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.

Sermon: Word and Work

Luke 10:39-42

A recent article published on one of the church growth websites I frequent focused on some of the reason churches close. The report stated that some 300 churches, of various denominations, close each year and about the same number are on life support and will close their doors in the next three to five years. The article cited example after example of churches that, only a few years before, were thriving ministry centers and reaching out to the needs of their communities. All of the example churches cited had one thing in common; they turned their attention inward and stopped looking outward. They started to care more about meeting the needs of their present membership and less about the needs of those around them. They began to focus more on what it takes to keep the institution going, money, and less about what was needed just outside the doors of the church, love, compassion, and yes, a little Jesus.

Any organization be it church or business that loses its focus will not last long, and churches especially have to be ever vigilant in their duty to serve humanity rather than their own needs. This is challenging in the 21st-century world that is continuously changing. The church, any church, has never been good at change. Some churches have “we’ve always done it that way” emblazoned in their stained-glass windows, I’m joking of course but if not in their windows it is at least in their minds, their vision, and they thoughts.

Being an outward-looking church is not easy. Caring for others and their needs are not easy, especially when those needs continuously change, but that is what we, as the church, are called to do. If we do not open our doors and lookout and go out, no one will ever come in.

But with that said, we cannot focus on ministry, I mean, who is going to pay for it?  I am a realist, and as much as I would like to think we can do everything we feel called to unless we have someone to pay for it, it’s not going to happen. The 21st-century world is expensive and if we hope to be one of the churches that survive we need to strike a balance between the sacred and the secular or what is called in church work the holy and the profane.

We see a glimpse of this in the Gospel we heard read tonight. The story of Mary and Martha is more than just a tale of two sisters; it is the story of the church and how we are to find balance in everything we do. We need the Mary’s, and we need the Martha’s!

We have tonight, the story of Martha and Mary. We have seen them before, and perhaps you remember that they are the sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus would rise from the dead. I believe this to be their first introduction to Jesus, and the friendship builds from here. I also find it interesting that there is no mention of Lazarus, I guess Luke and the others were saving him for a much more significant role later in the story.

Jesus always found rest and refreshment in Bethany. He would often go there after a particularly tricky ministry period. He would stay there for a while to just rest, be with friends, and regain his strength for the mission ahead of him. On this trip, he is staying with Mary and Martha, and we find Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus taking in all that he has to say. She is hanging on every word, soaking it all in. Then, Martha enters the room. She has been slaving over the visitors the entire time, by herself and she has reached her limit to what she can take.

Martha comes in and challenges Jesus and tells him to tell Mary to get off her duff and get back to work. But Jesus cautions Martha and tells her not to worry about so many things for she is being distracted from ministry. What Jesus is not saying, although it certainly sounds like he is, that what Mary is doing is more important than what Martha is doing. What he is saying is we cannot always be worried about the worldly things, yes, we need to be concerned about them, but our focus needs to be on the spiritual as well.

The fear is that churches will be run without any sense of the Holy. In our constant desire for money and other such things, we lose God in it all when God should be first in everything and the prime mover of everything that we do. We should not start or stop anything in the church, without the guidance of God.

When the church is led to position itself at the feet of Christ, reading scripture, asking after its meaning, listening to fabulous sermons, and wrestling like Jacob for God’s blessing even those nitty-gritty details will take care of themselves. The setting for this story is home as a reminder that every pastoral call is potentially an occasion to listen for God’s word or to participate in the drawing near of God’s kingdom.

Some of the more profound moments in ministry begin when we join a dinner party where an off the cuff question provides the opening for a conversation about life’s meaning and purpose. The same can happen when we enter a hospital room or another setting where ministry can take place.

But there is also a necessity for work to take place. We would not have that dinner on the table if we did not have Martha’s in the kitchen. We would not have this beautiful spot to be tonight if we did not have Martha’s who clean, paint, move furniture and all the like. So important was the ministry of serving that the early church, as noted in Acts, appointed seven to serve at the table to free up the Apostles for ministry.

The result of the article I mentioned earlier was the healthy churches find balance in all things ministry related. Just like we need to find balance in our lives between the physical, the mental, and the spiritual, the church also needs to find that balance, and it is up to the leadership to continually strive to find that balance.

