Newness

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.

Promises, Promises, What Can We Believe

March 17, 2019 (Lent 2)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm 27

Luke 13:31-35

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. 7 Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates….” (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of infinite grace, you love us too much to leave us to ourselves, even though we do so much to protect ourselves from you and to find security apart from you. We know our resistance does not scare you off, and we rejoice that you will finish your work with us. Amen. 

Good morning.  The storms of Thursday evening served as a reminder for me and to me.  During the intense wind and rain, destruction, unrelenting non-discriminating power and randomness, the sun came up Friday morning.  Nikki sent out the beautiful picture of the Evening Sky after the storm and it showed the glory of the colors, purple, gray, silver, yellow, and many others.  It is both a cheesy yet beautiful metaphor for life and ministry.  Then I hear the reports of mass violence in of all places, Christchurch, New Zealand.  I have been there before, over 25 years ago.  It is a calm and peaceful city, with good people and not many guns…but today the violence surges and seems to win.  Which calls into question once again God’s promise, God’s Covenant, with Abram, us and all creation.

So, from where I stand the reminders are everywhere and yet unseen.  Fighting to burst forth from the cold, hard, dark, ground like the early buds of spring.  The words of God, “I am here, fear not.  I am with you, fear not.  This is my beloved son, in him I am well pleased, listen to him.”  So, I will try again today to listen…listen to and for the still small voice calling me, us, creation to trust and believe, and follow.

It begins with a promise: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Promises, promises.  The Lord brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven. Count the stars if you can.  This is how many descendants you will have.” But Abram was a doubting Thomas, like anyone would be at such an audacious promise. When he replies, “How will I know Lord?”

There are important nuanced differences between covenants and promises, differences that most of us do not catch.  Think about the different promises you have made in your life.   I promise I won’t tell anyone!  I promise I will clean my room.  I promise to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home.  I promise to write, or call, or stay in touch.  I promise to have and to hold from this day forward, till death do us part…”  Promises, Promises.  We all make them, and we make them for all sorts of situations and stations in life.  We also make promises to God when babies are baptized and couples are married, or the more desperate promises…God if you get me out of this, I promise I will… But a Covenant is different than a promise.

This week’s Old Testament lesson from Genesis 15 needs to be set in its context.[1]

We go back a few chapters to the end of Genesis 11, where we meet Abram and Sarai. God has created the world and called it good.  God has attended to Adam and Eve and the garden.  All of creation is teeming with life and God has commanded the people to “be fruitful and multiply.”  Yet, it seems that Sarai is the first person to be “childless.”[2]

According to the Genesis narrative God has a problem.  People are spread out all over, nations here and there, people speaking all kinds of languages, people could not understand each other, so God decides to fix it.  God chooses one people to become his people, a nation through which the Lord might bless all the other nations.[3]

So, in typical God-like fashion, God chooses the most unlikely way to bring about the divine future.  God chooses an aging, childless couple, to become originators of the people of God.

The Lord says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[4]

And so, Abram and Sarai go.  They journeyed to the land.  They waited for a child.  Not just any child, but a promised child, who would become the first of their many descendants, who would in turn become a great nation.  A Promise because God said so.

Time passed. They went to Egypt. They came back. No child.

They worked and became wealthy. No child.

Their nephew Lot separated from them. Lot was captured. Lot was rescued.

And still, no child.  Promises, Promises…

And then, finally, the Lord broke the silence.

“Do Not be Afraid:” More Good News from the Lord[5]

Then we hear the first words of Genesis 15, “After these things” and after a great deal of time “the Lord spoke to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid.’”  And what was the good news the Lord spoke? “I am your shield; your reward will be very great.”  “Good news, Abram! You are going to get something awesome!”

This is a second promise from the Lord!  Promises, Promises…Well, Abram didn’t think so!

God responds by renewing the promise of many descendants.  In fact, God responds by expanding the promise!

Keeping promises is God’s business.

“And Abram trusted.”

Abram believed and trusted God’s promise.

The Lord evaluated Abram both his act of complaining in prayer and the reality that Abram trusted the divine promises and then the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness!

And then the Lord made a promise to Abram that is breathtaking in its magnitude, an incredible pledge.  A commitment that is so absolute that the Lord commits to die rather than break the promise.  When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.[6]   The ritual was literally the “cutting of a covenant.” To make a covenant in the ancient world, animals were cut in half, and then the one(s) making the covenantal commitment walked down the middle between the animals.  So, God cut the animals and passed between them as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch.  This was an ancient Near Eastern custom and the implication is that the individual making the covenant would be cut in two like the animals if the promise was not kept.  A relationship – a covenant – however — is not one-sided.  We have a role to fulfill.  God says, “I will take care of you. In return, you will worship me.”

So here we are thousands of years later with this covenant— I will be your God and you will be my people, I will take care of you and you will worship me.  God honored his covenant with Abram. God gave him, Isaac which led to descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky, too many to count.  It did not always seem like God is honoring His end of the covenant.  There were times, years, decades where Abram wondered. But yet, God made a covenant and kept it.

And with us when I see storms and hear of violence, and suffering, and rage, I wonder about this covenant. 

I question! 

I doubt!

But then I look up at the sky, with stars too many to count, I see the dawn of a new day or a rainbow after a storm and…I know. I remember that God always, always, always, keeps His covenant and so we do our part. We worship God and we trust God and we remember…

Let us pray: Faithful God, deliver us from thinking that works will save us and grant us the faith to believe your audacious promises. Amen.


[1] Reverend Dr. Rolf Jacobson, Commentary on Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-19 Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St Paul. MN

[2] Ibid Genesis 11:30.

[3] Ibid “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6)

[4] Ibid (Genesis 12:1-3)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, Genesis 15:9-11, 1-18.

The Sound of Silence

March 3, 2019 (Transfiguration Sunday)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

Luke 9:28-36

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

34:29“Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.” (Exodus 34:29-35, NRSV)

9:28“Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.(Luke 9:28-36, NRSV)

Let us pray: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing,

yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, whose compassion illumines the world. Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who live and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are some things in life that the only appropriate response is silence.  There is no commentary that needs to be added.

I heard a description of this silence from John Buchanan, the former pastor of Fourth Church in Chicago and he is a season ticket holder to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  He writes, that moment at the end of the performance when the audience sits in silence, waiting just a moment before the clapping begins.  It is a moment, just a moment to savor the beauty.  Instead of all the explanations of how the violinist created those sounds or how the pianist’ particular technique created such beauty, the only response the audience can come up with is a moment of silence.

Musicians and Poets seem to get that silence, perhaps more than us regular people.  Mary Oliver, who died in Janaury, is one such poet who gets this since of silence. Her poem entitled “Mockingbirds”.  It goes like this:

This morning

two mockingbirds

in the green field

were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons

of their songs

into the air.

I had nothing

better to do

than listen.

I mean this

seriously.

Wherever it was

I was supposed to be

this morning

Whatever it was I said

I would be doing

I was standing

at the edge of the field

through my own soul

opening its dark doors

I was leaning out

I was listening.[1]

Silence, listening, quiet, sometimes it all that is necessary.

But oh, how often we mess it up.  We think we need words to explain, commentary to make sense of it.  Or maybe it is just plain fear.  Whatever it is, so often we mess up the silence with trying to talk.  I do it all the time.  When I am in a conversation with someone and there is too much silence, somehow, I think it is my duty to fill in the silence, to help bring comfort and ease.  Instead of just being, just sitting in the silence.  I did it just this week.  For the devotional at our weekly staff meeting we spent the first five minutes silently reflecting on our blessings, struggles and inviting God into them. It was so difficult to sit still and be quiet. I couldn’t wait to start talking.

If you are like me in this way, then we are in good company.  Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up on the mountain to pray.  While they were up there, something awesome, miraculous, bizarre happened.  Jesus was transfigured right before their very eyes and Moses and Elijah who had been dead a long, long time were standing there next to Jesus.  When I envision that moment, I think it must have been like that moment of silence right after the symphony plays.  Just silence to take it all in.  Or that moment in Mary Oliver’s poem where nothing else mattered at the moment but to sit and listen and watch and be silent.

But Peter just can’t do it.  It has to be Peter.  Peter strikes me as the one who couldn’t quiet stand the silence.  Whenever there was a moment of silence, he was the one to impetuously say something, anything, to fill the void.  He did it up there on that mountain.  He breaks the moment of awe, the moment of silence with “Master let’s build three tents and just stay here.”  It didn’t make any sense, it wasn’t what Jesus was about.  It was like he was nervous and just chattering away.  The text even tells us that Peter didn’t know what he said.  He was just talking, just filling the void.

