Sermons

22
Sep

Wealth and Security

Amos 8:4-7  Psalm 113  1 Timothy 2:1-7  Luke 16:1-13

Friday was a red-letter day for iPhone enthusiasts. Did you know?

Neither did I, or at least, I had not paid attention well enough, until we arrived at Macarthur Mall for an appointment at the Apple Store. Approaching the vicinity of the store we were confronted by a rather organized mob – a long serpentine line of seemingly hundreds of plugged-in Millennials. And, I quickly began to recall the series of daily emails announcing this earth-changing event: Today was the day the iPhone7 was available for pickup. The outright cost of the iPhone7 is $650; by the time we arrived at mid-day, over 500 had already been sold and the long line out front of the store continued to form.

Now, I remind you, we were there for our own techno support, seeking to untangle some of our baby boomer issues with our own multiple Apple purchases, so I’m not casting judgment. I, too, was taking valuable hours out of my day to devote to costly questionably meaningful electronic communication.

But, as I reflected on this continuously growing line, I began multiplying the hours per person times hundreds of persons times hundreds of dollars. WOW – to be an iPhone7 for just an hour. How would God attract a devoted crowd such as this? What would God do with all these hours and all the dollars? You just can’t help but wonder what life would be like if God was an iPhone7.

Intermingled in that reflection was the pervading awareness of another group from which I had recently departed, another group that was waiting. This group huddled together anxiously at Norfolk General Hospital as a loved one was undergoing major surgery.

In contrast, the serpentine line and my own appointment in this e-world seemed so very superficial. Our Gospel parable spotlights the superficial.

Bible scholars far beyond my scope of interpretation remain stumped by this parable that is the focus of our Gospel lesson. We find it entitled “The Dishonest Manager” or “The Dishonest Steward.”

Of course, Jesus is not encouraging us to be dishonest, even with earthly possessions, which in the end are meaningless. Taken in context, it is obvious that Jesus is condemning the religious leaders in his audience who lord exploitive power over the lower class; Jesus is comparing these religious leaders to the abusive landowners and brutal government officials in this first century society who typically greedily exploit their dependents. These are good and important messages that we take from the parable and that are supported by our other lessons. But, just what point is Jesus making? Is Jesus being flippant in sharing this parable?

Do you sense the shallowness of life for these characters in our parable?

It feels like a game of checkers. This middleman, the manager, is journeying merrily along until he is called to account for mismanagement of his rich boss’ business affairs. Threatened with the loss of his job, the manager fears homelessness. With that legitimate concern, he plots a strategy that will buy his favor with the rich man’s debtors. He presents them with a cut-rate deal to settle their debts, collects the reduced amounts, and presents those payments to the rich man, who for whatever reason is happy with what he gets, heaping accolades on the savvy self-serving middleman.

Everyone seems to have gained something monetarily. The debtors have their debts forgiven at a reduced amount; the rich man gets the debts paid to him, none the wiser of the actual amount he was due; the middleman keeps his lucrative job and is elevated to hero status. Everyone received something in exchange for giving up something.

Yet, no one in the parable is truly credited with being righteous. The debtors knew they owed more, but were delighted in getting by with less; the rich man, we can assume, was charging too much for his goods anyway; and the middle manager was likely skimming off the top, maybe jacking up the price to pad his pocket and keeping poor account of what was due his employer.

It’s all just stuff – stuff that provides tenuous stability in life. It feels like a game of checkers – you king me; I king you. Jesus says we must forego earthly possessions -superficial wealth and stability. Just two weeks ago we read that this dispossession of earthly stuff is the cost of true discipleship. If we are devoted to earthly possessions we cannot also be devoted to God.

Are we dishonest stewards as we stand in line awaiting the latest iPhone? Who am I to judge?

We are called to be honest stewards of all God’s creation. We are called to share our resources and possessions generously and unselfishly. We are called to be spiritually formed representatives of Jesus Christ. We are called to account for our time and talent too often devoted to superficial materialistic trappings and unhealthy behavior. Certainly, we are called to put God ahead of our desire for earthly wealth and security.

If we are dishonest about our obsessions with earthly trappings, how can we be honest about our time and talents devoted to God? God does not make unreasonable requests of us. When we strip away the demands of worldly luxuries and extras that stand in the way of our relationship with God, we find the pure grace of his love and we experience the sincere desire to return a portion of God’s gifts for His use.

Jesus does not tack on exploitive duties that make our debt to him impossible to pay. Jesus, in fact, has paid the price of our sin and death and has won for us everlasting life. All he asks is that we hear his call to stewardship – the giving of our time, talents, and monetary contributions to the glory of God.

Noting the context of our parable, Jesus is, quite realistically, preparing his disciples to go forth into the world as apostles of the Good News. Going forth, they would be confronted by the shrewd “managers” of worldly goods. They would need “street smarts”; like the manager of our parable, they would need to be shrewd. Neither the rich man nor Jesus is complimenting the dishonesty, but both recognize the necessity of shrewdness; both recognize the essence of good stewardship.

As the Church year draws to a close over the next couple of months, our call to stewardship becomes an intentional focus. I invite you to listen, with a renewed sense, to the call to be good stewards of God’s blessings. I’m afraid we, too often, view our stewardship campaigns with the same level of contempt as we view telemarketers. My prayer is that you will open your heart to a new way of thinking.

Like the master in our parable, we all like to get a good return on our money. God is asking us to apply the same shrewd business expertise to our stewardship of His gifts that we apply to our personal worldly investments. There is no better return than seeing our contributions put to use through Christ’s mission within these walls as we care for one another; in this community as we care for the poor, the homeless, and families in distress; and outwardly to this suffering world plagued by hunger and hopelessness. There is no better return than the anticipation of eternal life in Jesus Christ.

Imagine. What would eternal life be like if God were an iPhone7?

