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A Fleeting Moment

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Luke 19:29-40

 

19:29 “When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:29-40, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Holy One, you are our strength in suffering and our hope for salvation, we pray that you will lift up your Word of life and pour out your Spirit of grace so that we may follow faithfully on the way to the cross; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

 

Today is Palm Sunday—the day when HOPE paraded into Jerusalem riding on a colt.  World-shattering Hope rides into Jerusalem and the world will never be the same.  Jesus is that hope and we just read about how he arrived in a parade, on that first Palm Sunday.   Remember parades.   Everybody loves a parade.  People gather on the sides of the street to watch the bands march by, to welcome heroes’ home from war, to celebrate champions and often they are an excuse to have a good time.  While other parades are to mourn, like last summer’s huge motorcade of law enforcement from all over the region, who came to follow the hearse as it processed up Montgomery Road mourning the death of Cincinnati Police Officer Sunny Kim.

 

Remember the last parade you went to. Was it the Opening Day Parade last year? Or was it St. Patrick’s Day Parade? Or Bokfest? Or maybe it was Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City or the Village Fourth of July Parade. Remember all the people, all the excitement, the pomp and circumstance?

 

Now, the story of Palm Sunday is a parade of sorts for Jesus.  It is a story we know all too well.  The story of Jesus coming to Jerusalem and huge crowds joyfully welcoming him into the city as the long awaited king, as their Messiah.  This parade was more the celebratory type, people shouting, singing, welcoming Jesus. They sang from Psalm 118 about the one coming in the name of their beloved King David. They sang praises to God for giving them this promised king, the one who would lead them.

 

Because it is a familiar story to us it is hard to realize how unlikely this procession into Jerusalem really is.   It was a strange event.  Strange because the crowd gets it right as they hail Jesus as the Messiah.   Strange because even as the crowd is correct in celebrating the entrance of the Messiah, they also miss the point — the crowds want him to be a Messiah who leads them to victory without pain or sacrifice.  But the strangest aspect of this story is that Jesus seems to have deliberately orchestrated this procession himself.

 

It is strange because it seems so out of character for him.  Why would Jesus draw all the attention to himself?  When so much of his ministry he commands people to tell no one about what they have witnessed or seen.  So why does Jesus encourage the crowd to worship him when they really have no understanding why they were doing it?  Why would he set the stage to be hailed as the Messiah, when he knows what is ahead of him in the days to come.  Jesus surely knew what was in their hearts.  He surely knew their lack of understanding.   He certainly knew what lay ahead of him in the week ahead.

 

It strikes me that we are not so different from that first Palm Sunday crowd. We focus on the parade, Jesus triumphal entry and the palm branches …because it spares us the agony of what lies ahead for Jesus.  The sorrow of knowing that Judas will betray him for money.  The disappointment that Peter, the rock, the beloved disciple, will deny that he even knows Jesus three times.  We focus on the parade because it spares us the sight of his closest followers, the disciples fleeing when he is arrested.  We focus on the parade because it feels much better than the horror of the week ahead.  We focus on the parade so we can stay happy and skip to the glory of Easter.  It would be so nice and tidy if Jesus just stopped here at the parade and basked in the glory of this day!

 

So, Jesus, the great teacher, is helping them and by extension us to learn something important.  Even though they did not understand the full significance of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem that day, maybe by participating they may come to understand.  W. H. Auden once wrote: “Human beings are by nature actors, who cannot become something until first they have pretended to be it. They are therefore to be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane, who know they are acting, and the mad who do not.”[1]  As he entered Jerusalem that fateful day Jesus may not have been so concerned with rooting out hypocrisy or with rewarding sincerity, but instead with showing the truth.  Jesus may have been providing this crowd of people the opportunity to be part of something so that they could in return become it.  Perhaps they were pretending to be his disciples, his followers, his worshipers, all celebrating his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and into their hearts.

 

You know that we are no different.   Every Sunday we stage a little drama here in worship.   We begin, as this Holy Week begins, with praise and worship of God.  We call each other to worship, and we sing the praises of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   Then we also speak words of confession.   We act out our penitence and we affirm our forgiveness.  We share with one another the peace of Christ in a ritualized, dramatic way — extending the hand of fellowship and even speaking the words, “the peace of Christ, be with you and also with you.”  Then we sit quietly and listen — or at least act as if we’re listening — to the reading of scripture and sermon (the teaching) of the Word of God.  We show our thankfulness as we place offerings in the offering plate.   We sing of our commitment and of our changed lives.   We gather around the Lord’s Table and break bread and share one cup.   Every Sunday is full of drama.

 

Some weeks you may not exactly understand what you are saying or singing.  Some weeks your heart may not be in some parts of the service.   But, just as Auden wrote, “human beings are by nature actors, who cannot become something until first they have pretended to be it.”  Pretend.  Act the part.  Play at praising, at repenting, at committing.   Keep on pretending or acting because we learn to worship God by worshiping[2].

 

But Just like Palm Sunday is not the end of the story for Jesus we too must complete the drama.   It’s easy to move through the praise section and drop out when it comes to the costly acts of confession, making peace, hearing the Word, giving money, making promises.   If you want to become Jesus’ faithful disciples, you have to stay in the drama until the end.  You have to play your part all the way through.  You have to keep pretending until someday it’s not pretend anymore.  That day when we become what we were pretending to be.

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] Reverend Laura Smit, A Sermon on Luke 19:28-40 for Palm/Passion Sunday preached at First Presbyterian Church of Clayton, New Jersey on April 9, 1995.

[2] Reverend Laura Smit, A Sermon on Luke 19:28-40 for Palm/Passion Sunday preached at First Presbyterian Church of Clayton, New Jersey on April 9, 1995.

A Question of Extravagance

 

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

 

12:1 “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:1-11, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of the covenant, in the glory of the cross your Son embraced the power of death and broke its hold over your people. In this time of repentance, we pray that you would draw all people to yourself, that we who confess Jesus as Lord may put aside the deeds of death and accept the life of your kingdom. Amen.

 

Smells stay with you a lifetime.   Some say it is the most powerful of all the senses.  Most of us have experienced a smell that floods our minds with overwhelming us and transporting us directly to memories of a person, place, or event.  Our Olfactory receptors share the same closely networked area of the brain’s limbic system as emotion, and memory.  So, our sense of smell closely relates to how we experience life and process significant memories.  I am sure you have had that experience of smelling something and it takes you back to a time, a place, and a person.

 

What is it about smell? There are smells that please and those that repulse? Smells that delight and those that distance?  Smells that invite and those that repel? I have had foul odors from an unseen dumpster conjure sights and sounds I experienced on a mission trip to Guatemala.  I cannot tell most perfumes apart until I’m in a crowd and someone is wearing the same fragrance my wife wears and I look for her.

 

Smells stay with you a lifetime.

 

When I have to go to parent teacher conferences for my children and I walk down the halls in their schools, I am hit with that smell, whatever it is in schools, no matter what school it is, whatever that smell is that permeates a school that seems to always be there and it takes me back.  Back to those old feelings of nervousness and anxiety of being in school as a kid.

