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.

Sermon: Humble Service in the Body of Christ

Romans 12:3-8

Paul loves this image of the church being a body. Each part of the body carries out its own function, sometimes that function is supported by the other members, and sometimes it is not. But, either way, each part has a role, and when it all works together, it is excellent.

Paul lays out some rules, as he usually does, in this passage, and it is worth taking a look at them.  First, Paul urges us to know ourselves. We cannot get very far in the world if we do not know what we can and what we cannot do. We have to have an honest assessment of our capabilities, and we have to do this without conceit and false modesty.

Second, Paul urges us to accept ourselves and use the gift that God has given to us. I guess we first have to figure out what that gift is, but once we do, we have to use it. We cannot, and should not, envy what other people’s gifts are.  I would love to be able to play the piano, but that is not my gift, and I should not be envious of people who can. I mean, I have lots of free time, and they have to practice. By accepting ourselves as we are and where we are might mean that our gift is something that no one notices. We might always be behind the scenes doing our thing and never getting seen. But, having people behind the scenes is as important as having folks in front. Paul is saying that we must accept our position even if what we do is unseen and goes without acknowledgment.  Sure, it is helpful to be thanked and acknowledged for what we do and the contribution we make, but if we are doing it just to be publicly thanked, we are doing it for the wrong reason.

Third, Paul is saying that whatever the gift is we have come from God. Paul calls these gifts charismata, and in the language of the New Testament, this is something given to us that we could have acquired on our own. For example, I might be able to play the piano, I took lessons for a few years, but I was not very good at it.  I could read the music and play the notes, but I could not make the music. But the one who can make the music has the charismata, the gift from God to make music. Each of us has our charismata, and it is that which is given to us from God.

Fourth, and this ties back into something I have already said, we each have a gift, but we should not use that gift for our prestige, but it should be our duty to use that gift for the common good. Now, I am speaking of the life of the church here, no life outside the church that is a different conversation. So, we use our gift for the betterment of the House of God.

Now we must turn to the gifts that Paul mentions.

The gift of prophecy. Rarely does prophecy in the New Testament have to with foretelling the future. Usually, prophecy, in a New Testament context, has to do with forth-telling the word of God. The prophet is the one who can announce the Christian message with the authority of one who knows. Now, some think they know, and some know.  Many are called, but few are chosen.  I hear people all the time say that God has called them, and I have no doubt that they believe that. But, God calls, and the church confirms that call. God indeed equips those he calls, that is why we have seminaries and other schools where preachers and teachers study.  It has always amazed me that we will not trust a medical professional that is not licensed and insured. A medical professional that has not gone through years of schooling and other training. We would not go to a surgeon for an operation who flunked out of medical school but decided that they were “called” to be a surgeon. But, we are willing to follow anyone who says that God has called them to preach.  Anyone can say they are a preacher, that does not mean they are. God calls, and we have to equip those he calls.

There is the gift of practical service, what Paul calls Diakonia, which is where we get the word Deacon from. Deacons were those chosen to serve at the table. The ministry of the Deacon is the ministry of service.  We may not all be called to preach in the church, but there are many other ways that we can be called to serve — driving someone to an appointment — sitting with someone who has just lost a loved one. Setting up the tables and chairs in the hall. Baking cookies for coffee hour. Praying for people. All of these are what Paul would call practical service. We show other the love of Christ by doing simple things for others.

The gift of teaching. The Christian message not only needs to be proclaimed it needs to be explained. If we do not explain, we have no hope of proclamation that will change lives.

Close to the gift of teaching is that of exhortation. Exhortation should be encouraging, not frightening. For far too long, we have brought people to church out of fear. People were afraid they would go to hell, and so they came to church and did whatever the person in front told them to do. As one can imagine, this led to all sorts of abuse, not only physically but psychologically and theologically. Real exhortation aims not so much at dangling a person over the flames of hell as spurring them on to the joys that we find in our life with Christ.