So, God comes and makes it clear what all this transfiguration was supposed to mean.  What Peter and the others were supposed to get from it.  A cloud comes and God speaks from the cloud saying, “This is my son, my Chosen, listen to him!”  Don’t talk too much.  Don’t make sense of every little thing, just be, just sit in the silence and listen for Jesus.  Listen to him.

The text tells us that after God spoke, they went down the mountain and they kept silent.  They didn’t speak of it to anyone.  They simply let the experience be.  They learned to stop talking and explaining and chattering so that they might just listen to Jesus.

So much of our religion has forgotten the importance of silence, the importance of not explaining everything, of not even understanding everything.  I read this week of a minister who got a letter from a woman who was struggling with church.  She wrote: “They take all the mystery and awesomeness out of God.  They know all the answers and can tell you what God felt and thought.”[2]

Part of what I take from this transfiguration story is that we don’t have to explain away everything. Sometimes it is okay just to be, well, silent. 

We can’t stay there all the time.  We are not monks or nuns called to a silent existence of prayer.  We have to come down the mountain.  We all to come back to life, to business as usual, to reality.  Jesus came down the mountain and the very next day a father comes to Jesus begging for help for his son.  Jesus didn’t build three tents to stay on the mountain, he came back down to reality, a desperate plea for help from a frantic father. 

Isn’t that the rhythm of our Christian life.  To go from the mystery of the mountain, the awesomeness of God’s holiness to a frantic father who is crying out for help.  “The mysterious holiness of the mountain and the blunt reality of human life and human need and human suffering.”[3]

It is kind of like the picture of the church, or what the church should be.  We come to worship and glorify God.  We are relatively quiet for an hour or so and we sit in the holiness of worship.  Then we leave and life hits us, out there in the world where there are lots of fathers crying out for lots of sons, where there is hunger and fear and need.  The church is worship and service.  You can’t have one without the other.

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, when we begin the journey of Lent.  We walk with Jesus for 40 days and 40 nights as he begins his journey to the cross.  We begin it too.  We will have lots of time to talk about Lent and think about what it means, but I want to challenge us before it starts to think of this Lenten season as being up there on the mountain with Jesus.  Not to talk too much and try to put words to it so much, but to have time for silence, for quiet, for listening.  We’ll come down the mountain with Jesus.  We will come down to busy lives and frantic cries for help, but we need that mountain.  So, figure out where and how and when you are going to be silent and listen and simple be this Lenten season. 

I close with part of another poem, In Silence by Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist.

Be still

Listen to the stones of the wall

Be silent, they try

to speak

your name.

Listen

to the living walls.

Who are you?

Who are you?

Whose silence are you?[4]

          And from Psalm 46 “Be still and know that I am God.” 

So, let’s try it, just for a moment.  Let’s sit in silence.  Let’s just be for a moment.

Let us pray: In the silence of this hour, O God, speak to us of eternal things.  Prepare us for the walk down the mountain, down to your children, the ones in need.  Give us hearts and spirits and faith to care.  Speak to us of your will for our lives and for your world.  Amen.


[1] The Atlantic Monthly Company, Feb. 1994, Volume 273, No 2, page 80 Copyright © 1994 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/atlpoets/oliv9402.htm

[2] Reverend Dr. John Buchanan, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, 2-18-10

[3] Ibid.

[4] In Silence by Thomas Merton, http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/blog/2013-09-27/thomas-merton-in-silence-2/

The Strange Islands: Poems Hardcover – 1957

Location, Location, Location

February 17, 2019

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Psalm 1

Luke 6:17-26

Reverend Dr. Stephen R. Caine

6:17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. 20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”. (Luke 6:17-21, NRSV)

Let us pray: O God, you spoke your word and revealed your good news in Jesus, the Christ. So, we pray that you will fill each of us with that word again, so that by proclaiming your joyful promises to all nations and singing of your glorious hope to all peoples, so we may become one living body, the body of Christ on the earth. Amen.

Location, location, location.  You have heard how important it is, in many different facets of life.  Where you live, where you work, where you are seen matters.

A house in one location can sell for quadruple the amount of the exact same house in another location.  If you have the corner office with the window view, your paycheck looks a lot different than if your work in the mailroom in the basement.

We see location come into play in the world of politics all the time. Pretty soon we will be gearing up for another presidential election (God help us all), and the potential candidates will choose very carefully where they are seen, where they make their announcement of running, where they give their stump speeches.  Will it be in a board room with executives, will it be a large fancy dinner with guests paying thousands of dollars to attend, or will be at a local diner in a small midwestern town where the everyday folk hang out.  Wherever they appear it is well calculated to send a message.  Location, location, location.

Even with Jesus, even in the Word of God, location matters.  Always pay attention to where something is happening.  It means something, usually something deep and powerful.  Our location impacts how we hear a scripture passage.

For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, up on a mountain, hence Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes.  It was a sermon he gave to his disciples, his trusted followers, away from the crowds.

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

A powerful message and set the stage for the disciple’s ministry.

But in Luke’s Gospel, the sermon Jesus delivers cuts to the chase and goes right for the heart.  None of this poor in spirit or hungering for righteousness.  Jesus leaves no gray area, he is cut and dry and brutally clear.   But, did you notice where Jesus delivers this sermon?   Not high on a mountain, or low in a valley, but on the level plain.

Here is some background for his sermon, the story was out about Jesus, people from all over were hearing about his healing power.  They wanted to see him for themselves. Many of them had physical ailments and wanted to be healed. So as Jesus was walking among them, people were clamoring to touch him, to feel his power.  Over here Jesus.  Heal me, please heal me.

And then Jesus began to speak.  You can imagine an immediate quiet fell over the crowd – “Hush, the healer is going to speak.  How will he make our lives better?”  And so, they listened. His first words must have been such a welcome to the crowds. 

“Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping.

Blessed are the hated, the reviled, the defamed, on account of the son of Man.”

The crowd was probably tracking with him, feeling pretty good, agreeing with his message. Then Jesus goes from preaching to meddling.  When he says, the “woes,” and the woes change everything.

“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

Woe to you are full now, for you will be hungry

Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

WOE!

You see, location matters, it matters in how we hear this sermon.  Where we are in life impacts how we hear what Jesus is saying. Again, back to Matthew’s version, which is much more palatable to our North American ears.  While how we hear Luke’s, version puts us in a defensive mode.  In Matthew Jesus delivered this sermon high on a mountain, but Luke moves Jesus to a much different location; down in the plains, down with the people, looking them eye to eye, heart to heart, hand to hand.  Location matters.

In Guatemala, as in many third world countries, there is a literal pecking order of where people live.  The poorer you are the lower on the hill or the mountain you live.  The wealthy you are, the higher up you can afford to live on the mountain.  At the bottom of the hill is where all the trash is dumped and the sewage flows.  Location means everything.  You either look up or down at life and the world.  It strikes me that Jesus comes down the mountain to the level plain to engage people on the same level, not looking up or looking down.  A flat place is where everyone is equal.  And that is the vision of the kingdom that Jesus is talking about.

It is a vision of what the Kingdom of God will be. 

Blessed are the poor and the weeping and the hurting, because they know they need God.

Woe to the rich and the powerful and the well fed, because they think they are in control and don’t know how to fully rely on God.

Please hear me and understand, that I am not in any way, shape or form, romanticizing the poor or the hungry.   No one would choose such a life.  Being poor, hungry, filled with grief is a hard life, filled with pain and heart ache. Never knowing where your next meal is coming from, or a warm place to live, a bed to sleep in, joy for your heart.  But being at rock bottom you just might be more aware of God’s grace when the meal does arrive.

When you are weeping uncontrollably and hurting deep down in your soul, then you know that God is the only one who can give any comfort or peace or help.

When you are lonely and scared and at your wits end, you just might find yourself on your knees praying God I need you.

But those of us who live comfortable, lives of abundance, who don’t really want for anything.  Hear this sermon much differently.  Why, because our material prosperity helps us to believe that we are self-sufficient, and it lulls us away from the kingdom of God.  When we are so encumbered by things, we can’t see clearly.   When we have so much stuff and wealth and food and entertainment, we get more caught up in ourselves with no real need of Jesus and his healing power.  

Blessed are those who live in dependence on God rather than self.

Blessed are those who live lives utterly dependent on God for life, for sustenance, for well-being.