 

Smells are deeply tied to our memories.

 

I wish I could use scents to make my point but we don’t want to get into burning incense in worship.  For example, if you want to remember home, the smell of homemade bread or the scent of a freshly baked batch chocolate chips cookies will make your taste buds water and make your stomach growl with hunger!

 

Not all smells are happy and pleasant ones.  I remember when I was working as a hospital chaplain, in our training the nurses told us about “the smell”.   The veteran nurses could simply smell when death was approaching.  Obviously they weren’t always right, but more often than not they were.  The smell of impending death.

 

Smells permeate our passage for today.  We find Jesus in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Jerusalem, outside of Bethany.  Jesus loved them.  These were good friends.  Just before this passage Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus to tell him that his friend Lazarus was dead.  Jesus goes to the tomb to see for himself.  When he gets there he smells the stench of death.  This is not the smell of approaching death, this is the smell of real death.  Dead death.   Realizing that his friend is dead Jesus stands at the tomb and weeps.

 

The smell of death and the reality of death overtook him.

 

Then Jesus performs his most amazing miracle to date and raises his dear friend Lazarus from the dead.  Lazarus is alive.  Live and joy, and happiness and the smell of celebration take over the scene.  In response to Jesus raising her brother from the dead Mary and Martha throw him a celebratory dinner.  It is during this celebration that Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume.  The smell of this expensive perfume, costing almost a year’s wages, permeating every nook and cranny of that room. It is a sharp contrast to the smell of death that we last experienced when she called Jesus to raise her brother Lazarus. Now as she anoints Jesus, he bother Lazarus is reclining on Jesus at the table.  The smell of death is met with this sweet and costly perfume to smell at the same time.

 

The smell of extravagant love.  Mary knew exactly what she was doing.  She was the only one in the room who really got it.  She honors Jesus, anointing him with extravagant perfume, she prepares him for the journey to Jerusalem.  This smell of expensive perfume, is a smell not to counteract death, or to erase death’s smell, or try to overpower its stench.   Instead it is a scent to smell at the same time – you can smell the scent of death. I wonder if this is the point. Smells don’t replace – they contrast, they tell the truth about our human existence. The simultaneous smells of life and death.  The smell of love in the face of certain betrayal.

 

The fact that this story takes place in the midst of Judas’ struggle, in the midst of the death of Lazarus and the plot to kill Jesus, is a reminder that following Jesus and loving Jesus does not take place in a vacuum but in the real world.  We are not called to be faithful in a vacuum but in the real world where people make choices that hurt others, where death and disease are a reality, where pain and suffering exist, a world where Jesus lived and died and then rose again, showing that none of these real world experiences will have the final word.

 

As you breathe in the smell of coming Spring, as you soak in the fragrances of the sweet fragrance of the daffodils trying to bloom and greening grass and trees and shrubs will be growing new buds and getting ready to flower.  I invite you to think of Mary as she commingled the smell of impending death with the smell of new life, fragrance of new life.

 

Jesus is going to start his fateful journey to Jerusalem after this meal with his friends.  It will not be a pretty.  It will be painful and sad and lonely at times.  It won’t deny real life.  But it also won’t be the end of his journey.  His journey doesn’t end on a cross or in a tomb but it will continue because life conquers death and joy defeats despair.  This is the fragrance of new life.  Take a deep breath and you might smell it.  Extravagant, sweet, beautiful new life.

 

Let us pray:

Repentance, Figs and Failing Towers

 

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
Luke 13:1-9

 

13:1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” (Luke 13:1-9, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of infinite goodness, throughout the ages you have persevered in claiming and reclaiming your people. Renew for us your call to repentance, surround us with witnesses to aid us in our journey, and grant us the courage to fashion our lives anew, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen

 

At first reading, this passage from the Gospel of Luke is scary.   No one wants to hear that if we do not bear fruit or that we don’t measure up and please God, then God will take out the axe and cut us down.   Which leads to the question how do we measure up? How do we produce fruit that will please the landowner…God?   I am getting ahead of myself.  So let’s go back and look at the whole passage.

 

In this passage Jesus refers to two calamities that were probably familiar to ancient audiences.  The first horrific event involves Pilate and his state-sanctioned violence in the killing of the Galileans in the temple.  The second event, the collapse of tower of Siloam was a random accident.   However, in both of these events people died for no apparent reason.   These two ghastly instances are reminders of just how precarious life is.

 

Then Jesus gets to the heart of the story when he poses the questions that must have been on everyone’s minds.  Were those Galileans, who were killed by Pilate, worse sinners than others?   Were the people killed by the collapse of the tower worse sinners than everyone else living in Jerusalem?   Then Jesus, quickly answers his own question, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  He clearly states that the victims did nothing to warrant their deaths but his answer includes a curious statement.

 

It seems is if Jesus is sending a mixed message, here.  He says, “No … but.” As in, “No they weren’t worse sinners, and no they weren’t worse offenders. Their sin did not cause their deaths, but you will meet the same fate if you don’t repent.” Well, which is it?   His statement is confusing.   He seems to be contradicting himself.  First, Jesus makes it clear that there is no rational explanation for these tragedies.  He doesn’t say, “It was God’s will that this Galileans were killed by Pilate.”   Instead it seems as if the Galileans, who were killed by Pilate were victims of the Roman government’s blood thirsty desire for control.  Because, it could have been anybody who was in the temple that day offering sacrifices.  And the people killed by the collapse of the tower?  It could have been anyone who happened to be standing there.  Instead what, Jesus is saying is, don’t look for cause and effect explanation.  It may be what we want, is a cause-and-effect, karma-type scenario that explains why things like this happen, Jesus is saying that is not how God operates.   No, they weren’t worse sinners, but you and I, sinners, will meet the same fate unless we repent and accept the gift of abundant life that Christ is offering.

 

Look at your life?  Look at my life?  We can spend so much time trying to explain things—so much time worrying about why tragedies happen—that we forget to pay attention to how we are living our own our own lives.

 

I know that this is not a satisfying answer because we want to be able to explain why people suffer and die as a way to distance ourselves from it.  Or we want to believe in – works righteousness, we live right to earn God’s favor – even when we say we believe in grace.

 

The problem with making our relationship with God a transactional one rather than a covenantal one is that at some point the math just won’t work.  We will be persecuted by Pilate or those like him – for no reason other than Pilate chooses to persecute us.  Or, the tower will fall on us for no other reason than we were at the wrong place at the wrong time.  We will look for a reason, some logical explanation, some underlying purpose and it simply will not be there.  Then what?  Are we simply bad people who get what we deserve?  Are we sinners in the hand of an angry God?

 

As people of faith, catastrophes and violence raise all sorts of questions that challenge our faith and cause us to question God.  Trying to explain the complexities of life and the horrific events that happen is something we all do— it is a form of protection.   If we can explain it then we can make sure it won’t happen to us.   But, Jesus’ message gets right to the heart of our desire to do so.