Leadership is another of the gifts Paul mentions. If leadership is to be taken up, it is to be taken up with zeal. We all know that fewer and fewer people are stepping forward to lead in the church. It has been said that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people and that number is getting older and smaller each year. One of the roles of church leadership is to encourage, train, and equip the leaders of tomorrow.  All of us in any leadership position should be looking for our replacement. We cannot wait for people to come forward; we need to seek them out.

In the end, Paul speaks of mercy, and we must show that mercy with gracious cheerfulness. If we must forgive, and you know how I feel about forgiveness, then we must remember that we are also in need of forgiveness.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We must forgive as we would like to be forgiven. I have said this before; forgiveness is not for the other person; forgiveness is for us. By offering forgiveness, we take back power over our lives, and by withholding that forgiveness, we allow the other to have that control. But we must forgive with graciousness and not hold it over another’s head. If the body is to function correctly, then all of the bits must work together and function together. When one is struggling the others come and help. We all have our function, but if we function together, things work better.

Sermon: A Living Sacrifice

Romans 12:1-2

We hear a lot about sacrifice these days; in fact, I believe the word sacrifice is as overused as the word hero is in today’s language. It seems everyone is a hero for just doing their job, and everyone is making a sacrifice for this or that thing. But are we truly making a sacrifice or are we only fitting it into our schedule?

I always like to start with the definition of a word, so we have a common base to work from so, according to the dictionary sacrifice has three possible meanings;

1. an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or a divine or supernatural figure.

2. an animal, person, or object offered in a sacrifice.

3. an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.

As to the first meaning: In Jewish ritual law, one had to sacrifice an animal in atonement for your sins. The size of the animal was directly related to the size of the sin, the greater the animal, the greater the sin. Outside of the temple, there would be all sorts of people selling all kinds of animals that would be taken into the temple, ritually killed, and burned on the altar. As Christians, we believe that the final sacrifice was that of Jesus Christ on the Cross, he was, and is, the lamb that was slain and so there is no need for the further sacrifice of this type. It was said that the smoke from the burning sacrifice was pleasing to God, and thus pleasing God, or sins were forgiven.

However, the second part of the first meaning makes mention of surrendering a possession as an offering to God; in other words, a tithe of time, talent, or treasure. But is it a real sacrifice, or is it just something that we do? We do not want to make ourselves destitute, but at the same time, it should hurt just a little.

As to the second meaning: It ties in with the first but not in a ritual way. Native cultures would often thank the animal after it was killed to be used for food. They thank the animal, and its spirit, for the sacrifice of the animal’s life that the hunter may live and provide food for their table. How many of us think of this when we sit down to a nice steak or another form of meat that has been provided for us. The meat did not fall from the sky or appear by some magic in the supermarket; it was attached to a living, breathing, being, created by God, and it deserves our respect and honor.

As to the third meaning: This is more in line with what Paul is writing to the Jewish Christians in his letter.

Paul always grounds his letters in practical advice for those he is writing to. He tackles some pretty heavy theology in his epistles, but in the end, he brings us round to the practical. As preachers this is what we are supposed to do, we can tackle heavy theology, but if I do not bring it around to application in our lives, it is just lecture of sorts and may be of no use. Your job is to find that application and then, apply it to your life.

Paul is telling them to “Present your body to God as a living sacrifice.” To the Greeks, this was a strange idea because the spirit was the highest form, not the body. The body was the vessel that held the spirit. The body would give way, but the spirit was eternal. So, just as Jesus was causing a stir in thinking, now Paul is doing the same thing. For Christians, the body belongs to God just as much as the soul does, and we can serve God with our physical body, our mind, and our soul.

The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the instrument through which the Holy Spirit works in the world. It has been said that we are the hands and feet of Christ, and that is meant in the physical sense. But, more importantly, the Incarnation of God becoming a man in the person of Jesus Christ means that it was not beneath God to take on human form and to live and work through that human form.

So what Paul is saying is that we present our body, our whole being to God and everything we do should be pleasing to God. We worship God by being the best we can be at whatever it is we are called to be. If our job is to stock shelves or bag groceries, we bring worship, honor, and praise to God by being the best at it. If our job is to teach, preach, sing, dance, garden, or whatever it is, then we are to be the best at it, and by being the best, we bring honor, glory, and worship to God.

