Sermon: Ask Boldly; Live Justly

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Recently I was asked if I thought the bible was the inerrant word of God. What they were asking is whether or not I believed that the bible could be wrong. I usually approach such discussions with much caution as I have learned over the years that when asked such a question, it is typically a trap. I responded by saying that the Word of God is not wrong, but how we interpret that word sometimes is. Then I went on to clarify my position. First off, the Word of God is Jesus Christ, and I get that from the Gospel of John right at the start. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God….” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Second, the bible, as we know, it was assembled by a group of men trying to make a point. Let’s fact check that last statement.

The bible as we know it today was compiled round about the 5th century but a group of people representing all of the Christian churches known at that time. The Hebrew Scriptures, or what we would call the Old Testament, began to be written around the 8th century B.C. The Books of the New Testament began to be written around 50 A.D. with the Letters of St. Paul, who was not, by the way, and eye witness to the events that took place and never encountered Jesus. The first Gospel, that St. Mark, is believed to have been written in 70 A.D. or roughly 40 years after the death of Jesus.

Before the Letters of Paul and Gospels being written, what was passed along was oral tradition. This was not an uncommon practice in the first century. The early Church would gather together, coming from the Synagogue to someone’s home, where they would share a meal, and someone would tell a story about Jesus and what he had done. As I have already mentioned, these stories began to be written down round about 70 A.D.

Now, I want you to think about something. If I was to come down and whisper something in the ear of the first person here and tell them to pass it along, by the time it got back to me, what I said would be much different than when I first said it. We all put our spin on things, and that is not a bad thing, and the story gets adjusted and adapted over time by the influence we bring to the story.

The other thing to keep in mind is those who assembled the bible had hundreds if not thousands of writings to choose from, and they limited their selections to the 27 books we have today. We know, for example, there were hundreds of books and letters written by women but, none of those made it into the bible. As far as we know, the Gospel of John is the only one written by someone that witnessed the events that took place, and that Gospel is very different from the other three.

Now, as we know, the bible, as much as we would like to think it was, was not written in English. Greek and Hebrew are the original languages with a smattering of Aramaic and other languages in there. So what we read today is someone’s interpretation of what was written in an ancient language someone 2,000 years plus ago — starting to see my point?

So, let’s take this little history lesson a little further. The first English bible was written in 1604 and was translated from a copy of the bible. Keep in mind that the first printing press was not used until the 16th century, so the bible was copied by hand. Some minor changes might have happened along the way. But the interesting thing is, the 1604 bible is called the King James Bible and was commissioned by King James at the behest of the Puritan and Calvinist reformers. There might have been a little influence placed on the translators to make sure that the English version of the bible matched their theological position and went against others. The King James Version is a literary masterpiece and ranks up there with Shakespeare for its literary beauty and influence on the English Language.

All of this is to say that I do not believe that this book that we call the bible is in any way shape or form inerrant I do think that the folks who wrote all that stuff way back when had the right idea, but even John was writing 70 years after Jesus died, so I am sure some of the things he remembered were a bit fuzzy.

So, where does that leave us? I have said before, the bible is not a history book, nor is it a science book. The bible is a book that speaks of tradition and a way of life that can and should be a guiding principle in our lives.  It’s a book written to a specific group of people at a particular time in history but can of application for today. We heard from St. Paul today, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Keep in mind the “Scriptures” he was referring to were the five books of the law and the prophets and not what we would call the New Testament.  When Paul was writing, the first Gospel had not even been written yet!

As I mentioned, the bible is a guidebook that needs to be interpreted and reinterpreted in the light of present-day circumstances.  I believe that God is still speaking and reveals himself to each generation in a new way, and it is up to us to figure out what that way is. As a Christian, I believe that the “Word of God” is Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth that left us with a way to follow and that all theological and moral belief needs to be reconciled with the words and deeds he left us with. When I or any other preacher and teacher interpret these words, I do so not only in the present time, but I also want to know what the Church has thought about this passage for the generations that came before me. The challenge is taking a 2,000-year-old document and making it relevant for today.

Last week I mentioned Thomas Jefferson removing the supernatural stuff from the bible as he thought it was a distraction from the moral message of Jesus Christ. These days, biblical scholarship has been reduced to cherry-picking verses that prove me right and you wrong rather than looking at the entirety of what has been written and making an application to life today. Rather than use God’s words to soothe and bring comfort amid the storm, we use God’s words as a weapon to divide and cause much harm to people.

St. Paul says this, “I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

So how do we know what is sound doctrine?  Does it match up with the words of Jesus Christ, that is my first and last arbiter of what is and is not sound doctrine. Even though I stated before that God is still speaking, God speaks with the same voice, and if it does not match up, it’s not God.

