powers of darkness, pain, and death. The Resurrection is God’s answer and Jesus’ victory.

As theology professor Jaime Clark-Sales has said: “Pilate’s rule brings terror, even in the midst of calm; Jesus’ rule brings peace, even in the midst of terror.” That’s the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.

For this reason we celebrate today Christ the King, raised from the dead, the faithful witness, who loves us and sets us free, and defeats the powers of darkness “not by might, not by power” but by God’s Spirit.

We celebrate a king who requires our allegiance, who requires that we turn from any other and follow him. We celebrate a king who has compassion on the lost and the hurting, who came to serve rather than be served, who speaks truth and calls us to do the same.

Light does not destroy darkness by violence. Light destroys darkness simply by being light. In the same way Jesus, our King, defeats the powers of sin and death, not with weapons, not by political or economic power, but simply by being who Jesus is: the King of Life and Truth and Love. The darkness cannot stand in the light of Jesus.

This is our king – and today on Christ the King Sunday we look forward to his coronation. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/21/21

Read Full Post »

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.  2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness;  3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.  4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.  5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”;  6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”

7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;  9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,  10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 5:1-10

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office;  24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.  25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.  27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.  28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. – Hebrews 7:23-28

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Today we pick up essentially where we left off a couple of weeks ago. Even though we’ve skipped a couple chapters, the author of Hebrews is still on the same subject. He has been explaining to the first generation of Christians why faith in Jesus is better than the Old Testament system of high priests and temple sacrifices.

Today the writer basically focuses on the difference between clergy back then and clergy now.  And as he builds his case, he also works in the Good News of salvation through Jesus – which we will find in chapter seven – and because the Gospel is a part of this passage, what starts out as yet another history lesson ends up being exactly what people in every time and every place need to hear, including our own.

high-priest

Hebrews 5 starts out talking about what priests in the Old Testament were to do: they were to offer sacrifices for sins and make other goodwill offerings to God from the people.  The high priests in the Old Testament were chosen from among people, so they were no different than anyone else. (BTW the same is true for pastors today.) The priests in the Old Testament were “put in charge of the things pertaining to God” (verse 1) – not because they were better people but because they were called to do the job. In the Old Testament the descendants of Aaron were born to be priests: and this was the same Aaron who made the golden calf after the Exodus! So it’s entirely possible for priests in the Old Testament to make huge mistakes and even fall from the faith at times. And the same thing is true of clergy throughout history.

The priesthood, then as now, was a position of great responsibility. The job of a priest was not to be a ruler but in a sense to be an ambassador between God and God’s people: to bring God’s word to the people and to bring the people’s prayers and sacrifices to God.

Today, we pastors also bring God’s word to the congregation but we are no longer the only place the congregation can find God’s word. Every person now has direct access to God’s word. We have the amazing privilege of holding the words of the King of Heaven and Earth in our hands and reading it to our hearts’ content.  Most of the people who have lived on this planet before us didn’t have that privilege. Men and women down through the centuries have given their lives so that we could read God’s word, in our hands, in our own language. Praise God for this!

We no longer need a go-between to read God’s word to us or to pray for us.  And whenever we do feel a need for a go-between, Jesus has become our go-between. Jesus has become the ambassador between God and God’s people.

The key point the writer of Hebrews is making is that being a priest back in the old days meant making sacrifices in the temple for the sins of the people. But we no longer need to make sacrifices. When we give offerings, or when we serve the church in some way, we do it out of love for God, not because we’re required to, and not because we need to make sacrifices.

Today, repentance and forgiveness are offered to us freely by Jesus. When we hear Jesus’ word and trust in him, when we look at the cross and see that by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, we become part of God’s family. We remember what Jesus did for us in our sacraments of communion and baptism, but we don’t re-create the sacrifice. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was once for all, and no further sacrifice is needed.

In addition, the writer of Hebrews shows us that Jesus sets an example for priests and pastors under this new covenant. In verse two, he says pastors are “able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward since we ourselves are subject to weakness.” In other words, clergy are sinners too. We need forgiveness just as much as anybody else. Any minister or church leader who claims to have reached perfect holiness is a liar. We’re all human.

I stress this because too often today (and back in Bible days as well) pastors and priests sometimes forget that God gives us gifts for the sake of God’s people. Too often we see clergy lining their pockets, or using their position to gain power, or betraying the innocent – any number of evil things – and the stories in the news come far too often.

This is NEVER what God intended when God created priesthood. Priests back in Bible days had to offer sacrifices for their own sins as well as the sins of the people. Today, we clergy need to say prayers of confession right along with our congregations. We need to confess our sins to God daily just like everybody else.  The difference is that now, you and I have a high priest, Jesus, who lives forever and always prays on our behalf.

Verse four adds, speaking of the priesthood: “one does not presume to take this honor”. Have you ever wondered how people get to be pastors? For the most part, God’s service is kind of like being drafted. It’s similar for many of you who have been ‘drafted’ to serve on church boards. Essentially we are all called by God, just as Aaron was, and just as other spiritual leaders are.

The writer of Hebrews goes on to say that Jesus also was chosen – appointed by God, but in a different way. God said to Jesus, “You are my son, today have I begotten you.”

And then in verse six God says something about Jesus being “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” For those of you who were at Bible Study this past Wednesday, we read about Melchizedek. He is one of my favorite characters in the Old Testament – he is both great and a bit mysterious.  Melchizedek was a different kind of priest. He wasn’t a descendant of Aaron. He shows up in the Bible long before Aaron and Moses appear: he shows up in the days of Abraham.

Melchizedek

Melchizedek was both a priest and a king. His name is Hebrew for “king of righteousness” or “king of justice”.  He just sort of pops up out of nowhere after Abraham rescues his nephew Lot from captivity in Sodom. (This is also long before Sodom got rained on by burning sulfur.)

