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Promises for a New Year

January 4, 2015 (The Second Sunday of Christmas)

 

1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:10-18, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Gracious God, you have redeemed us through Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate as the child of Bethlehem. We thank you for the grace that we may live as your children and witness to your glory. In Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

 

Here we are once again at the beginning of a new year. We are beginning 2015 and saying goodbye to 2014.

Normally at this time of the year only four days in to the New Year I am already upset because the best laid plans I have made to follow through on that New Year’s resolution are all for naught.  But not this year!  This year is different because I decided not to make any resolutions for 2015.  Well except for one; I am not making any.  I have promised myself that I will not live with the guilt of failing to keep it this year. Why put so much pressure on myself to be a better person, to lose weight, to get in shape?  No resolutions this year! Besides if I keep them then I think of myself as a great success and if I don’t then I think of myself as a huge failure. And there you have it is all about me!  If I think it is all about me then I am in for a rude awakening. After all it is not all about me or us!  At the beginning of the year or the end of the year or anytime in the year. It is so much bigger than that!

 

Our Gospel lesson for today sheds some light on who it is all really about and who is ultimately in charge. The Gospel of John begins like the other three gospels with an account of Jesus’ back ground. The Gospel of Mark introduces Jesus to us as an adult, telling us that Jesus was “a man from Nazareth.” The Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with Jesus’ birth narratives and Jesus’ miraculous conception and virgin birth. But John, goes back even farther.  John goes back to the beginning of time itself.  Before anything else had been created, Jesus was. John is making a huge theological statement about Jesus stressing that Jesus/God was the creator of all that is, that is why John begins with the Word.

 

Words. Words. Words. Our lives are full of words. There are written words, there are spoken words.  We are bombarded daily by both written and spoken words.  Some of these words are good and helpful and others are not.  While I was watching the multitude of bowl games this past week there were the endless beer commercials, numerous credit and debt relief ads and the multitude of weight loss and make – your – life better claims that are forced on us.  Midway through the week I was numb from watching.  Words. Words. Words.

 

Some words mean more than others do…

 

This is the idea that John begins his Gospel and his daring claim that Jesus was “in the beginning” with God, that Jesus was “the Word of God” and “that all things came into being” through him.  John begins with God who is the Word.

 

John states that Jesus whom we know as our Savior was the Word God uttered when God said “Let there be light.”  Jesus was the Word that came down the mountain when God spoke to Moses.  Jesus was the word the prophets spoke when they said, “Thus says the Lord…”  Jesus was and is the Word. Words. Words. Words.  Some are more meaningful than others.

 

Jesus is not just a messenger from God; Jesus is the message.  Jesus does not simply teach us how to live; Jesus is life.  Jesus does not simply point to the Light; Jesus is the Light.  Words. Words. Words.[i]

 

The Bible, the Holy Word of God is full of wonderful and powerful words.  But even those life-changing words are not enough.  Take music for example, music is so much more than the notes on a page…when it is played with passion and emotion it can move us to tears and it can change our hearts and move our deepest emotions. Love is more than telling your spouse you love him or her; it is living it out each and every day of your marriage.  The Son of God, Jesus Christ, the magnificent Word of God is more than just words written in this Holy book.

 

The Word of God is not simply good words to live by and rules to guide our lives. It is God himself. The Word became flesh. The Word, which was in the beginning with God, the Word, which created all that is, the Word, which is light, and life, became flesh born of Mary in a manger in Bethlehem.

 

We in the church use Words each and every week to profess our faith. We say we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  We say the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.  We affirm our belief in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yes, that is what we say when we say it.  But are those just words for us?   Do we just say them because the bulletin says that is what comes next, do we say them because we have memorized the creed and it is rote to us, just rolls off our tongues each week? Words. Words. Words.[ii]

 

Do we really believe that God is the Savior of the world? Do we really believe that God is the Savior of our families, our children, our lives and our souls? Do we really believe that God is the savior of our loneliness, our broken hearts, our jobs, our financial situations, our faltering economy, our failing health?  Do we really believe that God can save our community, our nation, our world, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa or Israel, Palestine, hunger, homelessness, addiction and brokenness?  Or are they just words.   Do we know that is what you will say when you use those Words later in our service.   Do we really believe God will forgive all our sins and save us from the relentless guilt that is a part of all of our lives?  Do we really believe that God really can do all of that?  That is what it means to be a Savior. Words. Words. Words.  Do we mean what we say when we say them?[iii]

 

Because if we mean them they are far more than Words. They are an acknowledgment that life is about so much more than “me”. It is a confession that God really can heal and forgive and provide. It is a testament that God was present in the beginning, even before the beginning and God will be present beyond the end, bringing about new beginnings.

 

That is the promise of God in these Words that God who is the Word became flesh and blood and lived among us. Words. Words. Words. Sometimes words can give life, and hope and a fresh start… It is not all about us. It is about Jesus, the Word made flesh.

 

Today the first Sunday of a new year, 2015 and we embark on the next journey of life…will the Word become more than just Words, Words, Words, may the Word, Jesus, become flesh become flesh and live in your heart and mine now and forever.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[i] The Reverend Dr. George Sinclair, Government Street Presbyterian Church, Mobile, AL.

[ii] The Reverend Dr. Craig Barnes, Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburg, PA

[iii] The Reverend Dr. Craig Barnes, Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburg, PA

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.

Sheep and Goats, Oh My

Ezekiel 34:11-24
Psalm 100
Matthew 25:31-46

 

25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Shepherd of Israel, hear our prayer as your Son heard the plea of the criminal crucified with him. Gather into Christ’s holy reign the broken, the sorrowing, and the sinner, that all may know wholeness, joy, and forgiveness. Amen.

You may be surprised to learn that in some cases it is really hard to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat.  Really, now they both make different sounds, Baa-baa-baa and nea-nea.  But from a distance it is hard to tell them apart. So, how are a sheep and a goat different?

 

There is a website called “the difference between” and it says: the easiest way to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat is to look at their tails.  A goat’s tail will go up (unless the goat is frightened, sick, or in distress).  A sheep’s tail will hang down and are often (docked) cut off for health and sanitary reasons.   The next difference is that they don’t look much alike.  A goat has hair and a sheep has fleece.  A goat is more slender of the two animals.  In the west people eat sheep meat but in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent people eat goat meat.