Sermon: Unwearied in Prayer

Luke 18:1-14

A lot is going on in the passage; in fact, there are two sermons in these short 14 verses from Luke but first a word about the Gospel itself. I mentioned last week that Luke has a universalist approach to the Gospel, it is for everyone, and it is about everyone. Luke believed that the Gospel would spread to the far reaches of the known world and so he uses many images and stories that everyone would, and will, understand.

Taken on the whole, this passage is about prayer and our life of prayer and how we should conduct that prayer. I am a believer in prayer and have seen first-hand the results of the power of prayer. I believe that our prayer should be a conversation with God, and so part of that is listening to another person in the discussion, and yes, God will speak to you. I will also confess to you that I do not pray as much as I should, and when I do pray, at least lately, my heart is not in it.

It might be helpful if you keep the bulletin handy so you can read along with me.

The passage is broken up into two distinct stories with the same theme. Verses 1-13 and then 9-11. In the first section, we have a widow and a judge. The widow was looking for vindication from her “adversary,” and the Judge was refusing. We do not know who or what her “adversary” is in the story, but whatever it was it must have bothered her enough to keep coming to the Judge. In the end, the Judge relents, not because he has compassion on the widow but so she will go away and not bother him anymore.

The Judge was not a Jewish Judge. Ordinary Jewish disputes were brought before the elders and not into public courts. Under the law, if the matter needed arbitration, one man could not act, there were always three judges, one chosen by the plaintiff, one by the defendant, and one independently appointed.

This Judge was appointed by Rome or by Herod the King. These judges were notorious, and unless you had money to bribe them, they ruled against you. The widow had no money, and so her case dragged on.

Most characters in the stories Jesus use represent multiple things or groups of people, not just the individual in the story. These stories were, and are, allegorical, so the purpose of the story or the moral teaching is what is important not the facts as they, for the most part, are made up.

The widow represents all who are poor and defenseless. As she was poor and without any resources, widows had nothing and if there was no family to take them in, had to resort to either prostitution, remarriage, or begging on the street. She had no hope of getting any justice from this Judge.

So what is the point of the story? Simple, if the unjust Judge can be wearied into giving the widow what she wants, “vindication from her adversary” then how much more will God, who is a loving parent, give to his children when they are in need? Notice I said need and not want. God answers every prayer, but sometimes, the answer to that prayer is no. Like a parent, God knows what we need and what is good for us. Sure, I might need to win the lottery and pray to God that I do, but if it is not what is suitable for, guess what? God sees time whole, and therefore, only God knows and sees what is right for us in the long run. This is why Jesus told us we should never be discouraged in prayer.

Now let’s turn our attention to the second part of this passage.

Again we have two very different people, a Pharisee, and a Tax Collector. They have come to the Temple to pray. Devout Jews prayed three times each day; 9 a.m., 12 noon, and 3 p.m. Prayer was to be extra special if it could be done in the Temple so, at these three hours, many went to the Temple courts to pray.

This cycle of prayer is still in use. In monasteries and other religious houses, the members of the community usually gather together for prayer at these hours but might also add an earlier morning prayer and one or maybe two additional hours in the evening and night. Muslims also pray at these times and, like the Jews, feel their prayers are better if they can get to a Mosque to pray for at least one of these times.

But we need to focus our attention on the two players in the story.

First, we have the Pharisee. He was not there to pray to God. He prayed with himself. True prayer is offered to God and God alone. In the prayer that Jesus taught us, he taught us to pray, Our Father…. We direct our prayers to God, not to Jesus or anyone else but God. Jewish law proscribed only one fast that all Jews were obligated to observe, the day of Atonement.  Those who wished special merit fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, the days that the markets were open in Jerusalem. Those who fasted would whiten their faces and would appear in disheveled clothing and would sit in the market so their piety would be on display for the most massive audience. The Pharisee did not go to pray; he went to tell God how good he is.

We have the Tax Collector. He stood off, by himself, not even lifting his eyes to God. The translation does not do his prayer justice for he actually prayer, “O God, be merciful to me – the sinner.” He was not just a sinner, but he was THE sinner. Jesus says that it was that heart-broken, self-despising prayer that won him acceptance before God.

There are three things about prayer in this parable.

1. No one who is proud can pray. It has been said that the gate of heaven is so low that the only way we can enter it is on our knees.

