Misguided theology and other myths of faith

August 11, 2019 (The 9th Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 1:1, 10–20

Psalm 50:1–8, 22–23

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Luke 12:32–40

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Luke 12:32-40, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Jesus, you invite us to contemplate heavenly things and urge us to trust in you. May your coming among us find our doors open, our tables set, and all of us ready to greet you. In Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

As a young boy I never imagined that I would be a preacher, I was extremely shy and couldn’t fathom standing up in front of people and speaking. Much less speaking about personal things like faith, beliefs and sharing my inner struggles. So, as you might imagine it has been a journey over the last forty plus years for me.

One very negative experience that was a signpost along the way comes to mind as I read this scripture passage for today.

It was summertime. I was 10 or 11 years old and I was with my friends in the woods across the street from my house and we were building a tree house. When a van from Pinecrest Baptist Church drove past. They must have seen us boys and girls playing in the woods. So, they stopped.  Three men got out of the van and walked towards the treehouse.

They asked us to come down because they wanted to talk to us.  We climbed out of the treehouse and stood near them. They began to ask us our names, where we went to church and if we knew Jesus.

We respond and then one of them said, “if you died tonight do you know that you will go to heaven? If you are not absolutely sure than you might burn in hell for eternity.”

That was a turning point in my faith development, obviously, I did not know it at the time because I was scared to death but overtime those men from Pinecrest Baptist church helped to define my theology and ultimately my understanding of God.

These men were comparing God to a cosmic bully who was judging every move we made and waiting to catch us in a sin. They were in the truest sense trying to scare the hell out of us. Using fear to frighten us into converting to their band of faith.

“If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”[1]

It maybe that I was a product of the bible belt and the heavy influence of the Southern Baptist Church but texts like this were often used to scare people into faith in God.  I often heard preachers misuse this verse, and others like it, to frighten people into following Jesus, or else.  The implication was that Jesus was our friend and he would protect us from the angry and vengeful God who was on the warpath watch for us to sin and say, “Aha! Caught you! Now you’re gonna get it!”  Of course, overtime memory fades and that may not be exactly what the preachers said, but that’s what my younger self heard.

Many years of years of seminary, reformed theological education and even some therapy later, I now know that this is not what Jesus was talking about.[2] The issue is not judgement but rather readiness to receive the kingdom of God into our lives.  Remember the start of our Gospel reading begins with the overlooked and often ignored statement from Jesus, “be not afraid, little flock, for it is the father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”[3]  We do not have to be afraid when the kingdom comes; it is a good thing.  It is not something we earn, there is no test, no way to fail or come up short.   The kingdom is a gift, a promise — not a prize; it is a thrill, not a threat; it is a thing of joy — not a fear-filled destiny of doom.[4]

This promise of Jesus changes everything.  It’s one thing for someone to demand things of you, like your shareholders, your boss, your parent, your teacher, your coach, etc. It’s a totally different thing when that person wants only what is best for you or who wants you do to your best.  You know that ultimately, they want the best for you.  What Jesus is saying is that God wants what is best for us.  It is not fear and worry and anxiety about the future and eternal life.  God wants to reassure us of God’s kingdom.  And God’s kingdom is based on trust and generosity and love and faith.

In scripture Jesus spends most of his time focused on two things; money and the kingdom of God.  He usually talked about one when talking about the other.  In his preaching and teaching money and the kingdom of God are intimately intertwined.

  • The kingdom of God is like – a man who had two sons and the younger came to him and demanded half of the inheritance.
  • The kingdom of God is like – a vineyard owner who pays everyone the same, no matter how much or how little they had worked.
  • The kingdom of God is like – a master who gives his servants varying amounts of money and then judges them on how they have managed it.

Or another way he said it is from today’s reading, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  What Jesus is trying to say is that our treasure is not in all these things that we worry about, what we are afraid of, that keep us up at night.  Our treasure is in the kingdom of God. 

If our treasure is in the Kingdom of God, then it changes our mindset, it shifts our focus.  Kingdom living changes the way we prioritize our lives, it changes the way we treat out neighbors, it changes the way we spend our money, it changes the things we care about and how we live. 

What Jesus is lifting up in this passage is faith – faith that frees us to be generous; faith that enables us to leave anxiety behind; faith that creates confidence about a future secured by God.  Instead of fear, he offers faith. 

There is a quirky movie that came out almost a decade ago called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel about a group of seven British retirees who travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored Marigold Hotel.  When they arrive, they find that the Hotel is not new, nor is it the resort that the website promised.  The Marigold Hotel nevertheless slowly begins to change these seven people in unexpected ways.

Each of them is overwhelmed by the unfamiliar environment, it is too hot, the rooms are dirty and run-down, the food is much too spicy for their bland English palates and each of them begins to doubt their future.  The enthusiastic new manager tries to adjust their attitudes and change their minds.  He encourages them to give the hotel, the city of Mumbai and the food, time to change their attitude by his famous quote, “Everything will be all right in the end… if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.”

It is kind of like that with Faith. Everything is not alright, so it is not the end, but Jesus has already promised, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”   So yes, we do need to be ready, to have our lamps lit and expect God to arrive at any moment.  But not with fear and foreboding, rather with trust and faith that God is still working.  God is not finished yet.  God will make all things right in the end. 

Let us pray:

[1] Luke 12:39-40, NRSV.

[2] Reverend Dr. Delmer Chilton, Lectionary blog: The kingdom is a promise.

[3] Luke 12:32, NRSV

[4] Reverend Dr. Delmer Chilton, Lectionary blog: The kingdom is a promise.

A Farmer who talks to himself…

August 4, 2019 (The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Hosea 11:1-11

Psalm 107:1-9, 43

Luke 12:13-21

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

12:13 “Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-21, NRSV)

Let us pray: Generous God, in abundance you give us things both spiritual and physical. Help us to hold lightly the fading things of this earth and grasp tightly the lasting things of your kingdom, so that what we are and do and say may be our gifts to you through Christ, who welcomes all of us to seek the things above, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Do you ever talk to yourself?

Well our farmer in our story today certainly does.

We know he is rich but that doesn’t make him a bad guy.  He has not done anything morally wrong or criminal.  He is a farmer who knows what it Is like to work his fingers to the bone.  He knows what it is like to rise early morning to milk the cows and stay out in the fields until the sun goes down getting the crops ready.

 Clearly, I am not a farmer, but I know that the work of a farmer never ends.  There Is always more work to be done and there is always the disaster waiting to happen— too much rain, not enough rain, a hard freeze, a drought, tractor problems, you name it.  So, when this farmer has a good year, it is time to celebrate.  He grew extra and had plenty to spare.  Eat and drink and be merry he says to himself.

He is just a farmer who had a good year and who talks to himself.  But Jesus calls him a fool.

“Well I have so much, so I will save it for the future and build a big barn to house it.  Then I will be happy and peaceful.  I will be secure.”  Wrong.  It does not work that way.

Have you ever said:

  • if l could just get this car paid off then everything would be fine
  • if I could just have a nice house, then I would be happy
  • if l can just get the kids through college then I will have made it 
  • if l could just have that outfit, I would feel so much better about myself

But we are never satisfied.[1]  We always want more, we always have more debt or want new car or a nicer house or better seats or whatever it is. We are never satisfied. Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, state “our problem as humans is not that we are full of desire, burning with unfulfillment. Our problem is that we long for that which is unfulfilling. We attempt to be content with that which never satisfies.”[2] It is like we are on a treadmill and we never reach the finish line.

Jesus does not say that this farmer is immoral or greedy or sinful.  Jesus says he is a fool.  He is a fool in his self-pride and self-satisfaction. There is no gratitude to all the people who helped with the farm, no appreciation of how the weather cooperated and he had a great year, there is no generosity with giving to others out of his blessing, there is no other person mentioned at all.  It Is all about him.  Me, myself and I.  The man is a fool because he believes that all those goods and grains in his big barns will keep his future safe, controllable, predictable.   You fool.   This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  You might be dead tomorrow and what good will those grains do you then?  What does that soul of yours say now?

As I read this parable and have reflected this week, what hits home is the drive this man must secure his future.  This parable is a warning against greed and how it can take over one’s soul.  In theory this is the ultimate successful person, he has done so well he can prepare for the future, he can secure his estate for a rainy day, as a farmer, he will have food to eat when the famine comes and crops stored up for the lean years.  What is not good about prudent planning for the future?  Again, in theory, nothing is wrong with it.  As a matter of fact, it is wise, smart and as —Aristotle is quoted as saying “Saving (Money) is a guarantee that we may have what we want in the future. Though we need nothing at the moment it ensures the possibility of satisfying a new desire when it arises.”[3]  That is not this farmers problem.  His problem is his focus. He is so focused on saving for the rainy day that he has no life.  He is all alone with his stuff and no one to share it with.