 

Jesus, however, can tell them apart because he says when the Son of man makes judgment it will be “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”  The shepherd, in this story is Jesus and he can tell at a glance which is which even at a great distance. The shepherd is watching, and he will make judgment.

 

Like it or not, this parable is about judgment.  Judgment is a fact of life.  We are judged in every aspect of our lives: our work, our play, when we go to the grocery store, when we walk down the street, we are judged.  How we look, what we wear, what we say, what we eat, what we drink, where we worship, if we worship.  We simply cannot escape judgment in life. So, Jesus is talking about something we know very well – judgment.

 

But this parable is about more than daily judgment, much more than superficial judgment – it is about final judgment.  Jesus is warning his followers of God’s judgment to pay attention to how do we live, how do we love, how do we treat others?   This parable raises the tension between obedience and disobedience. Do we listen to Jesus and follow his teachings or not?

 

So, are you a sheep or a goat? I know you are thinking and wondering. So which is it?

 

What is interesting in this text is that both the sheep and the goats are in the flock. The shepherd cares for and watches over both the sheep and the goats.  Also, notice that both the sheep and the goats are unable to see in the King in “least of these.”  So, the shepherd declares that he has been watching both the sheep and the goats and he is fully aware of their actions and their blindness.   Then the shepherd chooses which to bless and which to curse.  Then, the shepherd judges them using the criteria of their works of compassion.  Pretty harsh.  But there it is in black and white, the Word of God.

 

Now, for this Presbyterian pastor this is a tough biblical text. I preach and teach week after week about God’s free grace.  It is grace that saves us apart from anything we can do to save ourselves.  It is grace that forgives us.  It is God’s grace that says I love you even when you are unlovable.  That is the Jesus I worship, the Jesus I love.   But this parable reveals a much different side of Jesus, this Jesus is on the throne giving out judgment and honestly it is hard to take.  On a good day when I have felt compassionate toward my fellow human beings I might be able to accept it, but there are other days when I know I haven’t cared enough.  It is then that this parable hits me right between the eyes.  And I want to scream, “But I thought it was all about grace, I thought it didn’t matter what I did, that you still loved me and saved me.”

 

And that is the tension of the Bible, the tension of being a Christian.  Yes it is about grace.  And yes it is about works.  It does matter how you live.  It is as if Jesus is saying to us, “You think it’s all free grace?  You think you can live anyway you want?  Remember the story of the sheep and the goats?  You aren’t off the hook so easily.  I see you and judge you on how you treat others!”

 

This parable is often interpreted as our way to earn God’s favor by our “good” works and it often evolves into a guilt ridden moral appeal for us to get out there and do “good” things.  The problem is that this parable is really not about our good works.  It is about “seeing.”  Jesus is not judging the virtues of the sheep or the faults of the goats, but, rather, he is pointing out the hidden-ness of the King in the “least of these.”  Neither the sheep nor the goats saw the King in all the misery around them.   So, Jesus points out what separates the sheep from the goats.   It is not that the sheep are better able to see Jesus in the misery of the world but, it is that the sheep treat everyone equally; they treat them as their brother, their sister, their fellow human being, and not as lower class citizens or useless human beings – they may in fact be the least, the last and the lost, but they are still children of God.  So, you see neither the sheep nor the goats were able to see Jesus – and neither can we so the message is this – treat everyone as if they were Jesus himself. Because you never know when it just might be him!

 

That is what Jesus is talking about here how we treat everyone because you never know when Jesus might be “the least of these,” because we will never be able to discern Christ in our neighbor. That is not our job to discern which person is Jesus and which one is not!  No, our calling is to believe that Christ is already there with them.

 

It is clear in this passage from Matthew that what Jesus wants us to do in response to God’s grace is to have compassion for the least of these – to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned.  There is simply no way to wriggle our way out of that expectation.

 

Yes, God is a God of grace and love and it is free and undeserved, but there are clear expectations with that grace and the expectation is to love.  The expectation is to open our eyes real wide and see Christ in everyone we meet, especially the hungry and the thirsty and the sick and the imprisoned.  Jesus wants us to treat everyone we meet as we would treat him.  He wants us to see the worth and the dignity of every person.

 

It is not natural.  Naturally we want to turn our heads at the ugliness of it.  We want to hold our noses at the stench of it.   We want to close our hearts to the horror of it.   Jesus calls us to respond differently to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to see him in those in need.

I love the fact that this is the chosen text for Christ the King Sunday, highest of high days where we crown Jesus Lord of Lords and King of Kings, where we sing, “Crown him with many crowns…” But yet, we aren’t reading a text about a King in our sense of royalty.  We are reading a text where Jesus can be found in the least, the last and the lost and that makes him the greatest King of all.

 

When Jesus comes and tells us we have fed him and clothed him and welcomed him we might say, “When was that?  I don’t remember seeing you.”  And Jesus will smile and say, “Every time you showed compassion and treated someone with respect and kindness that was me.  Every time you lifted your hand to help someone up, I saw, and he says, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

 

Let us pray: O God, the good Shepherd, hear our prayer that you would open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to respond to those in need; the broken, the grieving, those filled with sorrow, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the imprisoned and the sinner, that all may know wholeness, joy, and forgiveness. Amen.

No Time to Sleep

 

Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
Matthew 25:1-13

 

25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:1-13, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God, you let us choose, between you and the false gods of this world. In the midst of the night of our lives, wake us from our slumber and call us forth to greet Christ, so that with eyes and hearts fixed on him, we may follow to eternal light. Amen.

 

Have you ever overslept? If you have then you know that horrible feeling of chaos that happens when you have to be somewhere at a certain time and you realize you’re late.  If you haven’t experienced oversleeping then you have probably at least dreamed that you have overslept.  It is a very common dream that people have; you dream that you have a huge test in school or an exam in college, and you wake up and realize that you are late.  You run and show up at the classroom but the test is either already started or it is completely over.  In a variation on that dream I often dream that I oversleep on Sunday morning and worship has been going on for twenty minutes or so and I come rushing in and all of you all are here but you are only wearing your underwear.  Now, that is a nightmare!

 

In the Gospel lesson all ten of the bridesmaids have fallen asleep and they are woken up as the bridegroom is on his way.  In the midst of their disorientation as they try to wake up and get in place for the bridegroom’s arrival, we learn that some of them were prepared and some were not. It is their preparation or lack of preparation seals their fate.  At first reading this is a scary parable about the Kingdom of God.

