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          And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

          I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  25 Its gates will never be shut by day– and there will be no night there.  26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. 

          Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;  4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. – Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5  

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          Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. 

                 25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.  29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. – John 14:23-29

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This morning is the sixth and final week of our Easter celebrations! Next week we remember the Ascension – and the week after that, Pentecost.

Garden1

Garden of Gethsemane

Today, as we take one last look back at Jesus’ death and resurrection and what it means for us, I’ll be focusing in on our readings from the Gospel of John and from Revelation. Both of these books were written by the disciple and apostle John. As we mentioned in Bible Study this past week, some Bible scholars disagree and believe they were written by two different people named John, but I believe it’s one author for the same reason I recognize Stephen King or JRR Tolkien when I read them.

John was one of the sons of Zebedee, two brothers who Jesus called the “sons of thunder” – ya gotta love the nicknames Jesus gave his friends! John is also the one referred to in many passages as “the disciple Jesus loved”. John was one of the youngest of the disciples; he was probably still a teenager when Jesus was crucified.

The other thing John is famous for is being rather complex and difficult to understand. Those of us who read Revelation in Bible Study a while back can attest to this!  John’s writings are very deeply not logical.  For example: he begins his gospel in John 1:1 saying “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Is he talking about Creation? Is talking about Jesus? Is he talking about God? Is he talking about words God’s people need to know?

YES. All of the above. John has a way of saying a great deal with just a few words. It’s possible to find double and triple and quadruple meanings in what he writes.

We Americans – and our European cousins for the most part – tend to think scientifically and mathematically; we believe in rationality, we believe in cause-and-effect. “I think therefore I am” – that’s us.  We are a people who think in terms of “therefore”s.  “I have a headache therefore I take an aspirin”.  It’s all very reasonable.

Cause Effect

The way John writes makes us hesitate. We may start to ask: is this a puzzle we need to figure out? Is it a poem? Is it philosophy? How do we interpret this? It’s hard to find solid ground on which to stand. I remember people saying as much during the Bible study.

What I’d like to suggest today is an alternative approach to scripture, and particularly the writings of John. I’d like to suggest approaching John’s words from a place of intuition, or feeling, or from a poetic standpoint. Let me give an example:

You may remember the movie Dances with Wolves from a few years ago. Kevin Costner plays an American soldier in the old west who is assigned to a distant outpost and loses touch with the rest of the army, and he  befriends some local Native Americans. One day, some of his Native American friends come upon Kevin Costner’s character playing with some wolves, and they give him the Native American name “Dances With Wolves”.  This name means so much more than just the fact that he plays with animals. It begins to describe him, and his personality, and he grows into this name through the course of the movie. That’s the kind of way John writes: with lots of layers of meaning.

Or to put it another way, we can approach John’s writings with both sides of our brains at once. You may have heard people say that if you’re the analytical type you’re left-brained, and if you’re the creative type you’re right-brained. When we approach John’s writings, it’s good to approach with both sides of our brain, as much as we’re able to. When God calls us, God calls all of who we are, both sides of our brains, and all the parts of our hearts, not just our thoughts: we want to include intuitions, feelings, the whole enchilada as we approach scripture.

I’ll mention as an aside, in case it’s helpful: there are two (at least two) religious movements happening today – you may have heard of them – that encourage this kind of holistic approach to scripture and faith: one is the Taizé Community in France, and the other is the Iona Community in Scotland. Both of these communities are known for their music as well as their spirituality, and both of them have hymns in our supplemental hymnals – so you may come across the names from time to time!

Anyway, the goal is to invite and involve the whole self in relationship with God. Belief is just the beginning; it’s also about what we sense, what we experience; it’s about knowing God in much the same way as we know the people we live in community with.

Scripture tells us “in God we live and move and have our being”. As a fish lives and moves in water, we live and move in God. We are never in a place where God’s Spirit is not touching us.

So approaching the writings of John, we bring our whole selves into play.  To help us do that, I’m going to try something a bit different today, to bring us holistically into John’s words. But first a little bit of background…

Garden2

Our passage from the Gospel of John starts in the middle of a conversation that actually begins back in chapter 13. This conversation takes place after the Last Supper, either in the Garden of Gethsemane or on the way to the Garden.  Jesus is, in part, giving final instructions to his disciples; but in the larger part, Jesus is sharing words that are meant to comfort and encourage the disciples… and us as well. So these words should be heard and spoken with gentleness and a sense of peace.

Jesus has already told the disciples that he’s going to die, and they are devastated by this. Anyone who has ever lost someone they love knows how the disciples are feeling. Jesus has told them that he will be back from the grave, but they’re not quite grasping this yet; and the thing is, ultimately, Jesus will be going away – back to heaven. And in their sorrow the disciples aren’t able to take the message in.

So these words are spoken gently: like comfort from a friend.  Jesus also speaks about the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how all three will be present for the disciples after he’s gone. Jesus also says the Holy Spirit will come soon, and teach the disciples everything they need to know, and remind them of Jesus’ words, and bring peace to all who believe. Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

trinity

Jesus’ words can be a great comfort not only to the disciples but to us also – especially in troubled times like we’re living through today. Jesus says: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

In the verses immediately before this passage, Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.”  He also says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”  (John 14:15-16, 18b-21)

This sums up what it means to be a Christian: to love Jesus and keep his commandments with our whole self, with everything we are, in the power of the Holy Spirit – and to receive the love of God and the love of Jesus, coming back to us.

This passage we’re reading today is Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question, “Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jesus answers: “those who love me will keep my word.” In other words, he’s looking for a two-way street… which only makes sense, as that’s the definition of relationship.

What Jesus is talking about, then, is for both for now and for the future. When Jesus returns to heaven, God will send the Holy Spirit to teach us and lead us and guide us into the paths of peace.

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This chapter in John, along with one verse from Matthew, has been set to music, and I’d like to share it with you this morning. The song is Lo I Am With You Always (lyrics are below). The text is taken from the King James version of the Bible, so it’s a little old-fashioned. I invite you to listen, and as you do, either follow along with the text, or if you like, just close your eyes and take it in.

[as the music ends] Stay relaxed please, eyes closed if you like, and listen now as John describes what all of this is leading to. Picture these things in your mind as you listen before God. John writes:

“He took me away in the Spirit to an enormous, high mountain and showed me Holy Jerusalem descending out of Heaven from God, resplendent in the bright glory of God.

“The main street of the City was pure gold, translucent as glass. But there was no sign of a Temple, for the Lord God (—the Sovereign-Strong—) and the Lamb are the Temple. The City doesn’t need sun or moon for light. God’s Glory is its light, the Lamb its lamp! The nations will walk in its light and earth’s kings bring in their splendor. Its gates will never be shut by day, and there won’t be any night. They’ll bring the glory and honor of the nations into the City. Nothing dirty or defiled will get into the City, and no one who defiles or deceives [will enter]. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will get in.

“Then the Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit [for] each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed. The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they’ll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. And they will rule with him age after age after age.” – Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5, The Message

This is the destiny of all who love Jesus. His promise is that, when the time is right, he will come and take us there. These are the words of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God, AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, May 22, 2022

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Lyrics to the song:

 

Lo I Am With You Always

John Rutter, Composer & Conductor

The Cambridge Singers & Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

(Text from the King James Version of John 14)

 

Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world

Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world

I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.

Yet a little while and the world seeth me no more, but ye see me.

Because I live, ye shall live also.

 

Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (I am with you)

Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world

 

At that day ye shall know that I am in the Father

And ye in me, and I in you.

 

He that hath my commandments and keepeth them,

He it is that loveth me.

And he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father,

And I will love him.

 

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you –

Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.

Let not your heart be troubled; neither let it be afraid.

 

Lo I am with you always, always…

 

 

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Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.  2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,  3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,  5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.  6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’  8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’  9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.  11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.  12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.  13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter;  14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’  15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.  16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” – Acts 11:1-18  

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When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:31-35 

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PetersVision

Welcome to the fifth week of Easter! We are still focused today on celebrating all that Jesus did for us on the Cross, and all the good things that have come to us through the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Through the Cross we have been forgiven, and through the Resurrection we are called to new life – both in this world and the next. And as we will see in a couple of weeks, through Jesus’ Ascension, the Holy Spirit is released to Jesus’ followers, to guide and counsel us in this life.

We see the Spirit in action in today’s reading from the book of Acts, so I’d like to focus today on Acts, but I’d also like to look at our reading from John. These two readings will work like a sort of spiritual sandwich: John is the bread and Acts is the meat in between. John gives us a framework within which to understand what we see happening in Acts.

So starting with John: Jesus is speaking to his disciples about three things that are about to happen: God receiving glory, Jesus’ departure, and a new commandment.

The word glory can be tough to define. I once heard someone describe glory as ‘weightiness’ – something of real substance. Other people describe glory as ‘splendor’ or ‘majesty’. Almost always definitions of glory hint at royalty. But God’s glory goes far beyond that – in fact it goes beyond anything we could imagine (other than maybe creation itself).

Jesus says that God will receive glory through what Jesus is about to do on the cross. And likewise Jesus will receive glory from God through Jesus’ resurrection. So the glory is given by each to each: one giving glory to the other in a continual sharing of glory.

Jesus also speaks of his departure. The departure Jesus is talking about here is not his death (he’ll be back from that). He’s talking about his departure after the resurrection: he will be returning to God the Father, and he will not be physically staying here on earth very long. And he’s saying that where he’s going the disciples won’t be able to follow – because, as he says in John chapter 14, “I am going to prepare a place for you.” And he will return to take us there.

loveoneanother

In the meantime, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.”  This is indeed the great commandment – but is it new? Jesus has been talking about love all through his ministry. It seems what might be new at this point is love is expressed in action: in humility, as Jesus washes the disciples’ feet; or in heroic actions like his martyrdom. The love Jesus teaches and shows us goes beyond feeling and beyond emotion to doing what is best for others no matter what it costs.

Jesus also promises that the world will know we are his disciples by our love for one other. The world doesn’t see Christians as belonging to Jesus if our theology is right (even tho theology is important); the world doesn’t see Christians as belonging to Jesus if our morals are good (even tho living a good life is important); the world doesn’t see Christians as belonging to Jesus if we know a lot about God (tho knowing about God is important). The world knows we belong to Jesus when it sees Christians loving each other with the love of Jesus.

love-like-jesus

The challenge in this commandment is that Jesus doesn’t allow us to draw lines separating those we love from those we don’t love. We don’t get to pick and choose. And that’s where we pick up Peter’s story in the book of Acts.

Back in Jesus’ day, as in most periods of human history, there were certain groups of people a “good” person didn’t mix with. A good Jew, for example, would never hang around with Gentiles (that is, non-Jews). I’ll talk about why in a moment. But it raises the question: who are the people we don’t hang around with in our society? Not that we necessarily deliberately exclude, just that we don’t notice them? Maybe the poor? Drug addicts? Immigrants – legal or otherwise? The homeless? Minorities of any kind? The mentally ill? The handicapped? It’s amazing how many ways people can find to draw lines around people that exclude.

Here are a couple of other examples from history where Christians took notice and stood up and said to society, “here’s a better way”.

In ancient Rome: as the Christian church was getting off the ground in the first couple centuries, in Roman society it was considered a tragedy to be born female. Baby girls born in the Roman Empire were often left on the town trash heap to die. But Christians saw the likeness of God in these babies and rescued them – at great cost to themselves, both financially and socially. The early church became famous for having mercy on the least and the helpless.

In early Methodist history: John and Charles Wesley and their friends at school at Oxford looked around at their society and they noticed that poverty was a serious problem. The poor were stuck: partly because there were no schools for their children. There were no public schools at the time; education in those days had to be paid for, and the poor couldn’t afford it. They also noticed that if a poor man fell into debt and failed to pay it off, he would be thrown into debtors’ prison until he could pay the debt – which of course was impossible if he wasn’t free to work. The effect on poor families was devastating. John and Charles and their Oxford friends spent all time they had in between coursework teaching the children of the poor, giving them an education; and paying off the debts of those in prison – reuniting families and lifting them out of poverty. And they did this even though the well-to-do in the church and society didn’t approve and called them derogatory names.

  John Wesley medicine

 John Wesley also gave counsel to the poor on basic first aid and health care

Both of these – saving Roman babies and reaching out to the Oxford poor – are examples of what Christians have done to love others in Jesus’ name: what Christians have done to reach out to, and include, people who weren’t considered acceptable by the culture around them.

The tradition of doing this has its roots in our story from Acts. In this ancient society, the Gentiles were the outcasts: anyone not born Jewish. That would most likely include you and me. We tend to forget sometimes that the first believers were Jewish and that all of Christianity rests on the foundation of Judaism. As Paul says, we Gentiles are “grafted into the vine” – the vine being Judaism.  And as we can see from Peter’s story, even he was reluctant at first to bring the Gospel to people who were considered ‘unclean’.

Jewish purity laws since the time of Moses taught the Jewish people not to eat with, or even enter the house of, a non-Jewish person. Mixing with Gentiles meant mixing with people who worshiped false gods. It was considered a form of idolatry. And in the history of Israel, whenever people started relaxing this law, national disasters always followed. So keeping oneself away from Gentiles was loyalty both to God and to the nation.

But now the apostle Peter – the rock on which Jesus founded the church – has not only visited a Gentile, but had baptized a whole family of them, and then ate with them! How could the leader of the Jesus movement do this?

Peter travels to Jerusalem to explain what happened. He says, “This is God’s doing.” Peter tells them while he was in Joppa he saw a vision of a large sheet full of animals being lowered down from heaven. And he hears a voice saying, “rise Peter – kill and eat.”  But as Peter looked at the animals he realized they were animals Jews were forbidden to eat. So he answers, “By no means, Lord; nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” And he hears a reply, “What God has made clean you must not call unclean.”

