The Great Conundrum of the Christian Faith

Isaiah58:1-9,
Matthew 5:13-20

Reverend Stephen Caine

 

5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-20, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God of light, your searching Spirit reveals and illumines your presence in creation. Shine your radiant holiness into our lives, that we may offer our hands and hearts to your work: to heal and shelter, to feed and clothe, to break every yoke and silence evil tongues. Amen.

 

There is a great conundrum in the Christian faith.  It is the tension between doing and being.  I am being overly simplistic, but basically there are Christians who talk a great deal about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  That relationship is the core of their faith.  There are other Christians who are much more interested in making a difference in the world.  The core of their faith is in expressing their beliefs in actions of service to others. This conundrum is further complicated and especially acute here in North America where there are Christians who have a hard time being dependent on God, letting go and letting God.  We want to do something to help ourselves.  It is very hard for doers to experience faith as being.  We like to “do” something with our faith.  We like a more active and tangible faith.  Other Christians have no problem with being still and knowing God.  We like the calm, reflective and thoughtful side of faith.  So which is better?

 

My reformed faith is based on the belief that we are justified by grace through faith in God.  It is what God has done for you, me and all humanity and it is not about what we do to earn God’s grace by our good works.  So, our teaching and our sermons bear witness to the work of God, God’s action and God’s activity.  This theology allows people freedom so we are not oppressed by the law, from having to dot every i and cross every t in order to be right with God.   This theology is great and wonderful and I believe it, but it is awfully hard to live.

 

The conundrum comes out in the day-to-day reality of the church. I have learned that people are much more interested in belonging to something they can invest in. You may know from your own life experience when you are invested in something you are far more likely to enjoy it, and your commitment to that venture or cause increases dramatically.  When you are invited to contribute to a cause or a venture and you are invested deeply in it; it means more to you, Right?    When you contribute more than just your money, when you give of yourself, your time, your talents and your energy than it becomes a part of you.

 

Have you ever been asked, “To do some meaningless task because someone needs to do it?”  You probably didn’t stay committed very long and the cause or the venture wasn’t that important to you for very long – but when you’re invited to use your gifts to make a difference, you feel so much more a part of the venture or the cause, don’t you?

 

And there is the conundrum: I have learned that people actually want to contribute, to make a difference, to share what they’ve been given as a meaningful gift, and yet I’ve spent a lot of my ministry telling people that it is not our good works that save us, that it is the work of God that saves us.  The crux of our faith is that we don’t do those good works in order to earn favor with God, to earn our salvation, to build ourselves up.  We do our “good works” in response to God  — for God has already saved us, to God already claiming us, to God becoming one of us.

 

Which brings us back to this week’s passage from Matthew.  Jesus and the disciples are on the mountain and he is preaching his famous “sermon on the mount.”  And he just plain tells them that that’s what they are. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Notice, that Jesus doesn’t give the disciples instructions on how to become salt and light.

 

Jesus does not command them to do anything but he tells them who they already are — they are salt and light.  He commissions them to be the persons they’ve been called to be.   To let their light shine so that others will see their good works and glorify God.   Jesus isn’t asking them to earn their salvation, of course, but to live out the salvation and discipleship that has been given them as a gift.

 

Maybe I am wrong about this conundrum but it seems that these two different views of Christianity don’t realize that both can actually be true within one person’s faith.  Our scripture readings for today seem to point to the reality that as Christians we cannot make any real impact on the world without that personal relationship with Jesus, without a vibrant, strong connection with God.  And, that no strong relationship with God is possible without an engagement with the outside world and the needs and the struggles of that world.  It is “Both/And” not “Either/Or”.

