John the Baptist: Holy Troublemaker

One of, if not the central figure of our Advent journey is John the Baptist. John is fundamental to our Advent journey because he, like the season of Advent, is calling us to repentance and to make room for the coming of the Savior into our lives. John is a preacher and a thorn in the side of not only the religious leaders of his day but the civic leadership. John is a “Holy Troublemaker” and speaks truth to power and tells it like it is.

There is much we can learn from the life of John the Baptist. John’s role was to point the way to Jesus and to remind people of their need for repentance and that God loves them. John’s entire mission was to prepare the way, to get things ready for the one who was coming after him.

But John is more than this; John is the one who paved the way for Jesus. John is the one who announced that the time had come and that the long-awaited Messiah was here. John pointed to Jesus and showed him to his followers and even encouraged them to follow Jesus rather than John. John has left us an example to follow that of being the ones who bring the message of Jesus Christ into the world.

What the world needs now is more John the Baptists, and we can be those people for the world.

Sermon: Where are you, God?

A Sermon on Jeremiah 33:14-16

 

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” Jeremiah 33:14-16

We have come to the season that time has forgotten. In our 21st century world, the period between Thanksgiving, or even Halloween, and the start of the Christmas season on December 24th has become a period of shopping and other holiday frenzy. I always hear people complain about how early retail outlets put their Christmas offerings on display yet those very same people skip over the liturgical season of Advent as if it is nothing to be concerned about.

Advent is a season about expectation, about waiting, and about preparation for the coming of the Christ child. Just think about the number of hours we spend getting the house ready for Christmas. Dragging the decorations down from the attic or up from the basement. Trying to get all of the strings of lights to work, and getting frustrated when they don’t. Standing in what can seem to be endless lines waiting to pay for stuff that will either be broken or forgotten about in less than a month, yet we spend so little time preparing ourselves, our hearts our minds, and our souls for the greatest gift of all.

The reading we heard from the Prophet Jeremiah this morning could be classified as a lament. The people of Israel are in exile in Babylon. They have lost everything, homes, lands, and their future but more important than all of that they have lost all hope. So rooted are they in their despair that they cannot imagine an alternative to what has happened to them and so they cannot remember God’s promise to them, so Jeremiah comes along to remind them. The message Jeremiah is bringing is supposed to be one that will restore hope even in the darkest hours but also Jeremiah is filled with grief, and so his message of hope comes across as a lament. The message of the First Sunday of Advent is hope not hope for material wealth and greatness but hope in a future that God has promised them and a future that God has promised us.

During the season of Advent we hear from the Prophets and prophetic literature to point out the importance of waiting, anticipation, and trusting in the promised future that seems removed from our current circumstances. What the prophets are trying to tell us is that we are called to not only name suffering and injustice but to lean into God’s promised alternative future. We may light our Advent candles for preparation, hope, joy, and love but the prophets’ sound justice and righteousness.

During the lighting of the candle on our Advent wreath today we heard from another Prophet, Isaiah and that darkness has covered the earth. But Isaiah does not leave his people there with the image of darkness he tells them about the light the light of God’s glory that will shine into the dark places. The light of God’s love that comes upon each of us and assures us of our forgiveness and that God loves us. The light from that one candle is there, shining forth, to bring us hope us just as Jeremiah was bringing hope to his people.

One of the characters that we are introduced to during Advent in John the Baptist. It’s funny that we run into him during Advent since his story is so intertwined with the story of Lent and Easter but we run into John in his role as a prophet as the one who is crying in the wilderness and John’s life is one that Christians should emulate.

John is a holy troublemaker a prophet who speaks truth to power he is preaching his message of repentance and preparation to the people, but he is also a thorn in the side of power both civil power and religious power. In Christian art, John is always depicted as pointing towards Jesus. In the iconography of the Orthodox Churches John is never painted without looking towards Jesus. John is included on the wall that separates the people from the holy place but is always leading the way towards Jesus. And John is a preacher but not a preacher that brings fame and glory to himself. He is not a preacher that is walking the halls of power. John is not a preacher that sits with kings and advises them, not John is a preacher what brings glory to God and preaches a message of transformation. His message points towards Jesus as the one, the only one, who can take away the sins of the world. John is a fascinating character that only has a cameo role in the salvation story, but it is an essential role because he points to the promise of hope that Jesus is bringing.

We are now the ones that need to carry that message of hope out into the world. We are the light that needs to shine in the darkness. We are the ones that need to seek justice, mercy, and peace in the world. We are the ones that need to be a thorn in the side of power, and we are the ones who need to continually remind people of how much they are loved by God just the way they are and that God forgives them.

