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Flipping the Thank You Scale

Sermon – October 13, 2019  Proper 23, Year C

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Luke 17:11-19

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today’s Gospel reading features Jesus healing ten lepers.  Leprosy is a disease rarely encountered today, except for some extremely poor areas in the Third World, however it was a scourge for thousands of years of human history.  Leprosy damaged your nerves, skin and eyes, causing you to lose feeling in your hands, feet and other extremities.  Often this resulted in parts of your body falling off.  It was a horrible disease.  Because it was so terrible and since nobody knew a cure, once someone was seen to have leprosy they would be quarantined and made to warn anyone who might approach them to stay away.  They would be reduced to begging as they were cast out of society to die.

In our story, Jesus was approached by ten lepers who called out to him to have pity on them.  Jesus replied by telling them to go show themselves to the priests.  In Jewish law, the priesthood was responsible for determining whether somebody had leprosy or not.  When Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, they knew that they were healed.

Now this healing isn’t the main point of the story.  What comes afterward is.  The ten lepers do indeed go to the priests and they are declared to be free of leprosy.  But only one, and a Samaritan at that, returns to give Jesus thanks.  Jesus responds by saying “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?  Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”  The main point of this story is gratitude.

When I looked at the commentaries for this passage, I was interested to note that many scholars are puzzled at why this story is placed where it is.  However, when I read the verses immediately preceding this passage, I noticed a very interesting context.  We read these verses last week together, but it is worth hearing again.  Let me read for you two excerpts that set the stage for the healing of the ten lepers.

Earlier in chapter 17, Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.”  Jesus is giving context that what he is about to talk about are things that can cause us to lose our way and turn away from God.

Jesus tells his disciples, “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?  Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?  Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?  So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

Jesus is saying that his disciples should not be expected to be thanked for simply doing what they ought to do.  Jesus uses the example of employees who do what their jobs are.  Doing your job is just what you are expected to do.  You should not expect your employer to shower thanks on you for simply doing it.

Do you see the interesting inversion here as compared to today’s Gospel passage?  Last week we read about Jesus telling his disciples not to expect to be thanked for simply doing what is expected of them, while this week we read about the leper returning to give thanks to Jesus.  The two passages are almost a mirror image of each other.  At root in both of these passages is the proper understanding of who is worthy of praise and thanksgiving.  And it isn’t us.

Taken together, these passages give us valuable lessons in how our attitudes can lead us closer to, or further away from God.  If we think very highly of ourselves, we will expect to be thanked and praised for simply doing our basic duty towards God and each other.  We will become self-focused, perhaps prideful, and forget to properly give thanks to God for what he has done for us.  As I thought about this, I realized how this lesson is extremely relevant for us today.  You see, we live in a culture that has put ourselves and our individual wants on the highest pedestal.  In fact, many studies have shown an astonishing increase in narcissism in our society over the last quarter century.

A 2014 Psychology Today article on this subject states that narcissism “refers to an inflated view of the self, coupled with relative indifference to others.  People who are high in this trait fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition to themselves for doing so…and readily trample over others in their efforts to rise to the “top,” which is where they think they belong. ..People high on this trait are often unhappy, angry at the world because of the world’s failure to recognize their superiority. They are generally incapable of forming the kinds of deep, meaningful, lasting relationships with others that we all need in order to live happy, emotionally secure lives.”  Sounds like a pretty accurate description of our society, doesn’t it?

This trend toward narcissism plays out in our religious thought.  In 2005 two sociologists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, published a book titled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.  This book sought to study, analyze and accurately describe the religious and metaphysical beliefs of American young people.  After conducting a wide-ranging study of American youth, including both a wide variety of Christians and non-Christians, the authors identified a belief structure that was very widely held by young people.  In the 15 years since this book came out, many commentators argue that this belief structure is widely held amongst Americans of all ages, not just the young.  Some even have described this belief structure as America’s new civil religion.

The authors called this belief system moralistic therapeutic deism, and they described five principles which characterize it.  I want you to listen to these points carefully because they don’t necessarily deny God or his existence, but they do suggest something very troubling about the relative value we place on ourselves as compared to God.  Here are the five principles:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Let’s think about these principles more closely.  First, the existence of God is not denied.  God is acknowledged as the creator of the world.  Christians can, and often are, influenced by this way of thinking.

Second, God does have some expectations of us, but these expectations sound a lot like our own standards.  God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other.  Who doesn’t think this is a good idea?  Who thinks that they aren’t good, kind or fair?  This makes me think of Seinfeld, one of my all-time favorite comedy shows.  One plot device commonly used in the show involves a personal interaction between one of the characters and someone else while we would get to hear the character’s unspoken thoughts during the interaction.  The characters often would be telling themselves how thoughtful and kind they were, when their actions weren’t really thoughtful or kind at all.  In fact, the thing that made Seinfeld so funny was that we all knew that the characters were really self-centered narcissists who liked to think that they were far more altruistic than they actually were.  Like the Seinfeld characters, we like to think that we are “good, nice and fair” but we really often are not.

Third, we are told that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ourselves.  Come to think of it, this reminds me of Seinfeld also.  The central goal of life is all about us.  So long as we can convince ourselves that we are being good, nice and fair, we can then focus exclusively on ourselves.  This was basically the overarching theme underlying Seinfeld.  Fourth, we are told that God does not need to be involved in our lives except when we need him to resolve a problem for us.  So taking the third and fourth principles together, we can forget about God and focus on ourselves unless we need God to do something for us.

Finally, we are told that good people go to heaven when they die.  Well, we all think we are good, because we all think we are “good, nice and fair” to others.  We all think we are worthy of meriting entrance to heaven.  So, on reflection, I do think that the mindset of moralistic therapeutic deism is narcissistic.  The authors of the study comment that for many Americans “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

Think about it.  These principles do describe the common accepted religious belief system in America today.  We value our own needs and wants over those of anyone else, and we feel entitled to pursue those needs and wants so long as we are good, nice and fair to others.  And the common belief is that we are all basically good and so entitled to heaven. 

I actually don’t think that being good, nice and fair is really a particularly demanding standard.  It doesn’t require us to do anything or get invested in anyone’s lives.  It really is about us keeping out of the lives of others.  We feel entitled to pursue our own self-interest, and we tell God to mind his own business.  We only want God’s involvement when we have a task from him to do.  Divine butler indeed.  On top of it all, we think we deserve the ultimate approval and thank you from God by getting to heaven.

We have really flipped the thank you scales on their head, and this is leading us away from God.  Let’s return to the lessons Jesus has for us in Luke chapter 17.  Jesus tells us not to expect praise and thanksgiving for just doing what is expected of us.  In this, Jesus is telling us two important things.  First, we are here for a purpose and that purpose is not our selfish desires or wants.  Rather, our purpose is to serve God and others.  Being nice, good and fair is woefully incomplete in describing what we are called to do.  We are called to invest ourselves in others lives.  Real love is not always easy or always saying yes or how wonderful others are.  Sometimes love means we must take a risk of offending someone.  Second, serving God and doing what he asks of us is simply what we are expected to do.  Obeying God will not win us God’s thanks, nor does it win us an entry ticket into heaven.

Looking to the story of the healing of the ten lepers, Jesus is telling us that we are like the lepers.  We were suffering from the incurable disease of sin that will cause us to wither and decay and to be cast outside of fellowship with God.  The only way for us to be healed is to join with the ten lepers and cry out “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”  This is the only way that we can be healed from our sin.  If we don’t want God involved in our lives, we are rejecting his cure.  We either accept Jesus and the cure, or we reject Jesus and the cure.  There is no other way.  And when we truly understand this, then we will join with the Samaritan who was cured of his leprosy and return to Jesus and give him thanks.  We give thanks to Jesus because we know how important it is that he is in our lives.

In our Old Testament reading, we heard the story of Namaan.  Namaan was a powerful army general from Syria who came down with leprosy.  On the advice of a young Israelite servant girl, Namaan went to see the prophet Elisha for healing.  Elisha instructed Namaan to wash himself in the Jordan River, but Namaan thought that that would be a humiliation.  You see, Namaan thought very highly of himself, and rather than humble himself before God, he expected God to exalt him as God healed him.  Luckily for Namaan, his servants had more sense than he did, and they convinced him to wash in the Jordan as Elisha had directed.  And Namaan was healed.  Only then did Namaan understand and he went back to thank Elisha and praise God.

Our society today encourages us to be like proud Namaan.  To think that we are supremely important, that the world revolves around our wants, and that God owes us thanks and blessings even as we see him as our divine butler who should only intrude in our lives when we need him to do something for us.  If this is who we are, then we will reject God’s healing, we will reject his cure for our sins, and we will reject God’s call for obedience and service.

Instead led us heed the lessons from Luke chapter 17.  Let us be like the Namaan who heeded the counsel of his servants.  Let us turn away from our pride and hubris and humble ourselves before God and each other.  Let us accept our proper role in our relationship with God.  A role in which we can have no demands on God for blessings or thanks, but in which we can only cry out to God for mercy.  And make no mistake, if we cry out to God, he will hear us, and he will heal us.  And we will be made clean.  And then we will be people who are compelled to give thanks to God in a spirit of humility, like the Samaritan leper who was healed.  Jesus, Master, have pity on us.

Let us pray,Merciful God, your Son came to save us and bore our sins on the cross: may we trust in your mercy and know your love, giving you thanks and praise and rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord Amen.

What Jeremiah’s Field Says About Your Money Management

Sermon – September 29, 2019  Proper 21, Year C

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

We know a former Lutheran minister who currently works as an investment advisor for Thrivent Financial.  We had asked him if he would like to preach today with Barbara being away, but he was not available.  For those of you who don’t know, Thrivent Financial is a Christian financial planning company that will help believers create a financial plan for their lives that reflects their Christian values.  As I read today’s readings, our Lutheran friend would have been an ideal person to hear from today.  But I will do my best to talk to us about how our faith should guide our money management.  All of our passages today speak to this subject, with solid guidelines in understanding how our faith in Jesus ought to inform our attitude toward money and wealth.

Let’s begin with the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel reading.  This is a story about a very rich man who thought very highly of himself and lived in luxury, and a very poor beggar named Lazarus, who lived in the streets outside the rich man’s house.  Eventually both men died, and Lazarus was taken to be with Abraham amongst the saints, while the rich man went to torment in hell.  There is a lot to unpack in this parable, and we’ll look at a few of the lessons to learn.

It is important to note that Jesus is directing his message to rich, religious folk.  This is very clear in the parable.  Throughout history, there have been movements within both Christianity and Judaism that teach that the most important sign that God is blessing you is if he grants you wealth and prosperity.  Today, we call this the Prosperity Gospel movement.  Those who propagate this teaching point to places in the Old Testament where God promises good things to those who obey him.  And so, adherents of this teaching believe that if they are rich and wealthy, it is a sign of God’s blessing on their lives.

On the flip side, they also believe that the poor and downtrodden have only themselves to blame for their predicament because they too would be rich if only they were obedient to God.  Even if we don’t buy into the Prosperity Gospel, this way of thinking is very tempting for those of us that are comfortable financially.  We like to congratulate ourselves for our frugality and wise choices.  At the same time, it is easy for us to look down on the poor as having caused their own misfortune through bad choices or laziness.  And so the temptation for us is to view ourselves as self-sufficient, without any need for God, fully deserving of the fruit of our labors, and without any obligation to care for the needs of others.

This is very much the character of the rich man in today’s parable.  He was focused only on himself.  There are little details in the parable that amplify this impression.  For example, we are told that he wore purple, which, as you may know, is historically a color reserved for royalty.  This man was clearly very self-absorbed.  When this man died, we are told he ended up in hell.  We need to pause a moment and reflect on this.  Hell is not a popular subject in contemporary America.  We like to think that we are all pretty good people and that the only people who go to hell are the people that we really, really dislike.

Well, I believe that hell is real, but it is the state of being for those who are separated from the love and presence of God.  Hell is where we choose to go if we choose to live apart from God.  Or to put it in another way, hell is the place where we go if we are absorbed entirely in ourselves, our own wants, our own desires, and where we reject the love and presence of God.  The rich man in the parable was just such a person.

Look at the rich man’s conversation with Abraham.  The rich man never repents or asks for forgiveness.  He remains focused only on himself, and what he can do to be made more comfortable.  And look at his attitude towards Lazarus.  The rich man wants Abraham to direct Lazarus to act as his servant and to bring him water to comfort him.  The only time that the rich man thinks of anyone else is when he wants Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family so that they can avoid the torments of hell.  Even from his place in hell, the rich man continues in the same attitude that he had on earth – he is looking out for himself and he sees Lazarus only as a tool to be used to do his bidding.

Listen to how Abraham responds to the rich man’s request to warn his family because it is full of meaning.

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Abraham first tells the rich man that his family has the Word of God, and that if they would only actually listen to what God is saying, they would seek a relationship with him and so avoid hell.  But the rich man tells Abraham that his family won’t do that.  Instead, he says, if someone from the dead goes to them, they will surely repent.  But Abraham replies that if they will not listen to God’s word, then neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.  In telling this parable, Jesus was, of course, looking forward to his own death and resurrection. 

Unless we first acknowledge our sinfulness, our inability to save ourselves, and our need for God, the death and resurrection of Jesus will have no meaning for us.  If we don’t think we need a savior, then why would we think it important that Jesus died for our sins?  Here is the catch – if our wealth and riches have made us feel that we are self-sufficient and able to take care of ourselves – thank you very much – than we will no longer see the need for a savior.  This is, I believe, the central message of this parable.  All of us, rich and poor are equally in need of a savior, equally in need of a relationship with God, and are equally called to his service and the service of others.

The passage from 1 Timothy continues this teaching.  Paul is writing this letter to Timothy, who was ministering to the church in Greece.  Timothy was dealing with a number of people in the church, including wealthy adherents to the new faith.  In the portion of his letter that we read today, Paul is giving Timothy advice on how to deal with riches and wealth.  Paul begins by emphasizing the importance of attitude.  He emphasizes the importance of being content with what we have.  Paul grounds this in the foundational reality that applies to every person that has ever lived – “we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”  Paul says that as long as we have the necessities of life, we should be content.

Paul tells us that it is actually the desire for wealth that is the problem.  He writes ‘Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”  It is our selfish desires that lead us into trouble.  At the root of the love of money and the desire to get rich is self-centeredness and greed.  It is turning away from God and the needs of others to our own desires.

Paul’s advice to Timothy on how to combat greed begins with a person’s attitude.  Paul tells Timothy to “flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”  Paul doesn’t even mention money here.  He knows that if someone pursues righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness, then greed will cease to be an issue.  That is because these qualities all assume that you will be putting God first in your life.  This is the key battle for believers, and the only one that really matters.

Once Paul has established the foundational need for believers to put God first in their lives, he turns to practical ways that wealthy believers can live obedient lives.  Paul does not tell rich believers to give away all their money or suggest that possession of riches is evil.  Instead, he focuses on how Christians ought to use their wealth.  He writes “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” 

Paul tells rich believers not to be proud in their wealth or look down on others who are less fortunate.  He tells the rich not to put their hope in wealth, but instead to put their hope in God.  Rich believers are called to the same humility that is called for in all believers.  Rich and poor are both equally in need of Jesus Christ.  Riches will not buy us a relationship with God.  In our politics this week, we have read many allegations of quid pro quo – of politicians offering money and aid to pressure foreign governments to take preferred actions.  Well, wealth and money won’t buy special consideration from God!  There is one path only to God, and that is through Jesus Christ, and the poor and rich stand equal before him.

Rich believers are called to do good to others, to be generous and to share.  In other words, they are to look at the needs of others.  The rich man in the parable that we read earlier didn’t do this.  He was always and only focused on himself and his needs, even after he found himself in hell.  How might this rich man’s eternal destiny have been different had he noticed Lazarus at his gates and sent him leftovers from his sumptuous meals now and again?

And now let us turn to our passage from Jeremiah, in which the prophet Jeremiah buys a field from his cousin.  You are probably wondering what this story can possibly tell us about handling our wealth obediently to God.  As it turns out a lot.  You see, God had told Jeremiah to issue a lot of doom and gloom prophecies against a wicked and corrupt kingdom of Judah.  And the doom and gloom was about to come to pass as the great and mighty army of Babylon had overrun much of the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem was about to be attacked.  Everyone knew what was coming.  Judah was about to be conquered by the Babylonians.

And so at this time, Jeremiah’s cousin approached him, probably wanting to raise money so that he could flee to Egypt to escape the coming maelstrom.  His cousin wanted to sell Jeremiah a field that had already been overrun by the Babylonian army.  The Babylonians wouldn’t honor Jeremiah’s deed of ownership.  Only an idiot would have agreed to buy that field.  And yet God told Jeremiah to buy it.  You see God was using Jeremiah once again to show the people of Judah that he would come and redeem the land even from the mighty Babylonians.  And Jeremiah bought the field.

God did redeem the land.  Yes, the Babylonian army did conquer the kingdom of Judah and they exiled the people to Babylon.  But in Jeremiah’s lifetime, the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persian Empire and the Persian emperor Cyrus restored the Jews to their ancestral land.  In the end, Jeremiah did take possession of his field.  The investment, which every financial advisor ever would have told Jeremiah to run away from, turned out to be a good investment.  And more than that, it was an investment that showed the glory and power of God.

Consider the lesson to us here.  We need to pay attention to what God calls us to invest in, regardless of whether the secular world thinks it is a sound investment.  Investing in God’s purposes will never be wasted.  I think of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Galt today.  If I am a secular investor, I will tell you to walk away.  St. Luke’s has enough money to last another 6 years, ten years tops.  The people are getting older and who knows how much longer it will be a viable congregation?  No, don’t invest there.  Instead, go put your money in a growth industry – maybe opioids or pornography – I hear those bring in nice profits.

Well, God still has plans for St. Luke’s.  Let me tell you, the plight of Jeremiah’s field looked a lot bleaker to Jeremiah, than is the plight of St. Luke’s.  Our God is a God of renewal and restoration.  Even now, I have seen St. Luke’s have a powerful healing influence amongst us and in our community.  That is God at work.  And God is at work all around the world.

Let me conclude by summarizing some of the lessons for us from our readings.  First, the problem is not wealth in of itself, but the love of wealth.  Greed is one of the most powerful and insidious motivators to sinful humanity.  We need to turn our focus on God and not ourselves.  We need to place our wealth, along with the rest of ourselves, at God’s service.  This is the key.   When we develop our financial plans, it is a good thing to plan for our retirement and to make prudent decisions with our money.  But these plans need to be informed by our faith in God and what he calls us to do.

