Gettysburg Address

President Lincoln (center, hatless) speaks at the dedication of the Gettysburg… (Library of Congress )

I have been in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the last few days along with many other reenactors and living historians for the annual commemoration of remembrance day. On this day, November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at the dedication ceremony for a new national soldiers cemetery here near the site of the bloodiest battle of the United States Civil War. It is always sobering, coming to Gettysburg, standing on the battlefield, and remembering what took place here and the number of men that gave their lives. Standing at the “high water mark” and looking out across the field of “Pickett’s Charge” even I cannot help but reflect on the bravery on the soldiers, both Union and Confederate during those three days of battle.

But those reflections are for another day, today we focus on remembering the dead and the speech that President Lincoln gave on that day.  The speech lasted about 2 minutes and is one of the finest Presidential speeches of history. Lincoln reminded those present, and those that would read it later, of the principle of human equality as put forth by the founders of this nation in the Declaration of Independence. He proclaimed that the Civil War was a struggle not only to preserve the Union but that it would bring equality to all of its citizens. The gave homage to those who lost their lives i the struggle and that their sacrifice should not be forgotten.

President Lincoln’s Address at Gettysburg:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

 

Tending God’s Light

A Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13

When I was about three years old, my family planned a trip to Florida. We were headed down to visit family for the wedding of one of my cousins, and it was the first time I had been to Florida.  We decided to drive down, and there were going to be seven of us on a station wagon plus all of our luggage for the several weeks that we would be spending on the road.

We prepared the car for the long journey, loaded it all up, all of the kids piled in, closed the door, started the car, put it in reverse and one of us said, “are we there yet?”  We were still three days away from our destination, but it was a logical question to ask for a bunch of kids in a car facing a three-day journey.  To this day I believe my parents are saints for taking that trip with all of us.

We now live in a world where everything can happen in an instant.  I can type a message on my phone, click send, and within seconds someone on the other side of the word can be reading it and responding.  Never before in the history of humanity have we been able to communicate this fast. I believe this is a good thing but it is also a bad thing.  Because we can get information and other things in an instant that means we want everything to happen that fast, but what Jesus is telling us this morning in Matthew’s Gospel is to slow down.

Waiting is not a trait that we enjoy.  If you follow me on Facebook, you know that yesterday my wife Nicky and I attended the Rhode Island ComicCon and had a wonderful time. The problem was there were about 30 thousand people there trying to get through one entrance, so the line to get in was literally over a mile long. It took almost 2 hours to get into the building, in the cold, with no bathroom in sight or food for that matter.  Needs less to say I was less than happy.  But once inside my mood changed and all was well.  I even got to meet Captain Kirk, so it was well worth waiting. But I was impatient, and I wanted to get in, stand in line?  No way.

But the Parable of the Bridesmaids is a parable about patience and waiting for what is to come, and I think for us, going through a pastoral transition, this is a good Parable for us to hear. The temptation is to rush to the end of the process, to get it done, as they say, and move on. But unless we spend the time, nurture the process, we run the risk of short-circuiting ourselves and the process.

We do need to learn patience – and this is particularly true when waiting for God. Consequently, the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids speaks a profound word to a fast-paced twenty-first-century world; it is a fresh reminder of the need to prepare for the delay, specifically the delayed kingdom of God.

At the start of the parable, all of the bridesmaids were the same. They all dressed for the wedding. They carried lamps. They will all say, “Lord, Lord.” And each of them will fall asleep. But what sets the foolish and the wise apart is their readiness for when the bridegroom appears. The wise are ready for the delay while the foolish are not.

The wise are ready for when their faith in the bridegroom is tested, and they have the resources available to wait it out. The foolish have used up all of their supplies and are not ready and consequently miss the party. In the midst of life’s joy and pain, ease and adversity, intrigue and boredom, the faith of the wise are enough. They keep their light shining before all, continuing in community, study, and prayer, doing deeds of mercy, offering forgiveness, and spreading justice and peace. They have not given up hope that the world will be transformed and fully reconciled to God.

Near the start of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). At the end of the Sermon, Jesus reminds, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven” (Matt 7:21).

The oil in this parable can be understood as faith, good works, practices, or spiritual reserves that remain constant and shine during good times as well as periods of waiting for God. This will explain why they cannot share their oil. Just as we cannot share our spiritual reserves, development or preparation, the bridesmaids cannot borrow the resources needed. Being prepared to welcome Christ is an individual matter, regardless of whether he comes more quickly or more slowly than expected.

Now is the time for active discipleship. The kingdom of heaven summons us to new life, improved commitment, casting away of false idols, active waiting in hope, and renewed vigor in faith. Jesus taught in parables to teach the secrets of the kingdom. One of these mysteries is that faithful action done now prepares us to ride out the storm and gives us what we need for the long journey ahead.

So next time you spiritually ask, “are we there yet?” ask yourself if you have enough oil to see you through until the end of the journey.