 

Thank goodness this is not the only parable about the Kingdom of God that we have to base our faith on, because if this was the only parable about the kingdom of heaven and God then the Christian Faith would be a pretty depressing business.  I much prefer other parables, such as the parable of the lost sheep where Jesus, the good shepherd goes to whatever means necessary to find that one lost sheep.  Not this parable where if you are a little late to the party the door is slammed in your face as Jesus says “I do not know you.”  It’s a pretty scary picture but it is one we must pay attention too.

 

This parable flies in the face of what I believe about faith, and about God.  We hear this parable and it is telling us to always be prepared.  Prepare yourself for the unexpected.  Get your life insurance, your savings account, and your financial plans all in order because you just never know.  Part of me is ok with that mentality because I like organization and preparation.  I respect people who are on time, who do what they say they are going to do, who plan and organize and prepare for all of the what-ifs.  I get frustrated with people who don’t.  So a part of me likes that these unprepared bridesmaids seem to get what they deserve.  They should have brought more oil, they should have been more prepared, so good for you Jesus, lock them out and throw away the key.  But I know in my heart of hearts that that is not what Jesus is saying.  I know in my heart of hearts that our organization, our preparedness is not what the Gospel is about.  It is not about us, it is about God.

 

It’s very difficult to read just one snapshot of a scripture.  You have to look at it in context.  This parable comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus has already ridden into town on the donkey, he has overturned the tables in the temple in a rage over the moneychangers.  The Pharisees and Scribes question him and try to trap him.  Then Jesus condemns them for the way they speak the words of faith but don’t live their faith, the way they lay burdens on others without any sacrifice of their own.  The disciples can tell that something big is about to happen but they are slow to catch on but even they realize that something is going on with Jesus.  “Tell us Jesus what is going on, what will be the sign of the end?”  Jesus answers, “Nations will rise against nations, there will be famine and earthquakes and all of this will just be the beginning of the birth pangs.”  He goes on to tell about persecutions and suffering and sacrifice.  Pretty heavy stuff.  Then Jesus starts talking about the kingdom of God.

 

So, digging a little deeper this parable is pointing toward the reason that the wise bridesmaids came prepared.  They came prepared because they were so excited, they couldn’t wait so they got all their ducks in a row so that they could be there willing and waiting when the bridegroom showed up.

 

My brother-in-law is a huge University of Alabama football fan and has season tickets.  Two of his sons are in school there.  He gets so excited for each home game they play.  Monnie said that he prepares for each home game weeks in advance.  He has a routine, he gets up early on Saturday morning, leaves the hotel and gets to the stadium for a day of tailgating. He doesn’t want to miss a thing so he prepares, he is present and he can enjoy everything that is going on.  It is like the five prepared bridesmaids they were ready because they were excited.  If only people got as excited about Jesus as they do a football game or a new TV show or the ballet or other major event in our lives that we care about.

 

Jesus is not telling us that the bridesmaids who were organized are the only ones getting into the kingdom.  No, because this parable is about more than that, it is about joy and expectation.   Joy at meeting the bridegroom and joy over following Jesus.  Jesus is saying these bridesmaids were so excited about meeting the bridegroom that they brought all their oil with them.  They didn’t want to miss anything.  The other bridesmaids were only partly excited.  They didn’t care quite so much.  They sort of, kind of cared and sort of, kind of wanted to meet the bridegroom but not enough to bring all their oil.  They brought just enough, they brought the bare minimum.

 

So, this parable is doing so much more than just trying to get our attention.  This parable is much more than a message saying you better fill up your lamp because Jesus might lock you out or you better stockpile oil and save enough for yourself.  Jesus is saying the kingdom of God is so great, so magnificent, so exciting that you want to bring your all, all your gifts, all your talents, all your oil with you because you just can’t wait to meet the bridegroom.

 

Jesus tells this parable about a wedding.  Weddings are always joyful and full of life and hope and love.  So the bridesmaids should come prepared. Prepared and excited to meet the bridegroom.  And so this is our message, to come prepared.  Not out of fear but joy, joy for the gift of the bridegroom, joy for the future, joy for the life changing presence of Jesus.

 

Beethoven said that Jesus is the joy of man’s desiring.  Henry Van Dyke later put words to Beethoven’s music in the familiar hymn:

“joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love.  Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above.  Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the gloom of doubt away.  Giver or immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.  Joyful, joyful we adore thee.”

 

How often are we startled out of our sleep and respond with joy?

 

How often do we experience our faith as unending joy?

 

Joy is a feeling, an emotion that you can’t really explain or write about or fully express, you are just overcome by it.  Joy is something felt and experienced.  It can’t be captured or bottled up.  It can only be lived and enjoyed.  And it’s not trite.  Far from trite and superficial.  Joy is real and deep and meaningful.

 

So, the parable is about our response to something grand and glorious, something life changing and transformative – Jesus— the son of the living God.  He comes full of life and hope and love.  So let us be ready prepared to meet the bridegroom with all of our gifts and talents and joy.  Joyful, joyful we adore thee.  Amen.

Free to Give

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Romans 8:31-39
Matthew 22:34-46

 

8: 31”What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Lord of life, we worry about the things we do not understand and cannot control. Remind us today to look to your Word for peace. So, that we may be reminded of the great joy in Paul’s words, that you will not let anything come between you and us. As we wait for that glorious day when you call us home, may we wait with joy filled hearts. This we pray in Jesus name. Amen.

 

Today is Stewardship Commitment Sunday.  And I had a sermon all prepared for today but then life happened….I was going to talk about how great it is that we have surpassed our budget and that we are overflowing with money, so much so that we have given our abundance to the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the sick. And that out of our abundance we have ended homelessness in Cincinnati, we have fed every hungry child in Hamilton County, Butler, Clermont and Warren Counties, and that all the hospitals in our region are empty because illness and disease are no more.  But you know I can’t preach that fantasy because we all know reality, and we know that life happens…

 

So this week, life happened and as you have all heard the Bishop has announced that we are ready for the next step in our life as a congregation and that Reverend Anne Wrider who has served us well. First as our Interim Episcopal Priest and for the last four years as our Episcopal priest—in—charge. We learn this news with mixed emotions; excited that we are healthy and prepared for the next step in our life as a congregation to embark on the process of seeking our next rector.  We are grateful for Anne’s service and leadership.  So life has happened, while this news is a shock to the system, it is something we must deal with.

