Faith, Excuses and Giving

October 6, 2019 (17th Sunday after Pentecost)

World Communion Sunday

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Lamentations 1:1–6

Psalm 137

Luke 17:5–10

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'” (Luke 17:5-10, NRSV)

Let us pray: God, you are the refuge of all wanderers and exiles, you are the mother and father of the homeless, you weep with those who are uprooted from their homeland, and you suffer with those who are forced to exist without shelter and security. Grant that we your faithful – may reach out. We ask this through Jesus, your Son, our savior. Amen.

As Nancy began her sermon last week telling how she and her husband Rodger enjoy movies, especially the high intellectual art house type films and that they look for the redemption in the film.  I must confess that Monnie and I also enjoy Movies, however, Monnie might join Nancy and Rodger for the arthouse films, I on the other hand — go for the lowbrow, slapstick, silly comedies, the Dumb and Dumber, the more mindless and sophomoric the humor the better.

Sometimes with all the problems of the world, all the pain and suffering, fear and hate, constantly bombarding us I go for the escape.  And sometimes I would choose slapstick humor over the truth of scripture.   But we don’t get to choose what scripture says to us and we must pay attention to all of it.  And there are some topics that aren’t as enjoyable as others to preach about— leave it to the light and easy and comfortable.  But faith doesn’t offer an escape from reality.  Also, we have entered that dreaded time of the church year, Stewardship Season.  Run, hide your wallets, and your checkbooks. But we can’t do that because stewardship is a vital component of faith. 

The lectionary does us no favors, because it left out the important lead into this passage. In the verse preceding our passages, (Chapter 17) verses 1-4; Jesus says to the disciples that they should forgive a sinner who repents. Then adds, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”[1] No wonder the disciples want Jesus to give them more faith.   It is hard to forgive, even once, much less seven times.

So, Jesus is talking to his disciples, about faith.

What is faith? 

Faith is trust, belief, conviction, relationship.  For example, “I have faith that this roof will hold while we sit here in worship.”  I am saying that I trust, I have faith, I believe.

Likewise, if I can say, “I have faith that Jesus Christ is living son of God and the embodiment of God,” that is faith.   Christians believe that faith is not a personal, intellectual achievement, or the result of being an especially good or spiritually proficient person.  Instead it’s a gift from God.  God gives us faith so that we may be in relationship with God.

But the disciples want more.  They want more faith, which presents a difficult situation as the disciple’s demand Jesus to “Increase our faith.”  They assumed they only had a small amount; because they were literally following him.  But they yearned for more.  They wanted more trust, surer belief, stronger conviction, deeper relationship, that is, more faith than they currently had.[2]

Faith is like grace it is a gift. This is what Jesus meant. Jesus knew the disciples had all the faith they need.  What they didn’t have was an understanding of what it means to have faith.

So, Jesus responds to their demand, by saying that they had every bit of faith that they need.  If they would only use what they already had.  In other words, what they need is not more faith but fewer excuses.[3]Let that sink in… Excuses.

Excuses, everybody has got them.  I do, you do, we all do.  I would love to stand up here and simply say we need to raise $725,000 and go on with worship. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is how it works. For some reason we have a stewardship committee that will write letters, make calls, more calls and follow up and we may make our goal of $725,000 if each of you decide to give more than you did last year.  How much more, approximately, 4% more. 

If I was you, I would want to know what that money was going for.  Let me tell you.  As you heard last week from Alison Zimmerman, we have spent some money this year on Air Conditioning, an upgraded Audio-Visual System for Guild Hall and various other improvements to the building and grounds. We have also hired some new staff members, Tyler Eckert, our Administrative Assistant and Communications Director and Amy Clark, Youth Director and Assistant Music Director.  The staff is the most important part of our church.  We have made changes in our Episcopal leadership and that is costing more money than had been budgeted.

