Sermon 8 30 20
When I sit down to write a sermon, well, the first thing I do is I don’t sit down for long. I read over the readings a few times – see what hits me. And then I pray, when I ask: what do you want me to do with this God? What do you want to say?
Then I go for a drive in my car, or walk the dog, or sit outside and ruminate, hoping I hear from God, think about the readings, and try out some ideas that occur to me, that just come to me. And then I start talking – out loud – trying ideas out, out loud. Never underestimate the value of chatting with the world, by yourself!
I think about what’s going on in the world, see if there are any connections there, and just basically give God a chance to plant some ideas, to give me a push. And I look for a fairly simple theme, an idea or ideas that pop out of the words that God has given to us. Yes, I do believe that God gives us our readings to work with and I work on my sermon from a basis of gratitude for those words. I try to find a way that the words of our readings work together, even across the distances of the Old Testament to the New Testament, from the Psalm to the Gospel. Usually some sort of melody, some sort of train of thought begins to run through the readings for me.
What’s different about this Sunday is that I started to write about our Gospel, but then, as I went along, I realized that our Epistle from Romans was more suited to us at Good Shepherd at this time than our Gospel. So I’m focusing on Romans today.
Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. Paul’s ministry was to be a missionary to the Gentiles and a church planter. He didn’t get to Jerusalem often. He was a tent-maker, in more ways than one, enclosing people within ideas, as if they were under a tent.
Paul is the star of the New Testament. No single figure, other than Christ, figures so large in the writing of the New Testament. And he’s so unlikely! According to a contemporary description of him, he was “small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, muscular with eyebrows that met, rather long-nosed and yet, (surprisingly enough!) full of grace.” He sounds kind of funny-looking! From everything he wrote, we can deduce that he was well read, well-educated, incredibly intelligent, incredibly impatient, and yet very well-spoken.
But Paul was not out of Central Casting. He was unlikely. I can tell you – if you ever go to our Diocesan Convention, you will see a few priests who come straight out of Central Casting. “Hi, it’s Grady down on Soundstage 7. I need a guy who looks like a priest, male, over 45, gray at least at the the temples, clean-shaven, and give him a vest. Naw, he doesn’t need to be able to talk. He just needs to look good.” Trust me. Every diocese has a few who come straight out of Central Casting. But not Paul. Paul was about as far from Central Casting as you can get. He was just unlikely.
Paul didn’t start out admiring Jesus. Paul was much better educated, clearly of a higher class than Jesus. No, Paul started out actively fighting against the cult of Jesus Christ. When an unruly crowd decided to stone Stephen, Paul held their cloaks for them. Later, he was struck down and blinded by a blast of light as he journeyed to Damascus and he heard a voice ask him “Why do you persecute me?” The voice revealed itself to be the voice of Jesus and Paul, the Christian hater, was converted to Christianity. He planted at least 14 churches. Most of the letters of our New Testament were written by him to those churches.
Like this letter to the Romans. Paul’s letters were meant to educate and admonish and encourage these little congregations. They are truly wonderful, and sometimes it seems as if he wrote them breathlessly, he had so much to say – so much they needed to learn!
Paul was brilliant but clearly not lovable. He apparently had disagreements with those who traveled with him – nobody ever journeyed with him twice! But he clearly wanted the people of the churches he planted to love each other. He knew that is what would make them strong – not argument, not disagreement – but love. Paul’s words of advice to his congregations are real and they come down to us as strong and practical as if they were written yesterday. Of course, his words demand perfection, a perfection I doubt he was equal to, but they give us something to work towards!
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” “Contribute to the needs of your members (he called them all saints), and extend hospitality to strangers.” Give to the people of your church who need it, and then reach out beyond your congregation! Support each other! He wasn’t forming social clubs. He was forming inreach and outreach ministries.
He encouraged them to empathize with each other. “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” This is how they would become a congregation. “Live in harmony with one another.” He didn’t want the usual social boundaries of their lives to be observed in the church. “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
Now this is hard — “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” He knew they would always be very aware of each other! “Live peaceably with all.”
Then Paul really couldn’t avoid a little tender sarcasm, and my guess is he knew exactly who he was talking to: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
And then Paul advises them to do something that is entirely beyond our common sense. “‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they they are thirsty, give them something to drink;’ And finally and most direct, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Oh, these are hard things to do. Most of us simply can’t do them. But what if we could, if we can, now there’s a revolution. Paul was looking to change hearts and minds, to even go so far as to change what we think of as natural human behavior. He believed that the Word of God can transform us and bring about mental and spiritual revolution in each of us, so that we are governed by the grace of God, transforming every day, more and more into God’s creations, what we were always meant to be.