 

Change happens all the time, some change we celebrate and other change we resist. It happens in every aspect of life and it happens to all of us, so what is important is how we respond.  How we get up and dust ourselves off and move on with the plan, the mission, and life.

 

So, my first I thought oh no, not today!  This isn’t the best day for stewardship…but then I realized it is an ideal day for Commitment Sunday.  It is about our response to God for all that God has done for all the world and more specifically for each of us in our lives.  By extension Stewardship is our response to life when it happens…The Bishop sees what is good and healthy here at Indian Hill Church and he witnessed that first hand on his visit October 7. So there is something good, strong and healthy going on here, it is a time to respond by be thankful. Thanking God for our health and strength.

 

I want you to know that our response to this change begins with the incredible staff we have in place and have the pleasure of working with. Karen, our church secretary, offers her warm and caring presence to visitors and others doing business here at the church.  Her calm and caring voice offers support to people who call the church looking for help or support.  We are blessed to have Brenda, such a talented and gifted musician as she serves us as our Music Director and Organist. Music is so important to worship and we are blessed to have Brenda to lead us and direct the choir in our worship and praise of God.  Barb, keeps our financial records and books and she faithfully monitors our financial situation. She pays the churches bills and keeps our pledges and giving straight each and every week.

 

The enthusiasm and energy around our children and youth ministry is so much fun to witness.  We are so blessed to have Michelle and Jennifer. Last week we held our first re{Discover} where parents joined with their children in Confirmation Class to dig deeper into matters of faith. Our children’s ministry is exploding with children and were are so blessed to have Jennifer coordinating and leading this vital ministry for the life and well-being our Church.

 

So, our response to change is to keep on doing the mission and ministry that God has called us to do and be the hospitable and caring congregation God has called us to be and to give thanks for the ways in which we see God at work in our world.

 

The word steward comes from the Greek word, “oikos”, which means house.   The concept of stewardship is to take care of the house, the things of household, whether it is money, worship, the building and grounds, the music, our people, the people of our community, the people of the world, the health and well-being of the earth.  God has entrusted all of these to us.

 

As God’s people, we are called to take care for these gifts are from God.  We are called to support God’s church and its ministry.  In the Old Testament scriptures, Israel was to give a tenth (“tithe”) of their income to support the ministry. This practice still continues within the church today as a baseline for giving.

 

Giving to the church is a commitment. Commitment is an investment of oneself.

 

Commitment is what this text from Romans 8 is all about. The Apostle Paul tells us how committed God is in this relationship: If God is for us, who is against us?  It may be the most comforting passage in the bible.  It is the one I turn to whenever life happens and change comes. It is the one I turn to in good times and bad.  It is the one I hang my faith on.  Nothing, nothing in all of life or death can separate us from the love of God.

 

Now that is commitment. God is committed to us no matter how sinful and broken we are.  He will not let anything in life or death come between us and him through the love of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Not our commitment but God’s commitment to creation, to you and me.  Commitment is another word for a pledge or promise; engagement; and involvement.

 

The Bible is full of God’s promises.  First, God promises to be there for us in times of trouble.  We can count on God being there to strengthen us and carry us through difficult times.  God doesn’t promise to keep us from difficult times, but God gives us the strength to endure, to triumph, to be more than a conqueror over those things which would otherwise defeat us.

 

The second promise of God is that God is with us. In the midst of all the troubles, we can be sure that God is with us. We live in that hope and that expectation that no matter how dark it may seem, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that God will bring something wonderful to pass.

 

The third thing that God promises, in addition to being there in times of trouble, God promises this: he promises that he will never stop loving you.  No matter what you’ve done, no matter what mess you’ve gotten into, God will not stop loving you.

 

Paul has been giving us different examples of God’s commitment to his people through relationship with us. Paul lifts up Christ as the ultimate example of God’s commitment.  God sent his only begotten son, Jesus, to save the world.  Christ humbled himself even to the point of death, death on a cross, so we might have life.  Now that is commitment!

 

How will we respond to God who keeps his promises, who is fully committed to us? God who promises, “I will be with you. I will be your refuge and your strength.” Even in the midst of all the terrible things of our lives, all the heartbreak, all the suffering, God is with us and God will bring something good out of the tragedies, out of the pain, out of the sufferings, out of the darkness.

 

What will you give in gratitude to God?

 

Let us pray: Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us. We thank you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.  And, we pray, that you will give us an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may respond with praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

With Eyes to See

Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 23
Luke 17:11-19

 

17: 11“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: In your love, O God, your people find healing. Grant that the pains of our journey may not obscure the presence of Christ among us, but that we may always give thanks for your healing power as we travel on the way to your kingdom. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

I have given you a drawing. I would like for you to look at it for a while.

 

This picture, My wife and my mother-in-law published in 1915 by the cartoonist W.E. Hill.

This picture, My wife and my mother-in-law published in 1915 by the cartoonist W.E. Hill.

 

What do you see?  Do you see the face of a young woman?  Do you also see the face of an older woman?  It is an optical illusion?  It is an image that is perceived one way that is different from reality.  What the human eye sees is interpreted by the brain in a way that contradicts the real image.  You can look at an optical illusion and see one thing and someone else looks at the very same image and they see something totally different.

Now, another exercise.  Take a look around.  What do you see?  People or Pews? Stain glass windows or a Pipe Organ?  Do you see a church or a congregation?

 

Jesus tells of an experience he had with a group of ten lepers.  These ten are outcasts.  The ten approach Jesus and beg for mercy.   The ten must keep their distance from him because they are unclean.  The ten have been trained by their own bitter experiences not to expect any help from those around them.

 

In response, Jesus instructs the ten to go and show themselves to the local priest.  The ten go to see the priest and they are made well, cleansed of their leprosy.   Then one of the ten returns to Jesus to show his gratitude and to say thanks.

 

This one particular leper was different.  He saw things differently.  He saw what the other nine didn’t or couldn’t see.  He saw salvation, they saw a healing.  He saw a future, eternal life; they saw a return to life as they knew it.  He saw gratitude they saw getting back to family, friends, work.

 

So, unlike the other nine, this one had to return.   The other nine could go and do whatever.  This one leper could not.  Having seen, he had to return and praise God.  He had to throw himself at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving.  This one lepers experience was so overwhelming, so life changing, so joyful, that he had to share it.