Another Mass Shooting

Sunday morning, November 5, 2017, started out like any other Sunday in America.  People rose, with an extra hour of sleep, and started about their day. I was putting the finishing touches on my sermon based on Matthew 23 where Jesus calls out religious leaders as heretics. The sermon went well, and I went about the rest of my day.  My wife Nicky and I were attending a wedding expo, promoting my Wedding Officiant business, when I saw the news of another mass shooting this one in a church in the small Texas town of Sutherland Springs.

I am not sure how to respond to these shooting any longer I guess I have just adjusted to the fact that this is going to be normal in America where we love Jesus, and we love guns. I was slow to post anything in social media because of the usual backlash and that came soon enough. Although I agree that we need to send our “thoughts and prayers” when things like this happen, I also agree that faith without works is a dead faith and we have to do something because this is just not normal.

Of course, the first instinct we have is to place the blame somewhere. Of course, the bulk of the responsibility is with the shooter but what do we know about him and how did he get here he was not born wanting to do this so something must have happened. The early news reports say he received a bad conduct discharge, but that does not tell the whole story.  Keep in mind one can get a bad conduct discharge for bouncing too many checks.

On the Monday following the incident the President of the United States held a press conference in Japan, he stated his belief that this is a mental health issue.  I would agree with him that it is, in fact, a mental health issue but it is also a gun legislation issue and we need to work on both of those.

But who is to blame, quite simply we all are.  Yes, that’s right, all of us are to blame.

Shortly after another mass shooting, this one at Virginia Tech, I was sent by my denomination, the Orthodox Church at the time, to Virginia Tech to work with students and faculty in the aftermath of the shooting. In the center of the campus was a makeshift memorial with candles and the names of each of the victims of the shooting including the shooter himself. There was also a saying attached to the memorial, “33 are gone because one was lost.” They included the killer in the count of the dead not to excuse him or forgive his actions but to acknowledge that somehow he was lost and it led to this.

Mental health is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. We have fewer and fewer beds available, long or short term, then we have in the past, and the situation is not going to get better.  Sure, one needs to seek help to get it, but somewhere along the line someone must have noticed something and did nothing. Yes, we are all to blame.

Recently I attended a class to review and enhance my skills in the delivery of Critical Incident Stress Management and one segment of the course was about suicide and how crucial it is that if you notice the signs, and we should all know what those are, then we need to act and act quickly even if we are not sure. But the critical part of that is that we own the person until help arrives.  We cannot leave their side or let them out of our sight until that help comes. Yes, we are all to blame.

In my sermon yesterday I talked about how Jesus called out some of the religious leaders as heretics, and I meditated on that around the idea that what if I was the heretic he was calling out? Whether we like to think about it or not, we all live together in society, and it is up to us to direct that society we all have a part to play in it and it is time to start playing the role.

I know many responsible gun owners, and I know deep in their hearts they want to see sensible gun legislation. I do not understand why someone needs to own a gun that can fire automatic or semi-automatic you only need one bullet to take down an animal you might be hunting. I do not understand why someone needs a high capacity magazine, a bump stock, or armor piercing bullets. I do not know why someone, other than law enforcement, needs a ballistics vest; apparently, the shooter was wearing one. But any sensible legislation has been stopped by the NRA, and other gun lobbies and Congress seem paralyzed and unable to do anything.

When folks on the left start screaming and banging on about the evil gun owners and blaming all gun owners, it only galvanizes them, and they dig in. And when folks on the right start screaming and banging on about liberal wanting to take away their guns in just galvanizes them and they dig their heels in and where does that leave us, with another mass shooting.

I do not believe talking about gun control after a mass shooting politicizes a tragedy any more than talking about extreme vetting after a terrorist attack politicizes that tragedy and saying so only deflects the responsibility that we have to take control of the situation, learn from it, and pass sensible legislation that will maybe prevent the same thing from happening in the future.  This is not a right or a left thing and it’s not a liberal or conservative thing, it’s a human thing. We have to do something!

I do not want to sound like an anti-gun nut, I am not, but we need to do something I cannot preside over another vigil or a memorial for the victims of mass shootings.

27, or maybe more, are gone because one was lost and yes, we are all to blame.

Partners in Service

A Sermon on Matthew 23:1-12

I am not sure where this story, “The Rabbi’s Gift” originated so I cannot give proper credit.  I first heard it this past September at a Church Service. The story is not original to me and I make no claim as such.

There is an old story about a monastery that fell on hard times. Once it had thrived, but over the years it had become so decimated that only a few old monks were left living in an even older house. People no longer came there to be nourished spiritually and only a handful of the brothers shuffled through the cloisters.

Deep in the monastery woods was a little cabin where an old rabbi occasionally came to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared the word would be passed from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.” And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel blessed by his presence.

One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and open his heart to him. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi in the doorway. It was as if he had been awaiting the abbot’s arrival. The rabbi stood with his arms outstretched in welcome. Though they had never spoken, the two embraced like brothers.