This is what Paul is teaching us today. And this is what we need to continue to learn and remind ourselves of as I leave you and as all of you return to the search process.
Sermon 8 23 20
So Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer. “Ohhh, they say you’re all kinds of guys come back to life – John the Baptist, Elijah, maybe a prophet.”
“But who do YOU say that I am?” A hush. Of course, after a moment or two of silence, Simon Peter jumps right in and answers the question. Simon Peter was always the kid who had his hand up first. “Me, me, me! Call on me!”
But let’s not get into Simon Peter, as interesting as he is. Let’s get into the question. And then let’s get into us.
“But who do YOU say that I am?”
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? How would you answer that question? Who do we say Jesus is? Who do you say Jesus is?
It’s a really good question. But is it a question we are willing to answer? “Who do you say that I am?” If we’re Christian, are we willing to take responsibility for answering that question? Are we even willing to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” If Jesus were to stand in front of us today and ask us, “”Who do you say that I am?” would we be willing to respond? How would we answer?
If we say we’re Christian, can we say who we believe in is? How many of us would find it easier to say we believe in a political candidate than to say we believe in Jesus Christ?
First, who is this Jesus Christ? Do we know?
What comes to mind? When you hear the name “Jesus,” who do you see in your mind’s eye? There’s that usual picture found on Sunday School walls. He’s always wearing a pure white robe. How did it stay so clean?
There are many pictures of Jesus – many of them with blue eyes – that always gets me. He was a first century Jew! A semitic child of the Mediterranean! How was he supposed to have blue eyes? But as is usually the case, we tend see to Jesus in our own image. When I was a little kid, I used to think Jesus was Swedish. Everybody I knew was Swedish so I figured Jesus was too.
But these days we have much more interesting images of Jesus. There are pictures of him laughing, which I’m sure he did. But for some reason we don’t have medieval paintings of him laughing. Apparently laughter isn’t reverent enough. We have pictures of him as an emaciated medieval saint. Why? He was a carpenter, a tradesman in his early 30s by the time he died. He knew what it meant to work hard with his hands.
Do you have a picture of Jesus in your mind’s eye? Maybe you don’t. Maybe Jesus is a vague figure you can’t quite grasp. Or maybe you don’t feel comfortable letting Jesus be close enough to you to imagine what he looked like. Maybe that’s uncomfortable for you.
But if you are someone who prays, who do you believe is listening? Who are you praying to? Jesus asked his disciples this question — and he asks us this question — who do we say that Jesus is?
Or does he ever come up in conversation?
I know there are Christians who live “removed” Christian lives, who are “Chreesters,” attending church at Christmas and Easter. (And you know what? I’m happy to see them whenever they’re in church!) But I am also acutely aware of what the “Chreesters” are missing out on. Not just the community of the church, but the community of Jesus – Jesus as our friend – who loves us – each of us. He is the one who, whenever two or three of us are gathered together in his name, is with us.
I recall from my childhood years, my early years in Sunday School in the Baptist church, the teachings about accepting Jesus into my heart as my personal savior. We each had to testify to that, but I have to say the whole business of being born again and accepting Jesus into my heart as my personal savior never really connected with me. It was all somehow isolating – meant to be personal, but actually isolating – divorced from, separated from living with Jesus in Christian Community.
I believe that I have belonged to Jesus, been close to Jesus from the miraculous moment of my conception. I believe that I have always been a child of God. I believe I have always been a member of the community of Christ, the family of Jesus. And you have too! We all have! All we ever have to do is say “YES!”
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Nothing can separate us from Jesus. We just need to remember that!
But then we come to “Who do you say that I am?”
Who do we say that Jesus is? Do we say anything about him?
Do we ever actually talk about Jesus? If we’re Christians, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. If we call ourselves Christians, we probably should be talking about Jesus – on a regular basis. He should probably come up in conversation now and then. That’s not too much to expect.
“But, who do you say that I am?” Is that question laden with expectation? I think it is. But not heavy, onerous expectation. No. Honest expectation. If Jesus is behind all salvation, doesn’t he have the right to expect us to say we know him? That we know who he is? I think he does. How do we acknowledge him? How do you acknowledge him? Does this matter to you?
What is our answer to his question, “But who do you say that I am?”
The Abraham family was an interesting and unusual clan. Most of the heroes and gods of the ancient world were larger than life – nothing like the everyday people of the ancient world. They were characters like Apollo and Zeus and Diana and Athena. They lived on mountaintops in grand palaces. They took almost no notice of humankind, unless it was for sex.
But the Abrahams were human. You could have met them at the grocery store. They made human mistakes. They succeeded as humans. They may have actually existed or at least were an accurate archetype for the first Jewish people. And Abraham walked and talked with his one God, like a friend.