 

I must point out that the other nine did nothing wrong. In fact, they did exactly as they were told.  Again, they didn’t do anything wrong and received the blessing that Jesus promised them.

 

All the lepers were healed; one, however, saw, noticed, let what happened sink in…And it made all the difference.  Because he sees what has happened, he recognizes Jesus, his reign and his power.  Because he sees what has happened, he is thankful.

 

This parable serves as an invitation to believers to open our eyes to see. When we open our eyes what do we see?

 

When we look at God what do we see?  Do we see God as a stern judge or loving parent? When we look to ourselves, do we see failure or beloved child? When we look to the future, do we see fear filled uncertainty or a positive open horizon?  There is, of course, no right answer to any of these questions.  How we answer depends upon what we see.  What we see shapes our outlook and our behavior.

What do we see when we look at our blessings?  What do we see when we look at giving to the church?  Giving to the church, Stewardship is not first about giving, but about seeing all that we have been given and rejoicing in a way that cannot help but shape how we act.

 

Before we are called to believe or confess or help or do we are called simply to see…and to help others to see.  We are called to point out blessings.

 

At the beginning of this story, ten men are stuck.  All ten are made well.  But one sees something more.  He has seen Jesus, recognized his blessing and rejoiced in it, and changed his course of action and behavior.  And because he sees what has happened, the leper is not just healed, but is made whole, restored, drawn back into relationship with God and others.  For this leper his healing was more than just having his health restored, he saw that he was saved.   He saw that through Jesus he now had eternal life.  He saw that he was saved from inward focus, he was saved form negativity, and he was saved from sin. He was saved to live a life of gratitude, to live a life enjoying the blessings that God had given him.

 

That is stewardship, that is worship, and that is Christian living.  It is the tenth leper turning back.  For now as then, seeing makes all the difference. And that’s what the nine missed, they didn’t see the same thing the one particular leper saw. It’s not that they did anything wrong; it’s that they didn’t see their good fortune and didn’t voice their blessing, and so missed out on also being made whole.

 

Now on final exercise, as you leave today you will walk out into our community, what will you see?  Will you see troubles? Yes.

 

Will you see blessings, I sure hope so!  You will see, families that care for each other, colleagues who work hard and well, schools where teachers care about their pupils and students are eager to learn, relief agencies that tend the afflicted, service people who regularly put their lives on the line at home and abroad, good neighbors who support one another, and our church where the Word of God is preached, hymns of praise are sung, the importance of faith is taught and the life of faith nourished, and so much more.

 

This world is full of blessing and challenges. Your life is full of blessings and challenges.  Which will you focus on?  Will you see as the tenth leper? Will you find blessings in life or not? Will you turn back to offer God your words of gratitude and praise, or not?  You must open your eyes to see.

 

Let us pray:

 

Come and See, part 2

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 66:1-10
Matthew 21:23-32

1Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;

2sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise.

3Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.

4All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.”

5Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.

6He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him,

7who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations— let the rebellious not exalt themselves. Selah

8Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard,

9who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.

10For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. (Psalm 66:1-10, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Fill us with your Spirit, that we may celebrate your glory and worship you in spirit and in truth; this we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Well it is that time again, Stewardship! This year the Stewardship season will end with Commitment Sunday on October 26. Over the next several Sundays you will hear from your fellow church members about why they give and what the church means to them.

 

It is fundraising time.  It is all around us.  You hear it on the radio, with WXVU and NPR just wrapping up their Pledge drive.  I have gotten phones calls and letters from the schools I attended all wanting me to remember them again this year, and I bet you have too.  And then you come to church and we are asking for you to give.

 

We often think of Stewardship Season as the time when the preacher gives his or her best “fundraising” sermons to raise the money for the next year’s church budget.   The preacher, if he or she is good at it, is supposed to preach these fundraising sermons like a good dentist.  The dentist first gently puts in the right amount of Novocain to numb the pain and then he or she goes on and does the tough stuff in your mouth and on your teeth and hopefully you never feel it.   Well it is now time to lie back, relax and breathe deep, because this won’t hurt a bit…But no pain pill today, no hiding behind Novocain. We putting it out in the open. It is Stewardship time here at Indian Hill Church. And that is actually an exciting, joy filled time.

 

Stewardship is not about raising money.  It is a response.  It is our response to God for all that God has done for all the world and more specifically for each of us in our lives.  Stewardship is our response to God for what God has first given to us.  Our response is to thank God and enjoy those gifts and blessings and share them with others.

 

This is something the Psalmist knew and expressed in our text for today.  The Psalmist invites the people of God to come and see what God has done and how God has blessed them in so many ways.

 

The Psalmist invitation is to see the blessings of God and the first blessing is the gift of life itself.  Yes, life has its ups and downs, most of the time we are immensely grateful for the opportunity to be alive.  There is so much in life to enjoy – beautiful sunrises, good food, friendships and the joy of human love.  God gives us everything in life.   Best of all, God gives us the promise of love, God’s presence and the gift of forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ.

 

God’s life-giving and life-sustaining power that sustained the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land is precisely what the psalmist wants the whole world to Come and see. The psalmist declares, “Come now and see the works of God, how awesome are God’s deeds toward all people.” The psalmist recalls God’s “awesome deeds” of transforming the Red Sea into dry land and permitting God’s people to cross the river into the Promised Land without getting their feet wet.

 

The Psalmist is so excited and grateful, he wants to shout it from the rooftops. “Come and See” how great God is. Come and See what is going on in life with God. Come and See what abundant life feels like and looks like.  Stewardship season is a time to take stock, to look at our lives, our faith, and our church.  It is time to look at what is important to us and what we want to do and where we want to go.

 

We have so much. So many gifts, so much to be thankful for. And we can do more. We can help more, reach more, and love more. We can give more.

 

Look at this incredibly beautiful sanctuary, as you leave today notice the glorious grounds around us which still amaze me when I walk around and see the grass and trees and flowers and hear calmness of nature around us. Notice the exciting things going on with our children and youth, listen to these spectacular voices, join with your fellow church members who are giving their time and talents with MEAC, 20/20, IHN, IPM, etc.  See we have so much to be thankful for.  We can be like the psalmist and stand on the rooftops shouting, “Come and See…what God has done and is doing.”

 

I hope that we can all see that stewardship, tithing, and giving has a strong spiritual benefit: when we give with joy and generosity, we do so in response to God who gave it all for us.  When we give with joy filled hearts we begin to think and live more faithfully.