Blessed are those who don’t have a grip on life for God will show the way.

Woe to those who don’t know what it is like to need God to trust God alone.

Woe to those who are so encumbered by things that a quest for righteousness is foreign.

Woe to those who are so satisfied with this world that they don’t yearn for the kingdom of God.

So, what does Jesus sermon on the plain have to say to us, well fed, comfortable, rich Episcopalians and Presbyterians?  Could it be that it means that we need to come down from our mountain or our hill?  We need to visit the plains.  See people eye to eye, heart to heart and hand to hand.  Rethink our own needs and wants.  Re-adjust where we place our trust.  Begin seeing the world the way Jesus does, where all are equal, and all are fed, and all are loved.  Location makes all the difference in the world.

Perhaps Psalm 1 says it best: Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. But their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law, they meditate day and night.

May it be so in your life and in mine.  Amen.

The Unexpected and Inconvenient Word of the Lord

February 3, 2019

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Service for the Lord’s Day with Installation of Vestry Session Officers

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71:1-6

Luke 4:21-30

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

4:21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4:21-30, NRSV)

Let us pray: O God of all the prophets, you knew us and chose us before you formed us in the womb. Fill us with faith that speaks your word, hope that does not disappoint, and love that bears all things for your sake, until that day when we shall know you fully, even as we are known by you. Amen.

In a church a long way from here the preacher stood to preach. Her sermon notes were arranged on the pulpit.  Just as the preacher was about to begin, a woman walked into the sanctuary off the street and proceeded to walk down the center aisle to the front of the sanctuary shouting, “I have a word from the Lord!”

The congregation was startled, this kind of thing never happens in their stately church.  All their heads swirled to see this interruption and to see how the preacher would handle her.  What word from the Lord could this woman possibly bring? Before anyone could find out – the ushers sprang into action and they asked the woman to follow them out of the sanctuary and into the church parlor where they could speak with her and calm her down.

Interesting, isn’t it? Sunday after Sunday, George and I stand up here, he walks and talks and I stand behind this pulpit, we read stories from the bible, and some of them are very strange and when we finish, we say: The Word of The Lord. And you respond: Thanks be to God!

As far as I can tell nobody gets tense or angry.  Your heads don’t spin in concern.  The ushers don’t leap into action. Instead, people follow along in their bibles or the pew bibles. Some of you fiddle with your bulletins. Others of you look at your watches wondering how much longer will he go on? Still others look around gazing out the beautiful windows, watching the squirrels  steal food from the bird feeders. Or you look to make sure your child is not causing trouble and some of you are deep in thought. Nobody is overly concerned when George or I finish the scripture reading and say, The Word of the Lord.

I guess this story points out that how the person who is addressing the congregation is perceived says a lot about how their message will be heard, but that is another sermon for another day.

It was a normal Sabbath in Nazareth, just what you would expect.  A son of the synagogue had come home, Joseph and Mary’s boy, Jesus, was home for the weekend.  He was invited to read the lesson and say a few words.  He was well known by the congregation.   They remembered him as a young boy growing up in their congregation.  They remembered him running through the synagogue and playing with their children.   They remembered his bar mitzvah and what a stellar student he was.   They were proud of him and what he had made of himself.  They heard that he was traveling in Capernaum and other towns preaching and healing. They were so excited for him and that he was one of their own.  So, they settled in to listen to what he had to say.  And he began speaking…The word of the Lord.

We say it, just like we said it moments ago, “Thanks be to God” for the word of the Lord — but do we really want to hear it?  When you stop and think about it the word of the Lord can be disruptive.  The word of the Lord is news, good news, but this good news changes things, and most of us don’t like to change. Someone has said that when we read the newspaper or watch the news on TV, we are not really interested in news.  What we are interested in is confirming that the world is pretty much the same.

“Politician A criticizes politician B.”

“A gunman kills…”

“There is more violence and death in the Middle East.”

“The President tweeted again, and this group of people is upset.”

“Yep! Sure enough, that is what we expected. That is the way the world is and always will be!”

Good news — real good news — is surprising, unexpected and world changing! Good news means that the world is not the way it was yesterday.  A word from the Lord — good news!  Good news means change, and we all know how much Presbyterians and Episcopalians love change.

So, Jesus came home and preached good news to the people of Nazareth.  At first, they listened with a smile.  No one was tense.  No ushers rushed into action.  People in the pew were proud of him.  Think how Mary and Joseph must have been about to burst with pride at what a fine young man their son had grown into.

But then his words sunk in. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today on the first Sunday of February— not yesterday, not sometime in ancient history— but today.  Today these words are fulfilled—fulfilled— coming true, made real, enacted, in your very midst, in your hearing—today! 

What happened that day in Nazareth is this: Jesus preached from Isaiah about God’s love, about God’s grace.   Scripture tells us that all those who heard Jesus, “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  Then in a matter of moments that adoring congregation turns into a lynch mob.  They got up and drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff.

Let’s get this straight:  Jesus preaches about grace, and it makes people so angry that they tried to kill him.  Luke tells us that Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah about God’s grace and reminds the congregation of two stories from the Torah.  One story is about Elijah who helped the widow at Zarephath during a severe famine and the other is about Elisha, who healed a leper of Syria, a foreigner.  Jesus uses the Torah, their sacred text to show his hometown congregation that there is a wideness in God’s grace and that there are no limits to God’s love.  Aha!  That is what happened that day in Nazareth!  Jesus preached the Unexpected and Inconvenient Word of the Lord.

Jesus begins by saying… “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  The congregation expected Joseph’s boy to affirm them and to confirm for them their deeply held belief that they alone were the recipients of God’s grace.   But Jesus understood that he is God’s son, and that in his baptism he was anointed to fulfill the purposes of God.  Those purposes include all people, not just the good folks listening to him that day in Nazareth. And when Jesus preached the good news of God’s love and grace, they got angry!

The Bible has a way of doing that to us!  There is a wideness in God’s mercy that sometimes makes us angry.  There is a deep irony in this story: the sinful yet all too human tendency to resent God’s generosity to others.  We are happy to be recipients of God’s grace and generosity, but we get angry when others are included in God’s gift.

In a synagogue on that day, and in our congregation on Super Bowl Sunday and in churches all over the world, somebody is reading scripture.  Somebody is standing up and reading about God, the one who created heaven and earth, who filled the night sky with stars and put fish in the sea, who created and loves human beings with such deep and passionate love that he gave his only Son to die on a cross to save us from our sin — that God loves each of us, all shapes and sizes, all colors and nationalities, all economic classes and physical needs, the well fed and the hungry — and that is Good News and it changes lives.  The great Good News of Scripture, the good news that angered the people at Nazareth that day is that God loves us, all of us!  God always has and God always will.  Friends, this is the word of the Lord. Thanks Be to God!

Let us pray: O God of grace, we long for your presence, but that grace often comes to lead us in surprising directions. Open our hearts to trust the ways of your work among us, most surprisingly in the gift of your son, Jesus. Amen.

Many and One

January 27, 2019

Service for the Lord’s Day

Annual Congregational Meeting

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

12: 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12:12-31, NRSV)

Let us pray: In you, O Lord, we find our joy, through your law and your prophets you formed a people in mercy and freedom, in justice and righteousness. So, we pray that you will pour out your Spirit on us today, that we who are Christ’s body may bear the good news of your promises to all. Amen.

Every so often a biblical text seems to fit the focus of a Sunday or the work of the church so perfectly, that it makes me wonder if it is truly a gift from God. This Sunday is one of those occasions when the focus of our worship and the work of the congregation coincide with the wisdom of the lectionary. Today is the annual congregational meeting and the epistle reading for today is the well-known admonition from the Apostle Paul using the metaphor of the human body as the body of Christ, the church. Paul deals with what it means to be united when we are so different. How to be one amid diversity. How to remain together with such talented and gifted people who make up the church and how we relate to each other.

My sermon for today is based on Paul’s teaching in Corinth around the year A.D. 54 or 55, two decades or so after Jesus. The new Corinthian church was growing and doing well. They reported that they were filled with knowledge and using the “spiritual gifts” that God blessed them with.   But, with most growth and change not all the news from Corinth was so good. These gifts that should have drawn the Corinthian Christians closer together was instead causing jealousy, division, and schisms in the church. The lines were being drawn between the more conservative Jewish Christians and the more liberal Greek Christians, between the politically enslaved and the politically free, between those who emphasize speaking in tongues and those who emphasized speaking boldly about Christ, between the followers who were loyal to the teachings of Paul or Peter or Apollos.  There were many factions in this church, and each of them was equally passionate and committed to their viewpoints and beliefs.  So, they asked the Apostle Paul for guidance, “What shall we do with all these divisions in the church?” Chapters 12-14 of the book of I Corinthians are Paul’s cohesive response to the issue of diversity and division with the church.