Peter says this vision happened three times.

The number three is significant in the Jewish faith. For starters, there were three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Secondly, the number three is considered the number of completion: it brings harmony, peace, and stability. Something happening three times makes it permanent.

three

And after the vision – three men show up at the door! They’re from Caesarea, and they’ve come looking for Peter. The Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with them. Six of the disciples go with Peter (that’s twice three) and they enter the house of a Gentile, Cornelius, who says he has seen a vision of an angel who told him to send for Peter and listen to his message.

Peter shares the Gospel with this Gentile family – all their relatives and servants are present in the largest room of the house. And while Peter is still speaking the Holy Spirit falls on all the members of the household, and they start speaking in tongues. Peter, seeing this, is amazed.

And then Peter does the next logical thing: he baptizes them. It’s what Jesus said to do just before he went back to heaven: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:19) Somehow the disciples had missed that ‘all nations’ part – until now. And then, after the baptism, they all had a meal together because… why wouldn’t they? They’re all members of God’s family now.

Back in Jerusalem, Peter draws this conclusion: if God has given the Holy Spirit to Gentiles, we cannot call them unclean because we would find ourselves opposing God.

At these words the Jewish critics were silenced, and the believers rejoiced and praised God that repentance unto life was now available to everyone, everywhere. They all realized – as Peter did – that where it comes to salvation God’s Holy Spirit was leading the way.

After these events, the early church had some difficult questions to deal with like: will Gentiles have to worship the same way Jewish people do? Will they have to eat the same foods? These questions and others caused some friction in the early church. But they would be worked out, mostly by Paul in his missionary journeys and his letters. What’s clear to them now is that Jesus’ call to “repent and believe the good news” is a call to all people everywhere.

So what does all this mean for us in the 21st century? Bringing us back to our reading from John, it means that for all of us, no matter who we are, salvation is made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection and by his love for us. It means that all things are ours through God, because God was faithful and gave sacrificially in sending his son Jesus to do what he did.

It means also, as it meant for Peter, that we should rejoice when anyone comes to faith, when anyone believes in Jesus and receives the Holy Spirit, no matter where they come from or where they’ve been. The Holy Spirit reaches out across boundaries that our culture may not approve of. What God has called ‘clean’ we should not call ‘unclean’. We follow God not the world.

spirit

The Holy Spirit – the “Spirit of Truth” – bears witness to our spirits of the truth of God’s word. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to believe in and trust Jesus. The Holy Spirit guides us and helps us to avoid pitfalls. The Holy Spirit sheds light: both on the meaning of Scripture, and on the truth about the world around us. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to live by the love Jesus talks about in John: loving one another.

So then our question today is: where is God’s Spirit leading us now? Whose voices and whose stories do we need to hear? Where is God leading us to share the good news? May God inspire us with answers to these questions and give us the courage to follow. AMEN.

 

Easter 5: Love One Another (Clean vs Unclean)

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/15/22

 

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A Psalm of David

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.  2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;  3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.  4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.  5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. – Psalm 23

sheep

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Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.  41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.  42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner. – Acts 9:36-43

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After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,  12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;  17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” – Revelation 7:9-17

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We have some truly wonderful scripture readings this morning – passages that can inspire, uplift, and encourage us. The story of Dorcas from the book of Acts is especially sweet to hear on Mothers’ Day, and all the wonderful things she did for her family and community.

But today I’d like to focus on Psalm 23 for three reasons:

  1. We’re still in the Easter season, and this psalm is directly related to Easter because it speaks of the Messiah;
  2. I think too often we only hear Psalm 23 at funerals – and while it’s very meaningful to be reminded of these words when someone we love has passed, it’s a shame to only read it at funerals, because these words are meant for the living! And…
  3. the job of a shepherd and the job of a good mother are very similar. Shepherds guide, feed, protect, lead, care for, and defend the sheep; and that’s also what a good mother does for her children.

One thing I want to point out about Psalm 23 before we dig into it: Psalm 23 is found in our Bibles between Psalm 22 and Psalm 24. (I know you all have figured that much out!) But here’s the thing: the numbering of the Psalms, like the numbering chapters and verses throughout the Bible, was done centuries ago, more for convenience than anything else. The original books of the Bible, in their original languages, didn’t even have periods at the ends of sentences let alone verse numbers!

The chapter and verse numbers were developed over time in an almost random way. But in this particular case, the numbering and order of Psalms 22, 23, and 24 turns out to have great meaning, one that theologians have remarked over for centuries:

  • Psalm 22 is a prophecy of the crucifixion, and it describes in detail a form of execution that hadn’t been invented yet, and would not be invented until the Roman Empire came about. It was a Roman form of execution.
  • Psalm 24 is a prophecy of the coronation of the heavenly king, the Messiah: a window into our eternal future.
  • And sandwiched in between these two passionate and descriptive psalms is this quiet green pasture of Psalm 23, that tells our story – how God cares for, and has cared for, us – God’s people.

God is always with us. Jesus’ name – Emmanuel – means “God with us”. It is said that John Wesley’s dying words were, “The best of all is, God is with us.” It doesn’t mean that life is easy or perfect but it does mean no matter what happens, we are never alone. We are never without someone who cares for and loves us. We live in between the cross and the crown, and we are cared for here by our Good Shepherd.

Emmanuel

In our culture today most of us don’t have a whole lot of experience with shepherds or sheep. Just curious: how many of us here have ever met a shepherd? How many of us have ever touched a sheep? For those of us who have met a sheep, how many of us have tried to get a sheep to move?

I can remember a number of years ago an episode of The Amazing Race, one of the tasks the competitors were given was to move (I think it was) three sheep from one end of a pasture to the other. It was clear none of the competitors had ever met a sheep! Sheep don’t follow instructions, and they won’t move unless they think there’s a reason to… unless you happen to be the shepherd. The sheep know the voice of the one who cares for them.

Sassy Sheep

For those of us who, like myself, have extremely limited experience with sheep, the Bible tells us a good bit about sheep and about shepherds. Here are just a few of the sheep-related and shepherd-related passages in scripture:

  • The first mention of the word ‘shepherd’ in the Bible is made by Jacob on his deathbed, when he is blessing his son Joseph. Jacob describes God as being “my shepherd all my life to this day” and he says that Joseph has been blessed by the same God.
  • In Psalm 28, the psalmist prays to God: “save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them forever…”
  • In Isaiah 40 we find a prophecy of the Messiah that we often hear at Christmas-time: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead [those who are with young.]”
  • In Ezekiel 34 God makes these promises to his people: “I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. […] I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.”
  • In the New Testament, Jesus uses the word ‘shepherd’ to describe himself:
    • John chapter 10: “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. […] I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (We see some of the truth of this in the Old Testament when David describes how he used to tend the sheep: he would even attack bears and lions with nothing but a slingshot!)
    • In Matthew 18 Jesus says: “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine… and go in search of the one…? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. [Likewise] it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
  • And in our passage from Revelation 7 today, it says: “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

As we listen to our great Good Shepherd being described in Psalm 23, we hear good news – all the good things our shepherd brings to us. Verse 1: we lack for nothing. If Jesus our shepherd is with us, how will we be without anything we need?

By contrast, an American author I was reading recently pointed out that there’s a difference between needs and wants, and our entire American economic system is based on wants. That’s what advertising is all about: to convince us that we want something we never knew we needed. We want, and so we shop, and when we get what we wanted, we want the next thing! We are taught from childhood to want the new thing, the cool thing – and not just to want, but to have.

This author I was reading – his name is James Howell, he’s a United Methodist pastor down south –concludes that “the reason sheep need a shepherd is [because] sheep nibble themselves lost.” He says: “Leave a sheep without a shepherd, and he nibbles a bit of grass here, wanders over there for some more, sees a patch just past that rock; and before you know it the sheep is lost, or has fallen into a ravine, or been devoured by a wolf.”[1]

“Nibbling ourselves lost” – what a great word picture that is! Isn’t that really how it works – a little tiny bit at a time? Very few people abandon God in a hurry – most of the time it’s a little bit here and a little bit there.

So what is it that we really want? What really matters to us today? Or in the final hours of our lives? What we really need is just one thing: an intimate friendship with the Good Shepherd. We need to know Jesus is with us. We need to know that our home is with Jesus – in this world and the next.

Until the day the great kingdom comes, we need to know that Jesus is with us now. In the psalm, the Good Shepherd provides “green pasture” which is good food; and “still waters” – peaceful places to drink. Jesus restores our souls: he removes the grime and corruption of this world from us so that we can be in an intimate relationship with God.

Green Pastures

Jesus leads us in ‘right paths’. This is so important to know. How many of us, when we look back over our lives, start to second-guess ourselves? We wonder sometimes where we might be if we had chosen a different school, or a different career, or a different neighborhood to live in? What might our lives have been like if we had delayed getting married for five years or delayed having kids for five years? There are so many possibilities… so many roads not taken that we might have chosen… the “what ifs” can become overwhelming. But we can be confident our Good Shepherd “leads us in right paths for his name’s sake.” The paths we walk may not be the easiest ones; but each path we are led on is the right path for us, to get us to where we need to be and who we need to be.

No Evil

Even when we go through dark times: “through the darkest valley” – “through the valley of the shadow of death” – when we pass through places where we can’t see the future and where there may be danger – we don’t need to be afraid. Why? Because of the shepherd’s rod and staff: the rod to defend us against attackers, and the staff to guide us. Both of these give us comfort.

Our shepherd even sets a feast for us right where our enemies can see it! In the ancient world, hospitality and food were a matter of honor: Abraham even entertained God when he appeared outside his tent. Maybe this feast the Psalm talks about is a place where enemies will set aside differences to join in doing something together. Maybe after eating together we will no be longer enemies. The psalmist doesn’t say, but it’s a possibility.

Our good shepherd anoints our heads with oil. There are two meanings to this: the first, literally putting oil on the head of a sheep protects it against parasites (of all things!); oil help keep sheep healthy. And second, for us human sheep, it anoints us as children of the king. Back in ancient days, anointing with oil was a way to say “this is our next king or queen” – it marks us as members of God’s royal family.

With Jesus as our shepherd, we are safe. We will find goodness and mercy even in the darkest places. And we will be with Jesus – in the house of God – forever.

Jesus shepherd

The phrase “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” is actually better translated “surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me…”. The word is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians chased after the Israelites when they were leaving Egypt. Goodness and mercy will chase me down. God will chase after us with goodness. God will not rest until we discover a place of goodness and mercy.

It may take us some time to get there. Some of us have seen or experienced very difficult things in our lives, and it takes time to heal, and it takes time to trust. But God will be there like a shepherd: feeding us, guiding us, protecting us… preparing us for a future of beauty beyond our imagining.

This week – as we celebrate Mothers Day – let us each make this psalm our own. Read it over a few times this week; pray its truth over our families and the people we love. And as always we say: “Thank you Lord for your word and your truth and your love.” AMEN.

Preached at Spencer United Methodist Church, May 8 2022

[1] James Howell, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-psalm-23-23

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          Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest  2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 

             7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.  8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.  9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 

             10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”  11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,  12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”  13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;  14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”  15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;  16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,  20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” – Acts 9:1-20

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          After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.  2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.  3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 

          4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”  6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.  7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.  8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 

          9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.  10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”  11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.  12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.  13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 

          15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” – John 21:1-19

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Saul Sees Light

Our scripture readings today, on this third week of Easter, talk about something very close to the heart of God; and as we explore these things we also can draw very close to the heart of God.

God tells us all through scripture that he loves us, that God made people in his image, that God is a loving Father to us, his children. We are taught that love is, in a way, what God is made of: a loving Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, intertwined in a dance of love that goes on for eternity. Scripture tells us God’s plan is to have us join in that dance of love, through the Holy Spirit; that we would find ourselves drawn into God’s eternal family.

But Scripture also tells us something went wrong with this plan. In the book of Genesis, deceived by an evil being, humanity joined in a rebellion against God, and things have been wrong with our world ever since. So God sent Jesus on a rescue mission. And his rescue takes the form of forgiveness and restoration for God’s children through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

forgiven

The good news of Easter is that in and through Jesus we can be forgiven. We can be restored to a loving relationship with God. Jesus has fulfilled the law and the prophets in a way that no human being could. We can enter into this hope through faith in the one who walked out of the grave alive.

That’s a lot of deep theology: hundreds of books have been written to try to describe exactly what Jesus did for us on the cross, and how it works, and what it means to us as people and as a church.  Thank God when God gave us the Bible, God gave us stories of people – real people with all the good and bad things that come with being human.

In our Bible Study on Wednesday nights we’ve just finished reading Genesis and one of the frequent comments has been along the lines of “these guys back then weren’t always very nice – and they were the foundation of our faith?”  It’s encouraging to know if they can make it, we can make it.

And speaking of people who sometimes doubted if they could make it…

Peter and Paul

(Saints Peter & Paul)

In and around the time of Jesus’ resurrection, there were two people who let Jesus down very badly: Peter and Paul. As we look at their stories today we are walking on holy ground. We are given the chance to see how God’s love works in the hearts of sinners – people who love God and want to honor God in spite of their human flaws. And we see the lengths Jesus goes to, to forgive them and restore them. These are Restoration Stories: This Old House for human beings.

So moving to our scriptures for today, we’ll start with Peter’s story.

Peter had denied Jesus three times. When Peter saw Jesus was arrested, he was scared. Granted, he had more courage than some: Peter followed the soldiers who arrested Jesus at a distance to see what would happen – which was more than many of the other disciples did. But when his Northern accent gave him away to the Southern bystanders, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Peter, who had said to Jesus “even if I have to die with you I will never disown you” (Matt 26:35) called a curse down on himself and swore “I don’t know the man”.