 

This conundrum is evident throughout the Bible.  On the one hand are those people in the Bible who define religion as adhering to the religious law.  The core of their faith is practicing the rituals, praying, fasting, and sacrificing, following the letter of the religious laws.  This religion is the way of the Temple and the priest.  But then there are others throughout the Bible who see their faith as the difference it make in the way they live their life.  Their faith leads them to care for the poor, the weak, the hurting.  The conundrum continues today but in some ways it is a tension that really doesn’t need to be a problem.  Because our faith is about both.   Both being and doing.   Both following the law and caring for others and the world.

 

So, I need your help with this conundrum.  I would like you to take the piece of paper that was passed out to you and follow the directions this week and notice how you are Salt and Light…

 

Jesus called us Salt and Light. And that’s what we are. I want to give you the chance to be Salt and Light this week so I encourage you to look for the good things that you are already doing in our church, our schools, our community and the world.

 

Spend a little time “being,” thinking, reflecting, praying and then express the ways you live out your faith, use your gifts.

 

The question we have to ask ourselves is in what ways do we know and do others experience that we have a real, vibrant, close relationship with God?  How do our actions and the way we live illustrate our relationship to God?

 

The promise of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus Christ, is that when we live like this, when we are salt and light for the world, the world actually becomes just a little bit better, a little gentler, kinder, more compassionate, and more Christ-like.  So go and be salt and let your light shine.

Jesus Makes it Look so Easy

Isaiah 9:1-4,
Matthew 4:12-23

Reverend Stephen Caine

 

4:12 “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:12-23, NRSV)

 

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

 

Jesus makes it look so easy.  He walks by two fishermen, calls them, and they follow.   He walks by two more, he calls them and they follow.   Just like that! Jesus walks by, calls, and four fisherman become his disciples.  Wow!

 

Jesus begins his ministry by offering this simple invitation, “Come, follow me.”  This simple invitation is the beginning of God’s connection with the world through his Son.  It is an invitation to a relationship with the living God.

 

Well, that was then, this is now.  Because, nobody simply walks by someone and says, “Come and follow me,” and it works, anymore.  We have become too jaded, too cynical, too doubting to simply drop everything and follow someone.  And when it comes to church most of us can’t imagine inviting someone to come to church with us.  It is just not part of our comfort zone.  Not only is it hard to talk about our faith, it is even harder to talk about our faith with other people,  and it is next to impossible to invite someone to come to church with us.  Besides, we are not the kind of people who do that sort of thing, “evangelize.

 

We have put our own spin on what the word evangelize means but it comes from the Greek word “euagelion” which transliterated means “evangel” or “good news,” and that is where we get our word evangelism.   This “good news,” is news is from God that comes to us and it is not ginned up by us.  It is good news because it is something that God does. The Gospel comes to us rather than from within us. The Apostle Paul says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes from the (preaching) work of Christ” (Romans10:17).

 

The Good News that Jesus offered those fishermen was a relationship with him, connection with a community of people in relationship with him and the opportunity to be part of something that is bigger than themselves. Jesus good news was to a better life, a more meaningful life…a connected life.  This is good news that only God can bring.  Faith comes from the outside, by hearing something we would not have known if the church had not told us.

 

This is difficult for us.  Presbyterians and Episcopalians, us mainline folks because we are so respectful of other cultures and faith traditions that we don’t want to offend anyone, and rightly so.  But the very nature of the Good News will come in conflict with every culture, even our own.  We know what this message got Jesus — a cross!

 

We also think of our faith as something we do.  We go to church to get our assignment for the week – work on your kindness, love God better this next week, read the bible more often, say your prayers each night, serve those in need. We often boil down church to a dose of moralism and a spiritual assignment for our lives.  But if we think about it and we are honest where is the good news in that?

 

On the other hand, there is Good News in Jesus invitation to follow him, to be in relationship with him.

 

One of the challenges in this passage is how difficult it is for most of us to imagine getting up and leaving everyone and everything to follow Jesus.  And just like we are uncomfortable inviting people to church we are even more threatened by the idea that God might use us to tell others about a relationship with Him.  So we put the disciples on a pedestal and think of them as extraordinary, super heroes of the faith to admire but not to identify with.  God can’t use me, well this story tells us that Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things … and he still does.