His whole identity is wrapped up in his possessions.  Who he is – is defined by what he has?  He is driven to accumulate more and more stuff.   I don’t know about you, but that parable causes me to think about my basement.  And the boxes of stuff down there.  There are a few old football helmets from way back in the day, sports trophies and a computer we no longer use, an electric keyboard for a short-lived piano student and racquetball racquets we haven’t used in years, and boxes, more boxes.  To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember what is in them since I haven’t unpacked since we moved two moves ago.  I read a crazy fact this week, that in the United States we have more storage facilities than McDonalds and Starbucks combined. The self-storage industry 48,500 locations across the US and generates $24 billion in revenue.[4]

Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of our own mortality.  Maybe we go to a funeral of someone around our age and we think, “Wow, that could be me!”  Maybe we read an obituary in the morning paper.  Maybe when we go to an Ash Wednesday service and the priest puts ashes on our forehead while she says, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Maybe in those moments we get it, we get that we might not be here tomorrow or next year or whenever.  Maybe we grasp that life is truly fleeting.  But those moments pass and then we are back to our regular routines of worrying about if we have enough.  Enough to make ends meet, enough to pay the bills, enough to retire, enough to buy that beach house, enough to take that trip to Europe or whatever it is that makes us talk to ourselves.

At what cost?  This insidious drive for more robs me of the enjoyment of today and the countless blessings I already have.  My family, friends, health, home, food and clothing.  Is it enough?  Do I need to build bigger barns?  We are idolatrous about stuff: the stuff we have, the stuff we want, even the stuff we take to the dump or the resale store.

Big barns, full to overflowing garages, basements full of boxes, storage units or rooms empty of everything but those joy-producing items: We are idolatrous when it comes to material things. We spend a lot of time thinking about, acquiring, getting rid of, curating, obsessing about our stuff.   But let’s be honest, we have the luxury of this obsession. 

There are many who have no barns, no need of barns, no hope to ever own a barn. Stephanie Land in a New York Times blog, “The class politics of decluttering,” notes, “Minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice.”  That’s when God cries, “Fool!” That is when God interrupts our monologue and reminds us, we get in grave trouble when the only voice we listen to is our own.[5]  If we listen to God and hear God’s Word from Genesis to Revelation, one of the many themes of scripture is that we were created to be in relationship.  And as we continue in those relationships, we add to them, one by one, two by two and we are challenged to keep our eyes open to the needs of those around us.  Therefore, the farmer is called foolish because his whole identity is wrapped up in his stuff.

This whole story of the farmer started because someone came to Jesus complaining about an Inheritance. You know most of the problems in families happen around who gets what.

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  But Jesus simply won’t go down that path.  Jesus doesn’t care who gets the inheritance.  Jesus has more important things on his mind.  So, he tells them this story instead.

He tells them a story about a man who cared more about storing up treasure for himself than he did about anyone or anything else, especially his relationship with God.

He tells a story about a man who talked to his own soul and thought that he could secure his own future.

He tells a story about a man who does not appear to have any other relationships in his life. He appears to only be concerned for his own welfare.

He tells the story of a fool.

And we too are fools if we ever fall into the trap of thinking that we can secure our own soul. No amount of money or grains or goods can do that. All our stuff is worthless in the eyes of God. God gives us everything that we have: food, clothing, talents to work, brains to think, and on and on and on. And there is nothing wrong with any of them.

There is nothing wrong with having things and money, but they are not what we are striving for. God gives us these things not so that we can protect ourselves and store us treasures, but so that we can live in relationship with one another and with God.

Christ is the one who has laid up treasure for us. Christ is the one who has already secured our soul. So, relax. Eat drink and be merry for none of us knows what tomorrow holds. Eat Christ’s body that has been broken for us. Drink Christ’s blood shed for us.

And if you must keep talking to yourself.  Talk about treasures that last. Talk to yourself the words of Jesus:

“Do not worry about your life. What you will eat or drink, or your body what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. Instead strive for the kingdom, and these things will be given to you. For where your treasure Is there your heart will be also”[6]

Today’s sermon is one that I am really preaching to myself and you get to overhear it.  This is a text that gets me deep down where it hurts, that makes me question and explore and struggle. This is a text that I need to hear, I don’t want to hear it, but I need to hear it.

The rich farmer is a fool because he believes that his barns full of goods will safeguard his future.  So, for you and for me, and that grain in our barns, or that stuff in our basements, that work we are good at, those accounts we manage – they are worthless for the purpose of securing our souls.  Absolutely worthless.   But they were never intended for that.  But know this; you, fellow fools, in the Kingdom of God, our time, our talents and our treasures will not go to waste.  Our time, our talents, our possessions – they are just what God needs to answer our neighbor’s prayer for daily bread.[7] May it be so. Amen and Amen.

Let us pray:

[1] The Reverend Dr. K.C. Ptomey, Jr., A Homily on Luke 12:13-21 and Colossians 3:1-11, August 5, 2007. Sermons Preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church 3900 West End Avenue Nashville, Tennessee

[2] Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, (Nashville: Abington Press, 1999), 130

[3] https://www.success.com/19-wise-money-quotes

[4] https://www.curbed.com/2015/4/20/9969068/in-nation-of-hoarders-self-storage-spots-outnumber-mcdonalds

[5] Jill Duffield, Luke 12:13-21 -July 31/ 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time. https://pres-outlook.org/category/ministry-resources/looking-into-the-lectionary/

[6] Matthew 6:25-34, NRSV

[7] Mary Hinkle Shore, On Securing the Soul, Luke 12:13-21, Proper 13 Pentecost 10 C July 24, 2010

Seeking a balance

July 21, 2019 (The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Amos 8:1–12

Psalm 52

Luke 10:38-42

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

10:38 “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so, she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV)

Let us pray: Ever-faithful God, you word and your deed are one: reconcile us in your Son with the helpless and the needy, with those we would ignore or oppress, and with those we have called enemies, that we may serve all people as your hands of love, and sit at the feet of those who need our compassionate care. Amen.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He stops for a visit at the home of Mary and Martha. He sits and begins to talk and that is when a disagreement begins.  Some call it a simple sisterly squabble, others call it worker verses lazy argument, others site that it is an age-old spiritual conundrum between being and doing.  This story makes it easy to take sides.  Are you in Martha’s camp or are you in Mary’s? Are you a be’er or a do’er?

I am an oldest child, responsible and focused much like Martha.  I can identify with her worry and her working, her anxiety and distraction, focused on how everything behind the scenes must be taken care of so the main event can take place. I so wanted to be more like Mary, seemingly everything Martha is not.  Wishing I could let go and simply be. Stop with work in order to listen to Jesus. It presents a challenge finding a balance in life and in faith.

Every day there is a list of things that has to be done at the house, at the office, with the family, for yourself. Laundry needs washing and folding, dishes need to be cleaned and put away, meals need to be prepped cooked, served, bills must be paid, the grass has to be cut, the clients need attention, the phone calls to return, the emails to answer, the swim meets to watch, the soccer practices to car pool for, the college essays that have to be started, and the church needs me to find time for a meeting? Yet each day your list and my list get interrupted by life, and add the voices of your spouse, your neighbors, your friends from church, and suddenly the struggle about what has to get done and what is most important is even harder one. How do we find time for faith, for reflection, for prayer, for listening to and for God?

The story of these two sisters, Mary and Martha always gets me in the gut because, either way I feel guilty.  I can never cross off my list everything that needs to be done and yet I can’t slow down enough to be still and let God.  It is a vicious cycle that I bet you struggle with as well.  Maybe that is the point of this story that Jesus is calling us to find him during whatever it is we are doing.  Whether checking off our list or spending time quietly being.

It has been a struggle of the Christian Faith since the beginning of the church, what is more important being (Mary) or doing (Martha)?  What I mean is our faith reflected in action, going out or in being, going in?  Is the Christian Faith defined by thought, prayer and reflection or in mission, outreach and service?  It is a great theological debate, what is more important to God, our faith being or our works doing?  Who is more correct Mary or Martha?

And I, for one, think it is too easy to beat up on Martha and those of us like her.  I think she’s gotten a bad rap.  Too often, we denigrate Martha’s busyness, while romanticizing Mary’s meditative natures. We vilify Martha and turn Mary into a saint. I really don’t think that is what Jesus is doing.

The great preacher Fred Craddock says, “If we treat Martha too harshly, she may stop serving altogether. And if we lift up and praise Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do. There is a time to sit and listen and to reflect.  Knowing which and when is the heart of the struggles of the Christian faith.” 