 

Jesus is teaching that the outcome is the same if we build our lives upon those well-meaning rationalizations that we use to get us through the day: stating that we are blessed, safe, and able to claim our better fortune than the victims of these events because we have won God’s favor, then we are mistaken.  To focus on this point, share with you an article I read recently in the New York Times.  It was from Sunday February 13, 2016 in the NY Times Review Opinion page, an article written by Kate Bowler, entitled, Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me. Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School and the author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.”

 

She researched and wrote about the prosperity gospel and its theology.  A theology that claims being good and living a righteous life equates to being blessed by God.  She has recently been diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35.   She wrestles with this theology and her own experience. She writes:

Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith…

Tragedies are simply tests of character.

It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

In other words, is she a worse sinner? Did she smoke? Eat poorly? Bad genes? If the answer is no, then what will keep the wolf from my door?

 

Kate Bowler continues:

Cancer has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential…Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.

 

She continues:

But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from my Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.[1]

 

It sounds like Jesus: Life is so beautiful.  Life is so hard.   Life in relationship with the Triune God and with one another is a gift to be received and cherished even when it isn’t fair or reasonable.   So, perhaps, who sinned or who is the worse sinner is irrelevant when Jesus came to save sinners.   So, today we have a precious gift of Life, an opportunity to change our focus from rationalizing suffering and horrific events to focus on the suffering One, Jesus the Christ, who intercedes for us, tends to us and stays with us in all of life and its circumstances.[2]

 

Let us pray:

[1] As found online on Facebook and summarized in an email from Jill Duffield February 28, 3rd Sunday in Lent. Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9 Presbyterian Outlook

(http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html)

 

[2] Jill Duffield February 28, 3rd Sunday in Lent. Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9 Presbyterian Outlook

Listen to what your Mama Says

 

 

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
John 2:1-11

 

2:1 “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now. 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:1-11, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God of steadfast love, at the wedding in Cana your Son Jesus turned water into wine, delighting all who were there. Transform our hearts by your Spirit, that we may use our varied gifts to show forth the light of your love as one body in Christ. Amen.

 

Every wedding ceremony is special and different.  All the people involved work hard to create a joyous and a memorable moment.  Couples often spend six months to a year planning, preparing, and going through pre-marital counseling in order to get to the wedding ceremony.  When the big day finally arrives and all of those years of dreaming, months of planning, decades of saving and a lifetime of praying come together as two become one.

 

As, the congregation stands and the organ begins to play the wedding march.  The Bride starts her procession wearing her beautiful wedding dress. The groom standing tall at the front of the church, watching as his bride is escorted down the aisle looking more beautiful than he has ever seen her look.  It is a glorious moment,[1] setting the stage for today’s Gospel reading.

 

Our wedding story took place at Cana in Galilee.  Jesus, his mother and the 12 disciples were all there.   This wedding was a glorious occasion as well that is until they ran out of wine.  Running out of wine threatened to ruin the joy of the event.  To run out of wine was an act of inhospitality.  Running out of wine would reflect poorly on the family of the bride and it would cause a great deal of embarrassment for them.   So, Jesus’ mother tells him about it.   Jesus responds with a very puzzling and downright rude statement to his own mother, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?”   Wow!  What does that mean?  Is he scolding his own mother?   Is he rejecting her?   Undeterred by his declaration, Mary turns and tells the servants to do whatever he tells them to do.

 

There were six large vessels of water at the wedding and Jesus turns those six jars of water into wine.  The wedding party was saved.  It is a great story Jesus saves a wedding party from great embarrassment.  It seems like a very superficial and unimportant thing to do, turn water into wine.   And yes, this passage is about a wedding, but it is about so much more.

 

A wedding is a fitting place for Jesus to begin his miracles.  Weddings are all about commitment, the participant’s commitment to each other and to God, the congregation’s commitment to support the new couple, and God’s commitment to be with them in their marriage.  Jesus begins his ministry by showing his commitment to humanity.  Another reason that this is a great beginning to Jesus miracles is it is an example of God’s grace upon grace.  It is a story of abundance!

 

The abundance is found in the details of this seemingly superficial miracle.   It is meant to show us what God’s grace is like.  What it looks like, what it smells like, what it tastes like, and what it feels like.  Jesus is changing 120-180 gallons of water into the best wine. This is not just a bottle or two of wine but more like 63 cases of wine.

 

So, if a standard bottle of wine is 750 milliliters (ml), and a case of wine is 12 bottles or 2.378 gallons.  At 150 gallons per ton, a ton of grapes becomes 150/2.378 gallons per case, or a little more than 63 cases of wine. With 12 bottles per case, we have 756 bottles in total.”[2]

 

And since we are talking about God, let’s round up and assume 180 gallons for the miracle at Cana.   It is close to a 1000 bottles of wine.   And how many grapes per bottle of wine?  According to Conversion Factors, a website, 2.6 pounds of grapes yields one bottle of wine.  So, yes, we really are talking about a ton of grapes – over a ton.   What difference do these details make?   When we consider the details, in ways we might understand, it is a ton of grace.  It is an overabundance of grace, it is exaggerated grace, extravagant grace, and excessive grace.

 

Six vessels, twenty to thirty gallons each, filled to the brim, with the best wine, when you least expect it.  Think about what that looks like – six tall stone vessels.  Think about what that smells like.  Stick your nose deep in that unexpected glass of a lovely wine, because it’s that first smell that anticipates that first taste.  Think about what that tastes like, what flavors you might detect, how does it finish?  Think about how that feels, that unexpected deliciousness of a well-aged, top-shelf wine, when there is no reason to anticipate such a moment.  The wine ran out – and you expect nothing but what you get, instead is the best wine.  One would assume it should be served first.

 

But this miracle is really not about the wine.  Jesus’ miracle points towards God’s abundance in our lives, God’s abundant grace, God’s abundant mercy, and God’s abundant goodness.   Jesus does not merely give just enough wine for the party to continue – he turned enough water into wine for the whole village to enjoy.  He gave abundantly.  It is always that way with Jesus.  There is enough of Jesus for everyone.  There is enough love and grace and mercy for all God’s children.  There is nothing – not our biggest mistake, not our darkest sin, not our greatest sin, nothing in all of creation that will make God love us any less.

 

And as much as we want to think this grace is only for us, this Epiphany also shows us that God’s grace is to be shared with others.  The setting of this first sign is essential – a wedding.   All the guests will get to experience this act of grace.  All will watch the steward pour wine in their glasses when they thought their cups would stay empty.   All will get that first smell and be surprised.   All will take that first sip.  All will have the opportunity to respond to Jesus’ voice and know life.  Because God’s grace is for all and it’s impossible, to restrain God’s abundance.

Grace upon grace is the tangible experience of God’s love; not something to be kept to ourselves but to go about testifying because God loves the world – which is, the real heart of Epiphany.

 

Happiness and joy are all the appropriate responses at a wedding ceremony and they are suitable responses to God’s abundant love and God’s amazing grace.   So, friends let us rejoice and know that we are God’s delight both now and always.  Amen.