The two entered the hut and simply sat in the stillness. Then the rabbi began to weep. The abbot covered his face with his hands and began to cry too. The two old men sat there like lost children, crying their hearts out, filling the hut with their shared pain and tears.

When the tears ceased the rabbi lifted his head and spoke, “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said, “and I know you have come to ask a teaching of me. But it is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” Very little else was said.

When the time came for the abbot to leave, he embraced the rabbi once again and said, “It has been a wonderful thing that we should talk after all these years. But is there nothing you can give us that would help us save our dying order?” The rabbi paused and said quietly to the old abbot, “Well, there is one thing I have to tell you: One of you is the Messiah.”

The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back. The next morning, the abbot called his monks together. He told them he had spoken to the old rabbi from the woods and then he looked at his assembled brothers and said bluntly, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”

In the days and weeks that followed, the old monks began to think about the rabbi’s words and wondered whether it could actually be true – the Messiah is one of us?

Thinking like this, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them just might actually be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

A gentle, warm-hearted, concern began to grow among them which was hard to describe but easy to notice. Over time, as people visited the beautiful forest in which the monastery was home, they sensed the extraordinary respect that now began to surround the old monks and seemed to radiate out from them.

There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, people began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to meditate, and pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place, and their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. And it happened, that within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and light to the community, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a gift that taught them to look at and love others expecting the very best.

The instinct I have when I hear the story of Jesus calling out the heretics is to get excited and say “you go Jesus.” But then I pause and think, “What if I am the heretic and Jesus is calling me out?” Eastern Orthodox theology says that the priest is responsible, on the day of judgement for all of the souls he has gained and for all of the souls he has lost. He will be called to account for each and every one of them. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus is concerned not only for those he is calling out but also for the damage that can be done by just one of these people. He tells those listening that they are to listen to them because they are teachers of the law but they are not do what they do. They teach the right stuff but they do not practice what they teach. But what if I am the one Jesus is talking about?

I claim to be a follower of Jesus but does my life tell that story? Do I speak of one thing and do another? Do I behave in the right way but is it for the wrong reason? Do I judge others for their behavior and thus keep them from the kingdom of God?

The story I told at the start of the sermon today is about recognizing the divine spark in each person it’s about looking at each other in a deep and spiritual way and not reducing others down to what they do or what they don’t do and whether or not they measure up to our version of the faith. The antidote for hypocrisy is grace, the unearned favor and love of God for everyone not just a certain group of people.

God forgives infinitely and loves unconditionally. Jesus will forgive the denials of Peter and the disciple’s cowardice and will even abide their post resurrection doubt to entrust them with his message for all the world.

Jesus keeps loving and loving us despite our failings and blemishes and if we claim to love God then we have to love the way God loves, and that is seventy times seven. Imagine that someone in this room is the messiah, how are we going to treat each other and those that we might come into contact with on the street. If we keep that in mind they we can never be called out as the heretic.

Sermon: The Compassionate Life

On the 31st of October 1517, a little-known professor of theology sent a letter to his bishop outlining his objections to the sale of indulgences. The indulgences were being sold all over Germany in an attempt to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Buying an indulgence made it possible to be forgiven for a sin before one even committed it and the poor were the targets of this sale. Little did this theologian know that his letter would be the spark that lit the fuse of the reform of the church universal.

Martin Luther was the one who wrote the letter, and today we commemorate the anniversary of what has become known as the Protestant Reformation. Luther did not intend to challenge the authority of the church he was asking for an academic discussion to be held on several issues, indulgences being one. The letter he sent to his bishop is what we now call the 95 theses of Martin Luther, and going against conventional belief; he did not nail them to the door of the cathedral instead he sent them in the form of a letter. The nailing to the door bit came much later in history.

But what the reformation calls us to is not so much about what it was against but what it was for. Luther had no intention of starting a new religion or what we now call a denomination, but events would eventually get to a point where a new church was inevitable.

Luther focused on two fundamental points in his theology; salvation was by the grace of God freely given, in other words, there was nothing you could do to earn it. And that everyone, all of humanity, is created on equal footing regardless of your station in life. Keep in mind that at this point in history there was the belief that the ruling class was given its position by God and therefore they were “better” than the poor people. One needed to keep poor people poor to secure their place. If the poor rose up, look out, and the church of the day was complicit in that. For a king to be a king, he was required to pay tribute to Rome and thus he was appointed by God.

Whatever else we want to believe about the Reformation it did not begin with a physical break with a Rome in mind. Luther’s Reformation was a spiritual Reformation just as Jesus spoke about in the Gospel of Matthew we heard read this morning.

The purposes of the words of Jesus are quite evident in this passage but if we return to Matthew 5:17 we find the real goal. Jesus came not to abolish the law but to “fulfill the law,” and that is what he was doing when he summarized the “law” meaning the “Law of Moses” with love God and love your neighbor.