Another way to look at it is this, when a parent loves a child it is more than just a feeling or a sentiment. Loving a child means teaching her how to tie her shoes and wiping the dried blood away from her hurt knee and going to her in the middle of the night when she has a nightmare and driving her to soccer practice and helping her learn to read.   Or the Sunday school teachers who prepare a lesson, they come early every Sunday morning so that they can set out the supplies the morning’s class.  Busy work?  I sure hope not!   It’s the form that love and faith take. I cannot imagine Jesus saying to Christians who are emptying bed pans in an AIDS clinic or baking corn bread for the soup kitchen, “You people are preoccupied with busy work. Leave the children, the needy, the ill, the lonely behind. Come sit and meditate for a while. Be spiritual but not religious. This is the better part.”

And that, I think, may get us close to the real heart of this Mary and Martha story.  There is nothing wrong in and of itself with Martha’s fixing the food.  This is the way people show love and welcome and hospitality and care.  There is nothing wrong.  In fact, there is something essential, about showing one’s love of God and neighbor by baking the bread and washing the vegetables, by preparing meals for our guests when we host IHN and cleaning out gutters for our neighbors with PWC and playing basketball with kids on Saturday mornings at Saturday Hoops.  Martha, preparing that meal of hospitality, is doing a good thing— a necessary thing— an act of service—but if we try to do this kind of service apart from our faith — it will distract us and finally wear us down. Mary has chosen to listen to the Word. Jesus, the living Word, is present, right in her house, and if she is going to love God and love neighbor, if she is going to show hospitality to the stranger and care for the lost, then everything depends on hearing and trusting God’s Word. 

What did Mary hear at Jesus’ feet?  What is the Word we hear from Jesus? Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh… Peace be with you… Do not be afraid… 

What we hear from Jesus is that God is with us in everything we do and while we are still and reflective.  If we are out there in the world working and feeding and serving God is with us and if we are sitting quietly praying, reading reflecting, God is with us.

I think that we can focus on the one thing — Jesus — when we find a balance in our faith after we have been like Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet. And because we have, we are then able to get up like Martha and show our love for God through our actions and we can see Jesus in the face of everyone we meet and serve.

Let us pray:

How we treat people matters

July 14, 2019 (The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Amos 7:7-17

Psalm 82

Luke 10:25-37

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

10:25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let us pray: Almighty God, you give the holy law to your people so that it will guide us and our children. Through our Lord Jesus who has fulfilled the law in every way, grant that we may love you with heart, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.

The parable of the good Samaritan, is like an old shoe, we know it so well that it has become comfortable, so why am I bothering to preach on it again?  This story is such a familiar tale that non-Christians know it.  On the positive side the repetition and familiarity of the parable lets us know how just how important it is to love our neighbor.  One the negative side the repetition and familiarity of the parable makes it easy to tune out and overlook.  It is a powerful story and that has it all: a lawyer, bandits, violence, conflict, questions, plot twists, unlikely protagonists, and it ends with a call to action. How we treat people matters.

The story begins with a lawyer asking Jesus some questions.  The lawyer cuts to the chase, “what do I have to do to inherit eternal life…be saved?” Jesus responds with the Shema,[1] “love God and love your neighbor.” Then the lawyer asks for clarification, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with this familiar parable that we know as the good Samaritan.

So often a sermon on this parable focuses on the priest and the Levite, two men who are not only religious leaders in Judaism, but they also held positions of power and privilege in Jewish society.  Remember, it is these two men who pass by on the other side of the road.  Some commentators say that the priest and the Levite were just following the rules. They had to remain ritually pure so they could not stop and help the injured man.  However, Amy-Jill (AJ) Levine, a Jewish New Testament Scholar challenges this information: “Neither [Jesus nor Luke] gives the priest or Levite an excuse.  Nor would any excuse be acceptable.”[2]  Neither the priest nor the Levite are heroes of the story, but they tell a truth that is important to hear: They had the Torah; they knew the calls to care for those in trouble; they had their own “go and do likewise,” but— for whatever reason, they chose to pass by the injured man and be on their way.  So, most sermons on this parable become a moral tale about how to love everyone and not be a hypocrite. “How we treat people matters”

I have also heard sermons on this parable that focus on the victim. The victim deserved what happened to him, because he was stupid for traveling on the dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Everyone knew that bandits and robbers were a constant threat on the Jericho road.  He got what he deserved, he was wearing provocative clothes, he was flashing his bling, he was asking for trouble.  But this parable is so much more that a cautionary tale on how to avoid trouble from bandits and thieves while traveling on the dusty roads of life.  It is also important that we don’t victim shame.  The danger and violence that he met on the way is not his fault and that is an important message for all of us to hear today. “How we treat people matters”

So, today, I would like to offer a different take on this parable, Jesus lifts the actions of the Samaritan more than shaming the choices of the others.  Notice the details of how the Samaritan cares for the victim, binding his wounds with oil and wine, he put him on his own animal, walked with them to an inn and paid the innkeeper to care for the injured man.  Jesus is telling us how to treat people!  The Samaritan is our guide.   It is a twist that those who were present when Jesus told this story would have been shocked to hear.  They would expect bad behavior from a Samari­tan, because they were clear enemies of Jews.  Like today when you hear a moral tale, you insert the worst of human life as the antagonist of the tale. Instead, he turns out to be the hero of the story—the one who provides an example of how we are to live our lives. “How we treat people matters”

So, with this surprise twist, and a shocking hero, Jesus is trying to change the narrative and to surprise them into a new realization.  Jesus could have simply said, “The greatest commandments are these: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Then we can respond, as we so often do; Great. I’m on target. Love God—check.  Love other people—check, most of the time.  Instead, this parable shows how to live out what it means to love God and our neighbor. “How we treat people matters”

The great commandment is so much more than words, it is a call to action! Love is action, not emotion. We show our love by how we treat people. It’s not enough to see our fellow human beings and think about how much we love them. We must show it by living it and doing it. “How we treat people matters”

So, here is where the rubber meets the road.  So, preacher, how do we treat people?  How do we love our neighbor?  Oh, it is really, really, hard to love others.

So, let’s start small.  We might not start out by stopping for every stranger in need that we see or giving away all our money and possessions or moving to the streets in solidarity with the homeless.  However, we ought to treat each other not on the basis of what is worst in each other but on the basis of what is best in ourselves. Kindness, gentleness, respect, and love are hard enough to come by in this tough and unbending world.  So, let’s start where we are.  Start with those close to you.  How you treat your spouse matters.  How you treat your coworkers matters.  How you treat your next-door neighbor matters.  How you treat your brother-in-law who drives you crazy matters.  How you treat the cashier in the checkout line matters.  How you treat the person at the DMV matters.  How you treat illegal immigrants matters.  How you treat LGBTQIA people matters. How we as a church treat visitors matters. “How we treat people matters”

It’s not enough, however, to only treat the people we love well— how we treat each and every person matters.  Priest, prostitute, prince, pauper, sinner or saint, how we treat each other matters.  Again, I am the first to admit that this is really hard!  It’s much harder to love those who are have behaved in horrible ways. But we must love them too.

A lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” His question is one of moral responsibility.  Regardless of politics or partisanship. What is their worth to us, to God? 

It is in the baptismal covenant of the Episcopal Church, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will, with God’s help.

The question is asked; how will we respond?  Our answer is lived out every day.  We show our love for God by loving each other. “How we treat people matters”

Let us pray:

[1] The “Shema,” Jesus answered, “The first of all the commandments is, ‘Listen, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” -Mark 12:29-31

[2]Amanda Brobst-Renaud, Commentary on Luke 10: 25-37, Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper One, 2014), 94.

The journey ahead

July 7, 2019 (The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 66:10-14

Psalm 66:1-9

Luke 10:1-11,16-20

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

10:1 After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” 17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:1-11,16-20 NRSV)

Let us pray: God of fresh beginnings, you make all things new in the wisdom of Jesus Christ. Make us agents of your transforming power and heralds of your reign of justice and peace, that all may share in the healing Christ brings. Amen.

In his final sermon last week, George, urged us not to “look back,” and he encouraged us to “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”[1]  It is not only good advice for us at the Indian Hill Church but it is also Jesus’ command.   In the spirit of looking forward, we pick up todays Gospel lesson from Luke where Jesus gives his disciples a second sending. In the first sending, (last week’s reading Luke 9) Jesus sent the 12 disciples out but, in this second sending, he sends 70 disciples out.  This is especially important for us to hear today as we are once again a church in transition.  George’s resignation and departure may have caught you off guard and surprised many of you.  Some may still be in the dark about his situation, some confusion, some misinformation and some sadness.  I am not going to delve into the specifics of his resignation but instead I will follow his own advice and move forward.  So, I choose to focus on the positive and the future.  We must be encouraged to move forward as Christ gives us a plan for the challenging journey ahead of us.

