God and Sour Grapes – Lectionary 08/18/19

Isaiah 1:10-20

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.

He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;

he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,

judge between me and my vineyard.

What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?

When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.

I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;

I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.

I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;

I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Psalm 80

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might, and come to save us!

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.

Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted.
They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Sermon Text

Today we read two scriptures that tell the same story. The story of people who feel that God has abandoned them. The despair that the Psalmist feels is given a more concrete form in the parable put forward by Isaiah. God, the good gardener tending the prize crop of the garden, has seemingly abandoned that crop to be destroyed by pestilence. In Isaiah God is depicted as purposefully removing these protections, the lack of charity and justice from the Israelites has led to them being punished. Remember the language of Hosea from a few weeks ago, “I will treat you as you treat the least of these.” Here God is rendering judgment on Judah as Israel had previously suffered before.

This portion of Isaiah is dealing with the coming Babylonian scourge. The time in which all of Judah would be destroyed and subjugated under a new empire. Up until this point Israel had been a vassal of Assyria – but when it fell to Babylon, they were given a brief window where they had no master but themselves. Rather than using this time to set things right, to abolish the harmful taxation which they had been using to pay their Assyrian masters, they kept on as if it were business as usual. The wealth went to the wealthy, the poor were left to die in their fields.

The rich are who are being spoken to in the Isaiah text. As so many of the prophetic texts are written, the average person is not the object of wrath. The people of Israel who were in the fields and suffering under the oppressive regime of their kings were not who Isaiah was writing against. However, when the poor leadership of their kings opened them up to invasion, when they abandoned the teachings of God which would have given them a strong people and a strong community to repel foreign invaders and to have brokered peace before war was even thought of, the day to day person suffered. When the invading Babylonians rode in on their chariots they did not ask whether or not the peasants in the fields were good Jews, they killed without discrimination.

For this reason, the two texts talk to each other. The kings are told that they have lost all their rights to protection. The rich who withheld their wealth will have their wealth taken from them. The rulers who crushed the innocent under their boots were now going to be crushed. God mocks these people; Isaiah closes his admonition with something like a song. The Hebrew for, “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” builds on itself, so that those who heard it would have noticed how similar these words really are.

לְמִשְׁפָּט מִשְׂפָּח, לִצְדָקָה צְעָקָה

This rich would have heard Isaiah’s prophesying and this part would have stuck with them. Directly after this, the exact nature of their sins is laid out. They bought up all the land and pushed people out away from the protection of the cities. If you’ve been to a big city recently or have seen anything on gentrification then you know what this looks like. In Morgantown, a famous example was when the University conspired with the city council to buy an entire street and evict all the people who lived there. The buying up of land for buildings was matched by the purchase of farmlands. Now the farmers of the land were serfs, they owed all their money to their new landlords rather than keeping any for themselves.

The farmers, the peasants, the tradespeople who worked outside of the city are clearly the losers in this situation. The sins of their leaders were bringing them to starvation, but it also opened them up to die at the hands of the Babylonians. As usual, the little guy was losing.

The prayer of Psalm 80 is written from the perspective of those who were suffering at this time. There is some reason to believe this Psalm was written by an Israelite before the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom. It consists of an Israelite staring down the oncoming armies, looking to God, and saying, “What on earth are you doing!” The image we are given resembles the curse which Isaiah put on the ruling class.

The Israelite looks to God and says, “Why have you torn down the fence of your garden! Why did you tear down your watchtower! You have brought us this far and then you just abandon us!” The Psalm goes beyond just expressing distress though, it asks God to remember. “God, you looked into Egypt and saw us. You plucked us up because you thought we had value, you carried us into this land and made room for us. God, take care of us like you did then.”

The mystery which we of the modern church face in reading this cry is that we receive both these messages for our benefit. On one hand, we have a lot to repent of. We are the people who have produced unfitting fruits. We are the redeemed, the body of Christ to the world, and we fall short. We are not an obedient people, we have not heard the cries of the needy. God looks to us and says, “I should throw you out! What are you doing!”

However, God does not live as someone who looks down on us with anger. God does not hold grudges like we do. When God looks down on us, he sees what he saw in us from the first day. When God made humanity, we are told he looked at them and said they were, “very good.” The human beings, made in the image of God, were the pinnacle of creation. Our disobedience pushed us out of Eden, but God never stopped chasing after us. The question which God asks Adam and Eve when they hid from him, “Where are you?” is the same one we hear today. As a Jewish philosopher once put it, “All of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of [us].

God looks at our fallen state and sees the creation he originally made. The sinfulness of the human soul can never overcome the goodness which God created within us. The image of God remains no matter what we do, but it is not what it could be. When we accept the calling of the Christian, when we confess our faith and are baptized, we begin our transformation. The washing of the water represents the cleansing of the soul, but also – by way of metaphor, the watering of a crop.

The sprouting vine which God saw and loved, that God pulled out of the ground and placed in safe soil, naturally becomes entangled in weeds over time. The little sins and evils of the world overtake it, threatening to destroy it. However, God never forgot how to tend gardens. God enters in as gardener, God tears the weeds from around us and gives us a chance to grow. The fertile ground of scripture is watered by our faith, and we have a chance to grow and produce fruit.