 

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. M. Craig Barnes, “A Reckless Miracle,” a sermon on John 2:1-11. Shadyside Presbyterian Church. June 5, 2005.

[2] The Reverend Dr. Karoline Lewis, Embodied Epiphanies, Sunday, January 10, 2016. Conversion Factors: From Vineyard to Bottle from Cornell University. www.workingpreacher.org

 

Christmas Remembrances: Joy

 

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Luke 2:1-14

 

2: 1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:1-14, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of glory, your splendor shines from a manger in Bethlehem, where the Light of the world is humbly born into the darkness of human night. Through the telling of the Christmas story, let our lives be caught up in the story of the Christ child, that we too might join shepherds and all the heavenly host in praising the coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

 

The angel of the Lord boldly proclaims in verse 10:“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

 

What is Joy?  We talk about the joy of Christmas, and we hear about people who live joy-filled lives.  We know that there are moments of joy even in the darkest of lives. We’ve seen them: video clips of joyous families welcoming loved ones home from war; the ecstatic joy in the Olympics when an athlete wins a gold medal; the eruption of laughter and tears and the outburst of joy at the birth of a child, or the joy of children on Christmas morning.  Is this the sort of joy the angel is speaking of?

 

Well, bookstores remind us there is: The Joy of Cooking, The Joy of Living, The Joy of Sex, The Joy of Parenthood, The Joy of Painting, So, what is joy? Where does joy come from?  Does joy come from something you have, or does joy come from something you do?  Is joy a pursuit or a paradox, or worse, is joy an illusion?  Is joy a fleeting moment or is joy a permanent state?  What is joy?

 

We find joy in our spouses, our children, our homes, our jobs, our favorite sports teams.  But the joy that angel of the Lord is speaking of is so much more than that.  The angel of the Lord is speaking of great joy is not merely the squeals of delight of children when they open their gifts tomorrow morning, but this joy is a deep and solid confidence that is built on something firm, real and long lasting.

 

The angel of the Lord spoke to the shepherds about this joy to come. The Shepherds hear this glorious promise from God that “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born a Savior.

 

But there is something that often prevents us from experiencing this deep, abiding joy.  Perhaps it is that we hear the angel of the Lord’s promise with skeptical ears—because we know too much.

 

Apparently, there are two types of joy: internal joy and external joy.  Internal joy comes from within, but external joy comes and goes with whatever is happening in our lives.  It is external because it comes from outside of our selves. When our circumstances change in one direction, joy comes.  When our fortune reverses, joy leaves.  External Joy is fleeting.

 

But internal joy is different.  The joy that lasts is not a fantasy that is out of touch with reality.  This joy is not just giddy happiness but something much deeper and so much stronger.  In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul talks a lot about “joy” and rejoicing.  His joy is more than the “I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything is going my way” kind of joy.  You may remember that he was imprisoned for his faith.  He even had joy when things were not going his way while he was in prison. The great theologian, Karl Barth, described joy this way, “Joy in this world is always in spite of something.”  It is, as he put it, joy in a “defiant nevertheless” kind of way.

 

This joy is more than happiness because of good times.  It’s joy in the face of, or joy in spite of the irritation, the disappointment, the frustration, and the aggravation of daily living.  It is the kind of joy Henri Nouwen concludes, “That does not separate happy days from sad days, successful moments from moments of failure.”  No, this joy is a divine gift that does not leave us during illness, grief, oppression, or persecution.  This joy does not depend on the circumstances of our lives, or even on our momentary feelings.  “The joy that lasts, that is not externally dependent, that is not dependent on the absence of sorrow and pain, the joy that lasts is rooted, grounded, cemented in the experience with God.[1]

 

A God who is with us.

So what does joy look like, feel like, sound like?

 

I think Joy looks like this.  A friend of mine loves the Christmas Eve service.  He never misses it.  He doesn’t love it because of the beauty of it or the music or the excitement of Christmas morning coming.  He loves it because it had changed his life.  My friend went through a really painful divorce.  He had screwed up—made some bad choices and alienated everyone, especially his wife and kids and she finally had enough and filed for divorce.  It was on Christmas Eve some 20 years ago that he found himself utterly alone, depressed and guilt ridden.  He didn’t know where to turn.  He said he felt like his life was falling apart.  So that evening he made himself get dressed and go to the Christmas Eve service all by himself.   He sat on the back row.  Looking at all the families piled in together.  But then something strange happened.  Someone spoke to him and told him Merry Christmas.  Someone else shook his hand and said good to see you.  The music started “O Come all Ye Faithful.  Joy to the World.  O Little Town of Bethlehem.” “The scripture started settling on his heart.  “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

 

He isn’t sure exactly when it happened, but he started feeling joy— not superficial, happy, joy, but deep abiding joy.  Joy in spite of.  Joy nevertheless.  Joy.  The joy that can only come from a tiny baby born in a manger.

 

My friend has never missed a Christmas Eve service since…and he will be there tonight. Just like you and just like me.  He will hear those familiar carols, he will hear the words of Scripture, “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  He will hold up his candle and sing silent night and yet again, it will be Christmas.  And his heart and his soul just like yours and mine will be transformed and set free to face life without fear and live with joy.

 

Let us pray: Good  and gracious God, on this holy night you gave us your  Son, the Lord of the universe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, the Savior of  all, lying in a manger. On this holy night draw us into the mystery of your love. Join our voices with the heavenly host that we may sing your glory on high. Give us a place among the shepherds that we may find the one for  whom we have waited, Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy  Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen

[1]The Reverend Dr. Ian Chapman “Don’t be Afraid” Program #3611 First broadcast December 20, 1992” http://www.30goodminutes.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/242-ian-chapman-program-3611

 

 

 

An Idle Tale or Everlasting Truth?

Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
John 20:1-18

 

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

 

Let us pray: Living God, on the first day of the week you brought to birth a new creation through the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. Fill us with the hope and joy of new beginnings, so that we may share the good news of your liberating, life-giving power with all the world. Grant that we, being dead to sin and alive to you in Jesus Christ, may reign with him in glory, who with you and the Holy Spirit is alive, one God, now and forever. Amen.

 

If I went around the sanctuary and asked some of you to tell the story of Easter we all might tell it a little differently.  Some of us would tell of Mary Magdalene and others of the disciples running back and forth.  Some of us might remark of how the stone had been rolled away or that the gardener appeared and called Mary’s name.  We would all have our way of telling the Easter story.

 

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

 

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

 

Then it hit me that is how belief or faith is.  Sometimes our belief or our faith is so strong that our hearts are beating furiously and we can almost see the hand of God.  Other times our belief or our faith is small and faint and we must rely on others to do the believing for us.  Sometimes we run to the tomb and are certain that Jesus is not there.  Other times we meander slowly there and aren’t so sure all this resurrection stuff is not some fairy tale.  Sometimes we shout loudly “I believe”.  Other times we whisper quietly, “I believe, but Lord help my unbelief.”