11
Sep

Finding

Exodus 32:7-14  Psalm 51:1-11  1 Timothy 1:12-17  Luke 15:1-10

This is not a day that we let pass without pause to remember the losses of September 11, 2001 – lives, livelihoods, dreams, idealism – irreparable, irreplaceable loss. This morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke, which cycles every three years, was the Gospel lesson for the Sunday following the 9/11 attack in 2001. We pause to contemplate the Good Shepherd searching for his lost sheep in the rubble of the towers and The Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania.

Quite certainly, in many serious or trivial ways, each of us has felt lost at one time or another. I clearly remember a Saturday afternoon in WT Grant’s at the Great Bridge Shopping Center when I was following my mother’s camel colored coattail. Until, and I believe I could return to the exact spot, looking up from that lowly perspective, I realized with horror that that coat was being worn by someone else’s mother – not mine. Apparently, I was soon reunited with the correct camel coat; I don’t remember that part, but I have never forgotten, from my toddler perspective, the horror of what it was to be lost, or at least believe I was lost, even though I certainly was not.

We have all felt lost – physically, spiritually, or otherwise; simply or severely lost.

But, our Gospel message and our Gospel mission that we have come to celebrate today are not about loss; the Gospel message and our place in God’s kingdom are about finding and being found. Throughout Jesus’ ministry on earth, he assures the Father that none that the Father has trusted to him is lost.

And, as he does so often, Jesus most effectively elucidates his message with parables. In today’s Gospel, we hear the beloved comforting parable of the lost sheep.

Sheep are interesting creatures and, throughout the Bible, provide numerous spiritual metaphors and symbolism. Sheep are creatures of community; when they become separated from their fold and their shepherd, they are likely to panic. Being lost from their companions may cause them to become traumatized to the point that they cannot call out. A shepherd searching for a lost sheep must search behind every rock and shrub and in every gully. The lost sheep cannot utter a sound to assist his rescuer. But, as we hear in our parable, the rescuer does not give up until the one who was lost is found, and, then, with his friends and neighbors there is great rejoicing for this one who was lost that had been found.

Thus, more important than the theme of loss is the theme of finding and being found. God is the finder in our parable. We are never lost to God; he searches us out and redeems us. He knows us by name and He treasures each one of us. We are the lost sinners only when we do not realize we are already found, only when we refuse to open ourselves to being found and to receiving God’s mercy.

We are the lost sheep being sought, but at the same time we have always already been found. We are never lost; we just too often fail to realize that we have been found. And, like the shepherd of our parable, God’s rejoicing upon our being restored to the fold is great – each and every one restored with most joyful celebration. That part of the whole that was missing is once again complete.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are about being found – being found by the King of Kings, being sought by the Good Shepherd who never ceases to reach out to us when we lose our way. He calls each of us by name, and when he hears our voice in reply – when He sees that we recognize that we have been found – He gathers His entire kingdom with great celebration. “Rejoice with me.” Our Lord says. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

We are all ministers; we are all called to the carry forth the Gospel mission of gathering those who believe themselves to be lost, perhaps so traumatized that they cannot call out for help. Whether you have assisted the clothes closet or the food pantry, whether you have served as a greeter and usher, whether you have directed our young people, assisted on the worship team, contributed school supplies for local children or dental supplies for children in remote areas of Honduras, or reached out to make a guest feel welcome in the seemingly simplest way – Regardless of the bigness or smallness of your task, you are a minister. You are the hands and feet and heart of the Christian mission to rescue the lost.

Jesus Christ rose from the tomb and vanquished death forever. Even a day so horrible as September 11, 2001 cannot thwart the saving power of our Good Shepherd. Our earthly death, no matter how horrible, cannot separate us from God’s unrelenting search for us. As his ministers, we carry this message to those believing themselves to be lost. Christ the King, Christus Rex, reigns forever, and He will come again to restore each and every one to His kingdom. Try to hide if you wish, but you have already been found.

04
Sep

The Third Way

Deuteronomy 30:15-20  Psalm 1  Philemon 1-21  Luke 14:25-33

We could soften Jesus’ words with some reinterpretation. We could assume our English language doesn’t have an adequate translation for the word Jesus uses for “hate,” as he seems to tell us we cannot fully love him and are not fully devoted disciples unless we “hate” the members of our immediate family, even “hate” life itself, and give up all our possessions.

We could speculate that we have only the two options: love or hate. If I were presented with chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream, I’d have to choose chocolate as my preference. If I were to have to answer a survey question on the terms presented in our Gospel lesson: Which do you love? Which do you hate? My survey answer would indicate that I love chocolate and hate vanilla. Yet, that is not true.

If instead, I were presented with Rocky Road ice cream – a sinful and irresistible combination of chocolate ice cream implanted with dark chocolate bits, nuts, and marshmallows, my desire for the Rocky Road concoction would be so far superior to the vanilla choice, that my desire for the vanilla could not even come close; my taste for the vanilla could not be described with the same words. There would be an indescribable vast chasm between my love for the Rocky Road and my ho-hum acceptance of the vanilla as a consolation. My love for the Rocky Road is so enormous that it would gather my full devotion making it seem that I hate vanilla in comparison.

Still, I don’t hate vanilla, and the truth is, the chocolate starts out as vanilla. Ah, then, there is a third answer. I can love the vanilla along with the Rocky Road; the vanilla is part of the Rocky Road.

So, do we pass off the harshness of the surface interpretation of Jesus’ words with the excuse of lack of adequate translation over the 2,000 years? Or, perhaps, there is such an extreme chasm between the spiritual self-sacrificing love of true discipleship – the self-sacrificing love we share as spiritual brothers and sisters within the Body of Christ – and the love we experience with earthly family members that the same word cannot be used to describe both emotions. The scriptures speak in the extreme. God’s love for us expressed in the redemption of all creation through the life and works and Jesus Christ is extreme, so beyond human words and interpretation, the explanation leaves many vast chasms in our ability to articulate.

Or, is there a third way of reading this text – an answer that exists in the ambiguity? Certainly, our love of family and our love of life take on new meaning – a reinterpretation – when we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, when we become true disciples. As true disciples, we incorporate all that is earthly into all that is sacred. Our earthly family becomes our spiritual family as do all with whom we share the Body of Christ. Our earthly possessions become sacred as they are devoted to God’s will – devoted toward the furtherance of God’s kingdom.

