Sermon: Embracing Love

The grace of God is an amazing thing. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but, now I’m found. Was blind but now I see. We sing this song at various times during the church year but do we really listen to the words that we are singing?  God’s grace is amazing, and the best part about that grace is that it is not dependent upon us.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is used during the time of Lent to remind us of the power not only of grace but the power of reconciliation. This story has it all, the son who wants what he wants when he wants it. He goes off and squanders it all. He needs to work so he can live and he takes the lowest job and eats the lowest of foods. He comes to the realization that he has done wrong and that he needs to return home, but he is not sure how he will be received.

We have a father who wants to give his son everything, even though he knows it is not good for him. We have a father who is worried for his son and for where he is and for what he is doing. We have a father who runs, not walks when he sees that his son is returning home. And we have a father who throws that son a party upon his return.

We have the other son. I am not sure if he is older or younger than the other one but, he stuck around and worked and cared for his father and the family business. He did not run off and squander his inheritance. He is, understandably so, a little upset when he finds that his brother has returned and his being thrown a party as a reward, in his mind, for being irresponsible while he stayed behind.

We have all of this in the parable, but we also have grace. Grace lies at the heart of this parable, a scandalous grace, a grace that defies all earthly rules and conventions.

I am not a parent, but, as I understand these things, parents only want what is best for their children. Parents want their children’s lives to be better than theirs, and many, many parents sacrifice everything to make that happen. Some parents, allow their children to make mistakes, to fail, because learning how to fail, learning how to lose at something, teaches the life lesson that not everyone gets a trophy.

During my time in ministry, I have known parents who have had to let their children go. Their son or daughter was involved in something that they could not get out of, drugs, alcohol, gambling and all the rest. For years they tried everything, counseling, rehab, giving them money, and nothing worked. Finally, they had come to the decision that they had to cut them off. This was and is an agonizing decision, but they felt, it was in the best interest of their child. It does not always work, but sometimes it does.

The father in today’s parable gave his son everything and let him go. He did not turn his back on him. I can only imagine he was not happy that his son was leaving but, being the dad that he is, he let him go to find his way. He never stopped loving him. The parable hints that the father kept a daily vigil waiting for the day he would return. We read that he “ran out to greet his son” while he was “still far off.”  Grace is what welcomed him home. Grace is what gave the father the ability to run to his son and welcome him back to the family.

Grace is what allowed the father to give the son a hug upon his return, to place the finest robe and a ring of gold on his finger. Grace is what allowed him to throw the biggest of parties because that which was lost has been found.

The son took his fortune. He left the family and went on his merry way. He spent it all and when there was nothing left he “hired himself out” he became a slave, a slave to his lifestyle and to the choices that he had made. He was sent to “feed the pigs.” Keep in mind that pigs were considered ritually unclean so for a Jew, as we suppose this man is to feed the pigs would make him ritually unclean. Now he has not only left his family but because of the choices he has made, has found himself outside of his faith and community. He has hit rock bottom. Because of the decisions he made, he is eating what the pigs eat and sleeping where the pigs sleep. And then grace appears. Grace gives him the realization that he has done wrong, wrong to his father, wrong to his family, wrong to himself, and wrong to God. Grace gives him the ability to see for himself how far he has gone from his father’s house. Grace is what will help him get up and grace what will lead him home.

When the son saw his father running towards him, he was filled with shame and grief. He had rehearsed a little speech all the way home, “father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy of being called your son.” But grace stepped in, and the father changed all of that.

Then we have the one who stayed behind. This son does not get a lot of ink and when he does it is usually bad. This son is portrayed as being jealous and upset, and, he has a right to be. He is the responsible one. He stayed at home, working the family farm and taking care of the family. He did not run off and spend everything, and when he hears of his brother’s return, he gets angry and feels a little rejected. He thinks that he should be rewarded and his brother should be dismissed, thrown out of the family. He is, after all, a sinner and there is no room for sinners in the house of God! He tells his father that for all these years he has obeyed the law. He has done everything that was required of him, and he has not had so much as a goat to celebrate with his friends. But grace steps in and his father tells him that everything that the father has belongs to him, but he is happy that the lost one has been found.

So how does this apply to us?

The father, in this parable, is God the loving father who gives us what we need and is always there, holding vigil for us when we stray away from him and his love. He is the one who rejoices when we return. God is the one who runs to us when we start on the path that will lead us home. God is the one that said to the thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus, “today you will be with me in paradise.”  God is the one whose arms are so broad that no matter what we have done, or what we have thought we have done, there is room for it all. God is love, and God is grace.

We are the prodigal. We are the one who strays, who takes what we want, who wants to live life as we want to live it, without consequences. We are the ones who think we know better. We are the ones who make choices that are not always good and end up eating and living with the pigs. And we are the ones who, through grace, realize that we have done wrong and desire to come home.

And we are the one who stayed behind. We are the ones who feel that obeying the law is enough. We are the ones who rightfully can be called Pharisees for the way we look down on others who do not live up to our standards. We are the ones judging who gets God’s grace and who does not get God’s grace. We are the ones who feel that we have the right to be the guardians of heaven and determine who gets into heaven and who does not. We are the ones who think we have the right to decide who is and who is not worthy of our help. We are the ones who look at other human beings and tell ourselves that because of their color, their place of birth, their socioeconomic level that we have the right to discriminate against them. We are the ones who interpret the word of God in such a narrow way that there is only enough grace for us, we have all been this person.

This is a story about God and God’s life-giving love and mercy. We are not the arbiters of God’s love and mercy, but somehow we have convinced ourselves that we are. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that we need to help God to determine who God should share that love and mercy with. We are afraid that if God loves them, there will be no room for us. But every time God’s active, stretching, searching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It means there is more. More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing. It means another, and now a bigger, party.