Jesus had predicted this. And after it happened, it must have hung over Peter’s heart and soul like the darkest of clouds. But Jesus had also added, “I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32)

After Jesus’ death, Peter stayed with the disciples. He was with them on Easter morning. He was one of the first people to see the empty tomb. Jesus’ prayer was answered: Peter did not give up. Peter didn’t lose faith. He hung in there with the rest of the believers.

As we come to today’s reading from John we see Peter and the disciples, together again. They have returned to Galilee, where Jesus had said he would meet them. And one night, not quite sure what to do with themselves, seven of the eleven remaining disciples decided to go fishing. Fishing was familiar; it’s what they knew; it was like old home week. But the night ended in frustration: they didn’t catch a single fish!

Fishing

As the sun was rising, and they were heading back in to shore, they saw a man on the beach, who asked if they’d caught any fish that night. They said, “no”.  The man said: “let down your net on the right side of the boat and you’ll find some.” And they did – and the nets were so full of fish they couldn’t haul the catch into the boat. They had to drag them to the shore with the net still in the water. (Thank goodness they were only about a football-field’s length away from the shore at that point.)

As they were doing this, their minds went back to another fishing trip where they had caught nothing, and someone had told them where to find the fish. Memory clicks in, and John turns to Peter and says “it’s the Lord!” – and Peter gets dressed and leaps into the water to swim to Jesus while the rest of the disciples are hauling the fish in.

When they all got on land, Jesus had a fire going on the beach. And he had fish ready, with bread (fish sandwiches, anyone?). And Jesus tells them to bring along some of the fish they’ve caught, and he’ll throw those on the fire too. “Come and eat!” He says. And they do.

In his gospel John says “nobody asked Jesus who he was, because they knew it was him” – and this is an odd statement. Comparing this story to the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it seems that Jesus’ new resurrected body was somehow different from his original body. Because even people who knew him well didn’t recognize him right away, and yet still they knew it was him. They must have recognized his personality, his spirit, his joy… and so they didn’t need to ask.

Jesus takes the bread and gives it to them, and some of the fish… bringing to memory the feeding of the five thousand, and in some ways bringing to memory the Last Supper, where he had broken the bread and given it to them. And Jesus reminds them that the disciples are called to be ‘fishers of men’, sharing the good news and bringing people into God’s kingdom. Jesus renews that call for all of them.

After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside: they have some unfinished business to discuss. Peter’s denial still hangs between them… and Jesus loves Peter too much to let anything stand between them. So Jesus asks Peter – three times, once for each denial – “Do you love me?”  And three times Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know I love you.”

Do You Love Me

Jesus didn’t ask three times in order to shame Peter, but rather in order to help Peter be aware that he himself really does love Jesus. To help Peter see himself as Jesus sees him. To help Peter understand and know the way Jesus knows. The third time Jesus asks the question, it cuts Peter to the heart and he says, “Lord you know everything – you know that I love you.” And three times, Jesus says to Peter: “Feed my sheep. Tend my flock.”

Peter is right: Jesus does know how much Peter loves him. Peter is not just forgiven: Peter is understood, accepted, and honored with a fresh sending, a fresh commission for his service. Jesus tells Peter that following him will require everything Peter has to give, including his life. But Peter won’t fail Jesus again: he will live up to the nickname Jesus gave him. Peter’s name had been Simon; Jesus changed it to Peter, which means “rock” – and he said: “on this rock I will build my church.” That is, on the rock of Peter’s faithful witness and on the rock of Peter’s love for Jesus.

Jesus’ new assignment for Peter is to be shepherd to his people. Interestingly, it is not a call to be an evangelist or to “grow the church”. Peter’s assignment has more to do with meeting peoples’ needs: feeding them, protecting them, guiding them… that’s what a shepherd does. It’s a call to love and care for God’s people in everyday ways.

Jesus not only forgives Peter, but Jesus restores Peter to his place as a disciple and as an apostle. That’s Restoration #1.

The second restoration involves the apostle Paul, who at that time went by the name of ‘Saul’.  It’s interesting how often Jesus – or God – changes peoples’ names in the Bible. Often the new name reflects the character of who this person is becoming.

At the beginning of the Book of Acts, Saul is an up-and-coming Pharisee. He is a student of Gamaliel, one of the greatest theologians of the time. As a theology student himself, Saul is the best of the best. He’s a true believer in Judaism and the Torah and the Law of Moses. Saul has devoted his whole life to learning God’s way and living God’s way. When we first meet Saul in the Book of Acts, he is standing guard over the personal belongings of a group of Pharisees who are stoning a man named Stephen to death. (Stephen was the first Christian martyr.) Stephen’s crime was being a member of a religious group called “The Way” – which is what people called Christians before the word ‘Christian’ was invented.

Members of The Way were Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah. As Jewish people, they were still members of their synagogues for a number of decades after Jesus’ resurrection. But their beliefs put Jesus on the same level as God, which deeply troubled the Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees. Saul, like many of his fellow Pharisees, thought the people of The Way were teaching a false god – which, in ancient Israel, could get you arrested or killed. Why?

OneGod

Because it was a violation of Commandment #1: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Throughout their history, whenever the nation of Israel started worshiping false gods, they ended up being conquered, exiled, or worse. Basically, worshiping a false god was the same thing as treason in that society – and treason is still a capital crime today.

Saul was a patriot. Saul was a true believer in God. Saul sincerely believed that putting an end to The Way was serving God. Paul went to the Sanhedrin (the religious council) and got letters from them to the synagogues in Damascus saying that, if he found any followers of The Way in Damascus he could (and would) arrest them and bring them to Jerusalem for trial.

But on his way to Damascus, Saul had an encounter with Jesus. This man, who has been an accessory to Stephen’s murder – and who is planning to do violence to God’s people in Damascus – has already been forgiven by Jesus, who is about to give him a second chance.

On the road, Saul sees a blinding light and falls to the ground. And he hears a voice asking, “why are you persecuting me?” (Notice its not “why are you persecuting my people?” – Jesus identifies so strongly with us that to hurt us is to hurt him. To hurt even just one of us is to hurt Jesus.)

Saul replies, “Who are you, Lord?” – calling Jesus by the name kyrie.  Jesus answers: “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting. But get up and go into Damascus and you will learn what you need to do.” And his fellow travelers led Saul, now blind, into the city.

Not much later Jesus appeared to Ananias, a disciple who lived in Damascus. Jesus told him “go find Saul of Tarsus who is staying at Judas’ house on Straight Street. He is praying and has seen a vision of you, laying hands on him to restore his sight.”

Ananias is understandably troubled by this and says “Lord… this man has done so much evil to your people in Jerusalem, and now he’s coming here to stir up trouble.” But Jesus reassures Ananias. Jesus has chosen Saul – soon to be renamed Paul – “to bring his name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel… and he will suffer for my name,” Jesus says.

Ananias obeys. Saul is healed, baptized, and immediately starts preaching and proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues. Can you imagine how surprised they were in those synagogues in Damascus? Literally overnight, Saul had become a member of the very movement he was trying to stamp out. Verse 20 of Acts 9 says: “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”

Saul’s experience may inspire us to think about how we look at our world: today’s groups, today’s righteous causes. I think most of us are aware that in Russia right now, the Russian people are being told that Ukraine is their enemy and the war there is a righteous cause blessed by the church. That’s just one example of patriotism gone wrong – and it’s not the only example I could give.

Theologian James Boyce comments, ““The story of Saul and Ananias invites us to [think about] how we… look at our own world… and [where] God [might] take our “no” and transform [it] to a “yes.”

And all of this – all of this – begins with God’s forgiveness.

In today’s readings we see Jesus building the foundation of his church with the help of two very flawed human beings. Peter will be the apostle to Israel and to the Jews. Paul will be the apostle to the Gentiles. Between the two of them they will write the majority of the New Testament letters.

All this happens because Jesus’ death and resurrection unleashes God’s Holy Spirit and God’s forgiveness to sinners. It makes possible a call to service for deeply flawed human beings.

Jesus was able to forgive Paul – and not just forgive, but create miracles to bring about his salvation. And Jesus was able to forgive Peter. Jesus reminded Peter of the depth and the breadth of their friendship and of their love for each other.

Ransomed Healed

This is what Easter is all about: joy, restoration, and forgiveness made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. And restoration is always followed by a fresh commission. These conversations with Jesus are not conclusions but new beginnings.

And it can be the same for us today. If we have ever failed to live up to God’s standards – and who hasn’t? – we can be confident if we return to Jesus with our whole hearts, and be honest about what we’ve done, we will be forgiven. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus! (Romans 8:38)  And if we ever get the wrong end of the stick, like Saul did, and find ourselves excluding people that Jesus intends to include, Jesus will help us start over.

The bottom line of all these stories today is this: God loves us. God wants to see his children restored and forgiven. Jesus wants to reconcile us to God… because God loves us, and so does Jesus. Don’t ever doubt that.

And once we are forgiven, we are able to share the good news with others.

  • Peter went from denial in fear to being a strong foundation for the church.
  • Saul went from being an executioner to an evangelist named Paul.
  • And even Ananias went from fear to encouragement and courage.

God can work in us as well. Let this be our prayer. AMEN.

 

Easter 3 – “The Restorations of Paul and Peter”

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, May 1 2022

 

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When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them,  28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”  29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.  30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.  31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.  32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” – Acts 5:27-32

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When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

              24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

              26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

              30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:19-31

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Upper Room

Welcome to the second week of Easter! Like Advent and Christmas, the season of Easter continues for a few weeks beyond the actual holiday, so during Easter we have 40 days of celebration. Our scripture readings during this time will focus mostly on what Jesus did after his resurrection, and on what the disciples did immediately following Jesus’ ascension.

With this in mind, we’ll be hearing a lot from Gospel of John and the book of Acts in the next few weeks. These two books together give us a good idea of what happened after Jesus’ resurrection. They don’t tell us everything; there is a lot that happened in those days that wasn’t written down. But we know that Jesus spent time in Jerusalem after his resurrection, and we know that while he was there, he didn’t have any contact with the religious leadership or with Pilate or Herod. We also know Jesus spent some time the region of Galilee,  some of that time with his disciples. We would probably be safe in guessing that Jesus also went home to see his mother and visit his family. Scripture doesn’t tell us this specifically, but scripture does tell us Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in him during his lifetime (John 7:5) yet after Jesus’ resurrection his brother James became a disciple and it’s believed he wrote the book of James in the New Testament – which is quite a turnaround from non-believing!

Still, at the end of John’s gospel John tells us: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” (John 20:30) So there’s a lot we don’t know about what Jesus did during his last forty days on earth. But what we do know is more than enough to share over these next 40 days; and as John says in his gospel, “these things are written so that (we) may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing (we) may have life in his name.

This Sunday, our readings from John and Acts give us living examples of the work the Holy Spirit does in the lives of the disciples. We’ll begin with the Gospel of John today, and the familiar story of the man known to history as “Doubting Thomas”.

Our reading from John begins on Easter Day. The disciples have gathered in a locked room, afraid that what happened to Jesus might also happen to them. By now they’ve heard word from the women that Jesus has been seen alive, but they’re still feeling uncertain and afraid.

Suddenly Jesus walks into that locked room – without using the door! It seems resurrection bodies can do some things our bodies can’t. At any rate the disciples recognize Jesus immediately – his new body still has the old scars. They can see the whip marks and the places where the nails were.

Shalom

Jesus immediately says “Peace be with you” – using the word shalom, which is not just an absence of fear but a presence of well-being, physically and mentally and emotionally. When Jesus speaks the word shalom, the word is active: what he speaks becomes reality. The disciples lose their fear. Jesus then commissions them saying: “as the Father sent me now I send you.”  This means they are now all apostles – the Greek word apostle meaning ‘people who are sent’.

The apostles are prepared by Jesus to go out in the power of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus breathes onto them. The Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity – is often compared to ‘wind’ in scriptures: the Bible says “the Spirit blows where it wills” – but Jesus can and does direct it to his disciples. The message the disciples are given to share is a message of forgiveness through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection; and this message is proclaimed by the disciples boldly and without fear.

In our world today many people doubt this message. Many people say “I’m a good person and I do good things, but the Bible was written over 2000 years ago. I don’t believe all that ancient supernatural stuff about people coming back from the dead.”

The best answer I’ve ever heard for kind of skepticism comes from Chuck Colson, one of the men convicted and sent to prison in the Watergate scandal. Colson became a Christian while he was in prison, and he said this:

“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. […] Because [in the Bible] 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one [of them] was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured [all that for a lie]. Watergate [involved] 12 men, 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie [secret] for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie [secret] for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”[1]

That’s Chuck Colson. Going back now to the upper room with the disciples, we find one of them is missing: Thomas. We’re not sure where Thomas is, but when he returns to the group they all tell him “Jesus has been here! He’s alive!”

But Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Caravaggio Jesus Thomas

Caravaggio

Thomas has taken a lot of flack over the years for saying this… but when you get down to it, he’s not asking for anything more than what the other disciples have already seen. And he’s not willing to commit until both his mind and his heart are satisfied with the truth.

In a way I think that’s a wise thing, especially for us who live in today’s world, where email scams and Ponzi schemes are a dime a dozen. It’s a good thing to ask questions if something seems to good to be true. The good news is that God never rejects the sceptic. God meets those who doubt, where they are, when the doubts are honest ones.