 

I recently read a survey of a cross section of American adults who were asked where they found their greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose in life.  The number one response was: Relationships.  Even for those adults who claimed that their work was the number one source of meaning and fulfillment in their lives; it was their relationships at work that they were most happy about.

 

The connection of this survey to Jesus invitation is that it is still all about relationships; “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.”  Jesus is calling these first disciples not into work but into relationship.

 

Jesus called these first disciples into relationship – with himself, with each other, and with all the various people they will meet over the next few years and for the rest of their lives.

 

Jesus invites us to the same – to be in genuine and real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace.  It will always involves people – not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood people. Think back to your own faith, and why you still come to church, I imagine it was because someone you had a relationship with invited you or taught you or lived out their faith in such a way that you wanted to come and see for yourself.

 

When I think about the people I have known who embody faith, who I consider are the most faithful, it is not the ones who know the most Bible, or quote the most verses or talk the talk.  It is the people who live their faith in how they relate and treat others.  Their faith affects their relationships—all of them, their spouse, their child, their parents but even more so the clerk at the DMV or the checkout girl at Kroger, of the guy who is clearing the snow from your street.

 

Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to be in relationship with the ordinary people all around them and through that did extraordinary things … and he still does.

 

Ok, so let’s try something a little different for us Presbyterians and Episcopalians. An exercise: Think of one person you have a relationship with. It might be someone you are close to like a spouse or a friend. Or it could be someone you hardly even know.  Just think of that person for a moment. And now take another moment and in silence offer a prayer for her or him to hear God’s invitation.  Also pray how you may help him or her to hear the Good News of God’s love.

 

You see, Jesus did not just call disciples way back when – he is calling you and me today – and in fact using you – to care for those God loves so much that he gave us his son.

 

Amen.

What’s in a Name?

Isaiah 42:1-9,
Matthew 3:13-17

Reverend Stephen Caine

 

3:13 “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Creator God, our soul’s delight, your voice thunders over the waters, liberating the future from the past. In the Spirit’s power and the waters of rebirth, Jesus was declared your blessed and beloved Son; may we recall our baptism, and be disciples of the Anointed One. Amen.

 

What is in a name? When our first child was about to be born we were living in a small town in South Carolina, where I was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church.  People began to ask what we were going to name him or her.   We did not want to know if we were having a boy or a girl so we did not tell anyone what names we had picked out.  When the big day arrived and he was born, we named him Winston.  As I went around town, people would ask me what we named him and I told them Winston.  It was interesting to see the puzzled looks on their faces…Oh so you named him for Cigarettes.  I responded, No, no we didn’t.  Others would say, oh so you named him for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series? Again, I responded, No, no we didn’t. Thankfully, some people, asked, did you name him for Winston Churchill? Again, I responded, No, no we didn’t. For the record, we named him for my father, his grandfather.

 

Names can give us identity.  Names can give us place and purpose and power.  Names are important. Some names are given to us when we are born. Other names we earn, like doctor or reverend, or lawyer or professor or judge. And still others we take when we are married. Then there are nicknames, big daddy, slim, slick, dabeast, and so on… And then there are the names that we are called. Names can bring pride or shame. Names can lift us up: others tear us down. Whatever the case, names have power.

 

Some of the more difficult names you may have been called during your life those names, no matter how long ago you were called them, they are stuck in your memory, haunting you, consuming your memories and affecting your self-image. Names like “Stupid” or “Geek,” “Fatso or “Ugly.”  Names like “Loser” or “Wuss” “Know-it-all” or “Wimp.”  As painful as some of these names are for you I want you to let them go for a moment so that you can hear what God has to say to you. Because, that is not your name!  God says, “You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased!”