Our job is to be able to figure it all out. And with God’s help and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can do just that.

Sermon: Planting Life

Luke 17:11-19

Have you ever been excluded from anything?  Have you ever excluded someone from something?

A few years back, I was invited to pray in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the Annual Remembrance Day Weekend.  These events take place in November of each year and draw a rather large crowd of living historians and others interested in the Civil War. Remembrance is focused on the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg and the address by President Lincoln on November 19, 1863. I was invited to participate by the National Chaplain of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and asked to pray at a couple of events and to preach and lead the Sunday service.

As you can imagine, this was quite an honor. I have been asked to preach at significant events in the past, but this one would bring all of my passions together, history, history of religion and religious practices, and of course, preaching. I began to work on the sermon and the prayers a few weeks in advance of the event wanting to leave nothing to chance.  One evening, about a week or so before the event was to take place; the Chaplain contacted me to disinvite me from participating in the event. Apparently, and I know some of you will find this hard to believe, he thought I was too liberal.

As one can imagine, I was disappointed and a little upset. I will not go into all of the details of what happened next just to say I am now the National Chaplain of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and I am grateful to have that position.

In today’s Gospel from Luke, we see Jesus coming face to face with ten lepers. Leprosy was and is a horrible disease that was highly contagious, and so those unfortunates with this affliction were relegated to cave and catacombs outside of the city. They were forced to beg for their bread and only allowed to roam about at night and were often seen in the shadows. They were also cut off from the worshipping community, which meant they could not participate in the liturgical life of that community. That community excluded them because the community was afraid of what would happen. Those appointed to minister to the community did not even minister to them; they were shunned out of existence.

But here they are, standing face to face with Jesus. They have heard of his power to heal, and they have come to ask for help. He tells them to “go and show yourselves to the priest,” and as they make their way, they are healed. Notice, Jesus does not heal them straight away as he does with others; he tells them to go and show themselves. Some would say it was their act of obedience that did the healing but the interesting thing is, the healing of these lepers is not the point of the story.

Sure, the healing is great but, and I often say this, the miracle of Jesus is often just the match that lights the fuse, we have to push past the magic to get to the root of the story and the message that it holds and this is one of those times.

I am not sure if any of you are familiar with it, but in 1820 Thomas Jefferson complied with what is now called the Jefferson Bible. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, its actual title, is a compilation of the teaching of Jesus that Jefferson complied but taking a razor blade to Scripture to remove all of the bits that he considered the supernatural. Jefferson believed that magic stories just got in the way of moral teaching behind the event, and he wanted to strip it all away. There is some sanity behind doing what Jefferson did by trying to get people to focus on the moral of the story rather than the magic of it all.

Back to the story.

We do not know how far they had gone before the healing took place or if they went to “show themselves to the priest” or not, but, along the way, one of them notices that he has been healed and so he turns and goes back to see Jesus.  He was praising God, and when he came before Jesus, the man fell to his knees and thanked him for what he had done. Remember, there were ten, and only one has returned to give thanks.  But, if that was not astonishingly enough, the man, Scripture tells us is a Samaritan. If this was a movie, this is where the dun, dun, dun music would play.

We all know how the Jews of Jesus day felt about the Samaritans, so I won’t go into that here except to say, this is a big deal. The one, the only one that came back to thank Jesus, was a foreigner, the despised one, the least likely of all of them to return. But here he is, kneeling before Jesus, giving thanks to God for what has just happened to him. He asks the man about the other nine, but we do not know what tone of voice he used in asking his question. But we do know this, this man, a double outcast the most unlikely of all of them, is embraced by God and told that his faith has made him well.

This is not a story of healing; this is a story about faith and a story about gratitude, and this is a story of acceptance. Jesus is teaching about the nature of faith. To have faith is to live that faith and to live that faith is to give thanks. It is living a life of gratitude that constitutes living a life of faith; this grateful faith is what has made this leper, this man from Samaria, well not just physically but spiritually.

It was the man’s thanksgiving that made him well, not magic words from Jesus, and this thankfulness is available to all of us. Notice also that the thanksgiving is directed toward God and not toward Jesus as everything is done from God through others.

The practice of intentional gratitude changes lives, and as we have seen in this story today, but gratitude can transform all of us, this congregation, and through us to our community. It starts here and spreads out from this place to places we may never even know about.

When Christians practice gratitude, we come to worship to give praise and thanksgiving and not just looking for what we “can get out of it.” The mission of the church changes from an ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intentions and supplications but also our thanksgiving for all of the blessings God has given to us.