Theologian Mary Hinkle Shore says this:

“Thomas will not be shamed into believing, or shamed into… keeping his unbelief to himself. […] Thomas’s journey to faith makes his story especially important for an audience of would-be believers…”[2]

So Thomas’s words are especially good for people to hear when they’re not sure what they believe. Meanwhile Jesus is willing to meet Thomas where he needs to be met – and Jesus will do the same for us. At the same time, Jesus says, “blessed are those who haven’t seen and yet believe”, which speaks directly to all of us who are not eyewitnesses of the resurrection but have come to faith in more recent years. It gives us hope that Jesus meets us, just as he met Thomas; and Jesus commissions us just as he commissioned the disciples.

Turning now to our reading from Acts: this scene takes place in and around the Temple, after the resurrection and ascension. The disciples are now living and moving and teaching in the power of the Holy Spirit which Jesus has given them. As they do, large groups gather to listen. The disciples heal the sick and cast out demons, and they proclaim Jesus as the Ruler and Savior of the world.

From an ancient Roman point of view, the disciples are walking on thin ice because only Caesar can claim to be Ruler and Savior of the world. And the religious authorities in the Temple are afraid the Romans will hear this teaching and stir up trouble. Most of them did not believe the rumors about the resurrection; and some of them had paid off the soldiers who were guarding the tomb to say someone had stolen the body.

The religious authorities arrest Peter and John as they’re preaching in the Temple in Acts chapter four. They warn them sternly not to do this any more and then set them free. The disciples then gathered around and prayed for boldness, and returned to the Temple in Acts chapter five, healing people and preaching. The High Priest and the Sadducees were “filled with jealousy” and arrested them again and put them in prison, but that night an angel of the Lord brought them out of the prison and said “go back and keep on preaching” – which they did at daybreak the next day. They were arrested again (Groundhog Day?) and this time they were brought before the whole council which included the Pharisees as well as the Sadducees.

apostles in the temple

The High Priest tells them, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” And Peter, acting as spokesperson for the apostles, says, “We must obey God rather than men.”

Peter has his loyalties right. But there’s one side note I need to make here: this passage, and these words, have been used and mis-used for the past 2000 years to blame the Jewish people for the death of Jesus. I can’t say this strongly enough: this is not true.  First off, Peter was Jewish, and Jesus was Jewish, and all the disciples and all the believers up to this point in time were all Jewish. The religious leaders were wrong not because they were Jewish, but because they didn’t listen to Jesus, and because they mis-used their authority to conspire to kill an innocent man. (End of side note.)

This meeting of the council, meanwhile, started to look like it was going to end in a theological free-for-all until a Pharisee named Gamaliel stood up to speak. (This takes place just after our reading in Acts that we heard this morning.) Gamaliel was considered to be one of the greatest theologians of his time, and he was the teacher of a bright up-and-coming young Pharisee we will someday know as the apostle Paul. Gamaliel stands up and says: “hear me. Consider carefully what you propose to do.” And he goes on to talk about the many false teachers who have passed through Jerusalem over the years (and he names them) and he says their teaching proved to be false and quickly died out. And if these men are preaching a message of human origin, it will likewise die out; but if the message is from God you may find yourselves fighting against God!” The council takes his advice, and they have the disciples whipped and set them free. And so the news of Jesus’ resurrection spreads throughout Jerusalem and all of Israel.

Gamaliel

So summing up this morning’s readings…

First, in the beginning we see the disciples hiding in fear. It’s hard for us to imagine what they felt seeing Jesus dead on a cross and then buried. It was the shattering of all their dreams. It called into question everything they had invested their lives in. But God did not leave them in sorrow for long. One very long, silent Saturday, and then… the Lord is alive again! Some of the disciples met Jesus on Easter morning, and many more later that day. Sorrow turned into joy, faith was fulfilled!

Second, Jesus immediately renewed the disciples’ commission to preach the good news to the world. This good news is: “The Kingdom of God is at hand – change course and believe the good news!” To which the disciples now add, “and this is proven by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.”

Jesus will shortly be returning to God the Father, so he gives the disciples the Holy Spirit as a guide and teacher. The Holy Spirit is described in scripture as “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.”

The disciples – and today, we also – are therefore called to:

  • Believe in Jesus Christ, as Messiah, Saviour, and Prince of Heaven.
  • Believe in Jesus’ ability and willingness to cleanse us from sin.
  • Receive the Holy Spirit, and with that Spirit the power for ministry. (we’ll hear more about this at Pentecost)
  • In the power of the Spirit, make Jesus known to others.

Knowing and learning the Scriptures is just a beginning; it’s a living faith in Jesus through the Holy Spirit that opens the door to eternal life. When Thomas saw Jesus alive for the first time, he exclaimed, “My Lord and My God!”. Let this be our testimony also. AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, April 24 2022

[1] Chuck Colson, GoodReads.com, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/555921-i-know-the-resurrection-is-a-fact-and-watergate-proved

[2] Mary Hinkle Shore, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/thomas-2/commentary-on-john-2019-31-5

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“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;  22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.  23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.  25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” – 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

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Tulip

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,  7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;  9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

              11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb;  12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).  17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”  18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. – John 20:1-18

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Happy Easter! It is good to see all of you this morning and to celebrate this beautiful day!

Last week Pastor Dylan was here with you on Palm Sunday – a day that begins in celebration but has dark overtones to it, a sense of a building darkness. In contrast, this morning our Easter story from John begins in darkness but ends in joy.

In our reading for this morning, the apostle John tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on Easter Sunday even before the sun was up.

Mary loved Jesus very much, and she was grieving his loss deeply. Mary is one of the disciples who had the courage to stay with Jesus the whole time he was on the cross on Good Friday. She had witnessed everything, and she had helped to prepare the spices for Jesus’ burial.

Now, on this morning, as Mary approaches the tomb, she sees that that the tomb has been opened – and the pain in her heart is made fresh all over again. Grave robbers were common back in those days, and Jesus had been laid in the tomb of a rich man, so it’s likely the thought ran through Mary’s mind – along with the thought ‘why couldn’t they just leave him in peace?’

Open Tomb

Mary immediately ran off to find Peter and John (John is “the other disciple” mentioned in our reading). And she told them:

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where he is.”

On hearing this, the men ran to the tomb. They looked in, and saw the burial linens and the cloth that had been around Jesus’ head; and they believed Mary’s story, but they didn’t know what to make of it. So they went home.

Meanwhile Mary stayed at the tomb, still weeping. She looked into the tomb, and when she did she saw two angels who weren’t there before. They were dressed in dazzling white and sitting where Jesus’ body had been laid. And the angels ask Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (This is a question I’m sure the angels knew the answer to; but they are helping Mary to gather her thoughts and feelings into words.)

It’s interesting that Mary didn’t react to the angels the way most people in the Bible react to angels – she’s not afraid, she doesn’t tremble, she’s not speechless. I think maybe her sorrow put her beyond all that. She just said to the angels, “they’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him.”

Then Mary turned to go… and as she did she saw someone in front of her, all blurry because of her tears. She assumes it’s the gardener, the caretaker of the place. He also asks her, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” and Mary says, “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will come and take him.”

Someone once said, “gardens are the place where heaven and earth collide.” And it’s often been said that “one is closer to God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” It’s interesting that Jesus’ arrest, death, burial, and resurrection all happened in gardens.

At any rate, in this garden, in this moment, Mary’s earthly expectations collide with a heavenly reality. Jesus calls her name: “Mary!” Immediately she knows him, and she cries out “Teacher!” and gives him the biggest hug ever.

As the moment passes, Jesus says to Mary:

“Don’t hold on to me now. I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go tell my brothers, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Jesus n Mary

Why would Jesus be talking about his Ascension right now? The ascension is still weeks away; Jesus is going to be on earth for a while yet. Basically because his ascension completes the story. It answers the unanswered questions. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just about one person coming back to life. It’s about the promised Messiah breaking free from death, and returning to God in order to open the path for human beings to follow the same road – to have the same relationship with God that Jesus has.

We’ll talk more about that in a few weeks on Ascension Sunday! For now, Jesus is appointing Mary Magdalene to be his first apostle. Mary is not usually listed in most lists of apostles: but the word apostolos in Greek means ‘one who is sent’ and Jesus is sending her. As one theologian puts it:

“Jesus’ commission to Mary earns her the title of ‘apostle to the apostles’.”[1]

In appointing her to do this, Jesus breaks with all tradition and legal precedent, because the law back then did not allow women to be witnesses in court. But Jesus makes Mary the first witness and the first evangelist – that is, the first bearer of the good news that he is alive. Jesus says to Mary, “go tell my brothers” – and she does. Mary finds the disciples and tells them, “I have seen the Lord!” and she relates to them everything Jesus has said to her.

So what does all of this mean for us this morning? So many things!

First, like the disciples, we come to this Easter morning in the middle of a very dark world. I don’t need to list for you all the things that have been in the news lately. Just to mention one: Just this past week we had a prayer service on the steps of Sts Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, to remember those who have died in Ukraine – some of them relatives of people who attend that very church in Carnegie.

Second, like Mary, many of us come to this Easter morning on the edge of tears, having lost loved ones or having been through serious illnesses. Sometimes we wonder how it can be Easter when life is so difficult? We come to Jesus’ tomb – even though we already know how the story ends – we come still not quite knowing what to expect… wondering what Jesus will do in our time, on this Easter Sunday. We hear the message that Jesus is alive… but what does that mean for us today, right now? Like Mary we seek the Lord.

Third, for those of us who have lost loved ones – which unfortunately is far too many of us here today, myself included – we know what it is to grieve. We know what it is to look on the body of a loved one, and know the person we love isn’t there any more. None of us has ever seen anyone come back to life. It’s hard to imagine, it’s hard to picture in the mind. But the good news of Easter is this: death is conquered. It has been reversed. Our loved ones are not lost. Jesus said that when we call God “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Resurrection happened for Jesus and it will happen for all of us.

Which brings us to our reading from I Corinthians this morning. Paul says, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being [Paul is talking about Adam & Eve], the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being [that is, Jesus]; for “as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.”

Paul says Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the dead – which means there’s more fruit to come, lots more! When Jesus returns he will bring with him all the people who have died in Christ – all the people who have loved Jesus and been faithful to Jesus. And this faithfulness is a relationship, not a set of beliefs. In the garden that first Easter morning, Mary wasn’t wrapping her arms around a theology, she was wrapping her arms around Jesus: her teacher and her Lord.

resurrection

Paul also says “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” – which is good news for all of us: for the martyrs; for those who have given their lives in service of various kinds; for the victims of Hitler and the victims of Putin; for those who have died of COVID or cancer or any other horrible disease… this is good news for all of us! Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has opened the way for each one of us to be with God forever, just like Jesus is.

It took a moment or two (or five or six) for Mary to wrap her mind around all this; and it can be a challenge for us too. Like with Mary, the tears of this life may blind us for a moment to the joy that is standing right in front of us.

But also like Mary, when Jesus calls our name, we will know that it is him. And Jesus does call each one of us by name. He calls us to believe him, to follow him, and to the joy of knowing that he is alive!

Like Mary, every single one of us will recognize Jesus, and we will call him ‘teacher’ and ‘Lord’. And then, like Mary, Jesus calls us to share this good news; to be sent, as Mary was sent. “Tell your brothers. Tell your sisters. The last enemy is defeated. Death is dead!

Death is Dead

We share this testimony and this truth with anyone who bears the image of God.  And so we say together this morning: The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!  AMEN.

[1] Mary Hinkle Shore, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-john-201-18-8

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022

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“After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.  29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,  30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.  31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”  32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.  33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”  34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”  35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.  36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.  37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,  38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” – Luke 19:28-40  

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Welcome to Palm Sunday! Our Lenten journey will be drawing to a close this week. Today, Palm Sunday, is a holiday like no other because of its unique combinations: of adults and children, light and darkness, joy and sorrow, all wrapped up in one day. In many ways these differing messages and emotions were present on the very first Palm Sunday. And looking at it from Jesus’ perspective, Palm Sunday is the beginning of the end of his rescue mission for our world.

The scripture reading for today, from Luke, focuses on the joy part – and I think rightly so. Today should be a joyful day. But we’re going to get a little bit of everything this morning. That said, let’s dig into the scriptures.

First a little background. For most of his life Jesus avoided coming straight out and telling people he was the Messiah, especially if scribes or Pharisees were nearby. This was probably in order to prevent anyone trying to proclaim Jesus the king of Israel; and/or to prevent his enemies from putting him to death before his work on earth was finished.  But today is the day that Jesus will finally declare himself publicly.

The evening before Palm Sunday, Jesus and the disciples were staying with Lazarus in Bethany. They had eaten with Lazarus the night before. We heard that story last Sunday – about Mary’s expensive perfume and Judas’s grouchy comments.

Then Palm Sunday morning, Jesus and the disciples walked a couple of miles from Bethany to the top of a ridge of mountains, to a place called the Mount of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem.

Mount of Olives from Jerusalem

The Mount of Olives, from Jerusalem

From the top of the Mount of Olives a person can look out over the city of Jerusalem, and the wall around the city, and the Kidron Valley, and the Garden of Gethsemane, and of course all the olive trees. It’s a beautiful place.

As Jesus and the disciples arrive at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sends two of the disciples on a mission to find a colt – a young colt that had never been ridden. Jesus told them where to find it, and he said, “if anyone asks, just say the Lord needs it.” (The other gospel-writers add the words “and we’ll send it back to you” – which they did). And they brought this colt to Jesus and Jesus sat on it.

This is a miracle in itself: getting on and sitting on a young untrained animal for the first time without being thrown off! How did this happen? Did the colt recognize its creator’s voice? Animals can be smart where it comes to the things of God – smarter than humans sometimes. Remember Balaam and his donkey in the Old Testament: the donkey had to tell his rider that there were angels blocking the path! Did the colt have some instinct about Jesus? Was he tamed by a single word from the Lord? The gospel-writers don’t tell us.  They just say the disciples threw their cloaks on the colt and Jesus got on.