We can produce good fruit or bad fruit. The good fruit comes of a life lived in the grace of God. Peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, all other fruits of the Spirit are produced in the life that focuses on God – that stops running away and lets God catch up to them. The sour grapes we once produced do not need to be the only thing we make. God works wonders in us, clears away those impurities within us, and perfects us back into the image we were originally created in.

We talk a lot about what we must do as Christians, what it is to be transformed into the image of God. The list of expectations for the Christian life is long, and we should not hold ourselves to any standard but the high standard of Christ and his life. However, we have to remember the most central aspect of the Christian life – and that is just to have faith.

Have faith that God loves you. Have faith that God is not done with you. Have faith that God died for you. Have faith he got up again. The work will come, and we will accept it when it does. In between though, we get to bask in our identity a little. Christ tells us we should not think too highly of ourselves, but there is a difference between being secure and being braggadocious. Security says, “I am valued. I am loved. I have a purpose.” There is no sin in that kind of honesty. The life of the Christian is balancing two identities, that of the Sinner and the Saint. The sour grapes which we produce are mixed with the good fruits, our weed-choked soul is the vine that God loved enough to pluck up and tend to.

The story of the Bible, from beginning to end, is that God is seeking us out. For the Israelites this meant God turning from Sinai to Egypt and taking his people back. For us, the scope is broadened but the story is the same. God looked on the world and dove down into human form. God put on a face that we could see, hands that we could touch. God chased down his beloved, and God died for his beloved. God rose from death for us to follow them into life. But the path we follow begins only after God has found us, and oftentimes that means we have to take time to stop running. To stop, to rest, to Sabbath.

The commandment to take Sabbath is the same as the entreaty of the Psalmist, “Be still!” Literally, “Cease!” Stop doing anything but beholding God. Faith is relationship, it is responsibility, but more than anything it is living a life in the presence of God. An ancient father of the Church put it this way, “The Glory of God, is a living person, and the life of a person is in beholding God.” This is why our Psalm for the day contains the refrain, “let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Salvation is many things, but sometimes, brothers and sisters, it is simply finding the light of God in the world and sitting with it for a time. Let us enjoy our salvation, and let us enjoy the light.

Live in Charity – Lectionary 08/11/2019

Isaiah 1:10-20

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Luke 12:32-40

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.  You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Sermon Text

The Church has a duty to every person who is in need. From our founding on Pentecost we have had two charges put before us – Love the Lord your God and Love your Neighbor as Yourself. These two overarching missions define everything we do. The Methodist Church has interpreted these two charges in its mission statement, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World.” This transformation can take many forms, but the most essential one is that there should be no need among anyone who lives near a church.

I will repeat that. There is no reason anyone within, let us modernize the metric, twenty-five miles of a church should be hungry. No reason that they should be cold at night. With how many people are in the Church in America. With every person who claims to be, “Christian,” there is no reason that anyone should suffer under poverty. To break this down, there are some numbers I would like to share with you all.

In the United States, there are – apparently – two hundred and fifty million Christians. The average income in the United States is somewhere around fifty thousand dollars. If everyone who identified as Christian in America gave 10 percent of their income directly to the causes of hunger and homelessness – then there would be neither and an additional trillion-dollar would be left to do good works every year. If every Christian gave 5 percent of their income, a bit more palatable – then there would be no homelessness, no hunger, and there would still be about 550 billion dollars left to do good work with. Now, here is the terrifying question. If we gave, just 1 percent of what we made direct to causes of hunger and homelessness. Then we could solve both, and still have seventy billion dollars to do good work with.

The most that the average Christian would have to give to the needy every year is $500 dollars. The more we have, the more this would go up of course. A billionaire would have to give more, but by the time you have a billion dollars you have no risk of going hungry by giving 1% of your income.

Now, we get scared when we hear we are to give our money. Money is how we live in the modern-day. Money has taken the place of crops or livestock for most of us, and even people who raise these have to worry about selling them. Money, as several songs will tell us, makes the world go around. To quote Ecclesiastes, “Money, can buy everything.” There is much to be found in scripture about money.

If you took the bible and cut out every reference to it, you would have a shredded document, entire chapters simply gone. Money, like it or not, does a great deal in the love. The problem with it is when we fall in love with it. Something so powerful definitely demands our attention, sucks us into its influence and leaves us feeling totally dependent upon it. When we put all the power of our life in money, then we give ourselves over to as Paul calls it – “The root of all kinds of evil.” I personally would translate the phrase more strongly, “The root of all things evil.”

The two passages we have tell us exactly what the cost of loving money is. It is the soul, the essence of all we are. The love of money renders us incapable of true worship, it prevents us from seeing God in others, and it leaves us unprepared for Christ’s return. We begin in Isaiah, and by way of Ezekiel we will come to the Gospel, weaving our way through scripture this morning we are going to find the straight and narrow takes more biblical literacy then we might think. Today the word of God speaks against Sodom, it speaks against Rome, and above all my brothers and sisters, it speaks against us.

