Prayer at the Dedication of the National Cemetery Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Prayer at the
by Reverend Thomas H. Stockton,
Chaplain of the House of Representatives
Thursday, November 19, 1863

O God our Father, for the sake of Thy Son our Savior, inspire us with Thy Spirit and sanctify us to the right fulfillment of the duties of this occasion.

We come to dedicate this new historic center as a National Cemetery.  If all departments of the one Government which Thou had ordained over our Union, and of the many Governments which Thou hast subordinated to our Union, be here represented; if all classes, relations, and interests of our blended brotherhood of people stand severally and thoroughly apparent in Thy presence; we trust that it is because Thou hast called us, that Thy blessing awaits us, and that Thy designs may be embodied in practical results of incalculable and imperishable good.

And so, with Thy holy Apostle, and with the Church of all lands and ages; we unite in the inscription: ‐ “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort, who comforteth us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.”

In emulations of all angels, in fellowship with all saints, and in sympathy with all sufferers; in remembrance of Thy works, in reverence of Thy ways, and in accordance with Thy word; we laud and magnify Thine infinite perfections, Thy creative glory, Thy redeeming grace, Thy providential goodness, and the progressively richer and fairer developments of Thy supreme, universal, and everlasting administration.

In behalf of all humanity, whose ideal is divine, whose first memory is Thine image lost, and whose last hope is Thine image restored; and especially of our own nation, whose history has been so favored, whose position is so peerless, whose mission is so sublime, and whose future is so attractive; we thank Thee for the unspeakable patience of Thy compassion and the exceeding greatness of Thy loving kindness.  In contemplation of Eden, Calvary, and Heaven; of Christ in the Garden, on the Cross, and on the Throne; say more of Christ as coming again in all subduing power and glory; we gratefully prolong our homage.  By this Alter o Sacrifice, on this Field of Deliverance, on this Mount of Salvation, within the fiery and bloody line of these “munitions of rock,” looking back to the dark days of fear and trembling, and to the rapture of relief that came after; we multiply our thanksgivings, and confess our obligations to renew and perfect our personal and social consecration to Thy service and glory.

O, had it not been for God!  For lo! Our enemies – they came unresisted, multitudinous, mighty, flushed with victory, and sure of success.  They exulted on our mountains, they reveled in our valleys,; they feasted, they rested; they slept, they awaked;  they grew stronger, prouder, bolder every day; they spread abroad, they concentrated here; they looked beyond this horizon to the stores of wealth, to the haunts of pleasure, and to the seats of power, in our Capital and chief Cities.  They prepared to cast the chain of Slavery around the form of Freedom, binding life and death together forever.  Their premature triumph was the mockery of God and man.  One more victory; and all was theirs!  But, behind these hills was heard the feebler march of a smaller but still pursuing host.  Onward they hurried, day and night, for God and their country.  Foot‐sore, way‐worn, hungry, thirsty, faint – but not in heart, they came to dare all to bear all, and to do all, that is possible to heroes.  And Thou didst sustain them!  At first they met the blast on the plain, and bent before it, like the trees in a storm.  But then, led by Thy hand to these hills, they took their stand upon the rocks and remained as firm and immovable as they.  In vain were they assaulted.  All art, all violence, all desperation, failed to dislodge them.  Baffled, bruised, broken, their enemies recoiled, retired, and disappeared.  Glory to God, for this rescue!  But, O, the slain!  In the freshness and fullness of their young and manly life; with each sweet memories of father and mother, brother and sister, wife and children, maiden and friends; they died for us.  From the coasts beneath the Eastern star, from the shores of Northern lakes and rivers, from the flower of Western prairies, and from the homes of the Midway, and the Border, they came here to die for us and for mankind.  Alas, how little we can do for them!  We came with the humility of prayer, with the pathetic eloquence of venerable wisdom, with the tender beauty of poetry, with the plaintive harmony of music, with the honest tribute of our Chief Magistrate, and with all this honorable attendance: but our best hope is in Thy blessing.  O, Lord, our God! O, Father, bless us!  Bless the bereaved, whether present, or absent; bless our sick and wounded soldiers and sailors; bless all our rulers and people; bless our army and navy; bless the efforts of the suppression of the rebellion; and bless all the associations of this day; and place, and scene, forever.  As the trees are not dead, though their foliage is gone, so our heroes are not dead, though their forms have fallen.  In their proper personality, they are all with Thee.  And the spirit of their example is here.  It fills the air, it fills our hearts.  And, long as time shall last, it will hover in the skies, and rest on this landscape; and the pilgrims of our own land, and from all lands, will thrill with its inspiration and increase and confirm their devotion to liberty, religion and God. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil; for Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Sermon: Infinite Possibilities