 

We don’t give out of guilt because that is not what life or faith is all about.  And we don’t give out of obligation, but instead we give out of gratitude and thankfulness for all that God has done for us and to us.   It is a mindset, a way to live, and a way to live out our faith.  It is a fact that generous people actually are happier than less generous ones, so generous people tend to focus on the spiritual rewards of giving.

 

You are people with a whole lot of choices to make.  You are starting your family, paying your mortgage, putting children through college, caring for parents, and saving for retirement, providing for your family. You have bills to pay and obligations to meet.

 

Each of us has many worthy opportunities asking us to give: our beloved college, the American Heart Association and Cancer Society, the Hospice that cared for a dying parent, or the art museum, symphony or the Reds and many other things that have touched our hearts and moved our souls.

 

So, God, his mission and the Church, are in a long list of organizations and things that are competing for our time, talents and money.  But I would challenge you that giving to God is the core of our faith. Come and See, Come and See and GIVE and be grateful, grateful to the God who gave you everything you have and provides for all your needs.

 

People give to vision, not to budgets.   So here is step one of our vision: we are invited to open our eyes and see how God has blessed us and how God has provided for us.

 

As children of God we do count our blessings. When we realize just how we have been blessed then we give thanks to God.  The way we give thanks to God is to share the gifts we have.  Putting your offering envelope in the plate is one way of saying, “Thanks to God.”

 

Let us pray: Dear God, open our eyes and hearts to the signs of your activity in our lives that we might live in hope. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Congregational Hospitality: Welcoming our own.

 

Exodus 1:8—2:10
Psalm 124
Mark 10:13–16

 

10:13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Fill us with your Spirit that we may celebrate your glory and worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

This is the final sermon in our series on Hospitality.  For the last three weeks you have heard biblical texts and sermons that have focused on the broad sweep of Hospitality and the theme of welcome.  We have talked about how our church can be more hospitable and how we can be more intentional in our welcoming of others. I have shared my definition of biblical Hospitality which is a life of openness to the presence of God and to every human being.  This understanding of hospitality is a thread that weaves its way throughout the Bible.  It is the recognition that the presence of God pervades the world, and that God may come to you and me at any moment.  So, to be truly hospitable, we must live in an open readiness to experience the presence of God at any moment, and in any human being.  I have shared numerous stories and theories in those previous sermons.

 

Today, in our text from Mark 10, we read that a crowd has gathered around Jesus and some in the crowd brought their children to Jesus in order that he might bless them or heal them.  But his disciples, being good mangers and bodyguards, scolded the children and their parents, “Get out of here! Can’t you see he is too busy, too important, to be wasting his time with little ones. Come on, move back.”  We must understand that these disciples were just upholding custom and tradition because Children were nobodies, so why should Jesus pay attention to them? Jesus had much more important things to do with his precious time.

 

In response Jesus becomes indignant and rebukes his disciples – “Let the little children come to me – do not stop them – don’t you understand, of such is the kingdom of God.”

 

When we read the Bible we learn that Jesus welcomes all types of people of every station and situation in life.  Young, old, healthy, sick, clean, unclean, insiders and outsiders, rich and poor, saints and sinners.  No matter the place: a formal wedding reception, a dinner in the home of friends or with sinners, or out on the dusty roads of Palestine, Jesus welcomed people.  To be that welcoming, that hospitable means that one must be open, vulnerable, and approachable.  As Jesus welcomed those children, they couldn’t possibly understand his teaching or his message he was doing it because of them and somehow they felt welcomed.  Jesus welcomed and cared for these children who were considered the least and most vulnerable human beings.  He took them into his arms, he blessed them.

 

We are upset with the insensitive action of the disciples.  We all agree that children matter, because they are precious.  We love them, we support them and we affirm them.  That may be what we think and say but what is the reality?  Do we as a church really welcome children? Or are we more like the disciples?  I am not implying that we are gatekeepers fencing off the church and Jesus, not at all but our reality is much more subtle than that.

 

Here are some examples of what I am talking about.  Are we welcoming to our own?  Especially children?  I have listened and observed in my first six months with you with an eye on children and youth for many reasons, first because they are the church too, not the future of the church but the church here and now.  Selfishly, my children are in the church and involved in these programs so naturally as a parent I am attuned to it.  Here are some observations I have gleaned.

 

We have a solid core of seventh and eighth graders that we would like to do more with to prepare them for confirmation and youth group. So, Jennifer and Michelle are planning to do more for our growing middle school age group but their first question to me is how do we pay for it.  We are running on a bare bones budget and we are behind in our giving for the year.  So what do we do?  We would love to do more and offer more but the financial constraints prevent us.  I know we have the financial resources to make it happen so let’s do it.

 

We have young families in the church and we want to offer them opportunities to educate their children in the Christian faith and tell them of God’s love but we are in constant need of Sunday school teachers.  Most of the teachers we have come from parents with children in this age group.  This means that they miss the worship service.  I know we have capable and talented adults who can step up and teach so that some of these young parents come enjoy worship as well.

 

We have children with mobility and other issues and they faithfully worship with us on a weekly basis.  We have caring staff and teachers to help them but we also have limitations to our facility.  We are in need of an elevator so that all can reach the education classrooms downstairs.   It is also an issue for our choir that many of them have trouble with the stairs and an elevator would be a huge help for them as well.  Our classrooms downstairs and in the pre-school wing are not air-conditioned so in these hot and muggy months it is uncomfortable for teachers and children to gather for Sunday school.   I tell you these things because they reflect how welcoming we really are.  Again it is very subtle but people notice.  I know that these are large expenses and will take time and effort and work to take care of but if you don’t know they are needs then they are out of sight out of mind.  I am also convinced that we have the resources to make them happen.  We just have to do it.

 

We have so many resources and so much potential it is our challenge now to step up and respond to truly welcome our own, to make the children feel at home here so that they can learn the important stories of the Christian faith, so that they can grow together and find love and encouragement as they grow in the faith. So that they can be the church as we all are.

 

The question is not just young children.  I know you have noticed how many young kids we have come down for children’s church?  It is wonderful!  I love it!  But have you also noticed there aren’t too many high school age young people in worship? What happens?  Do they get too busy and use Sunday mornings to sleep in? Or is there something we can do to be more welcoming, more supportive and embracing, more hospitable so that as these young ones grow up they will want to be here – to be here in worship where they know that they are loved and accepted and appreciated.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers, but I think about it a lot.