The text from Isaiah introduces us to a shorthand for evil in the Old Testament. Sodom, much more than Gomorrah for some reason, is among those names which instantly mean the scripture has a critique for those reading it. To be compared to Sodom, the ancient city which ousted angels and threatened violence against them, that burnt under God’s wrath, that is a heavy accusation to weigh against anyone. Sodom has a specific charge which is always put against it in scripture, and it probably is not what you’re thinking. This is the problem we read about in Ezekiel chapter 16. In this, the people of Israel are once more compared to the ancient object of God’s wrath, now so alike to Israel that they are called one another’s sister.

Ezekiel cries out to Jews in exile and says to them, “As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it… Bear your disgrace, you also, for you have brought about for your sisters a more favorable judgment; because of your sins in which you acted more abominably than they, they are more in the right than you. So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous.”

What was the sin of Sodom that has defined it in scripture – lack of hospitality. Inability to care for the poor. Whatever else the manifold sins of Sodom, this is the one that is constantly brought up against it. Sodom had more material wealth than it knew what to do with. Rather than give to the poor, and at the time those would be the people outside the city walls, they hoarded their money in their own treasuries. The wealth of Sodom was so great that the people inside the city had no worries, no need to be hospitable because all those who were anyone would already be living within their walls. When Lot welcomed the angels in, the angels would have stood out by humble dress as opposed to the richness of all those in the city. Lot was righteous because he shared his wealth, even though he had grown to be a rich man of note in the city – even though he was seated in the City Gate where all civil legal matters were handled.

This is also why, when Jesus tells his disciples to brush the sand of their feet when they have been turned away, that, “It will be better for Sodom on the day of Judgment.” Again, turning someone away who is in need is one of the most vile things you can do in God’s eyes. The help that you could have given but did not stains your hands as much as murder ever could.

That is why, through this winding path, we come to the Gospel reading for today. In this passage, Jesus tells us that we are not to keep our wealth to ourselves. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!” This is a Kingdom which is not to be built out of hoarded wealth, not to be protected by a lack of generosity, but one that is strengthened by self-emptying. Do you find yourself with an overabundance? Then share with the needy. If you do not see an abundance, take stock of what you have.

There is the amount which we all need to live a fairly comfortable life – to have furniture and clothing and transportation – but if the Christian lives in as much luxury as the non-Christian who makes the same amount then we must question whether or not enough has been invested in the needy. Again, the question is not as large as giving up our houses or our hot water, but it one that we must be careful to attend to. “Do I need to eat out today, or can I eat some of the food I have at home?” “Do I need to upgrade my phone when the lease is paid on it, or can I go on for another year or two without a new one?” “Do I need to buy a new outfit every fall and spring, or is can I live with what I already have.”

Then we can save money to protect ourselves, then we can make money with purpose. Above all though, being aware of the riches we have and how much we are holding back lets us give more fully. Twenty dollars a month to those in need, that’s not much. Fifty even isn’t much. Yet, if we all gave that, there would be no need in the world.

When we read that Jesus expects us to be ready, like attentive slaves, it is not just that we live a life worthy of Christ so that when Kingdom comes we may enter it, though this is true. Jesus is also begging us when someone knocks at your door or crosses your path on the street and they are hungry, that you feed them. That you clothe them or pay for their needs. The beggar who arrives unexpectedly is Christ, and Christ will not tell you when he is coming to visit. So be ready, because Christ is more often dressed as a pauper than a king and as St. John Chrysostom said fifteen hundred years ago, “If you cannot see Christ in the beggar on the Church Step you will not find Christ at the altar.” Seek Christ in those around you, attend to the needs of every person, give simply so that others may simply live, this is the witness of Scripture against us today. – Amen

The Ransom of Life is Costly – Lectionary 08/04/2019

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.

All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?

It has already been, in the ages before us.

The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance

of people yet to come by those who come after them.

Psalm 49:1-12

Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together.

My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp. Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?

Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave. When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own. Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.

Sermon Text

The Ransom of Life is costly. The Ransom of Life is costly. I will say it again; the Ransom of Life is costly. This is something which is easy to forget – we live comfortably enough; we gather together and worship a God who has proved to us the power of the resurrection. However, that does not remove the truth of the matter – that the ransom. Of Life. Is Costly.
We have in Psalm 49 several meanings which can be drawn out of the text. On one hand, it is a call for the rich to care for the poor. When we look to the poor and say, “I cannot afford to help you.” Then we have decided that they are too costly for us to save. The text begs of us then to take care of the poor, because in the end, we come to the same place. We are gathered together in the grave. We are told, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp,” other translations put it as, “Mortals die though they were once famous.” However, it is something much more mundane – Even though people once called their name. So, on one layer, this verse carries a message carried throughout the bible – care for the poor, and don’t make excuses about it.