Luke 21:5-19

It is said that most people can remember exactly where they were when they received news of some kind. These moments of recollection often involve a tragedy of some sort.  Many of you remember where you were when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I am sure we all can remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the first news of the events of September 11, 2001. I know I do.

But not all of these events have to be tragic. I can remember, as if it was yesterday, a crisp fall evening in 2004 when a short toss of a ball broke the “Curse of the Bambino,” and the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in almost 90 years. These events leave a mark on us, but it is what we do with that mark that matters.

This morning we heard some very challenging words from Jesus concerning what we are to do when these types of events strike. Jesus is speaking of the destruction of the Temple, and his disciples ask two pertinent questions: When? What will be the sign? Jesus then goes on to describe three things that will happen in the future; imposters will come and try and trick the faithful; war and conflict will rage on; natural disasters will be prevalent. Jesus gives them some assurance that the “end times” are in the future and that they will not happen all at once. He also tells them that he does not know when it will happen; only God knows, so we really should not worry. But, and there is always a, but with Jesus, this will be an opportunity for us.

Jesus says in verse 13: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” But he warns that our testimony should not be canned or rehearsed but should come naturally from a life spent living their testimony. In our rather stoic, New England, Yankee sense of religion, we do not like to speak about our faith. In many ways, this is a problem when we consider church growth. In a recent survey, 80% of people who come to a church for the first time come because someone has asked them to come. They did not find an ad in the Yellow Pages; they did not even read something on a church Facebook page, nope, someone asked them to come with them to church.

It is an exciting phenomenon to watch, people will go to a movie or out to dinner at a new place and after, they cannot wait to tell their friends about it. They post on Social Media, check-in, take pictures of their food, or their happy faces while eating that food, but when they come to church on Sunday, it’s as if they don’t want anyone to know. I encourage you to whip out your phone right now, come on, do it, open your Facebook app if you have it, and check-in that you are here. Take a picture, quote something from the sermon or a song, you are testifying!

But, we do not like to talk about our faith because we were taught that in polite society, you do not talk about politics or religion. But the problem with that is, we now do not know how to talk about politics or religion in polite society, in fact, I would suggest that the reason we no longer have a polite society is that we do not know how to talk about these topics.

These days religion is known for two things, what is wrong and who or what you should be afraid of. Some preachers love to talk about the “end times” because it makes people fearful, and when people are afraid, they will usually do whatever anyone in authority tells them to do. I do not spend much time reading the Book of Revelation, and I know for a fact, except for quoting a few verses here and there, I have never preached a sermon from that book. Revelation is, in my estimation, and incomprehensible book to the human mind, the one most taken out of context and is frequently used to bind up the faithful but to scare the life out of them.

But back to this idea of testimony. Jesus tells us in this passage that all of this bad stuff that is going to happen will allow us to testify, and I believe the time has come. You all know this, we are living in a world that devalues some human beings over others. Some churches go out of their way to make it know who is and who is not welcome in their place of “worship.” These are our opportunities to testify.

A few days ago, I was talking to some folks about my view of what Communion means. I have shared with you before that I believe that the bread and juice cease to be simple elements but that a change happens when we ask the Holy Spirit to come upon them. Their elemental nature remains the same, but the is a shift in their essence, and they are no longer just simple food that feeds us physically, but they become sanctified, and they feed us spiritually. In this discussion I mentioned that one of the reasons, it’s actually the number 1 reason, I left my previous denomination was the idea of closed Communion that only those deemed worthy by a set of rules, that no one follows, by the way, is worth to come to the table. My testimony is that this table is open to all people without the condition.