Abraham and Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Isaac and Rebecca gave birth to the twins Esau and Jacob; Esau and Jacob fought with each other in the womb. Esau came out first, but Jacob followed immediately after, hanging on to Esau’s foot. They were twins who were totally unalike. For example, Esau loved the outdoors and hunting and Jacob was a homebody.
Once, when Esau returned from a hunting trip, he was famished. I guess he didn’t catch much! He smelled a stew Jacob was cooking. Esau asked Jacob to give him “some of that red stuff.” Jacob said, “Sure. Give me your birthright.” Esau couldn’t think any further than his stomach at the time, so he said “Fine! What is my birthright worth if I’m dying of hunger!?!” So he tossed his birthright away and got a bowl of stew for it. Shortly thereafter, Jacob wisely decided not to immediately claim the birthright but to put time and distance between himself and his brother. So he ran away to live with his maternal uncle, Laban.
On the way he dreamt (Jacob had great dreams!) of angels going up and down a ladder. I’m not sure how, but it foretold his success as a leader for his people. (People tended to become jealous of Jacob – for good reason!) He was clever. So was his uncle Laban. Both Laban and Jacob were both clever guys. Laban tricked Jacob into working 14 years for him. Jacob thought he was working to win Rebecca, but after 7 years, on his wedding night, Laban pulled a switcheroo and substituted his older daughter Leah. So Jacob had to work another 7 years for Rebecca. Then, when Jacob finished the second 7 years and got the daughter he wanted, he decided to leave (with his wives and his herds) and go back to his father Isaac, hoping he could face Esau, his brother. Jacob left Laban and returned home.
As Jacob neared home, he was afraid of the reception he might receive from Esau. He sent his family across the river ahead of him. Then he lay down alone to sleep and prepare for possible battle. He had an eventful night. What happened that night!?! A wrestling match! I recently read a wonderful account of Jacob’s wrestling match with God or maybe it was with an angel. We are never told for sure. We are told he wrestled with a man – all night. This account was written by Frederick Buechner. It’s from his book Son of Laughter. Jacob is speaking.
“Our bodies were slippery with mud. We were panting like beasts. We could not see each other. We spoke no words. I did not know why we were fighting. It was like fighting in a dream.
He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me. He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment. He had his knee under my hip. The rest of his weight was on top of my hip. Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain.
It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light. The pain’s beak impaled me with light. It blinded me with the light of its wings. I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke. “Let me go,” He said, “for the day is breaking.”
The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching.
I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy.
“Bless me,” I said. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.
He said, “Who are you?”
There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair. My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.
“Jacob,” I said. “My name is Jacob.”
“It is Jacob no longer,” he said. “Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with men. You have prevailed. That is the meaning of the name Israel.”
I was no longer Jacob. I was no longer myself. Israel was who I was. The stranger had said it. I tried to say it the way he had said it: Yees-rah-ail. I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was. I could not see him. I could see only the curve of his shoulders above me. I saw the first glimmer of dawn on his shoulders like a wound.
I said, “What is your name?” I could only whisper it.
“Why do you ask my name?”
We were both of us whispering. He did not wait for my answer. He blessed me as I had asked him. I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words. I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go. I remember as blessing the black shape of him against the rose-colored sky. I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it. Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but only that I dreamed I saw it. Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.
The sun’s rim was just starting to show over the top of the gorge by the time I finally crossed the Jabbok. Bands of gold fanned across the sky. I staggered through the rocky shallows, one hip dipping deep with each new step and my head bobbing.
It is the way I have walked ever since.
From that day to this I have moved through the world like a cripple with the new name the Face of light gave me that night by the river when he gave me his blessing and crippled me.
When he gave me his blessing… and crippled me.”
How often do we ask and expect God’s blessings on our terms? Are we willing to accept God’s blessings on God’s terms? Sometimes blessings are painful.
We are now going through a tough time – tough economically, tough emotionally, and tough for society. Tough because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Tough times. Things are changing and our world is being turned upside down. Our world WILL change.
Can we move through change with faith, in faith? Can we accept change as a blessing? Can we trust in God? Can we trust in God on God’s terms? Can we receive God’s blessings?
Mother Susan’s Sermon 7 12 20
We got the following from Jim Wynkoop, who I think got it from his wife Maureen. The following is a Readers’ Digest version of today’s gospel
“Someone threw some seeds on the ground. Some grew, the others didn’t. I wonder why?”