Let me give you an example.  A few years ago, after my brother died, my sisters and I decided to make sure that my parents’ will and affairs were all in order.  I sat down with my dad and he told me that all of their estate would pass to me, my sisters and my brother’s family.  Well, I pushed back to my dad and mom.  I told them that their kids would all be okay, we don’t need the money.  But I pointed out how important their church was to them.  How supportive it had been to them through everything they had been through, how it had become like a family to them, how it had a huge financial need for a new building, how important it was for the Gospel to be preached.  And I successfully talked my parents into taking away half of our inheritance.  Yeah me!  But I was glad, and my sisters agreed.  It was important that my parents reflect their commitment to God and his church. 

Second, those of us blessed with wealth and riches need to embrace humility.  When we see others who are less fortunate, we should not think “well, they wouldn’t be poor if they were more like me.”  Rather we ought to say “there but for the grace of God go I.”  And we should respond to need accordingly.  These are our brothers and sisters in need, and we are called to help them.  There is not just one way to help, but we do need to wrestle with what we can do.  Maybe for some it is giving to a foodbank, maybe for others to come alongside a needy family or individual, maybe for others it is giving to international aid organizations.  As Christians, we should be known for our generosity.

Third, be bold to invest in the work of God.  Our God specializes in giving new life to that which we think is dead or dying.  He is a God of new life, redemption, healing and transformation.  Remember Jeremiah’s field and ask yourself what your field will be?

Finally, when you think about your financial decisions, ask yourself what those decision say about you?  What we spend our money on tells us where we place our value.  What will it be shown that you value?  Does your financial planning reflect God as the priority in your life?  I would encourage each one of us today to think about how our financial decisions, including our wills and trusts, reflect our commitment to God and his church, both locally and around the world.  In whatever way we choose to use the riches that God has given us, let us do so with God’s purposes in mind.  Whatever field God puts in your path to buy, remember the story of Jeremiah.   And buy that field.

Let us pray,Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor you with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Amazing Grace

Sermon  – September 15, 2019  Proper 19, Year C

Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Before we turn to our lectionary readings for today, let me tell you two stories.  The first story is about a man named John who lived-in eighteenth-century England.  John had been drafted in the Royal Navy at a young age, but he was more interested in drinking than in navy discipline and he attempted to desert his post.  He was caught and punished, but eventually was able to use family connections to get transferred to be a crew member on a slave ship.  At the time, England was still an active participant in the slave trade.

On one voyage, John’s ship was caught in a violent storm and he feared it would sink.  John prayed and the storm abated, and John started to become a Christian.  He continued in the slave trade, however, and even served as captain on three voyages.  John later described the conditions on his ship as follows “The slaves lie close to each other, like books upon a shelf. The poor creatures are cramped for room and chained, two together, by their hands and feet. This makes it difficult for them to turn or move, to attempt to rise or lie down, without hurting themselves, or each other….Diseases often break out and I believe nearly half of the slaves on board have sometimes died.”  John was captain of such ships three times.  He himself could not abide the Royal Navy and was able to use family connections to escape that fate, and yet he commanded ships that treated human beings like disposable garbage.  Can you think of anybody more irredeemable than such a man?

Well, guess what?  This man later became an Anglican priest, authored the hymn Amazing Grace, and was a leader in the move to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain.  You see, God could and did redeem John Newton.  Later in life, John Newton wrote “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”  When Newton wrote the first verse to Amazing Grace, it was very real and autobiographical.  “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  Some think that the lyrics “saved a wretch like me” are over the top, but, if you know what Newton did in his early life, you know that describing him as a wretch is an understatement, if anything.  But Newton was redeemed by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ, was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and was used as an important tool in ending the British slave trade.

The second story I wanted to tell you is of an ancient king who lived many centuries ago.  This king had been richly blessed by God who had established him in his kingdom.  He had many wives and could have had more if he wanted.  As it happened, this king sent his army away to fight a war against a neighboring kingdom.  The king himself stayed home in his palace and one evening he happened to notice a beautiful woman bathing on the roof of a house near his palace.  The king sent for the woman and she was brought to him.  The king took the woman to his bed and slept with her.  Now, understand that in the ancient world you could not disobey the king, and so this woman could not have consented to this.  To put it starkly, the king raped her.

But that’s just beginning.  The woman’s husband was a loyal soldier of the king and as the war was dragging on, he wasn’t coming home.  After a time the woman sent word to the king that she was pregnant.  The king knew that he had sinned by raping and impregnating her, and he sought to cover up his crime.  He ordered the woman’s husband to be given leave from the army and return to his wife.  The king was thinking that the husband and wife would have conjugal relations, and everyone would think the pregnancy stemmed from this.  But the woman’s husband was a very honorable man, and he slept outside of his house, refusing to sleep inside with his wife while his fellow soldiers were still fighting.  The king’s plan failed.

So the king decided on another plan to cover up his crime.  He secretly ordered the commander of his army to start a skirmish where the woman’s husband was, and when the fighting grew fierce, withdraw everyone except her husband, so that he would be killed by the enemy.  This was done and the man was killed.  And so, this king not only raped the woman, but he murdered her husband, who had been a loyal soldier.  Can you get any worse than this?

Well, this king also was redeemed by God and became one of the greatest kings of Israel.  He, of course, was King David and the woman was Bathsheba.  It was in response to this great sin that David wrote Psalm 51 which we read today.

Let’s turn now to our lectionary readings.  This is one of the few Sundays where all three readings and the Psalm are all on point and they each have a particular message for us.  They each make a unique contribution to the overall theme for today.  Let’s begin with our passage from Exodus.  In this fascinating passage, we see a conversation between God and Moses.  God tells Moses of how the people of Israel have become corrupt and turned to idols so soon after he delivered them from the oppression and bondage of the Egyptians.  God’s people have spat in his face and turned their backs on him.  God says to Moses “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”  This is exactly what the people deserved.

But Moses intervenes for the people.  Moses doesn’t defend the Israelites actions.  He doesn’t say to God “well, they aren’t really that bad, God.  They try hard and you should cut them a break.”  No, Moses doesn’t go there.  Instead, Moses reminds God of the promises he had made to his people and their forefathers in earlier times.  Moses appeals to God’s grace to save the people, and God relents.  The reason this passage was added to the Scriptures was to remind the Israelites that God spared them despite their fully deserving to die in the wilderness.  This passage is a message of God’s gracious love triumphing over the punishment the people so justly deserved.

We turn now to the passage that we heard from Paul’s letter to Timothy.  Paul acknowledges that he was once a violent, blasphemer who persecuted others.  Before he had his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul actively persecuted Christians and participated in their killing.  Paul was a bad guy, and yet he too was redeemed.  Paul knows that he was not redeemed because he was such a good guy.  Instead, he writes that “[t]he grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

Paul tells us that it was Jesus Christ who saved him from his sin, and that Jesus can save us as well.  Paul writes “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  This is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In our reading from Luke, a group of Pharisees and religious lawyers were criticizing Jesus for interacting with sinners.  The Pharisees and lawyers believed that they were capable themselves of following the law and making themselves right with God.  They had no compassion for others.  Pharisees today have a very bad reputation as religious hypocrites. But did you know that the religious philosophy of the Pharisees is actually very widely held today?  The Pharisees believed that it was we who seek God, and that we are capable of doing what needed to be done in order to be acceptable to God.  This idea is very common in America today.  Most reject the idea that we are lost in our own sin and in need of a Savior.  Our culture thinks that this philosophy is kind, but it is really rather cruel.  This thinking leads to the belief that good people deserve good things, and that bad people deserve bad things.  This is the underlying principle of the concept of karma – what goes around, comes around.  But the Gospel teaches us that Jesus Christ seeks out the bad, invites them into a relationship with him, and then transforms them through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The bad are transformed, not cast aside.

Jesus gives two illustrations to help us understand this.  In his one illustration, he speaks of someone who has a hundred sheep when one of them goes missing.  Such a person doesn’t say “well, too bad, so sad, but I still have my 99 sheep, so I don’t care about the lost one.”  Nor does the man assume that the lost sheep will find its own way home.  Instead the man searches high and low until he finds the lost sheep and then celebrates its finding.  In his second illustration, Jesus tells of a woman who has ten coins but loses one.  She searches all around her house until she finds the lost coin, rejoicing when it is found.  We are the lost sheep and the lost coin that God seeks out.  God doesn’t just let us find our own way back to him if we can.  God knows that we are completely incapable of doing so.  The whole purpose of Jesus is to find the lost and bring them back to the Father.

Let’s return to Paul’s letter to Timothy for a moment.  God isn’t through with us when he finds us.  That isn’t the end of the story.  God also intends to transform us so that we can be of greater service to him.  Listen to Paul “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”

Paul acknowledges that he was the worst of sinners, and that he was saved through the grace of Jesus Christ.  But he also says that he was transformed so that he could be an example to others.  If God could transform a wretch like Paul, then others might have confidence that they too could be redeemed and transformed through the grace of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  We can count Paul with John Newton and King David as great examples for us of people who did very bad things but who were redeemed and transformed by God to do great things in the furtherance of God’s kingdom.

Paul was a mighty evangelist, King David was the greatest king of Israel and John Newton played a central role in ending one of the most barbaric practices in Anglo-American history.  But think about each of these men – Paul who initially was a great persecutor of Christians, was transformed into being a great evangelist.  David, who raped and murdered his own subjects was transformed into being the foremost God-fearing king of Israel.  And John Newton who initially was heavily involved in the slave trade was transformed into being a leading force in its eradication.  This is the power of the Gospel of Christ.

Before I finish, I want to look at Psalm 51 with you.  Psalm 51 was written by King David soon after God convicted David’s heart of the great evil he had committed against Bathsheba and Uriah.  I think that this Psalm can serve as a model for each one of us.  It is a model of repentance and turning back to God.  None of us has done the heinous things that Paul, or David, or John Newton did in their lives, but each one of us has sins that we must confess to God.  And this is not something we need only do once and then we are done.  No, we should be confessing our sins and seeking God’s transformation continually.

The verses in Psalm 51 that we read today can be divided into four parts.  In the first part, David writes: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.  Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”  Here David is asking God to not count his sins against him.  David is acknowledging that he has sinned but asks God not to hold that sin against him.  As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ has paid the price for our sins.  We can have confidence that if we trust in God and accept Jesus, God will not count our sins against us.

Next David writes: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.  Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.  Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.”  David is confessing not only his sins, but also is acknowledging his helplessness to save himself.  David teaches us humility in the face of God.  We should not be demanding that God accept us as we are, but rather acknowledging to God our innate sinfulness and confessing our inability to save ourselves.

David continues by writing “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.  Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.  Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.”  David turns now to some more positive requests.  He asks that God not only absolve him of his guilt but that God wash him and make him fully clean.  The focus here is not on the removal of the dirt and filth, but rather on the joy of being clean.  As Christians, we can ask God to show us how we can serve him now that we have been redeemed.

Finally, David finishes our passage from the Psalm with a very familiar verse: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.  Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”  David asks the Lord to renew his heart and his spirit and pleads with God not to take his presence or his Holy Spirit from him.  The removal of God’s presence from our lives is the greatest punishment that we could face, and many theologians believe that that is the very definition of hell.  David knows that his sin justifies God removing his presence.  David pleads instead that God would continue being present in his life and that God’s Holy Spirit would renew his heart and mind.  As Christians, we should pray for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives and for renewed hearts, minds and spirits.

Paul, King David and John Newton all were transformed into playing powerful roles in the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth.  For each of these men, and for you and me, transformation begins with God’s presence in our lives – both through our immersion in God’s word in the Bible and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Only God can renew our hearts, minds and spirits, and give us the ability to do great things in his service.  This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It has the power to turn the worst of people into powerful servants of God.  And it has the power to do the same for you and me.

Let us pray,

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Refined and Fortified

Sermon – August 18, 2019,  Proper 15, Year C

Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Several years ago Barbara bought a small Myer lemon tree.  It came in a pot and we let it grow for a couple of years in the pot outside.  Eventually, we knew we had to plant it so that it could mature and begin bearing fruit.  After a couple of years it seemed to be surviving if not thriving, but it did produce a few lemons every year.  Then two years ago, a shoot sprang up out of it and grew very quickly.  I was excited, thinking that finally our tree had reached a new milestone.  Barbara thought this new growth might not be a good sign, but I would hear none of it.  This year the shoot grew even more and looked quite healthy.  But the rest of the tree still wasn’t producing very much.  Then we visited some friends who have a small orchard in their backyard.  We told them about our lemon tree and they told us that the shoot coming out of our tree was probably actually a sucker that was hindering the tree.

And so I did some online research and what I found confirmed what we were told.  We learned that we needed to take our pruning shears and cut the sucker off right where it sprung out of the rest of the tree.  The sucker was not healthy for the tree and indeed, it robbed the rest of the tree of nutrients.  Still, it was hard for me to think that cutting off this branch was a good thing.  It was so full of life and I feared that cutting it might hurt the tree and maybe cause it to die.  However, I needed to trust those that knew better and prune our tree so that it could hopefully produce good lemons in the future.  We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds for our tree.

As I reflected on our Gospel reading for today, I realize how my experience with our lemon tree illustrates one of the things our passage is telling us.  We need to prune away those things in our lives that lead us away from God.  Jesus says “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.”  Jesus wasn’t calling on his disciples to burn it all down to the ground.  He wasn’t trying to incite anyone to riot and cause destruction.  Rather, he was alluding to the refiner’s fire, by which ancient goldsmiths and metalworkers would purify their gold and silver.  The Old Testament prophet Malachi looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and compared it to a refining fire when he wrote “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.  He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.”

The refiner’s fire can only accomplish its purposes when the heat is turned up to extraordinary temperatures.  The dross is burned away and only the pure precious metal is left.  This is a little bit like pruning the bad branches off of our lemon tree.  It is important to cut them off so that only the healthy fruit producing branches are left.

Make no mistake, the process of purification is not without a great deal of pain.  With metals, the ore must be super-heated to very high temperatures so that the dross will burn away.  With trees, the bad branches must be cut off and thrown away.  And with the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, our sins and corruption must be burned and pruned away.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes “But each one should build with care.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.  If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.  If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward.  If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”

The process of purification is a very serious thing, and often profoundly uncomfortable for us, but one we must all go through.  Just as the metal dross must be burned away, and the bad branches cut off and thrown away, so our own sins and corruption must be cut out from within us.  This will be a struggle for each one of us throughout our lives.

Purification doesn’t just end with us individually though.  As the Kingdom of Heaven extends throughout the earth, the whole world must also be purified.  And this means that evil, sin, unrighteousness and anything that is in rebellion against God must be cut out.  And this will mean pain, division and resistance.  Just as we will resist God’s transforming grace in our lives, so the world will resist God.  How many of us with weight issues have an easy time dieting and eating healthy foods or keeping to an exercise regimen?  How many of us with spending, gambling, alcohol or other issues have an easy time controlling our addictions?  Our bodies, hearts and minds resist God’s transformation.  Why should we expect this to be any different for the world at large?

This is why Jesus says “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”  Once again, Jesus isn’t trying to start any riots or civil wars.  He is not trying to inflame passions or divisions.  Not at all.  The very nature of the Kingdom that Jesus is inaugurating is one of peace and healing.  But Jesus knows that the world very often would rather stay mired in its sin and corruption rather than submit to the transforming love that Jesus offers.  Jesus is telling us to be realistic.  He is not encouraging division for its own sake but is rather telling us what will happen.  Jesus wants us to be fully prepared for what will come.

This is why Jesus then speaks about the need to correctly interpret the present time.  Jesus wants us to be prepared for what’s coming.  Just as Floridians need to board up their windows and secure their homes when the weather service forecasts a hurricane, so we need to be prepared for opposition and hostility from the world as it reacts against the refining fire of God’s transforming love.  If we aren’t prepared, we might lose our heart and our faith and fall away from God.

Our passage from the book of Hebrews speaks to this.  In our passage we hear about how God repeatedly rescued the Israelites when they trusted in him.  The author of Hebrews gives examples from throughout the Old Testament of how God miraculously rescued his people.  But then the passage takes a more somber turn.  We hear of believers who kept their faith in God even though they were subjected to great suffering and persecution.  These saints kept their faith in God even as they suffered.  They suffered without getting to see the promised ending.

Our Hebrews passage says “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.   These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”  This is an example of faith for us.  This is what Jesus is preparing us for.

The world will oppose the spread of God’s kingdom and those of us who are followers of Jesus should not expect things to be easy.  Instead, we must expect persecution and opposition.  We need to prepare ourselves to endure this. 

I read with interest one commentator’s thoughts on the challenge facing Christianity in America today.  He wrote “As our culture changes, secularizes, and grows less tolerant of Christian orthodoxy, I’m noticing a pattern in many of the people who fall away: …the failure of the church isn’t so much of catechesis but of fortification — of building the pure moral courage and resolve to live your faith in the face of cultural headwinds.”  In other words, one of the great challenges for Christians in America today is that we have not prepared ourselves for the world’s hostility and resistance to the coming of God’s kingdom.  We should have paid heed to the weather forecast “red sky in morning, sailors take warning.”  The sky was red in the morning, but we ignored it.  But it’s not too late.  We need to fortify ourselves and our Hebrews passage shows us how.

Our Hebrews passage concludes with the following exhortation: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

This brings us back to the words of Jesus in our Gospel and shows us how the refining fire of God’s love will fortify us to stand firm in Christ.  Our Hebrews passage exhorts us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”  We are called to prune from our lives everything that will draw us away from Jesus Christ.  But that is not all.  Yes, we are to avoid that which pulls us away from God, but we are also called to focus on God.  We are also called to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  The Christian faith is not just about avoiding sin, it is about becoming disciples of Jesus and putting our focus on him.  It is only by focusing on Jesus and drawing into communion with him that we can truly be fortified against the hostility and persecution of the world.

Recently I read a book discussing the future of Christianity in America by author Rod Dreher titled The Benedict Option.  I found this book to be both insightful and challenging.  In the book Dreher offers a number of thoughts on how Christians might respond to a world that is increasingly hostile to them.  I’d like to read some excerpts as I think that they are sound words of advice for the Church today.

Dreher writes “We work, we pray, we confess our sins, we show mercy, we welcome the stranger, and we keep the commandments. When we suffer, especially for Christ’s sake, we give thanks, because that is what Christians do. Who knows what God, in turn, will do with our faithfulness? It is not for us to say. Our command is, in the words of the Christian poet W.H. Auden, to ‘stagger onward rejoicing.’”  As our Hebrews passage tells us, we are called to be faithful even if we don’t always see the end purposes of God.  We may trust that in the end, God’s purposes for us and promises to us will prevail.