 

So, with all those mixed up feelings and thoughts and wonderings, we come to worship this Easter Sunday.  We come longing for this resurrection story to be true, to be far more than a fairy tale.  We come wanting to believe, wanting to be transformed, wanting for this Easter to mean something, to change our lives, to bring joy and hope and faith to the forefront of our living.

 

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

Death is final

Some situations are truly hopeless

And now her hope is gone.

 

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

 

We all know that death is never pretty. But what we learn on this Resurrection morning, what we learn from traveling to the empty tomb is that Easter is not about death – it is about life. Yes, Jesus died but today he is risen and that changed everything.

 

We so easily use the statement, “This changes everything,” to describe so many events in our lives. Things that change us like: Marriage changes things in our lives. Having children — or not having children — changes things in our lives.  Divorce changes things. Cancer changes things. The death of loved ones changes things. September 11th, 2001 changed things. However, none of these really changes everything for all of us. There is really only one thing that truly changes everything. It is the reason that we have gathered here today… Resurrection.

 

We stake our lives on the resurrection and that is enough to send us out into the world to live each days with hope, a hope that we don’t completely understand, but a hope that we can trust, that we know that God is working, that life even comes out of death.

 

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

“As Job said, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  That does not mean that God is responsible for every death.  What that means is that before every birth and after every death there is still God.  The abyss of God’s love is deeper that the abyss of death.  Paul insists that neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Even if we don’t know what is beyond the grave, we know who is beyond the grave.”  (Credo, p.167-171)

 

We all know the reality of this world.  Reality of pain and death and grief.  But Easter, the empty tomb, and the Risen Lord there is another reality.  There is reality that says death is not the final word.

 

That is the great mystery of faith, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and a new reality that says you just never know what may happen or what the future may hold.

We are people of life.

We are people of faith.

We are people of hope.

We are people of resurrection.

 

It is enough to send us out from here to tell others that He is risen.  He is risen indeed. That is the truth of Easter.

 

Thank be to God for it.

Amen.

 

Let us pray:

 

The Beginning of the Journey

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Mark 1:1-8

40:1Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:1-11, NRSV)

1:1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of timeless grace, you fill us with joyful expectation. Make us ready for the message that prepares the way, that with open hearts and holy joy we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ.

I have a good friend whose three sons are each Eagle Scouts. I was not a Boy Scout but I am familiar with what it takes to become an Eagle Scout. Anyway, my friend was talking about her experience with Boy Scouts and how glad she is that each of them has done scouting, because of all the things they learned, she said “I know it may sound strange but as a mother I know that if any of them ever gets lost somewhere out in the woods alone or stuck somewhere that they each have enough tools and skills to know what to do and survive.” They could each survive in the wilderness if they had to.

This conversation got me thinking about Advent. Every year I am it seems strange that Advent always starts in the wilderness and not with a trip to the manger. In our readings from today from both Isaiah and Mark, we get the wilderness. There is a voice crying out in the wilderness. Shouldn’t Advent be on the top of a mountain with glorious scenery all around or in front of a palace with great pomp and circumstance announcing to the world that the savior is coming? Isn’t this the best news ever! But then I stop and realize that Advent has to begin in the wilderness. Throughout the history of God’s people it is often in the wilderness that God speaks. Throughout our lives, it is often in the wilderness that God speaks and acts. When we are on the mountaintop, we are feeling pretty good about ourselves. We don’t think we need God, but when we are lost and wandering around in the wilderness, you better believe that God is often the first place we turn. For in the wilderness is when we realize our own powerlessness. In the wilderness we realize our need for God. In the wilderness we realize that we cannot get out of the wilderness without God.

If ever any people knew what the wilderness was like it was the people in our reading from Isaiah. Six centuries before Christ perhaps the worst that can happen to a people happened to them. They were trying to hold onto Jerusalem, the capital city, but ultimately they could not and the entire nation collapsed. There was looting and pillaging and killing. Solomon’s glorious temple, that was the heart and soul of these people, was destroyed. Then, all the leaders – the politicians, priests, lawyers, businesspeople, were marched across the desert to Babylon where they were held in captivity for 70 years. It is called the Exile. So do you think these people understood wilderness? Do you think that they felt powerless and lost and alone without a home, without anything stable or comforting to hold onto? Many scholars call this time of exile the “great silence”, because the people felt abandoned. For 70 long years they must have wondered what would become of them. (Idea came from John Buchanan at Fourth Presbyterian Chicago, sermon on 12-8-02)

In the midst of this wilderness, the exile, a prophet’s voice is heard. The prophet, Isaiah, was very gifted with words as he speaks to the exiled people in Babylon and he tells those words that we read every single Advent. He tells them words that are the famous words from Handel’s Messiah. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem…Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:1 and 3)

Then Isaiah reminds them about God, reminds them of who God is and what God does for his sheep. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.” (Isaiah 40:11) Isaiah reminds them that they may have lost everything — their homes, their land, and their temple, but they have not lost God.

“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)

I am the first to admit that I am not a political or legal scholar but something is definitely wrong in our nation, violence, riots, race relations seemingly at a boiling point and government racing headfirst into an impasse. It is a mess and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. I have no idea what the answers are or what can be done. But what I do know and what I can remind you and me over and over and over is that God is a God who comforts, even — no most especially in the wilderness. God is a God is who never abandons or deserts. God is a God who will find us in whatever wilderness we are in and give us what we need to survive. He will pull us close to him and hold us in his arms with the assurance that at the end of the day, on the other side of the wilderness, is God’s kingdom where mercy and love and justice reign.

I can’t give you the ins and outs of the legal system, or politics but I can look you in the eye and tell you that “the grass withers and the flower fades but the word of our God will stand forever.”

I can’t tell you whether the cancer will go away or the pain will subside or what your particular wilderness is or even that you will be home for Christmas but I can tell you that the grass withers and the flower fades but the word of our God will stand forever.

John the Baptist knew all about the word of our God. He stood out in the wilderness preaching it, preaching a hard to hear and hard to live message of repentance. And amazingly enough people willingly went out in the wilderness to hear his message. There were people who remembered the promises of God, who knew what life God had to offer and also knew they weren’t living it. They had been looking for that life in the mall, in the holiday festiveness, but it wasn’t there. Somehow they knew the message of hope, of comfort, of repentance, of turning around and living a different way, was a message that could be heard in the wilderness. So they left the city and went out into the wilderness to hear this strange prophet, John the Baptist.

John the Baptist told them to get ready, because someone even more powerful than he was coming and he will set the world on fire. He will lift up the valleys and make the mountains low. He will make straight our paths.

It is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ our Lord. Remember he is the One who is coming to save us, to forgive us our sins and to redeem us. So as we come to his tables, to share in communion, eat, drink and remember that our God is a God who will come out in the wilderness, wherever we are and find us and gather us in his arms and carry us. Thanks be to God.

