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Left Behind

June 1, 2014 (Easter 7/Ascension)

Psalm
Acts 1:1-14

 

1:1 “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:1-14, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other, in suffering and in joy, that all your children may be drawn into your heavenly home. Amen.

 

It is hard to believe but it has been over 40 days since Easter.  I realize this because Thursday was Ascension Day, not exactly a big day on the calendar, no hallmark cards to mark the event, just us religious types to take notice. A day to sing some special hymns like Crown Him Lord of All or Crown Him with Many Crowns.  It is such a difficult concept to preach on much less to believe in.  That Jesus ascended up into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the father.  We say it in the Apostle’s Creed every week.  Mystery and all, this is where that statement in the creed comes from.

 

One thing is certain about Jesus ascension is that we will never work out the physiology of Jesus ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father almighty…nor will we figure out the physics of it either.  The theology on the other hand is pretty clear about what theAscension is all about.  You and I have heard the story of Jesus starting way back at Christmas, going through Lent and Easter and now 40 days beyond.  This is one of those stories that people on the outside love to point out as pure fantasy, you don’t really believe that right?  They ask. “I mean come on, a man, Jesus, goes straight up into heaven and his followers watched.” They have a point you know. I can never prove it but then again I can’t prove much anyway.

 

So how and why Jesus Ascended into heaven is not really that important to me because this story has something much more valuable to tell us.   It is the Promise.   

 

You know what a promise is, a statement telling someone that you will definitely do something or that something will definitely happen in the future.  We all make promises – good promises, well-intentioned promises.  Life happens and our promises often go by the wayside.  And so when we read in this story of Jesus Ascending into heaven we may be all caught up in the special effects of that scene that we miss out on the promise in verse 8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

 

Dare we promise makers and promise breakers trust such a promise that has had over 20 centuries of life happens to get in its way of being fulfilled?

 

We seem to focus on Jesus going up through the clouds.  Then we notice the disciples that small fragile community of followers. They were anxious and bewildered, watching their Lord leave them. Much like any of us when we say goodbye to a loved one.  So, there they stand, looking up staring into heaven and waiting.  They have let the promise that Jesus told them sink in.  The promise that God will send the Spirit to be with them and to give them power to go on. It is not until later, when the two visitors come and speak and offer another promise from God that the forlorn disciples even move.  They don’t go far because they are very cautious as they wait.

 

But their waiting is not passive.  They gather with women who had followed Jesus.  They pray.  They look for a replacement for Judas.  And they wait for promises to be fulfilled.  For soon Pentecost will happen and it will fulfill the promise of the Holy Spirit.

 

What they learn as they wait and what we learn is that God’s promises can be trusted.  God’s promises are often fulfilled in unexpected ways.  We may not be able to deliver on all of our promises but God can and God does. What God’s promises God can deliver.

 

All of us make promises – good promises, promises that are full of good intentions.  A parent tells a child still shaken from a nightmare that she won’t ever let anything harm the child, not imagining all the traumas or tragedies that child may have to face in life.   A young couple stands before a congregation of family and friends and say to one another that together they will persevere through sickness and health, in plenty and in want…not able to perceive the stresses that a serious illness or a lost job, will impose on their promises.  Changing circumstances and demands, like our own frailties and faults, sometimes force enormous pressure and strain on even the best promises we make.

 

The fact that God keeps promises does not make our own promises more reliable.  Neither does God’s trustworthiness make our failed and broken promises any less painful to us or to others.  No, what God’s promise keeping does is mean that our broken promises are not what will define us. God promises that something good may come from us yet.

 

God’s promises mean that even failure isn’t the last word. God’s promises mean that even death is not the last word. God promises that weeping may linger for a night but joy comes in the morning. God promises that no matter what befalls us we are never alone, that Christ gives us strength we did not know we had, hope that seemed impossible, and joy that seemed lost.  God is a God of promises giving us the power to live the faith and face each day with confidence and courage knowing that we go not alone.

 

Let us pray:

What Do You Believe?

May 25, 2014 (Easter 6)
Psalm 66:8-20
Acts 17:16-31

17:16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:16-31, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Living and gracious God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ you have brought us out to a spacious place where we are called to live as those redeemed. Empower us by your spirit to keep your commandments, that we may show forth your love with gentle word and reverent deed to all your people. Amen.

 

I never really liked Paul.  I say this fully aware that my sermon today is about Paul and that many Protestant pastors love to preach about Paul.  I used to think Paul was such an authoritarian, a know-it-all and real blow hard.  Over time my opinion has softened, and it is through texts like this one today that the Apostle Paul becomes more palatable.   In the past I have read this story and interpreted it as that Paul was mocking his Athenian audience when he says “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way for I went through your city and looked carefully at the objects of worship.”  This statement seems to be filled with Paul’s infamous attitude of superiority with a dash of a mocking tone thrown in for good measure.  Paul does tend to do that a lot.