In another place Dreher writes: “Love is the only way we will make it through what is to come… It has to be a kind of love that has been honed and intensified through regular prayer, fasting, and repentance and, for many Christians, through receiving the holy sacraments. And it must be a love that has been refined through suffering. There is no other way.”  As followers of Christ, we need to be intentional about our faith.  The author of Hebrews tells us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  As any athlete knows, you can’t just run a race without first submitting to the discipline of physical training, eating right, and mental preparation.  Only after you have submitted to such a discipline will you be ready to race.

So it is with our Christian journey.  We need be intentional and disciplined in our Christian lives.  This includes putting away everything that draws us away from God, no matter how precious to us.  It requires that we engage in a regular and disciplined study of God’s word in the Bible and a regular and disciplined practice of prayer.  It means submitting our lives to God’s discipline, turning away from worldly pleasures and not seeking fulfillment in material things.  It means that we need to worship God regularly with our fellow believers in church, where we hear God’s word explained, confess our sins, hear God’s forgiveness, and receive the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.  It means being a full part of the body of Christ where we can support each other and hold each other accountable.

The readings in today’s lectionary are not easy for us to hear and obey.  They require commitment and discipline from us.  But the reward is even greater.  The reward is the transformation of our lives by the Holy Spirit so that we can be pure, redeemed and sanctified sons and daughters of our Creator God.  It is only if we work with Jesus as part of the Kingdom of God that we can bring the transforming love that this world so badly needs.  We are the lemon tree in need of pruning, but if we submit to God’s transforming love, then we will bear much fruit.  Fruit that the world desperately needs.

Let us pray,

Heavenly Father, creator of the world, give us the strength and perseverance to run the race that you have set out for us.  Give us the courage and the will to subject our whole selves to your refining fire, that you will purify us and make us holy, a people set apart for you.  Send your Holy Spirit to us that we may live committed lives of faith and discipleship.  We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

Some Biblical Guidelines for Evangelism

Sermon – July 7, 2019,  Proper 9, Year C

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

One of the most vexing challenges for Christians in twenty-first century America is how to bring others to church.  Many churches are seeing their numbers drop, and some are having to close their doors.  American Christians are too often ill equipped to do what has to be the most basic and fundamental thing that Christians are called to do.  And that is to evangelize.

We often rely on techniques that were developed for the culture that existed in the 1950s and 60s but which no longer produce results.  Back in those days, it was figured that pretty much everybody went to a church and so the challenge was how to convince them to come to our church.  And so the whole enterprise for growing your church was to figure out how to get people through the doors of your church.  The thinking goes that people are already believers and that once they step through the doors of your church, they will be so impressed with your preaching and Sunday School and music and coffee that they will keep coming back.  The problem is that today, most people don’t have any interest in going to church in the first place.  They can hear better music on Spotify, get better coffee at Starbucks, and their kids already have enough programs.  What’s more, going to church is becoming increasingly costly in terms of social and economic status.

If this is our church growth strategy we will fail.  People aren’t interested in attending church unless they have already heard the Gospel.  Coming to church is almost never something that people do before they have had the Gospel shared with them.  So how can we share the Gospel with members of our community?

Our lesson today from Luke gives us some great words of advice.  We might think that our passage in Luke couldn’t possibly apply to us today since it was written so long ago, but I think we’d be wrong.  In many important ways, our American culture today is more similar to the Roman culture of Jesus’ day than it is to American culture of 50 years ago.  In the time of Jesus, there was a pluralistic religious culture which accepted many religions.  But no religion was permitted to claim to be the one true religion or challenge the dominant Roman civil religion.  The teachings of Jesus were seen not only as a threat to the Jewish religious leaders, but increasingly to the Roman civil religion. 

Today in America we also have a very pluralistic religious culture which frowns on any religion that claims to be uniquely and exclusively true.  Christianity is increasingly seen as a challenge to American civic religion.  Christians are okay as long as they don’t rock the cultural boat.  And this is true no matter what your political perspective.  Just as following Jesus was frowned on by the Roman and Jewish cultural leaders back then, so truly following Jesus today will not win us any popularity contests.  This impacts how we do evangelism.

For the first three hundred years of its existence, the Church thrived in a context in which it was severely persecuted.  I remember visiting the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey twelve years ago and seeing a faint fish drawing on a paving stone.  Our tour guide told us that this was the secret sign used by Christians to identify themselves to one another.  Christians had to be careful because the government and religious authorities wanted to eradicate the church, and many of their neighbors would have been only too happy to turn them in.  Remember that the Apostle Paul before his conversion traveled around trying to find Christians to persecute.

I want us to think about what this means for how the early Christians did evangelism.  Christians continued to meet together during these times for what we would call church services.  Yet it would have been madness for them to invite unvetted outsiders in.  Outsiders were not invited to attend church until they had already been converted to the Gospel.  Worship and the sharing of communion was strictly for believers.   This was not an era of seeker sensitive services.  And yet, this was the period of the greatest church growth ever and is only ever replicated in times of persecution of the church.  How can this be?  How can the periods of greatest church growth happen when you can’t actually bring outsiders to church?

Let’s turn to our passage from Luke where we can find some answers.  Our passage begins with two very important words “After this”.  We’d be wise to ask “after what?”  Well, after several important things that happened in chapter 9 and which we will discuss along the way.  The first thing to note is that this comes after Jesus sent out the Twelve with very similar instructions in the beginning of chapter 9.  Why is this significant?  The Twelve represent the disciples of Jesus.  They were the inner core, the leaders, and Jesus certainly sent them out to preach the Gospel.  But in today’s passage, Jesus also sends out the Seventy-Two.  The Seventy-Two is a large number with symbolic meaning.  It symbolized completeness and so Jesus sending out the Seventy-Two is his way of saying that he intends all of his followers to be sent out to preach the Gospel.  The task of evangelizing falls upon each one of us here today just as much as it falls on Pastor Barbara or Bishop Megan or any other clergy.

The second thing to note is that there is an urgency in the air.  Immediately before our passage today, at the end of chapter 9, Jesus makes it very clear that his call is not something people can put off till later.  We read this last week and it might sound a little harsh to us when Jesus tells us that the dead can bury their own dead.  But the point that Jesus is making is that the Gospel is either the most important thing in our lives, or it has no meaning.  It can’t be something we just dabble in when we have spare time.

This is the context in which today’s lesson sits.  Turning to our passage, we see that Jesus sent out his followers two-by-two ahead of him.  Every word here is important as there are key lessons.  First, Jesus sent his followers out.  He did not send his followers out to round people up and bring them to church.  No, he sent his followers out to where the people were.  Each team would enter a village and, if they were welcomed, they would heal the sick and tell them about Jesus.  This is our task also.  We are not called to round people up and bring them to church so that they can hear the Gospel.  No, we are called to meet people wherever we may be in our lives and do what we can to bring healing to them and tell them about Jesus.

Second, Jesus sent them out two-by-two.  Evangelism need not be a solitary endeavor.  We are all part of the body of Christ, and often it can be very helpful having another person with us.  Jesus does not expect us to be alone.

Third, note carefully that Jesus sent out these teams to go “ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.”  The teams went ahead of Jesus to prepare the way.  And this is our task as evangelists as well.  It is not our role to convert people – that is the task of the Holy Spirit.  It is our job to bring what healing we can to people and share with them the Gospel of Jesus.  I think that one reason we are often reluctant to share the Gospel is because we think we need to be salespeople out to close the sale with a reluctant buyer.  And, all too often, this is exactly the impression that some evangelists in popular culture give off.  But that is not what Jesus is calling us to do.

When we bought our first new car five years ago, I learned how car dealers typically work.  There is one guy whose job it is to show you the car, and tell you all about its features.  If you are interested, he passes you on to the salesperson whose job it is to actually sell you the car.  Our role is more like the first person.  Our role is to share the Gospel and tell others about it.

There are three more lessons to take from this passage before I finish.  Jesus tells the seventy-two that he was sending them out like lambs among wolves.  Think about that metaphor.  Lambs among wolves.  We discussed earlier how being a follower of Jesus would have invited persecution back in those days, and how it can even have a serious cost today.  I can tell you that about fifteen years ago I had applied for a job at a law school in the mid-west and sometime after my interview I received a call from the very embarrassed library director asking me what kind of Christian I was, because one of the professors at his school had noticed my theology degree on my resume and had declared that she didn’t want an annoying Christian working at her school.  So, yes, we need to be prepared that we will be putting ourselves at risk when we share the Gospel.

This leads me to our next lesson.  Jesus tells his followers that if a village does not welcome them, they are to shake the dust off their feet as a warning to them.  Now at first glance, we might think this is being harsh and judgmental.  But it isn’t.  In chapter 9, there is a story of Jesus passing through a village that rejected him at which the disciples became very angry and asked Jesus “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”  But Jesus rebuked them.  Context matters.  This event happened just a few verses before our reading today.  Luke is making a very important point.  The disciples wanted vengeance against the village that rejected Jesus, but Jesus shut that idea down immediately.  That’s not what Jesus was about.  Instead, Jesus instructed his followers to peacefully leave a village where they were not welcomed but to issue them a clear warning.

Christians today can fall into opposite errors when confronting our hostile culture.  Sometimes, we become angry and want to teach somebody a lesson.  We take on the attitude of a warrior seeking vengeance against those who would disrespect our tribe.  This is a very human response and yet the antithesis of the Gospel.  On the other hand, another error is to refuse to warn someone of the consequences of rejecting God.  We think that warning someone against rejecting God is judgmental but that affirming them in their rejection is kind and loving.  This would be like telling a person that refuses to leave a house on fire that there is nothing to worry about even as they are about to be overcome by the smoke and heat.  Both of these are natural human responses, but neither is actually loving to the person or the culture.  Jesus calls us to love those that reject him, but to be clear about the consequences, because there are consequences.

The final lesson to draw lies in what Jesus instructed his followers to do when they entered a town that welcomed them.  Listen to this list.  They were to enter the town and the first thing they were to do is give a greeting of peace.  Then they were to heal the sick, eat and drink with the people, and stay among them and teach them about the kingdom of God.  This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise.  It wasn’t just telling people about something.  Yes, telling people about the Gospel was a necessary part, but Jesus called his followers to do more.  They were to dwell among the people, sharing meals, and bringing healing.

This last point brings to mind some very pertinent reflections from our new bishop on the occasion of her consecration a week ago.  Bishop Megan gives us a few short and succinct teachings that seem ideally suited for our passage today.

In one teaching Bishop Megan writes “This is the rewarding challenge to congregations – of any size and location – to become deeply (or more deeply) engaged in our surrounding community.  If God has pitched his tent among us in the Incarnation then we must do the same, becoming known as true neighbors to those around our places of worship. Each parish has a set of gifts that can uniquely meet community needs around them. Finding that overlap is the work of trust and the Holy Spirit and is a source of great missionary energy.”

Our bishop is calling us to do what Jesus called his followers to do, and that is to dwell among the people in our communities, bringing healing where we can.

Then, immediately after her consecration and seating in the cathedral, Bishop Megan wrote to us: “Under all of the beauty, symbolism and polity of this past weekend is a deeper treasure: we each carry the ability to make a significant mark on the world. It walks in with us into every office, soup kitchen, school, and state park we visit. A life powered by Jesus and marked by forgiving and self-giving love brings change to the people around us in practical ways.”

Again, we are called to go forth into our communities, and to live lives powered by the grace of Jesus Christ.  If our lives are marked by the forgiving and self-giving love that Jesus gives us, and if we dwell among people and bring healing, then people will be interested in what we have to say about Jesus and we can prepare them to receive the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit working within them.

And then, we can invite them to church.

Let us pray,

God our savior, look on this wounded world in pity and in power; hold us fast to your promises of peace won for us by your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Why the Trinity?

Sermon – June 16, 2019,  Trinity Sunday, Year C

John 16:12-15

Let us pray.

I speak to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Did you catch my change in opening prayer?  There is a reason why I used the Trinitarian formula instead of the familiar words from Psalm 19 about the words of my mouth and mediations of our heart.  Today is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday that the Church has set aside to reflect upon the doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinity Sunday is an interesting Sunday to preach on in a lectionary based church since the Trinity is never directly spoken of in the Bible.  It is certainly implied but it is the Church that has drawn on all the implications found in Scripture to develop and proclaim the Trinity as an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.  We see this in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, which we recite throughout the year.  Both of these creeds are broken into a very similar structure of three parts corresponding to the Trinity.  Listen to the first line from each part in the Nicene Creed:  “We believe in one God, the Father; the Almighty”; “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God”; and “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is the central organizing feature of both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, the foundational creeds of the Christian church.  It is a very important doctrine for the Church but one that is extraordinarily difficult to grasp.  Barbara showed me a Facebook post from a priest friend of hers showing notes of how one might explain the Trinity in a sermon, and then listed beside each way of describing it, how that way of describing the Trinity was actually heretical.  It is very difficult for us to understand the Trinity, and all too often, when we try to explain it, we end up misstating it.  Indeed, there are more Trinitarian heresies in the history of the church than you’d care to know about.  I think that at some point we really need to admit that, as humans, we just don’t have the capacity to fully understand the Trinity.  There are certain things we can state about it, and there are certain implications it has for the nature of God and our faith, but we will never be able to fully comprehend it.

Our passage from the Gospel of John doesn’t speak of the Trinity per se, but it does speak of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and this is why the lectionary includes it for today.  What I want to consider today is what this passage says about the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, because, in the end, I think it is this relationship that makes the Trinity such an important doctrine for our faith.

The speaker in our passage is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus says of the Holy Spirit “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.  He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.”  The Holy Spirit is clearly a different person than Jesus, but note that the Spirit will not just speak on His own.  No, the Holy Spirit will point to Jesus and share what He has received from Jesus.  The Holy Spirit will point to and glorify the Son.

Speaking of God the Father, Jesus then says “All that belongs to the Father is mine.”  God the Father has given everything to the Son in terms of power and knowledge.  That which is the Father’s is also the Son’s.  And Jesus then refers back to the Holy Spirit saying “That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”  The Holy Spirit will receive from the Son what the Son received from the Father.

This passage teaches us that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share the divine attributes, knowledge and power.  They share collectively their divinity, and yet they are separate Persons.  They each play their own role, but they share a deep and divine unity of purpose.  And the role of each of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is to glorify the other two.  They do not seek glory or honor for themselves but give of themselves for the glory and purpose of the others.  This describes a relationship of self-giving love.

Think about what this means.  The very foundation of God is love.  The doctrine of the Trinity necessarily implies that the basis of God is love.  Author and pastor Tim Keller gets to the heart of this in his chapter on the Trinity in his book The Reason for God.  He points out that if there is no God, than each of us is the product of blind, impersonal forces, and that while we might feel something we call love, it is only due to a biochemical reaction in our brains.  He then asks “But what if there is a God?  Does love fare any better?  It depends on who you think God is.  If God is unipersonal, then until God created other beings there was no love, since love is something that one person has for another.  This means that a unipersonal God has power, sovereignty, and greatness from all eternity, but not love.  Love then is not the essence of God, nor is it at the heart of the universe.  Power is primary.  However, if God is triune, then loving relationships in community are the ‘great fountain…at the center of reality.’…God really has love at his essence….[Love]is the purpose of God because he is essentially, eternally, interpersonal love.”

Tim Keller is right on here.  Without the uniquely Christian doctrine of the Trinity, God is not love, but power.  If we err on the doctrine of the Trinity, then we are essentially proclaiming that the essence of God is power instead of love.  A God whose essence is power is very different than a God whose essence is love.

This is the first key consequence of the doctrine of the Trinity.  God is love.  Quite literally.  This isn’t just a sentimental statement without meaning.  Rather it is a statement on the very central nature of God.  It is part of God’s essential character to love.

Another key consequence of the doctrine of the Trinity is that of community.  Again, let us listen to Tim Keller from his book The Reason for God.  He writes that that “[e]ach of the divine persons centers upon the others.  None demands that the other revolve around him.  Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them.  Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others.  That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.”  In the Eastern tradition of the Church, the image of a circle is used to illustrate the idea of perichoresis, the Greek term for the circular dance of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity is a community in which each divine person is in constant relationship with the other two.

This truth about God applies also to us.  God made us in his own image.  Genesis chapter one says “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  God created us to also have love, relationship and community at the core of our being, both with him and with each other.  This message runs contrary to the dominant philosophy of individualist liberalism that has been foundational to Western culture for the past four hundred years.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy made a very famous statement in a 1992 court decision when he wrote “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  Whether they agree with it or not, many commentators regard this as being one of the most defining statements of western cultural philosophy today.  This statement means that each one of us individually defines our own concept of existence, meaning, the universe and human life.  However, we can have no meaningful community unless we have a common understanding of these things.  This defining statement of western culture is one that undermines meaningful community.

We see the signs of the unraveling of true community all around us today as the forces of technology provide the tools and temptations to draw us further into self-absorption.  In one recent poll on the subject of loneliness, it was found that half of all Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone.  Only half of all Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis.  And, significantly, it is the youngest generation that reports being the loneliest generation.

I was reading a book review in the Washington Post newspaper on a book I had read that discussed the West’s foundational philosophy of individualism.  The reviewer commented that as individualism “has progressed, it has done so by ever more efficiently liberating each individual from “particular places, relationships, memberships, and even identities — unless they have been chosen, are worn lightly, and can be revised or abandoned at will.” In the process, it has scoured anything that could hold stable meaning and connection from our modern landscape — culture has been disintegrated, family bonds devalued, connections to the past cut off, an understanding of the common good all but disappeared.  And in the end, we’ve all been left terribly alone.”

This is one of the reasons why so many have abandoned the Church.  Christianity does not let us define for ourselves our own concept of existence, meaning, the universe and human life.  It does not allow us to cast aside our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our membership in the body of Christ, or our identity as children of God.  Our cultural drive for individual autonomy is directly contrary to God’s call for community and relationship.

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God’s essential character is love and his defining characteristic is relationship and community.  In stark contrast to our culture’s individualism, Tim Keller points out that in the Trinity, each person of the Godhead “voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them.  Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others.”  We have been made in God’s image.  A foundational part of the creation story is the creation of man and woman to be in relationship with each other.  But our call to be in relationship goes beyond the marriage relationship.  We are called to be in relationship with each other and the whole body of Christ.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism;  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  And in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

We are called to be in relationship with both God and each other.  This is an essential part of who we are as humans, just as it is an essential part of who God is.  We are called to love God and love each other.  When asked to summarize the Law, Jesus said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  This is our call, and it is rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity, which we celebrate today.   And so, as we go about our lives, let us always remember that our core and God’s core is love, relationship and community – both with God and with each other.  This is what we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday.