While all this was going on, a crowd was gathering at the top of the Mount of Olives. And people start spreading their cloaks on the road ahead of Jesus. In those days this was an action that indicated the presence of a great leader. This procession, happening on the road on the top of the Mount of Olives, could have been seen (and probably was seen) from any building or house in Jerusalem that faced east.

Jerusalem from the Mt of Olives

Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives

There’s a path that wanders down the side of the Mount of Olives, and across the Kidron Valley, and up the other side to the “Golden Gate” of Jerusalem. All in all from the top of the mountain it’s just over a mile’s walk – what they called a “Sabbath day’s walk” – from the top of the Mount of Olives to the valley and then up to the temple in Jerusalem.

So they travel along the top of the Mount of Olives for a little bit, looking out over Jerusalem. They would see the Temple and (on the far right) the Golden Gate into the city.

Then the road turns left – a gentle bend to the left – and begins to head down the Mount of Olives.

Palm Sunday Path

Path down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

Today if you take this path you will see a Jewish cemetery to the left and the church of Dominus Flevit (“Jesus Wept”) on the right. Back in Jesus’ day the whole side of the mountain was just olive trees, with a foot-path running down the hill.

As they make the turn, all the disciples and all the crowd started to praise God with loud voices. They waved palm branches, which are symbols of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life. They praise God for all the works of power they have seen Jesus perform, including Lazarus’ resurrection. They praised God for sending Jesus, the Messiah. And they praised God with ancient words written by King David, the heir to whose throne Jesus was and is. They shout: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

By now the people in the city would be seeing the crowd for sure. Some ran out to join them; others ran to the temple to tell the Pharisees and Sadducees what was going on. The Romans looked at this and saw something vaguely resembling the triumphal processions their military leaders led… except their leaders would be riding horses rather than donkeys. The symbolism might have looked a little uppity from a Roman point of view but Jesus didn’t look threatening. There’s a different kind of power about Jesus, a power that brings life and not death.

So on the Mount of Olives, there’s a celebration going on – even the children are joining in! The fact that Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a colt fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion, shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.”

The crowd is singing another song too: the words are: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” This is an echo of the song the angels sang at the birth of our Lord Jesus (Luke 2:11-13). The multitude of disciples, like the multitude of angels, proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.

There were also some Pharisees in the crowd that day. In Jesus’ day, like today, there could be many differences of opinion among religious parties. Some Pharisees despised Jesus; others liked him. These particular Pharisees were in the crowd supporting Jesus; but they’re warning Jesus to keep his head down. They had been telling him for some time that Herod wanted to kill him. They also understood that a display like this of… what might look like a royal claim… might bring down on Jesus’ head the wrath of the powerful, whether it be the Sanhedrin, or Herod, or Pilate. They’re warning Jesus to tell his people to be careful what they’re saying. I believe this is was honest concern on their part: they didn’t want to see Jesus or anyone else in the crowd arrested or thrown out of the synagogue. So they said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”

Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout out.” There was no stopping this celebration. Jesus is aware of the danger. He knows what’s coming. All of these things are a fulfillment of prophecy. In the Old Testament, Zechariah predicted that the King, the Messiah, would enter Jerusalem “riding on a colt.” And the people would acclaim him. And the celebration continues.

That’s where our reading for today ends; but that’s not the end of the story. The very next verse (41) tells us that while all this celebration was going on, Jesus was weeping.

“As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:41-44)

The failure of the people of Jerusalem to recognize “the things that make for peace” will have tragic consequences for the city and the nation. Looking out over the city of Jerusalem, Jesus can see into the not-so-distant future, when Jerusalem will fall, and he is grieving.

The year will be 70AD. The Roman destruction of the city is described by a friend of John Wesley’s, Charles Simeon, who wrote: “[they suffered] such calamities from the hands of the Romans, as had never been endured by any nation since the foundation of the world…”

Siege

The Siege of Jerusalem, 70AD

Jerusalem and its people were wiped off the map in the most cruel way possible. Jesus loves Jerusalem, and so he grieves, because things could have been different if the leaders of Jerusalem hadn’t been threatened by him. The Chief Priest at the time was famous for saying (of Jesus) that it was necessary for one man to die to save the nation – which was true, but not the way he meant it. He was afraid Jesus would start a revolution and the Romans would come down hard on the city. Jesus never intended to start a revolution; somebody else did that – in the year 70 – and that’s when the Romans came down hard on the city.

Jesus sees all this as he is looking out over Jerusalem. In Jesus’ lament, ‘Jerusalem’ is also symbolic of the nation of Israel, and in a larger sense of all humanity. So while the crowds are cheering, Jesus is weeping.

The Garden of Gethsemane

The procession down the Mount of Olives continues, and at the bottom of the hill, the crowd passes through the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s a beautiful place, and very peaceful. This is where Jesus will choose to spend his last night of freedom before his arrest.

The procession that had come down the mountain then crosses the Kidron Valley, and through the Golden Gate, where Jesus enters the temple and turns over the tables of the money-changers.

But that’s another story for another day.

For today, it is right that we celebrate Jesus’ glorious entry into the City of David – the city that should have been his, and someday will be. Today we shout along with crowds and the children, “Hosanna! Save O Lord! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Bishop Martyn Minns wrote this past week:

“From God’s perspective, the events of the first Palm Sunday are as much for you and me today as they were the first time Jesus rode into the city. God does not count time as we do. […] NOW [as always] is the day of salvation.”

So let no-one and nothing discourage your joy in Jesus today. We who live in the present have even more cause for joy than the people did back then. We know, from the vantage point of time, that Jesus will be back three days after his crucifixion. We know more clearly than before that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but that a new heaven and new earth are on the way.

So let us celebrate this day, saying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/10/22

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“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy;

then it was said among the nations,

“The LORD has done great things for them.”

The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” – Psalm 126:1-6

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“Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,  17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:  18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,  21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” – Isaiah 43:16-21

(this scripture, set to music by the Fisherfolk – formerly of Scotland – in the 1970s. Recording is below)

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“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.  3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,  5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)  7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:1-8

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This morning we step into the final week of Lent before Palm Sunday. Our theme for today is Filled With the Fragrance, which is taken from our reading in the Gospel of John.

The scripture readings for today – and especially John’s gospel – are studies in contrast. There’s good news and bad news, bad news and good news, all mixed in and jumbled together.

I’m going to come back to John in a moment. But to fill in a little of the back story: Both Old Testament readings look to the past and to the future. Both contain sadness and joy.

In the Psalm, the writer is looking at the nation of Israel. The psalmist lives in a time when the nation isn’t what it once was, and life has become challenging, and a lot of the greatness of the past has been lost. Many of the leaders of the nation have left the ways of God. Yet as the psalmist reflects on all this, he remembers how God set the people free from slavery in Egypt, and he says “The Lord has done great things for us.”

Great Things

I think as Americans and as United Methodists we can say the same thing. We can look out over our past, over hundreds of years, and how God has dealt with us, and we can say wholeheartedly, “The Lord has done great things for us.” We know from experience what the psalmist is talking about.

The psalmist also looks to the future and he says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream…” He knows a time is coming, a time of great joy beyond anything we can imagine. We also in our time look forward to the time of the Lord’s return, when wrongs will be righted and the beauty of the earth restored. We know it will be a time of great celebration.

But the psalm-writer stands in a dark valley: he’s in between the heights of God’s blessings in the past, and the glory of God’s future to come. He can see better days in both directions, but the present is dark and the valley is deep. So he blesses himself and his people with the words “May those who sow in tears reap in joy.”

The prophet Isaiah also ministered during dark years in Israel’s history. He saw the leaders of his nation making alliances with kings who could not or would not help Israel fight its enemies. Isaiah predicted – and lived to see – the invasion and fall of Israel. He saw the tears of God’s people as they were carried into captivity in foreign lands.

Isaiah looks backwards to the past and he sees God’s hand in the creation of Israel. Speaking in the words of God, he refers to Israel as “the people I formed for myself, so that they might declare my praise.” Israel was chosen by God to have the awesome privilege of telling the world and showing the world how great God is. But they abandoned God and formed alliances with people who didn’t know God.

Still, Isaiah looks forward with hope; and again, speaking God’s words, he says: “Do not remember the former things… I am about to do a new thing… do you perceive it?”

New Thing

Do you see it?

All of these prophecies form the backdrop for John’s Gospel. Here also John looks back, not to the distant past but to the recent past: when Lazarus, our host for the evening, was raised from the dead. John tells us about a banquet given at Lazarus’ house in Bethany. By this time, the news of Lazarus’ resurrection had spread all through Judea, and because of it many people believed that Jesus was the Messiah.

Meanwhile the chief priests and Pharisees were very troubled by this miracle, and they put a price Lazarus’ head. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought this was kind of silly – because if Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead once he could do it again, right? But secretly, the religious leaders had also put a price on Jesus’ head – and Jesus knew it.

Luke also looks to the recent past, and shows us Martha and Mary. Martha is once again serving, and Mary is once again at Jesus’ feet. The first time Jesus visited Lazarus, Martha complained to Jesus that Mary wasn’t helping her serve. Instead, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening. And Jesus answered, ‘let her be; she has chosen the better part’.

This day, Martha and Mary seem to be getting along much better. Martha likes to serve, and she is doing it cheerfully; and Mary is at Jesus’ feet, this time with a bottle of perfume, pouring it over Jesus’ feet and wiping his feet with her hair. Only this time, Mary is criticized not by her sister but by the disciple Judas Iscariot.

Annointing

The story we hear in John’s Gospel, like the Old Testament passages, takes place in the valley of the present. The glory of the Israel’s past is in the distance; Israel has been occupied by Rome for many years; and the glory of God’s promised future looks very far away – unless one has eyes to see what Mary sees. When Mary looks at Jesus, she sees a savior; she knows Jesus is going to his death; and she knows that this valley will turn the tables on death and bring about eternal life. She doesn’t understand how all this is going to work yet, but she trusts Jesus, and she knows that where Jesus is leading is the way to freedom and life.

And this day, Judas is the one with the complaint. He criticizes Mary directly, saying, “why wasn’t this perfume sold and given to the poor?”

It’s true the perfume Mary was using was extremely expensive. John tells us it was worth 300 denarii, which was about a year’s wages for most working people at that time. Judas was offended by Mary’s extravagance – or at least he pretended to be. He was actually interested in the money. John clues us in that Judas had somehow gotten himself put in charge of the disciples’ money box and he helped himself to what was in it.

Again there’s a parallel to our time, especially as we respond to the war in Ukraine. Those of us whose hearts are with the Ukrainian people want very much to help and to give; and unscrupulous people who want money know this, and they would like to stick their hands into the money box of today’s disciples. It is absolutely right that we be generous, but we also need to be careful.

Back to Luke’s story: in the dining room at Lazarus’ house, the whole room – in fact the whole house – was now filled with the fragrance of Mary’s perfume. The perfume she was using was made from a plant that is related to the honeysuckle – which, if you’ve ever smelled or tasted it, you know how sweet it is. As an expression of love and devotion to our Lord Jesus this perfume was unmatched.

At the same time the room is also stinking with the greed of Judas, and with his upcoming betrayal of Jesus. Judas was already cooking up plans to go to the priests – which he did a few days after this banquet, asking them how much they would give if he betrayed Jesus to them. The priests gave him 30 pieces of silver – about four months’ wages back then.

Silver

Judas wasn’t interested in the poor. But one of the great mysteries of the Bible is: why did Judas betray Jesus? Judas – like all the other disciples – had traveled with Jesus, had done ministry with Jesus, had helped to feed the 5000, had witnessed so many miracles. He knew what a great man and great teacher Jesus was. Maybe he didn’t understand that Jesus was more than just that: that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Maybe Judas thought Jesus being the Messiah meant that he would overthrow the Romans and restore the kingdom to Israel – which was a nationalistic dream that Jesus was not about to fulfill. Maybe Judas thought that Jesus, as the Messiah, was indestructible – that the Messiah couldn’t possibly die. Scripture tells us Judas was surprised when he saw Jesus was condemned. Whatever it was though, somehow, Judas’ attitude changed. His unconfessed sins created a wedge in his heart big enough for the deceiver to enter in and take over.

Meanwhile back at Lazarus’ house, Jesus responds to Judas, telling him “leave Mary alone. She has bought (this perfume) so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” In other words Mary knows what’s coming. Mary has been listening to Jesus’ words, and even though the disciples don’t understand yet, she understands. She has been keeping this amazing gift for Jesus until his time came… and his time is now.

Isaiah and the Psalmist speak of the glory of the past and the glory of the future. And they speak of hope for the present, in spite of the darkness of the valley we live in. As we lean in to John’s gospel we also hear good news for the valleys of today. Four pieces of good news in particular:

  1. Death does not and will not have the final word. Jesus is facing into his own death, for our sakes, in order to destroy the power of death.
  2. Death is the gateway into God’s eternal Kingdom. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross made it that.
  3. We human beings are created by God to live, not die; for good, not for evil. God loves us – each one of us. God wants us alive, and God wants us to live with God forever.
  4. Jesus came to earth, and suffered what he suffered, so that we wouldn’t have to; so we would be able to enter God’s kingdom, free and forgiven.

So the scene in Lazarus’ dining room, which John describes to us, is a pivot-point on the way to the Cross. For Jesus, as of the day of this dinner, the Cross is now only eight days away, and the events of Palm Sunday will take place tomorrow. From this point on Jesus’ focus is on Jerusalem and what he will be enduring… and the hope that lies beyond it.