The Greek word that Paul uses for worship means a voluntary undertaking; it means to serve but not in a way that would make one a slave but something that one would give their whole life to. It also means to give your life in the service of the gods; this is not human service but rather service to God.

True worship is the offering to God of one’s body, and all that one does every day with it. Real worship is not the offering to God of liturgy, and ritual. Authentic worship is the offering of everyday life to God, not something transacted in a church, but something that enables us to see the entire world as the temple of God.  As much as we are to say, “I am going to church to worship God,” we must also be able to say, “I am going to work, to school, to the park, to the beach, to my job, to worship God.”

This is a radical change. Paul goes on to say that we must not be conformed to the world but must be transformed from it. Paul uses two Greek words that are almost untranslatable to English. One word means the outward form, the appearance that we have that changes from day to day. I do not know about you, but I do not look the same today as I did a year ago, five years ago, or 20 years ago. We change. We dress differently depending on the situation we find ourselves in.

But the word Paul uses for transform is not about the external but the internal. Paul says that for us genuinely worship God; we have to undergo and transformation, not of our external expressing but our internal one. We must change our life from that dominated by the world and what the world expects of us, and we must conform to what God expects of us and have the mind of Christ. Once we have allowed this transformation to begin, we no longer live a self-centered life we now live a Christ-centered life, and this must happen by a renewal of our mind and how we think about the world and how we feel about others. When we allow Christ into our lives when we sacrifice what we want for what Christ wants of us, we become new beings. When Christ becomes the center of our lives, we can then present real worship, not just the worship contained in the four walls of the church but true worship of all of God’s creation and our lives will truly become a living sacrifice to God.

Sermon: True Countries of the Mind

Philippians 4:8-9

There is an awful lot packed into a few lines of text, and it might take us some time to unpack it all This is a clear case of drilling down past the surface of a passage to get to the heart of the matter.

What Paul is telling those in his church in Philippi is that they need to set their minds on the right things in life. A good attitude does wonders for the soul. It has been said that in large part anyway, a positive mind help aid in the healing of the body. If one believes they will overcome, then they will overcome. In philosophical, and maybe psychological terms as well, if someone thinks something long enough for them, it becomes the truth, and it is challenging to extricate them from that thought. What Paul is saying is that it is of the utmost importance that we set our thoughts on the beautiful and useful things, and thankfully, Paul leaves us with a list of those beautiful things.

Whatever things are true: Many things in this world are not accurate or only half correct. We live in a world where if we disagree with something, we call it fake news and move on. We are quick to believe the things that fit within our pattern of thinking rather than having the ability to expand our thoughts as new information becomes available. Just because something was one way at one point does not mean that things are the same now. Sure, there are absolute truths, but those can be rare. We need a discerning heart and mind, and some help from the Holy Spirit, to get us to what the truth is.

Whatever things are noble; some translations use the word honest, honorable, and venerable. There are all these choices because the original Greek word is difficult to translate. It is the word that is characteristically used to describe temples and gods. When applied to describe a person, it is as if the person moves throughout the world as if it were a temple of God. But what the word describes is, that which has the dignity of holiness upon it. There are things in this world that are foolish and things of this world that are serious, and the Christian should be more concerned about the serious, but it is okay to have a little of the foolish now and again as well.

Whatever things are just; the Greek word used here can be translated as duty faced and duty done. The Christian’s first thought should always be on their duty to God. Sure, one can be patriotic, and all that but their first and only allegiance is to God, everything else comes secondary to that.

Whatever is pure; another difficult Greek word to translate, but when used ceremonially, it describes those things that have been cleansed and set apart for the ceremony. It describes those things that are fit to be brought into the very presence of God. Remember that Jewish liturgical practice was that only one man, the high priest, was allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies. So sacred was this place that a rope was tied to him, so if something happened, they could pull him out rather than go in after him. Paul is using this to describe those things that are morally undefiled. So, our thoughts and our actions should be such that they could be brought into the very presence of God. This is not just church time of course but in all of our speech and interactions with others in what we say and in what we Tweet.