Thank goodness Carl didn’t read us that version of the gospel! If we ever had any doubts, this gospel shows us how brilliantly Jesus could work a crowd. First, he knew the value of silence. He quietly stepped outside the house he was staying in and sat by the shore of the Sea of Galilee — apparently in silence – a center of silence in a crowd. Then he stepped into a boat and sat there while the crowd assembled on the shore. Jesus just sat there and looked at them and they looked at him. That’s how I envision the scene. Hmmmmmmmm…?
Then he started telling them stories. Jesus’ parables were deceptively simple – sometimes just a few sentences long. They were what a writing instructor might call “elegant.” Just the story – no more – no less – let ‘em use their imaginations. Storytelling is the oldest method of communication – and still the most effective.
People of all ages love stories. And Jesus’ parables are especially wonderful. What does he mean? What does he want us to learn? Does the story have more than one meaning? Are there layers of meaning? Even the simplest story can be multi-layered.
So Jesus began this parable with, “Listen!” That probably got their attention. Then he went on, “A sower went out to sow.” His listeners were everyday people, from the lower and middle classes. They all knew what sowers did. A sower walked along through a field, with a bag of seeds hanging from his or her waist, and reached into the bag and cast the seeds on the ground as they walked along. But this particular sower apparently walked through a variety of terrains and didn’t seem to care where he sowed his seeds.
Seeds that fell on his path were within easy access for birds. They were gobbled up. Seeds that fell on rocky ground couldn’t sink into much soil and grow roots. They might grow quickly, but with no depth of soil, the sun scorched them and they withered away. Some seeds fell among thorny plants that choked them as they grew. But some of the seeds fell on good soil and they grew and brought forth grain. Then Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears listen!”
And Jesus explained what he was talking about. If someone hears God’s word but doesn’t understand it, the devil, the powers of darkness, will come and scatter it elsewhere. It hadn’t taken root. The listener didn’t understand it so it didn’t mean anything to the listener. If the word was sown on rocky ground, perhaps the listener received it joyfully, but they didn’t bother to think much about it so they weren’t able to nurture a root for the word. So the word couldn’t endure and the listener fell away. The word that falls among thorns has fallen among those who pay more attention to worldly cares and the lure of wealth. The word is choked by these distractions and it can’t grow. But if the seed of the word falls on good soil, those who hear the word and work to understand it, then it grows, and it can bear good fruit.
Then Jesus looked out at his listeners on the shore. And he knew. He knew he didn’t need to ask THE QUESTION. They had gotten into the story and saw themselves as part of the story. They asked themselves THE QUESTION. I’ll bet you could have heard a fly fart. WHAT KIND OF SOIL AM I?
“Let anyone with ears to hear – Listen!”
Am I ignorant? Am I rocky ground? Am I thorny?
Am I empty soil? Or am I fertile ground, ready to receive? Am I willing to make the effort to understand the word?
And Jesus spoke of the rewards of understanding. He spoke of the joy of bearing fruit. It’s worth the work.
Maybe we can ask ourselves the same question. What sort of soil are we? Jesus’ words fall on us. What sort of soil are we? What can we grow?
This teaching moment next to the Sea of Galilee follows the Epistle in our readings. But I think it’s helpful to discuss the Epistle after the Gospel today. There is implied criticism for those who do not produce “fruit” in our gospel – for those who don’t do the work. But there is reassurance in our Epistle.
This is one of Paul’s more confusing writings. And I admit he has quite a few of them. You have to pick it apart. Paul reassures us that the law of the Spirit, of life in Christ, sets us free from any condemnation according to the earthly laws of sin and death, meaning the laws of the world. But once we belong to Christ, we belong to the world of the Spirit. Setting our minds on the Spirit means that the Spirit of Christ lives in us.
This may seem to be nothing more than a confusing reading to us, carrying on about Spirit and flesh and the difference between spirit and flesh, but it was crucially meaningful for the First Century Christian.
The First Century Christian lived in desperate fear, often in hiding. Everything in their world seemed to conspire against them, driving them underground. All they had to look forward to was persecution and horrible death. And yet they hung in there! Paul promised them freedom in Christ. That’s what they looked forward to. He promised them peace and joy if they accepted the presence of the Spirit of Christ. This was how they persisted. Somehow, they could see beyond the pain of persecution. Somehow, they could know the life, peace and joy of the Spirit. It’s hard for us to imagine this as real, but to those who endured the real physical pain of every day as a First Century Christian, this promise meant something. The presence of the Spirit meant something. It was a real and powerful part of their everyday lives!
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” That promise was real. That promise is real. I hope and pray that none of us ever needs to know the reality of that promise as if we were First Century Christians in the midst of persecution, but know this – the promise is real, as real as the quiet man who sat in a boat offshore, telling quiet stories to everyday people about everyday life that drew them into knowing and believing in life in the Spirit.