Biblical commentaries describe this story of Jesus sending the seventy as the model for church growth.  Jesus sends the 70 out to gather people.  Some call this church growth, but it is so, so much more.  More like joining God in God’s purpose.  More like helping people become themselves.  Please notice that it is a plan of action, active, moving, sending out.  It is not static; it is not sleepy, and it is not still.  I heard a sermon on this text from Bishop Rob Wright, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, in which he says, “many of us were baptized into the church of the Eisenhower era, when soldiers came home from war and everyone went to church.  The church can no longer enjoy the benefits of that begone time.”[2]  We can no longer assume that if we build it, they will come.  No today is a new day and we must go out.  Jesus envisioned a church that is sent out. He did not want a church that is comfortable, complacent, even lethargic.  He sends out small committed group of disciples, who are nimble and active.  Who will go out into the world and engage the world on the world’s terms.  Meet them where they are mentality.

Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” and he tells his disciples that the journey ahead requires their single-minded purpose.[3]  He tells the seventy what to expect on the road ahead.  He remarks that the laborers are few and the risks are great.  He encourages them to travel in pairs.  Travel lite, take no provisions with them.  Instead they will depend on the hospitality of others to provide for their needs.  Bishop Wright says, “Harvest is how God says, ‘Come along side me and know me.’ Harvest is how God says, ‘Join me. Follow me. Do my will. Delight in my word.’ Harvest is the work God needs partners for. Not because God couldn’t do it all by God’s self, but because God has decided to include us in the joy of making an eternal difference in the world.”[4]

And so, Jesus sends them out in pairs.  So, when one falters, the other can help.  When one is lost, the other can find the way.  When one is discouraged, the other can hold the other one up.  That’s what the company of believers does – we hold on to each other, console each other, encourage and embolden each other, and even believe for each other.  We are stronger when we stay together, and our future is brighter when we are together.

And so, we can find comfort and security that Jesus doesn’t send the disciples out solo.  We need each other in this thing called church.  We never travel alone.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he invites us to walk with him.  And Jesus gives his disciples a great gift, that they do not travel alone.  Because when we work together, you and I and all of us are stronger together.

The Christian faith is a communal faith, we often hear about a personal relationship with Jesus but that seems way to isolationist and independent.  Instead, let us focus on Jesus, saying where two or three are gathered together, their I am also.  We are in this journey together.

So, I am “all in” in this community of Indian Hill Church.  I want us to move forward together and here are some ways we are doing this.  We are offering more worship opportunities other than the traditional 8 and 10:30. We had an incredible worship service on Wednesday June 19, with youth choir, jazz band and Ice Cream, who doesn’t love ice cream.  Join us for our next Wednesday worship on July 17.  We are trying to meet busy families with opportunities that might work better for them.  Another opportunity we are trying is Vacation Bible School. We are offering VBS August 5-8 from 9:30 – noon for Children 4 years old by September 1 through entering 4th grade. We will help kids discover the wonders of God’s universe.  Children will rotate through crafts, snacks, worship, music, mission and recreation.  We have so much positive happening at IHC, new opportunities, new staff members and a plan for the journey ahead with a promise.

Please remember when Jesus sends them out, actually the number is really seventy-two, as we are reminded of the promise of God’s constant provision and the presence of the Holy Spirit. See, no matter what, we are never, ever alone.[5]

Let us pray:

[1] Luke 9:60, 61

[2]The Right Rev. Robert C. Wright serves as the tenth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, GA, to which he was ordained in October 2012. http://day1.org/8390-rob_wright_up_ahead

[3] Luke 9:51-62.

[4] The Right Rev. Robert C. Wright serves as the tenth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, GA, to which he was ordained in October 2012. http://day1.org/8390-rob_wright_up_ahead

[5] Karoline Lewis

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

June 16, 2019 (Trinity Sunday)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Psalm 8

John 16:12-15

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

16:12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason, I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15, NRSV)

Let us pray: Gracious God of heaven and earth, before the foundation of the universe and the beginning of time you are the triune God: The Author of creation, the eternal Word of salvation, and the life-giving Spirit of wisdom. Guide us to all truth by your Spirit, that we may proclaim all that Christ revealed and rejoice in the glory he shared with us. Glory and praise to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

I continue to be surprised by what I learn from young people. You would think that after all these years of ministry that I should not be so amazed, but it happened yet again. As you know this past week Jennifer Taylor, our director of Christian Education, Amy Clark, our youth director, Jenny O’Maley, adult volunteer and 10 youth; Sarah Beck, Claire Boyard, Will Beyreis, Will Taylor, Elliott Caine, Marion Caine, James Johnson, Samuel Mota, Sophie Seuver, and Reese Whitman went to Mountain TOP, a Christian ministry program that serves families in need in the Cumberland Mountains of middle Tennessee.  I will share with you some of the things I learned this past week. I learned some new hip vocabulary lit means awesome or great…in a sentence “That pizza is lit.” Not lit…of course the opposite of lit, “That hat is not lit Reverend Dr. Caine.” Wacked means crazy in a bad way…” This board is wacked.” See how hip I am…not!  I also learned that “you can’t bat a thousand in baseball nor can you bat a 1000 in cutting siding…” that became our moto for the week.

I learned about music, the classic rock of my youth, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles is still popular with our high school boys, they also like Jackson Browne and the Who, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, so our van rides were lit. However, they also like this music genre called rap/hip-hop that is not my favorite so when they played this music our van ride was not lit. 

This past week I ate like was a teenager and I can’t do that anymore. These boys were constantly hungry, eggs and bacon, biscuits and gravy for breakfast and two hours later they were hungry again. Then multiple sandwiches with chips, carrots, celery sticks, and cookies for lunch. Then snacks in the afternoon. Dinner a few hours later and then snacks during the evening. My belt is too tight, and my waistline is not lit. 

Please know that I fully realize that I am embarrassing myself with my misuse of the current lingo with the youth, but I also love making them embarrassed as well.

 I also learned some very important things. I learned that the same kid that we may see as irresponsible and careless can show incredible compassion for others. The same young man who does not seem to listen to directions or instructions learned how to cut siding and put it up to make a woman’s dream come true. The same young person that seems to struggle with school and sports can also offer the most beautiful and heartfelt prayer that speaks to the magnitude of the moment. In a word this week was amazing for having my spirit lifted by these amazing young people.

This year was a totally different experience at Mountain Top because this year Jenny O’Maley, and I worked with the high school boys, Will Beyreis, Marion Caine, James Johnson, Samuel Mota, and Will Taylor.  It was special because these boys have been going to Mountain Top together for three and some four years. This week we were paired with Ms. Jennifer Parmeley, a woman in her second battle with breast cancer. She was in the midst of chemo treatments, so she did not visit with us every day and to make her situation even worse her mother was in declining health in the intensive care unit of a hospital two hours away.

Ms. Jennifer was building a small house for her mother so that she could care for her. Jennifer had beaten cancer years ago only to have it return shortly after she began building the house for her mother. So, we came to help her by putting siding on the house for her.  Thank goodness for Jenny O’Maley and her building skills. As my dear son, said when we got home, daddy, you know we would have been in real trouble if it wasn’t for Mrs. O’Maley. You are so right Marion; you are absolutely right!  Anyway.

We were able to finish the siding for Ms. Parmeley and it was so meaningful to give her this gift, knowing that she was in the midst of the fight of her life. She shared that it was her dream to have her mother spend at least one night in the house before she died. This was not lost on our boys. They were profoundly affected by her dire situation. One of them commented, “it puts everything into perspective, worrying about schoolwork and grades and the stuff we deal with in the bubble of school is nothing to what this woman is fighting for.”  I learned so much from our young people this week.

As I was writing this sermon, I was struck by how blessed I was to see their relationships develop over the past four years with each other, with God, with the people we served.  It was fantastic to witness these young people impact the life of another person in such a profound way.  And then for them to realize how their week of service meant so much to Ms. Parmeley, who cried as she hugged us and thanked us for all we did, for her, for her mother, more than we will ever know.

“It’s all about relationships!” I can almost hear my first supervising pastor telling me about working with youth.  It’s all about relationships.  Actually, so is much of ministry and all of life for that matter.  Relationships are central, whether you’re a manager of a baseball team, a business owner, a parent, a teacher, a church goer.