Let us pray,

Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and live and reign in the perfect unity of love: hold us firm in this faith, that we may evermore dwell in your love and in the community of the Body of your Son.  May we know you in all your ways and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The glorious end of the story

Sermon  May 19, 2019  Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Revelation 21:1-8

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

The final two chapters in John’s Revelation are among my favorites in the Bible.  They lay out a wonderful picture of the blessed eternity that God promises us.  They are very appropriate as the concluding chapters of God’s word to us in the Bible.

My initial reaction to reading today’s passage from Revelation was that it serves as a wonderful description of our eternal dwelling place with God.  That is well and good, but as I read more about our passage, I realized that there was much greater depth in this passage than I had first thought.  I also learned that while our lectionary only includes verses 1 through 6, the full passage should also include verses 7 and 8.  Leaving out verses 7 and 8 would be like me leaving out the raisins in a cookie recipe – I might like cookies without raisins better, but they wouldn’t be the cookies that the recipe writer intended.

There are a few really important points in our passage, but what I would like to do first is read through the whole passage, including verses 7 and 8, and pause after every verse to briefly explain what’s going on. 

Let’s begin with verse 1: “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.”  In this first verse, John is setting the stage, making a clear connection to a passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.  We’ll learn more about that later.

Verse 2: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”  Here John makes reference to the New Jerusalem which is a recurring theme in the Old Testament to refer to the final redemption and eternal dwelling place for God’s people.

Verse 3: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”  In the Old Testament, we read that God dwelt with his people in the tabernacle and temple.  When the Israelites desecrated the temple, God’s presence departed leading to the temple’s destruction and the Israelites’ exile at the hands of the Babylonians.  There could be no restoration of God’s people without God’s return to dwell in their midst.

Verse 4 and part of verse 5: “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!””  These verses tell us that God will renew all things.  Death came with the fall at the very beginning, and the defeat of death speaks of God’s final triumph.

Second part of verse 5: “Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  This statement assures us that God’s word, as revealed in the Scriptures, is trustworthy for us and true.

First part of verse 6: “He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”  “This statement tells us that with God coming to dwell with his people in the new heaven and new earth, history has ended and God’s redemptive work is complete.

Second part of verse 6 and verse 7: “To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.  Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”  These verses reflect God’s final blessing.  If one reads the several covenants in the Old Testament, one will see that each covenant includes blessings for those within the covenant and curses for those who are outside it.  And so, here God is promising all of these blessings to his children.

Verse 8: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”  This verse is God’s final curse on those who are outside the covenant.  It reflects the other side of the coin from the previous verses speaking of Gods’ final blessing.

Let’s take a look at a few things.  We’ll start with the verses that our lectionary left out that speak of God’s final blessing and curse.  I am guessing that the lectionary leaves these verses out because they kind of ruin an otherwise sweet and uplifting passage.  We read about all these wonderful things, only to learn that they are only for those within God’s covenant.  Things sound pretty grim and horrible for those outside the covenant.  We need to think about the implications of this teaching.

The first question you might have is what covenant is being referred to by John?  That would be the final covenant that God made with us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In Luke chapter 22, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he said “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”  Jesus died for each one of us.  He gave his life to atone for all of our sins.  And so, should this not mean that everyone is within God’s covenant?

This is a very complex issue, and not one I can adequately answer in one sermon.  In fact, I am sure that there are more theological dissertations on this subject than I can read.  But let me leave you with two thoughts.  In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis wrote “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

Another image is this.  In the Democrat presidential primary race, a hot topic is their Medicare for all policy proposal.  Never mind your opinion on this proposal, but imagine if it was actually possible – free medical care that you could make use of just for the asking.  Imagine that you broke your arm.  You could go and receive medical treatment and be healed.  However, you could also choose to reject the free medical care and live a miserable and painful life.  God will never force you to become his child, but he is always ready to welcome you home.

The key takeaway from the verses about God’s blessing and curse, is that the people with whom God dwells will be his people, people who love God and who have submitted to him.  This brings us to John’s two references to the book of Isaiah.  The early church would have immediately recognized the references,

John makes reference to Isaiah chapter 25 where the prophet writes that the “Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.”  Just before that, Isaiah writes “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.  On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”  Isaiah makes it clear that God’s promises are meant for all peoples – not just the Israelites.  We see this fulfilled in the Book of Acts when the apostles preach the Gospel to all nations.

In verse 1 of our lectionary passage, John spoke of the new heaven and new earth and in verse 2, he spoke of the new Jerusalem.  This is a very clear reference to Isaiah chapter 65.  Isaiah was writing after Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians and the Jewish people had been exiled to Babylon and Assyria.  Beloved Jerusalem, the royal city and earthly center for God’s people, had fallen, and they had been scattered to the wind.  For the Jews, redemption would require the restoration of Jerusalem.

In chapter 65, Isaiah writes “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.  I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.  For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.  They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them.  Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food.  They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.”

This is the passage that John alludes to as he writes about the new heavens and new earth.  God is gathering his people to himself and will protect them from all harm.  But it will be God himself who will protect us.  God isn’t contracting out the protection either.  No, John tells us that God will be dwelling with us.

This is the last, and perhaps most important point I want to talk about today.  In verse 3, John writes “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”  Later in this chapter, John writes “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.  The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”  This has some very important implications.

In the Old Testament, God dwelt first in the tabernacle as the Israelites left Egypt and arrived in the Promised Land, and later in the temple that Solomon built.  In 2 Chronicles chapter 7, after Solomon had built and dedicated the temple, we read that “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.  The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it.”  God dwelt in the innermost room in the temple, known as the Holy of Holies, separated from the people by a great curtain, and only the High Priest could enter.  Anyone else who would enter into God’s presence would die.

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, Matthew describes what happened.  He wrote “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.  At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”  The curtain of the temple was the curtain that separated the people from the Holy of Holies where God dwelt.  When Jesus died, his blood brought us into the new covenant, and allowed us to stand in God’s presence.

And so, when John writes about God dwelling with his people in the new heaven and new earth, he is making two important points.  First, that God is returning to dwell with his people, just as he had dwelt with Israel in the temple in the past.  But second, that God would no longer be separated from his people in the Holy of Holies, but that his presence would fill the whole city.

We often confuse the terms “heaven” and “earth”.  We think that earth is where we live before we die, and heaven is where we go after we die.  But this is not what the Bible teaches.  Rather the Bible tells us that heaven is God’s dwelling place and earth is our dwelling place.  When John speaks of the new heaven and new earth, and God dwelling amongst his people, he is telling us that heaven and earth will be united into one – where we will dwell with God, and God will dwell with us.

Our passage today from Revelation contains a rich message for us today.  Like Isaiah, who experienced the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the exile and scattering of his people, and John, who experienced the second destruction of the temple by the Romans, the growing persecution of the church, and his own personal exile, we too experience death and disheartening events.  And yet God showed Isaiah and John that death is not the end.  God has not forgotten or abandoned us.  In the end, he will draw his people to himself and dwell with us.  Whatever happens to us in this life, we can be assured that God will redeem us in the end and dwell among us.

This is new worth celebrating and sharing.

Let us pray,

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that we may embrace the hope that John has set before us in Revelation, and look forward to that day when the new heaven and the new earth are revealed and when you will dwell with us.  Give us a spirit of rejoicing and boldness to share this news with others.  We ask this in your name.  Amen.

Loving real people like Jesus did

Sermon,  April 18, 2019 – Maundy Thursday, Year C

Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17; 31b-35

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday when the Church commemorates three things: Christ’s command to love one another; the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus.  In today’s Gospel passage, we hear Jesus tell his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  The word command in Latin is :mandatum”, which became “Maundy”.  Maundy Thursday is named for this command of Jesus.  Jesus command to love on another like he loved us, is underlined by his washing of the disciples’ feet followed by his institution of the Lord’s Supper.  These three things are all intertwined.

Let’s think about that for a moment.  The evening before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered with his disciples for a meal together.  It was at this gathering that Jesus did two things.  First, he washed the feet of his disciples.  In the ancient near east, when someone would go to an important event, they would wash at home, put on their best clothes and then walk to where they were going via the dusty streets in their sandals.  When they arrived at their destination, the last thing they did before joining the party would be to have the household slaves wash their dirty feet.  Washing their feet would make them clean and presentable for the important meal.  And so by washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus symbolically took on the role of the lowest of servants to make the disciples presentable for communion with God.  This is the very purpose that Jesus’ death and resurrection plays for each one of us.  We need to be made clean so that we can enter into God’s eternal presence – not caked in the dirt and filth of life, but made clean and presentable.  Just as Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet made them clean and presentable for their meal, so his death on the cross cleansed us from our sins and makes us clean and presentable to God.

The institution of the Lord’s Supper continues this theme.  During the meal together with his disciples, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper and commanded his followers to celebrate this sacrament in his memory until he comes again.  Jesus is telling us that the Eucharist should act as a perpetual sacrament, telling us over and over again how Jesus’ body and blood was sacrificed for us on the altar of God, to be the “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”  Jesus took bread and wine, and told his disciples that these ordinary elements would become his body and blood, given up for them and sealing the new covenant he was about to give his life to inaugurate.  It was, of course, only after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that the Church truly understood what Christ instituted on Maundy Thursday in the Lord’s Supper.

By both washing the feet of the disciples and by instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus was showing us how great his love is for us.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote about Jesus “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

Jesus gave up his all to save us because of his great love for us.  And he tells us “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  We love one another not to gain favor with God, but because God first loved us, and gave his only Son to die for us.  We love each other because that is the only possible response to God’s love for us.

In our disembodied world today, where we can have so many friends on Facebook that we have never actually met, and where much of American Christianity tells us that faith is only spiritual without having much to do with our physical world, we can often forget that God created us to be in a real, living, breathing, human community with one another.  It is only in the context of such a community that real love can exist in any sort of sustainable and life-giving way.

We were created to be in relationship with others face to face.  Jesus got down on the ground and washed his disciples’ feet.  He washed off the dirt and the sweat.  He did things that only slaves do.  When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we take the bread into our hands and put it in our mouths.  We take the cup to our mouths and drink the wine.  We don’t just read about it or partake alone sitting in front of our computers or mobile devices.  Real relationships can only exist and real love is shown by being present with others.

And so, what I want you to think about is how you can show love to others within your communities; in tangible and immediate ways.  In being physically present for those who need our love.  As you move through your lives, think about what Jesus has done for you, and how you, in turn, can touch the lives of others with that love.

Let us pray.

God our Father, you have invited us to share in the supper which your Son gave to his Church to proclaim his death until he comes: may he nourish us by his presence, and unite us in his love; that we can show forth that love to others.  Amen.

Reasonable obedience or unmerited grace?

Sermon,  March 17, 2019 – Second Sunday in Lent, Year C

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Before I begin my sermon, let me admit to you that when I first read through the passage today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I completely misunderstood his point.  You see, my first thought was that Paul was laying a great smack down on hedonists and libertines.  Paul wrote “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.”  I’ll bet when you heard this today, your first impression was the same as mine – Paul is directing his criticism towards the party crowd.  But I was wrong.

With today’s passage, as is so often the case, it is vital to understand the context before getting too carried away with its interpretation.  If we read earlier in the letter to the Philippians, we would learn that Paul is addressing a group in the church that was teaching that strict adherence to Jewish law was necessary for Christians in order to be saved.  They said that the death of Jesus Christ was not sufficient.  This group would have taught that you needed to follow Jewish dietary law and become circumcised.  So when Paul wrote that “their god is their stomach”, he was making the point that, for them, their salvation was achieved via their diet.  And when he wrote “their glory is in their shame”, he was commenting at how they believed that becoming circumcised won them glory with God.

So Paul isn’t going after the party goers here, but actually the goody two-shoes.  While I had first thought that setting our mind on earthly things must mean embracing hedonism, Paul is also telling us that focusing on earthly things can mean a belief that our own earthly behaviors can win us salvation.  This is works based religion, and this was what many Jewish religious leaders at the time taught.

In fact, before his conversion to Christ, Paul was just such a Pharisee, who was very skilled at following the Jewish religious law.  And so when Paul encountered this same attitude amongst some of the Christians in Philippi, he called them out.  Paul knew that throughout the whole of the Old Testament, God’s people repeatedly failed to follow God’s laws and commandments.  This is because all people, including us, are sinful and unable to follow God’s laws.  And so a religion that teaches salvation is dependent on our obedience is one that condemns us.

But Jesus doesn’t condemn us, and the gospel of Jesus Christ is about freeing us from the bondage of sin.  This is why Paul declares in our passage that “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” and that “their destiny is destruction.”  He says this because he knows that it is true.  The gospel of Christ is not about placing more rules on us to follow.  It is about putting our trust in the saving power and grace of Jesus Christ.

Paul says “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”  Our hope is not in our own obedience, following a dietary law or becoming circumcised.  No, our hope is in Jesus Christ, by whose power we are saved.  Not by our own power or obedience, but by Jesus.

This is very important for us to understand.  We human beings always imagine that we are the center of everything.  We like to keep control of everything in our own hands.  It allows us to take pride in our own accomplishments and look askance at the failure of others.  I read a news story this past week about the results of a national poll in which people were questioned about their feelings towards members of the opposing political party.  About 20% of each party’s supporters stated that they thought that the country would be better off if most of their partisan opponents would die.  That’s a pretty shocking result.  And yet it reveals that we each have the tendency to think only the best things about ourselves, while reading wickedness and ill will into the motivations of others.

The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t let us indulge in the fantasy that we are better than others or that we can merit our own salvation.  Instead, it requires that we acknowledge our own sinfulness, and that we must put our trust in the grace of Jesus Christ.  During Lent, we often say together the prayer of humble access prior to receiving communion.  This prayer dates back to the earliest Anglican Book of Common Prayer and is based on two passages from Scripture.  In Matthew 8, a centurion replies to Jesus ““Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  And in Mark a woman replies to Jesus confessing her unworthiness to him by saying “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The prayer of humble access reads as follows

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

I know of Christians who won’t recite this prayer because they think it is too depressing.  They think that it sounds like God does not accept or love us.  But I think quite the opposite.  We are confessing our unworthiness and our sin, but despite that, claiming the love of God and his great mercy towards us.  We are admitting that we’re not in control.  We’re admitting that we’re not any better than our brother or our sister, or our partisan opponent.  We have no claim to salvation on our own merits.  But despite this, Jesus still loves us and gave his life for us.  That is real love.

In our passage from Philippians, Paul was responding to a group in the church who were arguing that Christians had to fully adhere to the Jewish ritual law in order to be fully accepted by God.  We learned that Paul had himself been a Pharisee before he became a Christian.  But here’s the secret.  Our passage from Genesis today shows that God knew from the very beginning that we would never be able to live up to our own side of the bargain.  The Jewish religious teachers were wrong about God.

Let’s look at this passage from Genesis.  I am sure you all find it to be a rather bizarre and somewhat grisly account, with animal carcasses split in two, and a mysterious smoking firepot passing between the halves.  This sounds more like a gruesome psychedelic dream of a drug-addled hippie, than a Bible story.  Or, to make a pun, maybe a different kind of story featuring smoking pot.  So what’s really going on here?

This is actually an incredible story of God’s promise to Abraham.  You see, in the first part of our passage, God promises Abraham that he will be his defender and that Abraham will become a great nation.  Abraham believes God but asked God for a sign of this promise.  And God responded by making a covenant with Abraham.

Covenants were a very important aspect of life in the ancient near east, and the most solemn and important covenants included very graphic rituals that signified the terrible consequences if either side failed to live up to the covenant.  In this case, God had Abraham sacrifice a number of animals, cut them in two and lay each half opposite the other.  With covenants like this, what would happen next is that both parties to the covenant would walk between the carcasses signifying that if they broke the covenant, their fate would be like the sacrificed animals.  In other words, they were declaring that they would forfeit their lives if they did not uphold their end of the covenant.  This was a very serious covenant.

But listen to the rest of the story.  Abraham falls into a deep sleep and he has a vision of a smoking firepot with a blazing torch passing between the carcasses.  The firepot with the torch was God.  Only God walked between the carcasses.  Only God took on himself the potential curse for breaking the covenant.  Abraham did not.  And this was God’s sign to Abraham.

God is telling both Abraham and us today, that he knows that we are unable to keep our side of the covenant.  If God had let Abraham walk with him through the middle of the carcasses, he would be condemning Abraham to certain death.  This is precisely the message that Paul has for the church in Philippi.  If anyone tells them that their salvation depends on how well they keep the Jewish law, than they are condemning themselves to death.  Paul says “their destiny is destruction.”

I want to finish my sermon by reading an excerpt from an excellent and timely article that I read this week that echoes what we heard in today’s readings.  The author wrote “The union between God and his children is not, as so many believe, a covenant built on mutual promises of reasonableness. It’s not a covenant where we promise to make ourselves holy by obeying God’s commands and he promises to make the highway to heaven relatively easy. Rather, it’s a covenant of grace—one where God the Son earns eternal life for us sinners who could not earn it and where God the Father gives that salvation as a free gift to all who believe.”

There is no law that we can follow, or things that we can do that will make us worthy of God’s redemption.  But the good news of Jesus Christ is that God walked through the carcasses.  Not us.  Jesus Christ gave his life for our sins.  He gives us salvation as a free gift.  The Gospel of John tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.“  This is the gospel.

Let us pray, in the words of the prayer of humble access as we look forward to sharing the Lord’s Supper,

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.  Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Are we but dust?

Sermon,  March 6, 2019 –  Ash Wednesday, Year C

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today begins the season of Lent, which culminates in Holy Week and our remembrance of the crucifixion of Jesus, and then the joyful celebration of his resurrection on Easter, the high point of the church year.  I am firmly of the belief that just as we cannot possible fully celebrate Christmas without experiencing Advent, so we cannot fully celebrate Easter without passing through the penitential season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday sets the tone for Lent.  One of the things that used to puzzle me about Ash Wednesday were the words that went with the imposition of ashes “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  That sounds rather bleak and without hope.  In fact, it sounds like what a Christian might say to an atheist in a debate – “if there is no god, then we are just dust and when we die we will return to dust.  But if you are a Christian, your body will be resurrected.”  So, why is the Church telling us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return?

In order to understand this, we need to go all the way back to the beginning to the first part of Genesis.  As you might remember, God created the earth and all that is in it, including human beings.  But Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and their disobedience had grave consequences.  When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, the consequence of their choice was physical death.  In Genesis 3, God says to Adam “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

These words that the Church speaks to us as we are marked with ashes is a stark reminder that we are all under the curse of death for our sins.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote “for the wages of sin is death.”  This is not a thing that we like to hear, but it is important to understand as we begin our Lenten journey.  Left to ourselves and our own devices, we will all die, and we will return to the dust of the earth from which we were created.  There is nothing that we can do to change this fact.