Sermon 7 5 20
Well, I am charmed and grateful that any of you are tuned in the day after July 4! Thank you all for spending at least some of your July 4 weekend with your church. God bless you! And have a joyous Independence Day weekend!
And let us bless each other by showing care and love for each other. Wear masks! Maintain at least a six foot distance from each other, except for immediate family. Someday we’ll all be able to hug again. Just not now or in the near future. We are in an epidemic and as recent upsurges have shown, it must be taken seriously and that requires patience.
I must acknowledge that there are some people who have decided for WHATEVER(?!) reason to ignore the need for social distancing, to ignore the need to care for each other — who have decided to turn this into some sort of political issue. This nonsense reminds me of my great-grandfather John Findley. Years ago, As more and more people left their horses and buggies behind and bought cars, the need arose for traffic laws. Well, he wasn’t having it! He decided that no one could tell him what side of the road to drive on! He decided that he would drive on whatever side of the road he wanted to! Whenever he wanted to! Freedom! It was all about his freedom. His individual freedom. I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “Your freedom ends right where my nose begins.”
Anyway, eventually Grandpa Findley had to give up his keys — to his town’s everlasting relief. Sometimes, to live on the same planet, we just need to agree to accommodate each other. It is God’s desire that we get along with each other and even – revolutionary idea here – learn to love each other. Let’s ask ourselves what God would have us do.
Meanwhile, let us rejoice in our opportunity this weekend to thank God for our corner of the world, our nation. And in that spirit I offer the following prayer for our country. This prayer is found on page 820 in our Book of Common Prayer. Let us pray.
“Almighty God, who has brought us to this good land for our heritage: we humbly beseech you that we may always prove ourselves to be a people who are mindful of your favor and glad to do your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and among all the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, let our trust in you not fail; all this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.
And now let me quote from our Gospel for today. “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul.”
We have surely been living through a time of weariness and burden. And to hear Jesus’ promise of rest for our souls is so welcome and exactly what we need to hear these days. Amen!
The love story of Rebekah and Isaac in our Old Testament reading is also welcome these days. And I just want to take a moment to thank God for Abraham’s servant. This nameless man who was sent by Abraham to return to Abraham’s homeland, probably traveling between 500-600 miles to find Isaac a wife for his son from among Abraham’s own people. Abraham clearly trusted this man, and he was right to do so — mainly because his servant trusted in God. And so, the trust moved right along because ultimately Rebekah trusted in God too. She brought along her maids to join with the servant for the return trip and they all traveled back to Isaac and Abraham in Canaan. And as far as we know Isaac and Rebekah were happy together. Thank God for the faithful servant!
And thank God for our beautiful reading from the Song of Solomon. We often hear it at weddings.
And then we come to our Gospel where Jesus invites the weary to come to him for comfort.
But before that Jesus spoke of the fickleness of those he often found himself preaching to. He knew that no matter what he said, somebody was going to complain about him. He knew it. He knew that in many ways those who received his Word were like children, innocent, yet immature children. And he rejoiced in that! So-called sophisticated listeners can get all wrapped up in their own intellect. Sometimes our brains can get in our way. Sometimes it’s best to take God’s Word just as you hear it. This is why the simple words of “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” are so memorable and ring true no matter how intellectually “sophisticated” we may think we are.
Perhaps this 4th of July weekend calls for quiet reflection as we stay in and around our homes. Perhaps this holiday at this time doesn’t lend itself so much to gazing at bursts of beautiful light and color in the sky as it does to gazing at each other with gratitude for those we love, with gratitude for our church, the people of our church. Maybe we can’t see each other, but we know that we are together, loved by God and loving God together.
Let us rest assured this Independence Day that we can always find rest for our souls with Jesus no matter what is going on in the world.
“Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”
Sermon 6 28 20
Deuteronomy 26:5 “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” That is what anybody bringing offerings to the temple in Jerusalem was supposed to say to the priest when they presented their offering. That meant that they were descended from Abraham. As are we all!
The story of the origin of Christianity is wonderful and unusual. It is also the story of the origins of Judaism and Islam. We all go back to Abraham – the first wandering Aramean. No kings, no emperors, no Pharaohs – just a wandering nomadic chieftain named Abraham who left his father’s land of Ur, probably in search of good grazing land for his growing herds. He was too successful to stay where he started. So he had to move on.
Now there are those who believe the story of Abraham is a myth and they may be right. We talked about the nature of myths with Father Don and Mel Caron during their last installment of the “Living the Questions” series. “Coming to you every Wednesday night over ZOOM at 7 PM. Check out our website to find out how to connect.” What is myth and what is history? Does it matter?