Oh, well. Our Gospel lesson is another one of those passages that we spend our life deciphering; it will be clear to us in eternity. For now, we live with the ambiguity. Mostly, rather than getting mired down in literal murky interpretations, we turn our focus to the crystal clear message: Jesus, our Savior, goes to the extreme to be sure we understand that the journey of discipleship is not a primrose path.

Jesus wants us to know that our discipleship is on a vastly different plain than our earthly familial relationships and our tangible earthly possessions. We should be prepared to walk away from any of those bonds that inhibit our discipleship. As with any investment that promises a worthy return, our sacrifice is significant and should be recognized and affirmed at the outset.

The cost of discipleship is dear; the cost of the Cross is earthly life. The reward is the empty tomb – victory over death; the reward is eternal life. How can we possibly explain, except to strive to live in the presence of Jesus Christ, always open to the “third” way, often the less obvious answers – answers that require our constant discernment – our being constantly in the presence of Christ?

In our lesson from Deuteronomy, we read the words of God spoken by Moses to God’s wayward people, in this case the Israelites. If we walk in God’s ways, we will be blessed. Conversely, if we stray, we will perish.

Prior to the time of Moses, God had destroyed creation through the flood, reserving only the remnant of Noah and his family. From that time until now, humans have continued to waver in faithfulness to God’s law. Would God go on destroying his creation every time humankind reached the red line of faithlessness?

But, if God didn’t enforce his laws through the threat of perishing, would we humans, per our human nature, ever be faithful to God’s laws? Do we perish for our sinfulness as God promises? Or, do we live on faithlessly and recklessly thumbing our noses in the face of God’s empty threat?

Or, is there a third answer? Our Father God, creator, is above all creative. God would send the Son to redeem us of our faithlessness, to pay the price to rescue us from the grave, to save us from perishing. The cost of our faithlessness would indeed be paid. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, would die to pay the cost of our sins; God, in the person of Jesus Christ, would overcome death and rise again to insure that we would never perish but have everlasting life. Only God could suggest this “third way” out of our predicament.

The Apostle Paul provides a learning example: Paul, from prison, begs for the freedom of his brother in Christ, Onesimus. Onesimus is a slave, owned by Paul’s friend Philemon. Together with others, Paul and Philemon had established a church house. Onesimus has run away or been sent away; the letter leaves these conditions unclear. In either case, Onesimus has broken free of his bondage and come to Paul, giving Paul aid in prison. The portion of the letter that we read today is written by Paul from prison; it is a plea to his friend Philemon for Onesimus’ freedom.

We do not learn the outcome of Paul’s request. Is Onesimus punished and taken back into slavery upon his return to Philemon? Is he released, essentially abandoned, to fend for himself? Or, is there a third answer – as Paul requests? Is Onesimus received by Philemon as a brother in Christ – an equal in the household of God?

Whether it is Rocky Road ice cream, or the reception into the Body of Christ of Onesimus, or our salvation by grace through faith, as disciples of Christ, we are called to live with the endless possibilities, the difficult questions, the ambiguity of life in the presence of Jesus Christ. We are called to maintain the non-anxious presence in the face of crisis and chaos. Love/hate, life/death, freedom/bondage: is it one or the other or something different, entirely unimaginable?

God is a god of endless possibilities. Remain constantly in the presence of Jesus Christ our Savior. There, you will discover the “third way” – the endless possibilities of true discipleship – the endless possibilities of the life and works of Jesus Christ brought forth in us.

28
Aug

Humility

Sirach 10:12-18  Psalm 112   Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16  Luke 14:1, 7-14

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” These specific words of our Lord are unique to Luke’s Gospel.

As we journey through the Gospel of Luke this distinctive message evolves – the message of the necessity of humility in our relationship with God and our neighbor. It is Luke who describes the humble birth of our Lord. It is in Luke’s Gospel that we read of the angels carrying the news of the Savior’s birth to the humble shepherds – a lowly profession at the time of Jesus’ birth. Luke, most intentionally, avails himself to Jesus’ urgent message of necessity of humility.

It was particularly common for the religiously and politically elite of Jesus’ time to set themselves far above those of lower station. This is a tradition that sees that those among society’s elite are most entitled to the greater bounty of God’s blessings, thus considering the elite more fit for God’s kingdom.

To challenge this societal norm was dangerous. And, Luke, like the other Gospel writers, does not soft shoe the controversy that builds around Jesus with every encounter in which Jesus fervently defies this tradition that sets the elite apart from the lowly.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus is a guest at the table of a leader of the Pharisees – the very elite among his Jewish people. Jesus is observing the proficiency of the other guests as they “work the room” – choosing their seats at the table based on their presumed status in the community.

This show of hubris prompts Jesus’ parable of humility – a parable obviously intended to shatter the prevailing illusions of importance and grandeur. We can imagine that the subsequent dinner conversation was not of trivial pleasantries. Jesus has rocked the boat once again. And, as we learn in the first verse of our lesson, Jesus has offended the elite, and Jesus has done so under the close scrutiny of these legal officials who were documenting just such offenses as this.

Why is lack of humility such an important pitfall that Jesus is willing to toss it so boldly in the face of these religious elitists – and not just these religious elitists, but all of us who fall victim to the prideful ego of our human nature?

What is it about humility that makes it such an integral need for us in the furtherance of the Kingdom of God? Humility is our awareness of our dependence on God; humility is our understanding of our personal responsibilities as members of the Body of Christ; humility is our window into God’s pure unconditional love.

Thoughtful reflection on humility opens our realization that humility is the basic foundation of our faith and honest discernment. Humility is the big tent that encompasses our faith and good works. With humility, we recognize our dependence upon God for every aspect of life. Our power and wealth and prestige and good health have a tendency to cloud the reality of our dependence on God. It is easy to suffer from the illusion of self-sufficiency. In humility, we recognize the impotence of our worldly gains and the necessity of emptying ourselves of all shallow worldly ambitions, allowing God to come in and fill us fully with his grace. This awareness of dependence on God shapes our faith.