Whatever is pleasing; or, as in other translations, whatever is lovely or that which calls forth love. There are those people who have their mind so set on vengeance and punishment that all they call forth is bitterness and fear in others. There are those whose mind is so set on criticism and rebuke that they call forth resentment in others. But the mind of the Christian should be set on the lovely things such as; kindness, sympathy, and forbearance. In other words, love your neighbor!

Paul reminds them to “do the things they have learned.” He is telling them that he taught them all of this and they need to remember what they learned. There are two ways to look at theological teaching there are those doctrines that the church puts forward and then we, and by we, I mean me and you, we have to take those doctrines and run them through the lenses of our lives and our teaching. We cannot just take things on face value we need to understand where they came from and how we came about them. But, we also need not fear to adapt or changing the way we think about things. As I mentioned before, just because we have always done it that way does not make it right.

Finally, Paul tells them that if they are faithful, God will remain with them. Paul calls God the God of Peace. This is Paul’s favorite title for God he uses it in almost all of his writings. To the Jew, and Paul, peace was never just the absence of trouble; it was everything that makes for a person’s higher good. Only in friendship with God can we live to our full potential as humanity was supposed to be lived. Again, for the Jew, this peace came from the right relationships not only with God but with other human beings. It is only by God’s amazing grace that we can enter into these right relationships with God and others. We must strive, every day, to live in harmony with other human beings and that means we must strive to understand them, respect them, and honor the divinity that is inside each of them, even if, especially if we disagree with them. For Paul, the command to love others is not just a nice Hallmark card kind of sentiment; it is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. If we cannot honestly look at another human being and show them the love and respect they deserve as fellow human beings, then we have no right to call ourselves Christians, bottom line, end of the story. That is indeed the peace of God, which passes all understanding.

The Fuller Bible

The Fuller Bible

I have the honor of serving as National Chaplain to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. I was appointed to that position at the 138th Annual Encampment on August 11, 2019, in Independence, Ohio.  One of my first duties was to lead the Sunday worship service at the close of the Encampment. The Scripture for that sermon was taken from the Gospel of St. Luke. I read the Scripture from a bible that was once owned by the Rev. Arthur Buckminster Fuller, who was Chaplain to the 16th Massachusetts.

The bible was a gift from Rev. Fuller to his nephew George Channing Fuller-Wright and bore an inscription from Rev. Fuller dated 1846. The inscription states that “although you are too young to understand…. One day these words will be a support to your life.”

With the start of the Civil War Fuller resigned his pulpit at the Unitarian Church in Watertown Massachusetts. He signed on as the regimental Chaplain with the 16th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and prepared to serve in the field with his unit.  When asked whether he had a sense of the danger he could face, he responded, “I am willing to peril life for the welfare of our brave soldiers and in our country’s great cause. If God requires that sacrifice of me, it shall be offered on the altar of freedom, and in defense of all that is good in American institutions.”

Chaplain Fuller was not like other Regimental Chaplains and was found at the side of his soldiers on the battlefield.  He did not carry a weapon of any kind, but there he was, right next to his troops, praying and offering what assistance and encouragement he could during the battle. “I know no holier place, none more solemn, more awful, more glorious than this battlefield shall be” he would write in his journal.

When the 16th was relieved of duty on the battlefield, Chaplain Fuller was sick, and he needed time to rest.  Chaplains, for the most part, were much older than the average soldier he was forty-one years old at the date of the battle and were not accustomed to the harsh life of the soldier.  Chaplains were tireless in their service and support of their soldiers, often sacrificing health for that of their troops. That is what happened to Chaplain Fuller.  He was finally convinced to take leave, and he returned to Massachusetts for some rest and recuperation, but that was to be short-lived.

Chaplain Fuller returned to his regiment in October of 1862 and was greeted warmly by the soldiers of the regiment.  Chaplain Fuller would remain behind and offer what service he could with the troops in the rear.  His illness was such that in December of 1862 he was declared unfit for duty, and he would have to resign as Chaplain. 