Our culture today hates to hear this message.  We want to think that we are the kings and queens of our own destinies and identities, that we are owed passage into heaven and acceptance by God on our own terms.  We think we are basically good and decent people who will all get to live eternally with God simply because we are who we are.  But this is not the message of the Gospel.  The Bible tells us that if we ignore God and live for ourselves, we will have no hope, and all that we can expect is to return to the dust of the earth.

But stewing in bad news is not what Lent is about, and it is not what Ash Wednesday is about.  Ash Wednesday is quite literally a “come to Jesus” moment for us.  We are confronted with a very difficult truth that if we don’t turn to God, we don’t have anything to look forward to.

But if we do turn to God, then there is good news.  The collect for Ash Wednesday speaks this truth clearly.  “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.”

God loves us and his desire for each one of us is that we turn to him.  The season of Lent concludes with Good Friday when Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross for our sins.  By his death he atoned for our sins.  On Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, demonstrating to us that death is not the end.  Resurrection is the defining event of God’s new creation, and the resurrection of Jesus is the first step in this new creation.  We believe that God will someday do for us and for all creation what he has already done for Jesus Christ.

Listen to Paul writing in his first letter to the Corinthians: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him…The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  And listen again to Paul from his letter to the Romans “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  One of the great values of the Church year is that we take our time to fully experience all the emotions and truths of the Christian journey.  It is not all about joy and thanksgiving that we have been saved from certain death.  We also need to experience the sadness that comes with acknowledging our sins, the grief for our part in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ our Lord, and the repentance and gratitude that this should instill in us.

In ancient times, people wore sackcloth and ashes to publicly express or show their sorrow or regret for having done something wrong.  It was an act of humility.  And so the ashes we are about to receive should be the same for us.  As we will hear momentarily these ashes will be for us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by God’s gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.

And so let us begin our Lenten observance, recalling the words we heard earlier in the service, and which you can find on page 265 of the Book of Common Prayer: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

Let us pray,

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,, Amen.

How about a little humility?

Sermon,  February 10, 2019 –  Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Last week, Barbara, Holly and I attended a retreat at a nearby Presbyterian church in Sacramento.  The speaker mentioned two different ways that people typically approach Christianity.  The first way is the way of merit.  With this way, the Christian thinks “If I follow Jesus, then God will accept me.”  We love God because we want God to love us.  We think that God loves us when we live well, believe the right doctrine, follow the right rules, and practice the right spiritual disciplines.  We figure that if we do these things, then we aren’t as bad as other people.  If we’re better people, then surely we’ll merit God’s love.

If we approach the Christian faith with this way of merit, we might feel better about ourselves if we focus on how much worse other people are than ourselves.  We are tempted to look for the faults in others because that helps us convince ourselves that we are better than them.  They aren’t as orthodox as we are, they aren’t as committed to social justice or equality as we are, and they don’t pray or attend church as often as we do.  This often leads to pride within ourselves and a graceless attitude towards others.

The second way one can approach Christianity is the way of grace.  Following the way of grace, we obey God because God has already accepted us through Jesus Christ.  We know that we are all broken and sinful and in need of forgiveness and that Jesus gave his life to save us from our sins.  We are so full of gratitude for what Jesus did for us that we follow and obey him.  What’s more, we know that Jesus has reconciled the world to God, and we’d like to share God’s love with others.

Under the way of grace, we acknowledge that we are in need to God’s grace and forgiveness.  We realize that we don’t win God’s love because of how special we are, but instead we know God loves us because of how gracious he is.  We acknowledge that we are no better than anyone else in the world.  We look at others who are experiencing difficulties or struggling with more public sins, and think “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

This past week, I reflected more deeply on what I heard on the retreat as I read a very interesting blog post that was reflecting on a controversial interview with the actor Liam Neeson.  Neeson had recounted a story of when he was younger and experienced a dark time of great rage after learning about the rape of a close friend.  He admitted that in this dark time, he harbored violent, racist fantasies of killing someone who looked like the person accused of raping his friend.  In his confession, he condemned the racist and violent thoughts that he had, and warned how dangerous mindless rage was and how it could poison our hearts. His interview was a confession of sin and a public repentance.  Undoubtedly, Neeson thought that people would respond with grace and forgiveness.  But he was wrong.

In response to his confession, many commentators denounced Neeson, and the studio that produced his film cancelled its planned red-carpet premiere.  Those who initially reached out to Neeson with grace and understanding were subsequently attacked for doing so.  Now, I am no great fan of Liam Neeson, but this is just one example of a disturbing trend on social media in which online mobs seek to signal their own virtue by gracelessly condemning others.  Apologies, repentance or long lives of service don’t matter.  All that matters is the public shaming and condemnation of the transgressor.  The author of the blog post commented that typically, the condemnation remains even after the person confesses their wrongs and repents.  He wrote “we have created a culture that despises repentance and condemns grace.”

In this blog post, there is a quote from Alan Jacobs, a Christian commentator.  Jacobs wrote a couple of years ago that “When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains a [vague] sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors.”

Our readings today speak very powerfully to these themes of condemnation, forgiveness, grace, redemption, and self-righteousness.  It’s a message that our culture badly needs to hear.  In fact, I think one of the big reasons why Christianity has lost its influence is that the Church has too often embraced the way of merit and moralism instead of the way of grace.  We are always tempted towards the way of merit, because it puts us in the driver’s seat. It allows us to call the shots, condemn others and feel good about ourselves.  And so, it is no surprise that as our culture drifts from its Christian roots, it is the way of merit that it clings too, while forgetting about grace.

So let’s take a look at our readings.  In our passage from First Corinthians, Paul makes a very powerful statement about the way of grace, offering us a short summary of what our faith is all about.  Paul writes “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  Paul tells us that Christ died for our sins, and this is of first importance.  Indeed, Paul tells us that it is by this gospel we are saved, and that if Christ didn’t die for our sins, our belief is in vain.

Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.  He was buried but was raised on the third day.  As the Book of Common Prayer tells us, God, our heavenly Father, by his tender mercy gave his only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption.  And Jesus made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.  Christ paid the penalty for our sins.  In Isaiah 53, the prophet tells us “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

The Scriptures make it very clear that Jesus Christ had to die for our sins, because we aren’t really the wonderful people we so often like to think we are.  We have no cause whatsoever to boast or to think we are better than anyone else.  None at all.  And Paul makes it really clear that he understands this.  Paul places himself dead last in his listing of the apostles and says “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

Paul is admitting to the early Christians that he was one of the most ardent persecutors of the Church.  He was a bad guy.   He encouraged killings and the destruction of lives.  He acknowledges that it is only by the grace of God that he is what he is.  Not because he was clever, or high born, or more virtuous.  He was none of those things.  God saved Paul out of sheer grace.  And so Paul preached forgiveness, grace and redemption and he was the perfect illustration of it all.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, and the gospel we should preach, is a gospel of forgiveness, grace and redemption.  This is the message that our world shuts out, but one that so many need to hear.  And yet, so many in our world today have a negative view of evangelism, with a negative stereotype of Christians.  They see us as being hypocritical moralists intent on condemning them.  I think that this stereotype has arisen because the Church all too often falls into preaching the way of merit instead of the way of grace.  And, as we know, if we follow the way of merit, we can become prideful and condemning of others.

We need to preach the way of grace.  And our readings from the Old Testament and the Gospel show us the way.  In our passage from the Old Testament, we hear about Isaiah’s initial call to be a prophet.  Isaiah was one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets writing incredible prophecies looking forward to the coming of the Messiah.  But Isaiah realized he was a man not worthy to be in God’s presence.  In his vision, an angel touches a hot cleansing coal to his lips and declares “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”  Before he could be a great prophet, Isaiah had to embrace humility.  He accepted that he was a man unworthy to speak for God, and it was only through the power of God that he had anything at all to say.

But once Isaiah acknowledged his own sinfulness and the incredible mercy and grace of God, his attitude transformed.  No longer did he shrink away from God in fear, but instead, he embraced God’s call on his life.  Isaiah writes that he then “heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”  We can only communicate to others about grace if we have first accepted God’s grace in our own lives.  We first, like Isaiah must acknowledge our own brokenness and unworthiness before God, and then embrace the joy and grace of God as he raises us up, not by our own merit, but because of God’s goodness towards us.

Our Gospel reading is one of the most famous stories in the Gospels concerning evangelism.  In our reading, Jesus tells Peter and his fishing companions to fish in a certain place after having a bad night and not catching a thing.  Peter’s first response to Jesus was that they had already tried but came up empty.  But Jesus persisted and so they did what he told them.  And this time they drew up so much fish that their boats almost sank.  Peter was astonished, but note what his first response was.  He didn’t congratulate himself on his fine fishing skills.  No, instead he recognized that this was God at work and he fell before Jesus and declared that he was not worthy to be in the presence of Jesus.  Peter confessed his unworthiness.  But Jesus told him not to be afraid and declared that just as he brought in so much fish that day, in the days to come Peter would become a fisher of people.

Let’s look at bit more closely at this fishing story.  Peter and his companions were working hard, fishing all night.  But they weren’t catching anything.  The church today seems to be having similar luck with its evangelism efforts.  It was only when the disciples had to trust Jesus and his instructions that they had success.  It was only when the disciples humbled themselves before God and acknowledged their sinfulness that they were able to fill their nets with fish.  I think that there is a lesson in this for us.

Our world is starved for a message of forgiveness, grace and repentance.  We long for someone to come alongside us, and tell us that God forgives us and that he loves us.  This is the gospel.  It is the way of grace.  Evangelism isn’t telling people that they need to be better so that they can be loved by God.  Preaching that will lead to empty nets.  Rather, evangelism is telling people that no matter how unworthy they might be, God loves them so much that he gave his only son to die for them and cleanse them from their sins.

When we do evangelism, we should not look down on others, but rather look on them as our sisters and brothers, no worse nor better than we are, but who are equally in need of God’s forgiveness.  A deep personal humility is a pre-requisite for evangelism, and that starts with the attitude of Paul, Isaiah and Peter.  Lord, I am a sinner not worthy to be in your presence, yet by your grace I have been made worthy to be the son or daughter of God.

But this message is not for you alone.  It’s not for St. Luke’s alone.  It is not for the church alone.  It is a message of grace and redemption for the whole world.  Who does the Lord send to tell the world?  Remember Isaiah?  And, then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord asking “whom shall I send to tell the world?

Let us join now with Isaiah when he replied “Here am I. Send me!”

Let us pray,

Almighty God, by whose grace alone we are accepted and called to your service: strengthen us by your Holy Spirit and make us worthy of our calling.  We ask this in Jesus name, Amen.

The revelation and proclamation of Jesus

Sermon,  January 20, 2019 –  Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today is the second Sunday after the Epiphany.  On Epiphany, January 6, we remembered the Magi who came to worship Jesus.  The Magi were not Jewish, but rather Persian wise men.  And so, the coming of the Magi to worship Jesus demonstrated that Jesus’ divinity and lordship had been revealed to the Gentiles.  Last week, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we focused on the Baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove and God the Father declared “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The season of Epiphany is about the revelation of Jesus Christ, as our lord, as our Messiah and as the son of God.  It is about the revelation of Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know him.  I looked up “epiphany” in the dictionary, and noted that the first definition is that it is a religious holiday, which isn’t that helpful, but then I read the following three definitions for an epiphany:

a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking; or an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.

Now this is a really useful definition, and gets to the heart of what the Epiphany season is all about.

Our collect for today builds on this theme.  “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”  We are praying that we will have Jesus Christ revealed to us as we study Scripture and partake of the sacraments, and so proclaim Jesus to the rest of the world.

As I looked at our readings for today, I realized that what unites them all is a theme of revealing and proclaiming Jesus Christ.  What’s more, I think that each of our three readings covers this theme in a specific way.  We can look at the Isaiah reading as covering the promise of God that foretold the coming of Jesus; the Gospel reading as covering the fulfillment of the promise in Jesus; and the Epistle reading as covering how the Holy Spirit will empower us to proclaim Jesus.  Let’s look at each reading – the promise, the fulfillment and the empowering – through the lenses of revelation and proclamation.

In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah writes about the future vindication of God’s people.  When Isaiah wrote this, the kingdom of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires and the Israelites had been exiled from the Promised Land.  In order to fully understand Isaiah’s message, we need to understand the context of Israel’s defeat and exile.  The basic structure of the Old Testament is that humanity fell into sin, and, in response, God called the people of Israel to be his chosen people through whom salvation would be brought to the whole world.

God called Israel to be his chosen people, and he established several covenants with them.  They were to obey God and be faithful to him, and, in return, God would bless them.  But the Israelites were not faithful.  They disobeyed God’s commandments and even turned away from God to follow idols and the gods of other nations.  In the Eucharist Prayer for Rite II, Prayer B, we pray “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.”  God called Israel to be his people out of love, but they rejected him.

In the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel is sometimes depicted as a marriage.  God is the ever faithful and patient husband, while Israel is the unfaithful and adulterous wife.  In fact, if you read the book of the prophet Hosea, you will see that God called Hosea to marry an unfaithful wife, to be a stark reminder to the Israelites of the time of how Israel was being unfaithful to him.

Now, this symbolism probably seems a bit awkward to us, but it is really important to fully grasp what it conveys.  In the ancient Middle East, women who did not have a husband were liable to live lives in extreme poverty.  Widows were typically destitute.  And so for a wife to be flagrantly unfaithful to a loving husband was to toy with disaster for her.

In this passage, Isaiah is suggesting that the defeated and exiled Israel is like an unfaithful and adulterous wife who finally met up with the disaster and desolation that was inevitably the consequence for her behavior.  That is the starting point for Isaiah, because he declares that God will return like a blazing torch to vindicate his people Israel.  Isaiah is declaring that God loves Israel despite her unfaithfulness and that he will come to redeem her.  Isaiah declares that Israel will no longer experience the desolation of an unfaithful wife cast aside by her husband but will instead be the delight of her husband.  God will no longer pay Israel back with what she deserves for her unfaithfulness but will shower her with grace and declare his redeemed people to be his delight.  This is an incredible message of God’s grace.

In the New Testament, Paul uses a similar illustration when he makes reference to the Church as being the bride of Christ.  Paul writes “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

The message of our passage from Isaiah is that Jesus Christ came for our salvation, even though we have been unfaithful and have turned away from God.  Just like the ancient Israelites, we have turned away from God and follow the desires of our hearts.  Yet, despite this, Jesus came for us, giving up himself to die on the cross, in order that we might be washed clean of our sins and be made children of God.  This is an incredible message of love.  God does not pay us back for what we deserve, but instead God loved us so much that Jesus gave his very life so that we might be redeemed.  This is something that we really do need to share with the world.

Let’s turn now to our Gospel reading.  In this reading, we hear about the first miracle of Jesus.  He was at a wedding when the host ran out of wine.  At the urging of his mother, Jesus saved the day by turning several large jars of water into wine.  What is the point of this passage you might ask?  That Jesus is the guy that overly frugal wedding planners should always be sure to invite?  No, the point of this passage can be found near the end.  John writes “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

This story is about Jesus making his first public declaration that he was the Messiah.  Jesus Christ came to fulfill God’s promise of salvation that were made in the Old Testament.   Listen again to the words of Prayer B “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.”  Our Gospel reading is the first sign that Jesus did in which he claimed the mantle of being the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise.

Finally, let’s turn to the Epistle reading from Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth.  Paul is writing the Corinthians about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Scholars believe that pagans who lived in the ancient world would have been very familiar with ecstatic spiritual experiences.  In many pagan religious rites, worshippers would engage in ecstatic spiritual utterances.  And so Paul is explaining to Christians that the mere existence of such spiritual activities is not a sign of God’s presence. 

Paul brings back all spiritual activity to the person of Jesus Christ.  If a person is declaring that Jesus is Lord, than the Holy Spirit is present, and if they deny the lordship of Jesus, than it is not of the Holy Spirit.  Paul continues by declaring that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are all given by the one God, for the common good, at the discretion of God himself.  The point of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not for ourselves, or to puff ourselves up to appear extra spiritual.  The gifts of the Holy Spirit are for the common good, to accomplish the purposes of God in our world.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are to enable us to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.  That is God’s purpose.  This can be done through preaching, ministering, healing, and prophesying.  The Holy Spirit will be with us as we do all of these things.  We still live in a world of sin that is opposed to God and the message of Jesus and sometimes the Holy Spirit will guide us to discern spirits or exercise spiritual wisdom.  The point is that the Holy Spirit will help us proclaim Jesus Christ to the world.  We are not in this all by ourselves.  Jesus promised that he would send us the Holy Spirit, and he has.

To sum up, our readings today tell us about the great promise of salvation that God fulfilled for us in Jesus Christ.  Despite our sinfulness, Jesus Christ came to earth and die for us to redeem us and make it possible for us to become sons and daughters of God.  This is a message of hope and salvation that we are called to proclaim throughout the world.  But we are not alone in accomplishing this task.  God has sent us the Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us. 

And so, let us pray once again the collect for today, which summarizes it for us so well,

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.  Amen.

Prepare the way for the return of the King

Sermon, December 9, 2018 – Second Sunday of Advent, Year C

Malachi 3:1-4; The Song of Zechariah (Luke 1: 68-79); Luke 3:1-6

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent.  As most of us know, in the Church year, the season of Advent immediately precedes our celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ into the world on Christmas Day.  Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming.  Each Sunday in Advent has a theme related to how we might look forward to the coming of Jesus.  Last week, we celebrated with a festival of Advent lessons and carols. We heard how sin entered into our world through Adam and Eve, how the prophets foretold the coming of Jesus to redeem us from our sins, and how God revealed the coming birth of the Messiah to Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

Today’s Advent theme is very clear from our readings and the collect which we heard earlier in the service.  Let’s hear it again “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”  Today we heard Malachi’s prophesy of how the Messiah will come like a Refiner’s Fire, burning away all impurity.  We heard Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s call for repentance, echoing the prophet Isaiah.  And we read together the song of Zechariah,praising God for sending the Messiah as promised by the prophets of old.

Our readings tell us why the Messiah came to earth and what our part in that was.  The problems that beset the Israelites in the time of Malachi and Isaiah still beset us today.  We have turned our back on God and disobeyed his commandments.  As a consequence, we live in slavery to sin and in a world in need of redemption.