 

I don’t see these issues as obstacles but as opportunities for us to respond. These are tangible and real opportunities to show how we welcome and how we take seriously God’s call to share hospitality with the stranger, the visitor, and especially to our own whether they be young or old, new to the church or longtime members. May our eyes be open and our hearts accepting to all we meet.

 

Let us pray:

 

Congregational Hospitality: The Risks and Rewards of Hospitality

 

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Acts 10:23-48
Matthew 15:21-28

 

10: 23The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. 26But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’ 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’ 30 Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” 33Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’ 34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’  44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10:23-48, NRSV)

 

 

This is the third sermon in the series on Hospitality.  Today we have a couple of long readings form the New Testament.  This sermon will focus on the reading from Acts and more specifically the movement that takes place in this scripture passage.  Peter moves from Joppa to Caesarea, he also moves from clean (Judaism) to unclean (Gentile), he moves from guest to host and from risk to reward.  Cornelius, another character in this story moves from a position of power to a position of powerlessness, from host to guest and from outsider to insider.  There is also another much more subtle movement that is deeper and behind this story; it is the movement of God.  As we have seen throughout this sermon series God is active and on the move throughout the Bible and the world.  God is active and on the move spreading his love, grace and mercy through individuals and communities and through the offer of hospitality.  Specifically in the book of Acts we learn that the gospel spreads from the Jewish world into the Gentile world and on to the ends of the earth. God’s activity continues today and sometimes it happens through our sharing hospitality.  We the church bear witness to God’s hospitality when we share God’s welcome with others who may be new to us.

 

Let us pray: Holy One of Israel, covenant-keeper, you restore what is lost, you heal what is wounded, and you gather in those who have been rejected. Give us the faith to hear your word and to live it out so that all may be welcomed and all people may be blessed. Amen.

 

Darla and her daughter were living in their car, because they had been evicted from their apartment.  They came to the church for worship one Sunday, and they were welcomed and respected and a relationship was started.  Without going into all the details of how it transpired, and it took several years for the outcome.  Darla became an active member of the church, she sang in the choir, she has a job and home.  No one person did all of this, but rather a community of people extended the hospitality of God and together with the work of the Holy Spirit, Darla and her daughter found a church home.

 

Mike and his wife and daughter were new to the church.  Mike was raised in the faith but never really “bought into” the church and its teachings.  Over time he became more inquisitive and, through what can only be the work of the Holy Spirit, he recently asked to be baptized.  Again it is hard to quantify how this transformation happened in his life.  But I cannot help but point and affirm the work of the Holy Spirit and the hospitality of the congregation in sharing the transforming love of God with Darla and Mike.

 

These are but two examples, among many, of how hospitality changes lives. The lives of both the ones receiving it and the ones extending it.  The point of hospitality is to invite others to experience the living, welcoming and transforming God.

 

But sharing God’s gracious hospitality is not without risk.  I shared two positive stories of sharing hospitality but I could share more stories than I care to count of hospitality being extended in honest, faith filled ways, and the outcome not being so positive, happy, and fruitful.

 

Some of these outcomes were rejection. “What if we offer a warm welcome and hospitality, and it is rejected?” “What if they don’t come?” Jesus own life and ministry was an invitation to new life, and it ended on the cross in the ultimate act of rejection by those he came to serve.  Another risk of offering hospitality could be we get no return on our investment? “We did all of this work, and we have gotten no new members?” There is a danger of seeing hospitality as a means to gain new members or more “pledging units,” and we miss the point of God’s hospitality all together.  Another potential risk could be our gracious hospitality works and it works well but we have welcomed “the wrong type of people”? In the biblical sense this is what I believe God’s hospitality challenges: a welcoming of all. “What will we do with those who don’t fit in?”

 

Offering hospitality or inviting someone into your life can be difficult.  It is much more than what we think of today as having family or friends over for a meal or hosting guests in our home for a night or two.  Luke, the writer of Acts, and the other writers of the New Testament, had a very different understanding of hospitality.  The ancient custom of hospitality revolved around the practice of welcoming strangers or travelers into one’s home and providing for them provisions and protection.  Hosts were also obligated to meet their guests’ needs by supplying them with meals, water for cleaning their feet and with new clothes if they needed them.  When the guest was ready to leave the host would also “send them off” with enough provisions for at least a day’s journey and where possible they would provide a guide to accompany the guest until the guest traveled safely out of the region.  Over time, this biblical understanding of hospitality has become skewed.

 

In the Greco-Roman world, citizens lived with a great fear that the stranger requesting help on their journey could be Zeus, the god of hospitality, in disguise presenting himself as a test of one hospitality.  There was also a strong desire to create political alliances with others by offering them hospitality on their journeys.

 

In Hebraic and Christian contexts, however, the motive for hospitality more often grew out of the desire to please God by showing love toward a fellow worshiper. The Jewish and early Christian followers of God showed their love for God and others by extending hospitality to complete strangers.  Then in the New Testament we read of Jesus turning the concept of hospitality around as he commissioned his followers to minister to their host families and communities. Rather than merely receiving provisions and protection, the traveling missionaries were to meet the needs they encounter along their journeys and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

 

In our passage today from Acts, Peter accepts the hospitality of Simon the tanner in Joppa.  This is quite remarkable because tanners work with leather, animal skins.  Tanners were thought to be extremely unclean and one would not interact with them.  For Peter, a good Jew, to stay in the home of a tanner was unheard of.   Then when Peter is invited by messengers to come to the home of Cornelius Peter extends hospitality to them.  He accepts their invitation and travels to stay at Cornelius’ home.[i]

 

Once Peter arrives at Cornelius home he explains the good news of Jesus Christ to him and the gift of the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles gathered there.  Through this wondrous act of God Cornelius and the members of his household who are also Gentiles asked to be baptized.

 

These stories of hospitality become the vehicle through which God acts to open up the church to the Gentiles and from there to the ends of the earth. Hospitality throughout the book of Acts functions as the bridge through which Jewish Christians are able to see Gentile converts in a new way — no longer as “profane or unclean,” but rather as partners in the community of faith.  If ever so slowly the extension of hospitality is the bridge that covers the gap between people of different regions and cultures and their being integrated into the life of the Church.