Humility allows us to be silent in God’s presence, awaiting God’s command for the ministry to which we are called – asking God to reveal his will for our lives and grant us the energy and courage to pursue God’s will according to God’s command.

As our increasing sense of humility increases our awareness of our dependence on God increases, allowing the burdens of each day to be taken from our shoulders and placed in God’s hands. Through humility, our eyes are opened to our weaknesses for which God is offering healing. And, through humility, our eyes are opened to our strengths that God is nurturing for his use in service to our neighbors.

Humility is not degradation of our selves; that would be a denial of God’s gift of our creation. Rather, in humility, we come to God seeking to see ourselves as God sees us – seeking to see our place in God’s plan for the redemption of the world. It is not about us – our grandeur and self-made abilities; it is about God in us – Christ in us – making his kingdom known through us – the Body of Christ.

In just a few moments you will have an opportunity to stand and exchange the Peace of Christ with those seated near you. This exchange is not about us. It is not separate from our worship. It is a significant time in our worship together when we have an opportunity to take our neighbor by the hand, look intentionally into his or her eyes, and say with sincerity, “the peace of the Lord be always with you.”

It is not about us; it is about Christ who is in us. In humility, we open ourselves to the presence of Christ in us, and we desire that everyone around us has that same experience of the presence of Christ.

Humility allows us to keep our focus on our dependence on God. Humility alerts us to the responsibilities of being the Body of Christ as we are called to be. Humility keeps us mindful that we are loved, not for our impressive elite place at the table, but because we are children of God, God who loves us unconditionally and wills us to do the same.

In seeking to be humble, we will be exalted in the presence of God. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

21
Aug

Sabbath Balance

Isaiah 58:9b-14  Psalm 103:1-8  Hebrews 12:18-29  Luke 13:10-17

In the last months of my mother’s life, I came to understand the essence of balance. It seems that everything – physical, spiritual, emotional – everything keeps coming back to the essence of balance. As our earthly bodies grow older, it becomes more and more difficult to keep our nutrients in balance or to keep our fluid levels in balance. If we have too little fluid, we become dehydrated, a condition that leads to slow and certain death; if we have too much fluid, our hearts becomes congested and fail. If we try to force fluid into our bodies intravenously, our weakened systems cannot easily accommodate. We could say, death – physical death, spiritual death, and emotional death – is about loss of balance.

Similarly, Sabbath is about balance – balance of worship, mission, and rest; balance in honoring God, balance in honoring our neighbor, and, importantly, balance in honoring ourselves as essential elements in God’s Creation.

The fourth of our Ten Commandments addresses the essence of Sabbath: Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy.

This Fourth Commandment is the pivotal commandment – the balancing commandment. Our first three Commandments from the Hebrew text of Exodus 20 address our relationship with God specifically. We shall have no other gods before our God; we shall not make for ourselves idols to be worshipped in the place of our God who is a jealous God; and we shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord our God.

On the other hand, Commandments Five through Ten address very specifically our relationship with our neighbor: We should honor our father and mother; we shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness against our neighbor, or covet our neighbors’ possessions or relationships.

The Fourth Commandment, however, is pivotal in that it guides our response in our relationship with God and guides our response to our neighbor; and, it guides our personal needs for spiritual, emotional, and physical balance.

Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy. Remember the Sabbath Day. How is it that remembering the Sabbath Day and keeping it holy keeps us balanced in our honoring of God, neighbor, and self? Do we honor this balance in our Sabbath Day worship? I hesitate to add, that the commandment says nothing of “worshiping” on the Sabbath. But it is Sabbath as defined by God that leaves time for our worship as well as our acts of mercy, and, importantly, rest from our earthly labors.

It is in keeping Sabbath that our eyes are opened to our need to see the reality of our own personal crippling bondage, opened to our need to draw closer to God for our own healing so that our eyes are opened to the needs of our neighbors around us who are suffering spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

Our Sabbath worship is not an end in itself. The clear message of this Gospel account from Luke is that keeping the Sabbath holy does not include shutting ourselves off from the needs of God’s creation. In fact, as our Sabbath eyes are opened to human need, our acts of mercy are necessary to the keeping of the Sabbath; and, our eyes are opened to the necessity of our own self-care as it relates to our call to mission and the honoring of our appropriate essential place as part of God’s sacred creation.

And, yes, God rested on the seventh day, and he intends for us to take time to rest in his presence – to breathe deeply into our souls the sweet breath of redemption.

Our Gospel account of Jesus’ healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath includes Jesus’ chastisement by the leaders of synagogue for violating the Fourth Commandment by performing this healing. Did Jesus violate the keeping of the Sabbath by performing this act of mercy that freed this woman from the bondage of infirmity that had plagued her for eighteen years?

Sabbath is a divine gift, as was this gift of healing that Jesus, unsolicited and freely, delivered to this woman in the synagogue; Sabbath observance is not to be seen as a burden. Surely, God intends that we honor the Sabbath with rest from our earthly labors. But we honor the Sabbath on God’s terms, and we cannot keep this day truly holy if, in arrogance or complacency, we misuse or ignore this gift for purely selfish self-serving purposes – unbalancing the scales too much toward our selfish desires.

Tilden Edwards, the author of Sabbath Time tells us that we keep the Sabbath holy by “faithfully maintaining the balance among worship, play, rest, work, community, and ministry. The rhythm of Sabbath and ministry, Edwards says, is a rhythm that God provides to human life for its care, cleaning, and opening to grace.”[1] The way of life for one who remembers the Sabbath is a way of life that is “tested by scripture, tradition, and the fresh movement of the Holy Spirit in our time.”[2]

The Gospel message is that our time is not our own, and we are not to go through life with that mistaken assumption. Sabbath is a way of life – a divine gift from our God who loves us beyond our understanding; we accept this divine gift with even greater intentional graciousness than the graciousness with which we receive other treasured gifts given to us by those who love us.