To put it simply, in a world where the church is known more for what we are against than what we are for, our testimony is that God loves you and that God welcomes you into his presence.

Our testimony needs to be the testimony of Paul in his Letter to the Romans:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

We begin each service with “God Moments.” These moments have touched me in such a way that wherever I go next, I am going to try and work these into the service. These are the moments when we share when we testify to what God is doing in our lives. It might be something as simple as passing a test or something a great as healing from some illness; it does not matter what it is; what matters is that God is still moving and acting in our lives, and we want to tell the world about it.

We have zero control over the future; what is going to happen is going to happen for the future is unknown to us. We cannot predict what will happen or when all we can do is live in the moment, care for one another in the moment and testify to what God is doing in our lives in the moment. And, invite someone to church!


Sermon: Transforming Love

Have you ever faced an obstacle so significant there was no way you thought you would be able to overcome it?  Have you ever placed an impediment to someone’s path to prevent them from something?  Today we heard the story of a person that overcame the most significant obstacle he faced, and it radically changed his life.

Let’s face it, life is full of obstacles, and that may not be a bad thing. When faced with those things that stand blocking us, we have a few choices, turn back, go around, or go over but, if what we desire is on the other side, we have no option but to overcome whatever is in our way.

Let’s set the scene of today’s encounter with Jesus.

Jesus is coming into Jericho. It is rather late in his ministry, and he is on his way to Jerusalem. Jericho is in the Jordan Valley on the West Bank. Today it is a Palestinian City with the Jordan River to the east and Jerusalem to the West. It is and was a rather large city, and word of Jesus had spread, and so crowds were gathering on the street to see him.

Zacchaeus is the Chief Tax Collector; he is very wealthy, and, as Scripture points out, he was short of stature. Because of his height, or lack thereof, he could not see when Jesus was coming down the road, so he needed a plan. He ran ahead a climbed a tree, not just any tree but a sycamore tree with low hanging branches, and there, he encountered Jesus.

Jesus, seeing this man in the tree, calls to him, “hurry down, for I must stay at your house.” As Jesus is saying this, all eyes follow Jesus’ gaze, and they see Zacchaeus, the dreaded Tax Collector, and the people start to murmur among themselves, “he has gone to be the guest of sinners!” They were outraged that Jesus would do this. How could anyone want to spend time with sinners?

But what drove Zacchaeus to do what he did?  He is the Chief Tax Collector and very rich, and by definition, he is a thief.  Tax Collectors worked for the Romans, the occupying force, and as such, they were looked upon poorly. Tax Collectors receive their wages from the Taxes they collected, so the more tax they collect, the more money they make, and the Chief Tax Collector was the richest of them all. But something happened to Zacchaeus, and he needed to make a change in his life.

Last week, we read the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the Temple. I cannot say for sure, but I do not think it is a mistake that these two stories follow on another. I believe that Zacchaeus is that Tax Collector and that he had a conversion experience in the Temple. Now, he needed to see Jesus for forgiveness. So he runs out of the Temple and climbs the tree because salvation is walking down the street.

Zacchaeus makes no confession other than what he makes in the Temple. Jesus sees him in that tree, sees his heart, and knows what is in that heart. The very act of Jesus, calling his name and staying at his home, was the forgiveness and reconciliation that Zacchaeus needs. Zacchaeus makes his penance, he gives half of his possessions to the poor and promises to makes restitution to anyone he has cheated, and I can only imagine that list is a long one. And with that, Jesus tells him that “Salvation has come to this house.” And they go off together.

But what of those left, those that started to murmur amongst themselves? They cannot understand how Jesus can do this; they are so blind in their rage that they did not see the confession and reconciliation taking place right before their eyes. Zacchaeus is no longer a sinner, in the broad sense of the word, of course, but their strict adherence to the law has blinded them to what happened right in front of them.

In a few moments, I will invite you to come to the table that is prepared for you. This communion table that is here before us is a table of radical welcome for all, not just for some. Through this mystery, we come together, regardless of our background or belief, to take the supper of the Lord. I have told you this before, when we pray over these elements they cease to be just simple bread and juice they become holy, and we are being called down out of our trees to break bread with Jesus.