 

So what does this mean for us, here today?  We do not find ourselves in the same situation as the early Christians, nor do we have as many barriers but we still very much live in a world of insiders and outsiders. It is vitally important for us today to offer hospitality to one another.  We must keep risking, even when all signs say it won’t make a difference.  We must share hospitality not because we will be able to get new members or because God will smile upon us or because we will get another pledging unit.

 

And we don’t do it to put another notch in our belt of conversions or increase our number of baptisms. No!

 

We offer hospitality because it is who we are as Christians.  We do it and we trust in God because it is God at work in and through our lives and our hospitality. Sometimes it won’t work.   People won’t respond to even our best efforts.  But sometimes it will.  But not because of us for we are mere mortals, but because of God, the creator of heaven and earth, and all that is, God is the one who can change hearts, transform lives and even raise the dead! So let us trust in God and share God welcome because you just never know what might happen.

Thanks be to God.

 

Let us pray:

 

[i] Reverend Dr. Andrew Arterbury the Ancient Custom of Hospitality, the Greek Novels, and Acts 10:1-11:18. Reverend Dr. Arterbury is Assistant Professor of Christian Scriptures at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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

 

Congregational Hospitality: God’s Welcome

August 3, 2014 (Ordinary 18)

Genesis 18:1-16
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Matthew 14:13-21

 

18: 1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

16Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. (Genesis 18:1-16, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Fill us with your Spirit that we may celebrate your glory and worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Did you notice in the midst of the story of Abraham and Sarah receiving news that they will have a child that something else was going on?  It is often overlooked. Abraham and Sarah may be the first example of offering hospitality in the bible. Standing at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day he sees 3 strangers walking toward him and he and Sarah offer them hospitality.

 

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, hospitality to strangers is never a random act.  Ever since we human beings became wanderers, we have had to rely on the goodness of others for survival.  We have had to learn to be both guests and hosts to one another providing for and receiving from others the necessities for life.

 

Throughout the Bible, story after story teaches this practice. Beginning with Adam and Eve when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden we have been a wandering people. Then Abraham and Sarah, then their descendants, then the Israelites who moved from being slaves in Egypt to their long years of wandering in the wilderness. The biblical story is one of a journey and in this journey the people of God had to rely on the hospitality of each other for survival.

 

The New Testament is much the same as Jesus and his followers were dependent on the hospitality of others for survival.  Story after story as the disciples traveled they were welcomed and nourished by the goodness of others. But perhaps the most important act of hospitality took place on the night of Jesus’ betrayal when he was gathered in the upper room with his disciples and he invited them to share in his body broken and his blood shed.  The ultimate act of hospitality Jesus gave of himself so that we might have life.  So, we, like the disciples, are still invited to receive the hospitality of Christ.  But times have changed.

 

Hospitality is no longer a necessity in our world.  We seem to believe that we can live on our own and get by on our own strengths and abilities.   So much so that this biblical sense of hospitality is lost on us and it has been replaced by a whole industry that makes money and lots of it off of offering hospitality to those with the means to afford it.  This became clear as I began putting together this sermon series: our common conceptions of hospitality are something very different than what the Bible describes as hospitality.

 

There are so many different images of what we call hospitality.  There is a whole cottage industry built around our concept of Hospitality from popular magazines devoted to home and garden, food and drink, and even television networks like HGTV and the cooking channel that pump up or sense of hospitality.   They display homes that are beautifully decorated, with everything tastefully chosen and perfectly in place.  The tables are stunningly set, the cuisine exquisite, and the wine a perfect complement to the meal.  The gardens are lush and colorful. These are the images that fuel our current definition of Hospitality.  Our definition of hospitality been taken over by fine food and furnishings that it is impossible to live up to such high standards. No longer can a simple meal, on a plain table, served with loving hands, and a genuine heart, be a true representation of genuine hospitality.  Hospitality has become so over the top.  It must surely have some deeper dimensions than what we see on the front cover of Southern Living Magazine or I guess I should say Mid-West Living or when we are welcomed at Wal-Mart by the greeter.

 

So, I would like to go back to our scripture lesson for today as Abraham and Sarah welcome these three strangers and offer them Hospitality.  It will set the foundation for what I see as a biblical definition of hospitality.  My working 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 pervades 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 of all of the stories of biblical hospitality take place in ordinary places with ordinary people.  Abraham is at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Lot is sitting by the city gate in the cool of the evening when two strangers arrive.  Gideon is at work in his wheat fields when a man sits down under a nearby oak tree.  The mother of Samson is sitting in the field when an angelic man approaches her with a message.  These stories begin in ordinary places, but end with extraordinary messages that ordinary people need to hear from God who enters into these ordinary scenes.  What the biblical sense of hospitality insists is that God may come to us at any moment in our lives.

  • Who knows when you may come upon someone who is bearing a message from God for your life or mine?
  • Who knows what experience may be a revelation of God in my life. All of this, sounds wonderful, such pious sermon speak and spiritual terminology, but how do we do it?
  • If we are to treat every person we come in contact with as if they are God in disguise, isn’t that going to be exhausting?

 

So what does this mean for the church the gathered community of faith? Does this mean that every person who walks through the doors and into the sanctuary is God in disguise? I sure hope not.  What are we to do with the undeniable truth that every church is made up of all kinds of people, some of who are impossible, others are just plain odd, or weird, others are pure phonies, and many of them you don’t really want to be friends with? Do you? How are we supposed to be hospitable to people like that?

 

I recently read the words of C.S. Lewis, written in 1942, from his essay entitled, The Weight of Glory, in which he talks about how we should live our lives with this Biblical understanding of Hospitality in mind.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may be a messenger of God…It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the alertness…that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit…This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our play must be of that kind which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption…Next to the (Blessed Sacrament) Holy Communion itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

 

There are no ordinary people. Because of God’s love in Jesus Christ this is true.  Every life has extraordinary possibilities because of the presence of Christ in our world.  True hospitality, unconditional openness to every human life is based upon that truth and, once we accept that truth, the world will become full of opportunities where we can encounter the divine in each other.  At any moment, something wonderful may happen.  Carry that truth with you into the week ahead.  Let the truth of God’s welcome transform your life, your home, your friendships, your work, our church, and our world.

 

We are a month away from kicking off another church year, September 7, with Rally Day it is a wonderful opportunity to invite someone to church and practice our hospitality. I remember you just never know who you might be welcoming.

 

Let us pray: Life-giving God, heal our lives that we may welcome your wonderful deeds and offer hospitality to those we meet. We pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.