Jesus is quoting from the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Deuteronomy 6:5 and he continue with a quote from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Lev. 19:18 these two Scriptures together provide a summary of Jesus’ mission and ministry.

What Jesus is doing here is moving the emphasis away from the externals of the “law” do this and then this will happen, and more towards God. However, one cannot love God without loving what God loves! One cannot love God and oppress or exclude any of God’s creatures – even one’s enemies. If one truly loves God, then they MUST love everyone.

To love God is to love the way God loves, indiscriminately.

To love God is to love what God loves, everything.

Because God is the source of all being and God loves all of God’s creatures.

What Jesus is proposing is a reformation of thought in 1st century Palestine. He is telling people that the Law has been fulfilled in Him and the “new” way if you will, is to focus on how we treat each other. The Jewish ritual law required sacrifice to please God and thus turn God’s anger away from the.  The new requirement of love was fulfilled in the Cross of Jesus Christ, and no further sacrifice is needed. Luther was saying the same thing.

The Lutheran Reformation, which was only the start, by the way, launched a new era and a new way of thinking about what it means to be a Christian. Luther wanted people to focus on the internals of their spirituality, love of God, but also needed to be concerned about their neighbor.

I am often asked what one person can do in the face of the world today, well here was one man who wrote a letter that changed the world and is still changing the world. The challenge for us today is what do we do with this idea of the Reformation?

I have mentioned the writing of Phyllis Tickle before and her idea that every 500 years the church goes through a reformation or what she calls a rummage sale. Her basic thesis is this: every 500 years, the Church goes through a rummage sale, and cleans out the old forms of spirituality and replaces it with new ones. This does not mean that previous forms become obsolete or invalid. It merely means they lose pride of place as the dominant form of Christianity. Constantine in the late 4th century, early 5th, the Great Schism of the 11th century, the Reformation in the 16th century, and now the Postmodern era in the 21st century have all been points of reference for these changes.

The challenge has always been how does the new coexist with the old. It usually leads to bloodshed as we have seen throughout history, but it does not have too. The Reformation made people, the ruling class, nervous because they were no longer able to tell people how to live and what was required for salvation. This put their position in jeopardy. Today we are seeing the same pattern emerging. People want an authentic encounter with God, they want to feel the presence that is outside of themselves, and they want to be shown how to get there. They do not want to be told they want to be shown. They want to encounter the holy in other people not be judged by them or excluded by them because they do not fit a particular mold.

The universal truths are still the universal truths how we get there and how we talk about them has and needs to change.

Martin Luther lit the fuse that started a movement that continues today. He called us to focus on what matters about our faith, love of God and love of neighbor. He reminded us that God loves us and forgives us and does this freely because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He told us that we are all created equal no matter if we are popper or prince; we all come into and go out of the world the same way. He reminded us that each person is created in the image and likeness of God and what we have within us a divine spark that needs to be recognized and honored in each human being. This was and is the message of the reformation 500 years ago and today.

In the 1740’s not far from here in Northampton, Massachusetts Jonathan Edwards stepped into the pulpit and began what we now call the Second Great Awakening. He awakened with those who heard him the desire to find God again and in some ways started another reformation, a spiritual reformation. What the world needs more than every today is not a political church, not a judgmental church, not a church that says if you conform to our ways you can come in, but a church, like Luther’s church, that welcomes all for no other reason than God loves us.

Sermon: Living Message

I like to watch the History Channel.  Most of their programming is fun and entertaining, and you learn a little something along the way.  There are two shows that I like. One is a program about two guys that roam around the United States picking through other people’s stuff and finding treasure. I enjoy the banter between the two hosts but what I enjoy is not only the history of the objects they see but the stories behind each object. We are our stories, and the things we leave behind will tell our story.

The other program I like is about a Pawn Shop on the Vegas strip. In each episode, people bring stuff into the shop to sell or to pawn, and they always think their stuff is worth millions.  Time and time again they are reminded that just because something is old does not mean it is worth a lot or anything. But, from time to time, something magnificent walks in the door.

A few episodes back a gentleman brought in a Roman coin that he had found while cleaning out a house that he had just bought.  The attic was filled with “junk, ” and he was going to just throw it all away but he decided to take a closer look. At the bottom of one of the boxes was a small piece of cardboard with a plastic center and entombed in that cardboard was a Roman coin.

As is always the case, they bring in an expert to check the items out. So the coin guy comes and takes one look at this coin, and he is like a kid on Christmas morning. He goes on and on about this coin and the fact that he had only seen one other and it was not in this, near perfect condition. The coin, a similar one to the one that Jesus was holding in today’s story. Yup a coin, almost 2,000 years old, was found at the bottom of a box in an attic. How much was it worth?  I will tell you after we come back from the commercial.