Civil War Chaplain Medal of Honor Recipients

On November 15, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed Public Law 101-564 establishing March 25th as Medal of Honor Day. The first public recognition of this day was the following year on March 25th. On this Medal of Honor Day 2016, I pay tribute to the four chaplains who were recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service during the United States Civil War

Francis Bloodgood Hall

Francis Bloodgood Hall

Chaplain – 16th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment

Presbyterian

b. 16 November 1827 New York, New York

d. 4 October 1903 Plattsburg, New York

Grave – Riverside Cemetery

Awarded the CMOH on 16 February 1897

Battle of Salem Church as part of the Chancellorsville Campaign, May 3, 1863

Citation:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Chaplain Francis Bloodgood Hall, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 3 May 1863, while serving with 16th New York Infantry, in action at Salem Heights, Fredericksburg, Virginia. Chaplain Hall voluntarily exposed himself to a heavy fire during the thickest of the fight and carried wounded men to the rear for treatment and attendance

Milton Lorenzo Haney

Milton Lorenzo Haney – “The Fighting Chaplain”

Chaplain – 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment

Methodist

b. 23 January 1825 Savanah, Ohio

d. 20 January 1922, California

Grave – Mountain View Cemetery

Awarded the CMOH on 3 November 1896

Battle of Atlanta, Georgia July 22, 1864

Citation: The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Regimental Chaplain Milton Lorenzo Haney, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 22 July 1864, while serving with 55th Illinois Infantry, in action at Atlanta, Georgia. Chaplain Haney voluntarily carried a musket in the ranks of his regiment and rendered heroic service in retaking the Federal works which had been captured by the enemy.

John Milton Whitehead

John Milton Whitehead

Chaplain – 15th Regiment Indiana Infantry

Baptist

b. 6 March 1823 Wayne County Indiana

d. 8 March 1909 Topeka, Kansas

Grave – Topeka Cemetery

Awarded the CMOH on 4 April 1898

Battle of Stones River, Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Citation:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Chaplain John Milton Whitehead, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 31 December 1862, while serving with 15th Indiana Infantry, in action at Stone River, Tennessee. Chaplain Whitehead went to the front during a desperate contest and unaided carried to the rear several wounded and helpless soldiers.

James Hill

James Hill

Chaplain – 21st Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment

Baptist

b. 6 December 1822 England

d. 22 September 1899 Cascade, Iowa

Grave – Cascade Community Cemetery

Awarded the CMOH on 15 March 1893

Battle of Champion Hill, Mississippi Vicksburg Campaign

Citation:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant (Chaplain) James Hill, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 16 May 1863, while serving with Company I, 21st Iowa Infantry, in action at Champion Hill (Baker’s Creek), Mississippi. By skillful and brave management First Lieutenant Hill captured three of the enemy’s pickets.

An additional five chaplains have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor:

Joseph Timothy O’Callahan, World War II

Emil J. Kapaun, Korea

Angelo J. Liteky, Vietnam

Charles Joseph Watters, Vietnam

Vincent Robert Capodanno, Vietnam

Sermon: Open Invitation

The other morning I was standing at the kitchen window over the sink, savoring my morning coffee, and I was looking out at the back yard as the snow was finally melting. Just the day before, the same view was a blanket of white that covered the entire yard and hid all of the fallen limbs, leaves left behind from the Fall clean up, and all the rest. But on this morning, all of that was in view again, that, and more.

The grass was a little greener than it had been and I noticed that some of our plants have started their springtime journey from the ground and it brought me some hope that warmer weather was coming and soon I would be able to get back out in that back yard and start working.

Later that same day, as I was preparing to leave, I was putting my bag on my car, and I happened to look alongside our driveway.  The sun does not always reach that part of our yard, so the snow tends to linger, like the family member that comes for a visit, and the visit never seems to come to an end. But as I gazed at the snow, I noticed that the crocus has started to make its appearance and push up through the snow. This tiny little plant that comes and goes in the blink of an eye has the strength to push through the snow cover to bring us its beauty and most of the time, we just pass by without even noticing it.

We live hectic lives. I am not sure if those of us living today are busier than those that came before us or if it just seems that way. People are always rushing from one thing to the next not really paying attention to where we are going. I am a slave to my calendar, it’s the first thing I check in the morning, in fact, I get an email at 5 am with my schedule attached, and it is, most of the time, the last thing I check before I lay my head down at night. I cannot make plans for anything until I have checked both the electronic version of my calendar and the paper version of my schedule.

But, we set priorities, and we seem to be able to make time for the things we value in our lives. We seem to have room for just about anything that might come along. I have shifted things around on numerous occasions to make room for a last minute call from a friend or family member to do something. But the question I have is, do we have room for God in our lives?

I switched up the readings today, and I add the selection from Psalm 63 because I felt it was a valuable addition. If you have not spent much time reading the Psalms, I would suggest you make them part of your Lenten devotions. Yes, some of them are long, and they do get a bit tiresome after a bit, but then you come across one, like the selection from Psalm 63, and things get a little brighter.

This Psalm is about longing and about desire. This is a Psalm about a relationship with God that is placed above everything else even life itself.

As you know, I often quote Jesus when he speaks about love of neighbor. But I do not usually talk about the first part of that verse, love God. Jesus tells us in the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel that we should, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He goes on to say, “this is the greatest and first commandment.” We are to love God with our entire being, and we are to love God first.

The Psalmist sets out his desire for God:

-God, you are my God. I seek you. My soul thirst for you. My flesh faints for you. As in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Is God your God? Is God the only god you have or are there other gods in your life? Are there other things in your life that you desire, that you long for and that you place above all other things? Do you seek after God daily in scripture, nature, in the faces of other people? Does your soul thirst for God like the parched dry land seeks for water?

-I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.

Do we look upon the sanctuary of God, the earth and all of its creation, and are we in awe of a sunrise or a sunset? Do we take time to notice the crocus fighting to get through the snow? Are we doing all we can to safeguard that sanctuary of God? Do we look upon another person, God’s creation and the sanctuary of God, and see the glory of God in them or are we blinded by their color, nationality, socioeconomic level, and all the rest? Do we thank God for giving us another day to behold the magnificence of creation?

-Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

Do we praise God or is the only time we mention God when we exclaim, “O my God?” Do we give thanks to God for everything in life, the good, and the bad? Do we blame God when things go wrong? It’s okay if you do God can handle it but do we thank God when things go right? Do we seek the guidance of God before making a big decision in our lives? Do we offer our lives to God and recommit ourselves to the service of God and humanity each day? Do we seek the love of God, which is better than life itself and do we show that love of God toward others? When people look at us, do we radiate the love of God or is it hard to tell?

-So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name?

Do we pray each day? We do not have to have long, drawn-out prayers, saying “thank you God for giving me another day” is just as good a prayer as any. Recite the Lord’s prayer each morning as soon as you open your eyes, thank God for your family, and ask God to be with you throughout the day. At the end of the day, say that prayer again and thank God for being with you and for all that you were able to accomplish.

-My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips.