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

The Wait

 

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Mark 13:24-37

 

64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:1-9, NRSV)

 

13:24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.  28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:24–37, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

 

Do you remember “the wait,” as a child? The wait for the JcPenny, the Sears and the Service Merchandise catalogues to arrive in the mail.  It was old school because we didn’t have the internet or online shopping to help us make our Christmas wish list.  Waiting for the postman to deliver those magical books to your mailbox and then those magical moments would ensue going through the catalogue for the first time.  Getting a pristine first look at the stuff that dreams are made of. Seeing those items you didn’t even know existed.  Being the oldest I was entitled to look at them first so I got to use a pen and circle exactly what I wanted Santa to bring, while my brothers had to wait even longer and they got to pick through the leftovers. After, going through the catalogues and making our choices, then we wrote them down on paper.  Now, these were great lists that contained everything from Lincoln Logs, Lego’s, Matchbox cars, bicycles, footballs and baseball gloves.  Then we folded them up and sealed them in envelopes and mailed to the North Pole.  Then we waited.  It was in reality only a few weeks but it seemed an eternity, because we counted down each week, each day until Christmas.   It just seemed like forever.  Every child can relate to that long wait.

 

Why is waiting so difficult?  Sometimes it is the uncertainty; we want to know what is coming and the longer we have to wonder and wait, the higher our level of anxiety becomes.   Or it could be that when we know what is coming, we get even more impatient.  Or is it that we live in an instant world where everything happens so fast – microwave meals, instant coffee, 24 hour news, and you know the rest…After all we all know that Christmas is December 25th and it is coming and we still get impatient.

 

Our text for today deals with the concept of waiting.  It is more serious waiting than waiting for Santa to come or for catalogues to be delivered. It is waiting for the world to change and for Christ to return.

 

No matter how we try each year as Advent begins, and Christmas barrels down on us, we all begin to search for that thing, those gifts that we must have.  We fall into that trap like my daughter Elliott, when she grabs the toy catalogue or the glossy Toys-R-Us insert from the newspaper and points to every item on each and every page and she shouts I want that Mama, I want that Daddy.  But we have to remind her that Santa does not bring everything she wants and that she must pick just two or three things that she really wants more than all the others.   Especially this year, with a whole lot of belt tightening going on it is a perfect opportunity for all of us to realize that the stuff and the things are not so important and that we don’t really buy our children’s or families love by getting them everything they want.  Besides, you can’t fill every void in life with the perfect Christmas gift.

 

The prophet Isaiah has something to say about dealing with voids in life as he tells of the void in the lives of the Israelites in our Old Testament text.  The void Isaiah is praying about is more than what do you want for Christmas this year.  It is the deepest and most significant void of life. The Israelites have really messed things up, and they don’t know where to go or what to do next.

 

Isaiah 64 is written, it seems, in the midst of the worst of times as the prophet Isaiah’s cries to God to tear open heaven and come down and fill the void in their messed up lives.  Isaiah goes on to lament that God seems hidden and silent.  Isaiah confesses that the Israelites have sinned. By the end of the text Isaiah changes, a little three letter word that carries an incredible amount of power,

YET,

“YET, O’ Lord, you are our Father; you are the potter and we are the clay; we are the work of your hand.”  It is like Isaiah has to take a deep breath, walk around a bit and remind himself who God is.

YET,

We are yours

You created us

You are our God

You molded us

and You, our God, are the one that fills the void.

 

We begin our annual practice of lighting the Advent candles today, and we begin a four-week season of hope-filled waiting that this year might be different.  We give voice to our longing to have the void of our lives filled, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” and pray “Dear God, help me,” because somewhere deep in our hearts we know that God answers prayer, and we live in faith that God will answer that prayer.  Somewhere deep in our souls there is not just longing but faith that in the birth of a child in Bethlehem long ago, God did come down; that during a baptism one day in the Jordan River, God did tear open the heavens; and that in a brief moment in time as God walked the dusty roads of Galilee, God healed the sick, God welcomed the outcasts and God restored the unclean.  God taught that it is better to give than to receive and that the highest and best any of us can ever do is give our love and our lives away, and that as God died in humble obedience on the cross at Calvary, God, in fact, did tear open the heavens and come down; and that on the third day, when death could not contain him, then at that very moment the very love and power of God defeated the powers of sin, death, and Satan.  That the powers of sin, suffering, brokenness and hopelessness were defeated.  When that baby born in a manger, now a man, rose up and walked into the light of the first Easter morning, God did come down and God definitively, once and for all, answered Isaiah’s prayer and our prayer, “Help me.”

 

In our Gospel reading, Jesus warns his disciples that they are likely to fail to see God because they were looking in the wrong places and expecting the wrong things and expecting the wrong heavenly Savior.  As we know from the Christmas story, no one really noticed the birth of Jesus.  The prophets spoke, the teachers taught, the angels proclaimed, the people were informed, but they still looked in the wrong place.  They looked in the royal palace, instead of a lowly stable.  They expected the birth to happen in the royal family, not from an unmarried immigrant couple in a stable.  These well-intentioned, properly prepared people of God missed it.  Not all of them, thank God, but most of them missed the most important birth in the history of the world, so the warning continues for us today— KEEP AWAKE, because we too might miss God tearing open heaven and coming down.  This warning from Jesus takes us back to the prayer of the prophet Isaiah as he echoes the theme of the void in the lives of the Israelites.

 

Here we are headed straight toward Christmas, that wonderful and yet crazy time of the year when we all make lists and wonder how we can find that one thing to fill that void of what’s missing from our lives, those gifts we want, those presents we desire and that stuff we want of think we need to complete us – the Holy Scriptures offer us an alternative to that – the bible tells us, we already have what we need: we have Jesus, his presence, his grace, his love and his mercy.   And as we await his return we can know the truth that is so easily forgotten that God remains faithful and constant and God is the support for all of life.  Keep awake for God, for God is tearing open heaven and coming down.

 

Let us pray: Lord, we are thankful that we are alive, that food is delicious, that the ground is firm beneath our feet, that we can rest and rejuvenate from our work, that the Earth is beautiful and all of us and all your children so richly blessed, your name be praised. We thank you for friends who care, for doors that open when it seems that every door is shut, for the reality of forgiveness — both human and divine. We thank you for yourself — the source of all that is good — and especially for your love that no heart can resist and no hatred can diminish, and no need is to great to overcome – your Son our Lord. Amen.

Congregational Hospitality: The Welcoming Church

August 10, 2014 (Proper 14/ Ordinary 19)

Isaiah 56:1-8
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22,45b
Matthew 14:22-33

 

56:1Thus says the Lord:

Maintain justice, and do what is right,

for soon my salvation will come,

and my deliverance be revealed.

2 Happy is the mortal who does this,

the one who holds it fast,

who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,

and refrains from doing any evil.

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;

and do not let the eunuch say,

‘I am just a dry tree.’

4 For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

who choose the things that please me

and hold fast my covenant,

5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,

a monument and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that shall not be cut off.

6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,

to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,

and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,

and hold fast my covenant—

7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer

for all peoples.