The Lutheran scholar Joseph Sittler writes: The great Christian words like God, love, sin, forgiveness; these are all relational statements.  Love is not a thing. It’s a relation. Guilt is not a thing; it’s a relation.  You can’t find a definition of love. Love becomes clear and recognizable only when you behold a relationship. The same is true about God. Our God is defined by relationships with us and all of creation.[1]

Our God is defined by relationships.  Our God is defined by extravagant giving.  Paul says in Romans that while we were weak, Christ died for us. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been freely given to us.  God’s giving knows no end.  Then Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of John that ultimately nothing will be left unsaid or unrevealed.[2]  God knows us in relationship and is fully aware of our limited understanding and so God sends the Holy Spirit to be our advocate and to help us in our relationship with him.  Yes, God, who is by nature relational, longs to be in relationship with you and with me.  God, who is by nature loving, loves you with the love like that between God and Jesus; and God, who is by nature community, embraces us through our communities of faith, loving us and empowering us in our relationships with one another and with God’s world.  I learned this from our youth who shared their time and their lives to be in relationship with Ms. Parmeley and gave her a gift that changed her life.

A week like this at Mountain Top where the youth of this church, your church, God’s church, leave the comforts of home and take the love of God they have been taught in Sunday School, and confirmation and youth group, they take that love out into God’s world and form deeper relationships with one another and new relationships with one of God’s children who needed a community to help her.  It really is what we are about in this work of being followers of Christ.  Forming community, relationships, here in these walls, and out there in the world.  It is all about relationships, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, keep us steadfast in our faith and help us to build relationships with you and one another this we pray in your holy name. Amen.

[1] The Rev. Ann M. Svennungsen, Sermon for Trinity Sunday on John 16:12-15. Trinity Sunday June 06, 2004 Day1.org

[2] Rev. Jill Duffield Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15 – lectionary notes for Trinity Sunday June 16, 2019 The Presbyterian Outlook

Unity in the midst of division

June 2, 2019 (The Seventh Sunday of Easter)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 16:16-34

Psalm 97

John 17:20-26

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

17:20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of boundless grace, you call us to drink freely of the well of life and to share your love. May the glory of your love, made known in the victory of Jesus Christ, our Savior, transform our lives and the world he lived and died to save. We ask this in his name and for his sake. Amen.

I believe one of the hardest concepts to achieve or feel will ever come to reality, is unity.  We live in a world that has so many different opinions and cultures and ever-changing points of view, that it is impossible to think that we would ever achieve or experience unity.

We are bombarded every day with countless examples of just how fractured our world, our nation, our city, the church and even our families truly are.  Red States, Blues States, Traditionalists, Progressives, Skyline, Gold Star, UC, Xavier and the list is never ending.  Division and opinions are not bad in and of themselves but considering Jesus prayer for unity that we read today it seems a long way from ever becoming reality.

Which begs the question, is unity – in our world, in our nation, in our community, in the church – a realistic goal anymore?   Let me begin by stating that unity in the sense that Jesus is praying for is not that everyone believes exactly the same thing or in the same way; living in lock step with one another.  Instead, Jesus is praying for oneness and unity as say a well working team or a healthy functioning body. Where all the parts work together for a common goal.  So, to reframe my question in a more positive way, how are we the church, the body of Christ, called to show unity to a world that is full of fractures and brokenness?

In our passage from John today, Jesus is keenly aware of how important unity is, both for his disciples’ faith at that time, as well as for the future faith of the church.

In this passage Jesus is praying for his disciples and he is also praying for each of us.  It is called the High Priestly Prayer.  Again, we are hopscotching our way through John’s Gospel and we are back in the Upper Room on what we know as Maundy Thursday and we overhear Jesus praying.  It is a prayer that looks to the future. Jesus was praying not only for the people seated around him at table that evening but also for his future followers, which thanks be to God, includes us.  And it is a prayer that focuses on unity, on all being one.

It seems to be an unanswered prayer.

Nearly 15 years ago a journalist, named Bill Bishop coined the term “the big sort.” He in collaboration with sociologist and statistician Robert Cushing co-authored a book of the same title, The Big Sort.[1]  It is the story of how America has become to be a country of cultural division, economic separation, and political polarization.  Bishop and Cushing used demographic data (2004), to show how Americans have been sorting ourselves into homogeneous communities— not only by region or by state, but by city and even neighborhood. Over the past three decades, we have been going far beyond the simplistic red state/blue state divide, we have sorted ourselves geographically, economically, politically and religiously into like-minded communities.

We (Americans) have been choosing the neighborhood, the church and the channel we get our news that are compatible with our lifestyle and our beliefs. Bishop and Cushing concluded that the result of this sorting is a country that has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away.   And I add are not interested in learning more about our neighbors with other world views.

Our country — our culture, economy, neighborhoods, and churches— have been influenced by this social sorting that we have knowingly been part of for over the past thirty years. For example:

  • People with college degrees were relatively evenly spread across the nation’s cities in 1970. Fifty years later, college graduates had congregated cities, a phenomenon that decimated the economies in some places and caused other regions to flourish.
  • The generation of ministers who built sprawling mega-churches in the new suburbs learned to attract their stadium-sized congregations through the “homogenous unit principle,” (“a section of society in which all members have some characteristic in common.” Whether or not members of the group can readily articulate it, the common characteristic makes them feel at home with each other and aware of their identity as “we” in distinction to ‘they’).[2] The new churches were designed for cookie-cutter parishioners, what one church-growth proponent described as “people like us.”
  • Businesses learned to target their marketing to like-minded “image tribes,”[3] a technique that has been perfected by social media and used by political parties in their campaigns.

The authors went through dozens of calculations and discovered that following World War II, some communities around the Untied States were busy converging but all that began to change in the early 1970’s.  This cultural shift could have been fueled by the turbulent 1960’s, the Viet-Nam War, Watergate, Race and Gender battles or any number of culture changing movements.  The country began to sort and that caused certain places to boom and others to bust economically, socially and culturally.  The places where educated people moved were getting richer and others poorer.  The places where young people were moving were producing more patents and other areas were dying off.

The authors state that people — especially Americans — abhor disagreement.  That’s why we choose to participate in churches, live in neighborhoods, and join clubs where we can easily find agreement, people like us.  It’s interesting, however, that when pollsters ask about compromise, most Democrats and Republicans believe their side has given enough and now it is time for the other side to see the error of their ways and change.  We all seem to think it’s the other side that’s causing the problems.  So, yes, there’s a lot of talk about the end of partisanship. We just don’t see anybody changing neighborhoods.

Living in politically like-minded groups has had its consequences. People living in homogenous communities grow both more extreme and more certain in their beliefs.  Local governments are becoming more and more extreme.  While, nationally, we see nothing but gridlock because Congress has lost most of its moderate members and compromise has been replaced with conflict.  Division rules the day.  Which begs the question, is there any hope for Jesus prayer in John 17:21 to be fulfilled?

John 17:21, that they may all be one is a familiar verse for us at the Indian Hill Episcopal Presbyterian Church, as we are one of the few dual denominational churches in the country.  We have been together for over 70 years now; we have demonstrated that there can be unity even in the midst of our denominational differences.  We can demonstrate a diversity of the strength of vision points beyond mere differences.

It was the hope of the founders of our church to create a place of worship in this affluent community where people would be challenged not to become conformists, but instead to be exposed to multiple perspectives. We honor our Episcopal and Presbyterian heritages in our different worship services, but we all come together to celebrate as children of God.  We also strive to contribute our time and our talents to reach out to the community at large.  We are challenged to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  We hope that we have an environment to explore social issues and provide opportunities to respond by encouraging each other participate in making the world a better place.

We affirm that there is more than one way to worship God and to love our neighbors.  It is a prayer for community.  Jesus prays that, “all may be one.”  To be a follower of Jesus is to be a part of a greater whole.  According to Jesus there are to be no solitary Christians or spiritual “Lone Rangers.”

Within that community the prayer is for unity: “that all may be one.” Does that mean we all have to get along all the time?  Does that mean we all have to agree all the time?  We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not.  We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not.  To become a part of Christ is to become a part of the community; a part of the one.

Jesus’ prayer reminds us that our unity, our “oneness” is to be a sign to the world of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.  Oneness and unity are about love not homogeny.  And if you have been a part of a family, a member of a church, or a community, you know that within that love there can be disagreements and squabbling.  We are human.  But the mystery of faith is that God wanted to be in relationship with us so much that God became one of us.  And in that moment, we were drawn into oneness with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is with God’s help that we can live into that oneness and show it to our fractured and sorted world. May it be so, in your life and in mine.

Let us pray:

[1] (Houghton Mifflin, May 7, 2008)

[2] https://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-1

[3] http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0597/turow.html

No judgment, just love

May 19, 2019 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 11:1-18

Psalm 148

John 13:31-35

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

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

Let us pray: Dear God, you are the Alpha and Omega, First and Last, your glory outshines all the lights of heaven: we pray that you will pour out your Spirit of love and compassion upon us, so that we may rejoice in the splendor of your works while we wait in expectation for the new heaven and the new earth you promise when Christ shall come again. Amen.