Is your soul satisfied or do you need to work on your relationship with God? Do you spend time alone, in silence, listening for that still small voice to direct your life? Do you see the beauty of creation and in others around you or is all you see hopelessness and despair? Relationships require work, human relations and our relationship with God and sometimes when the relationship is not going well, we need to seek help from a spiritual parent or a guide to get us back on track. Are we seeking?

-I meditate on you in the watches of the night

For a second time, the Psalmist mentions prayer and meditation. Are we doing this? Are we listening or is our prayer merely a list of things we wish for God to do and then, once we have said our bit, we end the conversation before God has a chance to speak? Do we spend time, even five minutes a day reading scripture or using the Our Daily Bread we provide for you?

-My soul clings to you

The Psalmist ends just as he began, with desire, with longing.  Our relationship should be such that we cannot go a day without being in the presence of God. We should desire to spend time, even five minutes a day, with God.

It is no mistake that this Psalm is appointed during the season of Lent as this is the season that calls us to a more significant relationship with God. Spend some time in the days ahead working on your relationship, and if you are having trouble, do not despair, keep on going, and things will get better.

Sermon: Lead us not into temptation

Years ago, people were running around with these bracelets on their wrists with the letters “WWJD.” It was all the rage, in many situations, for people to ask the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” On the face of it, this is not a wrong question to ask. Jesus left us an example to follow so it is only natural to ask what he would do in certain situations. Now, this is fine if it was a rhetorical situation, but we are not usually placed in rhetorical situations we are put in real life situations. In all situations we need to ask the right question to come to the correct conclusion and asking what Jesus would do is not the right questions because we are not Jesus.

I am not sure how many of you have watched Survivor, but the premise of the game is, a group of strangers is left on an island to create, what amounts to, a new society. There are challenges that they will face food, shelter, and the physical demands placed upon them. They do not know each other and are of different ages and genders. It does not take long for leader and followers to emerge and not long after, power plays. The game Survivor is somewhat primal but it is a good snapshot of humanity at its best and, at is worst.

Let’s imagine that all of us here today are part of the game, how will we react?  We will all react differently in different situations, and I believe if Jesus were with us, he would act differently as well. So asking the question, what would Jesus do, is fine if this was some existential problem, but we are in the real world and need to find solutions to real-world situations. The question we should be asking is, what does Jesus want us to do at this moment and at this time in our lives.

In the scripture passage we heard from Luke, Jesus enters the desert to pray before the start of his ministry, and he comes into contact with temptation. To truly understand what is happening here we need a little background on the story itself.

This passage is one of the holiest in all of scripture for it comes directly from Jesus himself. Jesus is alone in the deserted place; there are no witnesses to the events that will happen.  Luke is writing about these events well after the death of Jesus. Scholars believe that Luke was written sometime between 80 and 100 AD so using the typical time frame of Jesus ministry of being 3 years, and starting his ministry at 30, and roughly speaking around 32 AD that is about 48 years after the events would have happened. The only plausible answer is that Jesus told this story himself about his time in the wilderness.

The other background piece is what the wilderness was like. Judea stood on the central plateau which was the backbone of Southern Palestine. Between it and the Dead Sea stretched a terrible wilderness, thirty-five by fifteen miles. It was called Jeshimmon, which means “The Devastation.” The hills were likes dust heaps; the limestone looked blistered and peeling; the rocks were bare and jagged; the ground sounded hollow to the horses’ hooves; it glowed with heat like a furnace. It was here that Jesus retired too to prepare for his ministry and to be tempted.

The other point I will make is that Jesus went into this place for 40 days, this was for Jesus, Lent and is where we get this idea of the 40 days preceding Easter.

Now let us turn our attention to temptation. In the Lord’s Prayer that we recite most every Sunday, we read this line, “lead us not into temptation.” Now, this has always been an odd line for me. This about it, God loves us as a father loves his children yet we are asking that he not lead us into temptation. Why would a father do this? About a year ago, Pope Francis, in an interview on the subject of temptation, reignited the debate over the proper translation of this phrase. Pope Francis and many others including yours truly believe this is an improper translation which has led to a whole host of theological problems. Francis believes that the better translation is, “Do not let us fall into temptation.” It is not God the father that leads us into temptation but rather, as we see in today’s reading, Satan is the one that leads us and what we should be praying for is that when the temptation comes, when Satan, the father of lies, leads us into temptation, God, please give me a hand. That feeling fits much better with the lines that follow, “but deliver us from evil.”

Jesus is about to begin his ministry, and the evil one knows this. The evil one knows what is about to happen and wants to stop the mission that Jesus is setting out on and so temptations come along for Jesus to deal with.

The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. Remember this is not desert sand where Jesus is but rather a rocky, jagged area. The rocks look like little loaves of bread and the tempter said to Jesus, “If you want people to follow you, use your powers to give them material things.” The suggestion is that if Jesus promised material possessions to people, they would follow him, in other words, if Jesus bribed people they would follow. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy that people do not live only by their possessions and that material wealth is not the answer.

For the second temptation, the evil one takes Jesus to the top of a mountain from which the whole of the inhabited world can be seen. The evil one says to Jesus, “worship me, and all this will be yours.” This is the temptation to compromise the message of the Gospel so that it is easier for people to follow. Don’t set the standards too high. Make a deal with evil, and all will follow. Jesus responds by saying that God is God, right is right, and wrong is wrong. There can be no compromise with evil. We must speak the truth in love to all and not compromise on that truth no matter the circumstances or promises made by evil. We cannot sell out so we can legislate our image of the compromised truth.

In the third and final temptation, Jesus is brought to the top of the temple in Jerusalem, to the top of Solomon’s Porch. From here there is a sheer drop of 450 feet down to the floor of the Kedron Valley below where he is standing. This was the temptation to give the people sensations, and they will follow you. Jesus response was that we must not do senseless experiments with the power of God. Jesus saw quite clearly that if produced sensations like flashy preaching, smoke, rock bands if, he wore jeans when he preached from behind a Plexiglas pulpit, or if his miracles had no meaning other than magic, he would be a 9-day wonder and would soon fade from the eyes of the people. Worship should be inviting, but it does not have to be a performance and entertainment.

So what does all of this mean for us?