Sermon: Do This…

Mark 14:22-25; 1 Corinthians 11:23-25

There they were, all gathered together for one last time. Jesus had called them together from all walks of life. They were fishermen, tax collectors, beggars, young, old, short, fat; you name it they were there. They had been together for three years. They had walked thousands of miles, healed the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, made the blind see, the lame walk, and even raised a man from the dead. No one was ever excluded from what they were doing. They showed love and compassion to all, equally, and without condition.

But here they are those closest to him, gathered in a rented room on the second floor of a house having one last meal together. From Luke’s Gospel, we learn that it was Passover, and so they had just finished a wonderful meal, perhaps others were with them for that meal, but now, as we are led to understand, it is only Jesus and his closest friends. Seated with Jesus at this table is the one who would deny him three times. Also, sitting at this table with him is the one that will betray him and turn Jesus over the authorities that will eventually kill him. Jesus knows all of this yet, there they are, all seated together.

He takes ordinary bread in his hands; he holds it up and asks God to bless it. Jesus then brakes this bread into pieces and passes it around so that everyone might have some. As he gives this bread, made from the elements of the earth, around the table, he says to them that this bread is his body that will be broken and shared for all.

Then he takes a cup, a simple cup perhaps one that he had been drinking out of during the meal, Jesus fills it with wine and again, he holds it up in the air towards the heavens and asks God to bless it. As Jesus passes this cup around the table, he tells those present that what is in this cup is his blood that will be poured out for all, why, for the forgiveness of sins.

From St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, we understand that Jesus said to “do this in remembrance of me.” But what is this that we are supposed to do?

There are many theories about what takes place during the Lord’s Supper. Hundreds of thousands of hours have been spent is discussing what happens. Does it become the actual body and blood of Christ? Is Jesus really present in these elements? Is this just a memorial of what was done during that Last Supper? I am not sure there is an answer or that there needs to be one. I just know that something special happens during that sacred moment.

So important was this time that the Lord’s Supper was singled out, along with baptism by the Reformers as one of two sacraments. Just as a reminder, a sacrament is defined as “the outward sign of an inward grace and the means by which we receive it.” There is a grace given to us by God when was take this bread and this cup into our bodies. We are literally welcoming Jesus into our very existence. Not to be too crude about it, but the normal body function converts those elements into something different, and in a matter of time, it will be flowing through all parts of our body, providing nourishment, not only in a spiritual sense but in a physical one.

There is a saying in Celtic theology and spirituality that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but there are, thin places where that distance is even closer. There are those places or times in lives when we close that gap between our existences here on earth, and that is heaven, I believe when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are in one of those thin places. Spiritually it is as if heaven itself comes down and meets us, and we are transported, spiritually, to another plane of existence in our lives for the briefest of moments. This celebration of the Lord’s Supper becomes a sacred space where something spiritually awesome happens.

But we still have not answered the question of what the “this” is in the command to “do this in remembrance of me.” Again, theologians have been trying to answer this question, and there are many theories about the bread and the cup, but I think it transcends a simple meal and again has to do with the thin places.

Let’s go back and look who was at that table; those closest to Jesus, those he had called to “follow him” and work alongside him in his ministry. Those gathered with Jesus were simple people, with little or no education but with a desire to seek and find. Again, sitting around that table was the one who would deny him and the one who would betray him. There were those on both ends of the political spectrum and those in the middle. Young and old represented at this table, I also believe, the Da Vinci painting notwithstanding, that there were some women there as well. Surely his mother would have been there and some of the others that followed him. The bottom line is, no one was excluded from that table. So, perhaps the “do this” is do not exclude anyone.

But what about the action of breaking and sharing of the bread and cup? Jesus says that the bread represents his body and what is in the cup represents his blood, does this mean we are to perform human sacrifice? I do not believe so. Or does it mean that we are to sacrifice everything for others, for those in need, for those on the margins, for those in cages, and those in horrible places? Does it mean that we should share all that we have with everyone, including our very lives? I think we might be getting closer here.

In the early days of the church, the communion elements, the bread, and the wine would be brought forth from a room near the door of the church. The people coming to worship on that day would place their offerings of bread and wine and other things, in that room, and at the offertory, those things would be brought forth and placed on an altar or table at the front of the church. All of those items would be blessed and distributed as part of the worship service. That “sacrificial offering” if you will be a large part of what the early church did together. We read in Acts 4:32, “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” They shared everything.

One of the beautiful moments for me, here in our little corner of the world, is when the Sunday School children bring the bags of donates food items forward and place them here at the table. In a genuine sense, we bless what is brought, and we bring it to those who have less than we do. This action of blessing and sacrifice is at the very heart and is the very essence of what it means to “Do this!”