It was a surreal Tuesday afternoon that spilled over into Wednesday morning.  The Indian Hill Rangers and other police departments set up a command center in our parking lot.  They were searching Red Bird Hollow for a missing young man. Unfortunately, it had a very tragic outcome.  They found his dead body on Wednesday around noon. George was very helpful in his role as a Police Chaplain in supporting the family and the search crews.  This tragic situation is another stark reminder of the seriousness of depression and despair. It is every parent’s nightmare, is my child that hopeless that they see no way out, no way forward, no hope that they would take their own life.  Despair, fear, grief, loss, anxiety all leads to the bottomless pit of darkness and depression. I couldn’t help but think of these men and women searching for this young man as shepherds looking for the lost sheep or motivated by love for one another…

Henri Nouwen, in his wonderful book Our Greatest Gift, writes:

We are fearful people. We are afraid of conflict, of war, of an uncertain future, of what the stock market might do today or tomorrow, of illness, and most of all death. And fear takes away our freedom. When we can reach beyond our fears to the one who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be after we die, oppression and illness, even death will not be able to take away our freedom once we have come to that deep inner knowledge— a knowledge more of heart than of mind— that we were born out of love and that we will die into love; that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love; and illness, evil, even death will lose its power over us. Jesus said, “I will not leave you alone. I will not abandon you. You are mine forever!”

This is the promise Jesus gives his disciples in our Gospel reading for today. We have been hopscotching our way through John’s Gospel this Easter season, so here is some context.  The Gospel passage for today is a section of John’s farewell discourse, where he, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. In the passage he calls them “little children.”  The questions are what you would expect from a little child who has been told that a parent is going away: ”Where are you going?” “How long will you be away?” “Who is staying with me? Can I go with you?”

In response, Jesus gives a promise. His promise is clear and unequivocal: “I am not going to abandon you. I will not leave you orphaned.  The love made known to us in Jesus Christ will not abandon us.

His promise is not empty because he also issues a challenge to his disciples. They are gathered in the Upper Room for what we call the Last Supper:  “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Jesus has already washed his disciples, and then Judas leaves the twelve to carry out his plot to betray Jesus, and the rest of the disciples are in a state of confusion.  At just this moment of drama and tension, Jesus’ offers this challenge, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Which seems so simple, but it is really not, is it?   Jesus is not talking about romantic love, and he is demanding more than simply being nice.  He is not saying love those who love you back. Think about it: when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, Judas was there.  Jesus washed his feet! See, it is hard. Love is hard because it is self-sacrificing. It means putting the good of the other first, even when it hurts.  

Jesus could have said to his disciples as he was preparing to leave, “Go out and die with me.” Or, “keep the faith.” Or, “when I am gone go out and teach and preach to all the world.” Or “Keep the ministry going and maintain it for me.”  But No, instead he offered this simple and challenging word, “love another.”

What is it about love? The love he is pointing to is the love that defines God and Jesus but also of the church.  As the old camp song says, “they will know we are Christians by our love,” not by our sermons or our sacraments or our festivals or our buildings or our crucifixes or our family values … but by our love.   That is, it! Our love!

First Jesus assures us that he will be with us.  There is a wonderful passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah where the prophet says that God will stay with us through difficulties as well as through joyful times, and then there is this poignant line where he says, “Even if others desert you, I will never leave you.” And that is so crucial for our lives.  That is so crucial for the fabric to that holds us together.

Do you remember when you were scared at night? You may have heard strange noises or had a bad dream and your mother or father came in to hold you and to assure you that they were there, and everything was going to be all right. It is that kind of comfort and assurance that are contained in this promise of love.

Have you ever noticed how over and over at crucial points in the Bible, God says, “Do not be afraid. Let not your hearts be troubled.”

A consistent theme, during this Easter Season is important for us to remember that the Risen Christ is with us.  In a moment we will celebrate his presence at this table. And what he says to us is not only that you will never be abandoned, but also that you do not have to be afraid “for I have claimed you. You are mine forever.”

“A new commandment I give you that you love one another.”  In other words, what enables us to live together in families, to deal with our differences in community, to work together in the body of Christ which is the Church; what transforms our relationships is the power of God’s love.  It is more powerful than any of the barriers that we put up. It can bring a family together and enable a family to deal with trials and tribulations. It can make a community, even a divided community learn to live together and work together.

“A new commandment I give you that you love one another.”  In other words, the God who created us and claimed us is not through with us yet.  He is continuing to work among us to build a community in our families and in this world, where all people dwell in God.

No judgment. Only love. Love one another, as Jesus has loved.

Our congregation is really good at caring relationships. Prayers, casseroles at funerals, concerned phone calls, handwritten notes — these seemingly small gestures are true extensions of this love that Jesus calls for.   “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Caring relationships can speak louder than words. Showing love for one another is the greatest gift we can give. May it be so, as Jesus’ new commandment bears fruit in all of us.

Let us pray:

Questions, everybody’s got them…

May 12, 2019 (The Fourth Sunday of Easter & Confirmation)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

John 10:22-30

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

10:22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.” (John 10:22-30, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of comfort and compassion, through Jesus, your Son, you lead us to the water of life and to the table of your bounty.  May we who have received the care and love of our Good Shepherd be strengthened by your grace to care for your flock. Amen.

If ever there was a perfect text for Confirmation Sunday, this just may be it. One of the great gifts of working with the Confirmation Class each year are their questions.  We get all kinds of questions, serious, irreverent, sad, humorous, some I will be happy to share with you and some that are not safe for public consumption.  What is so much fun is the fact that they are not afraid to ask.  Anything, everything.  How did the Holy Spirit have relations with Mary?  Explain the Trinity?  Why does God let bad things happen to his people?   If Jesus is the only way to heaven then what about my friends who are Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic?  See they ask great questions. Deep probing questions.

The crowd asked Jesus a question as he was walking outside of the Temple in the portico of Solomon.  It’s a late December day in Jerusalem.  As usual, he’s drawing a crowd. This time, the people gathered around him have come to celebrate the Feast of the Dedication (better known to us as Hanukkah), a festival honoring the rededication of the Temple. This is a Hanukah story that celebrates the successful Maccabean revolt against the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, who contaminated the temple in Jerusalem by setting up a pagan idol. About 200 years before Jesus’ time, Judas Maccabeus had driven out the foreign oppressor and rededicated the temple; thus, the festival was both a commemoration of national independence, like our Fourth of July, and a religious holiday recalling the temple’s purification.

Some people in the crowd have come with a question.  Maybe they heard Jesus teaching or preaching. Maybe they witnessed one of his miracles.  Or maybe they want to trap him into saying something blasphemous.  Whatever their motive, they ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Most parents are used to the questions from your children. You know the typical kid questions. “Why?” “What does that mean?” “How do you know?” Children are asserting their need to question the world and better understand the reality around them. For some that need to question authority and to test the limits of perceived reality never stops, many of us continue to question everything in life and especially in faith.  This is a wonderful gift.  Maybe, that is the point of theology/ church/ confirmation not to resolve the tensions that come in the life of faith, but rather to help us to ask better questions.[1]

Jesus, like most every parent has learned avoids giving a direct answer and instead states, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” 

This is what is happening in this story.  Jesus has shown the people around him three years of examples of who he is.  He has taught, preached, healed, cast out demons, calmed storms and… He has had others question his identity repeatedly. Questioning who he is and what he is about is quite normal.  Prophets were often asked to give proof of their powers.  But the question that Jesus is asked goes much deeper than simply giving proof.  This goes to the heart of his identity.  The crowd doubts that he is the messiah.

I am reminded that doubt is a constant companion to faith.  It warmed my heart on Wednesday night to hear some of the Confirmation Class in their faith statements acknowledge that they had doubts, they had questions, they want to know more about God, faith and the Bible.  Doubt and questioning are normal parts of our lives as people and as followers of Jesus. To live in the tension of faith and doubt, of questions and answers, gives us room to hear the words of promise that Jesus offers: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”

If you learn nothing else this year from confirmation, please learn this: that God will not abandon you, that Jesus will hold on to you through all things, that God will never, ever let you go.  There are so many times in life where we feel, inadequate, afraid, unsure, unworthy or unsafe, God will never ever let you go! No matter how crazy or difficulty or stressful or scary your life may seem, God chooses you, God loves you, God is with you, and God will hold onto you through all of life.  Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”[2]

So, keep asking questions.  Keep searching. And know that God is big enough to take it, and God will be with you every step of the way.