The evil one offers us the easy way. Sure if we tell people that following the gospel will make the rich they will come. If we provide for their material wealth, they will follow. If we water down the message of Jesus to such a point that we can do whatever we want whenever we want, people will follow people will come to church and fill the seats. If we compromise our morals and ethics, we can get done through legislation what we could not get done by preaching to the truth of the Gospel. If we put on a show each week with great music and smoke and casual costumes people will come and they will leave entertained, but they will not be changed. The way of the Gospel is hard and requires us to work on ourselves, there has to be a willingness to change and to admit that we need to change and that is not easy. We are called to make disciples not converts and not church members. Our calling to show people the way, by living the way ourselves and then helping them to live that way and it will not be easy.

Jesus went to the deserted place to prepare for ministry. He was called by God and anointed by the Holy Spirit, but he stilled needed to be tested, to be tried. When a sword maker takes raw material, he needs to apply heat to mold that metal into shape, but it does not stop there. For that molded metal to be useful and to hold a sharp edge, it has to be refined and hardened. Jesus had been molded, and he was now being set for ministry. We have been called, we have been anointed, now we need to be prepared, and Lent is the time for that to happen. Let us pray that we indeed take the time during this holy season of Lent, to let God prepare us for what lies ahead and that we can be faithful witnesses to the Gospel and not compromise.

Sermon: Astounding Glory

This past week I re-watched the movie, “Come Sunday.” I am not sure how many of you have seen the movie, but it follows the real-life journey of Carlton Pearson, a minister, who has an awakening. He faces a real struggle of faith and friendship. He is the pastor of a rather sizable multi-race church in the Black Pentecostal movement and has risen to the position of Bishop. As successful as he is, he begins to doubt. He shares his doubts with his congregation one Sunday morning, and they start to turn on him and over a period of several weeks he starts to lose people from the church. His trusted friends and his mentor abandon him in a story-line that sounds very much like what happened to Jesus the night of his Crucifixion. Now I am not going to tell you how it ends, or what his struggle was, but I would recommend the movie to you.

I have a confession to make this morning. There was a time when I was not as open to other ideas as I am now, there was a time in ministry when I was a Pharisee and believed that those who did not see things the way I did were not going to be with me in God’s presence. There was a time when I thought I had all the answers and yes, there was a time when I persecuted those, even those I loved, for not seeing things the way I did. I wish I could tell you that my transformation was as dramatic as Paul’s was when he was thrown from his horse, but in a way I was knocked off my high horse and realized that I was wrong, not entirely wrong, but wrong and I had to be willing to accept that, and what was to come because of my transfiguration.

What followed was a season of my life that was not pleasant and one that I would not wish on anyone, but it is part of my story, it is part of who I am, but it cost me, and it wounded me for a long time.

This morning we heard the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top. This is the last Sunday before Lent begins, and the story of the Transfiguration is a pivotal story in the life of Jesus. The transfiguration marks a turning point where Jesus fixes his gaze on Jerusalem and beings the walk toward his death on the cross.

He takes Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain and asks them to wait for him while he goes on a little further. He begins to pray and is joined by Moses and Elisha the great prophets and, Scripture tells us, his face changed, and his clothing became a dazing white. The same happened to Moses when he climbed the mountain when he received the 10 Commandments. You see, a change takes place when you are in the presence of God, a transformation, a transfiguration takes places maybe not in the physical sense as with Jesus and Moses but certainly in a spiritual sense.

Jesus went up the mountain to pray, as he usually did after a trying time in ministry. But this was not a usual time of prayer for him because he was going to ask permission from God, his father, to begin the last phase of his ministry if you will.  Commentators on this passage suggest that Jesus knew his time was drawing near and he went up that mountain, the mountain top is where we come into the presence of God, to ask God’s permission to head toward Jerusalem and his end.

But he is joined by Moses and Elijah who represent the old law and the prophets. It’s sort of like that scene at the end of Return of Jedi when Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anacin Skywalker appear at the end together is the shadow. They represent the old and Luke Skywalker represents the new. I am not sure the learned men and women who write the commentaries will agree but they are not here today, and I am.

Anyway, this Transfiguration takes place; Jesus is transformed physically, as Scripture tells us, but there is also a transformation from the old to the new that takes place here.

Jesus tells us that he is the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. That is not to say that the story ends with him and his apostles; in fact, it is only the beginning of the story. Jesus is not the last of the prophets but the beginning of a new age of prophet that continues to this day.

Now there are some in the church, and I am using the broad definition of church here, that believe that all the matter of theology were decided years ago, especially the ideas around who can love whom and still be considered a Christian, but they obviously feel that the book is still open on other subjects. But I digress, along with our welcoming attitude here in the United Church of Christ we believe that God is Still Speaking, in fact, that was the motto if you will of the UCC until a few years ago, God is still speaking. In other words, the story is not over yet.

Until very recently, the symbol of the UCC was the comma, you may have seen people wearing a pin with a comma or a brochure with the comma symbol on it. The comma represents an unfinished idea a sentence that is not complete. In the English language, when an idea is complete, a period is used at the end of the sentence. But, if the idea is incomplete a comma is used, and the idea continues, that is why the UCC adopted this symbol because the story of our salvation is not complete and God is still speaking, our job is to listen.

Revelation or the unfolding of the salvation story did end on the Cross, and it certainly did not end with the writing of a creed or a statement of faith. The story of salvation continues to be revealed each and every day. Back in my seminary days, a student asked when Jesus did not merely reveal everything to the Apostles? Why did he speak in riddles and parables and not directly reveal it all to them in one sitting and be done with it? The professor paused, and I believe he had a slight smirk on his face as if he had been waiting for someone to ask this question all year. But the answer was simple; they could not have handled it or understood it all.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. A journey of a million miles begins with one step. The study of scripture and history are at a point where it has never been before. Scholars know more today about the life and times of the people that make up these stories as well as the language they spoke. Today, scholars have a better understanding of what society was like and those of us who stand here week after week have the job of looking at scripture not only with a rearview mirror but interpreting Scripture in light of what is going on in the present day and listening to God’ still speaking voice.

God’s story is not finished yet, our story is not finished yet, your story is not finished yet, and it is up to all of us to keep telling the story.

We are about to enter the season of Lent. Lent has sort of fallen away over the last years, but it seems to be making a slight comeback. Lent is a time of transfiguration and of change, but that change comes at a cost. Lent is a time of confession, repentance, and reconciliation but we have to be willing to transform our lives, which is the end result.

Bishop Pearson believed he heard that voice of God and it set him on a course that was much different than the one he had been on and that made some folk angry. They did not believe that it was God’s voice because it was leading him in a different direction. I believe that I had heard God’s voice and that voice was asking me to look at things differently and to have an openness of mind and of spirit and when I did I realized that God is not done yet and I thank God every day for revealing that to me.