He preached his final sermon to the regiment on Sunday, December 7, 1862, and was discharged from the Army, and he prepared to return to Massachusetts.  Writing again to his wife, “If any regret were mine, it would be that I am not able to remain with my regiment longer, but this is, doubtless, in God’s providence.”  His only consolation was that a place had been found for him as a hospital chaplain so he would be able to continue to serve.

As the assault on the City of Fredericksburg started, Rev. Fuller lingered with his regiment.  Perhaps he was not quite ready to leave their side, or maybe it was God telling him to stay, we shall never know.  The engineers building a bridge across the Rappahannock came under fire from Confederate snipers, and it was decided that an assault would be made across the river.  The call went out for any available man to help row the boats across the river, and Fuller was right there to volunteer.

Reaching the other side of the river, he found himself with the men of the 19th Massachusetts.  He stayed with them as their Chaplain had long since abandoned them, and he was of the firm belief that the men needed a minister by their side during the battle.  He secured permission from the regimental commander to stay and stay he did; he was shot and killed instantly.  He died doing what he was called to do, and he died serving his men to his last breath.

It is an honor to have a bible once owned by Chaplain Fuller, and I use it in my duties as Department Chaplain for the Department of Massachusetts. Each time I hold that book in my hands, it reminds me of the sacrifice that so many made to keep the Union together.

Sermon: Living into the Promise

This sermon was preached at the worship service during the 138th Annual Encampment of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War on Sunday, August 11, 2019 in Independence, Ohio.

Luke 12:32-40

I read the Gospel text this morning from a bible that was once owned by Arthur Buckminster Fuller. Chaplain Fuller was the chaplain for the 16th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He was honorably discharged from the Army on December 10, 1862, in Fredericksburg, Maryland. On December 11th, before he had a chance to leave camp to return to Massachusetts, he volunteered to help the 19th Massachusetts cross the Rappahannock River during the Battle of Fredericksburg.  Rev. Fuller was shot and killed by a sharpshooter as he helped to row a boat across the river.  This bible that he gave a gift to a nephew is one of my most prized possessions.

But there is another reason I mention Chaplain Fuller, and it fits in with the theme of the Gospel passage I read this morning.

What we heard this morning should entice us to place first things first. The things of God are to be given the utmost priority in the life of a Christian. We are all busy, or we pretend to be busy. We find time for the things we wish to find time for and for those things that we do not make a priority, well, they go on the back burner. But what we hear rather clearly this morning is that we cannot be distracted by those things that properly belong to God, if we keep balance in our lives, all will be well.

There are a couple of things going on in this passage, and I would like to spend just a few moments meditating on them this morning.

The first is the image of God’s good pleasure in giving away the treasure that does not fade or fail. We hear, “sell your possessions, and give alms.” In other words, do not worry, “do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not worry about tomorrow. But what is being said here is not to sell everything, God does not want us to be destitute, but what is it what is holding you back from truly following him.

When Jesus spoke to the rich man who asked him what he had to do to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus told him to go and sell all he had. He told him this because Jesus knew it was his riches that was holding him back, but for us, it might be something different. It might be our ego. It might be our prejudices. It might be any number of things. We need to determine what that is and discard it.

The second image comes in the story of the master who returns to his household at night. The identity that Jesus gives to his disciples is the “little flock,” which reinforces the notion of the very care and protection that God provides. The underlying reason we are not to fear is that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom in the first place.

I am involved in a lot of disaster work. I am one of the coordinators for Disaster Spiritual Care in the Northeast for the American Red Cross.  One of the most often asked questions after a disaster, be it a hurricane or house fire is, “where was God in whatever it was?” Although it is hard for people to hear my response is, God was, and is, right here. God was with you and will give you the strength to get through. It might not seem that way when you are going through it, but just like the footprints in the sand poem, sometimes there are two sets of footprints and other time, there is only one.

The third image is the image of always being prepared. We do not know the hour when God will come. We like to schedule everything in our lives, we are here, this morning at 7 am for worship, but God does not operate on our time God works on God’s time, and we do not know God time. Sure, many have said God is coming on such and such a day and time, but here we are, still here.