Before we look at our readings for today, we need to briefly consider what the Old Testament tells us about our human tendency to sin and to disobey God, and the many promises and actions of God to lift us out of sin.  In our first lesson last week during Lessons and Carols, we saw that the problem started at the very beginning when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden.  Later in Genesis, we learn that humans became so wicked that God almost destroyed everyone in a flood, but he saved Noah and his family.

God’s greater plan for salvation began when he called Abraham out of the city of Ur, located in what is now southern Iraq, and promised to make his descendants into a great nation.  But before this could take place, during the time of Joseph, the Israelites moved to Egypt and became slaves to Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  God saved his people out of Egypt during the Exodus, and, despite their complaints against God and their disobedience, God made a covenant with them at Mt.Sinai.  God set out his law, including the Ten Commandments, and established the sacrificial system in which the blood of animals was offered up in atonement for the sins of the people.

The Israelites inhabited the promised land of Canaan, but repeatedly turned their back on God and disobeyed him.  God continually had to step in and save them from the consequences of their disobedience.  God established David as the king of Israel and made an important covenant with him, promising that David’s line would always rule over Israel.  God warned the Israelites however, that if they disobeyed him and turned to other gods, that they would suffer terrible consequences, including military defeat and enslavement by their enemies.  Sure enough, the Israelites turned away from God and engaged in flagrant disobedience, turning to pagan gods.  As a result, the great empires of the time, Assyria and Babylon, invaded and defeated the kings of Israel and Judah and forced the people into exile.

This is the context into which the Old Testament prophets wrote to the people.  The prophets reminded the people that God promised to come and save them from their slavery and oppression if they would turn to him.  The covenant that God had made with the Israelites called on them to serve and obey Him.  God was not some supernatural mercenary force that the people could pay to come and bail them out and then resume their disobedience.  No, the people needed first to put aside their pagan gods and return to their true God.  Only then would God return to save his people.

Note a couple of things.  First, there was a need for the people to repent.  Continuing on in their sinful and disobedient ways was not an option. If they looked to God for salvation, they needed to repent and return to God.  This makes sense and applies to us today as well.  If we disregard God and ignore him, we are not likely to call on him for our rescue.  On the other hand, if we truly do call out to God to save us, it implies that we are acknowledging our need for God.

Second, the repentance and returning to God wasn’t what would save the people.  Rather the repentance set the stage for God to step in and save us from that which is far too powerful for us to defeat –be it our enemies, our lustful appetites, our selfishness, or our sins.  Our obedience does not save us.  Rather it is our turning to God that makes us open to taking hold of God’s promise of salvation to us.  Only God can save us.

So with that, let’s turn to our reading from Malachi.  Malachi writes that God will send his messenger to prepare the way.  Then he says that the Messiah, who the people are seeking, will come to his temple.  So far, so good.  But then Malachi asks“But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.”  When the Messiah comes, he will bring some hard-core cleansing. When workers refined metal, they used a very hot fire to heat the metal to a molten state and then skimmed off the dross.  In ancient times, people doing laundry would scrub their clothes with a very caustic soap that was effective in removing all stains.  These are both illustrations of what we can expect when Jesus enters our lives – he will purify us from our sins and that experience won’t always be comfortable for us.  But it is necessary.

In our Gospel reading from Luke, we are introduced to John the Baptist who went about “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Luke makes it clear that John was preparing the way for Jesus, and he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.”  First century Jews would have known the rest of the Isaiah passage from which this is taken.  We can find it today in Isaiah chapter 40.  This is a very famous chapter which looks forward to the coming of the Messiah.  Listen to me read part of it for you.

Comfort,comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.  For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.  Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.  You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”

See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.  See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.

He tends his flock like a shepherd:  He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

In this passage we hear that even though our faithfulness is like grass that withers, God’s word endures forever.  Isaiah wrote this prophecy when Israel was in deep trouble due to its unfaithfulness to the Lord.  The people had no right to expect that God would save them.  And yet, we hear God speak tenderly to his people and proclaim comfort for his people.  God declares that Israel’s sin has been paid for.  The Lord will come and tend his flock like a shepherd, gathering us into his arms and carrying us close to his heart.

This is what John the Baptist was proclaiming says Luke.  It is Jesus Christ to whom John was pointing.  Jesus Christ who, despite our unfaithfulness has paid for our sins.  Jesus Christ who speaks tender words of comfort to us.  And Jesus Christ who would gather us into his arms and carry us close to his heart.  Preparing for our Messiah is what the season of Advent is all about.  Repenting of that which pushes Jesus away from us. Confessing our sins so that we can receive the forgiveness that Jesus won for us.

Our repentance does not make us worthy of God’s salvation.  Rather,God is reaching out to us, even though we have turned away from him and put ourselves and our sinful desires first in our lives.  Repentance is our necessary step to receiving God’s salvation.  Think of it this way –if you are in a battle, and you come to realize that the army you are fighting is actually in the right, and they have proclaimed to you that they will treat you honorably and fairly if you stop fighting, you must first surrender, lay down your arms and present yourself to the other side before you can cast yourself on their mercy.  This is a basic necessity.  And this is like what repentance is.  In fact, this is exactly what repentance is.  Turning away from that which is hostile to God so that you can receive God’s love for you.

The Song of Zechariah, which we said together in place of the Psalm today, and which can be found in Luke 1 brings this all together.  In this song,Zechariah sang about the coming Messiah, recounting how the coming of Jesus fulfills God’s promises made of old.  We heard about some of these promises earlier on in this sermon, including the major promises made to Abraham and David.

Zechariah tells us that Jesus will come “To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.  In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  We hear again the themes of God’s compassion towards us and the forgiveness of our sins.  We hear also of how Jesus Christ will break through to us who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and that he will bring to us the light of God just as the dawn follows a long night.

I don’t know about you, but as I meditated on and pondered all of our readings today, I was greatly moved to thankfulness and rejoicing.  As I look around the world today, I see a world cast in the shadow of sin and death.  A world in which darkness seems to prevail at every turn.  A world of greed,self-centeredness, and self-interest.  A world of radical disobedience to God, and indeed a world which proudly and affirmatively turns its back on God.  But this is the world to which the prophets of the Old Testament spoke to.  It’s nothing new.  It’s what’s always been.

And God is breaking through the shadow, darkness, sin and disobedience. Zechariah tells us that “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”  Jesus has come.  Our redemption is at hand.  Come, let us prepare ourselves to receive him.  After my prayer, we will sing together Hymn 67 “Comfort, comfort ye my people”, which is a paraphrase of Isaiah 40.  Let that be our prayer this Advent.

Let us pray, hearing again the words of today’s Collect. 

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Who Do YOU Say That Jesus Is?

Sermon,  September 16, 2018 –  Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year B
Mark 8:27-38

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

“Who do you say that I am?”  With this question Jesus asks his disciples one of the most important questions any of them would ever have to answer.  It’s also the most important question we will ever have to answer.

Who do you say that Jesus is?  It’s important to get this right.

This isn’t a school quiz or a question on Jeopardy though.  It’s not a matter of scoring a right answer so you can be rewarded with an A, or even rewarded with a lifetime in heaven.  That’s not what this is about.

It is important to get right because your answer to this question will determine how you live the rest of your life, and what your relationship with God will be.

This past week, the news featured stories on the preparations in Virginia and the Carolinas for Hurricane Florence.  About a million people were evacuated from their homes, while many others prepared their homes, boats, businesses, and animals for the coming storm.

What did these residents of Virginia and the Carolinas say that Hurricane Florence was?  Why would such a question be important?  If you lived there, and you thought Hurricane Florence was just a minor weather event and no big deal, chances are you wouldn’t bother evacuating or boarding up your house.  On the other hand, if you believed and understood that Hurricane Florence was a potentially deadly storm, capable of great destruction and flooding, you would prepare.  Your answer to the question of what you believed Hurricane Florence was could have life or death consequences for you.  Answering this question wouldn’t just be academic, it would be foundational to determining how you spent your week.

Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” is a question like that.  It’s not a debating point to distract us from our real lives, or an irrelevant question.  This should be the foundational question for how we live our lives.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel passage and see what we can learn about this question.  Jesus begins by asking his disciples “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples tell Jesus that they’ve heard the people mention John the Baptist, Elijah, and one of the Old Testament prophets.  It sounds pretty apocryphal to me.  Was Jesus really a guy who had been beheaded a few months earlier?  Or an Old Testament hero returned to earth?  I get the sense that the disciples were probably enjoying themselves at this point, recounting to Jesus the wilder suggestions they had heard the people make.

But notice how Jesus immediately turns the question to the disciples.  “But what about you?” Jesus asks. “Who do you say I am?”  Suddenly the disciples are put on the spot.  No more poking fun at the silly crowds, they now have to answer the question themselves.  Peter answers “You are the Messiah.”  Now you are probably thinking, like I did at first, that Peter answered correctly.  But as I studied this passage, I realize that he did not.  His answer was as wrong as the crowds.  You see, Peter had a different idea of what the messiah was than we do.

In order to understand Peter’s answer, we first need to understand the Messianic expectations of the Jewish people at this time.  Last weekend, Barbara and I attended a retreat in which we learned all about how the Old and New Testaments form one overall story about God’s work in the world.  It is really important to understand the whole context when looking at any one part of the Bible.  One of the things we learned about was the messianic expectations of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus.

Let me give you a very quick history lesson of the Jewish people.  The nation of Israel reached its zenith during the time of King David and his son King Solomon.  King David established Israel as a military power in the region and secured Israel as its own independent kingdom.  King Solomon used the stability that his father had won to build the great Temple in Jerusalem.  However, after Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two squabbling kingdoms and experienced ups and down until they were finally conquered by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.  The Jewish people were sent into exile.  Eventually, the Babylonian empire was conquered by the Persians, who let the Jews return to the land of Israel and to become a semi-autonomous state known as Judea.

The Persian Empire fell to the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and eventually to Rome.  During this time, Judea was sometimes permitted to exist semi-autonomously, but was often persecuted.  Judea was never independent.  They were always under the thumb of the Persians, Greeks or Romans.  The Jews longed for a leader who would defeat all their enemies and re-establish Israel as a military power just as it had been under King David.

As you may know, the Old Testament prophets promised that the Messiah would come to fulfill God’s promises to Israel.  This messiah was prophesied to be the son of David, meaning not only that he would be of true royal blood, but that he would be victorious.  And so the Jewish people were expecting a King David-like military hero messiah to come and defeat the Romans for them.

When I was younger I loved to read about King Arthur of Britain.  I vividly recall being entranced by the title bestowed on him – “the once and future king.”  This title suggests that Arthur was not only king in the past, but that he would be the future king also.  King Arthur was the great storybook king of Britain in the Dark Ages.  But legend was that the wizard Merlin had magically hidden King Arthur in a cave from which he would emerge at Britain’s darkest hour, vanquish Britain’s enemies and rule Britain once again as the mighty king.

This is the sort of figure that Peter and the crowds were expecting.  When Peter answers Jesus’ question by saying “You are the Messiah”, he meant that he thought Jesus was a King Arthur figure.  Peter was saying that he thought that Jesus was going to become a great military leader who would liberate Judea from Roman rule, and re-establish a powerful nation of Israel.

We often miss this, because we have been conditioned to have a different concept of what is meant when we call Jesus the Messiah.  We think that Peter answered correctly, because we know that Jesus is the Messiah.  The problem lies in what it means to be the Messiah.  Peter badly misunderstood this.  Jesus realizes this, and this realization of how wrong the disciples were is probably why Jesus orders them to keep quiet and not tell others about him.  Jesus knows that before the disciples tell others about him, they must first truly understand who he is.

Jesus starts to tell them what being the Messiah really means.  He tells them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by Jewish leaders, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.  Jesus is telling them that the Messiah would be more like the suffering servant found in Isaiah 53, and a lot less like a returning military champion.

Listen to some excerpts from Isaiah’s suffering servant prophesy:  “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering.  [H]e was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”  Jesus was telling his disciples that being the Messiah would not bring him military victory but rather suffering, scorn, rejection, and even death.

This upset the disciples.  It was not what they wanted to hear.  Peter started to argue with Jesus, rebuking him.  Peter thought that he could argue Jesus into being the military hero messiah that he wanted Jesus to be.  And think about it from Jesus’ perspective.  Which would you rather be – a conquering hero, beloved by all, or the suffering servant, despised and rejected, and put to death for the sins of others?  This is why Jesus reacted so strongly to Peter.  Peter is tempting Jesus in just the same way that Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry.

And so Jesus says to Peter “Get behind me, Satan!  You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”  Peter wanted Jesus to be a messiah who would make his life easier.  A messiah who would give him all the advantages in this life.  A messiah who would make him popular, as the exalted follower of the guy who liberated the Jews from the Roman superpower.

This is the Jesus we so often want, even today.  For many years, when Christianity was the dominant faith in society, claiming Jesus did give you an advantage in this life.  If you wanted better job prospects or to be accepted in the best circles of society, you made sure that everybody knew you went to church.  It was the socially expected thing to do.  But much has changed over the last fifty years.  Today, Jesus doesn’t bring you social advantages.  In fact, today, associating with Jesus can be career or social suicide.

We often hear a lot about how so many people have fallen away from Christianity.  But I think that most of the people who have left the faith were only nominal Christians – Christians only because Jesus gave them a social advantage.  And once that advantage ended, they stopped claiming to follow Jesus.  They wanted the messiah that brought them victories, not the messiah that brought them suffering.

At last weekend’s retreat, the speaker said that the primary tool Jesus Christ uses to extend his Kingdom here on earth is a persecuted and suffering church.  This is how the early Church expanded across the Roman Empire.  It was constantly persecuted and there were many martyrs, but the Church spread mightily.  Jesus tells us that in order to follow him, we must be prepared to put aside all, and follow him alone.  He said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”  We must be prepared to pay this ultimate cost.  This is following the example of Jesus who gave his life for us.

Our retreat speaker told us an amazing story about his encounter with a former al Qaida fighter.  When he was part of al Qaida, this man believed that God called on him to kill those who disobeyed God.  But at some point, he began to question this.  Eventually, he encountered the Gospel, and he learned about Jesus Christ who was God, and who died for the sins of the people in order that they might be saved.   When he heard this, he knew he had found the truth.  God wasn’t calling on him to kill others because they disobeyed, but rather God was calling him to follow Jesus Christ who gave his life to save his people from their disobedience.  What an amazing contrast!

This is the Gospel.  Who do you say that Jesus is?  If you say that he is the Son of God who gave his life to save you from your sins and allow you to become redeemed and transformed sons and daughters of God, then you will be willing to offer your whole self as a living sacrifice in service of Jesus.  It will affect how you live your life.  Jesus puts this in very stark terms when he asks “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”  Think carefully when you decide which messiah you want to follow.  The messiah of worldly advantage or the messiah who is the suffering Savior who gave his life for you?

Who do you say that Jesus is?  Let us choose wisely, because our lives and our souls depend on our answer.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that Jesus Christ is reconciling the world to you through his suffering and death for our sins: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you.  We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Sermon  August 19, 2018  Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year B
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

There is a saying in the computer world that says “garbage in, garbage out.”  When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand what this meant.  But I do now.  It is used by computer programmers to suggest that no matter how good their program is, if the user enters in bad information to the computer, they will get bad information out.  Let me give you a specific example from my work as the church treasurer.  We use the QuickBooks program to keep track of finances.  At the end of each month, I need to print out information to let both the Mission Committee and the diocese know about the financial situation of the church.  Suppose I just spend the month entering nonsense into QuickBooks.  Would I magically then get an accurate monthly report?  No, of course not.  I will only get an accurate report if I accurate enter all the information in.

The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” can also apply to each one of us, as individual human beings.  If we fill ourselves with garbage, chances are that it’s going to be garbage coming out of us.  Think about our diet.  If we constantly eat junk food, we’re probably going to be very unhealthy and experience serious health consequences.  If we eat too much fattening food, we won’t lose weight.  Think about our environment.  If we constantly breathe in polluted air, or are exposed to dangerous chemicals, we can expect to be faced with sickness and disease.

This concept goes beyond the physical though.  It also applies to the intellectual and the spiritual.  If we are immersed in rude and dismissive behavior – whether this is on social media platforms, or by watching television or movies, or the way we interact with friends and family – then we are very likely to become rude and dismissive to others.  I watched a news story this past week about a formerly racist man who spoke about how he was drawn into the racist lifestyle.  He started out as an angry young man just out of the military but he immersed himself in racist thought.  He filled his mind with hate, and he became what he filled himself with.

Many studies show that men who consume pornography, become unable to develop real relationships with women, and sometimes are unable to even perform sexually.  Pornography can also have a similar effect of women.  Young people are immersed in a hook up culture that teaches them that others are simply there to meet their sexual needs.  The end result is the same – more loneliness and sexual and relationship dysfunction.

It matters what we fill ourselves with.  If we fill ourselves with ideas, thoughts, ideologies, and worldviews that are antithetical to God, then we will not live obediently to God.  If we fill ourselves with hatred, we will not be loving.  If we fill ourselves with self-centered lust, we will not be good husbands or wives.  If we fill ourselves with greedy thoughts of money, we will not be generous to others.

Our culture is constantly trying to fill us with bad and unhealthy things.  Unhealthy food, overly individualistic attitudes in areas of money, sexuality, and personal achievement.  We are taught that life is all about us, that we are the only ones that matter.  And we wonder at how our society has become so coarse and vile.  If we fill ourselves with things that are displeasing to God, then it is a good bet that we will live lives that are displeasing to God.  We need to fill ourselves with God pleasing things.

This is the theme that runs through all of our readings today.  In our readings from the book of Kings, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and from the Gospel of John, we learn how important it is that we fill ourselves with the right things.  Each passage discusses something important with which we can fill ourselves, and so become more obedient disciples of Jesus.  And so let’s consider each reading in turn.

Our first reading comes from the Old Testament Book of Kings, and looks to an event at the very beginning of King Solomon’s reign over Israel.  Solomon was the son of the great King David, who God had used to establish a strong kingdom for Israel.  We read that God came to Solomon one night and said to him “Ask what I shall give you.”  That’s a pretty awe inspiring question to come from God.  I remember when I was a kid discussing with friends what three things you would ask for if a wizard gave you three wishes.  I always thought that the smart move was to leave the final wish very open ended, saying “and my third wish is that you will keep granting me whatever I want.”  I am sure that God would not have been impressed.

Solomon could have asked for anything from God.  He might not have gotten it, but he could have asked.  He could have asked for even greater military success than his father David.  He could have asked for great riches.  Or he could have asked to be the most handsome guy in the world.  But he didn’t.  Instead Solomon replied to God saying “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”  Solomon asked for wisdom and a discerning mind, and he made this request from a position of humility and service to God’s people.