 

Fred Craddock, a wonderful story teller and preacher, tells the story of going to visit the Smokey Mountains in East Tennessee one summer.  He was on a short vacation with his wife, when they stopped into a little restaurant. It was one of those places where the owner was also the waiter, the cashier, and the greeter.

“Where you folks from?” the owner asked.

“Oklahoma.”

“I never been there but I hear it is a splendid state. What do you do for a living?”

“I teach preaching in a seminary.”

 

“Oh, so you teach preachers. Well, I’ve got a story for you.” And with that he started, “See that mountain over there?” He pointed out the restaurant window. “There once was a boy born to an unwed mother.  He had a hard time growing up because every place he went, he was always the only child without a father. Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, he felt that everyone was judging him and wondering: “Who’s your daddy?”  So, He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going into stores because he was so ashamed.  Even when he went to church, he would always go in late and slip out early to avoid being asked who his father was.

 

One particular Sunday when he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. On this Sunday the new preacher used a different benediction and he was caught off guard and he had to walk out with the crowd.  Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, ‘Son, who’s your daddy?’ The people around him got quiet.  He could feel their eyes looking at him.  Now everyone would finally know the answer to the question, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ Before he could answer; the new preacher said:  ‘Wait a minute! I know who you are.  I see the family resemblance now.  You are a child of God.’  With that, he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, ‘Boy, you’ve got a great inheritance – go and claim it.’ 

 

With that, the boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person.  He was never the same again.  Whenever anybody asked him, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ he’d just tell them, ‘I’m a child of God.’  The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn’t that a great story?” Fred Craddock, said that it really was.  As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn’t told me that I was one of God’s children, I probably would never have amounted to anything!” And he walked away.  Fred and his wife were stunned.  He called the waitress over and asked, “Do you know that man who was just sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That’s Ben Hooper. He’s the former governor of Tennessee!”

 

The power of a name.  The power of being a child of God.  Claimed, loved and cared for by the living God, creator of heaven and earth.  That is what it means to be a child of God.

 

It is the most important identity of all.  In the Baptism of Jesus it is the moment where the Kingdom of God breaks into human life.  It is the moment when Jesus ministry begins – he begins to live as a child of God and to take on the power and responsibility of that name. In baptism you and I have been “clothed with Christ.”  What does that mean?  It means that when God looks at you and me, God sees his Son, the Beloved, the one with whom God is well pleased. In baptism we are clothed with Christ, so when God looks at us God sees Christ in us, even when you and I cannot see Christ either in ourselves or in one another.

 

Our faith gives us an important identity and affirmation.  At baptism we accept, or we accept on a child’s behalf, God claiming that Child as “His own”. In baptism we accept our identity as God’s child, as God’s beloved. In seeking to respond to the gift of grace showered upon us at baptism we seek to live out this baptismal identity and this affirmation. It is as if the heavens have opened for each one of us and as if God has said, “YOU are my child and I am pleased with you.”

 

The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, struggled with bouts of depression and he struggled with a sense that he was unworthy, awful and he was stricken with despair.  One thing that he did to help himself with these demons is he kept an inscription over his desk that read, “Remember, you have been baptized.”  Often, he would touch his forehead and remind himself, “Martin, you have been baptized.” 

 

No matter what you do or don’t do you are still a child of God…

 

When you’re wandering around lost and lonely, feeling afraid and isolated you are still a child of God…

 

As a child of God, you look at the world differently: you are filled with a strong sense of servant hood, and heart for mission will open your eyes.

 

Jesus the Word became flesh so that all who receive him may be given power to become children of the living God. We learn that we, like Jesus, discover who we are by hearing once again whose we are, God’s own beloved child. We may be living at a time when the question of identity has never been more important, for there are so many sources that influence our identities.  But so few of those names are life-giving, and none of them is redemptive.  It is no wonder this gift of identity and affirmation is one of the most powerful themes of the Gospel, and it sends us forth from the sanctuary armed with our new name – Child of Godthat we may face the challenges and opportunities before us knowing that we are God’s own beloved children.