We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on our outward appearance, but how much do we spend on our spiritual life? Being ready means being spiritually fit, daily prayer, and Scripture reading is an excellent place to start. Seek out a good spiritual guide that can help you along the way. Ask God to help you as you walk the road.

Chaplain Fuller was not concerned about himself. He was in failing health when he resigned; in fact, it is what drove him to resign. He stayed the night preparing to leave in the morning, but when the call went out for assistance to help get the troops across the river, he did not hesitate. Putting himself at significant risk, he volunteered, and it cost him his life. He was not worried, he “sold all he had” his life and he helped another fulfill his mission.

We may never be asked to give what Chaplain Fuller gave, but we are all being asked to do something, what that something is is for you and God to figure out, well God has it figured out we have to get on the same page.

“Fear not little flock.” These are comforting words for me to hear, and I pray that is for you as well.

Fear Not Little Flock

These last few days have been difficult. Once again, our nation has been torn by several mass shootings. My prayers are with all those in Texas and Ohio as they come to grips with the insanity behind what would drive someone to want to kill others. But Texas and Ohio were not the only shootings this past weekend. Several people were shot in Chicago, and last night, several more were shot in Boston. I do not have an answer to the problem but just sitting on the sidelines wringing our hands is not working and we need to find a solution and quickly.

In a time like these, I often turn to Scripture, and I find myself meditating on a passage from the Gospel of Luke, “Do not be afraid little flock.” These words come from the mouth of Jesus and remind us not to be afraid for God is always near to us. Yes, God was present in Texas, Ohio, Chicago, and Boston. God was with those who were killed, and God was with those injured, and God was with those who rushed in to help. God is with those who survived and will now have to grieve the loss of loved ones, and God is with us as we come to grips with what keeps happening without explanation.

Jesus also reminds us that we have to ready. We are people of action. Thoughts and prayer are tremendous, and Jesus prayed a lot, but he always followed up those prayers with action. He prayed, and then he fed the 5,000. Jesus prayed, and then he healed the blind man. Jesus prayed, and then he calmed the storms. Jesus prayed, and then he forgave those who had just crucified him. So yes, we need to pray, but we also need action. If we want the world to be different, we have to be part of the plan to make things different. Praying our way out will not work.

One concrete thing we can do in the midst of all of this is to start to change the way we think about others. As I remind you all the time, all of humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, and we need to see Christ in each person and treat them accordingly regardless of the way they might treat us.

Our hope belongs in God, who created heaven and earth. If we keep this in mind, we will not go wrong.

Sermon: Shaped by Prayer

Luke 11:1-13

The other day I was sitting with a hospice caregiver, and we were talking about the difficulties of caring for this particular patient. The caregiver is not family; although she has been caring for the patient for seven years, she is paid, by the family, to care for their father, so they do not have to. The patient has seven children, some of whom do not live in the area, but two live on the same street and very rarely come by to see their father. I was trying to imagine what that would be like and was having difficulty until she told me something even more disturbing.

The caregiver switched the conversation to prayer. I was still rolling to story of the children around in my head, so I was only half-listening, but the caregiver was talking about God’s blessings and God’s grace in her life and how blessed she felt that she was able to care for the patient. She spoke about her faith and how she grew up Roman Catholic but strayed away for a while but has found her way back the last few years. “There was something missing,” but she really could not tell me what it was that was missing.

Then she got very serious. She once again turned to all of God’s blessings and the grace the God bestows on us, and she said that God would take his blessing away as well as his grace if we are not careful. I try not to press my theological understanding on people, that is not what I am there for, but I pushed a little to find out what she meant. She continued that is we do not pray, go to church, and all the rest of the “stuff” God will turn his back on us and take away his blessings and his grace. I was dumbfounded. If you can imagine, I was at a loss for words. The visit ended, and I went on my way, but this conversation was haunting me.

So, I ask you this question, it can be a rhetorical question, but if someone wants to answer and share that would be great. How do you envision God? I mean, what does God look like to you? I do not mean physically, but I guess the better question is, how do you perceive God?