This pleased God because Solomon did not ask for something that would benefit himself, but for something that would allow him to serve both God and the people.  Solomon asked that he would have the understanding to discern right from wrong.  God honored Solomon’s request, and responded by saying “if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”  Wisdom, understanding and the discernment of right from wrong is all about walking in the ways of God and being obedient to him.

Psalm 111, which we read together today, tells of the goodness of God and of how he has redeemed his people and then concludes by saying “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.”  Being wise means to humble ourselves before God, seeking out his ways, his commandments, and his calling on our lives.

And so, this is the first thing that we should fill ourselves with.  Beginning from a place of humility before God, let us fill ourselves with a knowledge of God, his precepts and his commandments.  Let us fill ourselves with everything that God has revealed of himself to us in the Bible.  Let us fill ourselves with obedience, awe, and the fear of the Lord.

Our second reading comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, concluding a larger passage in which Paul urges the Ephesians to reject the sinful behaviors that had characterized their lives before they heard the Gospel.  Paul tells them “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.”  And he gives them advice on how they can do this.  Paul writes “and do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He is telling us not to fill ourselves with things that will draw us away from God, but instead to fill ourselves with the Holy Spirit.  And we can do this most effectively by praising God both in outwardly and in our hearts, and by “giving thanks always” to God.

Paul’s advice accomplishes a number of things.  First, when we praise God, we won’t be praising ourselves.  When we praise God, we are giving him the glory, and doing this should give us a spirit of humility before God.  When we thank God, we will develop a spirit of gratitude towards him, and we won’t be focused on all of our perceived injustices and demands.  Instead we will be focused on our own shortcomings, and thankful that God has saved us from sin.  In turn, our gratitude towards God will make us more generous to others.  So let us fill ourselves with praise and thanksgiving towards God.

In our passage from the Gospel of John, we read about filling ourselves with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  As I read what various commentators have said about this passage, I learned that many argue that this is not primarily about the Eucharist.  This passage comes well before Jesus introduced the Lord’s Supper, and so while we can apply this teaching to the Eucharist, we need to ask what John’s primary objective was in including it.

I think that this is a passage that is very rich and deep in meaning.  It communicates many truths to us via the illustration of eating the body of Jesus and drinking his blood.  I want to highlight a few layers.  First, Jesus says “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  With this comment Jesus is pointing back to the time when the people of Israel had escaped captivity in Egypt in the time of the Exodus.  They had been wandering in the desert and were going hungry.  The Lord sent manna to the people so that they would survive.  Jesus is declaring that he is like this manna, except whereas people had to keep eating the manna again and again to stay alive, with Jesus we will live forever.  Jesus is telling us that he is our lifeline, that if we fill ourselves with him, we will have eternal life.

The second way of looking at this comes from Bishop N.T. Wright of the Church of England.  He suggests that concept of eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood means that we are taking on ourselves the benefit that Jesus gave us by giving his body and blood for us in the crucifixion.  Bishop Wright points to a story in the Old Testament when David refuses to drink some water that men had risked their lives to bring him.  David says that to drink the water would be akin to drinking their blood because they had placed their lives on the line.  And so when John writes “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” what he means that unless we accept and take hold of the forgiveness of our sins that Jesus Christ won for us through his death on the cross, then we have no life in us.  This sort of language would have been shocking for the people to hear from Jesus.  We need to eat his body and drink his blood?  What craziness is this?  And yet, the truth that this points to is that Jesus put his body and his blood on the line for us when he died on the cross in our place.  Shocking, for sure, but an absolute necessity.  This is a complicated concept, but a very important one.

I think that these are the two main points of our Gospel passage, and they both point to the Lord’s Supper.  We need to fill ourselves with Jesus because there is nothing else that will sustain us.  Just like the manna in the desert was the only option for life for the people of Israel in the time of the Exodus, so is Jesus Christ our only option for life today.  And we need to realize the shocking reality of what the crucifixion of Jesus means for us today, and that our only hope for eternal life is to accept his death and the forgiveness that the sacrifice of his body and blood won for us.

We need to fill ourselves with Jesus Christ.  We need to fill ourselves with faith in him as the only source of true life in this world.  We need to fill ourselves with the awesome reality that he gave his body and blood on the cross to win for us eternal life.  If we fill ourselves with Jesus in this way, we can’t but help become his disciples and live for him.

And so what will we fill ourselves with?  Garbage in will mean garbage out.  Is that what we want?  I don’t think so.  Let’s fill ourselves with wisdom, discernment, humility before God, praise and thanksgiving towards God, and finally with Jesus Christ.  When we fill ourselves with these things, we have become part of the Kingdom, abiding with God and God abiding in us.  Amen.

Let us pray.

God of constant mercy, who sent your Son to save us: you are always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than we deserve: fill us with wisdom, discernment, praise and thanksgiving, and most of all with the knowledge of your Son Jesus Christ.  Increase your grace within us, that our thankfulness may grow, through Jesus Christ our Lord; Amen.

Faith in Power, or Power in Faith?

Sermon,  July 1, 2018 –  Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Mark 5:21-43

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today’s gospel reading brings into focus two concepts – power and faith.  As I thought about these two things during the course of this week, I watched the news unfold.  I realize what a stark contrast exists between our human view of power and our shallow faith in such power, and the Gospel’s description of God’s power, and the critical importance of our faith in Jesus.

This week, an elderly man who has a connection to the law school where I work decided to retire.  That makes it sound rather ordinary, right?  Well, this elderly man was Justice Anthony Kennedy and he decided to retire from the United States Supreme Court.  Many people are declaring that this is the most significant event in our generation.  It has dominated the news and social media cycles for the rest of the week.  And if you paid attention to everything that was said, you would see the human view of power is on stark display.

Many commentators said that Justice Kennedy was the second most powerful man in the United States after the President.  He was the swing vote on the Supreme Court, which many argue has become too powerful for the good of the nation.  The Supreme Court can tell people and governments what they can and can’t do, and sometimes what they must do.  The court is powerful because it can permit government to force others or forbid them from forcing others to do things.

We see the secular view of power in other aspects of this development.  The Republicans are happy because they have the power to choose Justice Kennedy’s replacement.  The Democrats are very angry and upset because they lost that power when they lost the last election.  In all these examples, the secular view of power has to do with control and coercion over others.  It’s the same view of power that Satan tempted Jesus with at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth.  If only Jesus would bow before Satan, Satan would give him power over the earth.

We also can see the secular view of faith in this event.  Republicans have faith that with a newly minted conservative majority on the Court, their valued rights will be protected for the next generation and all will be well.  In contrast, Democrats are in despair, with many feeling that all their political hopes depended on having a friendly Supreme Court majority.  Without that, they believe the country will devolve into dystopia.  One individual tweeted: “Literally in tears. Haven’t felt this hopeless in a long time.”

This is secular faith in secular power.  In his masterpiece trilogy, the Lord of the Rings, author J.R.R. Tolkien addressed this issue of secular faith and power.  In this story, there was a Ring of Power, which could be used to control others and bend their wills to the service of whoever held the ring.  This Ring symbolized secular power, and Tolkien wrote about it as follows “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

For those of you who do not know the book, the basic plot is that the forces of good find the magic ring, while the Dark Lord seeks to take it away from them.  Part of the plot revolves around a disagreement within the forces of good, with some arguing that the leaders of the forces of good should take the ring and use its power to bring about good.  But their wise leader, Gandalf the Wizard, knows that such power will always corrupt those who would wield it.

And so both Republicans and Democrats thirst for the Ring of Power, convinced that they need it in order to create the society they desire.  But faith in secular power is a dangerous thing.  It will never bring about lasting justice or peace, but it always threatens to corrupt those who wield it.

In today’s Gospel passage, we learn some important lessons about God’s power, and where we as Christians ought to place our faith.  In our story, Jesus is approached by Jairus, a local religious leader who asked him to come and heal his daughter.  Jesus agrees and begins to walk to Jairus’ house.  He is surrounded by a crowd and on the way, a sick woman reaches out to touch him.  Jesus feels power flowing out of him and he seeks out the woman who touched him.  But then, messengers from Jairus’ house come to report that his daughter has died.  Nevertheless, Jesus presses on and raises the little girl back to life.

We have one story of a healing, embedded within another.  I learned in my sermon preparation that embedding one story within another is common in the Gospel of Mark, and is sometimes referred to as a Markan sandwich.  One story sandwiched within another.  In any case, both of these stories tell us about the power of Jesus and faith in him.

Both Jairus and the sick woman had heard about the healing power of Jesus and made the decision to reach out to him to gain access to it.  Jairus came up and asked Jesus to come and heal his daughter, while the woman simply got close enough to touch him.  The power of Jesus was well known and apparently with good reason.  At the end of the day, both the little girl and the sick woman had been healed.

Let’s think a little bit more about the power of Jesus.  It wasn’t used to control anyone, to coerce anyone, or to boss anyone.  It was not wielded against anyone; it did not have a selfish agenda.  The power of Jesus was used to heal.  It healed a woman who had a long-standing blood disease, and it raised a little girl from a premature death.  Jesus turned down secular power when the Devil tempted him with it in the wilderness.  But Jesus still had God’s power.  And he wielded that power for healing.  Last week, we heard in the Gospel reading the story when Jesus used his power to calm a storm that was threatening to drown the disciples on a boat.

And on Good Friday, and then Easter morning, God used his power to raise Jesus Christ from the dead, to free us from our sins, and guarantee us that we will all be resurrected at the end of time.  God’s power is not used to advance a partisan or selfish agenda.  It is not used to manipulate or to gain an advantage.  God’s power is used to heal, to calm a storm, and to raise the dead to new life.

This is power to have faith in.  And both Jairus and the woman had faith.  Let’s look at the woman to begin with.  I think that she responds in faith, twice over.  First, despite her illness, she braves the crowd and jostles through the people so that she can touch Jesus.  She knew that if she could only touch Jesus, she would be healed.  And she was healed.  But it didn’t end there.  Jesus knew that he was touched and so he stopped and asked who touched him.

Here is where it gets interesting.  You see, the woman had a blood disease.  Biblical scholars believe that the disease was almost certainly a constant menstrual bleeding, which would have made her ritually unclean.  Because she was ritually unclean, she should not be out in a crowd, and anyone she touched would also be rendered ritually unclean.  And so, she wasn’t just touching Jesus, but she was touching him in a way that would have been seriously frowned upon.  Think of it this way – suppose I came to church with a bad head cold, and just as we were passing the peace, I sneezed all over my hand.  Then without washing it off, I held it out to you to shake.  Gross, right?  Well, what this woman did was ten times worse than that.

And so, when Jesus turned around and said “Who touched me?” this woman had a legitimate reason to panic.  She could have been in serious trouble.  And so she took her biggest step of faith in the story.  She “came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth.”  This woman trusted Jesus.  She had faith that she could tell him what she had done.  How many of us would have had the courage or faith to do such a thing?  She trusted that the power of God was power for healing.  She had reached out for physical healing, and now she reached out for spiritual healing.  And Jesus told her “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

We also learn about faith from Jairus and his story.  Jairus approached Jesus openly and asked him to come heal his daughter.  He told Jesus that his daughter was at the point of death.  You know that his summons to Jesus was an urgent one.  And yet, as Jesus was on his way, they were delayed by the sick woman.  And, sure enough, no sooner had Jesus dealt with her, than messengers came from the home where Jairus’ daughter was, with word that she had died.

The servants of Jairus told him that it was too late, and to forget about Jesus coming to heal his daughter.  But Jesus said to Jairus “Do not fear, only believe.”  And although it is not stated, Jairus must have listened to Jesus, as they continued on to his home where his daughter lay.  Once they got to the home, Jesus told the crowd that the girl was not dead, but they laughed at him.  They did not believe him and so he sent them out.  Jairus and his wife had faith in Jesus, and Jesus brought them in to where their daughter lay.  Jesus raised their daughter from her apparent death.  Jairus and his wife had faith in Jesus in the midst of others’ disbelief.  And their faith was proved well founded.

While Jesus did do many healings when he was on earth, he did not heal everyone.  His healings and miracles were done to show people what his mission was all about.  Jesus was demonstrating that the Kingdom of God was being revealed through him.  He was giving us a foretaste of God’s kingdom and what the power of God could do in the world.  The Gospel stories tell us how people joined with Jesus in the revelation of his kingdom.  We see in today’s Gospel how the woman with the blood disease, and Jairus and his wife and daughter, joined Jesus in the Kingdom.  They joined Jesus by having faith.

Having faith does not always mean the absence of fear.  When Jesus tells Jairus “do not fear, only believe”, I don’t think that he was chastising him or issuing a directive.  Rather, I think that Jesus was encouraging him.  I have heard it said that courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting in spite of it.  This is true for faith in Jesus as well.  We may still fear, we may still doubt, but we do need to trust Jesus enough to follow him to the next step.  Because we know that we can rely on him in the end.

In Romans, Paul writes “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.“

We are called to trust Jesus and join with Him in bringing his kingdom here on earth.  We are called to share what God’s power is all about.  Human power will not bring lasting joy, truth or justice.  Faith in human power will corrupt us.  Human power will ultimately fail us.  By placing our faith in human power, we are setting ourselves up to remain mired in sin and death.

Jesus calls us to put our trust in him.  “Do not fear, only believe.”  Only Jesus has the power to heal our world, bring about mercy and justice, and assure us that in the end we will live in resurrected bodies in the new heaven and new earth, where God will dwell with us.  This is power that will neither corrupt nor fail us.

Let us pray.

Eternal God, comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken, you feed us at the table of life and hope: give us faith in you and teach us the ways of gentleness and peace, that all the world may acknowledge the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.; Amen.

Let Us Not Lose Heart

Sermon,  June 10, 2018 –  Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

How often do you feel discouraged?  That things just seem to be going downhill too quickly?  Our best laid financial plans may be falling apart.  Or perhaps we have a debilitating disease that spreads within our bodies.  Maybe we are watching our aging parents, or even ourselves, lose the battle with age.  Or it could just be that we see the growing malaise and sickness within our society and culture.  So much that is wrong, painful or evil continues an inexorable march forward.  It can be easy to lose heart.

And if you did lose heart, you wouldn’t be alone.  We heard this week about the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both wealthy celebrities.  The media is talking about a crisis of suicide in our country.  I read that the suicide rate in the United States has risen by 30% over the past 20 years.  Depression has surged over the past decade, most notably amongst young people.  Losing heart is apparently becoming easier to do.

Some Christian leaders confront this sea of brokenness and tell us that we can overcome it if only we do the right things.  Those who preach the prosperity gospel tell us that if only we follow some cherry-picked verses from the Old Testament and adopt a positive attitude, that God will bless us and give us financial success.  Some will tell us that if only we have the right faith, our physical ailments can be healed.  Still others teach us that if we all would act with love, we could fix the world’s problems of poverty and discrimination.

Now some of these proposed solutions contain a kernel of truth.  Some more than just a kernel.  Surely, if we did follow the good advice given in Proverbs and other parts of the Old Testament to work hard, rise early, act prudently, and the like, some of us would probably find that we might have some greater financial success than we currently do.  And surely also, God still can perform miracles today, including miracles of healing.  And surely, God does call us to act lovingly and put the needs of others first, and that if we did this, the world would be a better place.

But none of these proposals are the Gospel, and none can give us the hope that the Gospel does.  The Gospel gives us hope even in the midst of continuing despair and brokenness.  This is the theme in our passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.

Our passage begins with the statement: “It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.””  This may seem like rather stilted language to our ears, but Paul is actually quoting Psalm 116 verse 10, and he is doing so to set the stage for what he is about to say.  In Psalm 116, the psalmist writes of how God rescued him from the snares of death, distress and anguish.  In the part that Paul quotes, verse 10, the psalmist is indicating that he is calling out to God for help because he first believed in God’s goodness and love.

And so Paul is declaring that we can have this same faith in God’s love for us.  We can have this faith, Paul says “because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus.”  Jesus Christ died for our sins on Good Friday, and then he overcame death, ushering in the new creation, when he rose from the grave on Easter.  By taking our sins upon him on the cross, Jesus removed the barrier to our becoming sons and daughters of God.  By conquering death by his resurrection, he showed us that our bodies would be transformed and renewed as part of his coming kingdom.  The resurrected Jesus is our hope of what awaits each one of us.

There are two things that flow from this that will keep us from losing heart.  First, it plants within us a response of gratitude and thanksgiving towards God.  Paul writes “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”  It is always important to maintain an attitude of gratitude towards God.  One thing that we can do to help us in this area is to seek out and learn about how the Kingdom of Heaven is growing here on earth.  Next week, we will be hosting April Dobbs and Father David from Uganda who will update us on the work done in Uganda at the school, orphanage and home for the aged.  We can give thanks to God for how the Shepherd’s Love organization assists the marginalized in Uganda and shares the Gospel with them.

Second, we should not lose heart even though we still see sickness and evil all around us.  How can this be?  How can we not lose heart if sickness and death keeps coming up?  Paul writes “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”  For Paul, the outward refers to those parts of our lives that belong to this current age, whereas the inward refers to that belonging to the age to come – the Kingdom of Heaven.  The current age is the age we live in right now and see all around us.  It is the decaying world before it is transformed by Christ.  It is the world of sin, greed, sickness and death.  The age to come is the Kingdom of Heaven that is being ushered in by Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  This age began on Easter with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  It is the age which will be finally consummated with the New Heaven and New Earth described at the end of Revelation.

And the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking into the current age.  It is present among us, yet not fully realized.  Even in the midst of the evil and sickness around us, the seeds of our renewal and transformation are being planted within us.  Paul writes that we are being “renewed day by day.”  This is not a sudden transformation, but a thing that is ongoing and gradual.  When we became followers of Christ and invited the Holy Spirit to renew our lives, the seeds were sown within us.  We are even now in the process of being transformed.  As we deepen our relationship with God and follow him more closely by studying the Bible, engaging with him in prayer, and being a part of the body of Christ hear on earth, we become transformed into being more of what God has called us to be.

But we are still awaiting the final consummation.  We aren’t there yet.  One of my favorite passages in the Bible can be found in Romans 8 where Paul addresses this issue head on.  Paul writes

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.  But hope that is seen is no hope at all.  Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

We are being “renewed day by day” even though we still live in a world of sin, suffering and decay.  We know what the end result will be.  We have the promise that we will be raised with Jesus.  We know that God is creating within our inward nature new people, so that when the time comes, we will be raised up into new, transformed bodies, and we will inhabit the New Heaven and New Earth as sons and daughters of God.  And so, Paul tells us that the troubles we are facing in our lives today are “achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

Paul tells us to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  What we can see is this world about us, and it is full of sin, sickness and tragedy.  But this will pass away.  What we want to focus on is what is invisible – that is God.