We have added new programs, Young Family Worship Service on the Third Sunday of each month at 9:30, we have added a Wednesday evening fellowship dinner and worship on the Third Wednesday of each month at 6:00 PM and Messy Church on the first Monday of each month at noon.  These new worship opportunities have opened our church to the community in ways that Sunday Mornings cannot.  We have asked how and why young families have come, and they say everything from we got the postcard in the mail, we saw it on the sign out in front of the church and we were invited by friends.  We have added great new music opportunities, like the Youth Choir and Jazz band.  We don’t pay them to sing or play but we do feed them, and we have purchased a new drum set.  My point in all of this is to let you know that we are growing, and we have added new and exciting programs and people, but it isn’t cheap.  Because we still must maintain this beautiful building and grounds and keep the lights on.  By the way, our utility bill is nearly $40,000.

I believe one of the most important aspects of faith is serving others and we have tried to maintain our support to wonderful ministry partners such as, IPM, IHN, Vince on Vine, Transforming Jail Ministries, 20/20 juvenile jail ministry, Matthew 25: Ministries, MEAC, Maslow’s Army and others…. Unfortunately, when the budget gets tight it is the help for others that is the first to be cut.  Years ago, this church made it a goal to spend at least 20% of the total budget on outreach and now we are less than 5%. It is a shame, but it is true.

Here is another way to look at it, this is awkward.  It is awkward because God does not need your money, but Indian Hill Church does.  It is also awkward for me because you pay my salary, you put a roof over my family’s heads, your giving feeds us and sends my children to school and college and I am eternally grateful.  So, take me out of it and think about what excites you about Indian Hill Church?  What is it about this place that you will gladly give your money to support?

Simple math, we currently have an operating budget of $952,600 which is great, however, our pledges are for $702,000 so you see we have a gap.  A $227,600 gap that we are blessed to receive from the interest from our endowment accounts. Don’t worry we are not touching the principle, but we are dependent on the endowment to operate.  I have recently been talked off the ledge by people much smarter than me who explained that people who have gone before us loved this church and left this church in their Estate plans so this church can use the money they left in their death. But I have faith that we can do better…call me naïve, if you want, but I truly believe we raise more money by increasing our pledges and use less of our interest from the endowment.

We have 278 giving units, that is families and individuals that are potential givers to the church. Our average pledge is roughly $3500, which is less than Knox Presbyterian in Hyde Park and Church of the Redeemer Episcopal also in Hyde Park. I tell you this as a point of reference and to engage your competitive nature, everybody likes to compete, don’t we?  So, if each of you 277 pledging units will join me in giving 4% more this year, we will not only meet our goal, raise our average pledge but also be able to do so much more in our church, our community and the world.

I offered these questions to the Vestry Session at our September meeting. What gets in the way of your connection to God?  What gets in the way of your coming to church on Sunday morning?   What gets in the way of your faith formation, spiritual practice, and exploring new ways to connect with God and neighbor?  Why not have a little faith and give 4% more this year? After all it is a gift from God.  If not, what is your excuse?[4]

We have all the faith we need.  We have all the gifts we need.  We are all blessed beyond measure.  So, I invite you to take a step-in faith this year and give more to support God’s work in this place at this time by supporting Indian Hill Church.  Our challenge is not to ask God to increase our faith, but our challenge is to respond to God’s gift of faith and be more generous.

Let us pray:

[1] Reverend Dr. Delmer Chilton, The Lectionary Lab Podcast.

[2] Reverend Dr. Will Willimon, Doing Faith Until You Have It. Faith (being in loving relationship with God) is a gift of God: How does God increase our faith in God?  September 29, 2013

[3] Reverend Dr. Scott Hoezee,

[4] Reverend Dr. Robin J. Steinke, President, Luther Seminary,

It’s not business, it is personal!

September 22, 2019 (15th Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Jeremiah 8:18–9:1

Psalm 79:1–9

Luke 16:1–13

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

16:1 “Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:1–13, NRSV)

Let us pray: Loving God, open our ears to hear your word and draw us closer to you, that the whole world may be one with you as you are one with us in Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.