Paul says, “The body is one and has many members.” “The body” in this case means more than one thing.  He (Paul) is mixing his metaphors here in a beautiful way as he uses the physical body to describe the communal body of the church sense.

I can’t read this passage without thinking back to my former church in small town Tennessee and the old curmudgeon Roman Catholic Priest, in our local ministerial association used to say about this text…” some members of the body of Christ are the hemorrhoids! Every church has got them.” Anyway.

So, there we sat gathered around a table, on Wednesday morning. All very committed members of the Indian Hill Church but we were also Republicans and Democrats, Independents and moderates. Young, middle age and elderly. Discussing the recent unpleasantness in Washington DC that was captured on a camera phone and quickly went viral for all to see, to pass judgement and to condemn. If a picture is worth 1000 words, then video tells so much more.  As time passed and the story evolved, we found out that it was much more complicated than it first seemed, a face-off between a Catholic High School Junior and a Native American elder on the steps of the Lincoln memorial over a week ago.

It was clear that as we discussed the recent event that we would never come to a conscious and that is not my point, because we are all entitled to our opinions and our viewpoints, no matter how diverse.  No, what struck me was what kept us together.  When it was clear that we all would not agree on the interpretation of this recent event why did we continue talking? What kept us from throwing salt shakers and silverware at each other?  Trying to stab each other with our forks or worse.  Dividing up into camps of Red and Blue, declaring war and never gathering around a table again?   It is what I believe the Apostle Paul is getting at in this passage.

There is one Spirit, but a variety of gifts as well as opinions.

There is one Lord, but a variety of ways that people serve.

There is one God and Father, but a variety of ways that people work for the kingdom. God gives different gifts to different people.

Some, are hardcore to the right;

Others, just as hardcore to the left.

A Few of us are much too confused to be either.

Some, a passion for a more literal interpretation of the Bible,

Others, a passion for a more open and progressive interpretation of the Bible.

All of us, however, is bound together with love. 

In just the same way, that each and every one of us in this room today is inspired by the one and same Spirit, the Spirit who gives to each person their unique and different perspective, their passions and their gifts. This is what Paul is teaching.  Diversity in oneness is okay, not only is it okay it is a gift from God.  Work together to stay together.

Just as the human body is a unified whole, composed of millions of different parts, so is Christ and his body.

The human body is miraculously complex,

With 60 million cells,

With 36 million heart beats every year,

With 300 billion red cells produced every day,

With 60,000 miles of blood vessels in each body.

Just as the human mind cannot begin to fathom the complexity of its own body, so it is with us, with the body of Christ. Our minds cannot comprehend the complexity of the body of Christ.[1] 

Christ is a living body, composed of billions of parts, miraculously complex, with billions of members, located in millions of different settings, with thousands of different languages, with thousands of unique cultures and billions of expressions of the true faith…throughout all the centuries of recorded time.

The human mind cannot begin to fathom the complexity of the body of Christ, any more than the human mind can imagine the 60,000 miles of blood vessels in one’s own physical body.

As the Apostle Paul says, we have these gifts, these passions in our hearts, these workings, these ways of serving God and God’s kingdom; but if you don’t have love inside of you for our sisters and brothers, who think and feel differently than you, then you are nothing. The greatest gift that God has for you and me, all of us, is love is love.  Love for people who don’t think like you.  Love for people who do not share your point of view of the world, of politics, of life.  Love is a sappy, over used, misunderstood word— but it is what holds us — the body of Christ together. The greatest of these is love.

Amen.


[1] Reverend Edward F. Markquart, Division, Diversity, and Oneness in the Parish: A Conflict Drama

Let Us Listen

January 6, 2019 (Epiphany)

Service for the Lord’s Day with Holy Communion

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Matthew 2:1-12

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. (Isaiah 60:1-6, NRSV)

2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”  7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1-12, NRSV)

Let us pray: O God of light and peace, whose glory, shining in the child of Bethlehem, still draws the nations to yourself: dispel the darkness that shrouds our path, that we may come to kneel before Christ in true worship, offer him our hearts and souls, and return from his presence to live as he has taught. Amen.

It is hard getting back to reality after the Christmas season this year.   Not that any year is easy to come back to reality following the highs of Christmas, but this year seems much harder!  I wanted to hold on to the excitement and the hope and the joy of, yet another beautiful Christmas Eve this year with four beautiful services followed by the wonder of Christmas morning.  I wanted to stay in the comfort of my family.  Of course, none of that can last.  Family time can get old when we stay too long.  The excitement and hope of Christmas morning cannot be sustained much past noon.  And I certainly cannot continue to eat like I did for the last few weeks.  Reality has come back and come back way to fast!  Listening is important in life and in faith and it helps to listen to the familiar story of the three wisemen to ease the harshness of reality. 

It is story for all the senses.  You can see this story in your mind, you can feel this story, but one of the most often overlooked parts of this story is the listening.  I want us to notice that the wisemen listened and it is something to pay very close attention too.  Listening is important in life and in faith.

Many centuries ago, these wise men living in the Eastern lands of the ancient world, probably from Persia, which is modern day Iran.   Were fascinated by an amazing sight in the night sky, the rising of a new star, or maybe it was a comet blazing brightly across dark winter sky.  They knew this brilliant light was no normal star, it had to be a sign that something momentous had happened.

We won’t sing it today but the Christmas carol “We three kings of Orient are…” is technically incorrect because they weren’t kings.  More than likely they were philosophers and astrologers, some scholars believe they were Zoroastrian priests.  But whoever they were, these wise men kept watch on the night sky.  Looking for signs and clues in the heavens above. 

So, Matthew tells us that just as Jesus was born, they saw this new star rising in the western sky over Judea, the land of the Jews.  Using all their powers of analysis and interpretation, they determined that this star was a sign that a new king had been born.

Intrigued, these wise men wanted to find out who this king was, and they wanted to pay him respect.  So, they set out toward the west in the direction of Judea and they followed the bright star in the sky.  The bible doesn’t tell us how they traveled but our imaginations tell us they had to have ridden camels because what else do you travel in the desert?  Matthew tells us when they reached the city of Jerusalem, they immediately went to Herod’s palace.  Herod was the only king in that region.  So, it made perfect sense for these Iranian Magi to show up at Herod’s palace asking to see the new king.  Now this is where the story gets interesting.

Apparently, Herod didn’t watch the stars or listen to his advisors who did because he was totally unaware of any new king.  Neither did he know what the wise men were talking about.  As he listened to them, he was filled with fear.  Acting on his fear he orders his soldiers to destroy the threat and kill all the boys in Bethlehem, 2 years old and under.  While Herod was afraid the Wisemen, were filled with intrigue and as they listened, they wanted to see this miraculous event. They listened as Herod told them to go to Bethlehem, and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.[1] The wisemen left the palace and followed the star that led them directly to Bethlehem and the stable where they found the baby.

What they did not know was that this baby, this new king born in Judea was not only the King of the Jews, but actually the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the savior of all, and his name was Jesus.

So, when the wisemen entered the stable, they bowed down before the infant Jesus and offered him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  What kind of gifts are those?  Scholars think that frankincense was presented to the infant Jesus to symbolize his later role as a high priest for believers while myrrh symbolized his later death and burial.

We don’t know much about the wisemen, except they were outsiders, Iranian astrologers, it is believed that they traveled well over 1,000 miles to come and worship the king.  While King Herod, an insider, was scared by the threat of a baby, a mere 6 miles away in Bethlehem.  But these strange foreign pagan wisemen were unafraid and followed the star and found the king.  As much as we might want to see these Wise Men as innocent and uninformed immigrant travelers, they are so much more. They bear witness to the new king, the real king, even though they not born into the faith, or raised in the faith, they believe.  They trust their own experience, their own encounter, their own epiphany.  They understand that there just might be more to the story than what they have been told.  And therein lies the heart of our Christian faith.[2]  They followed the star because they listened, they keep on going and found the real king.  Listening is important in life and in faith.

It is especially important for us here at IHC beginning a New Year to listen.  We, the Vestry Session will be presenting a new plan for the mission and ministry of our church.  It is a positive plan for growth and discipleship.  It is a plan to streamline policies and procedures, build on our strengths and improve our growth areas. All of this is to say that a major component of this year we will need to listen, listen to each other, and most especially listen for God. Listening is important in life and in faith.