Our spiritual journey is just that, a journey.  We do not journey by standing still sometimes we run, and sometimes we walk and sometimes, we pause for a rest, but we continue, and the journey continues. Our spiritual life is about being open to new ideas and new ways of looking at things because God is continuously revealing himself and creation to us each and every day and our job is to say yes, to be open, to not be afraid, to take that first step and let God direct us along the path even if we are standing alone.

Sermon: Love Your Enemies

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells the story of the creation of the world, not from a scientific way but from a faith perspective. The bible is neither history book nor science book, it is not an exact account of what happened or will happen, it is a book of a faith journey and a guide if you will for living a life that we have been called to live.

But in that story of creation, we read about Adam and Eve, the representation of humanity in the story of creation. We understand that they were naked, not in the physical sense but in the spiritual and metaphorical sense, and they walked with God. Eden and the garden are representations of heaven as we Christians call it, a life of perfection, a life lived out in the very presence of the creator. Then, something happens, some might say fruit was involved, I have my own theory, but that is for another day. For now, let’s just say that something happened and humanity could no longer live that life of perfection, and they were expelled from paradise.

The relationship between God and humanity was broken. No longer did God walk with what God had created, a gulf had been formed between the creator and the creation. The pages that follow tell stories of people that came in the name of God, the prophets, to try and get the people back, to try and repair the breach that had been created by humanity in the relationship. But try as they may, they failed, and the people rejected them, just as they had denied the creator.

As we continue to read, we learn that God has sent the Son, God’s Son, not another creation but a being that was in fact, “in the beginning.” John’s Gospel tells us that “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Now it may be a literary form, but the word “Word” is capitalized to indicate a proper name because John was speaking of Jesus as the Word of God. We often referred to the bible as the word of God, but the real Word of God, the one we need to take heed of and notice of is Jesus Christ the Son of God and the Word God that became flesh and dwelt among us.

With the birth of Christ that gulf has been repaired and, for a brief moment in time, God once again walked with his creation. God could touch creation and creation could touch God.

The Gospel passage we heard this morning is a continuation of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, and he takes this concept of Love to another level. Luke is pointing out the radical nature of the message of Jesus. We are not just to love those who love us back, we are to love those who hate us, who want to do us harm or who have done us wrong. This is a radical form of love.

You may have noticed that I speak about love in almost every sermon. Recently, it might have been last week, a comment was made that I end every sermon with love. I believe that to be true because, in the end, we are to love. Strip it all away, strip away all the doctrine and theology, knock down all the church buildings and burn all the furniture and we will be left with love. Love is the beginning, and the end of what it means to be a Christian and I mention it as often as I do because I think, we have forgotten that point.

I call this message of Jesus radical because it is requiring us to go against our very nature. Human nature is not to “turn the other cheek,” human nature is to fight back, you hit me, I am going to hit you back. We see this physically, and we see it in the spoken language. Jesus is calling us to another place another plane of existence that is radically different than the one we live in, and it is not easy, and Jesus acknowledges that.

But there is another side to love that needs to be discussed, and that is the redemptive quality of love.

We read in the Gospel of John that because God loved the world so much, he sent Jesus into the world that all might have eternal life that is redemption. The relationship that had been broken “in the beginning” was not repaired not by the crucifixion but by the birth of Christ.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had this to say about the redemptive power of love:

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love, they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says, love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

Bottom line, love changes people.

Now some will claim that this belief requires us to be doormats and I say that this is just not true. Yes, love is our default position, but we also need to be cautious. In God Father Part II, the only time that a sequel was better than the previous movie, Michael Corleone said, “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Now I believe this to be an ancient proverb that just did not roll of the pen of the writer of the movie script, but the point is we have to be cautious around those who may or may not be our enemies.

I have said to you on numerous occasions, we have to love everyone, we don’t have to like them. The point here is that it is okay to walk away. Jesus tells his disciples this.

Jesus sends the apostles out in pairs to go into the cities and towns to spread the good news. He tells them that is their message is rejected they are to shake the dust of that town off their feet and move along. He tells them to offer the news for free but if they reject it, do not force it upon them, do not scream at them and call them sinners, don’t tell them they are going to hell, just walk away. Continue to pray for them, but walk away.

It has become all the rage to classify certain groups of people as enemies. I was alive during the reign of Joe McCarthy and his enemies list, but far too often today we hear the term enemies used against those who disagree with us and this is not confined merely to the political arena. Far too often we listen to preachers making reference to those who disagree with them as their enemies and that their faith is being attacked. Just because someone disagrees with you does not make them your enemies nor does it mean they are trying to oppress you or your religion or your speech. There was a time when you could have a disagreement with someone and when the discussion was finished walk away, maybe not as friends, but as human beings. Our human instinct is to fight, and yes there are times when we must fight, but our intuition needs to change and our first instinct should be to love, love changes and love redeems.

I just want to say a few words about the do not judge bit near the end of the passage. Far too often this passage is misused, usually when you point out to someone how they, or someone they align with, have come off the rails. There is good judgment and bad, and we have to make those calls. We have to discern what is right and what is wrong. I mentioned last week that if your belief, religious or political, requires you to hate another, think of them differently or less than you then it does not align with the teachings of Jesus. Each time we begin to open our mouths, each time we agree or disagree we have to ask the question if this fits with the teachings of Jesus Christ the Word of God.

The 4th chapter of the 1st Letter of John we read:

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

If that spirit requires us to think less of another human being created in the image and likeness of God, it is not a pure spirit, and our judgment should be to reject it. It’s that simple. If you are unsure, ask. “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” Why? Because “your reward will be great, and you will be children of the most high; for he is kind to the grateful and the wicked.”

Sermon: Surprising Teaching

This past week I had another one of my “God” discussions with someone online. I guess because I am a minister, I attract people who wish to have these discussions with me, but sometimes it can get downright distracting. Most of these types of conversations bear some fruit in the end but, getting to the end, can be difficult and painful, no one likes to see the sausage made, the old saying goes. I would also add that for the most part, these conversations are genuine but from time to time, and this not one of those times, a trap is being laid for me, and it takes all the skill I have to avoid it. However, I am getting better at it.

So the conversation began innocently enough, and it was in response to an article I had posted about a disaster and how disasters can shake our faith in God. Anyone who has ever been through a disaster, natural or man-made, might have had the experience of questioning where God was in all this? I have mentioned to you before that, on several occasions, I have responded both with the church and with the American Red Cross, to disaster situations in New Orleans and other places. I have often found it difficult, in the midst of it all, to see where God is, but, it is a natural question.