8 Thus says the Lord God,

who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather others to them

besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:1-8, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Eternal God, you have called us to be members of one body. Join us with those who in all times and places have praised your name, that, with one heart and mind, we may show the unity of your church, and bring honor to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

This is my second sermon in a series on Christian hospitality, one that I hope will inspire us all as a church reflect on the task of welcoming and including visitors.  Hospitality is not just a good idea — it is a core Christian practice, and one that our divided world needs now more than ever.  Our scripture passage from Isaiah speaks of the act of welcoming and the deep significance that such an act has.  The extension of welcome to another person is one of the primary understandings of hospitality.  God wants the church to be a house of prayer for all people.  So when we welcome a person to our church, we are in a sense welcoming Christ himself.

 

Those are the standards of hospitality for the church: welcoming in the same manner as Christ has welcomed us.  But as we all know it is not easy to do.  Especially today, in our fractured and polarized world.  Where we divide up along race, religion, politics and economics. So, it is a real challenge that is set before us from the book of Isaiah.  The Lord does not want us to divide up into segregated communities in which Republicans worship with Republicans, Democrats pray with Democrats, liberals study the Bible with liberals, and conservatives go on mission trips with other conservatives. Instead, as the prophet Isaiah states “a house of prayer for all peoples” that gather together and overcome boundaries to worship God.

 

You might wonder why the prophet Isaiah shares this vision from God with the people. Before the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel were considered to be God’s chosen ones, and the purity code of Deuteronomy was very clear about who was in and who was out and it was especially excluded two particular categories of people: eunuchs and foreigners.  Deuteronomy 23: 1-3 says that no one who has been castrated “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  And “no Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  In short, the common community that existed in Israel was made up of like-minded Israelites — it was a congregation of people who shared the same ideas of what was pure and what was not.

 

Then the prophet Isaiah shares a new vision of community, one in which all people who honor the Lord in their actions are to be included.  Speaking through Isaiah, God said, the community of faith was not limited to people of the same nationality or political party.

 

Throughout the Gospels, we read that see Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners, he welcomed children, he spoke with women, and he healed those who were considered unclean and outcasts. Jesus practiced a ministry of hospitality that truly welcomed strangers into the community of faith. He embodied hospitality.

 

My definition of biblical Hospitality: is a life of openness to the presence of God and, unconditional openness to every human life.  This understanding of hospitality is a thread that weaves its way throughout the Bible.  It is the recognition that the presence of God is in the world, and that God may come to you and me at any moment.  To be truly hospitable, we must live in an open readiness to experience the presence of God at any moment, and in any human life.

 

Most congregations want to welcome and hospitable — unfortunately, it takes more than just a willingness and aspiration to be welcome visitors. It actually is a skill and it takes practice to accept visitors.  It is more than just inviting them to have coffee and cookies after worship.   So, as a first step let’s take a look at our hospitality here at Indian Hill Church.

 

Do you remember the last time you felt particularly uncomfortable somewhere?  Maybe it was the office party where your spouse works.  Or at your child’s back-to-school night.  Or the first day on a new job.  Or your first visit to a new dentist?  Usually, we feel uncomfortable either when we don’t know many of the people around us or when we’re not sure of our role, our place, or what is expected of us.  We’ve all been there – feeling left out, alone, out of place, unsure of the way things go, just plain unwelcome. It’s not an enjoyable feeling. So unenjoyable that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid it.  We come up with lots of reasons not to go or get involved. So it is much easier to just stay home.

 

Now, imagine for a moment feeling that way at church.[i]

 

Each and every week, there are people sitting in our pews, who feel unwelcome or left out or lost.  Maybe they are listening attentively to the sermon, maybe they just mouth the words of the hymns, going through the motions of the prayers and liturgy, and they don’t feel at home here or at any church for that matter.  What is really sad is they feel like outsiders.

 

This fact may be hard for some of us to imagine, but it’s true: a whole lot of people don’t feel particularly welcome or comfortable at church.

 

Now, I am not beating us up, the Indian Hill Church.  It is any church, it is every church.  But because this is our church, where God has called us, you and me, to worship I am particularly interested in the ways in which we are and are not practicing hospitality.

 

No one is to blame because it is not any one’s fault.  Nobody in our congregation sets out to make people feel unwelcome. Much in the same way the co-workers at your spouse’s office party, or the parents of our children’s classmates, or the date we just met, or the new dentist we go to and the colleagues at our new job – they don’t get up in the morning and plan to make us feel unwelcome. It just happens. Instead of trying to place blame let’s see what we can do about it.

 

Who knows why people feel unwelcome.  Maybe they’re here because they have to be – people who would much rather spend their Sunday mornings another way if they weren’t made to come to church.  Or maybe they feel unwelcome because they don’t understand the language and liturgy or why we do what we do at church.  Or maybe they had some bad experiences at church in the past and it’s hard to ever feel comfortable. Or maybe they just don’t believe in this whole biblical-story thing and just wish the pastor would talk about something they are interested in.   Or maybe they’re intimidated because all the “regulars” seem to know what they’re doing and they don’t know the “secrets”.  Or maybe they have a hard time believing that we would really accept them here if we really knew them and the problems they have. Or maybe….it is something else?

 

But that’s the point.

We don’t know.

And we won’t….

…Unless we ask.

So, I am asking!

 

I invite you to take a moment and fill out the questionnaire that you will find as an insert in your bulletin – it can be anonymous or you can sign your name, then I invite you to put them in the offering plate when they come around.  The questions are:

 

1.         Do you feel welcome at this church?

2.         What in particular helps you to feel welcome?

3.         What in particular has been a hindrance to your feeling welcome?

4.         What do you most love about being here?

5.         What do you like least about being here?

6.         How can Indian Hill Church improve on being a more welcoming congregation?

 

One quick example of a small thing that one congregation did to meet the needs of a visitor. A small rural church of about 100 people in attendance at worship.  This church is primarily an older congregation and all of the sudden a young single mother started to attend with her baby. The folks of the church could tell that the young mom felt very self-conscious whenever her baby started to fuss during worship, like any infant will do.

 

So, some of the leaders in the church realized how uncomfortable she was and they decided they had to do something. To show support for her, they bought a comfortable, well-padded rocking chair and placed it behind the last pew of the small sanctuary so she could rock the baby and still participate in the worship service. Their solution is not all that radical.  But what they did is they paid attention to the needs of a visitor in order to welcome her in the ministry of Jesus Christ.

 

It makes me wonder what are the barriers or issues that keep people away from joining us in worship or participating in Sunday school or other educational programs, ministries and mission of our congregation.  Is it the stairs to the Sunday school classrooms?  Is it the closed sense of the congregation that makes it difficult for visitors to “break in” and feel included?  Is it economic or racial or employment differences?

 

I believe the issue of hospitality is one of the great opportunities that you the Indian Hill Church are already doing — because you are a welcoming people — I know, because I have experienced it myself.   But we often miss things that are right in front of us.