Abraham was the founding father of all founding fathers! Was there a real Abraham? Or is he a made up combination of all the Semitic nomads who wandered into the land of Canaan at approximately the same time?
I believe myths start from kernels of truth. I believe there probably was a man named Oedipus who unknowingly had sex with his mother (BIG mistake!) thus teaching us about a taboo that many different societies now hold in common. Incest is a no-no!
The story of Abraham is curious. It’s not about a king. It’s about an ordinary man who has extraordinary faith – faith that defies logic. He was promised that he would be the father of a great nation. Well, he and his wife Sarah had to wait a while for that. Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born and Sara was 90! Now, we have to remember that the older a character is, the more respect they are due in our ancient chronicles. So lots of ancient characters were reported to have lived to great ages. Also, Sarah’s and Abraham’s ages established the miraculous nature of Isaac’s birth.
You want a lot of respect? Get really old!
Another unique feature of Abraham’s story establishes the difference between the God of Israel and the Greek and Roman gods. Abraham had an extraordinary relationship with God. They walked and talked together – like friends. Consider Apollo’s relationship with the people of Rome – Apollo rarely showed an interest in humanity, unless they were female and capable of being impregnated.
And that leads me to today’s story – often referred to as the binding of Isaac. That was the worst that happened to him. And yet it was the worst that happened to him. Our story begins with “God tested Abraham.” I’ll say! God calls to Abraham and Abraham answers with his most frequent response. “Here I am.” Oh, the trust in those words — “Here I am.”
Then God speaks words of instruction that seem to mock Abraham’s willingness to obey. “Take your son, your only son Isaac (Ishmael was gone by now – turned out into the wilderness with his mother) your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
How could God ask that of him? This would make his life with Sarah and his short time with his long-promised son a mockery. Abraham, he who conversed with God, well, apparently he had nothing to say for three days – just cut wood and set out to go to where God told him to go.
They arrived where Abraham saw the place for the sacrifice far away in the distance. He asked the two young men with them to stay with the donkey and he and Isaac continued on foot. He asked Isaac to carry the wood for the fire. How ironic is that? To innocently carry the wood that will set you aflame, that ill roast you alive. I’m reminded of Jesus carrying his own cross. Abraham carried the fire itself and a knife and they kept on walking. What was going through Abraham’s mind?
Isaac tries to speak with his father, “Father!” And Abraham responds just as he responds to God, “Here I am,” and Isaac says, “We’ve got the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb?” And Abraham answers him, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” The agony of that response. Indeed God would. Perhaps God already had – 12 to 13 years ago.
Our story continues, “So the two of them walked on together.” Apparently in silence. What were they each thinking? Isaac having a nice walk with his dad? Abraham walking in devastation and obedience. Both putting one foot in front of the other.
They came to the place God had shown to Abraham. He built an altar, probably of stones, and laid the wood out on top of it. Then the story tells us that he bound his son. He tied him up so he couldn’t move, so he couldn’t run. In silence, he laid his son on the wood. We don’t hear any more from Isaac. Did he know? Did he cry? He had to be bound. Abraham picked up the knife to kill him. Did Isaac see it? I don’t think any of us can imagine the pain of that moment. To prepare to kill your own child. Why is God doing this? We never get an answer, at least not a satisfactory one.
“I’m a good man! I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked me to do! We waited so long for this boy! He’s precious to me! He’s the only son you let me keep! I do what you tell me to do! I’ve always done what you tell me to do! Why?”
And it isn’t until the very last second, as he lifts his hand to stab his son, to kill him, that the angel of the Lord stops him. “Abraham, Abraham!” and one – more – time Abraham says, “Here I am.” And God tells him to stop. “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
And a ram magically appears and Abraham sacrifices it and he calls the place, “The Lord will provide.” And that’s it.
I wanna know what the walk home was like! “My dad was willing to sacrifice me! He was willing to kill me!” Did Isaac understand? Was he ever able to trust Abraham again? Or did his trust grow because his father was so good at trusting God?
If you read further on in Genesis about Isaac, he proceeds with a fairly undramatic life with his wife Rebekah. He gets tricked by Jacob regarding his legacy, but that doesn’t actually affect Isaac. He’s just a good old patriarch who lives a long time and leads a healthy life in the land God gave him. A wandering Aramean. The wandering Aramean. Our wandering Aramean.
Is his story a myth? I hope not. I hope it is the story of the years of God’s people learning how to be God’s people. It is a story that rings with humanity, not with unlikely tales of heroes and gods. It is a story that we can understand today. It is a story that invites us to join in the constant struggle with God and humanity. Read the stories of the patriarchs and the matriarchs, and their sons and daughters. Our ancestors were wandering Arameans.