The Pharisees were always trying to get Jesus. They were always trying to put him into situations to see how he would answer and they would very often lead him into a trap, or so they thought. This was another example. The Pharisees were anti-Roman, and so the question they were asking was designed to put him on the wrong side of the Herodians who were supporters of the Roman Occupation. Either answer would have put him into a position that would not end well for Jesus. But, Jesus being Jesus, he knew the question before they even answered it and went right up the middle with his answer.

He takes a coin and asks whose image is on the coin. The response is Cesar, but it not only bears his image there is an inscription on the coin as well, “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest.” So not only did the coin bear the image of Cesar, a direct violation of the first commandment as far as the Pharisees were concerned, it also called Caesar divine and high priest, these words were repugnant to the Pharisees as well as the image.

So we hear the famous words of Jesus, “render unto Cesar the things that are Cesar’s and render unto God the things that are God’s.”

The first point is very clear, give Cesar back the coin with his picture on it, in other words, there is no theological proscription against paying taxes. Jesus, and Paul will go on later and speak about the support of leaders and so on, but for now, we are dealing with what is right in front of us. But what about rendering unto God?

Jesus takes the question he was beings asked and takes it out of the realm of politics, Jesus does not exist that world although his message was very political. He widens the question and says that everyone has to decide and reconfigures the question around what is it that bears God’s image?

In Matthew 6:24 he says, “No one can serve two masters” no one is exempt from the decision, the choosing. What belongs to whom? In this passage, we want to hear two parallel arguments service to the government and service to God, and in a sense, we see that. We are required, as Christians; to be good citizens and do all we can to make this world a better place for everyone. But again, Jesus is not talking about our civic responsibility here he is talking about our responsibility to God.

Caesar can stamp his image and his resume on everything, but that does not come close to the commerce that animates us. Caesar will get many of the coins back, and he will be flattered by how well his likeness is rendered in the medium of cold, hard cash; but the coin of the realm of our flesh and blood is the image of God. What is rendered to God is whatever bears the divine image. Every life is marked with that inscription, and icon of the One who is the source and destination.

The inscription on the coin makes a theological statement about Caesar that the people of Jesus day would have found ludicrous if it was not accompanied by the bloody oppression of the Romans on those same people. But the theological claim that Jesus is making about God’s interest has nothing to do with power. The God to whom we render our days is the God of tender compassion for God’s children. We bear God’s image; we are the hands and feet of Christ.

A few moments ago I spoke about two guys looking through other people’s stuff and telling their story about who they are and what they did for a living. The stuff, the material possessions they left behind tells part of the story; the other part of their story is what image are we leaving behind for other people embossed with the image of God? What impact have we made on those around us, is it good or is it bad. Do we truly see the Divine image in each person we come into contact with and do we treat them as a living icon of Christ?

Today we begin several weeks talking about stewardship and what that means from a theological position for each of us. We each have to make a decision not only about the image that each of us will leave behind but also need to be concerned about the image the church is leaving behind in our community. What is the story of Bethany here in Quincy? I told you last week that we are at the comma and what comes after the comma has yet to be written, but it will be written by us. What do we want that story to be? Over the next few weeks I will be asking each of you to prayerfully consider your financial commitment to the Church, and on November 12th I will be asking you to submit that commitment in writing. The decision should come about through prayer, and we should not use our giving, or withhold our giving, based on some philosophical position that we hold or to try and force the church into a position, that is not a commitment that is ransom.

I will not ask you for a certain amount I will not even ask you for the biblical mandate of 10%, all I ask is that each of you contribute from your resources an amount that you believe God is calling you to give, and yes my friends, God is calling us to give.

So, what was the coin worth? It was in near perfect condition, and the expert put the value at over half a million dollars.  Go home and look through your stuff!

 

Sermon: Do This…

A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

At my Ecclesiastical Council held back in January, I was asked about my theology of the Lord’s Supper. When I pressed the person asking the question to probe exactly what they were looking for in answer the questioner wanted to know what I thought happened during the Lord’s Supper.  My answer was something along the lines of it does not matter what happens on the table it matters what happens after the table. In other words, I am not concerned about if a change takes place here, among the bread and the juice we have laid out for the celebration today, I am concerned about the change that takes place in you and me. The miracle, if you will, is not in some magic words prayed over bread and wine, the magic, the transformative powers of the Holy Spirit is the miracle when it changes us.

So I have placed the titles of “Do This…” on this sermon today, the World Communion Sunday, so we can focus on what it was that Jesus was asking us to do.  Sure, I believe he was asking us to repeat what he was doing in that upper room on his last night with his Apostles, but I also think he was asking us to “Do” more.

This passage we heard this morning is the first time these words were written.  Paul’s letters are some of the earliest written of the Christian Scriptures; they predate the Gospels by many years. The other interesting part of this is that Paul was not there and it is the first time the words of Jesus were written.

In these words, Jesus speaks about a covenant, a new covenant, a covenant in his blood.

Jesus is saying something like: “This cup is the new covenant, and it cost my blood.”