What will you and I listen for this year? Frederick Buechner the American writer and theologian encourages us to, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is.  In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” There is no event, no moment that God is not present.[3]

How appropriate that we start 2019 off in the church with Holy Communion.  How fitting to begin a New Year with breaking bread together, not alone, not distant, but together, around Christ’s table.  For it is in a community of faith where we help each other listen and find the holy, the meaningful, the hopes to sustain us this new year and beyond.  What a blessing to remind each other that Christ died for you and for me so that we might have life, abundant life both now and forever.  Christmas might be gone for another 353 days, but the peace and joy and hope remain.  Listening is important in life and in faith, so let us listen to our lives and for God.

Let us pray


[1] Matthew 2:9, NRSV

[2] Reverend Dr. Caroline Lewis

[3] Reverend Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life, Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner Page 2, (1992)

“The Courage To Move Beyond Our Expectations

December 24, 2018 (Christmas Eve)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 9:2-7

Luke 2:1-20

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-14, (15-20), NRSV)

Let us pray: Who are we, Lord God, that you should come to us?  Who are we? Yet we read that you visited your people and redeemed them through your Son. As we prepare to celebrate his birth, help our hearts leap for joy at the sound of your word, and move us by your Holy Spirit to believe in the audacious promise that is so far beyond our expectations. We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near, your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How many times have you heard this story that we just read from this gospel in Luke?  How many times have you heard this story about the shepherds in the field watching over their flocks at night, when suddenly in a starlit sky there comes the angel and the heavenly host proclaiming good news to all of humanity.  This good news is enough to get the shepherds to go and to follow the directions of the angels in search for the Savior.  How many times have you heard this story that when the shepherds arrive, they find Mary and Joseph and a baby lying in the straw surrounded by the silent and tranquil animals in the barn?

How many times have you heard this story?  Better yet, how many times have you seen it portrayed on greeting cards, or in pictures – this wonderful, warm, loving image?

Christmas is like that for us.  All warm and wonderful.  Memories and images that we treasure and hold dear, that we seek to recreate every Christmas.  Images and memories that transport us back to childhood.  We are so familiar with this story that we overlook that it carries a powerful punch. Let me explain.

It is a real challenge for us to hear the powerful message of this story, when we have so many other memories, images and traditions that help to gloss it over.  This story is a powerful counter-cultural message.  It begins with the Old Testament prophet Isaiah as he speaks directly to political power of his day, in the 8th century before Christ.  Amid talk of governments, warfare, and the economy, Isaiah locates his particular political situation: Assyria, was the reigning superpower, and they have invaded Israel.  The New International Version describes how the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali have been “humbled,” which is a sanitized way of saying “wiped out.” They have become occupied territories.[1]

Sound familiar?  Sure, the names and places have changed … well, kind of.  But war and violence in the Middle East remain constant especially between Israelis and Palestinians.  Throw in terrorism, gun violence and mass shootings, not to mention deep ideological divisions right here at home, and it’s the familiar messy world of politics all these many centuries later.

But Isaiah’s prophetic message is not just to rail against the Assyrians, instead he is sending out a message of hope and assurance to God’s people that the chaos won’t last forever.  Isaiah proclaims that God is Sovereign and God will intervene. God is determined to reign: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this!”[2]

Isaiah’s prophetic promise is that God will establish God’s Kingdom here on earth and it is a direct and not so subtle challenge to Assyria’s superpower status.   It is easy sitting here tonight in the glory of this event to let that slip by…but we can’t because this prophetic message has as much play today as it did in the 8th Century before Christ.  Which causes me to wonder, do we have the ears to hear this?  It is striking to comprehend that Isaiah is saying that God will not be limited by any nation’s agenda … including our own?

Do we have the courage to believe it?

At a Christmas Eve candlelight service?[3] 

When many of us would rather, stay in our lane, shut up and dribble, stick to sports, stick to accounting, stick to whatever it is you do, just don’t bring up politics.  Here it is on this holy night rearing its ugly head into our beautiful Christmas Eve service, which is supposed to be a political free zone, “the pulpit is no place for politics” and “just preach the bible!”

When we really don’t want our religion and our politics to mix — then we get a loaded text like this!

Biblical scholar at Princeton Dale Bruner, explains, that “Every Old Testament text has its partial ‘fillment’ in its immediate historical context. …” Meaning, that a prophetic Old Testament text has to have some measure of coming true to be reliable.  The ‘fillment’ of Isaiah 9 occurred in the 8th century at the end of the Babylonian exile.   After Assyria destroyed the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, the political landscape changed again for God’s people under King Hezekiah when, “The yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” were destroyed. Under Hezekiah’s reign, freedom, joy, and peace prevailed. Well, for a time, at least.[4] 

          Enter the birth of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Luke, his very political message is that the true son of God, the Divine Son is not Augustus, but Jesus.  The real power in the world is not Augustus in Rome but Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem.  The fulfillment of God’s sovereignty was established not through military force this time, but through vulnerability and love.  Imagine: God reigning in power through the weakest of creatures, a human being, “the only mammal on earth that cannot care for [itself] upon birth.”[5] No wonder it was not obvious to all.

There is an independent film that was released in 2003, titled the Whale Rider.   It is about a remote indigenous tribe, the Maroi’s.   It tells the story of a small New Zealand coastal village, inhabited by the Maori.  They were direct descendants of Paikea, the Whale Rider.  It was their custom in every generation for the last 1,000 years, to select a male heir born to the Chief to succeed him and lead the tribe.  The movie tells the story how this once proud tribe has fallen on hard times and they have become a floundering people waiting for their new chief to be born.  There ancient custom is upset when the child selected to be the next chief dies at birth.  The twist of the movie is that the Chief was blessed with twins and while the male child died in childbirth his sister lives.  The rest of the story is the long and slow realization that the tribe has their new leader who has been endowed with powers from on high only they can’t realize it.  And the reason they don’t know it is because it is a little girl.  She is not what they expected.  It is only when they become desperate and actually see a sign of her power and her special calling do, they finally look to her to lead them.[6]

So here we are another Christmas Eve, when we hear this familiar story and we have let this story lose its power in our desire to recreate the wonder of Christmas Eve’s of our past.

And year after year God persists in giving us what we need, a Savior, not what we want, a mighty warrior.   God continues to respond to our desire for strength by showing us the power of weakness, God continues to respond to our yearning for power by showing us the wealth of poverty, God continues to respond to our aching for achievement showing us the power of loss and lowliness.  And still we want some metaphorical bigger-than-life Messiah, leading a mighty army, God once again sends us a pregnant teenager on a donkey.  Not exactly what we are looking for or even what we hope for.

This time of year, isn’t always easy.  For some, it’s as much a time of grief and stress as it is joy and jubilation.  That’s why we can try to remember that the gift of Christmas isn’t in its splendor but its subversion.  The King of Kings, Emmanuel— God with Us — is a baby born in a barn and announced to shepherds. This isn’t the kind of King who requires gleaming palaces and spectacular decor to feel at home but is willing to enter the gritty brokenness of real life.[7]

So, the question is — are we ready to receive the Jesus who is not what we expect? Are we prepared to make room in our hearts and in our lives for the surprising and unexpected good news that God has sent to us?

Like the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”[8]

Let us pray:


[1] Reverend Heidi Husted Armstrong, Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20), Mixing faith and politics, Presbyterian Outlook, December 18, 2006.

[2] Isaiah 9:7

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid (Verity Jones).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Reverend Dr. Robin J. Steinke, A Different Kind of Hope, President of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN December 19, 2018.

[8] The Reverend Delmer Chilton, Adjusting to reality, Christmas Eve/Christmas Day, Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7 and Luke 2:1-20.

Mary’s Subversive Lullaby

December 23, 2018 (Advent 4)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Micah 5:2-5

Luke 1:37-45

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:39-55, NRSV)

Let us Pray – O God of Elizabeth and Mary, you visited your servants with good news of great joy of the world’s redemption in the coming of the Savior. Make our hearts leap with joy, and fill our mouths with songs of praise, that we may announce glad tidings of peace, and welcome the Christ in our midst. Amen.