Another way to read it is to place it in conversation with the text that seems to have been written in a similar mindset as this one, namely our reading from Ecclesiastes. We read in Ecclesiastes that we, you and I, all people – are nothing. We are a “vanity”, we are “utter nonsense”, we are “meaningless.” These texts are both written to describe those moments in life when we butt up against the existential terror of life. We all know that we will die, we all know that there is a great deal of suffering in the world, and in our darkest moments we turn our eyes up to the hills and we do not see God. We do not see the Love of the divine, our purpose seems abstract or imagined. There are times in the life of every person of faith where, for a moment or a season, the light drops out from the sky. We believe God is out there, we just don’t believe in him.
This is natural. The scripture is adamant that the life of faith is filled with doubt. There was never a prophet who did not look to God and say, “Why have you done this! How can so much bad exist if you are really in control!” Abraham questioned God in the plains of Sodom, Moses at the base of Sinai, and Jesus from the cross. Yes, Jesus shouted out questions to God. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” The life of faith is an up and down journey. The straight and narrow is not a strictly uphill journey, there are valleys so deep we feel like we will never get out.
If we do not question God sometimes, I do not think that we are engaging with God honestly. Maybe some people could, but I have not met them. There comes a time when you see the suffering of people in the world when you hear the hate that people pour out toward one another, when death seems to have overcome all light. In those moments God does not just tolerate questions, God expects them. God wants your questions, God wants your anger, God wants you to be engaged in authentic relationship.
I’m not sure about you, but there is always seldom a time where I know a person and feel the same way about them all the time. The basic relationship is the same, I love my family no matter what, but sometimes you don’t want to be happy with them, sometimes you want to be angry. You should be angry with people sometimes, scripture tells us, “Be angry and do not sin!” Resentment is evil, but anger can be a righteous thing. Anger tells us that a boundary has been crossed. God tends to cross our boundaries, and we have a right to shout back. I know God crossed boundaries because he took a chemistry teacher in training and said, “No! You’re a minister and don’t you pretend otherwise.” Now here I am preaching instead of synthesizing NSAIDs in a lab somewhere.
Or maybe you come to God in one of these dark moments and you’re not angry. Maybe you’re just upset. Maybe you could fill a lake with the tears you’ve cried. God respects those tears. Jesus, when he was facing down his death wept so fiercely that blood came out in place of water. When Lazarus died, he wept openly. God respects your tears because God has cried those tears. Your emotion is valid, whether they good or bad, God wants them. God accepts them. There is power in your expression of emotions, and there is no one who is too big or bad, no one who is such a pillar of the community that they cannot be vulnerable.

If the creator of Heaven of Earth, the literal pillar of creation can cry. If that creator can turn over tables. If that creator can laugh and celebrate with sinners. If that creator can express all these emotions, then why can’t we? The essence of our Christian life is not found in what we believe, or what we do. It is tied up in faith. Faith is not just one thing – it is not ascent to doctrine, it is not believing in God, it is not good works – it is all these things, but it is something more. Faith that thing which pushes us forward even in the dark, even when we don’t believe in the goodness of God we can hold onto our faith in God.
The Ransom of Life is Costly. It is a ransom that Christ paid though. Not only in his salvific work on the cross, not only in the resurrection but in the full life which Christ lived among us. As we gather today to share in the Eucharist, to remember the work that God has done among us. We gather as people who may be in mourning, as people who may feel far from God, or perhaps as people who have never been closer to God, as people who are the height of celebration. Today as we celebrate, we do so as a complete body. All are invited, all are welcomed, all are legitimate, the table has been set. Today we feast upon the goodness of God.

Racism – The Big R – Sermon in Response to the El Paso Shootings

Sermon Text

I’m going to be honest… From 7:00 Am onward I’ve been exhausted in a very real and spiritual way. It occurred to me, as I got the news this morning that there was no one shooting yesterday but today, that I, people my age, have never known a time where this is common. I was 3 when Columbine happened, I was 5 at 9/11. I’ve never known a time where I could feel secure – not at home, not at church, and now not even at Wal-Mart.

As I drove to the Churches this morning delivering the elements for communion, I thought of the Sermon I had for today. A sermon about how God can be with us at the lowest times in our life as well as the celebrations. That we can go before God if we’re angry, even if we’re angry with God. That God will accept those emotions. God asks for all of us, not just the nice parts. And I thought that’s a good sermon the Spirit can do good things with it. But that is not the Sermon for today.

It is a Sermon for a world where we can pretend that everything is ok. A sermon where we can say, “The arc of Justice is wide, but it does go to Justice.” But today we stand in the shadow of death. The Scripture tells us that not just Humanity, but all of Creation is tired of the same old story, and I think I’m tired. I’m exhausted of the emotion that goes into all of these tragedies. And while I don’t know much about what happened in Dayton accept that I know God was working something in me last night. Driving home, I had the urge to put on a Randy Newman Album, “Sail Away,” an album that tells us about a, “Splendid way to spend a day in Dayton Ohio, on a sunny Sunday afternoon.”

But as I gathered the elements for communion, I realized that while we do not know what happened in Dayton we know what happened in El Paso. And whenever we talk about tragedies, especially from the pulpit, a minister will usually tell you who you should vote for or what you should lobby your legislature for. I have opinions about that, but you don’t need to know them. I’m here to shepherd your soul, I’m here to guide you as best I can and the conclusion of how you live your life is up to you. But today we can talk about the cause of the El Paso shooting because we know it. The cause was blatant racism. The big R-word that haunts our country.