Let us pray:

[1] David Lose

[2] David Lose

Fishing Love

May 5, 2019 (The Third Sunday of Easter)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 9:1-6

Psalm 30

John 21:1-19

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

21:1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:1-19, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of victory over death, your Son revealed himself again and again, and convinced his followers of his glorious resurrection. Grant that we may know his risen presence, in love obediently feed his sheep, and care for the lambs of his flock, until we join the hosts of heaven in worshiping you and praising him who is worthy of blessing and honor, glory and power, for ever and ever. Amen.

It happened one time and one time only.  My father and I went fishing.  My grandmother lived in an apartment that backed up to a waterway in St. Petersburgh. Florida. We walked out in the middle of the day and stood on the concrete retaining wall and I cast the line from my brand new Zebco fishing pole into the water.  My father was wearing a shirt and tie, that was his uniform, short sleeve shirt and tie.  Always, everywhere, even fishing.  The second we had just bought the fishing pole at K-mart earlier that day.  I don’t remember much except that we didn’t catch anything.  I can’t imagine we stayed very long.  Golf, Fishing, Hunting were not for my dad, they took too much time and patience.

I certainly can’t remember but I imagine the first few casts were exciting.  But with no results, I bet we both got frustrated and gave up and went back inside.   I have tried fishing a few times since then, but fishing is not my thing.   There is a lot of preparation, waiting, and disappointment when I have gone fishing. 

And this is exactly where we enter this story from the Gospel of John.  Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples as a group of disappointed disciples in their frustration and grief they want to go back to their normal lives as fishermen.  We join them in the boat on the Sea of Galilee.   We over hear them after a long night of fishing, and they have nothing to show for it.  They are tired and disappointed.  They just want to go home.   So, they head back to shore with empty nets.

Remember, they were professionals, they made their living as fishermen before Jesus came along, before he invited them to join him when he said, “Come, follow me.”  And they left their nets and followed.  What a trip it had been!  But now he was dead and gone so they tried to go back to normal, back to business as usual.  I imagine there was some relief getting back to the familiar – the predictable.  We all look for and enjoy our comfort zones, don’t we?  But they caught nothing.

Fishing may be the perfect metaphor for following Jesus, preparation, waiting, and disappointment.  It did not seem to them that they were very successful at following him either. Things had not turned out like they hoped.

So, there they are sitting in the dark, dejected, watching the sky change colors as the sun rises behind the hills.  Then they heard a voice. They could not see the person speaking but they certainly heard a voice.  Maybe it was the fog, maybe it was the darkness. They heard him first.  He tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat and they caught a lot of fish. 

It was, as Yogi Berra used to put it, Deja vu all over again. It is not the end after all, for the end has led them to a new beginning.

“It is the Lord!” said the beloved disciple.   A disappointing night of fishing suddenly becomes a glorious new day.

And the point of the story for us is, after the death of a loved one, often we find ourselves just “going through the motions” of life.  There is no rush to move on, but rather a space and time to dwell on what was. We too want to go back to our routines, when we have left the glorious Easter service, when we’re back at business as usual and maybe having a rough time of it, perhaps having a long dark night of the soul, it is precisely then that Jesus calls out to you and to me. 

We can see. “It is the Lord!” That is what the beloved disciples said. A dismal midnight scene becomes a glorious new day.

We teach our children these stories because these stories are full of clues for times when we are in the middle of the night and afraid, we struggle, when we are lost, alone and don’t know where to go.  It is precisely at that moment that the story says to us, “Pay attention. Listen to the voices around you. It is the Lord.”

We believe in a God who never gives up on us, who continually calls us, sometimes in the middle of the night or at the breaking of a new day, to new beginnings.

That moment of recognition. “It is the Lord!” A breakthrough moment when we know maybe for the first time or the hundredth time that God is in this with us, that we are not alone, that we do not have to face the difficulties of our life alone. We do not have to face death alone. God is with us.

Not only is God with us. God is calling us to something new, precisely when we thought it was all over.

Whatever else this strange story of fishing and naked fishermen, of the Risen Christ whose disciples at first don’t know him, of charcoal fires and a meal of bread and fish, whatever else this story is about I think it is really about what the Church does on the Sundays following Easter.  It is what those who are seeking to be disciples do every ordinary Sunday, when there are not a thousand Easter lilies and the Halleluiah Chorus, complete with brass and Easter finery.  It’s about worship, ordinary worship, when two or three or more gather in his name.

We pour water at the font that we might be reminded that, though we deny him – more than three times; let’s be honest now, three times a day perhaps is more truthful – though we deny him, he washes us clean in the waters of baptism; he forgives us; he keeps on offering the opportunity to reaffirm our love.

And we eat together.   In his name we take the bread and a common cup.   During the season of Easter, we do this almost every Sunday, except on those Sundays when we don’t.   We gather at the Table, so that he might feed us.  Not just with a little wafer of tasteless bread and a cup of wine, but with his presence, made available in the gathered community through the love and the compassion and the concern and the faith of our fellow worshipers.

Every Sunday after Easter as we go back to fishing, or whatever the normal and ordinary is for our lives, Jesus keeps on forgiving, restoring and feeding us.  And if we are attentive, if our ears are open as well as our hearts, every ordinary Sunday Jesus asks us his penetrating question: Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?

Let us pray: O Lord continue to remind us of our worthiness through your love. Equip us to share that love with the world. Amen.

Why Mary Why?

April 21, 2019 (Easter)

The Resurrection of the Lord

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 10:34-43

Isaiah 65:17-25

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

John 20:1-18

Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine

20: 1 “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ “18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” (John 20:1-18, NRSV)

Let us pray: Almighty God, who through your Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the way of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

It’s Easter, and Mary goes to the tomb.  I think we can all agree on that but maybe not much else.  But I wonder why Mary went to the tomb.[1] 

If I went around the sanctuary and asked some of you to tell the story of Easter, we all might tell it a little differently.  Some of us would tell of Mary Magdalene and others of us would tell of the disciples running back and forth.  Some of us might remark of how the stone had been rolled away and others still would tell how the gardener appeared and called Mary’s name.  We would all have our way of telling the Easter story. Apparently, eyewitness accounts are often not the most trustworthy.

The Gospel writers all had their own eyewitness accounts.  There are basically four different accounts of the resurrection, all with their own nuances and details and focus.  Matthew says there was an earthquake.  Mark ends so abruptly that we must fill in the details and provide our own ending.  Luke has a group of women that see the angels in dazzling clothes.  John has the gardener who ends up being Jesus.  Some accounts have Mary alone, some with other women.  Some have one angel, some two. It gets a bit confusing with all the differences and discrepancies.

But if you think about it, isn’t that confusion all part of the Easter story, all part of the Christian faith, our faith.  There are lots of differences, lots of running back and forth, there is skepticism, there is doubt, there is fear and there is faith.

So, why, Mary?  Why did you go?   What did you hope to find?  What did you think you would see?  Did you go Mary as we do when we go to such places?  To remember?  You go, knowing there’s nothing to do.  Nothing can be done.  You have buried your loved one, along with your fondest hopes.  All you can do is mourn all that has been lost.

Yet, knowing this, you go.  You go to the sealed tomb to weep for your friend. You go to mourn and to remember— to remember when he was still alive and the shining dream of all you wanted from him, all you hoped he would be and do. He and all that still lived in your heart.  You go hoping to experience again the days when Jesus was something special.  You go to remember when it was possible to still believe that he was a gift of God, of grace, of mercy, and the hope of the future.

You go to remember the way he reached out his hand to touch the heads of children and bless them.  You go to remember the great pleasure he took at seeing people as their lives were changed, their hearts lifted, and as they realized they were part of something holy, something wondrous, something that would lift them beyond the burden of their daily drudgeries.  You go to remember the tear in his eyes and the catch in his throat on that day when the man fell at his feet and begged him to come and heal his dying child.   You go, Mary, to remember the fire in his eyes, his anger at the money changers, the Pharisees, the religious leaders and all the senseless suffering.  You go for that precious moment to remember the day he stood outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus and wept.

Mary goes to look at the cold stone tomb and to imagine him lying there, still.  In many ways we are just like Mary on that first Easter morning.  Mary knew all about death, she knew that death was the end.  She knew that Jesus was gone, and life would never be the same.  With his death on the cross, her hope died too.  Mary had to face reality and reality told her:

Death is final

Some situations are hopeless

And now she is all alone

She went for a private time to let her tears flow and to mourn her loss. But, Mary, if that’s why you go, I understand that.  Yet what I don’t understand is what you actually find.  It turns out to be much more than a time to remember a time to cry because you miss him deeply.  You get something beyond my comprehension, you find something that changes everything. You get resurrection, you get life. 