Songs or hymns are an integral aspect of faith. Music, songs and hymns can speak to us in ways that words, and liturgy can never touch.  Songs, music, hymns can inspire, they can upset, they can make us cry, laugh and inspire us to love.   Songs can get away with things that the spoken or written word can never dream of.  For example, some of the rap music my children listen to on their phones, if they said those words, they would have their mouths washed out with soap.   Songs can inspire, for example, the 1960’s were filled with songs of protest, struggle and fighting the establishment.  The riots in Paris in the May of 1968 prompted John Lennon to write “Revolution,” the first one recorded for the Beatles, “White Album”, in 1968.   The American troubadour Bob Dylan wrote his classic protest song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in 1963. The song sums up the tensions of post- World War II and Korean War America. He wrote it just before the Cuban Missile Crisis.   Keep these types of songs in mind as we think about the song Mary sings in our gospel reading for today.

As Luke tells it, Mary sings a song.  The Church named this song The Magnificat.  While we may not know this ancient hymn by heart, we know it because it has been set to music by dozens of composers.

Mary visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, who confirms the message that the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary: that she was pregnant and the child she carried was God’s child.   After Elizabeth pronounced a blessing, Mary poured out this song.

This sort of behavior, singing, was completely out of character for Middle Eastern Jews in the first century.  How could Mary possibly sing this song given the harsh reality of her circumstances.  She sings, “The Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Lord’s servant.”   The word “lowliness” here means poor, but literally it means, dirt poor.  Mary, a dirt poor, unmarried and pregnant woman, actually, she was more like a thirteen or fourteen-year-old girl with absolutely no standing in community, no safety net to protect her.  But somehow, some way, her explanation for her situation was it was the work of God.  We have a word for that – crazy.  The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy clearly states in chapter 22 that under this kind of circumstance, a woman could be stoned to death.  So, how can Mary possibly sing?[1]  Not only does she sing, but she sings a powerful, and very political song of joy.

I have heard many people say, just stick to the bible, it is not political…well this is about as political as it gets.  I am not talking about Democrats and Republicans, red states and blue states but a powerful statement against the ruling governments of her day.[2] 

Notice the words of Mary song.  She begins with words of praise and gratitude, then goes on to note that God has brought down rulers from their thrones.  Everyone knew who the ruler was: Herod.  Herod the Great, that is, who had been given the title “King of the Jews” by the Roman senate decades earlier.[3]

Remember Herod?  Herod knew how power worked.  He was connected to Julius Caesar until Caesar was assassinated, then Herod convinced Mark Antony that he was on Antony’s side.  When Caesar Augustus overthrew Mark Antony, Herod claimed that he was really a supporter of Caesar Augustus and not for Mark Antony.  Herod seems like a real opportunist.

Herod built huge buildings.  One reason the temple became so controversial in Jesus’ day was that it was built from the taxes paid by the poor. Herod confiscated their land so that he could be Herod the Great.  Herod grew wealthy by overtaxing the poor.  Herod knew people hated him, so the story goes that he planned that on the day he died, he had 70 elite Jewish citizens imprisoned with orders that they be executed on the day of his death so that there would be tears in Israel.  Herod saw many leaders come and go; he out lasted, outsmarted, outmaneuvered and outfoxed them all.   So, this was the power that Mary’s song is against.  A song that is not only about joy and gratitude but a powerful song of resistance with the promise that God cared about the plight of the poor, the least, the last, the lost and the Jews who suffered greatly under Herod and Roman imperial power.[4]

This is the reality in which the meek and mild Mary sings:

He (God) has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts,

He (God) has brought down rulers from their thrones… [He has] sent the rich away empty.

Woah, wait a moment, let that sink in….

Apparently only two people really understood the prophetic message of Mary’s ballad about the birth of the subversive child of God would be: Herod, the most powerful man in the country, and Mary, a powerless, penniless, illiterate Jewish peasant girl.

To one of them, the birth of the Christ Child was the foundation of desperate hope; to the other it was a catastrophic threat that had to be stopped at all costs.

          Mary’s song goes on…

He (God) has brought down the ruler, but lifted up the humble;

He (God) has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

Scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts but been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

God is reversing everything: who is in, who’s out; who’s up, who’s down.  Who the winners are; who the losers are.   Pastor, John Ortberg says: “Mary seems to charge the world with having gotten things pretty much exactly wrong.”

We all know how it really works, blessed are the beautiful. Blessed are the rich.  Blessed are the successful.  Blessed are the secure.  Blessed is Herod.  So, as Mary sings, God’s going to turn everything upside down.  Why would anyone pay attention to her, an unimportant migrant peasant girl?   It was years later that her son said: “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the meek.”

Where do you think he learned this?  More than likely sitting in his mother’s lap or as he was trying fall asleep at night her lullaby resonating in his ears.  She must have taught him that it angers God when people are selfish or violent, when rich people watch poor people go hungry and do nothing, when the powerful push around the weak because they can get away with it?

Mary’s son grew up to become a rabbi who didn’t overthrow Herod by using Herod’s methods.  He wouldn’t out-Herod Herod.  Instead he out-loved Herod.  He ultimately overthrew Herod and continues to defeat the would-be Herod’s and their capacity to hate by his greater capacity to suffer.  Her son, born in a stable, grew up in poverty and worked with his hands, humbled himself, even unto death, death on a cross.  He taught wherever people would listen.  He was accused unfairly, tried corruptly and mocked.  He was executed on a cross high on the hill of Calvary.

          So, Mary sings, not knowing fully the importance of her son, the one who will overcome sin through his suffering on a cross.   Mary sings, about God and how God will turn everything upside down, and it will all start with her, a dirt poor, powerless, illiterate, Jewish peasant girl, named Mary.  And of course, her baby boy.[5]

Let us pray:


[1] The Reverend Dr. KC Ptomey, Jr. A Homily on Luke 1:39-55 for the Third Sunday of Advent on December 17, 2000 at The Westminster Pulpit, Sermons Preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church 3900 West End Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee 37205.

[2] The Reverend Niveen Sarras, Commentary on Luke 1:39-45, (46-55), Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Wausau, Wausau, Wis.

[3] The Reverend Dr. John C. Ortberg, Jr., “Living by the Word: Luke 1:39-45(46-55),” The Christian Century, 2009.

[4] The Reverend Niveen Sarras, Commentary on Luke 1:39-45, (46-55), Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Wausau, Wausau, Wis.

[5] The Reverend Dr. John C. Ortberg, Jr., “Living by the Word: Luke 1:39-45(46-55),” The Christian Century, 2009.

Who We Are Is What We Do

December 16, 2018 (Advent 3)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Luke 3:7-18

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

3: 7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. (Luke 3: 7-18, NRSV)

Let us Pray – O God of the exiles and the least, the last and the lost, you promise restoration and wholeness through the power of Jesus Christ. So, in the sure confidence of your promises we pray that you will fill us with faith to live joyfully, sustained by your grace so that we may eagerly wait for the day when they will be fulfilled for all the world to see, through the coming of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I have recently become fascinated by my family tree.  It began as an assignment for a continuing education course I was taking.  The assignment was to learn more about my family history so that I can better understand myself.  I researched, and I found that I have some rather plain in-laws and some colorful outlaws, I have a Vietnam war hero as well as a draft dodger, I have civil war veterans from both the north and the south.  My mother’s family was from Blair County Pennsylvania and Perth Amboy, New Jersey.   My father’s side of the family is from Columbus, Mississippi and Guntersville, and Green County, Alabama.  It has been fascinating to learn about my family, the titans of industry and the school delinquents, the beauty queens and the librarians.  For example, my mother’s side of the family is from London and my father’s side is from the Isle of Man, Scotland.  My mother’s side of the family was Anglican at some point because I have seen that my great, great, great, great (that is 4 greats) grandfather was Baptized in the Church of England in the 1720’s.  One my father’s side of the family one of my great, great, grandfathers was married to a Cherokee Indian Princess in Alabama, while great, great, great grandfather was a Primitive Baptist preacher, so I guess it is in my blood.  So, what does this have to do with anything, nothing really, at least that is what we hear from John the Baptist, in the passage for today. “Don’t say to say to yourselves, that We have Abraham as our ancestor, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  It is as if he is saying, that ancestry, family tree stuff might look good on paper and make you sound important, but it won’t mean anything to God.