The response to the posting was something like, “if God were on their side they would have been okay.” I could feel the anger welling up inside me at the sheer nonsense of that statement. Not long after a disaster such as a hurricane or a tornado or other such thing one of the TV preachers comes on and speaks about God’s will and right some sort of wrong. This is not only bad to say to folks who have just had their entire life changed in an instant; it is also wrong, horrible, theology.

I believe I have mentioned before about my feeling towards those who claim to know the mind of God, well I am uneasy around these folks as well, and this is what I told my friend with the comment. We cannot begin to know the mind of God, and in just saying so we limit God who is limitless. I even say that calling God, God limits God; this is why when God appeared to Moses, and Moses asked God’s name God responded with “I am who I am.”

Scripture is filled with glimpses of God and what God desires of us and from us, but we will never truly understand the mind of God. We get one of those glimpses in today passage from Luke.

This passage may sound familiar as we also hear it in the Gospel attributed to Matthew, but there it is called the “Sermon on the Mount.” In that sermon, Jesus is standing up on a hill preaching to the assembled crowd, and it is where the Beatitudes comes from. Luke presents a very different picture. Jesus is not up on a hill but he is on a plain, he is on the level with those around him. But Luke also presents his “Blessed” if you will, in a different form. Matthew presents the “Blessed” with something they will receive, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of God will be theirs.” For Luke, there is no qualifier it is just, “Blessed are the poor.”

Luke presents the words of Jesus not as a sermon to the world, not really even as a sermon to all those that are present at the moment. Luke presents this sermon as a sermon to the disciples, and not just the 12, but all who would follow Jesus, this is a pastoral letter to the church rather than an address to the world. Unlike Matthew’s presentation, this is a call to action, a call to action to live a life of discipleship and that life of discipleship requires us to live the life that God has called us to be and to live that life we have to live to our full potential. We are to follow the example that Jesus has left for us, but at the same time, we have to find our own way.

Luke uses the image of the poor, the hungry, and those who weep and calls them blessed because everything has been stripped away and they have nothing but God to rely on. Unlike Matthew, Luke uses the image of the poor, the hungry, and those weeping without qualification. It’s not poor in spirit, it’s not those who hunger after righteousness; it is merely the poor, the hungry, and those weeping. They have nothing, in many cases, they do not even have their dignity, but they have God and need to rely on God and the people of God.

From a spiritual sense, this is what we need to do as well.

Last week we spoke about taking a chance, pushing out into the deep in our spiritual life but also in our church life. We need to be at the point where we “let go and let God” take control. This is the point in the sermon when I would usually sing the Carrie Underwood, Son, Jesus takes the wheel, but I will spare you of that today. But the sentiment of that song is right, we need to allow Jesus to take the wheel of our lives and direct us, blessed are those who have had everything stripped away, so their reliance is entirely on God.

One of my all-time favorite religious movies is the 1972 Franco Zeffirelli classic, Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” If you have not seen this movie, it is a must see. Anyway, it is a musical adaption of the life of Francis of Assisi in the style of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Along with the fabulous soundtrack, there is a spiritual message, but I will draw your attention to one particular scene. Francis has come to the realization that he is to become God’s servant and this has angered his father. Francis came from a rather wealthy family, and his father had big plans for him. When Francis makes his announcement that he is going to serve God, his father gets angry and tells Francis that he will be cut off from everything, money, housing, food, etc. Standing in the public square, in front of the entire town, Francis strips off everything his father has given him and stand naked before his father and the whole town.

Now, I am not suggesting that you follow this example in a literal way, but the point is more a symbolic one. We have to strip down, strip away all of our preconceived notions about God and the world. We have to cast off those things that keep us from seeing people and the world as divine creations, and when we do that, we are ready for God to build us back up. For Francis that meant to strip it all away literally, but for us, it might be something different, and we have to figure that out.

But Luke does not leave us there, he uses those who are rich, who are full, and those who are laughing in contrast. Let me be very clear with this next part, being rich, being full, or laughing are not, in and of themselves bad things. Luke uses this example merely to show us that when we have nothing, it is easier to understand, from a spiritual point of view, the reliance on God. When we have everything, riches, food, and humor, it is not impossible; it will just be harder to understand the need to rely on God.

I started this sermon off with an example of the danger of placing limits on God. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a radical way of life that requires us to think about things from a different perspective. We cannot think of things in black and white as there really is nothing black and white about our spiritual life and the life of discipleship. I have said this before, any policy or understanding of scripture that devalues another human, or places us above others, is not the path that Jesus has set before us. Luke has Jesus on the plain, he is on the level with those around him and here is a significant spiritual significance to that. Jesus does not place himself above others nor should we. The life of discipleship, the life of being a follower of Jesus requires us to look at everyone the same way and to help them all the same way.

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is less about a plan to get us into heaven it is about how we can create a little bit of heaven, a little bit of God’s kingdom right here on earth. Scripture tells us that in God’s kingdom there are many rooms and that there will be no Jew or Greek, but all will be one. That is the little bit of heaven we need to create here on earth where all are treated the same, all are looked at the same, and all have equal dignity. It is not up to us to determine who is and who is not worthy of that love, it is our job to love everyone.

Sermon: Prophets on the Edge

On March 24, 1908, in the Chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero began to preach a sermon that called on the soldiers of his country, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of human rights. Romero preached against poverty, social injustice, assignations, and torture. Romero was a believer in the divine right of every human being to be treated equally. As he finished his sermon on that March evening and stepped out from behind the pulpit an assassin’s bullet struck him in the heart and killed him instantly.

On August 28, 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Rev. King had come there as part of the non-violent protest in Washington to demand jobs and freedom. This was his famous “I have a dream” speech where he dared to dream about such things as equality, freedom, brotherhood, justice, and character. On August 4, 1968, five years later, an assassin’s bullet killed him in Memphis, Tennessee.

President Abraham Lincoln, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, William McKinley, Harvey Milk, all gunned down because they were trying to bring change to a world that sometimes, hates change. What they all have in common is that knowing the risk, they still told the truth and even after they were dead and buried, their words continue to this day, and bring hope to millions of people around the world.