Today, we commemorate World Communion Sunday. World Communion Sunday began as World-Wide Communion Sunday at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1933. The Rev. Hugh Thompson Kerr and his congregation sought to demonstrate the interconnectedness of Christian churches, regardless of denomination. Rev. Kerr appropriately chose the sacrament of Holy Communion to symbolize this unity. “The term Holy Communion invites us to focus…on the holiness of our communion with God and one another.” (This Holy Mystery, The United Methodist Church’s official statement on the sacrament)

Today we are joining others around the world in commemoration of what this command to do this truly means. People are gathering, or have gathered in churches, cathedrals, back yards, beaches, or any place where two or three come together and share from what they have with each other and, for a moment, they bring heaven a little closer to earth. It is nice to think that there are people all around the world, hearing those words of Jesus to “Do this” Maybe, just maybe, the actions we take this day will make the world a better place for all. In a few moments, you will be invited to gather around this table spiritually. The elements will be blessed, broken, and distributed to all regardless of your relationship with God. Our table is open to all who have the desire to become a little closer with God and to create a “thin place” within themselves and allow God to work in and through you. I hope you will accept the invitation.

Sermon: Surprising Investment

Luke 16:19-31

I am not a fan of the horror movie genre for many reasons, but the main reason is, why would you go into the haunted house in the first place?  A few years ago there was a commercial for a car company; I cannot remember which one, where the actors were in a scene from a horror movie.  They were running from something, and they have two choices, a barn with all sorts of cutting implements and the safety of an automobile. As they start to move towards the barn one of their number says, “Hey, why not get in the car and drive away,” and the others are like, “no that barn over there will be safer.” The commercial ends but your imagination takes over, and we know what is going to happen next. If they had just listened to that lone voice, crying in the wilderness, their lives might have turned out different.

For this sermon, I am going to leave out the references to lakes of fire and whatnot as I do not find those descriptions of things helpful. Sure, they are there to illustrate and confirm what the parable is saying but, for me anyway, fear has never been a good motivator, but that has not stopped the church from, over the centuries, using fear to attempt to control people and their behavior. So rather than focus on the scare tactic lets focus on the role reversal in the story.

At the outset, we see Jesus using, once again, a rich man as the foil in his story. The use of rich people is not used to condemn rich people but to show that, no matter how much you have or how together your life is, things can still go wrong. I know the temptation, if I get that better job, if I get that better car, if I make just a little more money I will finally be happy. But as we have seen, happiness does not come from external things; happiness comes from internal places.

The rich man in the story ignores Lazarus, admit it, we have all ignored a Lazarus a time or two in our lives, and this is why Jesus uses this illustration because we can relate to it. Sometimes we ignore the suffering of another right in front of us by stepping over the beggar in the street or crossing to the other side. How many times have we been stopped at a traffic light, and someone is walking down the row of cars carrying a sign, and we stare straight ahead, that is Lazarus.

But we also ignore Lazarus when we hear about injustice and we do nothing. We hear about people needing help and we fluff it off by saying things like, “they need to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” or, “if they had not made that choice they would not be in that situation.” Or we see or hear a teenager speaking about an issue that she feels passionate about and rather than speak to the issue she is raising we attack her for her looks and her disability. Or we see the way some treat others, but we are willing to look the other way, and even call those standing up against them evil, but because they are doing what we want them to do we are willing to lower our moral standards and look the other way. That teenaged activist, that mother and child at the border, that person being made fun of in an early morning Tweet, that single mother in the grocery store at the check-out in front of you fumbling with her keys, her children, and her welfare card is Lazarus.

As a nation, we are entering a challenging period in our history. Some historians say that the country has not been this divided since before the Civil War. We have come to a point where civility has been tossed aside for partisan rhetoric and morality has all but been thrown out the window. We have come to a point where personal attacks have taken places of reasoned, well researched, and thought out debate. We have come to the point where we do not know who to believe, but if they are on the opposite side then us, they are liars and cheats, and we attack them personally rather than with facts and reasons.

But back to the story of the rich man Lazarus.

The Lazarus and the rich man die, and they go off to their final reward, again let’s leave all the fire and whatnot to the TV preachers, but the rich man is in despair. You see, the tables have been turned, the afflicted, Lazarus has been comforted and the comfortable, the rich man has been afflicted. He cannot figure out what he has done to deserve this; after all, he is rich; he has everything. He tries to strike a deal, after all this is what he has done his entire life, make deals. He tries to strike a deal; he asks Abraham to allow Lazarus, the man he stepped over, to come and cool his tongue from the raging fire. Just so we are clear, he is asking in death for something he was unwilling to do for another in life!