 

So, the challenge for us is to practice hospitality and welcome so intentionally that every person walking through our doors experiences it. I challenge every church member and every leader here at Indian Hill Church to give it a try and to practice welcoming others and offering hospitality, even more than you already do. So that we may be a house of prayer for all people.

 

Let us pray:

 

 

[i] This section of the sermon comes directly from David Lose and his blog post, “All Are Welcome,”

Sunday, August 07, 2011  http://www.davidlose.net

 

God, Dirt and the Church

July 13, 2014 (Ordinary 15)

Isaiah 55:10-13

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

13: 1 “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, NRSV)

Let us pray: Generous God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable unto you O’ Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

By this time in the summer, you should know if the seeds you planted back in the spring have produced.  Way back last spring when you put the little seeds into the wet, dark soil of the earth you did so with such hope.  Hope that those little tiny seeds might actually burst out of the ground and grow into something.  Some of those seeds looked like what they would produce once they matured, like the beans, while others look nothing like what they grow into like the heads of lettuce that come from the tiniest of seeds.  Planting a seed or growing a garden is such a profound gesture of hope.  When you put that seed into the ground it is a small step in the belief that it will follow the natural order of things and that it will grow into the plant, a flower, grass, or the fruit that it is supposed to be.  To be a gardener one must also be full of faith.  A gardener plants seeds in faith and hopes for all things to turn out good for those seeds to grow into plants that produce vegetables or trees that produce fruit or flowers that bloom is – well a small miracle.

We hear of such miraculous growth in this parable from Jesus. The familiar parable goes like this: A sower scatters seed everywhere. As a result some fall on the beaten path and birds eat them; some fall among the rocks, they sprang up quickly but soon they wither in the heat of the day; and some are choked out by thorns and weeds. And some of the seeds fall on good soil and produce at various rates.

We hear Jesus telling this parable and we think of the soil. We think of ourselves and which type of soil we are. There are four types of soil in this parable and each of us must be one type or another. You might even be concerned about what type of soil God thinks you are.

–        Are you hard ground with no chance for seeds to embed themselves and grow?

–        Or are you rocky soil with little nutrients to feed the seeds?

–        Or are you surrounded by thorns that choke you out?

–        Or are you one of the lucky ones, like good soil where seeds will flourish and grow?

So which is it?

What type of soil are you?

When we realize that we just maybe hard or rocky soil and wonder how we can change our soil type. How can we move from being rocky soil and become rich and fertile ground?   I have heard sermons on this text and may have even preached a few encouraging the congregation to become better soil.  You can become good, rich, nutrient filled soil that God can use if you just pray more, or read your bible more, or tithe.  While most of us naturally go in this direction when we hear this parable, wondering about ourselves, I am not convinced that this was what Jesus was pointing too.

As I have been living with is the parable and discussing it with others and after discussing it with my PRG on Wednesday morning I had a new thought.  Instead of thinking about the soil, how about we focus on the sower, the one who threw out those seeds.

Now, this is not your typical gardener.   No this parable is about a really, really, really bad gardener.  Just think about any gardener you know.  The first thing they do before they plant is they prepare the ground.  They till it, they weed it, and they plant the seeds with great care and purpose.  It is not the way our sower acts in Jesus’ parable.  Our sower just throws out handfuls of seeds without so much as a glance at the ground where they will land.  Just walking along indiscriminately throwing out the seeds. It is really a great image that Jesus is presenting. The sower, God, is joyfully tossing out handful after handful of seeds in each and every direction. Tossing them with seemingly reckless abandon not concerned with where they land and no worry of running out of them.  The sower is just extravagantly tossing the seeds here, seeds there, seeds going everywhere, assured that some of them will take root and thrive and produce. There is an extravagance in this parable that no gardener could ever imagine, but it is the extravagance of God.

The Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way:

“The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of the maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into the seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of God’s truth.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven, p. 26).

That is how God is. He tosses his word out over all people, happily broadcasting his seeds over and over and over again.

This parable is a great image for the church and for what is happening right now.  It is happening right here, right now with you and with me.  Each week in church we join Christians across the world as we gather for worship.  You come here with all kinds of things going on in your lives, good, bad and ugly.  Some of you are tired, like the rocky soil, because you couldn’t sleep, your mind racked with worry about the week ahead, the meetings, the appointments, the challenges, and the financial details.   Others of you come empty, like the hard soil, empty because of health issues, illness of a loved one, grief, and depression over a recent death of someone you loved.   Others of you come with the best of intentions, eager, willing and ready, only to have the thorns all around you choke your willingness out.   Some of you come, often with no rhyme or reason, with different emotions and different needs, and somehow, some way, God’s seeds of love take root and take hold in your life.   And some of you come fully expecting to hear God’s good news because you are like the good soil, rich and full of nutrients ready to receive God’s seeds of grace and mercy.

And I, because I am human, do the same. Some weeks I come excited to preach, eager to share the good news of the gospel and other weeks not so much. I am tired, a bit slow or concerned by the worries of life and still other weeks I offer a sermon that does not come easily and doesn’t connect with the congregation. But as this parable says, the work of the church, the preacher, the work of Anne and me is to stand up in the pulpit with fear and trepidation and with the help of the Holy Spirit and proclaim God’s Word.

And all the while with you coming to worship as you do and me coming to church like I do, we have this sower, right here with us, tossing out seeds on us all. As the words come out of my mouth, the sower tosses them out to you and out to me.  Sometimes they fall flat.   Sometimes they land on hard soil, other times they hit a rock and other times they are choked out by thorns and weeds.   And then there are the times that they take root, they grow, the flourish and they produce fruit beyond our wildest imagination.

This thing we do each week, this gathering together we call worship, the task God has called Anne and me to do each Sunday with you, preaching, is so much more than we can ever understand.  You see if it were just up to us then it would never be very fruitful and it would soon wither and die.  Because you are human beings and so am I and between us there is humanness, weakness, sinfulness and the stuff of our lives that constantly get in the way.  So, you see there is something much greater at work here right now. It is the work of the sower, patiently, joyfully, extravagantly throwing his word out to you and out to me.  So, this parable is a word of good news to the church that it is not just up to us and our hard work that there is a real miracle going on as God tosses out seeds.

Seeds here.

Seeds there.

Seeds everywhere.

So what do we do in response to this extravagant sower? We put ourselves in his field, we live, we trust, we hope.  All the while realizing that when we do find ourselves on good, nutrient rich soil it is not from our doing. It was God, it is God and it will be God who loves the world so much that he just keeps tossing out seeds.

Seeds here.

Seeds there.

Seeds everywhere.

Let us pray: O Great God, our teacher, give us ears to listen. In your patient and determined way, teach us about your radical generosity and the power of your word so that we might “bring forth grain” in the world you love so much. Teach us such generosity, that the fruits of our spirits and the works of our hands may be used for the building up of your kingdom. Amen

The Great Conundrum of the Christian Faith

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

Reverend Stephen Caine

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Jesus Makes it Look so Easy

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

Reverend Stephen Caine

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Amen.