Like John, we are called to speak out and act out in our faith, and we are called to, in the words of another prophet, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Advent, the Forgotten Season

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah 40:3

If you look around your neighborhood, you might think that Christmas has come early. Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier each year with retail establishments putting out Christmas decorations after Halloween or even earlier. But it is not the Christmas season, that season does not begin until the 24th of December, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is Advent, and if you skip it, you are missing out on a beautiful time of the year.

Advent is a time of expectation. Advent is the season of waiting. Advent is the season of patience. Advent is a time of spiritual preparation when darkness falls earlier, and we await the light to come and brighten the darkness. Advent is the season when we hear the prophecies of the birth of Jesus Christ, and it is the season for us to get our hearts ready for that time.

The great Russian/American theologian Alexander Schmemann referred to the Advent season as the Winter Pascha and linking it back to the time of Lent that is celebrated just before Easter. Ancient Church customs called for a period of fasting and repentance during this time of year, a tradition still maintained by Christians of the Eastern Orthodox traditions. Advent has, since the earliest times of the Church, been seen as this time of preparation and we have lost that in our present day.

Each of the four Sundays of this season has a theme, hope (Isa 60:2), peace (Isa 9:6-7), love (1 John 4:9-11), and joy (John 15:9-11) and in many churches a candle is lit for each of those Sundays as a reminder of how we, as the light of Christ, are to drive the darkness out of the world. These themes and their associated Scripture passages call us to repentance, but they also call us to action.

This time of year can be busy, but the call of Advent is to slow down, just a little, and focus on what the coming season of Christmas is all about, the Birth of our Savior. Slow down, and meditate if only for a few moments each day and enjoy Advent.

Reigning Compassion

A Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

“When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me.” (v. 40).

We all have done it. We have all walked by someone in need and looked the other way. I recall times in my own life when I crossed the street to avoid people looking for a handout. We have all done it. This passage from Matthew 25 makes me uncomfortable is some many ways. I cannot help everyone; we cannot help everyone. But what we can do is remember what Jesus said: “When you do it to the least of these, my family, you did it to me” – not, please notice, just the certifiably hungry and truly deserving. The only criteria he set was “least of these.”

Who are the “least of these?” The weak, the vulnerable, the little ones. What you and I are called to do is not overlook or ignore, but to look into a human face and to see there the face of Jesus Christ, because that is what he said.

Any student of the New Testament knows that the only description of the last judgment is right here in this passage from Matthew’s gospel. In this story, there is nothing about ecclesiastical connections or religious practices. There is nothing about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. The only criterion that mentioned is whether or not we saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name. Let me say that differently. In the end, at the last judgment that we will all face, how we have treated others will be the only criterion used.

Each year I make an appointment with my doctor. I have blood drawn, perhaps an x-ray and an EKG. I meet with the doctor who forces me to get on a scale, pokes and prods, asks questions and in the end announces if I am healthy or not. Usually, except a few things, like the scale, I am pretty healthy. In many ways, the passage from Matthew is a wellness check. The passage is not meant to scare or condemn but only as a wellness check on our spiritual life, just like a wellness check on our bodies, to see where we are and how we might change our habits, so our lives become healthier and more balanced.

These words of Jesus are a call to a radically new social structure based on the God-given dignity and value of every human being, regardless of their gender, race, creed, national origin, socio-economic status, religion, or no religion, etc.  The God-given dignity and value of every human being. “What you do for, and to, the least of these, you do to me.”

There are three essential ideas here in this passage.

A statement about God is the first. God is not some remote being on some far off mountain or cloud, God is right here, in the messiness and ambiguity of life. God is here in good times and in bad. In calm weather and the hurricane. God is most present in the ones that are needy. If we want to see that face of God we only have to look into the faces of one of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.

The second radical statement is about religion. All throughout history terrible atrocities have been committed, and are still being committed by people shouting about God. Religious officials hide clergy abuse and other abuse and try to explain it away and justify it with references to Mary and Joseph and others in Scripture. Religions deny communion to those with whom they disagree. Religious leaders and others condemn each other, excommunicate each other, invest inordinate amounts of energy and resources fighting one another over who gets in and who is kept out, over whose doctrinal formulas are correct and whose are false most of which Jesus had nothing to say.

The third thing said here is not social, political, economic, or even religious it is personal. God desires not only a world modeled on the values and teachings of Jesus Christ, God wants us – each of us. God is not a social engineer but a God of love who wants to save our souls and redeem us and give us the gift of life – true, deep, authentic human life.

God saves us by touching our hearts with love by gently persuading us to care and see other human beings who need us. God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and worry about others.

Loving those for whom Jesus gave his life, particularly those who are undervalued, is primary expression of our love for God and our experience of God’s love for us. God’s greatest project, the entire reason that Jesus died on the cross, was to teach us the fundamental lesson, the secret, the truth – that to live is to love.

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!