Dinner w Jesus

(Dinner With Jesus)

For us, from this point until Good Friday, we walk beside Jesus in silence and in solidarity, being with him and listening to him. May we all be blessed in these coming weeks with a closer walk with Jesus – and with an understanding and a love like Mary’s. AMEN.

Lent 5 – April 3, 2022 – “Filled with the Fragrance” – Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/3/22

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“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  3 So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons.  12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.  13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.  15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.  16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.  17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘  20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe– the best one– and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;  24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.  27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’  28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.  29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’  31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”   – Luke 15:1-3, Luke 15:11-32

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ProdigalSon

Preamble

In the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, God created human beings in God’s own image. God created them male and female, after God’s image – which tells us God has within Godself aspects of what we would think of as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. One of the big difficulties we have in talking about God in the English language is that we doesn’t have a personal first-person singular gender-inclusive pronoun. We can’t accurately speak of God as being either ‘he’ or ‘she’ and certainly not ‘it’. And ‘they’ doesn’t work because the Bible says, “the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. It makes speaking about God awkward at best.

I say all this because our Gospel reading today presents God as a father-image. I invite us to understand this as an allegory, not biological fact; in fact Jesus tells us in John 4:24 that God is spirit. It would therefore be more accurate, in most circumstances, to use the word ‘parent’ for God. But in this parable Jesus chooses ‘father’ imagery, I think in part because in ancient cultures the ‘father’ was not just the male parent but also the head of household, spokesperson for the family, and liaison with the community – which are also things God does. I say this because there may be some listening today for whom the image of God as father is awkward or painful, in which case it’s OK to simply think of God as a loving parent.

God being our parent, and we being God’s children, we can then understand God as being bigger than we are, and older and more experienced than we are; more mature, more complex. We can understand that God’s understanding is beyond anything our minds can grasp at this point in time. I can remember as a child asking questions and having my parents answer, “you’ll understand when you grow up” – which used to frustrate me, but it’s true. God as our parent teaches us age-appropriately as we grow. And as God’s offspring we continue to grow and learn.

Gods Children

The thing about kids though, is… well, two things actually… one, there’s always a family resemblance to the parent. And two, a good healthy upbringing is no guarantee a child will grow up to have a happy, productive life as an adult. We all, as God’s children, resemble God in many ways: in our ability to think, and feel, and reason, and create, and care for each other, and share, and communicate, and offer help, and learn, and give, and receive and be in relationship. These are all characteristics of God that we have inherited from our heavenly parent. But – as in our parable today of the Prodigal Son – that good healthy start is no predictor of what the adult child will be like.

So taking all this and heading now into our parable…

The Parable

In this story Jesus shares, God is pictured as a wealthy landowner. And he has two sons: the older son is responsible and hard-working; he stays close to his father, in proximity if not in spirit. The younger son, however, is irresponsible, disrespectful, self-indulgent; and in that culture his attitudes and actions bring shame on the whole family.

Jesus is telling this story in answer to the Pharisees and scribes, who were criticizing him for hanging out with ‘sinners’ and eating with them. According to the law of Moses, sharing a meal with someone who was considered ‘unclean’ made a clean person likewise ‘unclean’ – and then that person would then have to go through a ritual of purification before being allowed back into the temple to worship. What the Pharisees and scribes didn’t grasp was that, as the Messiah, Jesus’ presence has the power to make the ‘unclean’ clean. It’s like Moses’ law working in reverse. The goodness of Jesus is more powerful than the ‘badness’ of anyone around him. Jesus is the ultimate healer: not only of disease but of sin itself.

It’s like carrying a lit candle into a dark room. The room isn’t dark any more, because darkness can’t exist where light is. This is one of the reasons Jesus says “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). When Jesus is present, darkness is gone.

This also explains why Jesus is hanging out with the so-called ‘wrong’ crowd. As Jesus says to the Pharisees in Luke 5:31, “it is not the healthy who are in need of a physician, but the sick.” Jesus came to save people who were in trouble. If someone’s life is perfect they don’t need God! Jesus is here for the rest of us – people who aren’t perfect.

The thing about the Pharisees is they were always hanging around with God – at least in theory. It’s what they did for a living. They studied the scriptures (God’s word), they spent lots of time in the temple, they hung out with the holiest of people. The riches and blessings of God were all around them all the time. If the common people wanted to get to know God (at least in theory) all they had to do is come to where the Pharisees were. Right?

If you’re tracking with me, the next logical thought is: ‘be careful where you’re going pastor’ and that would be a correct thought. The temptation to become like the Pharisees is one of the greatest temptations clergy face: all of us, not just Methodist pastors. Pray for us that we don’t fall into that trap. We need your prayers.

In the meantime Jesus is disagreeing with the Pharisees. He tells this parable to illustrate why he’s hanging around with so-called ‘sinners’ instead of the so-called ‘righteous’.

Jesus says: a wealthy landowner had two sons. The younger of the two comes to his father one day and asks for his inheritance – that is, the half of the family’s money and property that would come to him when his father passes – he wants it right now.

This is wrong on so many levels! First, it lowers the standard of living for the whole family. Second, it’s something he doesn’t have a right to while his father is still alive. Worst of all, especially in that culture, it’s like saying to your dad, “I wish you were dead.”

For reasons known only to himself the father says ‘yes’ and gives the young man half of his estate. The son then goes out and squanders it: partying, drinking, visiting prostitutes, living only for the day’s pleasure, and giving no thought to his future (or anyone else’s).

Paralleling this to today’s world, there are people today (and in every era) who wish God dead. There are people who deny God’s existence, who ignore God, who live like God isn’t there. There are people who live like there’s no tomorrow. This doesn’t necessarily mean wild living; people can be self-indulgent in lots of ways. The common denominator is ignoring the reality that everything we have and everything we are is from God.

In this particular case, the young man’s lack of planning for the future caught up with him: there was a famine in the country – a desperate shortage of food that we here in America can only begin to imagine. (I get upset when there’s not enough cat food in the store…) We’ve never experienced anything like it in our country, at least not in our lifetimes. But that’s what this young man found himself in. He had no skills, he had no land, he had no way to get food, so he hired himself out as a farm hand, and he landed a job caring for pigs. And the food he was feeding the pigs was of better quality than what his boss was feeding him!

pigsty

This when on for a while until, as scripture says, “he came to himself”. I love that phrase! How many of us have known what it is like to be divided against ourselves, to be torn between opposite points of view? It reminds me of the concept of ‘going on walkabout’ where a person just starts walking and keeps walking until they find themselves.

So this young man finally came to himself. When he did, he said to himself, “my father’s servants have better food than this, and more food than they need. I would rather work for my old man. I’m starving here. I know what I’ll do: I’ll go home, and I’ll tell my dad that I was wrong, and I’m sorry I said what I said, and please let me be one of your servants.”

And he starts to make his way home.

While he’s still at a distance, his father looks up and sees him on the road. He sees his son, thin and worn out, filthy from all the work he’s been doing, and looking older than his years, and his father’s heart is filled with compassion, and he runs out to meet his son.

Back then, patriarchs of families usually didn’t run – it was considered undignified. It is also, to the best of my knowledge, the only place in Scripture where God is described as running. What gets God moving is a rebellious child who has come to himself and is coming home.

Back in the 1980s there was a contemporary worship song written about this – it was called “When God Ran” and the chorus went like this:

“The only time I ever saw him run
Was when he ran to me
He took me in his arms
Held my head to his chest
Said my son’s come home again
Lifted my face
Wiped the tears from my eyes
With forgiveness in his voice he said
“Son, do you know I still love you”

(Benny Hester, recorded by Phillips, Craig & Dean, 1985)

The father wrapped his arms around his son and kissed him. And the son began his apology. He said, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you…” but he never got to finish his sentence. The father interrupted and said to his servants:

“Go, get the best robe, and jewelry for his fingers, and sandals for his feet, and kill the fatted calf! We’re going to celebrate! My son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost and is found.”

This is the heart of God – the deepest part of God: to love and forgive and restore those who have lost their way.

It’s interesting that on the day the son left home, wishing his father dead, that was actually the day the son began to die. The child’s hurtful words didn’t kill the father. It was the son who began a downhill slide that would have ended in his death if he had not ‘come to himself’ and returned home.

But the story’s not over yet – because there’s still another son. This one, the older one, the responsible one, hears a massive party going on and asks one of the servants what’s up. He’s told, “your brother has come home, and your father has killed and roasted the fatted calf.” And the older son gets angry and refuses to join the party.

The older son is taking the Pharisee’s point of view, and this attitude is as much a sin as the rough living the younger son did. But the father loves the older son too, just as much as the younger. So the father leaves the party, alone, and seeks out his older son, and asks him to come in and join the celebration. But the young man says, “for all these years I have worked like a slave for you! I’ve done everything you’ve told me to do! And you’ve never given me so much as a goat to have a party with my friends. But this son of yours who has wasted half your estate on prostitutes, you’ve killed the fatted calf for him!”

The father answers – and showing his love and patience for even Pharisees – he says: “you’ve always been with me. All that I have is yours. But it’s right to celebrate because this brother of yours was as good as dead, and he’s alive – he was lost and is found!”

LostAndFound

We don’t have to worry about God ever running out of love: God has love enough for every one of his children and more. If we tend to be the kind of child who mouths off, and wanders off, and gets ourselves into jams – God loves us and is waiting to welcome us home. And if we tend to be the kind of child who stays home and behaves – the celebration feast is for us too; it’s for us to share in.

Jesus doesn’t tell us whether or not the older brother ever went to the party. But I think it’s good to remember the passage from Isaiah that was read last week – it starts out:

“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. […] Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1, 2b)

There is, coming in the Kingdom of God, a feast of celebration waiting for all God’s children, if only we will go in. When Jesus parties with tax collectors and sinners this is just a foretaste of the feast to come – a feast that God is hosting, that we are all invited to.

The question then, for each one of us, is: “will you come?”

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/27/22

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“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

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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

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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.

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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

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“At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’  34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” – Luke 13:31-35

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We are entering now into the second week of Lent; and our theme today is Under the Wings, taken from the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading for today.

Jesus says he longs to gather all of us ‘under his wings’ like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. This verse always reminds me of watching our local eagle family on the internet – which, btw, this year’s eggs should be hatching in just a few days! Granted, eagles aren’t the same thing as hens, but they are quite tender with their young, gathering them under their wings especially when it’s raining or snowing. If you ever get the chance to watch the live stream I recommend it.

So how do we go about staying under Jesus’ wings? The phrase ‘under the wings’ is actually found near the end of our reading, so I need to go back to the beginning for the context.

Hen w Wings

The big picture context: during Lent Jesus is preparing his exodus from our world. Just as Israel went through the exodus in the Old Testament, leaving slavery behind, Jesus is going through his own exodus: out of this world and back to God where he came from; and when Jesus makes this exodus, he will set the human race free from slavery to sin and death.

Our reading today picks up in Luke 13:31 which starts with the words “at that very hour” – which of course begs the question “at which very hour?” The verse refers to the very hour in which the disciples asked Jesus (v 23) “Who will be saved? Will it only be a few?”

They ask this in response to Jesus’ teachings in chapter 13. Jesus taught quite a lot that day: just some of the teachings include the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, The Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Leaven. The Parable of the Fig Tree (v 6-9) teaches us that God is looking for fruitfulness in our lives; that we, as God’s people, need to bear spiritual fruit like peace, love, joy, patience, and so on; and also bear fruit in our daily lives by doing some of the same good things we see Jesus doing, like helping other people. Jesus warns that any tree that is not fruitful will be cut down.

The other two parables (v 18 & 20) compare the Kingdom of Heaven to very small things: a mustard seed, and yeast. These parables teach us the Kingdom of Heaven often arrives unnoticed. God’s kingdom doesn’t call attention to itself; we have to watch for it. The Kingdom of Heaven slips in unseen, but then it grows. The mustard seed is one of the smallest, but the plant can grow many feet tall; and bread doubles or triples in size when we add yeast. In the same way the Kingdom of Heaven slips quietly into life and into our communities – and then it grows. (Illustration: mustard seed)

mustard seed

So if the Kingdom of Heaven requires fruitfulness, and yet starts so small as to be almost invisible, it makes sense the disciples might ask: who then can be saved? And how can we know? How can we be sure?

Jesus gives two answers starting in verse 24 when he says: “strive to enter through the narrow door – for many will try and will not be able.” But he also says, in v 29 & 30, that “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” This refers to all the non-Jewish nations who had not yet heard about Jesus; and Jesus is including us in this. Jesus also says that “some are last who will be first, and some who are first will be last.” How we measure things here on earth is not necessarily how God measures things. God sees the hidden work; God sees how the seed grows.

When Jesus had said all these things, it was at that very hour some Pharisees came and warned Jesus (verse 31) to get out of town because Herod wanted to kill him.

Does this strike you as odd – that Pharisees would warn Jesus his life is in danger? If so you’re not alone. People who study the Bible for a living disagree over exactly what this verse is telling us. We know Jesus and the Pharisees often had words; and we know some of the Pharisees had taken part in (failed) conspiracies to kill Jesus.

pharisees

But there were also some Pharisees who believed in Jesus. We don’t hear about them as often; but Nicodemus was one. We meet Nicodemus in John chapter three and we also see him at Jesus’ burial: he helps care for Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. There were other Pharisees who believed too, who joined the early church after Jesus’ resurrection. So some of the Pharisees were sympathetic to Jesus. Personally I believe this was an honest warning spoken by Pharisees who were quietly on Jesus’ side.