A covenant relationship is one entered into by two people, perhaps more, but at least two. The old relationship between God and the people was based on the law; there was a condition that the law had to be kept. With Jesus, the new covenant is based on love and not dependent on keeping the law; it is based on the free grace of God’s love offered to all.

But this new covenant goes much deeper than that because there is the “Do This…” associated with it.  So what then is this “Do this?”

As followers of Jesus we believe that we are to imitate his life as best we can in our daily lives. We believe that the bible has been given to us not as a science or history book, but as a guide if you will for how we should live. My personal belief is that this is not to be taken literally but left to us as an example of what we should be able to do.

Jesus comes as the fulfillment of the law, no longer are we bound to obey to the letter of the law now we have the Spirit of the Law that guides us. We are to do what Jesus did, and that is our imitation.

Jesus cared for the least of these and spoke about it often. He does not seek out power, in fact, the only time he is “hangs out” with the powerful is when he is standing before Pilate just before his crucifixion.  He was born humbly in a backwater town in the Roman Empire and had to flee to another country, without a visa by the way, for his life to be saved. It was to the marginalized that he ministered and to the powerful.

Jesus was found with the less desirable of the population, prostitutes, tax collectors, beggars, lepers, women, Samaritans and all the rest. He was reaching out to and ministering to the people that had no place in the temple, they had no seat at the table, and no one was listening to them. He healed the sick, pardoned those that humanity had cast out and in the end, it cost him his life. Make no mistake about it, Jesus was killed by the powerful because he threatened their way of life. Sure, he went willingly to the Cross, but it was those in power that pulled the trigger so to speak.

The Letter of St. James is one of my favorite books of the bible. It is called a Pastoral Epistle or Universal Epistle because it is written not to a particular church, as Paul has written, but to the entire church. James has a lot to say about “Doing This…”

“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have worked.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:14-26)

He ends this section with these words:

“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

But the words of Jesus sum it up best in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” (Matthew 25:37-40)

Who are we to minister too?  The least of these. Who are we care for? The least of these. Who are we to consider our neighbors? The least of these.

Francis of Assisi is often quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel every day, sometimes use words.” A person’s faith is not contained in a book, a person’s faith is held in dogma, a person’s faith is not even contained in bread and wine. A person’s faith is contained in how they treat the least of these.

Do have concern for the least of these. Do have concern for the poor and needy. Do have concern for the stranger among us. Do have concern for those who look different than us. Do have concern for the widows and orphans. Do have concern for those affected by storms, physical, mental, and natural. Do have concern for those affected by war. Do have concern for those yearning to have the same rights that you and I have. Do be concerned that we are not holding people to the letter of the law when we should be showing the spirit of the law. Do be concerned with and love your neighbor;

Your homeless neighbor
Your Muslim neighbor
Your black neighbor
Your gay neighbor
Your white neighbor
Your Jewish neighbor
Your Christian neighbor
Your Atheist neighbor
Your racist neighbor
Your addicted neighbor

Why?  Because Jesus said, “Do This” in remembrance of me!

The Power to Protest – and Speak Out

By TJ Harper, Associate for Racial Justice for the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ.

Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you. ~ Deuteronomy 16:20

In 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to deliver an address at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Douglass was asked to speak about the “celebration of America’s independence” from Great Britain. However, as many of you know, Douglass went on to deliver one of his most famous speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”  Although Douglass had been invited to talk about the freedom of white Americans, he could not do so with a clear conscience; he felt the need to illustrate the hypocrisy of this event, as those people who were enslaved were not celebrating Independence Day. Several months ago, it was said that Frederick Douglass is “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” One of the things that Douglass has been, and will always be, recognized for is taking a courageous action where others would not; he was not afraid to use the platform he was given to unequivocally condemn oppression and injustice.

The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of God’s unfailing love. ~ Psalm 33:5

On September 1, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, former NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, kneeled during the National Anthem of a football game for the first time, which caused national frustration and curiosity.  During the postgame interview in 2016, Kaepernick explained why he kneeled: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag or a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder [until the American flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent.” He felt so strongly about the inequitable treatment of people of color that Kaepernick decided to kneel during the National Anthem of each football game in the 2016 season.  Once Kaepernick explained his reasons for kneeling, some people viewed his actions as courageous, while others questioned his patriotism. It is challenging for me, however, to not view Kaepernick’s actions in a similar light to the actions of Frederick Douglass. Kaepernick exercised his constitutional First Amendment right to protest what he believes is wrong.

This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’ ~ Zechariah 7:9 

Kaepernick decided not to renew his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, and instead seek new employment offers as a free agent. However, since March 2017 when Kaepernick left the 49ers, he has not been able to secure employment with another NFL team. Some people thought that since Kaepernick was temporarily unemployed his platform for protest would be destroyed, but that was not the case.  Instead, dozens of other NFL players have knelt during the National Anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick for the past several months. Then recently, incendiary remarks were made at a rally in the South that posed a question to the audience: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b**ch off the field, right now, he’s fired?’” As a person of color, this rhetoric is disheartening to me at a time in our country when white nationalists and white supremacists and Neo-Nazis are praised as “fine people” and defended by the notion that “there was violence on many, many sides” (including the counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA). However, people of color who are peacefully protesting by taking a knee during the National Anthem get disrespected.

Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right. ~ Psalm 106:3

There are things that people of color cannot say, due to fear of possible ramifications. There are places where people of color cannot go, due to fear that their physical safety will be jeopardized. Sometimes when a person of color gets a platform to protest, it is diminished or taken away. As people of faith, we have power to speak out and stand in solidarity with people of color who are being oppressed. We are reminded that our neighbor does not need to look a certain way or have a certain zip code or maintain a certain set of beliefs. We are called to do justice – for all.

God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God ~ Micah 6:8

TJ Harper is Associate for Racial Justice Ministries for the Massachusetts and Connecticut Conferences.

Sermon: Tensions in the Wilderness

Exodus 16:2-15

 

This past week there was a lot of talk about the end of the world that was supposed to happen on the 23rd of September.  Well, according to my calendar, today is September 24th, and we are all still here, so I guess they were wrong. The problem with that is since I thought the world was coming to an end on Saturday, I did not prepare a sermon for today and had to throw something together at the last minute, well that is not exactly correct.  Why do we seem to be so hung up on the end of the world?  For generations, people have been trying to “read the signs” to determine when the world is going to end.  But we read in Matthew 24:36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” “Only the Father!”  Jesus is telling us that he does not even know when the end will come, only the Father knows, and he’s not telling.

So here is what I do not get. Nowhere in Scripture can I find a passage that says I need to worry about tomorrow or what will happen in the end. I do find lots of scripture about loving our neighbor and trying to make the place we live a better place and to bring a little bit of heaven right here. But some folks are so willing to follow anyone that they fall for this every single time. Jesus tells us, also in Matthew 24:5 “For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.” We are so desperate that we even look to world leaders as the savior and the fixer of all our problems when scripture tells us in Psalm 146:3 “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.”

But it is not just us that do not trust in God look at the people of Israel that we heard about in today’s Scripture lesson.  Moses has led them out of bondage. They had been enslaved by the Egyptians for generations, and finally one has come to lead them out.  Great signs were performed in the name of God to convince Pharaoh to let them leave, and he finally does, the people finally have their freedom and what do we find, they are whinny, ungrateful, little children.

Scripture tells us that “whole company of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron.” This is not just a few folk this is everyone, there was a rebellion brewing here. There were complaining that they did not have enough to eat. They mention the pots of meat they used to have when they were slaves, but now that they have been set free they have no food, they have their freedom but no food, so they complain.  Here is your freedom, but we have no food!

So Moses spoke to God, and God provided. He told them exactly what to do, take just what you need, no more, no less.  Some did, and they had all that they wanted, some took more, and it spoiled.  The problem was, they had no faith.

I think I have shared this story with you before. There was a storm coming, and a man was sitting in his house watching the weather, and the weather people were telling him to evacuate, the man says, God will save me. The government folks say to leave, the man says, God will save me. The rainwater comes, and the water rises so high he is on the second floor of his house, and a man comes by in a boat and says, come on, get in, and I will bring you to dry land, and the man says, God will save me.  The water continues to rise, and the man has to cut a hole in his roof, and he is now on his roof, and the water is still rising. A helicopter comes and drops a rope, and a man yells down, take the rope and tie it around you, and I will lift you up to safety, and dry land and the man says, God will save me. Well, the man dies and is standing at the pearly gates, and God is there, and the man says to God, I trusted that you would save me and here I am. And God looks at him and says, I sent a weatherman, a government guy, a man with a boat, and a helicopter what more do you need?  Apparently, he needed more faith.

We are like the people of Israel at this present time. They were going through a transition, and we are going through a transition. The future is bright but also a little scary we do not know what it will hold. We are standing at the opening of the door but we cannot see past the threshold, and that makes us nervous.  We are people who like to be in control and looking into the future, with no end in sight, makes us nervous and we are not sure how to act. God is saying, it will be okay, I will send you what you need, and we need to have faith that he will do just that very thing. But we have to trust that all will be well.  Will it be easy, nope, it sure was not easy for the people of Israel out there in the wilderness, but they survived.  They got angry and lost faith, but in the end, their faith was restored, once they discovered who their faith needed to be in, not Moses or Aaron, but God.

You all know that one of my favorite passages of Scripture is the story of Peter stepping out of the boat. When I am looking for guidance for one thing or another, I come back to that Scripture, and I think about it and meditate on it. The boat, the water, the storm, they are all metaphors for life, and Jesus is calling us to make bold moves and take steps in faith, and as long as we keep our eyes on Him, all will be well. Peter stepped out and was able to do something that he was not able to do before, walk on water, but the second he took his eyes off of Jesus, the second he started to doubt God’s word, he began to sink. But the story did not end there, even though he doubted, even though he lost faith, Jesus was still there and gave him his hand and raised him up.