2. No one who despises their fellow humans can pray. In prayer, we do not lift ourselves above others. As Christians, we are no better than non-Christians in fact; I know plenty of non-Christians that are much better Christians then the Christian I know. There is nowhere in the teachings of Jesus where he tells us it is okay to be proud and arrogant and that, just because we say we believe in him even though our actions might say otherwise, that we are better than anyone else.

3. True prayer comes from setting our lives beside the life of God. No doubt everything the Pharisee said about himself was true. He did fast; he did tithe; he was not like others, especially the Tax Collector. But the question is not, “am I as good as other humans?” The question is, “am I as good as God?” As Christians, we are not to compare ourselves to other Christians; we are to compare ourselves to Jesus and ultimately to God. What does Jesus expect of us? This is not a trick question I tell you all the time, Love God, Love neighbor. Are we doing that? Are we genuinely doing that or just paying it lip service? Do we genuinely tithe to the church in time, treasure, and talent? Do we earnestly pray not only for ourselves but for others? We can all do better, and that is the point, none of us are perfect.

We should not attempt to compare ourselves to others, especially in the sense that the Pharisee did, by telling God that “at least he was not like that Tax Collector over there.” Our gauge, or marker, our archetype is the way of Jesus and the love of God, that’s it.

One of my spiritual heroes is Maria of Paris. Maria was a Russian Orthodox Nun that lived in Paris and brought aid and comfort to the Russians that had fled there after the Bolshevik Revolution. She worked tirelessly to help anyone she could with what she had often gone without a meal herself to provide one for another. The Nazis killed mother Maria in a gas chamber on Good Friday 1945, her crime; she helped people.

She has many quotes, but my favorite will be our prayer to end this time.

“At the Last Judgment, I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead, I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person, the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”


Go, and do likewise

Giving a helping hand.

This essay comes from my weekly column in the First Congregational Church of Salem, New Hampshire weekly eNews.

Just a quick word of warning right at the outset, this might be a little longer; in fact, I know it is going to be longer, then these columns usually are.  I have taken a few weeks off from writing, and I need to catch up. Well, that is only part of the story; there is a lot to say about this topic of “who is my neighbor?”

The backdrop for this is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as found in Luke 10:25-37. You might wish to pause here, grab your bible, and read it first. We all know the story. A man gets beaten by robbers on the road to Jericho. Several people pass by; the traveler, the priest, the Levite, and finally the Samaritan. Each of them has their reasons for not stopping, and we can address that at another time, but for today, I want to focus on the discussion that takes place after Jesus tells the story.

Jesus was asked by a Scribe, an expert in the law, what he was to do to enter eternal life? Jesus answers him with, love God and love neighbor. And the Scribe follows up with, “Who is my neighbor?” Now usually in scripture when the Scribes or other teachers of the law ask Jesus a question, it is to trap him, but I believe that this Scribe was being honest and genuinely seeking an answer.

Although Jesus does not come right out and say it, our neighbor is anyone that is in need. Because of the Jewish law, a Jew was only to help another Jew, but Jesus was standing that on its head, this is why Jesus was considered a radical. He was telling the Scribe that anyone, no matter who they are or where they come from or what they believe, they are our neighbor and if they are in need, we are to help them.

Jesus is quite specific about what he means by help:

1. We must help even if the person, who is our neighbor, brought the trouble on himself. It should not matter how they got into the position they are in, they are in trouble, and they need help, so we help them.

2. As I have already mentioned, anyone from anywhere who is in need is our neighbor. Our help must be as wide as the love of God.

3. The help must be practical and not consist merely in feeling sorry. Thoughts and prayer might be well-intentioned, but if the guy is hungry, he needs food first. After we feed him, we can pray for him. No doubt the priest and the Levite, and maybe even the traveler from the story felt sorry for the man as they passed him by on the road, but they did nothing. Compassion, to be real, must issue in deeds.

There has been a lot of talk, and that is what it is talk, in the news recently about helping those in need on the border. It should not matter how they got here or what their status is. Yes, that is a question for discussion but first, let’s take care of the humanitarian crisis with those in need and discuss the philosophical issues latter.

At the end of the parable, Jesus tells the Scribe to “Go, and do likewise.” He was referring to the compassion that the Samaritan had on the wounded man. And so I say to all of you, Go, and do likewise. Maybe you cannot go to the border, but one tangible thing you can do is to remember that they are human beings and they need our help.