Likewise, with us there is all kind of evidence that we are wrong about our belief in the Resurrection:  There are school shootings and drunk drivers killing innocent people, there is war and more war, there are divorces and depression and hopelessness.  There is all the evidence in the world that death is final, that some situations are hopeless and that we are all alone.

But here, we are gathered here at church on Easter Sunday because we believe otherwise, while we don’t understand it all and sometimes, we find ourselves running back and forth, but in the end, we say “life.” 

We stake our lives on the resurrection and that is enough to send us out into the world to live each day with hope, a hope that we don’t completely understand, but a hope, none the less a hope that we can trust, that we know that God is working, that life even comes out of death. 

William Slone Coffin, chaplain, social activist, preacher and prophet died in 2006.  He wrote a book before his death entitled “Credo” and the last chapter is “The End of Life.” Reflecting on his own impending death he wrote…

“As Job said, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  That does not mean that God is responsible for every death.  What that means is that before every birth and after every death there is still God.  The abyss of God’s love is deeper that the abyss of death.  Paul insists that neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Even if we don’t know what is beyond the grave, we know who is beyond the grave.”[2]

Henri Nouwen wrote beautifully upon the occasion of his mother’s death:

“The resurrection is God’s way of revealing to us that nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste.  What belongs to God will never get lost.  The resurrection doesn’t answer any of our common questions about life after death such as “How will it be?  How will it look?  But it does reveal to us that love is stronger than death.  God’s love for us, our love for each other, and our love for those who lived before and will live after us is not just a quickly passing experience, but a reality transcending all time and space.”[3] 

We all know the reality of this world.  Reality of pain and death and grief.  But now with Easter, with the empty tomb there is another reality.  There is reality that says this is not the end, death is not the final word, there is more, there is hope, there is the possibility for something new, there is hope for life and healing and wholeness.  With Easter eyes we know a reality that says you just never know what may happen, what the future may hold.

When we see these resurrections moments, when we see hope and life emerge from death, we may not completely understand it at the moment.  We may find ourselves confused just like those early followers.  We may find ourselves running back and forth not knowing whether to shout for joy or weep with grief.  We may find ourselves staring at the gardener and wondering if it might be Jesus.  And then we might find ourselves telling our version of the resurrection story.

We may find ourselves smiling and laughing and feeling hope again.  For Finally, ultimately, we are people of joy.  We are people of life.  We are people of faith.

The power of hope.  The power of life.  The power of resurrection.  It is enough to send us out from here to tell others that He is risen.  He is risen indeed.  On the other side of pain, on the other side of death there is always resurrection.  Across the darkness shadows of life, there shines a light that will never fail.  That is the truth of Easter.  Thanks be to God for it.  Alleluia. Christ is risen. Alleluia. He is risen, Indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Revered Dr. David Miller, http://day1.org/634-sermon_for_easter

[2] Reverend William Slone Coffin (Credo, p.167-171)

[3] Henri Nouwen, (Our greatest Gift)


April 7, 2019 (Lent 5)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 43:16-21

Psalm 126

John 12:1-8

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

Let us pray: Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe on us with the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, we pray. Amen.

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

Have you noticed any newness around you? This morning when the service is over, and you are walking to your car notice the daffodil’s coming up. In the midst of the cold and rainy weather we have had the last few weeks have you noticed that the trees are budding, the weeds in the yard are turning green?

As spring is trying to bloom on us.  Is it a coincidence that we read this from the Prophet Isaiah concerns newness?  The Israelites didn’t notice the newness that was breaking forth all around them because they were too concerned with their own struggles.  They were fearful and lost, overwhelmed by their circumstances.  In order to fully understand their predicament, we have to look at what happened prior to this passage.

          In chapter 39, the prophet Isaiah foretells of Judah’s exile in Babylon. Then the next two chapters 39 and 40, 150 years pass. It is during this 150-year period that Israel is led into captivity just as Isaiah, the prophet had predicted.  The temple and the whole city of Jerusalem were both destroyed.  The Israelites were living in exile, whose lives had become nothing but chaos and confusion.  The crisis the Israelites were living through would be a harsh test for the most secure, the strongest an the most faithful people of any time period. Chaos became the norm. The people lost their way.  The poet, William Butler Yeats describes so well, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”[1]

It is exactly into all of this chaos and destruction that God delivers the judgement on the people of Israel, because they were not living faithful lives.  God expresses divine anger.  Because of their sinfulness the people of Israel have lost favor in God’s eyes.  They wondered if this might be the sin that breaks the covenant?  These are people who have seen destruction, been in exile, afraid, lost and alone.  They lived with the humiliation of being held captive and over time they lost their understanding of God.  Now they were exiled from both the land and from the notion that God would protect and provide for them.[2]

Remember this as we move forward to Isaiah 43, the Prophet Isaiah spoke the word from the Lord.  He proclaims salvation to the people of God.  He tells of God’s promises that came from a particular past, Isaiah reminds them of the Red Sea, retelling Exodus event, what God once did for the slaves, God is doing for the exiles.  God is going to make a way where once there was no way.

Isaiah’s confidence to speak so boldly is built on God’s ability to do a new thing that God has done before and will do again.   Isaiah talks about hope that is not manufactured but is actually rooted in the glories of Israel’s past.  Precisely because of what God did at the Red Sea and in the Exodus event, Israel can believe that God will act again.

When all of the sudden Isaiah makes a drastic change from talking about the glories of the past and abruptly, he says: Do not remember the former things or things of old.  This is where the passage gets tough.  Forgetting our past is not what our counselors and psychiatrists tell us to do.  They have a word for someone who refuses to deal with the past: the word is “denial.”  People in denial are like ostriches who stick their heads in the sand, or a person who pretends that everything is fine, normal, when an enormous elephant is sitting in the middle of the room.   Do not remember the former things?  That’s not what our teachers and religious leaders tell us.  That is not what Jesus even tells us: “Do this in remembrance of me…”[3]

Remember the famous quote of George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher, poet, and humanist: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[4]  One look at the newspaper tells us that is true.  And those of us who try to live as people of faith in this confusing world we have traditions, and sacred stories, and scriptures that we read, over and over and we hold on to them.  We aren’t in the business of forgetting tradition.  We work at remembering it, we try to keep it, and we try to live by it, honestly and faithfully. Do not remember the former things? 

How are we supposed to do that?[5]

Isaiah means don’t live in the past, don’t dwell on what was, don’t just sit around and wish for the good ole days.  Appreciate what God has done in the past but live in the present.  Be alive now, in this moment, for such a time like this.

In this passage from Isaiah, we are given words to live by.  God’s promise to Israel, and God’s promise to us, is that each day we live in this beautiful journey called life, God will do a new thing.  God will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

It’s a strange promise God makes, when you think about it.  God doesn’t promise to domesticate the wilderness; only to make a way through it.  God doesn’t promise to take away the desert, or take you out of it, only to find some water in it. God doesn’t promise to tame the wild animals; no, the only promise is to make a way and to find the water, so that even the wild animals and other people will stop and see the new thing and honor God.

I think that is the promise for us, for all of us.  God will do a new thing.  No matter how wonderful or how awful things seem to us today, God will do a new thing.  No matter how tired we may be tomorrow, God will do a new thing.  No matter how mundane the routine, or sleepless the night, or painful the argument, God will do a new thing.  And it isn’t clear what that will be; there is no promise to fix or mend or put more hours in the day.  There is only the promise to make a way in the wilderness, a river in the desert – if we will look for it. “I am about to do a new thing,” says God.

On this fifth Sunday of Lent, may each of us wake up each morning and say to ourselves and those we love,

“Today, God is about to do a new thing.  If and then, let us open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts and go out and look for it.  Don’t let your imagination be closed off by what has come before.  Remember what you have; the former things: seas that split open so that the people could pass through on dry land; pillars of fire in the night that led the people through the wilderness; rocks that rolled away from the tomb.  The dead raised; the lost found, the prodigal welcomed home, sin forgiven.  We have a memory of God at work in our lives.” 

It is a question we asked our Confirmation Class this weekend on the retreat, where have you seen God at work?  If you haven’t then maybe you haven’t been looking!

For this is the day that the Lord has made.  God is about to do a new thing.

Do you see the newness around you?

Let us pray:

[1] Dr. Paul Hanson, Interpterion Series, (Biblical Commentary series) page 5.

[2] Reverend Dr. Craig Barnes, “On the Wild Side Isaiah 43:16·21. National Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC.

[3] Reverend Dr. Anna Carter Florence, “A New Thing,” Isaiah 43:16-21. Program #5013 January 7, 2007.

[4] George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. Scribner’s, 1905: page 284.

[5] Reverend Dr. Anna Carter Florence, “A New Thing,” Isaiah 43:16-21. Program #5013 January 7, 2007.