Ah, yes, John the Baptist, he makes his annual appearance into the liturgical season, always on the Third Sunday of Advent.  And he makes bold and challenging statements that often make us nervous, but they are supposed to grab our attention.  Here just ten days from Christmas, right in the middle of our advent build up to the birth of Jesus, comes John the Baptist.  I don’t know about you, but he makes me feel guilty.[1]

He goes on to say, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”   Then he gets even more serious, saying that the one who is coming after him (Jesus) will be even more judgmental than he is, for he will come with a winnowing fork in his hand, and he (Jesus) is going to separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff in the fire.  I have an uneasy feeling that I am probably chaff.  What about you?  Before we get all defensive and down on ourselves, I think this passage has some redeeming qualities. I believe it is more about how we respond to the challenge than it is about trying to figure out if we are wheat or chaff.

This is the sort of message we have come to expect from prophets, fire and brimstone, and John the Baptist, is no different.  Repent, change, turn back or else.  Fear inducing, guilt producing transformation.  Turn around on the road of life.  This sort of rhetoric has been a cornerstone of the Church for centuries.  You know the message, people are bad and sinful, and God is good and loving, so as God’s people, we must change our behaviors or else God will get us.   This is what the crowds hear from John the Baptist, so they ask him the obvious next question: “What then shall we do?”  Please, notice John the Baptist’s response, he gives tangible and concrete ethical instructions, that are surprising simple. 

He announces changes to our behaviors, actions that we can do.  Not impossible and difficult but instead, simple, mundane, and everyday: “Share, Be fair, and Don’t be a bully.”[2]

It reminds me of the recent funeral service for President George H.W. Bush. I was not able to watch it live but I have seen clips and heard about how moving the tribute to our 41st President was.   He was clearly loved by his family, his son, President George W. Bush publicly sobbing about the example his father was.  I watched 60 minutes, last Sunday and learned about the deep and abiding friendship the elder President Bush had with James Baker.  It was such a supportive and dear relationship that Baker actually rubbed the Presidents feet just before he died. Great comfort was shared in the moving yet familiar Episcopal funeral liturgy that refers to Presidents, princes and paupers by our first name, was used and our 41st president simply became known as “George,” a sheep of God’s own flock.   Then in a brilliant and profound statement, the officiating priest, The Rev. Dr. Russell Jones Levenson, Jr. of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Houston, said: “Some have said in the last few days, ‘this is an end of an era.’  But it does not have to be.  Perhaps it’s an invitation to fill the hole that has been left behind.”[3]

          Now, it is not my intention to make a political statement, but rather inviting us all to think about how we live and how we treat other people.  Are you fair and just in your daily life? Do you share from your abundance? Are you a bully?

If you are, why?

What would it look like, what would it feel like to live lives worthy of repentance?  What would it look like to treat others fairly? No matter their importance, power or worth to you?

This is preciously how John responds to the question, of what shall we do?   Each of us is invited, where ever we find ourselves, whether at work, or at home, at paly, or at school, with your spouse or your children, in whatever role or position we occupy, to answer that question by doing, by living, by exhibiting grace, mercy, kindness, love, honesty, humility and love.  Simple, profound and the way of God.  In doing so, we will, through the power of God, participate in God’s transforming love for all the world.[4]

Let us pray:


[1] Reverend Dr. K.C. Ptomey, Jr.  A Homily on Luke 3:7-18 for the Third Sunday of Advent December 14, 2003

[2] Reverend Dr. David Lose, Commentary on Luke 3:7-18, www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=511

[3] Reverend Jill Duffield, Commentary on Luke 3:7-18 2018 www.pres-outlook.org/category/ministry-resources/looking-into-the-lectionary

[4] Reverend Jill Duffield, Commentary on Luke 3:7-18 2018 www.pres-outlook.org/category/ministry-resources/looking-into-the-lectionary

Making a Difference

November 18, 2018

(Proper 28/ 26th Sunday after Pentecost / the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Mark 13:1-8

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

13:1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. (Mark 13:1-8, NRSV)

 

Let us Pray – God our rock, you create all moments of our lives, giving each its meaning and purpose. Strengthen us to continually witness to the love of Jesus Christ, that we may hold fast in times of trial, even to the end of the ages. Amen.

 

We like Jesus most of the time, don’t we?  I mean what is not to like about turning water into wine, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, welcoming children?  All that is great!  But what about the Jesus who we meet today in this apocalyptic story?  He is not so likeable, is he?

 

This Jesus sounds kind of like the guy, I have seen on the street corner with a bullhorn shouting out that we had better get right with God, because hell is hot. He shouts out a litany of sins for which he believes there is no forgiveness.  But that is for another sermon. You know the guy I am talking about, I have seen him at Taste of Cincinnati and most recently I saw him on the corner near Kenwood Mall.

What do you do when you see someone standing on the sidewalk screaming about the end of the world, our destruction, and false messiahs?

 

Do you stop and listen?  Do you shout back at them?  Or do you casually cross to the other side of the street to avoid them at all costs?

 

In the story from Mark, we find Jesus and his disciples as they are leaving the Temple where Jesus has been teaching.  As they are leaving one of his disciples, notices the size of the Temple, and blurts out, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”

 

Now Jesus has been doing some serious teaching, so the remark from the disciple seems to come straight out of left field.  Jesus has been discussing their mutual obligation to God and to the Empire.  Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  In response to their inquiry regarding the greatest commandment Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart… and your neighbor as yourself.”  They’ve just had a stewardship lesson as Jesus pointed to a widow who gave her last two pennies, and then Jesus said about her that she had given more than even the most generous, rich member of the community.

 

Jesus had been imparting a lot of truth, deep truth.  So, while it may seem odd that a disciple is distracted by the architecture and the size of the Temple.  Perhaps it really isn’t.  Perhaps, the truth, the deep truth, is at times too much for us; we need a distraction. “Hey, guys, look at this building and check out these large stones!”

 

They were very large stones.  According to the first century historian, Josephus, they were massive stones: thirty-seven feet long, twelve feet high, eighteen feet wide.  The Temple must have been an impressive structure. The Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70 C.E., all but part of the west wall, which remains to this day.[1]

 

After 70 C.E., anyone, hearing of Jesus’ words about the destruction of the Temple, must have been in awe of his prophetic powers.  They must have also wondered how, a building so massive, so impressive, and so permanent could be thrown to the ground, it must mean the end of the world.

 

What was it Jesus said? “Do not be alarmed…”

 

Then Peter, Andrew, and James privately offer a follow up question: When will this happen?  Jesus does not directly answer their question, but he does admit that no one knows when it will happen.

 

All the natural disasters, violence, wars, and the struggles of our world it is enough to make you wonder.

 

A recent cartoon in “The New Yorker Magazine” pictures two people on the street, carrying signs. One reads, “The end is near for ecological reasons.” The other says, “The end is near for religious reasons.”

 

People have different reasons, but as Pheme Perkins writes, every major world crisis brings its share of books describing events as evidence that the signs in the Book of Revelation are being fulfilled.  Perkins speculates that such claims are a way that human beings try to make sense of traumatic upheavals.

Here’s how Jesus makes sense of these upsetting disturbances, when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; they must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

 

Jesus clearly does not want his disciples or anyone else for that matter to read more into the trauma and chaos of his prognostication than they should.  What is happening now is not the end, but instead it is the beginning.  The beginning of a period that will only come to an end in God’s good time.   “Do not be alarmed… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”    Just as labor pains are a hopeful, wonderful indication of good things to come.  Do not be alarmed; something is being born.  The Apostle Paul puts it this way, “The creation is groaning in expectation.”[2]

 

Jesus takes seriously the reality of suffering, both the suffering of his hearers or our suffering today.  He doesn’t ignore the pain and death in our world.  He is not ignoring the terrorism or the wars or the genocide or the fires or floods or the more personal traumas of human life.  Jesus is not a Pollyanna, he is not denying pain.  Yet, when he compares suffering to birth pangs, he makes a rather radical and comforting theological claim: In the Kingdom of God, suffering has a purpose… it does not, lead to despair, instead it leads to hope, to the anticipated dawn of God’s new day.  Something is being born.

 

And Jesus’ words encourage us to persevere.  So, often we think that our efforts might seem meaningless in the face of the difficult events and troubling news of our day, but we are encouraged to press on, to keep going.  This is not the end; these are birth pangs. Something’s being born.

 

I read an interview recently with Reverend Calvin Butts, he is the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City.  It is located just north of 125th street in Harlem; it is a beautiful old Gothic Church that rises up above that street in all of its Gothic splendor.  Reverend Butts was asked to describe the ministry and work of his church.  He said, from the spire of that old church one can see just about anything that you could want to see.  Or perhaps more accurately, just about everything that you would not want to see.[3]

 

Blocks and blocks of burned-out apartment buildings.  Shabby little pawn shops, boarded-up storefronts, roach-infested bodegas…vacant lots, which have become illegal dumps.  The street corners are run by prostitutes and crack dealers who ply their trades.  Nights in this neighborhood are punctuated by the sounds of gunfire and sirens, and in the daytime, you can see the school-age kids roaming the streets in gangs.