It haunts the soul of every person who ever lived here. For those of us born white in America, it haunts us because we bear the fact that we – actively or passively have participated in the system. For everyone else, they bear the actual consequences of its existence. We of the Church have a special role in preventing things like yesterday. A special role in speaking against racism wherever it may appear. And as with anything the first place we must begin is within ourselves.

It is easy to say that we are not racist. That we do not participate in White Supremacy or anything like it because we do not do so actively. Racist is, after all, an adjective – an act can be racist, a word can be racist, a thought can be racist but very rarely can the sum of a person be described with that single work – racist. Still, we shrink back whenever we think about it. When we try to apply that word to something we do or about ourselves because we find it irredeemable whether we admit it or not.

We say, “Oh I’m not that kind of person! I have higher standards for myself!” but if we are all honest racism is something that is in all our hearts. Prejudice, in its most simple form, is looking at someone and saying, “I don’t like you for some reason, and I am going to systematize my dislike of you. Because of the thing you like, the thing you do,” and in the case of racism, “because of the color of your skin. Because of the part of the globe where you or your ancestors came from.”

The weight of that big R-word crushes down on us and make us feel like we cannot come out and admit it. So let me be the first to come out and admit it: I as a child of Christ, am a recovering racist. Not because I ever entertained in my head that it was better to be white. Not because I thought that other races were inferior to me. But because growing up in the homogeny that is rural Appalachia I did not know people of color. Morgan county is about as diverse as Jefferson county. Yes, in town you might have a few people of color, but for the most part, people look like me, talk like me, act like me. Being a weird theatre kid is not a separation in that context.

It was only in moving to Morgantown, and then especially in DC, where people of different races and cultures were all around me that I realized I had some racism hiding inside me. Those subtle things of looking at a person who is just minding their own business and thinking, “What are they doing here?” Of seeing someone on the street and thinking, “Are they going to hurt me?” Of looking at other people’s actions that you would do without thought and saying, “They might have something behind it.”

Racism is something that is really only cured by exposure and mindfulness, by being aware of those inclinations which live inside our heart and say, “I don’t like that person.” Well, why don’t you? And then in admitting that it is just because they come from different places, look different, or act different. It is important to remember that those little inclinations in our hearts, can become a problem when a group of us get together. When we, because of our own little failings excuse big ones.

When we hear someone tell a racially charged joke, do we just let them get away with it? When someone tells us not to go to an area of town and we don’t say, “Why not?” Or the most dreaded comment that people like to make, “Be careful, it gets real dark there at night.”

Do we call people out in those moments? Because if not we are not living out our prophetic witness. Because those little moments of someone thinking that just because someone looks different that they deserve different treatment add up. We need to look no further than the early chapters of scripture to see what I’m talking about. Cain and Abel, a time when people had no doubt in their mind that they were the same, that they were one family, Cain looked at Abel and said, “You took what is mine.” Cain never owned God’s good pleasure, but as soon as Abel had it, Cain decided it should be his.

“You Abel have taken my position! You Abel have taken what I could have if not for you!” And it is a very short walk from, “I don’t like you there.”, “You shouldn’t be there.” To murder. There is a reason that Christ is so clear that if you hate your brother or sister you have already killed them because it is only next door to the act.

Even in a moment when the Church was doing a great deal of work to become a diverse people of diverse backgrounds, we read in Acts that the newly formed church, speaking a multitude of tongues from all over the world, worshipping together and sharing in common all the good things which God has given them… Even in this Church, chapter seven happens.

In this chapter, we read that Stephen is appointed to be a minister over the distribution to the widows, why? Because the good Hebrew Christians decided that the Greeks did not need as much food. They decided the Greeks, who they don’t know how they got there, The Greeks, “We don’t know what their background is,” The Greeks, “We don’t know if they came here legally or not,” the Hebrew Christians decided that they did not need to eat.

The Apostles could have signed off on this behavior, they could have said, “Absolutely right! You should discriminate.” But instead, they got a collection of ministers, both Hebrew and Greek together, and said, “You make sure this church stays to its mission!” and you know what those ministers got? Not one chapter later Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin.

The claim laid against him is that he was proclaiming blasphemy. Saying that Christ was God was unacceptable, but he was not just saying Christ was God. He was saying Christ was God to Jew and Gentile. For butting against the status quo he was beaten to death with rocks. Fast forward to the twentieth century, Oscar Romero – a South American Bishop does not go as far as race but discusses poverty. He says to the Rich and the Government, “You have everything, the poor have nothing, why won’t you regard them as equal to you in dignity and give them what they need to live!” For this, he was killed while presiding over communion, just for saying that people should be equal to one another.

In the United States, a Baptist Minister, Martin Luther King Jr. Who held the whole world accountable for their complicity, especially those “Moderate White Churches,” that would not speak against their brethren. He was shot and killed on the balcony of a hotel.

Today we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. A Thanksgiving for all that Christ has done, but also what the Greeks called, αναμνεσις, a remembrance, literally to read your memory. To bring out your memory. When we look at this we should not just remember the good that God has already given us, but what that goodness cost. Because the Ransom of Life, we were told, is costly. For the Psalmist this meant that the wealthy were not willing to give up what they had to help other people. They were not willing to feed the poor, because when it came to the poor the cost was too much, but to they considered their mansions a necessity.