In remembering the Sabbath Day, we experience the holiness of our relationship with God in concert with our relationship with our neighbor. Sabbath is a way of life – a holy balance that honors God, our neighbor, and our own place in that balance.

As we come as participants in the Holy Communion celebrated by Christ at the Last Supper with his closest disciples, Christ, in the same way, is present with us. We come with our crippled bodies and spirits to be healed by his mercy and, thus, to be the avenue of healing for others. It is the keeping of the way of life of the Sabbath – worship, acts of mercy, and rest. Sabbath is to be “a spring whose restorative water never fails,” to repeat the beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah; our Sabbath is to be the balancing restorative waters of our place in relationship with God and neighbor.

14
Aug

Peace and Division

Jeremiah 23:23-29  Psalm 82  Hebrews 11:29-12:2  Luke 12:49-56

Luke’s narrative describes the settings in which Jesus is speaking to the elite of His day on the behalf of those who are beaten down by society. And, in this way Luke speaks to the elite of the late first century, and to the elite from that time until today. We are the elite of today – Luke speaks to US.

As the advocate for the downtrodden, we perceive Luke as being a gentle and attentive healer. We treasure the warm feelings of the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and the angels singing of peace on earth to the lowly shepherds. These are the accounts Luke includes in the beginning of his Gospel – familiar celebratory words we love to hear every Christmas season. So, when we encounter words such as those in this morning’s Gospel lesson, we feel a little startled and hurt. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

We had a clue of the changing tide for Luke some weeks ago in our lesson that spoke of Jesus’ face being set toward Jerusalem. We began then to realize that the crucifixion is imminent, drawing near much too quickly. Luke has moved on from his sweet stories of the Babe in the manger and the young boy left behind by his parents teaching in the temple. For today’s lesson at this point in his narrative there is urgency in Luke’s sharp tone. There is urgency in the need to take a stand – to make a decision.

Jesus speaks of the fire of judgment and the baptism of the Passion that is to come. He says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (NRSV Luke 12:51). But, the angels had said, “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.” We read it at Christmas; it’s right back here in Chapter 2.

To better understand the message, it helps to consider the difference between purpose and result. Remember, by the time these words are recorded Luke has had 50 years to digest the results of Jesus’ life and works, death and resurrection. Was it Jesus’ purpose to bring division to the earth or was the division rather the inevitable result brought about by Jesus’ confrontation with the evil of the world? How often as parents do we bring division to our households – not as a purpose of our actions but the result of our actions taken in the interest of safety, discipline, and a healthier future – the necessary result, we would hope, on the road to true familial peace? How difficult is it in this incredible summer heat to root out the weeds from our flowerbeds without damaging or destroying the flowering plants that are blooming along side with roots intermingled?

For the people of Jesus’ time, Caesar Augustus had brought a peace of sorts. His peace was known as Pax Romana – the Latin phrase for Roman Peace. Pax Romana is considered to have existed from the time Caesar Augustus became emperor in 27 BC and continued under his succeeding emperors until 180 AD. Pax Romana was an enforced peace that established social order and ended the aggressive Roman invasions. It was also a peace that defied any degree of unrest or dissent expressed toward the current Roman emperor. The Pax Romana was a frustration to Roman soldiers who felt that peace could exist only when Rome had conquered the entire known world. To Jews and Christians of this time period who worshiped the one God, the Pax Romana posed a grave threat when politics forced them to choose whom they would worship publicly as their ruler.

So, then, for many of these first century followers to whom Jesus is speaking, choosing to follow Jesus meant severe persecution, often death by political authorities or out casting by families and religious leaders.

Some 700 years prior the prophet Jeremiah warns of the danger. In our Old Testament lesson this morning the prophet speaks of God’s living word. ”My word is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.” [NRSV Jeremiah 23:29] – division, not peace. In his interpretation of the Luke passage, the Bible commentator Fred Craddock uses the metaphor of two raindrops striking the gable of a roof at the same moment. The raindrops are divided by the point of the gable, and “that moment,” Craddock says, “could conclude with their being oceans apart.”[1]

Even today, as we take our religious freedoms for granted, making the decision to unite ourselves with Jesus Christ is not always peaceful. It often involves defying the current rulers of our lives. It can be a fearful decision. Daily, we learn of God’s people losing their lives as they pursue their mission in war-torn areas of the world and violence riddles areas of our country. Too often, the decision to follow Christ’s call leads to earthly death on the road to peace.

Few of us will face this extent of danger. What is it that we have to fear from our union with Christ? Would it mean giving up a vice that brings us great pleasure, being led by God’s will into an uncertain mission field or seemingly frightening ministry, or being divided from earthly things to which we feel a need to cling – maybe even family members or friends.

But, remember Luke’s sharp urgent tone. He quotes Jesus’ admonition to us to make an effort to settle our case with our accuser before we are dragged before the judge. Surely, if we had been accused of a crime, we would not neglect to craft our defense, investigate the allegations, and hire the best lawyer before going before the judge. Yet, we let our lives ramble on toward the judgment of fire that is to come without the same sense of urgency for preparation and decision.

Our Christian journey is filled with uncertainty. The deeper we delve into our faith, the more questions confront us. Yes, our Holy Scriptures have answers, but mostly the scriptures promote even more questions. If this were not so, we would read our instruction manual, consider ourselves knowledgeable of all there is to know about following Jesus Christ, put the book aside, consider our faith journey complete, and not give it another thought. Jesus Christ came to earth to cause us to confront our ambiguities – to question, to find little answers, to question some more, to keep searching, to keep seeking his guidance.

Yes, in our decisions there will be division, maybe even danger, but the end is peace – not an enforced earthly peace that squashes the division, but true peace. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the pain of discipline and the peaceful fruit of righteousness that is the result. Luke implores us to heed his sense of urgency – to not be dragged before the judge unprepared; to carry with us the words from Hebrews, “Lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” [NRSV Hebrews 12:1] – looking to Jesus for the true peace that passeth all understanding.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, “Luke,” in Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) 166.