 

You are God’s beloved child – God is pleased with you.

 

Now go and claim it!

 

Live into this powerful name.

Out to the Shepherds

Isaiah 9:2-7,
Luke 2:1-20

Reverend 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 2:1-20, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of all ages, in the birth of Christ your boundless love for all your people shattered the power of darkness. So, we pray that you be born in us with that same love and light that our song may blend with all the choirs of heaven and earth to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

 

Mike Rowe is the actor who was the host of the television show, Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel.  It was a show where the host Mike Rowe went to work with people who had the jobs most of us would never consider taking.  Rowe performed these difficult, strange, disgusting, and often very nasty jobs right alongside the regular everyday employees.  Some of the dirty jobs Mike did included but were not limited to: Catfish noodler, golf ball retriever, crawfisher, underwater lumberjack, bat cave cleaner, house mover, and his personal favorites for sheer grossness, were working with roadkill removers and sewage pipe repairman.

 

If Mike Rowe had been able to do his show in biblical times, he surely would have covered a day in the life of a shepherd, because in that day and at that time it was the hardest job around.  By the time of Jesus birth, shepherds were people from the bottom rung of the social ladder.  Shepherds were people who could not find decent work or respectable employment.  Shepherds were stereotyped as liars, degenerates, and thieves.   The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from entering their city limits.  The religious establishment was particularly harsh on shepherds since the very nature of their work kept them from observing the Sabbath which made them ritually unclean.   The Pharisees classified shepherds along with tax collectors and prostitutes, as persons who were “sinners” simply by virtue of their vocation.   As modern day hearers, we have romanticized shepherds; and made them into sweet and nostalgic characters, like the cute kid in the play who dresses like a shepherd complete with his bathrobe, crook and fake sheep.  This modern romanticized view of shepherds has caused us to miss the amazing truth of the birth narrative of Jesus.  It is to these wayward, dirty shepherds that the angel of the Lord visits to announce the birth of Jesus.   It is these “outsiders” who receive the message that the Savior is born.

 

You can just imagine these lowly men in the fields watching their sheep that night when they see the angels and they hear the startling announcement; “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.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  The shepherds had to have been confused, not to mention terrified, , wondering why in the world the message was coming to them, but once they heard the message all they could do was to go and find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.

 

Luke wants to make it clear that the angel did not visit the royal palace or even the temple.  Luke’s message is that if one wants to experience the newborn Christ then the last place to be on Christmas Eve is in church, because Luke emphasizes that Jesus is being born where people need him most. Wow! Not exactly what you expected to hear tonight is it?

 

So, I am your brand new preacher; preaching my first Christmas Eve sermon and I am actually saying from this pulpit that the last place to meet the new born king is in Church.  I know it is heresy isn’t it!  But the message of Christmas Eve is if we really want to see the baby lying in a manger, more often than not it won’t be in the glorious warm glow of a tree-lit sanctuary nor the sentimentality of carols and candles nor the warmth of the family gathered together on the same pew.  These are all wonderful and inspiring and good and faithful things, but they are only the preparation, the preparation to see Jesus which will instead drive us out into the fields with the Shepherds.  You see, it is in the fields with the shepherds where we find the least, the last and the lost, the lonely, the isolated, the disenfranchised and the forgotten.

 

It is out into these fields where we encounter our own painful places, of hurt, of death, of loss, our own spiritual wilderness, because God speaks the good news of Christ’s coming there.  It is out there where God speaks good news of great joy to those who need it most.

 

You see, the good news of Luke’s Gospel is that God does not just speak to us when we put on our happy church face and dress up and look great, and we push down all the issues of our lives to become presentable to our friends, the world and God.  See the good news is precisely that God speaks his good news of great joy out there, in the fields of brokenness…

 

Where we are honest and vulnerable and real, God speaks to our pain and our hurt and our spiritual wastelands.  And God does even more.