Melchizedek was the king of a country called Salem, which in Hebrew means “peace” (related to the word “shalom”). Melchizedek blesses Abraham, and prophecies over him, and Abraham gives Melchizedek ten percent of all the spoils – which is a tithe, but again this is long before the tithe is ever mentioned in the Bible. So here’s this scene described in detail in the middle of Genesis, and then Melchizedek disappears – leaving the reader to wonder “what was that all about??”

Then, just as mysteriously, Melchizedek’s name pops up almost a thousand years later in a Psalm that predicts the coming of the Messiah. In Psalm 110, a psalm written by King David, God says to the Messiah: “you are priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In other words, Jesus is our high priest but he doesn’t come from the priestly tribe of Aaron. He does not descend from professional clergy. Jesus is not, and never was, part of the religious establishment. Jesus comes from an order of priests that is both eternal and royal. He descends from – and has become – the King of Righteousness, the Prince of Peace.

And just in case any of Jesus’ disciples, or the Pharisees for that matter, missed the reference, Jesus quotes Psalm 110 in Matthew 22:44 when he says, “The Lord said to my Lord ‘sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” When Jesus quoted this, Matthew comments, “the Pharisees didn’t dare to ask him any more questions.” They clearly made the connection: Jesus fulfills in every way the promises God gave to Abraham through Melchizedek.

For us, as Christians in the 21st century, we also are called to follow the Prince of Peace, the King of Righteousness, the high priest after the order of Melchizedek. We are called to give our loyalty to a country – not the one we were born in, but a country still in the making, where Jesus is king and where peace reigns.

Jesus has entered into this kingdom and is already our high priest. And having also been human, Jesus can identify with us. Jesus has been where we are. Jesus has been tempted the same way we have. Jesus has lived through what we live through, so Jesus is able to save anyone who comes to him. Jesus isn’t sitting around heaven eating bonbons and waiting for us to show up! Jesus is at this very moment praying for us, interceding for us, forgiving every mistake we make and every sin we commit. Jesus does for us what no human priest or clergy could ever do.

Jesus sacrificed himself for us, once for all, on the cross. As the writer of Hebrews says in verse eight, he ‘learned obedience’ by his death on the cross for us. Jesus didn’t need to die – because he didn’t sin. But Jesus made us his brothers and sisters, and gave his life for us: which was what God asked of him, and Jesus loved us enough to say ‘yes’.

Which brings us to Hebrews 7:27 and 28. We human pastors are subject to weakness like everyone else.  But Jesus the Son has been made perfect forever. And believing in him, and trusting him, is the one and only way to enter the kingdom.

When we are honest with ourselves, we realize that even if we’re good people, we are still sinners, and we will die someday. Nobody can save us from that. Nobody can change it. Going to church doesn’t change things, giving money to good causes doesn’t change things, not even giving our lives in service to other people will change things. No matter what we do we don’t have the power to control sin or death. And this makes life crazy; it makes the world unmanageable.

But Jesus has power over both sin and death because he is our great high priest. Jesus gives us the ability to believe in something greater than ourselves and the powers of this world: and that is the undying love of God. Therefore when we trust in Jesus and choose to follow and obey him, our lives change, our vision clears, and we begin to learn how to live as God intended.

The apostle Paul says in Romans 3:10: “there is no one righteous, no, not one.” But the apostle John reminds us in John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that all who believe in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” And in John 14:15, Jesus says: “if you love me, keep my commandments.”

So what does obedience to Jesus look like? I think that’s something we all need to work out between ourselves and God. For me, the best answer I’ve been able to come up with is I Corinthians 13:

“love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous or boastful or arrogant or rude; love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the truth; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. And in the end only three things remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest is love.”

That’s the essence of the message of Hebrews. For this reason we need to keep on keeping on with Jesus. Sometimes the best we can manage is to say “Lord I believe – help my unbelief.” If that’s the case we wouldn’t be the first people to say it. But in God’s kingdom, it’s enough.  AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, October 24 2021

Read Full Post »

Hebrews 1

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,  4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. 

5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?  6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”  7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” 

8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.  9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”  10 And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands;  11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing;  12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”  13 But to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?  14 Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

Hebrews 2

Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.  2 For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty,  3 how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him,  4 while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will. 

5 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.  6 But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?  7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor,  8 subjecting all things under their feet.” Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,  9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.  11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,  12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”  13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” 

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.  16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.  17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.  18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hebrews

Today we’ll be looking at our reading from Hebrews. The book of Hebrews needs a little bit of background, mostly because (at least in my experience) we hardly ever hear it preached – which is unfortunate because the book is beautifully written. Our lectionary for October includes bits and pieces of Hebrews, scattered throughout the month, and I’m not sure how much of it we’ll be hearing over the next few weeks, but I wanted to lay a solid foundation for the book just in case.

Hebrews is probably one of the oldest books in the New Testament. It’s hard to know an exact date because the book is so old, but the context and the language of the letter seem to place it somewhere around 60AD –around 20-40 years after Jesus’ resurrection. This is extremely old by New Testament standards. And we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, although there have been many educated guesses. Whoever it was, was well educated and had a deep knowledge of both the Greek language and the Jewish faith.

The reason I’m going into all this detail is because, when reading Hebrews, we need to understand where the writer is coming from and why he is writing. The reason for the letter was to encourage the early believers – who were mostly Jewish – to keep on hanging in there with the faith.

In the first century after Jesus’ life, most believers in Jesus were Jewish; and becoming a believer in Jesus didn’t change the fact that they were Jewish. Today, Jewish believers in Jesus are called ‘Messianic Jews’; but back then there was no such thing as ‘messianic Judaism’. There was just the Jewish faith, and some members of the synagogue believed Jesus was the Messiah and some didn’t.