07
Aug

Do Not Be Afraid

Genesis 15:1-6  Psalm 33:12-22  Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16  Luke 12:32-40

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” These words of Jesus to his disciples must be the most comforting words we could possibly hear from the lips of our Lord. “Do not be afraid.” Sit with that for a moment.

This instruction from God is the most frequent instruction we encounter in the Bible. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we read it more than 360 times, phrased a little differently but with the same meaning, “Do not be afraid.”

Over and over again, God implants this message in our hearts and minds so that in times of distress we will hear his voice saying, “Do not be afraid.” The message is a message of the need to trust – trust that God is keeping his promise to his people for all eternity. It is a message of believing – believe that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom as Jesus reminds us in this morning’s Gospel lesson. It is a message of faith. Have faith that God our Father wants only what is best for us.

Throughout the Bible, faith is epitomized through Abraham; Abrahamic faith, has its own special definition shaped by the depth of Abraham’s trust in God – trust in our God who tells us again and again, “Do not be afraid.” And yet, even for Abraham, singled out and chosen by God as our first patriarch, life held little certainty. Surely, even Abraham was plagued with doubt; only faith could assuage his fear of the unknown territory into which God directed him.

In our lesson from Genesis 15, God in a vision to Abram says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And, Abram protests God’s admonition, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?” Three chapters preceding this one in Genesis, in His first encounter with Abram, God had promised to make Abram a great nation. The scriptures tell us Abram was 75 years old at that time. Then, again in Chapter 13, God had promised Abram offspring so numerous that they could not be counted. Here we are at Chapter 15, after Abram has endured a number of exciting escapades including rescuing his nephew Lot who was taken captive from Sodom.

Still, there is no offspring – no evidence of a great nation to come. Abram and his wife are approaching the ages of 90 and above. Surely there was little certainty in their minds that together they would parent a great nation of chosen people.

Abraham’s saga through the book of Genesis does not overlook his frailties, his humanity, and his doubts. But, through it all, Abraham continues to trust and it is his trust encompassed in his deep faith in God that is the message we are intended to receive. Our faith is not measured in quantity or quality. We are asked simply to remain faithful – to listen for the words of our Lord, “Do not be afraid.”

The message is faith that cannot be equaled within our human imagination – a faith in the words of God, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.” For Abraham and for us, there is no certainty of the specifics of where this faith will take us, only assurance that God is our shield – only the words of our Lord, “Do not be afraid, little flock.”

The writer of Hebrews describes this faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Where do we find such faith? Where do we find this assurance in the face of the worst of our fears? Truly, we do not find this assurance in our own self-sufficiency or in the wealth and prestige that the world has to offer – the things that are seen.

There are some instructions: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” In other words be prepared; be awake; and don’t be hindered by your possessions – possessions that we cling to out of fear – possessions that we wrongfully believe will bring us security and certainty.

It is our responsibility to be prepared and awake, to help our neighbor be prepared and awake, to pray, listening for God’s voice, and to study his word daily, to give alms generously, to worship and praise God with our whole heart. Our faith is a gift, but we must open our hands to receive it.

Our beagle Sallie is a rescue who spent the first four years of her life in research. She was not abused; she loves people and other animals; but she obviously missed the formative years of being cuddled and petted. She is not a snuggler or a cuddler. And, like many dogs, she is horribly frightened of fireworks and thunderstorms. She is absolutely inconsolable from the first detection of a far-off boom. I try to wrap her in blankets and hold her close and whisper soft words of comfort, but she struggles to be free of being embraced; she remains frantic, consumed with fear, trembling uncontrollably. It is a heart-wrenching experience for us that she is unable to accept and respond to our assurances that we will keep her safe, that there is no need to be afraid.

Surely, Jesus’ heart wrenched when even his closest followers could not accept and respond to his promises of guidance and protection. Imagine the heartache God our heavenly Father feels when we cannot allow ourselves to believe and trust in his promise – when we cannot hear and respond to his words, “Do not be afraid.”

Throughout the Bible, God commands us again and again – Do not be afraid – the most frequent and, I am convinced, the most difficult of all God’s instructions. Following God’s call and remaining non-anxious in the face of day-to-day uncertainty or sudden crisis requires trusting, believing, remaining faithful as Abraham remained faithful. “You must be ready,” Jesus says, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” And, above all, “Do not be afraid, little flock.”

31
Jul

Hidden with Christ in God

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23  Psalm 49:1-11  Colossians 3:1-11  Luke 12:13-21

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God…. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly.” [Colossians 3:3 NRSV] So writes the Apostle Paul in his letter to the people of Colossae.

How is it that we are to have, not a life consumed with earthly things, but a “life hidden with Christ in God?”

Throughout these summer months, we have journeyed with Jesus through the words of the Gospel of Luke. Week after week, our lessons build one upon the other, relatively sequentially, as we join Jesus on his mission among the people of Galilee and Samaria. Like the twelve, we too are disciples seated around our teacher, observing his ministry, awed by his miraculous healing presence, moving toward Jerusalem – the Cross. And, so these words of Good News, recorded for us by Luke, are not to be interpreted simply as accounts of separate unrelated ministry efforts and random parables.

Like the disciples whom Jesus calls to follow him, we enter the journey as individuals. And like these first followers, as we listen and learn and grow, we gather those lessons one upon another as we become one with Christ – our separate lives fall away; we die to our old self-absorbed selves, and we become one with our companions on the journey and with God, “hidden with Christ in God.”

What is it we need to learn about being “hidden with Christ in God?”

From the Good Samaritan, we have learned that all are our neighbors – those we love and those who are difficult to love and those we are afraid to love – all neighbors with whom we are called to share our earthly resources to insure their wellbeing. From the sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany, we have learned that we are to put away our anxieties and distractions so that we might focus clearly and listen intently to the instructions of Jesus. From the lips of Jesus, himself, we have learned that we are to pray boldly that God’s name might be revered on earth, that God’s kingdom will come to earth, and that God’s will will be done through our earthly lives so that we live as if heaven is here on earth.