 

God sent the angels to speak to the shepherds, or the outsiders who have spent enough time in the field, who no longer even make the effort to put on their church face and no longer bother to be presentable because they have been so disappointed before, disappointed by the church, disappointed by God, who are overwhelmed by grief, and they have grown numb and have stopped caring that they are outsiders.  Those outsiders can even be you and me.

 

In many cases these shepherds, you and me have given up trying; given up on religion, given up on the church and worst of all given up on God — because what is the point!

The pain never goes away,

The hurt doesn’t heal,

The relationship is worse than broken,

The grief is overwhelming,

And so, we just want to get on with life.

 

 

 

But God does not give up! God doesn’t give up on the shepherds, on you and on me.   That is why God sends his angels to the people who have given up on God. Imagine if you were a shepherd in the field that night, how would you respond to God sending angels to you when you’d given up on God?  Like the shepherds, I’d be terrified.

 

So, you see, in the birth of Jesus, God smuggles himself into our world, and into our lives – in a way that is the total opposite from frightening. God comes in the birth of a helpless and vulnerable “infant wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

 

Hearing this as you sit in this glorious church on Christmas Eve is good news because you and I know and love people who have been outside so long they have given up on God.  You and I know people who are so down and blue this Christmas that they cannot come to worship.  Maybe we are one of those this Christmas and we need this message more than ever.

 

I can think of one person in particular tonight that has given up on God and moved on. Tonight she is dealing with the ravages of cancer that have already taken members of her family, her father, her brother and now she is stricken herself.  She was raised in the faith and in the church but as an adult has left both and now as she is in this difficult battle with death it is my prayer for her that she will hear the angels message of good news of great joy…

 

So, yes, it is a challenging message to preach on Christmas Eve to you my new congregation but I suspect that this startling news that, even now, while we are here in worship, God is sending angels out into the fields, to the shepherds – with good news of great joy, that Jesus is being born among people who have given up on him.  It is my hope that you and I will be inspired so that we will sing with even greater joy about the birth of our Savior coming to the world and to sleep in heavenly peace.

 

The Importance of Questions

Psalm 17:1-8,
Job 19:23-27,
Luke 20:27-38

Reverend Stephen Caine

 

20: 27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:27-38, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of faithful surprises, throughout the ages you have made known your love and power in unexpected ways and places. May we daily perceive the joy and wonder of your abiding presence and offer our lives in gratitude. For it is in Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

 

As a father, I have fielded countless questions from my children; why is the sky blue?  Why is the ocean water salty?  Why are their fifty states?  Children ask wonderful questions.  I have been asked those types of questions and have often been frustrated when I could not answer them.  Thank goodness for Google— where I can search for anything and any question.

 

As young people we are asked – What do you want to be when you grow up?  Where do you want to go to college? What do you want to study?  Where do you want to live?

 

Google won’t help answer these questions.

 

As a Pastor, I have heard many questions from parishioners; especially youth.  For example, Can God create a rock too heavy for God to move?  Then really tough ones – Why did God allow that to happen?  How can I survive this grief?  Will God see me through this chemotherapy?

 

Ah the questions…

 

You have questions about me, who is this guy?  What does he believe?  Will he be there for me when I need him?  Will he like me?  Will I like him?  Can he play golf?  Will he be a good fit for our church?

 

I also have questions for you?  How does this whole Episcopal Presbyterian marriage work?  Will you love my family and help them get assimilated?  Will you laugh at my humor?  Will you have grits and sweet tea when we share a meal?

 

Ah the questions…

 

The Sadducees had questions for Jesus.