 

But then, you have to realize that for all of his faults Paul was intelligent, courageous and committed to his faith.  So, I believe that this story of Paul will show just how committed he is.  He walked around the city and noticed all of the idols on display in the public areas of the city.  It would have been offensive to a Jewish Christian like Paul to see those idols because it was a violation of the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith which, begins, “The Lord our God is one God,” and “Thou shalt have no other gods before me and thou shalt not make graven images.” They even had an idol to an unknown god hoping to cover all the bases.  You just never know what kind of god you might need, so they include the unknown god in their list.  Whatever need might arise, this unknown god can be the one to worship.  So, even though he is put off by what he sees he also appreciates they are religious, but he knows that handmade gods and idols have their limits.  He shares with them that they don’t need an unknown God – they have a God who knows everything.

 

In reality, I believe that Paul wasn’t speaking down to the Athenians or mocking them.  I think that he was actually sincere.  He saw how they were a searching people, groping for something to believe in, something to hold on to.  Paul appreciated their searching.  He understood that aspect of their lives.  And he also saw their searching as a connection, a way to relate and understand them and for them to understand him and his God.

 

He starts in the synagogue, and from there he moves into the marketplace. He speaks with intellectuals and philosophers.  They must have liked what he had to say or at least they were intrigued because they invited him to speak at the Areopagus.   Which was a kind of gathering place for public dialogue.  It was Paul’s kind of place.  He told them about the God he worship, the God who created all that is, the God who satisfies all our searching, the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

 

Just imagine if Paul were here today speaking with us, because we are no different.  We too are searchers and seekers.    All of us are searching for something, whether it is a search for meaning, or for joy.  Some seek health and happiness, some look for family and belonging, some seek peace and solitude.  There are people who want to be in the limelight and others want nothing more than quiet anonymity, some want to be rich, and others just want to simplify their lives.  So, I imagine that most of us, at one time or another have had that feeling that something is missing in our lives.  So we search, maybe only in our minds, looking for something to fill the void.

 

Searching isn’t a bad thing.  It signifies that we care about something deeper something more than what is on the surface. It is all in what we are searching for.  I wonder, do we search for God?  Do we see God in our searching?

 

Today in United States we live in what philosopher Charles Taylor proclaims as “A Secular Age” — a time in which belief in God is no longer the default, but is rather one among many options; God must be actively chosen and no longer assumed.  So it is an interesting time for Christianity and the Church because we are no longer the default belief system.  To the culture, God can be everything or nothing or as Pastor Rob Bell describes, to many people today, God is “Like a mirror, God appears to be more and more a reflection of whoever it is that happens to be talking about God at the moment.” It sounds like the philosophers, Feuerbach and Freud and Marx thought, our ideas of god are just projections of our own hopes, dreams, fears, and angers, and so, understandably, many people are turned off by ‘God.’ Many have been turned off to church and religion because of the recent church scandals and political agendas.  But our culture is still searching and seeking, just think of how many people claim to be spiritual but not religious saying they can find god everywhere and anywhere but the sanctuary.

 

So what can we learn from Paul about how to be a follower of God in a culture seeking lots of gods?

 

We can begin by noticing how Paul speaks to the gathered Athenians. There is no harshness or superiority.  His whole message was one of courtesy and kindness.  He did not demand that they change their minds and believe as he does.  Instead he begins where they were.  He gives them room and doesn’t present a narrow understanding of God.  He sees their searching as the open door to their minds and hearts.  It was as if he said to them, “You have looked everywhere for God, but have not found him.  God is nearer than you thought.  You have looked everywhere and missed him.”

 

And what of the response to Paul’s sermon?  Some scoffed, some doubted, but others believed.  From church history we know that the church at Athens would produce some of the greatest Christian leaders of the next century.  Some of Paul’s hearers mocked him, others ignored him, but through his openness and the work of the Holy Spirit the church and the faith grew.

 

Churches today need to spend some time listening and learning from those who live around us.  We can learn what they are paying attention to and we just might find that they are some of the same social issues and problems that we are passionate about. We just might find that they care deeply about spiritual connection and community, even about their relationships with God. I believe that we in the Church can listen and learn from the language and the lives of people outside the church well enough to be able to say, much as Paul did to the Athenians, “We see that you are extremely thoughtful and sincerely spiritual people in your daily lives.”  Paul communicated the truth about Jesus in a way that resonated with the Athenians’ own search for truth.