Sermon Sunday 6 21 20
Our primary and greatest commandment is given to us in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is also found in Deuteronomy, long before the Messiah ever came among us. “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” The next greatest commandment, “You must love your neighbor as yourself,” is found in Matthew and Mark. Not much room for doubt or waffling or equivocation there. Our gospel for this week tells us what these words mean in no uncertain terms.
Our gospel for this week is real nuts and bolts stuff. And this gospel is not necessarily comforting. It’s challenging. Jesus is telling us, “You’re either with me or you’re not. You’re either one of mine or you’re not. Jesus is telling us, “either you is or you ain’t.” And that is real. Jesus is telling us, in no uncertain terms that he requires commitment. We don’t get to sit on the fence.
Commitment. There’s a scary word. Can we commit to our faith? Most of the time, we’re content with Jesus promising us hearts and roses, and all we have to do is believe. Or say we believe. Do we really know what that means? But here, in today’s gospel, we are told what faith is all about – what faith really means,
First, Jesus challenges us to identify our master. What motivates us? Is it Jesus? Is it money? Is it position? Who/what do we believe in? Who is our model? What is our model? Do we even have a model?
What Jesus has to say in our gospel is reassuring for his tiny band of disciples. Contemporary Christians don’t know what it’s like to be persecuted for our faith. The disciples were persecuted. They knew what it was like to be whipped and scorned for believing in a god other than the Roman gods – in a god other than Ceasar. We’re all very comfy in our western christian society. We take a lot for granted. What if we were living in communist China, or Soviet Russia? Would we be able to stick to our Christian principles? Or would it just be easier to go along with the crowd and not rock the boat – “Nothin’ to look at here. Just keep movin’ along. There’s nothing different about me.”
How it must have struck ice cold fear into those disciples’ hearts to hear that they shouldn’t have any fear of those who were against the Christians. Easy for Jesus to say! “Have no fear of them. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, nothing secret that will not become known.” What if I don’t want to be uncovered? What if I want to hide? What if I don’t want to die in an arena?
“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul;” Easy for you to say, Jesus! I don’t want my body to die! Maybe I don’t want to be noticed! Maybe every hair on my head is counted, but I wanna keep them all and my head. I know I am more valuable than many sparrows, but I don’t want to stand out. Maybe I don’t want to become known for being a Christian. Maybe I just want be a nice lady who is now also a grandmother who just wants to get along! And stop counting the hairs on my head!!
“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” Now that’s scary. We read in other parts of the New Testament that Jesus has come to bring peace. What are we to believe? I think it’s pretty clear that sometimes Jesus brings us peace and sometimes our faith in brings us disagreement and even fighting. Jesus tells us that faith in him can cause disagreements. The most important question seems to me to be, where do we stand?
This is nitty-gritty stuff. I’d be willing to bet real money that there are more people who are ready to stand up for their politics than stand up for their faith. Any takers?
Maybe that’s the question we need to ask ourselves. What is important to us?
Well, Jesus puts it out there. He speaks of families divided. We know that can happen. And in the earliest years of Christianity, families were often divided. What he is telling us is that profound faith can lead to profound disagreements — even within families and among friends.
And finally, Jesus faces us with a problem that many families face and he presents us with the solution to that problem as well. He is telling us that we cannot sacrifice our faith for the sake of family. He is asking us to get our priorities straight. He is telling us that our faith must be the center, otherwise there can be no center. He is telling us that our faith must be stronger than family, because that will ultimately strengthen us and our families. A profound faith in Jesus Christ will lead to stronger love for everyone in our lives. He is telling us in the strongest terms possible that God needs to be the center for everything else to fall into alignment. That’s hard for many of us to hear.
But that’s the best way for us to find our lives. Only if we are willing to put Jesus first, before everything and everyone else, will we find our lives falling into place. That doesn’t mean that we lose our love for our loved ones – NO! Jesus is asking us to have faith that our love for all those we love will fall into alignment once we commit to our love for him.
Jesus doesn’t mince words here. He’s direct and to the point. Anybody who loves anything or anybody more than him isn’t worthy of him. Once he comes first, then we will be worthy of him and his love for us. A love that is ready and waiting to share our load. It is only by making our very selves less important than his presence in our lives that we can find ourselves. That’s what letting go is all about. And that’s when our load gets so much lighter. That’s when he shares our load. That’s what it means to “walk in newness of life.” Life get so much lighter and easier to bear when we entrust our lives to God.
Commitment. It’s an important word. It’s an important act. That is what Jesus is asking for today. Commitment.