It’s a dimly lit room. The kind of room where sinister schemes are planned. It is the kind of room where you expect bad things to happen.  The kind of room where gangsters hang out.   In this room three men are gathered planning for revenge.   Michael Corleone the youngest son of Mafia boss Vito Corleone says to his older brother Sonny, “It’s not personal it’s strictly business.”  This statement comes from Mario Puzo in his famous book The Godfather and the Frances Ford Coppola movie of the same name.

Michael’s line: “It’s nothing personal, Sonny—it’s strictly business,” is one of those lines, it is infamous statement. That even if you have never seen the movie or read the book you are probably familiar with it.  It’s a great line to deliver but a terrible one to get. 

It is a phrase that conveys that whatever the action is, it has got to be done.  It is said to relieve any guilt associated with the sinister act.  As in the Godfather, “I am going to shoot this crooked policeman, but it is nothing personal, it just has to be done.”

Obviously, I am not a businessperson and I have not been to business school, but I understand that business can be ruthless. 

There are decisions that go your way, and decisions that don’t.   Business can be survival of the fittest – use any means necessary to make the sale, to cut the deal, and to earn the profit.  You must be shrewd to get ahead…

Keep this in mind as we hear Jesus tell this parable we just read from the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the Dishonest Manager, as the late Phyllis Tickle, refers to it “the most difficult parable of them all.” It is about the work of one particular businessman, who uses any means necessary to save his own skin.

A fellow employee goes to the business owner to report that the office manager is stealing from him.  The business owner calls his office manager in and says to him “I hear you are stealing from me. You’ve got two weeks before I audit you. “

The office manager knows he’s in deep trouble.  But he like most con men – he is much too proud to beg; and way too soft to work; so, what does he do to save his own skin? 

He comes up with a scheme.

In one of those dimly lit rooms.  The kind of room where sinister schemes are planned the office manager calls in some of the company’s biggest customers.

“Have I got a deal for you?”

Here is his plan.  He cuts their bills in half.  It will bring in money for his boss and it will also make the debtors happy to have their debts off the books. 

Fast forward two weeks and it is time for the audit; the business owner looks at the new books and he knows what has happened but there is nothing he can do about it.  He knows he has been conned. 

And here’s the surprise.

The business owner says to the office manager: “I have to admit it, you were pretty smart.  You got me.”

Up to this point the story makes sense; especially in our current culture of greed.  What doesn’t make sense is it seems like Jesus is praising the Dishonest Manager and his deceit.

What in the world is Jesus thinking?

Doesn’t Jesus know that getting ahead by any means is counter to the Gospel, counter to everything Jesus tells us? 

But if you look closely you will notice Jesus does not praise the Dishonest Manager. Imagine having that single-mindedness in our faith and our service to God?  Imagine every minute of every day totally committed to following Christ. 

Just imagine…

This strange story is really asking us to imagine our faith in God is not just an hour a week, but it is an all-day, all the time commitment worth our devotion, our focus and our shrewdness.  When we understand that, we are free to turn our hearts and minds, and our wealth and resources, to the service of God and one another. 

I’m not praising ruthless businesspeople.  I’m not praising the Godfather, especially not for family movie night or as an example for living. 

I’m also not praising Enron,


Bernie Madoff,

Lehman Brothers,

Bear Stearns,

and countless others that have exposed the culture greed in our nation. 

Their greed and criminal behavior turn our stomachs and anger us.

What I am saying is, just imagine if all their efforts, their smarts, their passion, their desire and especially their shrewdness used to make money by any means necessary could instead be focused in the building up of the Kingdom of God. 

Just imagine that instead of profits and money being the goal of life…imagine if all that energy was instead used to build up of the Kingdom of God. 

Just imagine if all of us used our energies following God, trying to make the world a better place. Churches all over the world would be overflowing and there would be waiting lists to get a seat for worship.  Just imagine if the energy that the Dishonest Manager used to scheme and defraud to ensure he saved his own skin when he was fired was instead used in his faith to build up the Kingdom of God.

One of my mentors said that he has never understood why people who are so smart and savvy in the business world, so good at their jobs, so impressive in their everyday lives walk into the church and turn off their brains and leave their passion outside.