As the story goes, Abraham refuses the request. So, the rich man tries to make another deal; he asks that someone is sent to those who are still alive and warn them to change their behavior. Abraham replies, they have Moses and the prophets, in other words, they have the Scriptures and the Word of God to teach them how to act in their lives, and they are choosing to ignore what Scripture says, or maybe twisting it to suit their needs by saying “if we just look the other way of this and that we can justify it because we will get what we want.”

This is an extreme illustration that points to two things, our religious belief and practice should be to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, not with lakes of fire but with the word of God. So strong has to be our defense of those on the margins that we have to point out when they are being mistreated. Our love of neighbor needs to be so strong that we come to their defense whether they are next door or in another country. Our religious beliefs and practice should not be to bring ourselves comfort at the expense of others nor bending and twisting God’s word so that it becomes okay for us to afflict others. God demands that if we are going to claim that we follow him, we have to follow what his teachings are without compromise and without putting conditions on that love. God loves us without condition, and because of that; we are commanded to love without condition.

As I bring this to a close I want to draw your attention to the last verse of what we heard this morning; “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

Lazarus was raised from the dead, and Scripture tells us that those in authority tried to kill him to keep him silent. They did not believe…. I will leave the rest to you…

Prayer for the United States of America

God of righteousness, hear our prayer for the life of our country. Bless all those in positions of authority. Bless the people: rule their hearts and encourage their endeavors for good. Help us to seek service before privilege, public prosperity before private gain, and the honor of your name before the popularity of our own. Give liberty, peace, and joy, and bind us in service to the community and in loyalty to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Adapted from the Book of Common Order, Church of Scotland

Blessed Mabon

For those celebrating the holiday of the autumnal equinox, Mabon we offer this prayer:

We have so much before us and for this we are thankful. We have so many blessings, and for this we are thankful. There are others not so fortunate, and by this we are humbled. We shall make an offering in their name to the gods who watch over us,that those in need are someday as blessed as we are this day.

Sermon: Prayerful Living

Luke 16:1-13

When planning a trip, we usually start with the destination in mind and then work backward. I don’t know of anyone that gets in the car, or goes to the airport and says, “Where shall we go today.” Sure, sometimes we go out for a drive, but I am talking about a long trip of several days or weeks. Before any journey begins, we need to have a vision of the destination, so we know what route to take as well as what and how much to bring. Just as an aside, I always bring way more than I am going to need on any trip.

Today, we hear this rather challenging parable from Luke’s Gospel. I say it is challenging because it seems the scoundrel is the hero of the story. The parable begins by saying the manager of the property mismanaged what has been entrusted to him. The implication is the manager has stolen from the owner. The manager is called to account for what he has done, and in fear of losing his job, he devises a scheme to try and get back into his master’s good graces.

So the manager calls all of those together who owe a debt, not to the manager but the owner, and he reduces their bills, thus defrauding the owner even more. But, the owner comes, sees what he has done, and praises the manager for being a shrewd businessman. By reducing the amount owed, the manager made it possible for those in debt to the owner to be able to pay their bills, and the owner got something rather than nothing.

So why would Jesus use the dishonest man as an example for godly living? This parable highlights the life of someone and uses him as the model of our faith, a person whose life is the very opposite of what Jesus calls us to be. The manager is a lazy, conniving, self-centered manager of someone else’s treasure. He is out for personal gain. He is out to save his skin. Like the villain in a movie, we wait for the end to see this man get his come up in’s, but it never happens. Jesus turns the story on its head and leaves us scratching our heads.

The manager does not get what’s coming to him in fact; he is praised for his ability to do business and get those in debt to pay what is owed. And in the end, Jesus says that the manager, the scoundrel, understands what it means to be a follower of Jesus but the “children of God” do not.

Jesus uses this same tactic if you will, in another story. In Luke 15:5-12, we hear the parable of the man who went to the door of his neighbor, late at night, looking for bread for a visitor that has just arrived at his house. He continued to knock at the entrance of his neighbor’s house until the grouchy man came to the door. The neighbor was inconvenienced by this persistent knocking, and the neighbor says, “How much more?” Jesus uses this story of the grouchy man to ask the question, “How much more will the Heavenly Father give to those who ask him?”

In Luke 18:1-8, one of the passages we heard over the summer, Jesus tells the story of the unjust judge and closes this story with another “How much more” question. The bottom line is these people of questionable character understand something the “children of light” have a difficult time understanding. How do we use what has been entrusted to us to serve the larger good?