Today, we heard the continuation of the story from last week.  You remember, Jesus was in the synagogue and had just finished reading from the scroll containing the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  He read the passage about preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and release to the oppressed. The rolled the scroll back up and sat back down. All eyes were fixed on him to now expound on the passage that had just been read. He simply said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people were confused. They had heard about him and what he had been doing in other places but they also had known him since he was a boy. They knew he was Joseph the Carpenters son and were confused that he was now claiming to be the one had been waiting for. He told them “no prophet is welcome in his hometown” and this did not help matters, in fact, it fanned the flames even more.

In reading the scripture, and then saying it was fulfilled that very day, Jesus was ushering in a new way, a new way for the poor, a new way for the prisoners, a new way for the blind, and a new way for the oppressed. In other words, their world was about to change, and they were not happy about it.

Last week, temperatures in the Midwest portion of our country sank to all-time lows. At one point in Minneapolis the real temperature at fallen to -23 degrees, the same temperature at the same exact time in Antarctica. The government and television news people were warning folks not to go outside even for a moment as the risk of freezing to death was so great. But an amazing thing happened in small cities and towns all around that part of our country, churches began to open their door to house the homeless population. They opened their doors to an underserved population and provided a warm meal and a warm place to sleep during those frigid nights. They did not ask if they were members of the church or if they were Christians. They simply opened the doors and let the people in, in other words, they lived the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Who knows, they might have saved a life during those days and nights.

We are living in a world where truth no longer matters. We live in a world where to 30 second sound bite and a halfhearted apology when the lie has been exposed, is the name of the game. It does not matter any longer if something is true all that matters is if we can get others to believe it and when confronted with the truth they still don’t believe it. We live in a world where it is not enough to defeat someone, we have to destroy their character and attack their family. We are so afraid of the truth that some carry torches and run people down in the street to scare them into silence. Some hide behind the anonymity of the keyboard and social media and say horrible things about people, and then in the next breath post scripture passages and go to church. Today we live in a world where a scripture passage is twisted in such a way as to prove a point and oppress others something Jesus spoke very plainly against and about. But through all of this, knowing the risks and despite the risks, there are prophets in this world speaking the truth and attempting to make a change with love and acceptance.

So enraged were the people in the synagogue that they forced Jesus out into the street and led him toward the edge of a cliff with the point of throwing him off and killing him. These church people were so focused on the rules and the status quo that they were willing to kill to preserve it. This young man, who, they knew, so enraged them with his talk of love and equality that they wanted him dead. Their hatred, coupled with the hatred of the religious leaders, would see that this young man was eventually killed.

What is so radical about equality? What is so radical with the very idea that we need to love everyone regardless of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and all the rest? But there are people today, who are willing to kill others to ensure that equality does not become a reality.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I believed that we are on the verge of another reformation in the church. The old guard sees the changes in church attendance as a lack of spirituality and belief in God and will say things like the church are dying, and we are living in a post-Christian world. Let’s get one thing straight right here and right now, the church of Jesus Christ will never die. The Romans could not do it, the Communists could not do it, the Nazis could not do it and, despite their best efforts, some Christians could not do it. The old institutions that we call church might be dying and I say good riddance to them, but the Church of Jesus Christ, that world of love and acceptance is stronger now than it ever has been because there are prophets who are willing to take it to the edge of a cliff to preach and speak the truth regardless of the cost, and I am one of them.

I have told you before, I have a simple theology, does whatever show the love of God and love of neighbor? Does what I believe about another human being bring them glory and God glory? Does the policy I support bring honor and glory to the divine spark in each human being or is it, in some way, lessening that divinity in each one of us? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then our theology is wrong, plain and simple, it is wrong.

The world needs prophets. The world needs people who are not afraid to speak the truth and to seek the truth. The world needs people who are going to stand when everyone else is sitting down because it is the right thing to do. The world needs people who will advocate for others even when people are carrying torches of intimidation and hate. The world needs each of us, in our own sphere of influence, to make this world a better place by merely loving everyone.

Sermon: Good News, Good Ways

I think I will always remember my first sermon. It was in May of 2004, and I was preaching what I guess we would call, a candidating sermon at a church where I was being considered to be their pastor. Of course, they really did not have a choice since I was the only one available and the bishop had already assigned me there. But, I was there to preach. I had just graduated from seminary so I, of course, had all the answers. Looking back on that day, 14 years ago, I will have to say, man was I still wet behind the ears.

I have had several other “first sermons.” There was the first sermon I preached after being called to be an associate minister. The first sermon I preached after being called, in the same church, to be the Interim Senior Minister, and of course, there was my first sermon here, last June. The one common thread in all of those sermons is I did not hold back, I left it all on the field as we like to say in the preaching world.

I believe that the sermon is designed to get people to think, to get their minds moving and to ask questions. I believe the sermon is intended to make some people mad, to make some people glad, to make some people shake their heads, and maybe, to make some people shake their fists. Sure, it would be easy for me to come here, week after week, and string together some pretty quotes so we can all leave here feeling good about ourselves. I could stand here and tell all of you how wonderful you are and what wonderful Christians we all are, but we already know that. My job, well the responsibility of any preacher really, is to say what needs to be said not what you want to hear. A relationship builds between the minister and their flock in such a way that we have a sense of what needs to be said, a where they are now and where they need to be sort of thing, and that is what the sermon is supposed to do.

Far too many of my preacher colleagues avoid certain “taboo” subjects because it makes people, including the preacher by the way, uncomfortable. Well, I am here to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. In the almost 15 years I have been doing this, I cannot remember a time when I have stood before a group or a congregation where I did not have butterflies. I stand behind the pulpit, and sometimes hold on, so you don’t see my hands shaking. I also stand back here in case you start throwing things, so I have some protection.

The art of preaching, and it is an art form, is to inform, form, and transform those who are listening. And, I do not do this alone, I rely on the Holy Spirit to guide me.

Kallistos Ware is a retired theology professor at Oxford University and a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church. He tells the story of a sermon he once preached in London. He begins by saying it was a beautiful day and that he cannot remember what the scripture passage was or really what the sermon was about. He started to preach, and all eyes were on him, but as he continued, he noticed fewer and fewer people were making eye contact. He says the somewhere in the middle of the sermon he could hear someone snoring, but he soldiered on anyway until he realized he was the one doing the snoring! We have all heard good sermons, and we have all heard bad sermons. I believe I have preached some good sermons and I have also preached some bad one. I have preached sermons that I thought were going to bomb but turned out to be the ones most people commented on. So I guess you never know.