God gave us the brains, the drive, the gifts, the talents and the passion to succeed in business and in life.  God gave them to us to use – not only for building up our own empire, our own wealth, our own security, and our own happiness but more importantly to build up the Kingdom of God and following Christ. 

Ah, so what kind of work will we do if we use our passion, our desire, our skills to build up God’s Kingdom.  When we use our gifts to follow Christ, we will be called to go to some strange places, and we will be called to do odd things, such as; 

Eating with outcasts and sinners,

Healing the sick,

Welcoming strangers,

Visiting prisoners,

And challenging the mighty and the powerful.

Just imagine what the world might look like if the passion we put into pursuing the American dream was used for following Jesus’ call to serve the least, the last and the lost among us.  Just imagine.

You see after all it’s not just business with God, it is in fact very personal!

Let us pray:

More than we bargained for…

September 8, 2019

13th Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 18:1–11

Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18

Luke 14:25–33

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

14:25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25–33, NRSV)

God of power and justice, source of life and blessing, of garden, orchard, field, anchor us in obedience to you and nourish us by your ever-flowing Spirit, that, we might love you by serving others. Amen.

Excuses, everybody has got them.  We all use them to cover ourselves, if we don’t want to do something, if we are late, or forgot, or simply did not do our work. We offer excuses.  Instead of being honest, we believe that an excuse is better than the truth.  We all do it, thinking it is the polite thing to do.  Instead of truth telling we offer an excuse to cover for our breaking our commitments, declining our invitations, covering our mistakes, and justifying our wrongdoing.

How many times have you been late for work or an appointment and blamed it on traffic or something else “you had no control over?”

While being honest would sound like this: “Yes, I am sorry that I am late, I didn’t leave myself a reasonable amount of time for the traffic today.  It is entirely my fault, I apologize, and I will do a better job of leaving sooner next time.”  Excuses, everybody got them.

I feel like a broken record. Sunday after Sunday, preaching seemingly the same sermon over and over.  Following Jesus is hard, no it is really hard.  He keeps upping the ante, love your neighbor, love your enemy, invite the poor, lame, outcasts to your banquets.  Today he seems to go over the top.  Following Jesus is so hard that is causes us to well…come up with excuses.

I believe it will help by giving these challenging words of Jesus some context. If we notice what comes before and what comes after it in Luke’s Gospel it may make more sense.  Just before this very difficult passage Jesus tells about someone who gave a great dinner party and invited many guests.  But everyone he invited made excuses why they could not attend.

One could not come, because he had just bought some property, and needed to check on it.  Another could not come, because he just purchased five yoke of oxen, and said he had to try them out.  Another could not come, because he had just gotten married.  Jesus counts these as excuses. Why the big deal, Jesus?

Well, as we might remember, this great dinner party like other parties, dinners, banquets, and feasts, is a metaphor for the Kingdom of God. So, the point of Jesus’ message to the distracted, preoccupied invitees is crystal clear.  You don’t know what you are missing out on…it is so much better than what you are currently focused on.  Which sets up our Gospel text for the morning.

 In contrast to great dinner party that people chose to skip this story as Luke tells us, “Now large crowds were traveling with him…”[1] Luke makes it clear that Jesus is not impressed with the size of the crowd or of his own success.[2]  He is upset with the casual nature and easy approval the crowd offers.  So, to make his point he says to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  Whoa! What did he just say? Did we hear that correctly? 

Yes, yes, he did. These are hard words that underscore that following him is not easy and should not be taken lightly.