This is a story that speaks to people and communities who have lost their way, groups that have lost their vision, as it says in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Who are the people of God? What have the people of God been called to do? Who is our neighbor? What has God called us to do to help them? Sometimes we let what we perceive to be a complex problem get in the way of doing anything. The constant these of the Scripture passages of the last few weeks has been, what are you called to do and how are you going to live that call in such a way that you are faithful to God?

It is my sincere belief that the Christian Church has lost its way. We have become comfortable and complacent, and we have become afraid of upsetting anyone out of fear of what will happen.

I have recently begun to re-watch the mini-series The Tudors. Perhaps you know the story, it is about Henry VIII and all that he did. Of course, there is the understanding that Henry led the great reformation of the Church in England because of theological differences with the Church in Rome but, we know the real reason, it was over a woman. But that is secondary to the story for our purposes.

As King Henry is leading the English Church away from Rome, two characters stand up to the King. There are many more of course, but the show highlights these 2. Sir Thomas Moore, a close friend, and confidant of the King and the second is Bishop John Fisher, the leader of the second-largest and influential diocese of Rochester.

After the semi break with Rome and King Henry’s divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon, Moore and Fisher refused to sign the oath that recognized both that King Henry was the Supreme Head of the Church in England, and that Anne Boleyn what Henry’s wife and Queen of England. Fast forward to the end of the story; they are both executed for standing up to the King. They stood up to the King, knowing full well what the outcome was going to be. The treasure we have been given is our voice; how are we using it?

So here is a slightly different way to read this story;

Among those in the crowd that Jesus was addressing were the Pharisees, whom the narrator of the Gospel of Luke characterizes as “Lovers of Money” (v14). Leaders of the Chosen people, keepers of the treasures of God, they were like the dishonest steward. They had lost their vision of who God had called them to be. They had traded their call to be God’s people to become a servant of the treasures of the present day. Controlled by wealth, even complacency, they had blended into society and lost their vision. To these, Jesus says, to paraphrase verse 13, “You can either serve this present age and love its treasure, or you can love God and serve him in this current age. But you cannot do both. One leads to death, spiritually and the other leads to life. If you take the King’s money, you have to dance to his tune.

We serve God by living up to what God has called us to do. We each have a call from God on our lives, but we also have a collective call from God and obeying that call is what gives us the right to call ourselves Christians, Love God, and Love Neighbor. Jesus tells us this himself, and it needs no interpretation. We cannot have divided loyalties in this.

Sermon: Growing in God’s Love

Luke 15:1-10

A few weeks ago I was looking for something to watch on the television. Television is an escape for me; it is a chance for me to turn away from the world and get lost in period dramas, mysteries, the occasional documentary, etc. I was looking around, and I came across this program about farmers in Scotland. The premise of the show was quite simple, put cameras on the farm for a year and film what goes on.

Now, I am sure you all know that farming is not an easy life. Farmers are slaves to the weather, to time, and market prices for their produce. We have all witnessed the demise of the family farm here in the United States, and many of you know people who make their living farming in one way or another. Well, it is no different in Scotland.

Five farm families were profiled in the program; most of them raised livestock of one form or another; pigs, cows, and my favorite, sheep. Part of any farm enterprise is the next flock, litter, gaggle, whatever you call it, the next generation of the animal that you are raising. During birthing season, which can range from a few weeks to a few months depending on the size of the heard, the farmer and their crew get very little sleep. Most of the time, animals give birth with minimal complication, but there are always those few that are a problem.

Watching this program, I was amazed at the care the farmers, and others took with these animals. Part of it was their understanding that these animals are in their care and need to be looked after. But, the second part of it, these animals represented their income. Each of those animals, the giving birth and the one being born, represented revenue for them. After all, farming is business.

Jesus spoke in parables to explain the message he was trying to convey to people. Sometimes the message was clear, but most of the time, his listeners had to think about what he was saying. Today, we are blessed with a rather clear parable. Jesus is speaking about the immensity of God’s love for every human being.

But first, I would like to turn to the very start of the story we heard this morning from Luke’s Gospel.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” Luke 15:1-2

I had mentioned to you before how radical the message and mission of Jesus was, and there is no more explicit example them what we hear in the opening verses of the 15th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Understand that someone of Jesus caliber would not be in the same place, let alone sit at the table with tax collectors and sinners it just was not done. But here he is, once again, standing the world on its head and doing just that, gathering in those who have been cast off.

I find it interesting that the “Pharisees and teachers of the law” muttered, or murmured amongst themselves. This group of folks was the religious leaders, the pastors, and teachers of Jesus day and here they are, all dressed in their beautiful robes, they had probably just driven there in their brand new Lexus and flown in on their private jets, and they find out they have to sit with this crowd and they are not happy. It’s like going to Thanksgiving dinner and finding out you are seated at the kid’s table.