Jesus is calling each of us to step out of the boat, get away from what we think is comfortable, throw our foot over the side and do something we have never done before. He is calling us in faith, not by anything that we can do, but to have faith in God, and even if we stumble, and I am sure we will, Jesus will be there to lift us back up. But we need faith and the willingness to throw ourselves over the side of the boat, and take that first step.

Sermon: The Fallacy of Divine Retribution

Last week I stood here, and I asked you to pray for those affected by Hurricane Harvey.  This week I stand here, and I will ask you to keep all of those affected by Hurricane Irma in your prayers. At this very moment, in Florida, people are hunkering down as Category 4 Irma, the most powerful storm in recorded history slams into their neighborhoods. I ask you to keep the people of the tiny Island nation of Barbuda in your prayers. I had never heard of Barbuda before the news reported that 95% of the structures on the island have been destroyed and that as of yesterday, the entire Island has been evacuated. Just for some perspective, the population of Barbuda is 1,638 people who are now homeless. This is a dangerous storm that is not over yet.

I have been encouraged by the outpouring of offers to help from the people right here at Bethany. Last week I sent a letter to all of you asking for donations and we will take a special offering today for Disaster Relief, and all week, people have been sending in checks to the office for us to add to what will be collected and blessed this very day.  While storms are still raging, we are doing what we can. We have a plan in the works to assemble kits that will be sent by our partner Church World Service to devastated areas to assist people in cleaning up. The need will be great, and this will not end anytime soon.

But I have also been rather dismayed by the chorus of Christians blaming this on God’s divine retribution and twisting they’re theological understand for some fundraising or political means.  Keep this in mind, people are literally, as we speak, fleeing for their very lives and fine Christian theologians and preachers are telling people this is God’s anger unleashed on them.  Well let me make this clear, that is a load of you know what!

Here are just a couple of examples; One “Pastor” has said that God is systematically destroying America over the homosexual agenda. An on air personality, and devout Christian, when asked about climate change in relation to Harvey said that Houston’s election of a lesbian mayor was a more credible explanation of Harvey than climate change. And just so you don’t think these people are only on the right of the theological spectrum, a Tampa University professor tweeted, during Harvey by the way, that Harvey was God’s punishment on Texas for voting for President Trump. He was fired. By the way, the other two examples I used, they are both still employed.

Now I am not sure where these folks received their theological training, but I was taught that God is love. The pages of the New Testament are filled with stories of love, not destruction. Now I know what you’re thinking, what about the Old Testament there are lots of stories of smiting and what not, sure let’s look at one, the bog one if you will, the story of Noah found in the 9th chapter of the Book of Genesis.  We all know the story, God finds the righteous man Noah, he builds the ark. All the animals come in. The rains come. The earth is flooded. Only Noah’s family and the animals survive.  Now I have some issues with this story but putting that aside for a moment we tend to skip over that last part of that story;

“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Genesis 9:11-16

“Never again will I destroy the earth.”  NEVER AGAIN!

That is the 9th chapter of the 1st book of the Bible.  We don’t have to wait long before we hear God say. NEVER AGAIN WILL I DESTROY THEY EARTH! 9th Chapter!

Not enough evidence? Let’s look at a few more.

“For this is like the days of Noah to Me, When I swore that the waters of Noah Would not flood the earth again; So I have sworn that I will not be angry with you Nor will I rebuke you. Isaiah 54:9

But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them; And often He restrained His anger And did not arouse all His wrath. Psalm 78:38

I will not execute My fierce anger; I will not destroy Ephraim again For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, And I will not come in wrath. Hosea 11:9

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had seven plagues, which are the last because in them the wrath of God is finished. Revelation 15:1

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16

God sent His Son Jesus Christ into the world, and he watched him die.  He could have smited the lot of us, but he did not, he sent his own Son to show us the way and even after we killed him he continues to show us, love.

Our human minds want to find answers to questions about why things happen, and sometimes there is no explanation, and sometimes things happen because of the choices that we or others make. If we put this all on God reduces God to the human condition, and when we do that, God stops being God!

If we think that God punishes us then logically, we have to believe that God is the source of that punishment which is evil and therefore God is the source of evil. But if we read the Bible we see that God is love. If God wanted us to suffer if God inflicted suffering on us, why would he have sent us his son?

Suffering is part of the human condition but it is not God’s divine retribution and to say that is it is to deny that God is love and to say that God participates in evil.

So where is God in all of this? God is right in the midst of it. God is the one in the boat that comes and rescues people. God is in the science that can predict these things to give people warnings to get out. God is with you when you place your hard earned money into the offering plate to assist others. God is in the midst of the suffering bringing us peace and bringing us strength. I have no idea who the God of Pat Robertson is or the God of Jim Baker, but my God sent his Son not to destroy but to love, and that is the example he has left for us.