What happened, though, later in the century, was that the Jewish people who believed in Jesus began being persecuted: from the Romans on one side; and on the other side, to a lesser degree, by their Jewish neighbors who wanted to see them return to ‘good old-fashioned Judaism’.

So the author of Hebrews is writing to encourage the believers in Jesus, and he does it by showing them how the Old Testament – which was the Bible of the Jewish people – supports faith in Jesus: in other words, how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament.

Why is this important to us in the 21st century? First, because Hebrews gives us a rock-solid foundation for our faith, using the Old Testament as a resource – which is what the Old Testament is meant to be and to do. Second, Hebrews gives us a fresh approach to our own faith. It doesn’t approach Christianity the way most 21st century preachers do, so it sounds very new to us in a lot of ways. And third, it adds richness and meaning to a faith we’ve kind of ‘gotten used to’ over the years.

One other thing I need to mention: in our lectionary, Hebrews gets chopped up a bit. Today’s reading, for example, is actually in two separate pieces: one from chapter 1 and one from chapter 2. I’m going to be putting the missing parts back in (both chapters are quoted in full at the top of this article).

So starting in verse 1, the author of Hebrews begins by saying: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors…”

When I hear these words I can almost hear in my mind some wise old man saying “ah yes… the old ones… the wise ones… the ones who brought us here… yess, God spoke to them also…” It almost sounds like something out of Star Wars!

How often do we think about God in terms of “talking to our ancestors”? Some of us have memories of grandparents who loved God and brought us to church; some of us didn’t. But have we ever stopped to think that our grandparents had grandparents who took them to church? And on and on back into history. The Christian faith has been around for over 2000 years. Most of our family names haven’t been around that long, but we have ancestors that stretch back to that time, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

If we ever find any way of finding information about the faith of our ancestors, I think it’s time well spent to do so. I know for example, I have been to the grave of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather over in Europe. I have been inside the church he attended. The church is still there, and the people in his old neighborhood today still worship the same God in the same place. It strengthens my faith to know that hundreds of years ago my ancestors loved and worshiped God. So I encourage learning whatever we can about the faith histories of our families.

The writer of Hebrews continues: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets…” In this case, the author of Hebrews can remember his ancestors listening to the words of the Old Testament prophets. Maybe his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather knew a prophet or two! God’s word has been with God’s people for as far back as anyone can remember: for thousands and thousands of years, God has been communicating with God’s people.

“But” – the writer of Hebrews says – “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, [and] through whom he also created the worlds.”

The author of Hebrews is taking us back to when the universe was created. Not just our world, but all the worlds. All the stars, all the galaxies, created through Jesus, the Son of God. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Apart from Jesus, nothing exists. Without Jesus, Genesis never happened. Hebrews is written, in part, to tell us a little bit about what Jesus was doing before he came to earth to be one of us.

In verse 3, it says Jesus is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Like a face on a coin, Jesus shows us God exactly. When we listen to Jesus’ words, we hear the word of God. If we want to know God, we need to know Jesus. And Hebrews says, “Jesus sustains all things by his powerful word”.  Everything exists – and continues to exist – by the command of Jesus.

This kind of power can be a bit overwhelming. We live in a world where power is frequently misused: political power, media power, celebrity power, corporate power. We tend to be a little suspicious of too much power, and for good reason. If it were not for the fact that Jesus is gentle and good, and on our side, we’d be in trouble. But Jesus gave himself for us. As Hebrews says, “When he had made purification for sins…”  Jesus gave his life for us, before we even knew who he was. And then “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (vss 3-4)

guardian angels

OK, so… why is the writer of Hebrews bringing up angels? In order to help us out with the history.

In the beginning Jesus was with God the Father. As John says at the beginning of his gospel: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.” So in the beginning, God says to Jesus (vss 8 & 9 of ch 1):

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.  You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

Some of you may recognize these words as coming from Psalm 45, which was read here in church a few weeks ago. Psalm 45 was written for the royal wedding of King Solomon but it is also a Messianic prophecy.

The writer of Hebrews quotes this to explain who Jesus was before He came to earth.

Then in Hebrews ch 2 vss 5-7 we hear a piece of Psalm 8 that says:

“what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor…”

This speaks of Jesus coming to earth and being made “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (that is, the angels). But when Jesus had done all he came to do, Hebrews says in ch 2 v 9 – Jesus was then raised and is “now crowned with glory and honor” because he was willing to suffer death for all of us. Verse 10 says: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation (that is, Jesus) perfect through sufferings.”

Then in the end of chapter 1, verse 14 explains that angels have been given a job to do. It says: “Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” In other words, the angels are sent by God to serve for our sakes, because we are the ones who will inherit salvation!  The angels are in God’s service, looking after us. ‘Guardian angels’ are not a myth, they’re for real – though I can guarantee you angels are not cute little things that pin to your clothing. People who meet angels in the Bible usually pass out – it’s not wise to mess with an angel! But God sends angels into our world to look after us. Isn’t that good news?

So what does all this talk of angels and ancient history mean to us today?

Hebrews answers that question in chapter 2, verse 1: “Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard.”  We need to be on our toes!  We need to be careful not to drift away from the truth – as the ancient Hebrews were tempted to do, and as many people in our time are doing. If a message given by angels is true, how much more true is a message given by God’s own Son?

The good news of Jesus Christ – and the proof that he is the Messiah – has been given to us first by God, and then by the prophets, and then by Jesus, then by the angels, then by the miracles Jesus performed, then by the Holy Spirit. How many more witnesses do we need?

Then we come to chapter 2 verse 10 –

“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”  Why is this? Why did Jesus have to leave heaven to suffer on earth?