I bring this up because last week, this sacrament was used not as a reminder of the love of Jesus that should bind us together but as a spear that is used to separate those who do not follow a specific set of rules. I cannot say how much this saddens me and disgusts me that this has happened, is still happening. Jesus Christ sat at the table with the man who was to deny him and the man who would betray him, and he served them his body and his blood knowing full well what they were going to do. I do not know where the arrogance comes from that makes people feel they have the power to be the judge of the grace of God!

We are all Zacchaeus with our heads bent low and pounding on our chests, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” We are all Zacchaeus when we run down the street, filled with joy to climb the tree to get a glimpse of Jesus as he passes by. We are all Zacchaeus when we realize that our lives need to change, and so we repent and promise to do better. But none of this would have happened if Jesus had not shown love that day on the street. Jesus looked up and saw a person filled with regret and offered him a place at the table, he did not shun him or turn his back on him or refuse to help him, he opened his arms wide with love and welcomed him in.

And so today I do the same. If you are Zacchaeus in the Temple, if you are Zacchaeus in the tree, if you are the ones standing there mocking Jesus for taking a meal with sinners I say to you, welcome to this table and through it may you find peace and joy.


Eucharistic Feast

“Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:52-54

One can only imagine the argument that broke out when the people gathered heard Jesus say that he was giving them his flesh to eat. Let’s face it; this would be rather startling to hear today, let alone two thousand years ago. But here is Jesus telling those within earshot that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood, they will not have eternal life. So let’s unpack this a little.

Last week I happened upon a sermon delivered on the Feast of Corpus Christi, June of 2019 by Canon Mark Birch at Westminster Cathedral. In that sermon, Canon Birch compared the use of the verb “to eat” as used in the passage from John I have quoted above. In the first instance, those arguing about eating are using the Greek verb phagow, which is a more delicate form of eating sort of nibbling as one would do on a small sandwich at a garden party. When Jesus speaks, he uses the Greek verb trowgow, a word that means to gnaw and eat like it was your last meal. The verb that Jesus uses implies that we are to eat of his flesh as if our very life depends upon it, and, as he says, it does.

But, I want to move away from the physical manifestation of what Jesus is saying here to focus on the spiritual. Obviously, Jesus is not giving us his actual flesh and is actual blood. Even in the elements of the Eucharist, considering the real presence, it is not actual flesh and blood but spiritual food.

Jesus, as John’s Gospel tells us, is the Word made flesh that dwelt among us. Jesus has left us with a new commandment to love God and love our neighbor (we also need to love our enemies and ourselves), and Jesus also left us a way to follow. When we feast on Jesus, when we trowgow Jesus, we are devouring the flesh of his word, we are taking that word into our very being, so it courses through our veins. We are feasting on his Word like it is the last meal we will ever eat. Jesus is the very bread of life, and if we feed on his, we shall have eternal life.

Denying Communion

This past week, the New York Times reported that former Vice President Joe Biden was refused communion at a Roman Catholic Church in South Carolina. It is important to note that the only mention Biden has made of this is to say that it was a personal matter. The priest, in a statement to the media, said he refused communion based on Biden’s support of abortion rights “something the church cannot condone by way of the sacrament.” I am not sure when it was decided that this priest or any human being was the judge of God’s grace, but he felt he was given that power.

In Roman Catholic Theology, the Eucharist is a sacrament. Sacraments provide grace to the faithful, so refusing to commune someone denies them of the sacramental grace. Roman Catholic Theology also teaches that Jesus Christ is present, in a very real way, in the elements of bread and wine, and so refusing to give communion to someone is to deny them the presence of Jesus. I am not sure that is what was intended.

On that Thursday night, in the Upper Room, Jesus gathered his closest friends around him for one last Passover meal with them. Scripture tells us that after supper, he shared bread and wine with them and said to them that these elements were his body and blood that would be shared for them and all so that their sins may be forgiven.  He then gave them the command to “do this in remembrance of me.” It is important to note that sitting around that table was the man that would three times deny Jesus and also the man that would betray him, which would ultimately lead to his death.  That’s right; Judas was present and, as far as we can tell, received communion from the hand of our Lord himself.