 

You would think that churches – even big ones like Abyssinian Baptist Church – would want to move out of this sort of neighborhood to somewhere else.  But there they are!  In the middle of Harlem, they just keep on hoping through the birth pangs.  Under Reverend Butts’ leadership, they have set up latchkey programs for children so they have a safe place to go after school, they have put together neighborhood redevelopment agencies, they’ve conducted successful boycotts against corporations that price-gouge the poor, they’ve set up Bible studies in the near-by housing projects.

 

In this interview the writer asked Reverend Butts, “Yeah, sure, you’re doing great stuff; but is it making a difference?  It is hard to see any success in all you do, so what keeps you folks going?  What gives you hope?”

Reverend Butts responded, “Here’s what gives us hope and keeps us going. We’ve read the Bible, and we know how it ends. We aren’t at the end yet,” he said, “but we know how it ends, and that makes all the difference in the world.”

 

We, too, have read our Bibles; and we, too, know how it ends, don’t we? That’s what keeps us going, keeps us supporting IPM and MEAC, volunteering the PWC and Saturday Hoops, and sheltering homeless families with IHN; and feeding the hungry through MEAC and IPM and La Soup, the Free Store Food Bank, it is what keeps us doing our part in the full confidence that we are sharing in God’s grand plan.

 

Life can be overwhelming.  The world seems to be in such a mess, and our efforts so insignificant.  But we believe Jesus words: These are but birth pangs. This isn’t the end of the story.  It’s the beginning.  But we know how it ends. It ends with God.

 

Let us pray:

 

 

 

[1] Reverend Dr. KC Ptomey, A Homily on Mark 13:1 10, Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 19, 2006. The Westminster Pulpit Sermons Preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church 3900 West End Avenue Nashville, Tennessee 37205-1899.

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Widows, Subversion and Work of God

November 11, 2018

(Proper 27/ 25th Sunday after Pentecost / the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Psalm 127

Mark 12:38-44

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

3:1 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 5 She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”

 

4:13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, NRSV)

 

12:38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44, NRSV)

 

Let us Pray – May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable unto to you O God, our creator, our redeemer, and our sustainer. Amen.

 

Our stories for today focus on women, especially widows and their subversive acts.  I am going to focus only on the Old Testament reading.  It is an abundant story that is not particularly safe for work, as you notice the lectionary skips all the sexual innuendos.  I will let you read the racy parts for yourself.

 

Some background to set up our reading for today.  This little book of Ruth tucked in between Judges and First Samuel tells the story of three people: Naomi, a widow from Bethlehem; Ruth, her daughter-in-law; and Boaz, a wealthy farmer. Most scholars believe that the book of Ruth was written before the Israelites were forced into Exile. Many scholars believe the importance of the book of Ruth is to establish the heritage and ancestors of King David, who will become the king of Israel.

 

Regardless of the exact heritage all agree that the story of Ruth is a story for all time, a story of vulnerability, loyalty, and faithfulness.

 

Naomi, the wife of Elimelech and the mother of Mahlon and Chilion, has just lost her husband Elimelech.  She is widowed living in a foreign land during a horrible famine.   She is determined to return to her homeland but she husband-less, and her sons have both died as well.  So, she is all alone.  All she has left is her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth.   These three widows are at the mercy of a patriarchal society with no “husband” to “care” for them.  It was the custom for any woman who was not attached to a male was at the mercy of economic and social forces were set up against them.  There was a law called the law of levirate marriage that specified that a widow be claimed by the nearest male relative of the deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow.  So that she and her offspring would be provided with a name, with a home.

 

Naomi is strong, she is proud, she is resilient, and she wants to go home so that when she dies, she will die in her homeland.  She does not want her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth to go with her.   So, she pleads with them to return to their own family’s home in keeping with the customs of the day.

 

Orpah decides to go back to her homeland and to live with her family.  While, Ruth, decides to break with tradition and she vows to go with Naomi back to Bethlehem.  Ruth’s decision may seem like an easy one to us today, but it was actually very monumental.  It was a decision with an ever-lasting impact.

 

Now, Ruth is an outsider in many ways.  She is an outsider to the family being the daughter-in-law.  She is an outsider to the tribe of Israel because she is a Moabite. And she is an outsider because she is a woman.  But she makes a decision that shows her fortitude and her servant spirit, which is even more powerful because she is an outsider.

 

Ruth, the outsider shows us how to truly love and serve others!

 

 

Why would she make a choice to follow her mother-in-law to a foreign land to presumedly die?  At a time of such vulnerability how could Ruth be so loyal?

 

Many Biblical scholars say that this story is imagery of what God does for each of us. Ruth being the image of God. That like Ruth, God will break with tradition to care for us and go with us.

 

So, Ruth, in a supreme act of devotion, follows Naomi to Bethlehem the home of Boaz.  Remember that Boaz, the wealthy farmer is also a relative of Naomi’s dead husband.  So, in an act of subversion Naomi puts together a scheme to send Ruth to meet Boaz, in hope that Boaz might become their “redeemer”  and rescue them from their economic suffering and dependence.  It is through this secret meeting on the threshing floor that Ruth and the clever Boaz connect.  Later in front of the city elders, Boaz claims Ruth as his wife, then they marry.  Later they have a child who continues the Davidic line that eventually leads to the birth of Jesus.

 

The subtext of this story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz is a metaphor for how God intersects with humanity.  Not many of us today are able to experience God in the direct way that the characters of Ruth’s story did but it is worth examining.  We may not experience God as a burning bush, a descending dove or even a booming voice from above.  We may not be able to see God as a chess master visibly moving us through the events of our lives or as the divine puppeteer directing our every move.  However, if we examine our lives, we may be able to see God in the details as the one to whom we attribute some amount of responsibility for the circumstances in our lives, as well as those of the world at large.

We see football players kneel in prayer giving thanks to God after scoring a touchdown. We hear friends and relatives give thanks to God for the outcomes of the recent elections or when they get a job or when they escape harm in an accident.  It is easier to see God’s hand at work when our lives go well, and we feel blessed.  But I hope you notice that Naomi attributed her calamities and hardships to God as well as her ultimate happy ending.

 

The book of Ruth shows how the actions and commitments of ordinary and even unexpected people such as foreigners and widows can change the course of history for the better.  The decisions of these women especially help to redefine our understanding of family, as it shows the work of God to bring about the birth of the grandfather of King David, which ultimately leads to the birth of Jesus.

 

Later today as we celebrate The Kirkin of the Tartans’ is in itself a celebration of an act of subversion.  On July 25, 1745, the young Prince Charles Edward Stewart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” returned from exile in France by way of Scotland where he enlisted many of the Highland Clans to join him to try to overthrow King George II of England.  He hoped to overthrow the King and he promised the Highlanders that if successful he would restore the Scottish throne to the Royal House of Stewart. There overthrow attempt was unsuccessful.

 

In response King George II enacted the Act of Proscription — to subdue the Highland clans.  The Act of Proscription banned the wearing of any sign of the Tartan, forbade speaking in Gaelic, outlawed Scottish music, dancing, and the playing of the pipes.

 

Legend has it that during the 36 years following the Disarming Act of 1746 the clans would carry small pieces of their banned tartan cloths under their cloaks to the Kirk (Church). During the worship service the Scottish clergy would offer a secret blessing for the clans and their hidden tartans.  The Highland clans rededicated themselves to God and their Scottish heritage.

 

These Scottish clans were more than just blood relatives they were a gathering of people for protection and for economic, political and social support. Specific tartans developed because each Highland area liked to weave a certain design using local herbs and dyes. The clans and their representative tartans are symbols of the importance of community and clan was the family. The tartan is a symbol of this love and togetherness.

 

So, just think, if God can act through two widowed and destitute women and our ancestors who were stripped of their heritage to change the direction of history how might God act through you, me, our congregation?  I think the lesson is clear that most often God is acting through the least of these the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the least, the last, and the lost.  So, friends we are invited to open our eyes to notice them for we just might see God at work.

 

Let Us Pray – God of the past, we give you thanks for servants like Ruth who show us how to love and follow. God of the here and now, be with us as we attempt to, follow the way of Christ. God of the future walk with us each of this journey giving us a strength beyond our understanding. AMEN.