 

Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem and ultimately the cross, when the Sadducees asked him a number of questions.  The Sadducees weren’t really looking for answers.  They are looking for a fight.  Their questions were a game of “Gotcha.” They asked Jesus about a hypothetical widow of a man with seven brothers.  When he dies she marries a brother.  When he dies she marries another brother and on and on.  The clincher of their game was whose wife will she be in the heaven?

 

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection because it is not talked about in the Pentateuch, (the first five books of the bible, the “Books of Moses”).  The Sadducees question also play on the levirate marriage law from Deuteronomy 25.  That law sought to insure the preservation of the man’s family name by stipulating that a childless widow must marry her brother-in-law.

 

So, their hypothetical question is meant to take an ancient practice to the extreme in order to show the whole idea of resurrection was foolish. Their purpose was to embarrass Jesus and to trap him by saying something heretical.

 

Jesus reflects for a moment before he answers.  Then he says to the Sadducees, God is God of the living, not the dead.  Jesus is basically saying “Our concern should be with the living.”

 

Questions are important; I believe they can be more important than the answers.  It is interesting to me that as a pastor I am supposed to have the answer(s) but I find that what I really do is help people ask questions.  There is a funny story about a child in a children’s sermon.  The pastor is describing a small furry animal that climbs trees and stores nuts.  The child says, “it sounds like you are describing a squirrel but I know that the answer has to be Jesus!”  In questions of faith we often think that the answer is Jesus even it doesn’t fit our questions. The questions of our lives.  Can I trust God?  Can God heal my illness?  Can God fix my broken relationship?  Can God bring peace to the earth?

 

The questions we ask tell a great deal about us. Jesus knew the Sadducees weren’t really looking for an answer.

 

It’s clear in the gospels that Jesus wants us to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  It is clear that Jesus believes that the Sadducees, the overseers of the Law spend too much time on the minutia of the Law instead of the two basic commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Who cares who will be married to whom in heaven — it is about living — loving God and loving neighbor.

 

Jesus seems to like questions because he responded to questions throughout the Bible.  Jesus stops and he listens.

  • Remember Jairus when he fell at Jesus feet and asked Can you heal my daughter child?

 

  • Remember the Leper who asked Jesus, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”

 

  • I have a demon that torments me and I can find no rest. Can you help me?

 

  • No one will come near me–because they say I am unclean. Do you love someone like me?

 

When people ask these questions to Jesus, the answer he gives is not a slogan or a sound bite.  The answer he gives is himself, he gives his life.

 

When the Sadducees or the Pharisees ask Jesus their trick questions, they usually get parables: stories that will puzzle their minds and invite them to look at the world in a new way. But when women and men bring Jesus their deepest yearnings, he doesn’t talk to them; he engages them. When genuine people come to him with genuine questions, he often doesn’t say anything, but he touches, he encounters, he relates.  He invites people to journey with him on the Way.

 

The root of the word “question” means “to seek.” It’s where we get the word “quest.”  To ask a real question is to enter on a journey; it’s to begin traveling on The Way.  Jesus seems exasperated with the Sadducees because they just want to play games. They aren’t right or wrong; they are just wasting their life.

 

Ultimately Jesus doesn’t answer their questions: because there is no answer. Resurrection is not something we can define in human terms or apply human laws too.

 

But what Jesus does is…

 

What Jesus does is invite us on a journey with him, to see what life with him is like, to see how resurrection hope changes how they live.  Jesus invites us on that same journey with him.  I imagine that we will still have many questions.  And that is a good thing because it means we are alive.  It means we are invested in this journey of faith.

 

I am so excited and look forward to the next step in the journey in my life and faith.  It is a journey with you and the Indian Hill Church.  I look forward to listening to your questions and asking many of my own.  I look forward to discerning / seeing how God leads. So may we keep seeking, keep searching, continue on this quest together to live into who God created us to be as a community of faith.

 

Let us pray: Ever giving and ever generous God pour out your Holy Spirit upon us so that we might follow you. In the Name of Jesus, your Son and our Savior we pray. Amen.