This denial of communion is certainly not the first instance of the faithful being denied communion; this practice has been going on since the day after that first Eucharist.  Who is and who is not in communion with the church is a powerful weapon that has been used by Popes, Priests, and Bishops in all times and places of history. This action that is meant to unify and bring grace and peace to people is continuously being used as a weapon to divide, and now it has been reduced to a prize one gets for being “the best in class.”

Although Pope Francis believes that abortion is a sin, he had this to say about withhold communion from people, I think this is from 2013, “The Eucharist … is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Another point I will raise is what has the action of this priest done in the eyes of the faithful? Sure, some will applaud him for taking a stand, but there are far more that will be hurt and divided by his actions. With the belief that communion is the real and actual presence of Jesus Christ when one comes to receive communion, they stand before the very presence of Jesus. What this priest has done is tell Biden and others that Jesus has told them no, go away, you are no worthy of my grace, something that Jesus NEVER did, remember, Judas was at that table.

When I decided to leave the Eastern Orthodox Church for the Reformed Church, it was partly around this idea of closed table communion that somehow, this life-giving sacrament was reserved only for those who followed a particular set of rules. My spiritual and theological understanding of the sacrament, real presence or not, is that it was a gift given by Jesus to everyone as a way to help them, through grace, to be better, to act better, to love better. By denying communion to people, we deny them God’s grace!

On a personal theological note, I do believe that Jesus is present in the elements of communion. I think that something happens when the community gathers around the table and that community asks the Holy Spirit to come. A transformation, a sanctification of those elements takes place and they become something different, not in the physical sense but in the spiritual sense.  And when we receive them into our bodies we become sanctified and grace-filled. How can we possibly deny that to anyone?

I am not sure where the arrogance comes from that makes one believe they are the judge of God’s grace, but I thank God that he sent his Son Jesus so that all who believe in him might have eternal life, not just those who follow specific rules.

Wisdom Wednesday: The Way of Love

On a beautiful spring day in May of 2018, Bishop Michal Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, stood in Window Chapel and preached a sermon at a wedding. Of course, the was no ordinary wedding for it was attended by the Queen of England and over a billion people watching on television around the world. Bishop Curry was invited by Prince Harry and Megan Markle to preach at their wedding, and boy did he preach.

I will admit that before that sermon, I had read or heard very little about Bishop Curry, but since that sermon, I have followed him with great intensity. The Bishop and I preach the same message, and that message is love.

In Bishop Curry’s wedding sermon, he reminded those listening that the reason they were all there was because two people fell in love. Love was the prime mover of all the events of that day. Sure, it was an affair of state with all the grandeur of a Royal Wedding, but it was love that set all of that in motion.

Since listening to that sermon, I have followed Bishop Curry and what he calls “The Way of Love.”  Bishop Curry often says, “The way of Jesus is the Way of Love. And the Way of Love can change the world.” In his wedding sermon, he quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “We must discover the power of love, … the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, … we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”

I believe that love is what is central to the life and practice of a Christian. Jesus taught us that love of God and love of neighbor was the summation of all the law, and he left us with a new commandment that we are to love one another as God has loved us unconditionally and without questioning whether or not that love is warranted.

The Gospel teaches that there is power in love, there is a power to transform our lives and to transform the world. “There’s power in love. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. There’s power in love to show us the way to live.” (The Power of Love, pg. 8)

If this unconditional love that Jesus taught is the summation of all of the law and the Prophets, then we, the followers of Jesus, have no other choice than to practice this radical love in our own lives.

Sermon: Just Worship

Luke 18:9-14

Humility is a word that has gone out of style in our 21st-century vocabulary. Our world teaches us to look down on those who are humble, to step on them to get to where we think we need to be. We are taught that our self-worth is tied to our status in life, and thus we are called to propel ourselves ahead of others not only with our talents but with our cunning ways and our political savvy. It has become acceptable to not only disagree with someone but to make fun of them and destroy them on a personal level for no other purpose than it makes us feel better, and we get a good laugh. We have become so numb to all that is going on around us that we believe that if something does not directly affect us, then we do not have to worry about it. That, by the way, is the very definition of privilege.