Because God is Jesus’ Father, and God is also our Father (as we’ve been taught to pray, “Our Father…”). Therefore we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The miracle of Jesus’ birth makes this real. Jesus, the Son of God, through whom the universe was made, is our brother.

Hebrews 2:11-13: “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”  And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

We are so loved! And we are so secure in Jesus’ love!

But Hebrews doesn’t end there. Jumping to v 14:

“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

This verse calls all of us slaves – did you catch that? We are held captive by the fear of death. We are slaves, not to death itself, but to fear – the fear of dying. Otherwise we could look at death as merely a passage, or a transformation. But because the evil one makes us doubt God, we fall into fear and we become afraid of death. Once we know God – once we know Jesus – we know the one who has power over death; and we are set free, not from death (because all living beings die once) but we are set free from the FEAR of death.

Safe

We can now live fearlessly.  Jesus has become like us so that we can become like him. Our destiny is to be higher than the angels one day – did you know that? Paul says in I Corinthians 6:3: “Do you not know that we will judge angels?”

All of this good news leads us beautifully to the communion table today.  For now I’d like to close with something C.S. Lewis wrote, which I think helps give a vision of this gospel reality:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to… may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities… that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” – C.S. Lewis

As children of Jesus, it’s up to us to share these truths, and live these truths, in every way we can. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/3/21

Read Full Post »