I will start. I was asked one-time what God looked like to me, and I responded by saying that God looked like George Burns in the movie O God. I am sure many of you sitting here tonight have seen the movie or at least know who George Burns is. He is a kind, grandfatherly type of guy. That’s God to me. Anyone else wish to share?

Jesus gives a glimpse into how he feels we should see God, as the father. Now, this is all well and good unless you have a bad perception of what fatherhood is all about, so let’s think of some other words that we can use. Benevolent, loving, caring, do anything for you, teacher, etc. All of these in one way or another describe God, but, keep in mind that human words cannot describe God as God is indescribable.

Notice words I did not use, ogre, vengeful, jailer, judge, tyrant. None of those words were used yet the woman I spoke with the other day talked about a God that would take away a blessing or a grace out of spite; it is as if a father gave his child a candy bar and after one bite, took it away.

In the Gospel lesson we heard this evening, Jesus teaches his followers not only how to pray but how to think about God. I would like us to stray a little away from the image of father for a moment, just in case there might be some lousy father images in the room but also to break down the wall of patriarchy and that God is masculine. God has no gender. God has no color. God has no nationality. God is not partial to anyone but treats everyone equal. So, for this exercise, let’s think of God as a friend, perhaps a best friend. I mean we do not walk up to a stranger on the street and ask them for things, we get to know someone first before we ask them. The same is true with God, how can we dare ask God for stuff, prayers, until we truly know God. Of course, you can but hang in there with me, and I hope it will all make sense.

Jesus teaches us to call God father. That is the relationship that we are to have, parent and child. I do not have children, but I am sure that I would do anything within my power to give them what they wanted if it was in their best interest. That is the key by the way, in their best interest. A child might want a scorpion or an alligator but is that the best thing for them? Probably not. But the relationship that Jesus hopes exists between God and us is that of an approachable parent that we can ask anything of, we might not always get it, but we can always ask.

So, we pray to our friend, our parent, our confidant, whatever image we wish to use, and we praise his name, hallowed be your name on earth as it is in heaven. Do we truly praise God, or do we take his name in vain? How often do we exclaim, “O My God!” Sure, it just slips out, but that is a clear violation of Commandment #1. Do we have another God’s that we place before God? Money, power, politicians, our way, etc. Again, clear violations of the top 10 as I like to call them.

Give us today our daily bread. In other words, give us what we need today and nothing more. This harkens back to the time of the Exodus when the Jews were wandering in the desert for 40 years. Manna came down from heaven to feed them, and they were instructed to take only what they needed for that one day, and more would be provided tomorrow. Many did not trust, so they took more, and when they awoke the next morning, it had molded and was rotten. Give us today only what we need, not what we want, but what we need, and I trust that you will do the same tomorrow.

Then comes the Biggy; forgive us our trespasses, I like trespasses rather than debts by the way I like sins as it says in Scripture, but trespasses work. Forgive us how? As we forgive. See, there is always a catch. The idea here is that we forgive others as we have been forgiven. How have we been forgiven? Completely! So, if we are forgiven entirely, then we have also to forgive completely. This one is hard, I know, but it is essential to our spiritual life. I have mentioned it before, so I will quickly repeat it; forgiveness is not for the person that wronged you; forgiveness is for you! By not forgiving someone, you are giving that person power over a part of your life and a way to control you. Forgiveness frees you of that and allows you to seek your true potential. Think about it.

Lead us not into temptation, or as it says in the Scripture; “and do not bring us to the time of trial.” Let’s unpack this a little.

Back in June, Pope Francis turned some heads when he approved a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer for the Roman Catholic Church in Italy. His justification was that the present reading, lead us not into temptation, was wrong, and it implied that God leads us to temptation. “We fall,” the Pope said, “God does not push us.” So, the Pope changed it to “do not let us fall into temptation.” It is not God who tempts, that is the other guy’s job, we are asking that God protects us when temptation comes, and it will.

There is nothing in that prayer or any of the teachings of Jesus, that tells us that God will withhold his blessings or take them away. God freely gives to us as we need even if we don’t ask. To think any other way changes the very essence of the God that sent his Son to show us the way. He could have just wiped us all off the map, but in his love for his creation, he sent Jesus to show us the way home.