But we read in Micah, what has been called the Micah Mandate, “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). And we heard at the end of the Gospel passage this morning, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (18:14b). Being humble is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and, in my mind, anyway, one of the things that is most lacking in the Church today.

Jesus paints us a picture. Two men are in the Temple, praying. One is exalted by the Church and is the proper and perfect parishioner if you will.  He attends church every Sunday. He serves on several committees and volunteers for everything happening around the Church. He places his envelope in the tray each week and is the first one to return next year’s stewardship pledge form, increasing his previous years’ pledge just a little…. (a short subliminal commercial there). But he comes to the Church, stands in the center wearing his most elegant garments, raises his arms over his head and thanks to God that he is not like others especially this poor wretch over here, and he points to the small man, rolled up in a ball in the corner.

And there he is, the other man in the story whom the grandiose one labels as a Tax Collector. If there is anything more despised in the 1st century Palestine it’s the Tax Collector. I would venture to say that the Tax Collector is more despised than the Samaritans that we always hear about. But here he is in the church standing, as we read, afar off. He is beating on his chest and saying over and over again, “God be  merciful to me a sinner.” So burdened is he with his sin that he cannot even list his eyes to God. These two are quite the contrast between confidence and humility.

The great thing about parables is that those who hear it can place themselves inside the parable. There have been times when we have been the proud one, and there have been times when we have been the poor wretch in the corner. Perhaps we twinge a little when we think of ourselves as the self-righteous one, and maybe we get a little inspiration from the humility of the Tax Collector, either way, we are both people in this story.

But this parable also tells us of the God of mercy and the God who redeems through self-sacrifice. It is also a reminder that our justification comes not through our doing things, even good things. In fact, it is not achieved at all, at least by us. Justification comes through God’s reaching out in mercy to helpless sinners. There is a saying in recovery that “the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.” Recovery does not work if one is forced to go, recovery has to come from within, and the same is true in our spiritual life. Acknowledgment that we are sinners is critical. Now, we do not have to be like the Tax Collector in the story but, a recognition that we have fallen short and we need the help of God in our lives is what we are being asked to do.

1st century Jews believed that strict adherence to the Law was what was needed for their salvation. If they obeyed the Law and followed the Law correctly, they would be justified before God. Of course, that was impossible to do, no one could follow the law accurately, and this caused a great deal of pain. We have seen a similar thing play out in the modern Church with all of the rules and regulations. All of these rules led to corruption in the Church, which, some would say inevitably, led to a reform in the Church. Guilt is a powerful tool that can be used to good and evil, but guilt is never a way to help someone in their spiritual life.

So Jesus came to show us another way. Jesus told us that he was the fulfillment of all of the law and all of the prophets and summarized it all with “love God and love neighbor.” We no longer have to make a sacrifice on some altar in atonement for what we have or have not done for God made that ultimate sacrifice for us by sending Jesus to show us the way and to chart the course for us. We no longer have to wander in the darkness, for God has shown forth his light to lighten the path before us. And yes, we will stray from that path, and we will fall in a ditch or two along the way, but thankfully, that light never goes out, and we can find our way back perhaps with a little more humility.

The humility of the Tax Collector does not require us to wallow in self-pity and regret. The liberation of knowing that God is a God of mercy, and a God of love means we can leave behind our reliance on our achievements in our work or our faith community, These things have their place but not at the center of our spiritual life and our relationship with the God of the cross and the Friend of the poor.

Balance is key. We cannot trust in our ability to fulfill the Law, even the simple law of love God and love neighbor, but we also cannot abandon the Law. We humble ourselves before a merciful God yet are confident in the Lord’s promises. Whether Pharisee or Tax Collector, we all find welcome in God’s Temple, and for that, we can truly be thankful.

Sermon: Ask Boldly; Live Justly

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Planting Life

Luke 17:11-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Do This…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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