Thus, step-by-step, on our summer journey with Christ we have discerned the meaning of being hidden with Christ in God. Through Christ, humanity is reconciled to God; through faith, we live in a new relationship with God and with our neighbor.

The foolish landowner of our parable missed this discernment. The foolish landowner of our parable believes all he has accumulated to be his individual accomplishment, gained from his personal individual efforts alone. In the foolish landowner, we find the epitome of all things superficial, fruits of self-absorbed aggrandizement with no glory or thanks to God – and no acknowledgement that earthly life and death are dependent and held solely in the hands of God.

Being hidden with Christ in God is our goal. It is the goal of our worship together. We enter as separate individuals pushed and pulled by the cares of the world; we hear the word of God; we affirm our faith; we prayer for the wellbeing of our neighbors in the world and for the universal Church; we confess our sins; we exchange the peace of Christ; and, then, we come together as one Body of Christ to the Table of our Lord. Thus, as we leave this place, we go into the world to love and serve with our hearts united with Christ in God, united with one another in our mission to bring the Good News of Christ to the world.

Our instructed Eucharist is an effort to help us better understand that progression of entering as individuals and leaving as missioners hidden with Christ in God. The liturgy of the Book of Common guides us through this mystical process. I invite you to open your hearts and minds, as did Mary of Bethany on Jesus’ visit to her home, put away earthly distractions, hide yourself with Christ Jesus in the Good News of our salvation; hide yourself with Christ Jesus that God’s kingdom may come to earth.

24
Jul

Prayer

Genesis 18:20-32  Psalm 138  Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)  Luke 11:1-13

Prayer is surrounding us from every side this morning.  It is prayer that is bold; it is prayer that is persistent; it is prayer that draws us closer to God.

We have just read of Jesus’ words of instruction on how we are to pray.  The prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer is from the very lips of Jesus himself.  This, in itself, is a testimony to the power of the Christian message – the very words from our Savior’s lips passed down through two millenniums from Aramaic into the impeccable Greek in which Luke wrote his account of the Gospel, to be translated into the Latin of the early Church, then, at great risk to the reformist translator, into the vernacular languages of Germans and Englishmen of the 16th century, and then, with the passing centuries into every language of worshiping Christians all over the world.

We are to pray boldly:  “Give us this day our daily bread.”  “Forgive us our trespasses.”  “Lead us not into temptation.”  We are not even instructed to say “Please.”

Think of the boldness of Abraham whom the Lord chose to be our first patriarch – the model of righteousness.  In our lesson from Genesis, Abraham stands before the Lord and speaks what we might consider the first prayer recorded in the Bible.  Boldly, yet respectfully, Abraham questions the Lord’s planned destruction of Sodom as judgment for the wickedness of the city,

“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!  Far be that from you!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

The Lord’s response to Abraham is a reflection of the Lord’s own sense of respect for the covenant they share. “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”  Abraham counters the Lord’s offer, meekly imploring the Lord not to become angry at his pleadings; he gains the Lord’s agreement not to destroy the city if 45 are found to be righteous.  Suppose 40 are righteous?  How about 30?  Even 20?  And finally, 10?  Yes, if Abraham can find ten righteous people in Sodom, the Lord agrees to forgive the entire city for the sake of these ten righteous people.   Abraham’s prayer to the Lord is meek, acknowledging his condition of dust and ashes, but bravely bold nonetheless as Abraham seems, step by timid step, to draw closer and closer to the Lord.

We draw closer, step-by-step, to the Lord as we follow Jesus’ instruction to ask, seek, and knock so that the door will be opened.  These are not three separate actions – asking, seeking, knocking, but a process of drawing closer and closer.  God doesn’t change; it is we who are changed by prayer.  God is always near to us; it is through persistence in prayer that we draw ourselves closer to God.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When people pray, they have ceased to know themselves, and know only God whom they call upon.”[1]  Our desires are reshaped into God’s desires as we delight in his will and walk in his ways.

Without prayer, we are much like a boat being tossed about at sea without any sense of direction.  Recognizing the need to ask for direction, we begin to pray persistently; we begin to seek direction.   Through persistence in prayer, we are guided to a secure spot where we can toss our anchor and begin to pull ourselves closer and closer to the safety of the shore.  Persistently, we draw ourselves closer to the shoreline until we arrive at the door.  We knock, the door opens, and we find ourselves in oneness with God.

We ask; and we continue to pray with persistence and our asking becomes seeking a clearer understanding of our relationship with our neighbor and with God – God, our creator and sustainer who wants only what is best for us.  Seeking further, we knock; the door opens so that we cease to know ourselves separate from God.  There is no “other,” we are united in relationship with God.

The great 20th century preacher George Buttrick sets up three scenarios concerning prayer:  First, if God does not exist, and our lives are solitary and uncivilized and short, then prayer is a dead-ending exercise of self-deceit.  Secondly, If God exists as some sort of clouded yet all-controlling force in our lives, then prayer would be a foolish empty expenditure of our energy.  But, in the words of the Rev. Buttrick, “if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with Him is our first concern, worthiest art, best resource, and sublimest joy.”[2]

A stolen quote penned in my prayer book that I keep at my bedside reads: “Prayer is an encounter with our dearest love, a longing for intimacy rather than a listing of wants and needs.”  There is an image planted in my mind of sitting face to face with Jesus, eye to eye.  Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that…  You are sitting face to face with Jesus.  Sit there in the silence and feel the warmth of his presence, note the compassion in his facial expression, see your own image reflected in his eyes.  Do you see your pain there?  He knows your pain.  Do you see there the reflection of your joys?  He knows your joys as well.  He is your dearest love.  He knows you; he knows your needs before you even know how to express them or ask his guidance in finding satisfaction for them….  Now, what will you say to him?  What will he say to you?

Ask, seek, knock.  The Lord honored his promise to Abraham.  Jesus, in his instruction to his disciples, uses the analogy of a parent and child.  None of us would give our own child a scorpion if he or she had asked for an egg.  Wouldn’t, then, our all-knowing gracious and loving heavenly Father give to us according to our needs – in accordance with his promise to us?  God wants only what is best for us.  He came to us in the human nature of Jesus Christ to affirm his covenant with us.