Jesus heard every word of this but chose not to engage. His teaching up to this point has been unambiguous, “no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Jesus has gathered his flock, the one’s cast out by others, and he is teaching them.

Jesus uses examples that they will understand. This is not a highly educated group, so Jesus has to speak plainly with them. Even though they might not be shepherds, they will understand what he is saying. So valuable is that one sheep, the shepherd will risk everything to go and find it if it strays off and rejoice when it is found. There is a similar story about the Prodigal Son returning, so happy was his father that he was home he threw an enormous party.

So desirous is God that we all should find our home with him that he does not put up stumbling blocks to prevent us from finding that home. Now, some believe that there should be all sorts of rules, and Jesus was one of them, and we all know his rule; love God, love neighbor. There are churches meeting today, maybe not far from here, where people are being excluded based on who you love, or the color of your skin, or how much money you have, or how you dress, or how your children act, or the language you speak. I am not sure how they can read the first two verses of the 15th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel and do that; “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.”

The most significant theological lie is that heaven, or whatever we want to call it, is an exclusive club and somehow, we here on earth, are the arbiters of who gets in and who gets cast out! Why do I call it a lie? “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” I read this say that the love of God is so deep and so wide, I think there is a hymn about that, but God’s love is so deep and so wide that he will stop at nothing, not even sacrificing his own son so that we will find our way home. Turn to the person on your right and say, “God loves you.” Now turn to the person on your left and say, “God loves you.” You just spread the Gospel!

Now, this might come as a shock to many of you, but there is no place in the teachings of Jesus where he says anything about believing in him or worshiping him, Jesus always points, to God. Who do we pray to, Our Father. Who do we love, God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And since we cannot define God, who are we to say that one’s person’s belief in God is not worthy of getting into heaven? When we do that church, we become the “Pharisee’s and teachers of the law” in this story.

Church, there is enough condemnation in this world, there is enough casting off of those who we believe do not fit the mold, there is enough hatred, to coin an old phrase, what the world needs now is love! And a coke, just to keep with the ancient social references of this sermon thus far.

If you are sitting here today and doubt that God loves you listen to this, the bottom line for this story, in fact, the bottom line in the entire Gospel is that God loves us just as we are and will stop at nothing to show us how deep and wide that love really is. If you are that one sheep that has gone astray, if you are the prodigal son, if you are the thief next to Jesus on the cross, if you are Peter who denied Christ three times, if you are Judas who betrayed Jesus, if you are the woman that was about to be stoned, or anything else, know that God loves you and cares for you deeply and waits for the day when you will be welcomed home. But until that time, please remember, you have a home here with us as imperfect as we are because we love you.

Wisdom Wednesday: Love Your Enemies

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:44-45

Psychologists and our own experience tell us that we can recall in vivid detail, where we were when we heard devastating news. Like many of you, I can still remember where I was on that bright September morning 18 years ago, when our world changed forever. I had just finished a class in my first year of seminary, and I was walking across campus. I remember how still it was as an almost eerie silence had enveloped my world. I had no idea what had happened until I turned the radio on in my car, and my brain started to grasp the events that were unfolding.

But I also remember September 12th and September 13th and September 14th and all of the days that followed that horrible day, when humans of all kinds came together to support one another in our national moment of grief.  Those small, random acts of kindness. The smile to strangers whilst walking down the street. Political difference disappeared for a moment, and we were all united as one in our grief and our pain.

As we remember the events of September 11th, 2001, it is easy to get mad and look for someone to blame. We know who did it and why and, for the most part, we have tracked them down and brought them to justice. But it is days like today when I recall the command of Jesus that we are to “love our enemies.” One of the most challenging commands that Jesus left us with especially on a day of remembrance like today.

I am often asked how we can make this world a better place, and my usual answer is love because it is the only answer. Love begins with us and in us and radiates from us to others. So today, simply be love for someone. Let the love of Jesus shine through you and let it land on someone else. And pray for peace, that peace that passes all understanding.

This essay originally appeared in the weekly eNews of the First Congregational Church of Salem, New Hampshire

Sermon: A New Identity

Luke 14:25-33

I remember sitting in the Dean’s Office just after I was hired to teach my first college class. I was going to be teaching two sections of General Psychology and 1 section of Introduction to Philosophy. I was very excited and very nervous. The Dean offered me some advice. He said, “Start slow. These students have just returned from a summer break, and you need to go slow for a few weeks so they can get their feet back under them. If you move to fast you will lose them.” 

I thought about that for a while. I also thought about the amount of material I had to cover in 10 weeks so yes, I was that professor that assigned work before class even began. I will also say I did not lose anyone in my class.