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.  14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.  16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.  18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another,  20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. – James 5:13-20

~~~~~~~~~~~~

One of the things I love about our Partnership churches is that we truly do make up a caring community (1).  We share prayer requests; we maintain prayer lists; we pray for each other on a regular basis. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t see prayer requests in our inboxes.

It’s good that we do this. In Philippians 4:6 the apostle Paul says:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Let me ask a question though: when we pray, are we watching for God’s answers? I know we do sometimes. But when we put someone on the prayer list, do we follow up with that person to see how they’re doing? When God brings something good into someone’s life, do we share that by email – sharing our joys as well as our concerns?

prayer1

Where it comes to prayer, it’s important to remember that we are God’s children and God loves us no matter what. We may not always get what we ask for in prayer, but we can be assured when we pray, God hears us and will answer.

This is a lot of what James is talking about in his letter. To give some background to our reading: the book of James was most likely written by the literal brother of Jesus whose name was James. This in itself is a miracle, because in Jesus’ lifetime, his brothers didn’t believe in him. In John chapter 7 they accused Jesus of ‘wanting to be famous’ and told him to go to Jerusalem (because that’s where people go who want to be famous). They weren’t aware that Jerusalem was where Jesus was going to die.

But now, as James is writing this book, the crucifixion and the resurrection are behind them; Jesus has accomplished what he came to earth to do, and has returned to God; and James is now a believer. So he writes to the churches to encourage them (and us) and to share some of the things he learned from his older brother Jesus.

Just before the passage we read today, James advises his fellow believers to be patient until the Lord returns –– patient like a farmer waiting for the harvest. (How appropriate for this time of year!)

prayer2

And then as we start into today’s reading, James encourages us to pray with confidence because prayer is a powerful thing (2).  James begins by asking if any members of the church are going through hard times. Being a Christian does not mean our lives will be trouble-free – in fact it can make things worse sometimes. What we are promised is that God will walk with us through this life, no matter what happens.  So if anyone is experiencing hard times, James says, pray. Not just once, but again and again. Be persistent in prayer.

And for those of us who worry a lot – you know how thoughts can get stuck in the mind sometimes, and turn over and over and over? James says we should bring all that tangle of thoughts and feelings to God – just as they are. Even if it’s a mess, God will help us untangle. Whenever I think “I just can’t make sense of this” – I know someone who can.

James doesn’t tell us how to pray: he doesn’t offer us a prayer like Jesus did in the Lord’s Prayer. But James says that it’s good to pray physical healing, emotional well-being, and spiritual discernment, as well as for day-to-day practical needs. Nothing is too big or too small for God.

On the flip side, when things are going well… when our hearts are joyful… when the sun is shining… when God’s blessings overflow – James says “sing!” Sing God’s praises. The Greek word here is psallo, spelled almost like psalm. So grab a hymn-book and sing! I think this is one of those times when the old familiar songs really do mean the most, because if we sing a song we learned in childhood or when we were younger, the happiness of that time spills into the joy of today – and then the joy just multiplies.

sing to God

So no matter how life is going – whether great or not so great – the point is, share it with God. Share it with Jesus.

Then James asks if anyone is sick, and he says if a person is sick they should call for the elders to pray and anoint them with oil.

Let me break that down just a little bit. First off, where it comes to healing, not everyone has the gift of healing. Jesus had it. Paul had it. Some of the other apostles had it. When they prayed, people were healed, just like that. We have no reason to believe that the gift of healing does not still exist today; but I personally don’t have the gift, and I don’t currently know anyone who does. I do believe it still exists. But for the most part, when we pray for the sick, we are asking for God’s help: both for the person and for whatever is wrong.

The first thing James says is the person who is sick should call for the elders. It’s interesting that James doesn’t say somebody else should call for the elders. The sick person should be the one to choose whether or not to have visitors. There are times when sick people want to be left alone, in which case that should be respected. But if a sick person wants to be prayed for, this request should be brought to the elders right away.

Second, James says the person who is sick should call for the elders.  The word elder does not have the same meaning in the New Testament that it does in the United Methodist Church: that is, someone who is ordained. The Greek word here is presbuteros, which is the word we get Presbyterian from (and that does not mean we need to call the Presbyterians!) Basically it just means anyone who has been walking with God for a long time. In the UMC, pretty much anyone who’s on Council would count as an elder, as would other lay leaders, in addition to the ordained clergy.

Third, James says to “anoint [the sick person] with oil”.  Back in Jesus’ day, olive oil was often used because it was inexpensive and it was known to have healing qualities. Today, when oil is used, any kind will do. Pass the Del Monte!

I should mention some churches today anoint the sick with oil and some don’t. In the United Methodist Church, anointing with oil usually symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit, and it’s considered a blessing, which can be given whether or not the person is ill. In my Anglican background, oil is used mostly for baptism or anointing the sick. Either way – however we understand it – I always have a small bottle of oil with me, and I offer anointing to people when I visit them in the hospital. So if any member of the congregation ever feels the need to be prayed for, just grab a couple of the elders and come see me! I have the goods!

[It takes a village (3)[1]
The last thing I wanted to point out about James’ instructions is that they are meant to be carried out in community. We don’t see anyone in this passage in James acting alone! God calls all believers into community, and that’s no accident.

community_0

I believe this is hugely important in our time. In contemporary America, especially among the unchurched, an experience of community has been all but lost. Think about it: people come together to go to school or to play sports, or occasionally for family events; but other than that, people don’t do things together much. Porch-sitting is pretty much a thing of the past. So are scouting, 4-H, the Lions, the Rotary Club, the Variety club, even neighborhood block parties. When was the last time you saw any of these things? The sense of community in our society is almost gone – especially among the younger generations.

I believe – from a standpoint of both scripture and faith – that this is one of the greatest needs of our time, and one of the greatest potentials for outreach and ministry. A lack of community leads to loneliness and alienation, and it’s become worse since the pandemic.

Sharing a sense of community is a ministry our churches are well-equipped to do. It doesn’t take a lot of people and it doesn’t take a lot of money. For example, look at the $1 Clothing Sale Stormie and her mother organized a little bit ago. Or the Baby Shower for Jesus. Or whenever we have a church dinner, and invite the public. These are things our churches do for the community – and when we do, we demonstrate why community is important, and we offer people the opportunity to become part of a community: to know what it feels like to not be so alone.

Then in verses 15-16, James says something that is a little troubling. He says, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

At first glance, James seems to be saying that sickness is the result of unconfessed sin. This would be the wrong conclusion to draw. The translation should read more like, “if a person is sick they’ll be raised up, if a person has sinned they’ll be forgiven.” The word heal in verse 15, in Greek, is sozo – which can be translated either healed or saved.