 

Paul did not enter into dialogue with the philosophers of Athens without risk.  It is a challenge to all of us, to learn new methods and new vocabularies, because the Church can no longer remain what it had always been if it was to become what our world is so desperately searching for— God’s love, grace and mercy.

 

If we can instead stop feeling so threatened by the outside world, stop living so fearful of people who believe differently than us, then maybe we can live true Christian lives of being open and outward focused, living and kind, humble and grace filled.  So that we can genuinely engage this pluralistic and ever-changing world, we might just find new ways of telling the world the good news of Jesus Christ the one in whom we live and move and have our being.  May we live and treat others as Jesus did with love and compassion so that they too might believe in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, the son of the living God.

 

Let us pray:

A Hope Filled Vision

May 11, 2014 (Easter 4)

Psalm 23
Acts 2:42-47

 

2:42 “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47, NRSV)

 

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

 

One of the many quirks of being a pastor is the type of mail you receive. All kinds of letters, flyers and full color high glossy mailings about church growth, stewardship and my all-time favorite church pictorial directories.  I guess it goes with the territory, whatever one does in life defines the type of mail you receive. Since I am new here the junk mailers have not gotten up with me but it used to be that, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I used to receive some sort of material about the latest fad in church growth ideas almost every week. These mailings claimed to reveal the secrets of the mega churches and they could teach even me how to grow a church overnight for the low price of $495.  The elusive secret of success to growing a church can be mine if I respond to this letter.

 

We all want our church to grow. We all want to add to our numbers. We want to know that our church is vibrant, vital and faithful to God’s mission. We just had three baptisms which is a big deal but in the book of Acts we hear of 3000 baptisms.  Just imagine what it would be like if, as in the early church, everybody was so deeply involved in Christian education and worship? It would be like Easter Sunday every week.

 

 

Today we read these five short verses from Acts and it makes me wonder. This description of the early church sounds almost utopian.  We have a picture of the early Christian church and apparently they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  This is looking at church through rose colored glasses.  Come to think of it…it sounds like a description of home — because at home these things take place, we share, we eat, we pray, we fellowship, we spend time together.  Imagine the church as a metaphor for home.  This is the type of church we would all love to see. This hope-filled vision represents the best of what God’s people are capable of, guided by and filled with the power of the Spirit,

 

These verses tell us what can happen to believers when moved by the Holy Spirit to follow our resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. The life and work of a Christian community can reflect – even if only dimly – the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed while on earth and secured through his death, resurrection.

 

But then again, can you imagine any pastor getting up before the congregation and saying, “I sense the Spirit is leading all of us toward a communal ethic of sharing and caring, so if you would, please cash out your savings and trade in your cars and next week we’ll pool our resources to help those in the community who may have need”?

 

What would be the response? My guess…”the Pastor Nominating Committee will be gathering on Monday evening to begin the search for our next pastor.”  I just think we all have limits to what we’ll give to the church.  I know I do.  I have to think about paying bills, the tough economy, getting my kids through college, and I really need to get one of those new flat screen TVs.  I just can’t imagine giving it all away. Because if it were up to us it would never happen.

 

So, this story shows us what God can do and I think it would take all of God’s power and muscle and might to get people like me and you to part with our hard earned standard of living. It would be some miracle.

 

But it is exactly that miracle that Luke writes about over and over and over in the book of Acts. The coming of Jesus brings dramatic change!

 

The early church was not perfect. They did not set out to gain 3000 new members in the next year. They did not seem consumed by numbers, budgets, attendance and such things.  Rather they remained focused on Jesus and they simply lived out their faith, as best they knew how:

They spent time together in fellowship

They helped one another in service

They taught and studied in Christian Education

They broke bread together

They prayed for one another and they prayed together

 

The by-product of all of this was that others wanted to be part of their movement. Others saw their commitment to and passion for God and one another.

 

You know now that I think about it I have never received any mail that states anything like this; so let us learn from the lessons of the early church committing ourselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer. I pray that God will increase our wisdom and faith.

 

Let us pray: Mighty God, we pray that we may continue to have the power of the resurrection at work among us. May we be energized by your Holy Spirit to give you joy and praise, to see how much we have been given and how much we can give away. Help us to be miracle workers so that the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted up and everyone has Good News brought to them. In your Son’s names we pray. Amen.

 

The Importance of Questions

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

Reverend Stephen Caine

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Google won’t help answer these questions.

 

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

 

Ah the questions…

 

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

 

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

 

Ah the questions…

 

The Sadducees had questions for Jesus.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But what Jesus does is…

 

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

 

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

 

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