For those of us who live in a world where people go and kill simply because others are different, the cost to us is admitting our own wrongdoing. The cost to us is stepping aside so that others can walk alongside us. But for Christ the cost was death on the cross, and as I already said, for those who fight for equality that is the price they pay as well. Christ was crucified not primarily because he claimed to be God, but because he was a threat to the powerful. He was crucified because he said Romans, Hebrews, and Greek should get together and be one family.

When you get people together and they talk about their mutual problems, that makes people in power uncomfortable. Jesus was not primarily crucified because he was a good man, he was crucified because he threatened people. Not with weapons, not with violence, but with love. If there’s one thing the World can’t stand it is love. Love is like a fire that burns within people and motivates them to live selflessly for one another.

But Love must grow in an unhindered soul, one that has decided what it must get rid of, and sometimes that means getting rid of prejudice. A soul that is willing to admit it has hurt people. Love is not comfortable, it asks the world of us. But if we do not do this, we have not walked the walk we are called toward. The Mission Statement of these churches is to, “speak and live the Gospel.” And through, “Love and Forgiveness,” make disciples. I would add to this the Mission of the United Methodist Church, that we make these disciples, “For the transformation of the world.” Conforming it to the will of Christ which is love. Love which does not discriminate. Love that acknowledges difference but does not separate people based upon it. A Love that is willing to look hate in the eye and die to prevent its spread. That is the love we are called to.

God accepts us. All our failings. Our Hurt our Joy our Anger. The one thing which God will not accept in you is Hate. Hate which roots in the heart and manifests in the slightest comments and most basic inclinations. Today we feast on the love of God which roots out this hate.

Save Us, O’ God – Lectionary 07/28/2019

Hosea 1:2-10

When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.”

So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. And the LORD said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.”

She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the LORD said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”

When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.”

Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”

Colossians 2:6-19

As you, therefore, have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Sermon Text

Writing sermons is not a glamorous activity, and I never understand people who claim it is. I preach the Lectionary, which means that I have four or five texts to pick from each week, and I decide what will be the best one to base a service around. The sermon is, after all, only part of the service. If the Spirit hasn’t shown up by the twenty-minute mark of a service, I don’t expect that the Spirit will be there by the time I’m done talking either. That is why, once the scripture is selected, I don’t read it or look at it until it is time to write the sermon. I approach the research and the time I take to put together as something Spirit-led, as something I don’t want to have too much of a prepared response to.

Now, many of you will at this point wonder why I’m talking about the method I use to write a sermon and why I haven’t started actually preaching yet. Well, that is because today’s sermon was especially Spirit-led, because it is on a text I don’t much like. Hosea is a book which is used so often to excuse the bad behavior of people, especially the bad behavior of husbands toward their wives. As someone who has been on the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse in a relationship, I find the way that God speaks in Hosea very disturbing. God tells a prophet to marry a woman – not out of love, not out of compatibility, but as an object lesson. God tells him to name his children after negative emotions and as though they are just illustrations in a story.

For this reason many commentators have suggested that Gomer and her children don’t exist. They are just a story used to make a point. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the text to suggest this is the case. We read this story and we are led to believe that God had a man marry a woman to make a point. That God had a prophet punish a woman simply to make a point.

That is disturbing. It should lodge in our hearts as something that isn’t quite right. God is not in the habit of toying with people. God is loving, God is all-merciful, and even in wrath, we are led to believe that God is looking out for people’s good. Even this text takes a moment for God to say, “Yes, I will punish you, but there is still hope for some of you.” Even the text acknowledges this language seems out of place for God. Yet, we cannot look to it and say, “Well God didn’t really say this.” Or, “God didn’t really do this.” To do so would be to ignore something just because it is not agreeable to us, and the text does not let us do that.

What the text is doing, or rather, what the text is not doing, is creating a guide for how we as human beings deal with one another. This is not God saying, “Israel is like an adulterous woman, and I’m going to treat Israel like one.” God does not support the abuse of any person, and to say that God is looking to Israel and saying, “I only hurt you because I love you,” is to cast God as a monster. Instead, we need to look at what was going on in Israel at the time, what would lead God to use this particular image, in this particular way.

The reasons we are told of in this text are that Israel has violated the covenant in several ways. Firstly, they have committed war crimes against their enemies. The bloodiness of their campaigns against their enemies has disgusted God. Like when Cain killed Abel, blood is crying up from the ground and God is disgraced by the violence of humanity. Secondly, they have begun worshipping other Gods. Usually, we think of this as the Israelites leaving God to worship new deities, but it was more complicated than that. Oftentimes, the Israelites would put other Gods with the God of Israel. Ba’al was the God that their God sent ahead of him to bring the harvest, Asherah was the Goddess who would cause them to grow. The Israelites thought they were keeping the covenant so long as the Gods were lower on the list than the God of Israel, such was their interpretation of, “You shall have no other Gods before me.”