So I think James’ point is that sin can be handled in much the same way as illness: if anyone has said or done something that has hurt someone, they should confess it to that person (and if necessary, to the elders) and then pray for one another.

James then gives us an illustration of the power of prayer from the life of Elijah – which reminds us and encourages us that God does answer prayer, and that God is more than powerful enough to do what is asked.

We serve a God who, in Genesis chapter one, said “light, be made!” and light was made. God’s word created everything that we see. Therefore our prayer of faith might simply be: “speak, Lord, for your creation hears.”

James then encourages us to watch over our brothers and sisters in the faith. Not being nebby; but if someone falls into temptation, pray and restore them to the community of faith. If someone wanders off like a lost sheep (and any shepherd can tell you, sheep can be really stubborn) – anyone who brings them back to the Lord will not only save that person but wipe out a multitude of their own sins.

BTW the word in Greek for ‘brought back’ is epistrepho, which we get the word apostrophe from.

apostrophe

Just like the apostrophe turns back on itself, if someone strays from the faith, they need to be guided back. That is our duty as Christian brothers and sisters, to help people make that turn. One theologian put it this way:

“The promise is that, when people stray from the faith and we help them to find their way back to faith, we will have helped to save their souls from death.  While this could refer to physical death (because some sins put a person’s… life in jeopardy), the more significant salvation is spiritual and eternal.”[2]

We are ultimately our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. (…as our Wednesday night Bible Study just read recently in Genesis, where Cain asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is yes – yes we are.)  We are called to watch out for each other, care for each other, and pray for each other.

James ends his letter here. I think letting these be his final words, is his way of telling us how important they are.

So we start out as a caring community. We have confidence in the power of prayer (because we know the God we’re talking to). And it takes a village to care for all of us and for our communities around us.

This really is the heart and pulse of the church. So keep on praying: for the sick, for the recovered, for our communities, for our pastors, for our elders, and for each one of us as we walk with God. And then watch how God will answer. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/26/21

[1] The three sub-topics are not part of the sermon but are suggested by this article by James Boice: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-james-513-20-4

[2] Sermon Writerhttps://sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary-old/james-513-20/

Read Full Post »

Psalm 111

1 Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
4 He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the LORD is gracious and merciful.
5 He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.
8 They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

A couple weeks ago we started a sermon series on the Psalm of the day in the lectionary. The first week we did Psalm 51, a psalm of confession; and the second week we did Psalm 130, which was a wonderfully appropriate Psalm about praying to God during difficult times. I felt both of these Psalms were, in their own way, very timely, very relevant to where we are.

Today’s Psalm I almost didn’t do. I almost changed it out, because it felt so out of place and jarring to me.

PTLIt starts off with the words “Praise the Lord” – and I felt like, we’re in a difficult time right now, between the resurgence of the pandemic, and the flash flooding this past week, and all the craziness that’s happening in the world around us. It almost seemed out of place. And for me personally (unfortunately) the phrase “Praise the Lord” will always be associated with the disgraced ministry of Jimmy Bakker’s “PTL Club” back in the 1980s.

So I almost chose another psalm. But then I thought twice, because it’s been my experience when the heart resists some part of God’s word, it usually means I need to spend some time with it. So here goes.

Verse One: in Hebrew, the first sentence is just one word: “Hallelujah!”  Which to me means a whole lot more than praise the Lord.  For starters, praise the Lord in English borders on being a command. Hallelujah is not. Hallelujah is better translated the Lord’s name be praised.  It focuses on God, and invites everyone within hearing to join in a song of praise that began back in the beginning of time and continues into eternity.

And isn’t that why we’re here every Sunday? We want to take our place in God’s story and add our voices to that eternal song.

So starting with a hymn of praise, the psalmist opens our song.

As an aside, I should mention: the writer of this psalm used an ancient Jewish technique called an acrostic: in the Hebrew, every line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph, bet, gimmel, and so on. It adds artistry to the poem, and also made it easier to memorize (if you happen to speak Hebrew).

The psalmist continues by talking about why God is worthy of all our heartfelt praise and why God should be praised in the assembly, by all of us together. He says, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart…”.  When the Bible talks about the ‘heart’ it doesn’t mean (as we mean it) just the emotions; in Bible times, the ‘heart’ was seen as the center of “emotion, morality, spirituality, [the will], and the intellect”[1] – in other words, the whole self, our whole being.

The psalmist says he praises God for three reasons: (1) God’s works are great; (2) God’s works are to be remembered; and (3) God’s works are truth and justice. I’d like to take a look at each one of these three.

  • God’s works are great

God’s works include both what God has done and what God has created, and I think the emphasis in this psalm is on the creative side. “The Hebrew word for “wonderful deeds” is niphla’oth” which means literally, “something that I simply cannot understand,”[2] something beyond comprehension. God’s thoughts are beyond us. But as the psalmist says, “God’s works are studied by all who delight in them.”

Isn’t that true, even today? People who work in the sciences, in medicine, in art, in theology, in music, in psychology and cultural studies, in history – all of us – are, as the 16th century scientist Johann Kepler said, merely “thinking God’s thoughts after him”.  And God’s thoughts are such a delight! As a musician, to know that every note was invented by God, and we musicians are all just exploring; my brother the physicist loves Kepler’s quotation and agrees wholeheartedly that physicists are ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’; as a theologian, I learn more every day about what God has created in us and has done for us. We are all called to ‘think God’s thoughts after him,’ and when we do, praise becomes spontaneous because God is so brilliant and so amazing.

Great Works

  • God’s works are to be remembered.

— and that means “out loud”, in conversation. God’s works are to be proclaimed: not just ‘brought to mind’ but spoken.

For the ancient Israelites, this meant remembering things like God’s call to Abraham to be the father of a nation that would bless all the people of the earth. It meant remembering God’s call through Moses to freedom and a promised land. It meant remembering God’s faithfulness to Joshua and to King David and to the nation of Israel as they settled securely in Judea and Jerusalem.

That’s as far as the psalm-writer’s history goes. But you and I can add a lot more to that story. We remember God sending Jesus: to teach us what God’s law looks like when it’s actually lived: not as a set of cold-hearted rules like the Pharisees and Sadducees taught, but warm and loving and inclusive of outsiders and the outcast, healing the sick and giving to the poor and setting the prisoners free; and then dying in our place so that we all could enter into his life, in the eternal Promised Land.

Theologian Walter Bouzard says this: “Christians have seen the power of God’s work in the weakness of the cross. Christians have seen God’s faithfulness in the work of Christ’s wounded hands. Christians, like the prophet Anna… have seen the “redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38). […] Christians praise God for God’s works not [just] because of what God has done in the past, but because the work of God, the righteousness of God, the love of God approaches us again and again in the cup and the bread.”[3]

God continues to work today: in every prayer that is answered, in every new hope that we discover, in every ray of light we find as we pass through the dark places.

And God’s works are also found in the everyday: in the fact that we have food to eat, and homes that are comfortable and health care when it’s needed, and family and friends nearby. All that we have, all that we need, are provided by God so generously.