So here we are after a long summer break. Although I did not assign any homework before class today, I am going to hit the ground running and dive right in with this somewhat challenging passage from the Gospel of Luke.

We don’t talk a lot about discipleship these days, but that is what we are commanded to do. Well, we are called to do more than talk about it we are commanded to go and make disciples. We are not called to make church members or any other such thing; we are called to make disciples. But before we can make disciples, we have to be disciples. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means that we accept all of the consequences of following Jesus and walking in his will and his way. Being disciples also means that we have to make a definite decision; we cannot be wishy-washy if we are going to be disciples.

Three times in this passage, Jesus says that without a definite decision, a person cannot be a disciple. First, Jesus requires us to hate parents, spouse, children, siblings, and even your own life. Now stay with me here. Second, Jesus commands carrying your cross and following him. Third, he demands the giving up of all possessions. If we soften the word “hate,” just a little Jesus still leaves us with the requirement that we put all of our relationships second to him and his will. Being a true disciple is not an easy task; in fact, it is and will be a significant challenge.

To help us come to terms with that this “call of obedience” means for us today, we shall turn to what John Calvin has to say on the matter. I am not always a fan of Calvin, but I think he hits the mark on this one. Calvin offers a way of understanding the Christian life that will not seem a burden but will be liberating.

For Calvin, the Christin should understand their life from four implications of the teachings of Jesus; self-denial, cross-bearing, meditation on eternal life, and the proper use of the gifts of God in daily life.

1. Self-denial, Calvin’s interpretation is not bent on self-destruction as it would first seem, the denial of self, for Calvin, is the way Jesus offers us freedom from selfishness and the “deadly pestilence of a love of strife and love of self.” Denial of self is the escape from selfishness. Be able to deny one’s self enables one to dedicate their whole self to God and seek those things that are God’s will in our lives and not our will. The person who cannot give up the love of self is not truly able to love God and love neighbor, but, on the other hand, if we deny self, this makes room for the love of God and neighbor to flourish. Calvin is not saying we should hate ourselves, far from it, Calvin, and Jesus, are saying we have to be able to put others first in our lives.

2. Cross bearing; this idea of Cross bearing is figurative. Jesus is not asking us to find some wood, bang it together, and start carrying it around over our shoulder. Being able to bear our cross enables us to face suffering. To take our cross means to obey God even in our pain and loss, in meeting the trials and tribulations, and griefs of our lives. Calvin teaches that the Cross of Christ is healing medicine for the diseases and injuries of life, punishment, and correction for our mistakes in life, and comfort when we are persecuted because we stand with God’s justice. The Cross of Christ should bring us cheer, honesty to acknowledge our hurt, and freedom from bitterness.

3. Meditation on Eternal Life; this meditation enables us to contemplate the mystery and sense of wonder about the promise for human beings in the resurrection from the dead. We have lost mystery in our world and especially in the church. We can, or at least we try to explain everything. We attempt, in our human mind, to make sense of things that have no understanding, but Jesus is asking us to be okay with that and ruminate on it. We do not know how, but we all share in the resurrection of Christ. I believe that we will all see each other again, and for some that will be heaven and for others, well, not so much.

4. Proper use of the gifts of God in everyday life; Calvin would counsel simplicity of life in a way that enables us to understand that our earthly life is a pilgrimage and we should only carry what we absolutely need. There seems to be a push back these days from the accumulation of things. It might be a slight push back, but it is a push back. The world tells us we are successful when we accumulate stuff. The big house, the fancy car, etc. But how much is enough? When the rich man came to Jesus and asked him what he had to do to enter eternal life, Jesus told him to go and sell all that he had. The man was greatly distressed by this; Scripture tells us because he had many possessions. Jesus knew that it was the man’s possessions that kept him from truly following God.

Scripture tells us that if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we are to give him one of ours. It’s okay to have stuff but is our stuff keeping us from following God’s will? Are we so distracted by our stuff and the hours we have to work to maintain our stuff, keeping us from noticing that others need our help? When does the physical church become so great a burden that maintaining it becomes a distraction from the mission to go, do, seek, make, feed, clothe, visit and all of the other things we are commanded to do as followers of Jesus?

I started by saying that being a disciple is a challenge. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ requires us to be counter-cultural; it requires us to stand up when everyone else is sitting down. Being a disciple means we have to have the mind of Christ in all things and think and act the way Christ wants us to think and act. Being a disciples means we have to put others first and yes, we have to love our neighbor and care for those less fortunate then we are without qualification or conditions. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means we have to take stands on issues that may cost us friends, relatives, and maybe our very lives. All of this is what it means to say yes to the call to come and follow me.