Both these issues tie into Israel’s chief sin at this time, namely that they are oppressing the poor and the needy. The farmers in the fields were no longer growing food they could use for food, they were not tending cattle like they used to. The King and the rulers had demanded that they grow crops that grew quickly and could be sold for high profit. Olive trees, barley, and other cash crops were planted and then taken from the people. They kept none of the profit and were expected to give up all they had so that the rich in the country could grow richer and so that the rulers could pay off their debts without digging into their own coffers.

The rich and powerful of Israel are those who are represented by Gomer. These are the sorts of people who could take as many wives as they wanted, and who would treat them as objects even beyond what was common for the time. The Kings of Israel and the elite would collect wives as a show of force, again degrading the quality of human life. The way that they had taken crops they were now taking people, especially from the poor. This evil was not new to this generation, but it was a high point of it. This generation in the time of Hosea embodied the warning of Samuel centuries before, “[Your rulers] will take your sons as soldiers will take your daughters as slaves, and they will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards”

What God is doing in picking the image of Gomer is saying to the rulers of Israel, “I want you to understand that I see what you’re doing. I am going to treat you the same way you treated the needy. You are going to be cast out like you cast out your wives, you will go hungry in the same way you starved the poor, you will no longer be called my people because you refused to regard to needy as you people.” It is the same lesson as we learn of in Matthew 25. God knows us by how we take care of the oppressed – not by how much money we have, not how holy you are, but how well you react to the love you are given by giving it to others.

How timely a passage we are given. In a moment of our history where the rich and powerful are constantly exposed for the evil, they are committing. In the past few years, people are being outed for the evil that they have done in secret. Secret racism, years of abuse that has been covered up – not just in the government, not just in the private sector, but even within the church, are all being exposed because people are now willing to stand up and make it known the way that they have been done wrong.

The lesson of Hosea is that God has no patience for the abuse of those who cannot defend themselves. In fact, most of the lesson of Scripture will tell us this. Matthew 25 – God knows us by how we care for the least of these. Luke 12 – A fool saves up money, but a wise man gives to the poor. Luke 16 – the rich man who lives a life of comfort is damned while the poor man who suffered is saved. Most relevant to this text, John 8 – The woman that is dragged naked into the streets, the one who is called a whore and is threatened with violence. She alone is given the grace of God, and all those who stood against her are sent away empty.

We of the church are recipients of unique gifts. We hold the keys to Heaven and Hell as heirs to Peter. In carrying the Gospel into the world we are tasked not just with the salvation of people’s souls, but the preservation of their flesh. We are to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and speak to the outcast even when it is means we have to make a sacrifice. Maybe we give the coat we’re wearing because we have more at home. Maybe we give the twenty dollars we were going to use for lunch out away. Maybe we talk to someone that people might get the wrong idea about. We have to take risks as Christians because the only thing that is unacceptable in the life of faith is to sit comfortably while others suffer. The one thing which strikes out against all the work of the Gospel is to take the light we are given and shut it up in bank accounts, in church pews, in closets.

The Christian stands as someone who is, “More than [a] conquerer.” We are given authority over demons, principalities, powers, all manner of spiritual evils. We are given the words of life, and oftentimes we are given material goods alongside them. We have a choice – either we take on the fullness of God’s gift, and commit ourselves to the identity which we claimed in baptism – or we sit quietly and wait for the world to burn and take us with it. In the mouth of the Christian, there can be no hateful word, the hands of the Christian are not to do harm but to heal wounds, the thoughts of a Christian are to be toward the good things of God and not on the degradation of others.

When we neglect the work of God we become like the rulers of Israel. We stand idly by while innocents are massacred – while Yemenese children starve to death in ruined cities and while the homeless die en mass from exposure. We bow down to God’s other than the one we know in Christ – Gods of money, of power, Gods in Washington and Charleston, Gods on TV screens and in our radios, on Youtube and Snapchat. In all things we commit atrocities, if not through the active participation in them then by quietly sitting by while they are committed.

In Deuteronomy God, through Moses, stood before the people of Israel. He said to them, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.” How often have we committed evil under the sky? How often have we walked the earth as a people who curse and not bless, who love death more than life? When we commit ourselves to follow Christ’s example we set down a narrow path, and it is one that many cannot go one faithfully. The stakes are too high not to. So we must treat people, all people, as we wish to be treated – Heaven and Earth will testify against us if we don’t – and God has made it clear, “I will treat you as you treat the least of these. The call which sounds out from Hosea is the entreaty which is extended to us by Paul. Choose the path of life, choose the path of blessing, choose to be good to those around you, love the foreigner, bless and do not curse. That is what it is to live into our identity as Christians, to go beyond a saved people and to become a sanctified people. We are told in the Epistle today that we are to grow as God has given growth, and I pray we will do so. Growth is a sign of life, and we must earnestly pray to participate in life – not just a comfortable life, or a happy one, but an abundant one. Seek the life abundant, never settle for anything else. – Amen.

The Word is Very Near – Lectionary 07/14/2019

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the LORD your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Sermon Text

    “Who is my neighbor?” just might be the most loaded question in scripture. We often think about the other questions that Jesus was asked were more inflammatory: “Are you a king? Are you the son of God? Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for another?” All of them direct and piercing questions, but none of them were as meant to snare someone as much as, “Who is my neighbor.” The man in the story was asking it to justify himself, and those listening were ready to do the same. 