I read that glory is what God chooses to reveal of himself to us humans.  God is invisible, but we can see God’s glory when we see God’s revelation of himself.  Through the Gospel, God shines his light into our hearts, and this is God’s glory shining within us.  The Holy Spirit increases this glory in our lives as we are increasingly being transformed into being sons and daughters of God in Christ.  This is part of our being renewed day by day.  The great Protestant theologian John Calvin wrote that “the decay is visible, and the renovation is invisible.”

Interestingly, the lectionary concludes today’s reading with the first verse in chapter 5.  Many commentators argue, rightly, that verse 1 actually properly belongs with the rest of chapter 5.  But I think that it was included because it provides a wonderful concluding thought to our passage today.  Paul writes “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”  And so, as one of the commentators I read to prepare my sermon put it – at our death, God will remove the scaffolding of our outward frame – that is of our old lives which will have then passed away –  and will unveil our new selves – our new home not built by human hands which will last for eternity in the New Heaven and New Earth.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, grant that we may always keep our hearts and minds focused on you; and we pray that you send your Holy Spirit into our lives to transform us day by day, as we listen for your voice in reading your Word and prayer.  We ask this in your name; Amen.

Our Gospel Lives Are Like Fine Wine

Sermon,  May 6, 2018 –  Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

John 15:9-17

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

The last thing I wrote in today’s sermon is this opening paragraph.  I had everything else down but needed the opening hook.  Then it occurred to me.  Today’s Gospel passage talks about vines, grapes, and love.  Well, I do love my glass of red wine every evening with my meal and we are in the middle of wine country, so maybe we have a fruitful direction in which I can take this sermon?  Well, no, sorry about that.  But as we learned last week, it really helps to understand how grapes are grown and harvested when hearing this passage.  And in some respects, living fruitful lives rooted in Jesus, does bear some similarity to making fine wine, because both take preparation and dedication.

Today’s Gospel reading is the second half of the passage that we started reading last week.  The lectionary divides it up, but the whole passage should really be read in one sitting.  Reading today’s part only, without having read and understood last week’s part would be like watching a TV show half-way through.  You might get something out of it, but chances are you would miss a lot.  And believe me when I say that there is some very important information in this passage and you don’t want to miss out on any of it.

If I was a college professor and this was my class, I would say that last week’s sermon by Pastor Barbara would be a pre-requisite.  You need to understand what she said last week in order to fully understand our passage today.  Before we begin then, let’s listen to the overall passage and then we’ll review some of the key points that Pastor Barbara covered last week.  As I read this passage, I want you to listen for three key words – “remain”, “fruit” and “love”.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.   He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.   You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.   Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 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. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.   If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.   I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.   My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.   You are my friends if you do what I command.   I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.   You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.   This is my command: Love each other.

The first part of this passage speaks of Jesus being the vine, while we are the branches.  Pastor Barbara told us how, with grapes, the vine is the thick root of the plant, out of which the many branches grow.  The grapes grow on the branches.  She explained that it is very important for grape vines to be pruned every year after the grape harvest.  In fact, if you drive through grape growing country in the winter, you will notice that the vines look very barren – like thin stumps.  You might almost think that they are dead.  But when spring comes, the branches sprout and grow and eventually produce the harvest of grapes.  This is the imagery John is using in our passage.

Pastor Barbara explained that we can only bear fruit if we are connected to Jesus and draw our sustenance and strength from him.  If we are not connected to Jesus, and think we can do it on our own, we will bear no fruit, but will become like dead and withered branches that are thrown away and burned.  This was John’s message – we either remain rooted in Jesus and bear good fruit in service of the Kingdom of God, or we separate ourselves from Jesus and become like dead branches that bear no fruit.

This theme of remaining connected to Jesus in order to bear fruit is expanded upon in today’s reading.  John explains that as we are connected to Jesus, we will remain in his love, just as Jesus’ connection with the Father connects Jesus to the Father’s love.  If we do not understand the concept of our being branches rooted in the sustenance of Jesus, we might misunderstand some of what John says.  For example, John writes “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love” and “You are my friends if you do what I command”.  This might sound like conditional love to us.  We will only be loved by Jesus if we do what he says.

The overall message of this verse shows that John isn’t suggesting that the love of Jesus is conditional though.  If I find a fruitful vine branch in a neighbor’s vineyard, and I say to myself “what a fruitful branch.  I will cut it off and then bring it and put in next to my own grapevine”, what will happen?  The branch will die and that branch will no longer bear fruit.  Branches of a grapevine only bear fruit because they are connected to the vine.  And so, we can only love if we are first connected to Jesus.

John makes this clear when he quotes Jesus as saying, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit.”  Jesus chose us and connected us to him so that we will bear fruit.  We did not choose God and win his favor by becoming obedient on our own.  No, Jesus chose us, and so through him, gave us the ability to bear fruit and show love.

When Jesus says, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love”, he is speaking to those of us who are already connected to him.  Jesus is telling us that if we are truly living as his disciples, and if we are living as members of the Kingdom of God, then we will be keeping God’s commands, and will certainly be remaining in his love.  Jesus is speaking here to his disciples, and that includes us, and his point is that we are really only his disciples if we follow him and do what he teaches us to do.

This brings up another point.  What does it mean to remain in his love and to love one another?  Love is one of the most misunderstood concepts in our world today.  And so, we need to ask – what does it mean to remain in God’s love?  Is it some sort of state of spiritual nirvana, where we feel warm and tingly and spiritually connected, and good about ourselves?  And what does it mean to love others?  Are we called to be nice to each other, and blandly affirm each other without taking any particular interest in anyone else?  Are we called to just have nice feelings for others?

A few years ago, a scholar suggested that two foundational truths for many Americans are: “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions” and “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”  Isn’t this what the world tells us?  Love is being nice and fair to others, while feeling good about yourself?  But is this what John is writing about when he speaks of remaining in the love of Jesus and loving each other?

No.  Rather, I think that John is making it clear that there is a direct connection between remaining in God’s love, obeying God’s commands and loving each other.  For John, and for Jesus, love is not a feeling or an emotion, but sacrificial action in service of others.  Jesus holds up his own pending death as the supreme example of love when he says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  If we are about to make the ultimate sacrifice of laying down our lives for another, I doubt that we will be feeling warm and fuzzy.  Love is a decision and not an emotion.  We know love is present not by our feelings, but rather by our actions in service of others.

We can only truly love God and love each other if we live our lives patterned on Christ.  And in order to live such lives, we need to study God’s word and submit our stubborn, selfish wills to the will of the Holy Spirit.  Only then, can we live lives of love towards God and each other.  This is what Jesus means when he says that we must remain rooted in him as the vine.

The final point I want to share with you is the importance of prayer.  Jesus says, “whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”  Jesus doesn’t say “whatever you ask, you will get”, but rather “whatever you ask in my name.”  Jesus is teaching us that prayer is important but that when we pray, we need to pray in his name.  This means that we are to pray for the things Jesus wants, which means again that we must study God’s word to us and be open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  It’s all about conforming our wills and desires to God, and then doing to others as God would have us do.

This is true love, and this is the fruit that will be borne in our lives if we are disciples of Jesus, studying the Scriptures, being open to the Spirit, and praying to God in the name of Jesus.  Like fine wine, it is only possible with grapes born on branches rooted in the vine, and then carefully and thoughtfully prepared by those dedicated to following the direction of the master vintner.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, grant us so to put away any identity that is not rooted in you; and nourish us with your words in the Scriptures; your guidance through the Holy Spirit; and communion with you through prayer; that we may bear much fruit and show forth your love to the world; Amen.

In Our Age of Identity Politics, What Is Your Identity?

Sermon,  April 15, 2018 –  Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

1 John 3:1-7

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

One of the more troubling aspects of contemporary American culture is our decline into political tribalism, which many commentators believe has been accelerated by social media.  Individuals choose an identity – often a partisan identity – and then allow that chosen identity to define who they are, how they are perceived by others, and what opinions they might be expected to hold on a variety of issues.  In the past we had to interact with others, who were real, breathing and complex human beings.  Most people were shades of grey instead of being black and white.  Today many of us interact via social media where we can carefully hone our identities, choose our friends and shield ourselves from any points of view that might challenge us, and make social media posts to reassure our tribe that we hold all the proper stances on the important issues of the day.  We choose an identity and then let that identity tell us how we ought to live our lives and what opinions we ought to hold.

We are rightfully troubled by this development, but I think it points to an underlying truth about identity.  We all long for a distinct identify, a place to call home.  I think that this is a need that comes from deep within us.  Some scientists might suggest that this is how we developed in an evolutionary sense, in that those of us who could securely identify with a group were more likely to survive.

It is very important for each of us to have an identity.  This need, however, like so many things in life, can take a very dark turn and become a sinful idol.  We see this in the vitriol in social media or in political discourse these days.  Even worse, group identity can become the bitter root of racism or warmongering nationalism.  Making an idol out of a wrong identity can lead to much evil.  Properly understood, however, knowing our identity can be a very good thing, being of great comfort and a source of grace, which enables us to be what God is calling us to be.

Today’s reading from the first letter of John is all about our identity and what that means for us in our daily lives.  As Christians, who we are effects how we live.  And so, hearing what John is saying to us is very important for us today.  We need to set aside what the world is telling us about our identities and, instead, listen to what God is telling us.

John writes “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.  Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

God loves us so much that he has made us his children.  We are God’s children.  As John emphatically declares “And that is what we are!”  This is great news.  But you need to realize that this doesn’t mean that the world will recognize or approve of our true identity.  John tells us that the world does not know us because it does not know God.  What does this mean?  Think about it this way.  Suppose visitors from a far off land came to visit you.  Imagine that they have never before been to the United States, nor watched American television, read American newspapers, or had any access to the internet.  What do you think their reaction would be if you took them to a Sacramento Kings basketball game?  What if you met a Kings player outside dressed in his jersey and ready to sign autographs?  Your visitor would have no idea who this person was, or why he was dressed like that.

John tells us that the world does not know God, and so it will not know us, given that our primary identities are as children of God.  We ourselves don’t fully understand what it means to be God’s children, but we do know that our one clue to what it means is Jesus Christ.  John gives us some more clues in the second part of our passage, where he writes about what being a child of God means in our lives today.

John writes “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.  Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.  But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.  No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.  Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”

Let me clarify one thing for you about this passage.  It is something that initially had me scratching my head about this passage.  It has to do with John’s comments about sinning when he writes “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.”  At first blush, this sounds like John is suggesting that once we become a Christian, we will no longer sin.  Or put another way, if you sin, you cannot be a Christian.  And yet, we know that this is not true.  So what does John mean?

To understand, we can look to something that John wrote earlier in this letter.  John wrote “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”  (1 John 1:8-10).  So I think we can safely say that John knows that we are sinners, and that even though we follow Jesus, we still need to ask Jesus for forgiveness.  Also, John knows that it is Jesus who will purify us from unrighteousness, and not our own actions.

So what is John saying in our passage then?  Well, John is telling us that if we are children of God, and if that is our true identity, then we will be different.  We will start to live as children of God.  And children of God live their lives focused on God and his kingdom, and not on our selfish interests.  This new life comes about after we are transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ.

One commentator writes “Grace saves but if you really received it, grace transforms.  Inevitably.  So if you keep abusing people, keep hurting people, keep hating people, keep committing adultery or stealing or lying or any number of things and have no desire either to stop such activity much less confess it as wrong, well then, that’s not a mistake.  It’s a different world altogether that has nothing to do with being children of the heavenly Father.”

Being children of God means that we know what sin is, and that we re-orient our lives away from it.  This requires the grace of God, and it comes from a renewal and transformation of our minds.  We can not claim to be children of God and still wallow in our old lives of sin.  The two are not compatible with each other.  We can be one or the other, but not both.  And our identities will be seen in our actions.  Our actions don’t determine our identities, but rather they flow from our identities.  If we return to our sports analogy, if you are truly a dyed in the wool Sacramento Kings fan, and you go to the arena to watch them play, you won’t dress up in the other team’s jersey and cheer when the Kings get scored against.  A true Kings fan will cheer the Kings.  It can be no other way for a true fan.  And so it is with us as children of God.  If we are God’s children, we will act like his children.

God gives us our identities as being his children.  This identity should inform and govern everything that we do in this life, including our attitudes towards others, our values, and how we spend our time.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians some things that will flow from having the identity of children of God.  He wrote “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  These things will point to God’s power within us, and they will help further the kingdom of God in the world.

And so, when people look on you, what will they see?  What will they see as your identity?  And what clues will you give them?

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the any identity that is not rooted in you; that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; Amen.

Not What We Do, But What Was Done For Us

Sermon,  March 11, 2018  – Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:1-10; Numbers 21:4-9

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today’s Gospel reading includes one of the best known verses in the Bible – John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  We often read this verse as if it was a stand alone statement, and doing so does not distort the meaning of this verse, but it is part of a larger passage that gives us an even richer message.  This message is echoed by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians which we also heard.

Our Gospel is actually the second half of a passage made up of the first half of chapter 3.  It involves a conversation between Jesus and a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, which is then followed by an editorial comment by John, the author of this gospel.  We heard only the tail end of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus but all of John’s commentary.

Before we get to today’s reading, let’s review the first part of the overall story.  A highly placed Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night.  Their conversation is mostly about what it means to be born again into the kingdom of God and Jesus tells him “I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  Nicodemus has a hard time understanding this and he asks Jesus how this is possible.

The rest of the conversation concerns Jesus explaining what it means to be born again.  I think that Nicodemus, as a good Pharisee, was probably looking for Jesus to tell him the steps he needed to take so he could be born again.  Nicodemus wanted to know exactly how this could be accomplished.  Jesus doesn’t give Nicodemus the answers that he would like, and his answers are very informative as to what the Gospel is all about.

First, Jesus tells Nicodemus that being born again is like the wind.  Jesus says that the wind blows where it pleases, and that we really have no control over it.  So it is, he says, with those born of the Spirit.  In saying this, I think Jesus was telling Nicodemus that being born again isn’t something that we control, but rather something that God bestows on us.

Nicodemus is still confused, and Jesus then provides another example.  This is where our lectionary joins the larger passage.   Jesus makes reference to a story from the Old Testament, which we heard in our Old Testament reading today.  In that story, the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness after they had escaped from Egypt.  They were constantly disobeying God, but instead of taking responsibility for their disobedience, they complained incessantly to God.  Finally God sent poisonous snakes among the Israelites leading to many deaths.  When the people begged God for mercy, God had Moses erect a pillar with a bronze serpent on its tip.  Whenever someone was bitten by a snake, all they needed to do was look at the bronze serpent and they would live.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”  This cure that God effected in the Old Testament did not involve any action on the part of the Israelites.  All they had to do was look at the serpent.  And so Jesus is making the point again that being born again isn’t something that we accomplish for ourselves, but something that God gives to us.

This illustration from Numbers also communicates another important truth about the Gospel.  What has long puzzled me is why God decided that a bronze snake on a pole would be the best symbol to heal the Israelites from snake bites.  After all, it seemed odd that God would make a representation of the very thing that is causing all the harm to be the symbol to save the people from that harm.

But it turns out that this is a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus on the cross.  Think about the symbolism closely here.  Moses raised up the symbol of a snake – the very thing that was causing death amongst the Israelites, as the thing that would heal them.  And now it is Jesus Christ on the cross – the very picture of a criminal being punished for his sins, which is the thing that will heal us from our sin.  We often forget that the image of a cross is an image of death – it would be like an image of an electric chair or a noose today.  And so when we see the cross, it should serve as a constant reminder not just that we are saved, but that we are saved from our due punishment of eternal death.

At this point in the passage, John offers his comments.  He begins with his comment reflecting on the idea of Jesus being lifted up for us like the image of the serpent in the Old Testament.  In vs. 16, which is justly famous as one of the most concise summaries of the Gospel found in Scripture, John writes:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Just as the Israelites who were bitten by snakes only needed to look upon the bronze serpent for healing, so we only need believe in Jesus in order to be saved from our sin and have eternal life.

John follows this up by declaring “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  This is very important for us to hear.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee and the Pharisees had developed the unfortunate mindset that it was a failure to adhere to the Law that condemned people.  Indeed, this attitude even went beyond the Pharisees.  In John chapter 9, there is a story in which Jesus encounters a man born blind.  His disciples ask him “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  There is a belief that it is disobedience to the Law that condemns someone, as if there were no Law to disobey, there would be no sin.  But it is not the Law that condemns us, but our sin.  If we think, like the Pharisees did, that we can obey the Law on our own, then indeed it would be the Law that condemns us.  Obedience to the Law would be the deciding issue of whether we were condemned or not.

But this is the point that John is arguing against here.  John says very clearly that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.  John says that our pre-existing condition is one of sin.  We are all living in darkness.  We do not have the power to earn our salvation by obeying the Law.  Paul makes this point very clear in our reading from Ephesians.  He writes “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.”  The Law makes it clear how far we have fallen short, and how great our need is for a savior.  It has no power to condemn us nor save us.  Regardless of the Law, we are dead in sin.  And so when we encounter Jesus, there is only one direction we can go, and that is up.

This is why John says that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  We are like the Israelites in the wilderness after they have been bitten by poisonous snakes.  We are dead men and dead women walking.  The venom is in us.  The only choice that the Israelites had was whether they would look to the bronze serpent and live, or whether they would refuse God’s rescue plan and die.  Our choice today is whether we look to God’s son Jesus Christ, who was crucified for our sins on the cross for our salvation, and become born again into the kingdom of God; or whether we remain mired in our sin.

Put another way, Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, because if Jesus had not come, the world would still be condemned.  Without Jesus, the only option is condemnation.  With the entry of Jesus into the world, another option was added – the option of salvation.

John puts it in the well-known words of chapter 3 verse 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Paul has the same message for us in his letter to the Ephesians which we read today, when he says “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

This is what the Gospel is all about.  It is not about following moral directives to become better people.  It is not even about our choice to follow Jesus and be obedient to him.  No, it is all about us being dead in sin, unable to save ourselves from the deadly muck, only to have God send Jesus Christ to become one of us, take our sins upon himself and thereby open a path by which we can be born again as citizens of the kingdom of God.

The Gospel is not about us or what we do or don’t do.  The Gospel is all about the fact that God saved us from our sin, and lifted us up to be members of the kingdom of God.  This is what we look forward to in this season of Lent.

Let us pray.

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; Amen.