This is in direct contradiction to everything Jesus says and does in the Gospels. He talks about love, love and more love.  Hate has no place. So, what we hear in these words is Hyperbole.  This may be exaggeration, but it still doesn’t remove the demanding nature of his words and its shock value.  So how can we make it more palatable? How can we soft peddle it? Commentators point out is that the word “hate” here is not like our English understanding of the word, instead think of it to mean to turn away, to detach oneself, remove oneself.  So what Jesus is saying is that following him, being a disciple is our primary responsibility more important than our most sacred of human relationships, spouse, children and family.  Wow, Jesus is very demanding!  In these demanding words he wants us to know what we are getting into if we sign on.  Don’t hear this as Jesus discouraging people from following him. He is being clear about the great cost.[3]

Jesus’ message is one of love, but he does not venerate the love within families.  He knows that family ties can sometimes get in the way of discipleship.  Remember the story of the man who wanted to be a disciple, but first asked to go home to bury his father?  Remember the story of the time Jesus was teaching and was surrounded by a crowd, and someone told him that his own mother and brothers had arrived and were asking to see him? He said, ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  His message is one of love, but love at a cost, the love of the nuclear family is not the highest loyalty for his disciples.  Instead the highest loyalty is to the Kingdom of God.  And in the Kingdom of God “family” means everyone who does the will of God. In the Kingdom of God, the whole human race is our family; and every human being, a brother or sister.  So, you see, Jesus isn’t saying literally that we are supposed to hate our family. He’s saying that his followers can’t put nuclear family ahead of God’s family.[4]

When we follow Jesus, we are invited to view life with a new set of loyalties and new understandings of love, commitment, and priorities. Those new commitments can break the tight hold on our loves and connections and even over how we live.   The challenges to choose life, discipleship and the way of the cross are ultimately about where we place our allegiance and our trust.  Following him must be radically more important to us than loving those closest to us, our own selves, and all the stuff in our lives. Jesus demands that we be fully committed to following him over everything else. 

In doing so, I believe that we will be free to receive the grace to love our families, friends and ourselves fully.  May we respond to God’s grace with lives of gratitude and discipleship and gladly follow wherever our Lord leads us.

Let us pray:

[1] Reverend Dr. K.C. Ptomey, Jr., A Homily on Luke 14:25-33 Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 29, 2004, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN 37205 quoting Luke 14:25.

[2] Reverend Dr. K.C. Ptomey, Jr., A Homily on Luke 14:25-33 Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 29, 2004, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN 37205 quoting R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 283.

[3] Reverend Dr. Alyce McKenzie, Counting the Cost: Lectionary Reflections for September 5th, 2010: Luke 14:25-33

[4] Reverend Dr. K.C. Ptomey, Jr., A Homily on Luke 14:25-33 Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 29, 2004, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN 37205

Impossible guest list and other difficult acts of faith

September 1, 2019 (The 12th Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Jeremiah 2:4–13

Psalm 81:1, 10–16

Luke 14:1, 7–14

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

14:1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:1, 7-14, NRSV)

Let us pray: Lord God, friend of those in need, your Son Jesus has untied our burdens and healed our spirits. We lift the prayers of our hearts for those still burdened, those seeking healing that we may love you with our whole being and willingly share the concerns of our neighbors. Amen.

Hello, my name is Stephen Caine and I believe in Jesus Christ.  I imagine you did not expect that as a sermon starter today.   I guess that most of you assumed that as an ordained clergy person it would go without saying that I believe in Jesus, the son of the living God.  You would be surprised to know how many clergy don’t believe. But this sermon is not about that, no.  This sermon is focused on how hard it is to follow Jesus, the only begotten son of God born in a manger, lived and walked the dusty roads of Palestine, ate with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick and cured the lame, was betrayed by his closest followers, was tried, found guilty and died a horrible death on a cross.  Now it is not hard to say those words, but it is hard to believe them.  But this sermon is not only about belief in Jesus because that is easier than what he is challenging us to do.

It seems fairly easy to say the words on a Sunday morning that we follow Jesus or believe in him and yet it is nearly impossible to live them out.   

We have a mantra in our house that when one of us is feeling down about ourselves, worried or anxious about how we are measuring up or fitting in…that it is time to go and visit someone else. Monnie often says to me get out of yourself and go visit someone, talk to somebody else, get out of your own head for a while. Focus on someone else and what they are dealing with.

In a roundabout way that is what Jesus is saying in this gospel lesson, move beyond your normal group of friends, invite others to your party, invite some people for whom there is no payoff or gain.  Expand your life, your circle of influence, your group of friends. Invite people who can never pay you back and from whom you will not gain any social status or upward mobility.  This is not easy! This is really hard!