God’s works are to be remembered, and when they are, they inspire praise.

  • God’s Works are Truth and Justice.

The very nature of God is truth and love – and in God these two characteristics are never in conflict. How often, in our sinful and imperfect world, does it seem like we have to make a choice between doing what is right and doing what is loving? In God there is no conflict between the two. In God, truth and love meet and merge and find their highest meaning.

So when God works, the actions God takes express his truth and his justice.

God’s laws don’t change. God is holy, and God’s understanding and mercy are as far beyond us as the next galaxy is from the Planet Earth. We need to be in God’s word, learning God’s truth, learning God’s justice, on a daily basis, because we don’t change God’s word; God’s word changes us.

That’s what the psalmist means when he says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” “The fear of the Lord” does not mean being scared of God, but rather being in awe. It means wanting God more than we want anything else.

This awesomeness: we can get a taste of it sometimes, like when we walk into an empty church at night and can almost hear the songs of the generations before us echoing off the walls. We can feel it when we look into the eyes of a newborn baby and see someone who knows more about God than about the world. We feel it when we realize a prayer has been answered and God really heard what we asked for. That’s awesomeness, and that’s where wisdom begins.

Wisdom doesn’t end there. We need to keep on growing; and we need to know “that God’s praise will outlast everything, including [our] own praises.”[4]

So when we see all that God has done, praise is the only possible response.  Today when we sing the Doxology, our song of praise, let’s remember all these things, and blend our voices together to praise our God.

Hallelujah! AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/15/21

[1] Yolanda Norton, Working Preacher

[2] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Working Preacher

[3] Walter Bouzard, Working Preacher

[4] Wil Gafney, Working Preacher

Read Full Post »

It’s not often the description of the specs for building the Tabernacle in the book of Exodus make for inspiring reading. But God’s word has a way of being a blessing regardless, and that happened today, and I wanted to share it.

First off, I have no idea how long a “cubit” is. When Exodus describes one of the tent curtains as “twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide” (Ex 26:2) I am clueless. Google tells us a cubit was around 18 inches long but even that doesn’t really help me: my husband the carpenter would be able to visualize it, but my brain simply doesn’t work this way. If you said to me “seven times the height of a man” I might get a vague idea.

Tabernacle

But understanding the exactness of measurement isn’t necessary to grasp what God is getting at.

God takes seven chapters – Exodus 25-31 – describing to Moses in great detail how the tabernacle should be created. And in the final chapter God appoints workers specially gifted for the work, whose job will be to create all the pieces and put them together.

As soon as the Lord is finished speaking, in chapter 32, the people waiting for Moses at the bottom of the mountain decide they’ve waited long enough and they’d like to make a golden calf and worship it instead. This starts a whole string of unpleasant events, but that’s not the point of today’s reading.

Here’s the blessing: what God gives is So.Much.Better.

In chapters 25-31, even without the construction details, I can catch a glimpse of what the Tabernacle would have been like:

  • The tabernacle would have been very tall and wide. Big. Like God.
  • With all the animal hides and layers of coverings, it would have been cozy warm inside, even in the cold of desert nights. Like the heart of God.
  • The inside of the tabernacle would have been stunningly beautiful: decorated in gold, silver and bronze, with scenes from nature in blue, purple, and scarlet woven into the fabric of the tent. Beautiful like God and like God’s creation.
  • God’s promises and God’s covenant were kept there, in a golden ark, and on top of the ark was a mercy seat. God’s covenant is rich in mercy.
  • In front of the ark was a golden table on which was the Bread of the Presence – the promise that God was always there – and a prophecy of the Bread of Heaven to come. Always with us – like God.
  • The tabernacle was lit by golden lampstands that had branches like almond trees, burning scented olive oil – a light to inspire and guide. Like God.
  • There was an altar for burnt offerings. The whole place would have smelled like either steak or lamb BBQ all the time. The offerings were made to God, but some were for people to share. Forgiveness of sin was celebrated with God.
  • There was an altar of incense, representing the prayers of the people. Aaron and the priests were to burn incense on it every morning and every evening, a special mix of herbs and spices specified by God for this purpose only, to represent the prayers of God’s people. God was always listening for the people’s prayers.
  • There was a basin for washing – to purify the priests before they performed the various sacrifices. God knew even the clergy needed cleansing, and God provided.
  • There was anointing oil – again made with a mix of spices only to be used for God’s holy purposes – for anointing everything in the tabernacle, making everything holy.
  • And the final command in Chapter 31 was to remember the Sabbath: don’t forget to observe one day a week with no work. Remember God, who rested on the seventh day, and do the same. A foretaste of God’s Kingdom to come, when we all will rest from our work and enjoy God’s presence.

When a person walked into a place like this, they would have been overwhelmed with warmth, rich beauty, the sparkle of gold and silver, and smells he or she would quickly come to associate with God. The feeling would be one of warmth, acceptance, and joyful celebration.

Contrast this with the scene in Chapter 32: the Golden Calf. This is what false gods and false beliefs are like. False gods have to be created by human hands (v 4). They are costly (v 2-3, 6). They do nothing but sit there. They are hard and cold. There is nothing beautiful about them, other than a gold façade. There is no home with them. There is no prayer. There is no light, no incense, no scented oil – no comfort. Those who worship them have no purpose or direction (v. 23, 25). And the idol ends up being fuel for fire (v. 20).

God invites and welcomes us into the Tabernacle of fellowship and belonging… welcomes us home. Why settle for anything less?

Read Full Post »

“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years. 

“At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun.  I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” – Judges 4:1-7

______________________________________________________________________________

Psalm 123:1-4  <A Song of Ascents.>
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
2 As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
until he has mercy upon us.
3 Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4 Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.

______________________________________________________________________________

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past week, among other things, we observed Veterans Day. That evening my husband and I watched Saving Private Ryan together. The movie tells the story of a family who lost three out of four sons in service to our country during World War II. And it remembers the sacrifices made by everyday people back then – people who today are called “the greatest generation.”

I’m not old enough to remember WWII, but my parents were. They were in junior high and high school during the war. They have shared stories with us about the sacrifices people made back then: buying war bonds, having rubber drives, living with rationing, growing Victory Gardens. In fact I remember one time back in the 1980s, I mentioned to an elderly man that I was growing a vegetable garden in our backyard and he said, “Why? Are you experiencing shortages?”

Our nation really pulled together during those years. We worshipped together and we worked together. Whatever the problems were in our society – and there were many problems in American society back in the 1940s – people knew we needed each other and needed to work together, and everyone made sacrifices for the good of all.

Today, in the 2020s, as the last of our ‘greatest generation’ go home to their eternal reward, that spirit of national unity has been all but lost. It has only taken the passing of one generation to forget.