And don’t you love Jesus’ answer? “Go tell that fox for me – ‘Listen up: I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’”

There are double and triple meanings all through Jesus’ words here, and any way you take them, these are words Herod will not be happy to hear. First off calling him ‘that fox’ – in our day to call someone a ‘fox’ is either a comment on cleverness or a comment on attractiveness. Not so in ancient Israel: in Biblical times, according to Jewish scholars, calling someone a ‘fox’ meant they were to be considered “an insignificant person who lacks real power and dignity, and instead uses cunning and deceit to achieve his goals.”[1]

Jesus then continues: ‘I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow’ – in other words, ‘I am doing God’s work, I am performing miracles, and I am overcoming the works of Satan’ – which would have irritated Herod because Luke tells us back in Chapter 9 that Herod had been trying to see Jesus. Herod had heard about Jesus’ miracles and he wanted to see a miracle. But Herod wasn’t interested in seeing people being healed; he was more like a spiritual sight-seer. He wanted to see something cool.

BTW Herod never did get to see any of Jesus’ miracles. When Jesus was finally brought to Herod after his arrest, Jesus did nothing and said nothing. Jesus, the man from God who loved all people and showed God’s goodness to everyone, had nothing to say to Herod.

Back to Jesus’ words: “… on the third day I finish my work.”  This could be taken a couple of ways: it could mean ‘the time is getting short’ and Jesus’ death is just around the corner; it could be a hint at Easter, the third day being the Resurrection. Either way, it means Jesus’ work is almost done.

But then Jesus goes on and says: “33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’”  Jesus will die: but not in Galilee where Herod is king. Jesus will die in Jerusalem, as so many other prophets have; and he will die under Pilate, not under Herod.

MtOlJeru5

As Jesus thinks ahead to his final journey to Jerusalem, he laments over the city. He says: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

In this short Gospel passage, then, we hear about three desires:

  • The desire of Herod to see Jesus dead
  • The desire of Jesus to care for Jerusalem and God’s people, to gather them together and protect them
  • The desire of Jerusalem and God’s people to avoid being gathered

Which raises a question for us today: what do we desire? What do we long for? And if we achieve what we desire, what will be the cost?

Jesus warned his disciples that the cost of following him meant taking up our crosses and going where he leads. Of course this is metaphorical: not every Christian is literally going to die on a cross. But it does mean the road won’t be easy. The journey will have its share of pain and suffering. There will be times when we will be asked to make sacrifices for the sake of others. And if we try to avoid these pains, we end up avoiding the road to eternal life.

Jesus also thinks long-term. (Jesus thinks in terms of eternity!) If we’re going to follow Jesus we need to do the same. We need to be thinking: if I do this, what might happen a year from now, or five years from now, or 20 years from now? What are the things that really matter for a lifetime, or for eternity? Followers of Jesus think ahead because Jesus does.

Jesus knows why he’s preaching and healing: he’s in a war against evil and death. He is demonstrating God’s power and love, even though he knows the resulting popularity with the common people is carrying him closer to the cross with every passing day.

What Jesus longs for, what he desires, is to gather his people together under his wings. He warns Jerusalem that if they say ‘no’ and refuse to be gathered, “their house will be left to them desolate.” This prophecy came true in the year 70AD when the Romans attacked Jerusalem and left nothing standing and no-one living.

But the Old Testament prophets also promised the time would come when Jerusalem would return to the Lord; that the time would come when, in the words of Zechariah, “they will look on him whom they have pierced” and say “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Blessed

All of us today who take shelter under Jesus’ wings will one day discover that we are standing in God’s glory. This is the promise the apostle Luke gives us today, along with the question: are we willing to be gathered under the wings of our Lord, even though it will cost us? Will we take shelter under these glory-filled wings?

Let’s pray: Lord thank you that you don’t mince words with us; thank you for being honest about what it takes to follow you and what it costs. Thank you for being honest with us about your desires, and especially your desire to gather us together under your wings. Help us Lord to say ‘yes’ and come close to you and take shelter. Thank you for inviting us. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/13/2002

[1] CMJ commentary

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“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,  2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.  3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”  5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”  9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,  10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’  11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”  12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”  13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” – Luke 4:1-13  

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Jesus in Wilderness

As we head into this journey of Lent we head into a season that is both challenging and encouraging. It’s a challenging season because once again we witness the sacrifice Jesus made for us. It’s a challenging season because we are reminded of our faults, and we are called to confess our sins to God. It’s a challenging season because we are reminded, in the words of Ash Wednesday, that all of us “are dust and to dust we shall return”.

But Lent is also an encouraging season because the days are getting longer, and by the time Easter comes the flowers will be blooming. It’s an encouraging season most of all because Jesus will break the chains of sin and death and set us free. Like Israel coming out of Egypt and out of slavery in the Old Testament, we will be led out of the grave and live.

I got a note in the mail this past week from a pastor friend who said: “Lent is my favorite season of the church calendar [because] God’s people are given an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus.”

What an inspiring thought! For me personally I’ve always felt like Lent is kind of dark and heavy, but this year especially – as we begin to pull out of COVID just a little bit – I find my pastor-friend is right. The best thing about Lent is we get to know Jesus better, and there’s nothing more wonderful than that.

As we begin our journey of Lent, the first milestone is Ash Wednesday, in which we are reminded of our own mortality. The second milestone is today, the first Sunday of Lent. Today we have the opportunity to observe Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, and we see what Jesus does and how he responds.

Jesus has just been baptized, and he had barely started his public ministry when the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness. In the wilderness, Jesus will have the opportunity to work out and put into words his calling and ministry. Jesus is very clear, from start to finish, that he is not just another prophet, but is the Son of God.

Meanwhile, during Lent, the contemporary church tends to focus on repentance and resisting temptation. One of the great things about today’s reading is it reminds us that our ability to repent and to resist temptation is rooted in our relationship with God. This is true of Jesus and it’s true of us as well.

So let’s dig into this passage.

Jordanian Wilderness

Luke tells us Jesus is now “filled with the Holy Spirit”.  Jesus has always walked with God throughout his life, but when John the Baptist baptized him, scripture tells us the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus in the form of a dove and in power. This was seen by all the people who were there. The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus for ministry – and the Holy Spirit empowers us as well. The people watching also heard a voice from heaven saying, “you are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

Directly after this, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where the Bible says he was tempted for forty days by the devil. The Spirit sometimes does lead us into places of testing, though God will never allow us to be tested beyond our strength. Testing, like exercise, may not always be pleasant but it makes us stronger.

The fact that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness is significant. Jesus has been led into a place similar to the place Israel was in, back in the Exodus. There is a great parallel between Israel’s liberation from slavery and journey into the Promised Land, and Jesus leading us out of sin and death into God’s Kingdom. This parallel will be repeated over and over in the Gospels and the New Testament.

So Jesus in the wilderness represents us, because we live in a wilderness. (If there’s any doubt of that, ten minutes of watching the evening news will convince us otherwise.)

As it was for Israel, and as it is for us, the wilderness is a place of temptation. It is a place where we are always in a position of having to choose between what’s right and what’s wrong, between doing things honestly or using questionable means.

Let’s take a look at how Jesus handles temptation.

First off, Luke tells us Jesus is fasting. Luke doesn’t comment on this except to say that Jesus is fasting, but leaders of the ancient church taught that fasting has a way of focusing one’s attention and one’s sense of purpose. It sort of gathers up all the inner resources and strengthens them.

Church members sometimes ask me about fasting, and for those who may be curious about it, I think fasting does strengthen us spiritually. Some notes:

  • Make sure you’re healthy enough to do it. Any question, check with your doctor.
  • It’s possible to do little “mini-fasts” like not eating meat for a day or two… or fasting from a single meal.
  • If you choose to fast, drink LOTS of water.
  • When fasting, the first day is the hardest – after that the body adapts. A few days is usually not difficult to do if we’re healthy.

Which leads me to Luke’s next comment: Luke says Jesus fasted for forty days. This is an extremely long fast: dangerously long. Luke comments “Jesus was hungry”. This is the body’s signal that a danger zone has been reached. Strange as it seems, people who fast generally aren’t hungry most of the time, until that danger zone is reached. When hunger returns, food must be given soon to prevent death. Modern medicine tells us that, when fasting, physical weakness usually begins at 30-50 days and death at 43-70 days. Jesus is now at Day 40. He’s right on the edge.

With Jesus in this weakened state, this is where the devil begins to tempt. The same is true for us: we are tempted most when we’re at our weakest.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of creature that would try to take advantage of someone at death’s door. Scripture describes this creature as a ‘devil’ or a ‘deceiver’ or a ‘slanderer’. This creature is totally lacking in empathy, is interested only in itself, and is without mercy or kindness.

Screwtape Letters

It’s hard for us to imagine a being like this. CS Lewis once commented that when he was writing The Screwtape Letters, in which he writes about a demon trainee, that he had difficulty with it – because here on this earth, no matter how bad things get, we are always surrounded by God’s goodness: in nature, in food, in clothing, and in family and neighbors and friends. It’s difficult for us to imagine what a total lack of goodness would be like. But a total lack of goodness would describe this character Jesus is talking to.

And the accuser comes at Jesus with three temptations.

The first one is: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”  What a cruel thing to say to someone who is starving! The cutting edge of this temptation is the word IF. ‘IF you are the Son of God.’ As if God wasn’t taking proper care of his own son. As if God was lying when God said “this is my son who I love.” As if Jesus is delusional because he believes he’s the Son of God.

There are people in this world who think Jesus being the Son of God is a delusion. They’ll say “oh Jesus was a just good man” or “Jesus was just a wise man”. Scripture doesn’t give us that option. CS Lewis said it well:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. […]A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. […] Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to….”[1]

Jesus answers this temptation with Scripture. He says: “One does not live by bread alone…” This is the first half of an Old Testament verse that reads: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.”  The devil has been tempting Jesus to not trust that God will provide – which is absurd. God provides for Jesus, and for all us, with overwhelming goodness.

In addition to this, in the ancient world (even more so than today) a son was a father’s representative. A son’s identity and honor and status were rooted in his family’s honor and status.[2] Where you saw the Father you saw the Son, and vice versa – not just in terms of family, but legally and in the public eye. So God the Father would never abandon or even harm the reputation of his Son.

In the second temptation the deceiver shows Jesus, in an instant, “all the kingdoms of the world”.

  • For anyone who has ever seen the original Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever, the time portal is a brilliant illustration.
    Time Portal
  • For the rest of us: Many Bible scholars believe the devil was talking about the power of Rome. But the original language says “the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the inhabited world…” which in those days would have included the Aztecs and the Vikings and the Ethiopians and the Chinese and any number of other cultures that existed back then.

The devil shows Jesus all of this – all the earthly powers that ever were or will be – and he says “I will give you all the glory and authority of these great earthly powers – for it has been given to me – and I can give it to anyone I please. It is yours, if you will worship me.”

There is some question as to how the devil got his hands on all the world’s power and glory – or is he lying? Could be either way. Could be what he’s talking about is the fact that Adam and Eve messed up, and ever since then our world has been in rebellion against God – which plays into the devil’s hands.

But imagine if Jesus had said ‘yes’ to this temptation and joined forces with the devil. Our world would never have had another ray of hope. Our world would have become a place of misery without relief. We would have no savior. We would all just be pawns in a game.

The ultimate truth is everything belongs to God. The devil is either lying or in error. Thank God, Jesus loves us too much to abandon us. Jesus knows how much God the Father loves us. Jesus knows we are made in God’s image, and we are children of God, and we are therefore his brothers and sisters. Jesus will not abandon us, not even for all the glory and power the world has to offer.

The third temptation is a little puzzling. In this one the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem, to the very top of the temple, and says to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down – for it is written ‘He will command his angels concerning you’… and ‘on their hands they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

Pinnacle

Once again the devil speaks that word ‘if’ – calling into question Jesus’ sonship, questioning if God is really his Father. On top of that he’s quoting scripture! But the devil’s challenge is just odd. What would be the point of doing what he suggests? Is the devil tempting Jesus to say ‘hold my beer’?  Jesus gets to the heart of the matter with his answer. He says: “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Don’t tempt God. Don’t call love into question.

The saying Jesus is quoting comes from Exodus. At one point during Israel’s journey in the wilderness, the Israelites were running low on water. They complained to Moses: and in this case they not only accused Moses but they accused God of wanting to harm them. The people said: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt—to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” And they said, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Moses named the place Massah and Meribah, which means “testing” and “strife”. And it made God angry.

So Jesus is saying ‘don’t test God’. Don’t put God on trial. Don’t see how far you can push God. Don’t think to yourself, “If I’m really God’s child I can do whatever I want!” Jesus is not about to lord his sonship over us the way Roman emperors do. Jesus is not going to take advantage of his position to do something silly or to show off. Neither should we.

For Jesus, living humbly as a human being among other human beings is his calling and his choice. Jesus considers it an honor to be one of us.

At this point the devil leaves him – scripture says, ‘until an opportune time’. That opportune time will come on Good Friday, when the devil will tempt him to abandon his mission and save himself from the cross. But that day is not yet. For the next six weeks, we will walk with Jesus as he ministers through Galilee and Jerusalem and Judea.

To prepare us for that journey, in the words of a Lenten prayer, let us pray together: “O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the Promised Land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.[3]

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[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952

[2] Ruth Ann Reese, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-luke-41-13

[3] Arland Hultgren, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-luke-41-13-2

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, March 6 2022

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Sunday January 16 – Epiphany 2 – Martin Luther King Remembered

My Delight

          For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.  2 The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.  3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, [Hephizbah] and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. [Beulah]  5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. – Isaiah 62:1-5  

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          Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.  6 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.  7 How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.  8 They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.  9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.  10 O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart! – Psalm 36:5-10   

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          On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”  5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.  8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.  9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom  10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”  11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. – John 2:1-11  

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christmas cards

I don’t know about you, but at our house there are still a lot of Christmas decorations up. We’re really not that far from Christmas yet – just a few weeks out. But our scripture readings skip over Jesus’ childhood and youth, and in today’s Gospel lesson we see Jesus at 30 years old, working his first miracle! I wish we had a little more time to spend with the young Jesus; but instead this morning we’ll take a look back at some of the prophecies Jesus was born to fulfill.