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus challenges his host about the make-up of his guest list. “By inviting your friends and family and your neighbors who are in your social class, you have made sure that you have lost nothing, risked nothing, spent nothing, sacrificed nothing, actually done nothing that qualifies you as a host in the spiritual sense of the word.   You have invited only people who can afford to return the favor and invite you to their house and feed you there.   This is a nice social event, its good fellowship, but it’s not real Biblical hospitality.”[1]

Biblical hospitality is about taking a risk on behalf of the strangers and aliens in your midst.   It is rooted in the Hebrew awareness that we are all, every one of us, strangers here on this earth.[2]

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Remember that groundbreaking movie from the late 1960’s?   For those of you who don’t it was a movie that starred Spencer Tracy, Sidney Potier, Katherine Hepburn, and Katharine Houghton.   It tells the story of the daughter of an upper-class white family, Joanna Drayton (played by Houghton), who comes home from a vacation to tell her parents that she is getting married. She tells them that she is going to marry a young physician also from an upper-class family named John Prentice (played by Potier). As the plot thickens when Joanna Drayton brings John Prentice home to dinner to meet her parents who do not know that John is black; John’s parents also come into town for this big dinner at the Drayton’s home so that the families can meet.   John’s parents don’t know that Joanna is white until they meet her at the airport.   I will not spoil the rest of the story but the important take away is this; it might not seem like such a big deal today but way back in 1967 it was very controversial.  Especially for a mainline movie to present a positive representation of a such a controversial subject like interracial marriage was quite bold.  Bold because interracial marriage was illegal in most states and at the time the movie came out it was still illegal in 17 states.  This movie presents a cultural taboo of that time and it does so around the dinner table because who’s at the table says something about who’s in and who’s out.

The dinner table is not only where one may say grace; it is the space where one extends grace.  Tables in the ancient world were places where philosophers and teachers could share their wisdom.   Tables were also the place where a community’s identity could be marked; a Near Eastern proverb declares, “I saw them eating and I knew who they were.” Who we share a meal with says something about us.

To the gospel writer Luke, “nothing [is] …more serious than a dining table”[3] Which leads to the hard part of following Jesus.  I imagine that most of us can say that we believe in Jesus, we call ourselves Christians, most of us come to church on a regular basis, we try to do the right thing, take care of our loved ones, our families and our friends.   But it is hard to do much more because it takes so much effort to reach out, to love others, to speak to people who don’t look, act, believe, vote like you do.  So how in the world are we going to invite them to dinner?

Why would I invite a smelly homeless person to my dinner table?  Why would I invite a drug addict to eat with my family?  Why would I invite a prostitute into my home with my spouse and children?  Why? Jesus, do you want me to do that?   I don’t want to do that.   I have nothing to gain.  I have everything to lose. They could steal from me, they could ruin my reputation, they could upset the neighbors.   Absolutely nothing good can come of inviting one of them to eat dinner with me and my family.  Aha!  Jesus has baited the hook and set it and I have taken it in.

I heard of a book this week entitled The Best of Enemies, written by Osha Gray Davidson.  She tells the story of Durham, North Carolina during the 1960’s and 70’s and how two people from opposite parts of town came together.  The first, a woman named Ann Atwater, an African American single mother and a maid, who was from a poor black section of town. The other person, named C.P. Ellis. Ellis grew up in the poor white section of Durham and as a young man joined the Ku Klux Klan, eventually becoming the Exalted Cyclops of the Durham KKK.

The book details how these enemies, came together to bring about change to a Southern city around the difficult political issue of court ordered school desegregation.  These two individuals ultimately became friends and welcomed each other to each other’s table for a meal.  It was truly a glimpse of the kingdom of God played out in Durham North Carolina in the shadow of Duke University.[4]

Inviting the other to join us at the table is not just a nice thing to do.  It is the right thing to do but it is a hard thing to do.  In fact, it makes for a better table and a better life. Having people around the table who don’t look like us, act like us, talk like us, think like us, who are not us, helps us understand the beauty of God a bit better and it makes for a better life.  So, challenge yourself and invite someone new to break bread with you…it just might change your life.