That’s where Israel was, in our reading from Judges. In the last chapter of the book of Joshua (which comes right before Judges) we see the last of Israel’s ‘greatest generation’.  Joshua succeeded Moses, and he’s the one who led the people into the Promised Land. When they arrived he made a famous speech that we still remember today: “choose you this day whom you will serve; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Over 3000 years later people still remember those words.

Joshua said this because, even though God had kept every promise and been faithful to Israel, the people were in danger of being unfaithful to God. The people of Israel had never quite given up worshipping other gods, at least not for long. They experimented with the gods of Egypt when they were in Egypt; they made a golden calf when they were in the wilderness; they were tempted by Canaanite gods when they moved into the Promised Land. So Joshua said to them “if you’re going to worship God, put away your other gods. Worship no one else and nothing else. Choose you this day who you will serve.” And the people answered, “we will serve the Lord.”

The worship of idols is still with us today. We don’t worship statues any more (generally speaking) but we certainly have things that take the place of God. So Joshua’s words are as relevant today as they were back then. And that’s another sermon for another day.

Today I say all of this to give the backdrop to the story in Judges. After Joshua died, the people of Israel kept their promise to serve God for a while. But Judges chapter two tells us:

“the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the LORD which He had done for Israel. […] When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel. Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals…” (Judges 2:7-11 edited)

It only took one generation for them to forget. Just like us.

So God provided judges for Israel. There was no central authority in Israel at the time; the nation was essentially tribal and had tribal leaders. The judges were chosen by God and were both prophets and warriors. Starting in Judges chapter two and moving forward, we see a series of foreign invasions, each one followed by a judge telling the people to repent and return to God and then, in God’s power, freeing the people. Judges 2:18-19 says:

“when the LORD raised up judges for [the people], the LORD was with the judge and delivered [the people] out of the hand of their enemies all the days of [that] judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed them and harassed them. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers…”

So there’s this downward spiral happening with each judge and each successive rebellion against God.

The name of the first judge was Othniel, and he defeated the king of Mesopotamia. The second judge was Ehud, who defeated King Eglon of Moab in one of the more… colorful… scenes in the Old Testament. (I’ll leave that to your own reading.)

And that’s where today’s reading picks up. When Ehud died, the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. And the king of Canaan, and his right-hand man Sisera (commander of the army) overran Israel and basically terrorized the people of Israel. So God raised up Deborah as the next judge.

Side note: Deborah, being both a judge and a prophetess, had the same calling from God, the same gifting, the same duties and responsibilities as all the other judges in the Old Testament. This passage is one of the strongest arguments in the Bible in favor of gender equality – because God treats Deborah no differently than the male judges. He appoints her and leads her just like all the others.

So Deborah was a prophetess as well as a judge. The Bible says, “She used to sit under the palm…” In other words, this is where she held court. She could be found north of Jerusalem but still in the southern half of the country, so she was basically about as centrally located as a person could be. She’s available to the whole nation. And the Israelites “came up to her” because she was in the hill country.

Deborah then summons Barak, who was a military leader. (BTW as far as I’m able to tell, this is where President Obama’s parents found the name for their baby boy.) This particular Barak was living in the far north of Israel, north of Galilee and north of the foreign king who was oppressing the people. And Deborah was just south of where Sisera was stationed. So Deborah and Barak and their armies are going to act like a pair of pincers, closing in on the oppressors from both sides.

Deborah says to Barak, “I will draw out Sisera and meet you by the Wadi Kishon.” The Wadi Kishon is a dry river-bed about halfway in between the two of them. It also happens to be near a town called Megiddo, or as it will be called in the future, Armageddon. So this battle is a foretaste, a prophecy, of the end-times battle that’s described in the book of Revelation. And Deborah says to Barak, “I will give [Sisera] into your hand.”

And that’s where our reading ends today, but we can’t leave this scene without saying Deborah and Barak won the battle! They set God’s people free. Judges chapter five, the whole chapter, is their song of victory, which ends with the words: “so may all your enemies perish, O Lord! But may those who love you be like the sun when it rises in strength!” Again, a foretaste of the victory in the book of Revelation.

At this point we turn to the words of the apostle Paul. In I Thessalonians 5 we hear Paul say “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say ‘there is peace and security’… sudden destruction will come… like labor pains on a pregnant woman…”.  As anyone who’s ever been pregnant knows, once labor starts there is no turning back. The only way out is through!

According to Paul, Armageddon – for us, the time of Jesus’ return – will come suddenly. And it will come at precisely the time when all are declaring ‘peace and security’. In that moment there will be no escape and there will be no time to get ready. It’s like the story Jesus told of the bridesmaids with their oil lamps – some who brought extra and some didn’t, and when the bridegroom was late, some ran out. The parable tells us to be ready for any circumstance.

Until that time comes, we live in a world that falls short of God’s plans and God’s perfection. Paul tells us, like Jesus told us, be ready… and Paul gives us some helpful suggestions as to what readiness looks like. He gives us five pointers:

  1. Keep awake – be alert and aware of what’s going on.
  2. Stay sober – which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘don’t get drunk’ although that’s certainly included. It also means be clear-headed, be perceptive, be wise.
  3. Paul says: Put on the breastplate of faith and love. The breastplate was part of a Roman soldier’s uniform, made of metal, and it protected the internal organs, especially the heart. We don’t often think of faith and love as being things that defend us, because they’re things we give. But believing in Jesus protects our hearts; and God’s love surrounds us; and the love we give, we give in God’s power. So faith and love do protect us.
  4. Paul also says: Put on the helmet of the hope of salvation. Hope protects the head. The older I get the more I find this is true. When we have doubts about the faith; when we have doubts about our own salvation, whenever I start thinking ‘I’ve done something so bad God couldn’t possibly forgive me’ – this is how the enemy likes to get at our heads. Put on the hope of salvation to protect the head. I saw something on Facebook this week, attributed to Martin Luther: “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved. When I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.” That’s the hope of salvation, and it protects our minds.
  5. And finally Paul says: “Encourage and build each other up.” The word here in the Greek is parakaleo and it’s the same name we use for the Holy Spirit: paraclete. We are to build each other up in the Spirit – in the love and the faith of God.

Our psalmist today adds one more suggestion to the list: keep our eyes on the hand of the Lord. “As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God…”

This verse reminds me of scenes from old movies when women used to knit together. One woman would be doing the knitting, and her helper would be holding the wool thread on two arms, so it wouldn’t tangle, feeding her more thread. They had to be watching each others’ hands, and anticipating what came next, in order to work together this way. In the same way we need to be watching what God is doing, watching God’s hands – anticipating what comes next, ready to respond.

The day of the Lord’s salvation is closer than we know. God says ‘be ready’. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Fairhaven United Methodist Church, 11/15/2020

Read Full Post »

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

Read Full Post »

“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

~

Read Full Post »

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

 

Read Full Post »