Sermon 5 31 20 Pentecost
Happy Birthday to us! Happy Birthday to us! Happy Birthday Christianity! Happy Birthday to us!
Pentecost! Today is the birthday of Christianity. When the Holy Spirit came and landed like flames on the heads of the disciples, making them look like so many birthday cake candles. That’s when the Christian church took off, when we really began.
I am especially grateful for our readings this year because these readings are about new beginnings. And if there was ever a time we need to think about new beginnings, it is now.
I pray and I believe that we are approaching the end of this phase of the pandemic. It’s not nearly over, but we are approaching a next phase – hopefully the beginnings of a recovery phase. We have no idea what our world is going to be like, but it will be changed, and we will need to adapt and change with it. It’s going to be different.
We are entering a period of time that can easily be compared to the very beginnings of the Christian Church. There’s a lot of unknown ahead of us and it can look very scary and we need our faith.
It was in just such a time as this that a ragtag little group of men, and yes, women too, were gathering in a dark shuttered room, petrified by fear. They had gone through the joy and heady optimism of Palm Sunday when it seemed as if anything was possible. Jesus was going to take over! Rome was gonna be done! It was gonna be a new world! Oh, how young and joyous and naive those young men and women were.
All it took was an arrest in the middle of the night and a charge of sedition and it was all over. Possibly one disciple attended the execution. The rest ran away. Jesus hung on a cross and died, not from blood loss – no – the crucified died from the weight of their own bodies crushing their hearts.
And they all thought they were next. They all thought they were going to be hunted down and executed too!
And then he was buried and the rumors started. The body was missing! Never mind that they walled up the tomb and posted guards. And then there were sightings! He was seen in a roadside inn. He started popping up all over the place! He showed off the holes in his hands and the gash in his side. What was going on!?!
I love how, after the excitement of Easter, of resurrection, our readings accelerate and build to the mystery and power of Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is when Christianity takes off. This is the birth day of Christianity.
Immediately after the resurrection all of Jesus’ disciples and friends huddled together in a small attic room, with the doors closed, the windows shuttered, afraid to face the world, not knowing what to do. What was next?
And then, the Holy Spirit happened.
Jesus had promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come upon them and illuminate them and comfort them and bring them gifts. And it did.
In our first lesson from Acts we hear of a violent wind and divided tongues of fire resting on each of the disciples, and they felt filled. Now remember, for the most part, these were uneducated, unsophisticated people – most unable to read or write. But that didn’t matter to God. They were gifted enough to be useful. We all are. In some ways I wonder if the disciples weren’t more useful to Jesus as the “tabula rasa” or “blank slates,” they were, ready to be written upon by God.
And then the Holy Spirit brought gifts. It was like Christmas!After the Holy Spirit came, in the cosmopolitan city of Jerusalem anybody who heard the disciples speaking began to hear them in their own native language. That right there was a gift! Of course the usual naysayers and skeptics assumed the disciples were drunk. But Peter set them straight (“it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning!”) Beware those who sneer! Peter reminded the people that the prophet Joel had foreseen this and that everyone who called on the name of the Lord would be saved. All they had to do was believe-that-it-was-possible.
And then along came Paul. One minute he’s observing the stoning of Stephen, holding the stoners’ cloaks (how nice of him!). And then he’s blinded on the road so that he could see more clearly and he converted and climbed aboard the Holy Spirit express, reminding all those who heard him that no one could say “Jesus is Lord” except by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Both Peter and Paul remind us that everything we do is by the power of the Holy Spirit and without the Holy Spirit we can’t do anything. We forget that. We think, “Here God, I’m going to do this wonderful thing for you. I’m going to do you a favor.” NO. Paul makes this very clear when he talks of the variety of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Everything we are able to do is because of the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to us as the Holy Spirit chooses when we give ourselves to God.
Paul listed these gifts. “There are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates them all in everyone.” We might receive the gift of speaking wisdom or teaching. We might receive the gift of manifesting our faith with healing or miracles so that others can see it. Some people receive the prophetic voice, and remember, the prophetic voice isn’t necessarily about telling the future. It might be about telling the truth at a time when people don’t want to hear the truth. Another gift can be discerning the presence of spirits, both good and evil. Some people receive the gift of languages. Others receive the gift of interpretation. But what Paul tells us is that all of these gifts are activated by the Holy Spirit.
For just as the human body has many parts but is still one body, so we are the many parts of the Body of Christ. The Holy Spirit joins us together in the Body of Christ.
Never forget. That ragtag little group of frightened people started out scared and petrified in a dark room – too afraid to walk down the street, to even show their faces.
The Holy Spirit showed up, and transformed them. No more fear. That’s what we need now. To know that we need not fear the future. We have the love of God.