Persistent prayer is not repetitive asking; it is a process of moving from asking, to seeking, to knocking at the door that is opened to us.  Persistent prayer in not simply a listing of our wants, but a drawing closer into the fullness of God’s reign – the opening up of the Kingdom and our presence there beyond the opened door.

Be bold, be persistent to the point of recognizing your oneness with God, and don’t ever let anyone convince you that your particular prayer ritual is wrong.  My Aunt Lorraine, God rest her soul, always reminded us that she prayed for each one of us every night.  Some “wise theologians” would say that that is a useless “laundry list” of prayers.  I strongly disagree.  Aunt Lorraine could name all of her nieces and nephews, their spouses, and all our children.  I loved knowing that she lifted my name to God every night by her bedside.  There is a distinct warmth and closeness with those who pray for us and those for whom we pray.  We draw closer to one another in this way, and drawing closer to one another is drawing closer to God.

Prayer, like faith, doesn’t have a right or wrong way, it is not quality or quantity.  Just keep being faithful, and just keep praying.  And, if or when praying is difficult, we are blessed with our Book of Common Prayer, which we like to say prays for us when we cannot pray for ourselves.

Be bold – as Abraham was bold.  God can take it.  Certainly, God prefers our rants and ravings to our distant silence.

Be persistent – ask, seek, knock.

Be united as one with God.

10
Jul

Love without Fear

Genesis 18:1-10a  Psalm 15   Colossians 1:15-28  Luke 10:38-42

At some time or another, at some point in our lives, a stranger has ministered to us in an unexpected way. A stranger, loving without fear has come to our aid, maybe even risked major inconvenience, or risked his or her life. Every day, strangers, prompted by their love for a fellow human being, become Good Samaritans. You may not even know the details of the parable we have just read, but you know the definition of a “Good Samaritan.”

What makes the Samaritan of our lesson unique and, thus, this parable so sensational? It is important to understand that Samaritans, during the time of Jesus, were enemy outcasts .

In the early centuries of the Divided Kingdom – Israel to the north and Judah to the south – Samaria had been the capital of Israel. Ahab, King of Israel, and Queen Jezebel had built their palace there – towers of ivory and gold-leaf ivory décor. But, King Ahab and, particularly, his foreign wife Jezebel had introduced pagan religion and idol worship.

Time passed and the people of Israel drew further and further away from God. In the 8th century BC, the Jews of Samaria were taken into exile by the Assyrians from the lands north and east of Samaria. The city was destroyed and the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist.

In the centuries that followed a mixture of colonists from the vast Assyrian Empire would resettle the lands that surrounded the original city, and the entire region would become known as Samaria. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, Herod the Great had rebuilt and renamed the city, and only a small number Jews of mixed descent were settled in the area. These Jewish descendants claimed to worship God, but they were considered half-caste and they were despised by the Jews of Judea to the south and Galilee to the north. Class-warfare and mutual hatred festered. Jews of Galilee and Judea and the Samaritans in between avoided one another’s territories for fear of their lives.

To prevent becoming defiled or attacked in the land of Samaria, a faithful Jew, making a pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem, was forced to cross the Jordan River, travel down its eastward bank, and cross back over to its westward bank near Jerusalem, perhaps at Jericho, a safe distance from Samaria.

Jesus, however, made it a point to pass through Samaria and we could list a number of accounts of his ministry there.

So, with this background, we return to Luke’s account of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer, one so concerned with strict adherence to the Law of God, asks the question of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus most often answers questions with other questions or with parables – He wants us to use our hearts and our brains to answer these questions for ourselves. And, so, this parable so loved and familiar to us serves as Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

The scene of our parable is the road between Jerusalem and Jericho where Samaritans were undoubtedly unwelcome and great cause for suspicion. A man has been beaten and robbed and left to die in the road. For whatever their reasons or rationalizations, a priest and a man of the priestly tribe of the Levites pass by the dying man. In fact, according to Luke, they move to the other side of the road emphasizing their intention to pass him by.

Rather, it is the despised Samaritan who stops to bring aid. He not only foregoes his mission in foreign territory while recognizing the inherent danger of being there to start with, but also he binds the injured man’s wounds, brings him to a place where he can receive continued care, and provides for that care with his own finances.

Can you sense the extreme nature of the paradox here? The one most despised by God’s people becomes the one who has the clearest understanding of neighbor and love for neighbor. His understanding and willingness to honor this most basic of God’s laws surpasses the religious elite who are charged with disseminating this very law that is the basis of eternal life.

Jesus’ message is simple: Our neighbor is the one who is broken and bleeding in the ditch who needs our care. And, our neighbor is the feared despised outcast. Our neighbors are those beloved to us, those who need us and those we need. Our neighbors are those who might say they despise us and those we might say we despise. God created us to be in relationship with one another; our neighbor is everyone.

So, the message is simple but not simplistic: We are to love everyone – everyone -who is our neighbor, and we are to love without fear. We are not to be inhibited in reaching out to our neighbor by our self-righteousness or our fear of inconvenience or exploitation.

These followers of the law such as the lawyer, the priest, and the Levite in our parable felt that their position as keepers of the law held them on a higher level, above the bleeding and broken. How surprising it was for the lawyer to admit that it was indeed the Samaritan who was the most genuine keeper of the law. Do you notice that he cannot even say the word Samaritan? He responds to Jesus’ question, “The one who showed mercy.”

God’s laws are our guide for how we are to live in relationship with one another – neighbor caring for neighbor. Jesus came to show us how God’s law is our guide. Jesus came to show us that God’s law is not for our own self-serving interpretation, but to guide us in loving without fear – assisting one another in encountering Christ and receiving that assistance with the same graciousness and with sincere appreciation.

All of God’s Law is encompassed in his command “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The Ten Commandments are more specific, but every guidepost leads back to loving God and loving our neighbor – loving our neighbor without fear.