Let us pray:

[1] Reverend Dr. Delmer Chilton

[2] Reverend Dr. Delmer Chilton

[3] Rev. Luke A. Powery, The Welcome Table, Duke Chapel quoting Reverend Dr. Fred Craddock.

[4] Rev. Luke A. Powery, The Welcome Table, Duke Chapel

Blessed division

August 18, 2019 (The 10th Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 5:1–7

Psalm 80:1–2, 8–19

Hebrews 11:29–12:2

Luke 12:49–56

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

12:49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (Luke 12:49-56, NRSV)

Let us pray: Loving God, open our ears to hear your word and draw us closer to you, that the whole world may be one with you as you are one with us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wouldn’t it be great if following Jesus was easier? I mean he seems to get more and more difficult with each passing week. Last week it was be ready or else and now this passage, with its strong emphasis on division, even to the point of splitting families, wow! Talk about family values!

He contradicts our idyllic pictures of peace by stating that he has come not to bring peace, but to bring division: division in households, division within families. Jesus says he has come to bring fire.  This is not the Jesus we learned about in Sunday School.  What we learned in Sunday School was a very nice and pleasant Jesus.  Jesus is your friend, your buddy, your pal.  That is not this Jesus.  This is not nice and pleasant.

I don’t like conflict any more than the next person, but Jesus seems hell bent on causing trouble and division.  One of my former professors David Lose states, “One of things I’ve learned over time is that the only time there is no division in a community is when there is no vision.  Because a vision sets a course, pulls you forward, and invites – even demands – change. And that creates division.”   Jesus is sharing a vision.  A vision of the coming of the kingdom God. It’s a kingdom that stands in stark contrast to the kingdoms of the world.  Rather than valuing the strong and powerful, it values the poor and vulnerable.  Rather than prizing power, it lifts up compassion. Rather than coming by force, it comes in weakness and vulnerability.  And for all these reasons, it challenges the status quo and makes people nervous, uncomfortable, and some it even makes angry. 

Which is why Jesus causes division, because this is not the world that God wants for us.

Because the vision of the Kingdom of God is one of love.  For God so loved the world and it is love that draws the world together in sharing that love.  It’s that simple, and yet so very hard. It is that beautiful and yet so very messy.  Not easy, to be sure, but beautiful to the end.

I can remember a friend growing up who broke his nose but didn’t want to miss any football, so he waited to go to the doctor.  When the season was over, and he finally went to the doctor.  The doctor told him, that he had some good news and some bad news or not so pleasant news.  First the good news, his nose could be fixed, and the not so pleasant news was he would have to break it and reset it.  Sometimes you need to break something for it to heal and grow stronger.

This is an overview of what Jesus is saying in this passage.  It is a different message than we’re used to hearing, but it is an important one.  Jesus came into this world with a message of good news and a and a mission, that was not so pleasant.  Jesus came with the message God’s new community was coming.  And he came with a mission.  His mission was to break the power and value system of the world on end.

His message was a message of love.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself, love your enemy, love those who persecute you, and above all else love God with all your heart, soul and might.  Sounds simple, right.  But none of those are easy.   And as we all know, love can be difficult and at times even unpleasant.  So, when things get difficult or messy then we tend to quit or disengage.  Remember that the opposite of love is indifference, apathy, uncaring, uninvolved and unresponsive; which is what happened.  So then comes his mission, the whole reason we meet Jesus in the first place. 

Because the Love that God is offering is different, it is very involved, it demands, it is costly, and it is transformative.  Love will confront you with unpleasant facts about yourself, love will sometimes break you in order to heal you.  Jesus had a message of love, a message of love that disturbed communities and families because it refused to allow people to coast along in a pleasantly unhealthy and unhappy slide into death.  Jesus, the living word of God, broke into the world demanding that we get involved.  No more sitting ideally by, watching people suffer.  No more watch as others go hungry or homeless or sick.  Get off the bench and into the game. Following Jesus is not a passive event. And this will set us against our own flesh and blood.