Today, we heard from Luke’s Gospel of Jesus in the synagogue where he preaches his first sermon. He is asked to read from the scroll, this is not unusual, and so he climbs the bema, unrolls to scroll to the passage from Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He then rolled up the scroll and sat down. Scripture tells us that “all eyes were fixed on him.” They were waiting for a word from him, and he said;

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Unfortunately for us, the scripture ends there, and so you will have come back next week to find out what happens. We call this a cliff hanger or a tease, and it is designed to get you to come back.

Well, what we do know is it does not end for him. He has told those sitting in the synagogue that he, Jesus, Joseph the carpenter’s son, is the fulfillment of this scripture and they do not take it so well. As we will hear next week, they lead him outside and attempt to throw him off a cliff. But he manages to slip away.

But let’s step back and look at what he has just read because they are just as upset about what he read as they are about what he said.

He, Jesus, has come to bring the good news to the poor.
He, Jesus, has come to proclaim release to the captives.
He, Jesus, has come to recover the sight of the blind.
He, Jesus, has come to let the oppressed go free.
And he, Jesus, has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is what he has come to do, to relieve suffering and bring a new way to the world. He has come to set religion on its ear, he has come to begin a revival in their hearts and in their minds. He did not come to walk the halls of the Roman legislature to convince politicians to pass laws to force people to do, or not do, certain things. No, he has come to influence people, one person at a time to change themselves and then help others to change. He has come to bring opportunity to those who have no opportunity. He has come to voice to the voiceless and to advocate for those on the margins because no one was advocating for them. He came to call out the hypocritical religious leaders that were making religion about fear and preaching about a vengeful God that was going to destroy them for their sin. He called out the religious elite for bending and twisting God’s word to suit their political needs. He came to preach a message of love in a world that preached a message of hate and division. And he came to leave us away, and a command, for us to do the same thing.

I will stand here this morning and boldly proclaim that this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing for I believe that I have been called to bring the good news to the poor, the spiritually poor that God loves you and God has a place for you no matter who you are. If you think you have done something so terrible that God cannot love you I am here to tell you that there is nothing you can do, nothing, that will make God stop loving you.

I am here to proclaim that we no longer need to be held captive to sin and that we should not hold another captive to sin. We should not think of ourselves or others as their behavior, we are all, all of humanity, created in the image and likeness of a loving God and we need to convince ourselves that we are not held back by something we did years ago, that Jesus has come to set us free not because of the blood of the cross but because of the love of God for his creation.

I have come to help the spiritually blind recover their sight. Far too many people are blinded by their hatred of others because of their skin color, their religion, the country they are from, their legal status, who they have fallen in love with, how they chose or not to choose how they worship God. We are blinded, sometimes enraged by people who have a different political philosophy then we do, we cannot stand to hear someone not speaking our language or those who need a little extra hand to make it through the day. We need to throw off those things that blind us from truly seeing the other as a blessed child of God that we are to love, and we need to begin that process by looking in the mirror and loving the person we see staring back at us.

I have come to free people from oppression, the oppression of hate and the oppression of others. For far too long religion has been used to oppress one group or another and we continue to see it today. There are Christians who believe that no matter what, it is their job to convert others. In the history of the Christian church, there are countless stories of people killed in the name of Jesus Christ because they would not convert. The Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and all the rest. But how about spiritual death, how about Christians who claim they love Jesus so much that anyone who does not believe the same way they do is going to hell. They believe in freedom so much that they march on legislative bodies to enact legislation to remove those freedoms from others. Or those who merely stand and smirk in the face of people praying differently than they do.

My friends, Jesus left us the way and has called each of us to follow that way and that way is merely the way of love. I will ask each of us next time we are going to say something, stop and ask, is this something Jesus would approve of? Am I showing love in what I am saying? Are my actions, or my lack of action helping the situation or making it worse? Am I genuinely showing the love of God in what I say and what I do?

Jesus said what needed to be said at all times. Jesus did not think of the political ramifications of what he was saying, and he did not worry about whether people would put money in the collection plate or not. Jesus said what the people needed to hear not what they wanted to hear, he risked it all for the kingdom of God, and he left nothing on the field.

Sermon: Extravagant Sign

I enjoy weddings. Last year I had the honor of officiating at more than 20 weddings. There is something special about being present to witness the covenant relationship between two people; it is a sacred, intimate moment that can also be rather amusing. I could stand here and share a hundred stories about incidents that have taken place during weddings, but we would be here all day. Let’s just say, although I have not seen it all, I have come close to seeing it all.

In the Gospel passage from John we heard read this morning, we find Jesus, and his mother Mary, at a wedding in the City of Cana in Galilee. In the first century, Palestine weddings were quite a social affair. They would usually last seven days and be filled with great food, wine, music, and all the rest. The very fact that the wine was running out was not a good thing, in fact, it was a social mistake that the family probably would not recover from.

The Steward comes to Mary, so obviously, the wedding was for a close family member and informs her that the wine is running out.  She turns to Jesus for help, and he asks, “what does this have to do with us?” Ignoring the remark, Mary tells the steward to do whatever Jesus tells him. Then the miracle takes place.

I have said before, there is always more to a story than what we see on the surface. We tend to focus on the miracle of the story but miss the true meaning because we are dazzled by magic rather than what is spiritually going on in the background.

There were six stone water pots available to Jesus. According to Jewish tradition, seven is the number which is complete and perfect; and six is the number that is unfinished and imperfect. In this story, the six water pots stand for all of the imperfections in the Jewish law. Jesus came to do away with the imperfections of the law and put in their place the new wine of the gospel of his grace. Jesus turned the imperfections of the law into the perfection of grace.

But we can go deeper into this passage.

The six waterpots held between twenty and thirty gallons of water each; Jesus turned that water into wine. That would provide up to one hundred and eighty gallons of wine! This is an example of why we do not take every passage of scripture literally. What John is saying here is that when the grace if Jesus comes to us, there is enough to spare for all. No wedding party on earth would be able to drink one hundred and eighty gallons of wine. No need on earth can exhaust the grace of Jesus Christ because there is a glorious superabundance in it.

What John is telling us is that in Jesus, imperfections have become perfection, and the grace has become illimitable, sufficient, and more than enough for every need. Whenever Jesus comes into our lives, there comes a new quality which is like turning water into wine.

What I like about this story is that it is about abundance, an abundance of grace and abundance of love. In Christ, all of our imperfections are removed through his grace and love for us, and then we can be filled with an abundance that we can then share with others.