In the process of doing that I’d also like to touch on our remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. which will be on Monday. Most people today remember Martin Luther King Jr. for his marches and speeches, but he was above all a man of God. Martin Luther King Jr., like his father and grandfather before him – who were also pastors – knew God’s word: and he understood, from the Bible, why inequality and injustice of any kind were contrary to the teaching of scripture. Without the Bible and without Jesus there would have been no Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK Preaching

So today we will look at a combination of prophecy in the Old Testament – and prophetic action in America – and my hope is to tie these two together without touching on politics! (Y’all can keep score on me on that one!)

When I became a pastor I gave up membership in any political party because I don’t ever want my political beliefs to come between anyone and God. This church is God’s church, and this church is a place to worship God and to hear God’s word and to meet with God. It is my hope and my purpose that nothing I say or do will ever interfere with that.

That said, I’d like to start with our passage from Isaiah. Isaiah 62 gives us a breathtaking look into God’s heart. If anyone here today has ever wondered if God really loves you, let this passage be your assurance. These words are meant for you – and for anyone who has come to take shelter under the wings of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you know and love Jesus these words are for you.

Isaiah writes:

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn…” He also says: “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD…”

And in the chapter before this one – Isaiah 61 – we hear more encouraging words. Isaiah writes:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Jesus read this passage in synagogue one morning, and then put away the scroll, and sat down to teach. And he said, “today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.” These words are as much for us as they were for Israel back then.

I’d like to ask you to stick a mental bookmark in the sermon right here because I’m going to come back to these sayings of Jesus and Isaiah.

Turning now to look at the world live in today: in spite of Isaiah’s words, things are still far from perfect. Jesus IS the answer, and God’s word IS true, but the story’s not over yet. We live in an in-between time, the now-and-not-yet. There is still a lot wrong in the world; and injustice of any kind can create barriers between God and God’s people and make it very difficult for people to hear God’s message.

Israel slavery

One of the greatest injustices in human history is slavery. Slavery has been around almost as long as human history itself: the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt; many people were slaves under the Roman Empire; there was slavery on our continent from the 1600s until 1865 – and it continued in all but name under Jim Crow. Slavery that continues today, around the world, under the name ‘human trafficking’ – which often involves the sale of children as sex slaves, and also includes illegal exploitation of workers. My husband the carpenter has told me stories of being underbid on jobs where the competing business is forcing its workers to live in the very houses they’re building – without heat, without electricity, without plumbing.

Slavery is devastating in whatever form it takes.  Slavery produces an emotional trauma that often carries through generations. We see this in the Old Testament: before the nation of Israel went into Egypt – back while they were still in Canaan – Abraham’s relationship with God was open and trusting. Abraham negotiated with God for the salvation of any good people left in Sodom and Gomorrah; and when God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham trusted that God would provide an alternative. All this happened before Egypt.

After Egypt – after generations of slavery – with rare exceptions that trust had been broken. It was almost like the entire nation of Israel was suffering from PTSD – which might not be far from the truth. Israel had lived through massive trauma: being physically abused by their taskmasters, being forced to work under inhuman conditions, and finally being forced to kill any male children that were born.

The nation of Israel needed time to heal. But the trip through the desert to the Promised Land was difficult, and the people begin to accuse Moses (and God) of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them with thirst or to starve them to death. God provided water and quail and manna; yet when God told the people he would provide manna every day and not to keep any of the manna overnight because it would go bad, they didn’t believe him. They stored it anyway and it went rotten and stunk up their tents. Time and again the people were not able to trust God, and the sad thing is they wanted to. It took a lot of time, a lot of sharing, and a lot of prayer to rebuild trust between the people and God.

Here in our own nation we had about 200 years of legalized slavery, and after slavery we had many more years of second-class treatment of various groups of people: Native Americans, women (who have only been able to vote for about 100 years), Jewish people, Muslims, the Irish, eastern Europeans, Japanese-Americans during WWII… the list goes on…

All of these groups have suffered after-effects similar to ancient Israel: emotional and psychological trauma resulting in a lack of ability to trust, until they’re sure they’ve been heard and are cared for and are safe.

For people like me, who have never wondered where the next meal was coming from or where a safe place to sleep might be found, I’m not always fully aware of the suffering others have gone through. I confess I am still learning.  This week I attended a Zoom conference called The Afghan Refugee: Trauma Healing Awareness – because honestly I’m not fully aware of what people have lived  through. Even though I’ve heard the news and I know ‘what happened’ over there, I have not heard the stories of the individual people escaping Afghanistan. Even if I did know the stories of a few people, would I know how to help? (Our conference taught us the #1 thing to do for anyone who has suffered trauma is to listen and to ask three questions: “Tell me what happened,” “How do you feel?” and “What was the hardest part for you?”)

Where From

In the past few years I have been making a conscious effort to listen and to ask questions and to understand. Where it comes to African-American friends, I have one observation I want to share, and one story to share. My observation, which has been confirmed by the TV show Finding Your Roots on PBS, is that one of the greatest losses caused by slavery is the loss of personal family history. How many of us here today can say, for example, “my family came from Scotland” or “my family came from Poland”? And we can tell stories about the “old country”.  But it’s rare that our African-American friends know which country their family came from –  or even what their family name was. It’s a loss that can never be recovered.

As to the story: Many of you have met my good friend Denise who is here today. You may have met her at the Mardi Gras, which she absolutely loves (we are so looking forward to this year’s!)  Denise and I have been neighbors and friends for around 15 years. She is a special ed teacher, and we met because we discovered one day that we were both feeding the same stray cat! (Does that surprise you?)

As I have gotten to know Denise I have learned a great deal from her about how difficult life can still be – even in the 21st century – for an African-American in our society. Denise has been harassed and called names by strangers in supermarkets, in Wal-Mart, even driving down the street. And that’s just scratching the surface.

After Denise and I had been friends for a few years I noticed that she didn’t like to go to the doctor. Denise and I both have had a number of medical issues, and we compare notes. More than once I’ve said  “hey, have you seen the doctor yet?” and she would dance around the subject. One day I finally asked her, “what’s up with you and doctors?”

I was completely ignorant of the history of medical care in this country where African-Americans are concerned. I had no idea the inequality that continues to this day. I believe most medical professionals do the very best they can for each patient; but there’s a lot that remains hidden somehow.

HeLa

Instead of answering my question Denise handed me a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. For those of you who, like me, have never heard of Henrietta Lacks: Henrietta was a poor African-American woman, who was born in Virginia and lived in Maryland, who died of cervical cancer in the early 1950s. Just before she passed, her surgeons took a sample of her cancer cells and her cervical cells to study, to see if they could figure out how they might have cured her. They discovered, much to their surprise, that Henrietta’s cells were extremely vigorous. They multiplied rapidly: so fast, in fact, that they shared the cells with other researchers… and they shared them, and they shared them… and over 70 years later, the descendants of those cells are still alive today. They have been shared around the world, and have been used to help create vaccines for diseases including polio and COVID.

Henrietta’s family – until relatively recently – had no knowledge of this. They never gave permission for the use of the cells; and they never received any acknowledgement let alone any assistance from the people who made profits from these cells.

The same year I was reading this book, Allegheny County released a study showing that mortality rates for African-American babies in Western PA are often three times higher than for Caucasian babies.

I was absolutely stunned by all this.

Finally I said to Denise: “Let me go with you to your next doctor’s appointment.”  So I did. As we left the doctor’s office, after what I considered an extremely routine appointment, Denise said to me, “that was like night and day. I’ve never had an appointment like that before.”

This is just one of the legacies of racial prejudice we still live with today.

I want to encourage each one of us to think of creative ways of pushing back against this, and bearing witness, and creating safe spaces where people can begin to heal.

Backing up now to the larger picture: In a world where people are literally addicted to sin, where trauma happens in life even under the best of circumstances – where we experience loss, hardship, betrayals, stone walls – all of us suffer deep emotional injuries. The best thing we can do for each other is listen to each other.

And when we’ve been heard – and when the pain has begun to subside – then, to complete the healing, we share the words God has said:

“I will not keep silent. I will not rest – until your vindication shines like the dawn… You will be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord. For the Lord delights in you and God will rejoice over you!”

crown of splendor

For every person who has known pain and suffering: Jesus says, “today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.”  You are loved. God is always with you. God will not rest until the nations see your glory, and until you have been given a new name: no longer Forsaken, no longer Desolate, but a crown of beauty in the hand of God.

This is the message, and the promise, and the healing, that Jesus was born into our world to bring to each one of us. This is what Christmas is all about. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, January 16, 2022

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          “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.  3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” – Isaiah 9:2-7

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

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

              15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. – Luke 2:1-20

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Merry Christmas!!!  On Christmas Eve I always feel like I’m skidding in, breathless, like a baseball player sliding into home plate. But we made it!

For those who are visiting tonight: for the past month we as a congregation have been working our way through an Advent/Christmas series called Close to Home.  This evening the theme of the lesson is “Invited Home” – so even if this isn’t your usual church home, you are most welcome here.

We gather again on Christmas Eve to hear the familiar and much-loved story of the birth of Jesus: to hear about Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds and the angels, and the fact that there was no room for them in the inn, so Jesus had to be laid in a manger.

Our scripture reading tonight from Isaiah tells us who this baby really is. Isaiah says:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” (Is. 9:6-7)

That’s a pretty tall order for a newborn baby! But in case we should doubt it, the angels appear to the shepherds and enhance Isaiah’s words with their own words. They say: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

This isn’t just one more cute little baby in a world full of cute babies. This is God Himself!

It’s a lot to take in – but the shepherds got it. They caught on right away and ran to where Mary and Joseph were, to see for themselves. And Mary pondered everything in her heart, as she nursed her baby boy.

We also are invited to enter in, to gaze at this amazing sight and take it all in. This is Christmas!

Just out of curiosity, as I was getting ready for tonight’s service, I decided to Google “Christmas Eve” to find out what non-churchgoing people are talking about regarding Christmas – what’s the buzz?

The most-asked question about Christmas on Google was: “what should I wear on Christmas Eve?” When I entered that question into Google, Google gave me 270 million web pages as a result. More than that actually: Google basically said “here’s the first 270 million, click here if you want more…”

What should I wear on Christmas Eve?

Here’s what I decided to wear. This is one of those things that… you know how you go shopping for somebody else and you end up buying something for yourself? This is one of those things. I got these for my sister-in-law and I got two for me. Check it out.

Socks

“Master has given Dobby a sock. Dobby is free.”

Any Harry Potter fans here tonight will know what this means. And for the rest of you (who are probably tired of hearing about Harry Potter) I promise I will move on quickly.  But this line in the movie is one of those moments. It gets you *right here*. In short, the story is this:

In the wizarding world, rich and powerful wizards sometimes have “house elves” who are basically slaves and are very badly treated. One house elf named Dobby becomes friends with Harry Potter, and one day Harry asks him why he always wears the same filthy outfit. And Dobby explains that it is the mark of the house elf – the slave. If his master ever gives him clean clothes, he will be free.

So Harry arranges to have Dobby’s master – without knowing it – hand Dobby a sock hidden in a book. When Harry whispers “open it”, Dobby sees the sock and says, “Master has given Dobby a sock. Master has presented Dobby with clothes. Dobby is free!” (I once saw this in a movie house filled with 5,000 people – and at that moment in the film all 5,000 people leaped to their feet and started cheering. The slave has been set free!)

Watch the scene here.

That’s what we’re seeing tonight in the manger. All of us, human beings, who are slaves to sin, who cannot be perfect no matter how hard we try, have just been set free.  Tonight is our moment! This is the night when we can, spiritually speaking, take off the filthy rags we’ve been wearing and put on clean clothes. This is the night when we are welcomed home – not as visitors but as family.

So going back to the question of what to wear on Christmas Eve: for those who are into fashion, the question is actually not “what are you wearing?” but “Who are you wearing?” (“I’m wearing Gucci, I’m wearing Prada, I’m wearing Stella McCartney…”)

Speaking as someone who has no fashion sense at all, and who was raised on science fiction, the question “who are you wearing?” sounds a little weird. It reminds me of the movie Men In Black, where an alien spends most of the movie wearing an Edgar suit. But what the question really means is “Who is the designer?”

On this holy night, Jesus might have said, “I’m wearing humanity.”  Jesus, who was fully God, co-creator of the universe, King of kings and Lord of lords, put all that aside in order to put on – and become – a human being: limited as we are, except without sin.

Why would Jesus do this? To make it possible for us to wear God.

The apostle Paul explains in Romans chapter 13. In this chapter Paul looks around at the world (which was as much a mess back then as it is now) and he says:

“You know what time it is, that now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ… (Romans 13:11-14)

So who are we wearing this Christmas? Are we wearing something the boss said this past week? Are we wearing an argument with a family member? Wouldn’t it be better to put away the filthy rags of a house elf and put on clean clothes and be free?

Some people tonight may be wearing sadness or grief in this holy season. If this is the case, know you are not alone; Jesus has an outfit a lot like yours.

The fact that God has put on humanity and come to the manger makes it possible for us, by faith, to put on Christ and become children of God.

Glory

So who do we want to wear this Christmas and into the coming year?

Why not wear the best?  AMEN

Preached at Carnegie UMC and Fairhaven UMC, Christmas Eve 2021

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“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

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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

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