Jesus has called us to get beyond roles and to get into relationships; real, messy, involved relationships.  And the sometimes unpleasant but ultimately good truth is – that kind of love is disruptive; it breaks what isn’t really working in order to create something new.

This is where it changes.  It is easy to feel beat up and dejected by not living up to Jesus high standards, so what if we looked at Jesus’ challenge differently?  What if we looked at how we can be a community of faith that instead of feeling bad about how we didn’t live out our faith, but rather we look at how we support each other in our faith.  What if we spent more time on Sunday mornings in worship, in adult education, and fellowship encouraging each other to not just believe in, Jesus but to really live out our faith?  How would we imagine worship, preaching, Sunday school, even coffee hour if our goal was to equip each other to enter more deeply into our faith?  So that our faith might shape our lives.  Now, I am sure I just scared many of you with that statement so hear me out…. I bet, and I don’t like to gamble that most all of us really want our faith to matter!  Why else give up a beautiful Sunday morning to come here?  I imagine that each of us want our faith to be a help, a guide, a useful aspect in our lives.  It would be awesome if our faith helped to shape the way we think about our work, our families, our politics, and especially our money. But wait a moment preacher, we don’t want to be that serious about Jesus, because we know people like that and well, we don’t want to be like them….

So, what would it be like if we saw our faith as less of an obligation and more as a way of life?  What if church became a place of encouragement and support so that we can really life out this Jesus life.  What if your faith was renewed here and you were sent to make a difference to the world?  What if your faith influenced you the next time you had to make a decision about something you bought, or some issue that was on your heart, or the next time you enter a voting booth?  Because this I do know if you let your faith in Jesus be your guide you will need support because it is hard to go counter to our culture and when you do, it creates division.

So often in our faith we get lulled into images of a gentle Jesus like a lamb – forgetting the angry and anguished Jesus of this text. The Jesus who commands that those who want to save their lives must lose them. The Jesus who tells us to take up the cross and follow. The Jesus who demands that we make a choice to follow him no matter the cost: friends, family, possessions, our lives. Such loyalty always causes divisions, and divides…and it will.  But it will also create joy. Because the one who sends us out was himself baptized by fire and is both with us and for us.  This is a life and a faith that takes courage, and isn’t that a life worth living?

Let us pray:

Misguided theology and other myths of faith

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

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 1:1, 10–20

Psalm 50:1–8, 22–23

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Luke 12:32–40

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

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

[3] Luke 12:32, NRSV

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

A Farmer who talks to himself…

August 4, 2019 (The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Hosea 11:1-11

Psalm 107:1-9, 43

Luke 12:13-21

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

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

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

Do you ever talk to yourself?

Well our farmer in our story today certainly does.

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

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

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

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

Have you ever said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He tells the story of a fool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

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



[5] Jill Duffield, Luke 12:13-21 -July 31/ 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

[6] Matthew 6:25-34, NRSV

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

Seeking a balance

July 21, 2019 (The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Amos 8:1–12

Psalm 52

Luke 10:38-42

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

How we treat people matters

July 14, 2019 (The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Amos 7:7-17

Psalm 82

Luke 10:25-37

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will, with God’s help.

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

I will, with God’s help.

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

Let us pray:

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

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

The journey ahead

July 7, 2019 (The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 66:10-14

Psalm 66:1-9

Luke 10:1-11,16-20

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

[1] Luke 9:60, 61

[2]The Right Rev. Robert C. Wright serves as the tenth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, GA, to which he was ordained in October 2012.

[3] Luke 9:51-62.

[4] The Right Rev. Robert C. Wright serves as the tenth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, GA, to which he was ordained in October 2012.

[5] Karoline Lewis

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

June 16, 2019 (Trinity Sunday)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Psalm 8

John 16:12-15

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unity in the midst of division

June 2, 2019 (The Seventh Sunday of Easter)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 16:16-34

Psalm 97

John 17:20-26

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems to be an unanswered prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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