    If Jesus said, “The person who lived in your town.” Then everyone could let out a sigh of relief, “I volunteer at the soup kitchen, I have followed the commandment.” If Jesus said, “Those who agree with you politically.” Then the Centurions watching in the back could relax, “The Jew I kicked into a ditch didn’t count, I’m still a God-fearer.” And, heaven forbid if Jesus had said, “Your neighbor is the person you like and get along with.” Because then we could all say, “Surely, I will inherit eternal life.” Afterall, as Jesus says elsewhere, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? Even sinners do that!”

    Instead Jesus puts something before us that we might look at and say, “Oh that’s too much.” Jesus gives us the charge to, “Love our neighbor as ourselves,” but is sure to define neighbor as God intends neighbor to be known. Jesus takes the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and transforms our understanding of it. The question is not, “What kind of person should I love,” The question becomes, “What kind of person am I?” The man who was trying to justify himself in talking to Jesus was hoping to be told – help this kind of person, and instead he was told what kind of person he should be.

    The story is backwards from what people would expect. People who heard the story would have insisted that Jesus should have made the man who was beat up the main character and had him find each of the other characters and help them. The version they would have expected would go something like this, “ A man was walking along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Along the way he saw a priest in trouble, and he helped him. Then he saw a Levite in trouble, and he helped him. Finally, he saw a Samaritan in trouble, but he did not help him.” The lesson of this parable, and I would say of a great deal of preaching, is that the people you have helped up to this point are your neighbors and no one else. The Lawyer acted the same way we do today, he was looking for a message that would condone his behavior and condemn everyone elses.

    Jesus goes beyond what the man asked, which is essentially, “Who am I allowed to ignore?” and gives the real lesson. We should not go through life asking, “Who do I have to love?” Instead the question is, “Am I loving?” The man asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response at the end of this passage tells him, “You are a neighbor to anyone you show mercy to.” In other words, the only way to love your neighbor as yourself, is to be a neighbor to all the needy.

    In the parable it is not power or lineage that determine a persons status as neighbor. Levites were attendants to the temple, descendants of Jacob like any good Jew would be. Priests spoke on behalf of God, at least in theory. Yet, these people did not show mercy to the injured man. These people who were theoretically the most shining example of what it was to be a faithful Jew, they lost their participation in God’s kingdom by refusing to show mercy. The Samaritan enters in as more than an example of unlikely help, he is an example of God’s grace working in us.

    The Samaritans were not just foreign people to the Jews. They were the descendants of survivors from the Assyrian massacre of Israel long ago. They were part Persian, part Israelite. They practiced different religious traditions than the Jews, they still do today. Jews at the time did not like them because of these differences. Even though they both worship the same God, they could not stomach having someone worship God differently. It reminds me of when I went to my first Catholic mass and someone I knew looked at me and said, “I just don’t know why you would experiment with other religions.” To me, it looked like a cross at the front of the church and the ministers were still reading the scripture, but to this person the other differences were unacceptable.

    Jesus tells this story in a way that sets people up and constantly makes them question their expectations. We have to imagine him tell this story like any good storyteller, he is trying to get the audience interested. We can hear in his words the build up and the fall. “Now by chance a priest was going down that road…” Oh good, our hero! “and then he saw him by the side of the road and…” This is where he helps him! “he passed on the other side.” The crowds would be disappointed – that isn’t the right ending.

    Jesus repeats the disappointment with the Levite. Then comes the Samaritan. The crowd would have expected at this point that everyone in the story was going to abandon the man, that Jesus was going to talk about how all people failed to keep the law. However, the Samaritan went above and beyond what was expected. Carrying the man from the road to a hostel, paying to take care of him, and opening a tab for anything that might the man needed. This man may have objected to the help, to having a Samaritan do all this for him, but regardless of whether or not he got credit for his good work, the Samaritan in the parable carried it out. The crowd would be confused, they might even be angry. “How can he say these people get it more than we do.”

    Jesus wanted to speak to two tendencies which we in the church face today. The first is that we like to be selective in who we help. We take the command to love our neighbor and the command to share things in common and we relativize them. We can do that, but not for such and such a person or only in such a such a scenario. We have no commitment to doing the work of God at all times to all people. Here though, Jesus has insisted that we are not only to work for good always and with all people, but that we cannot limit who God can work through. When we think the only people who can do right are the ones we agree with, who look and act like us, then we have forgotten what God has told us before. 

    Our text from Deuteronomy touches on the second excuse we in the church cling to. Namely, that it is impossible to follow God’s command. We look at the people we know and the world we live in and say, “It would be great if we could follow that commandment, but that’s too hard!” This is when we fall into empty truisms, things that while not wrong can easily become excuses. For example – “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” Is true, but if we use that as a reason not to do good then we fall into sloth, we give up before we even started. To prevent any such talk, God speaks through Moses and is very clear.

    God tells us directly, “This commandment I give you is not too hard.” Translated another way, “It is not a mystery.” God tell us, “It is not far away from you.” I did not hide it Heaven or in a distant land so that you would not be able to get it. The language used here is telling. God reassures them that they do not need a great man like Moses to guide them to do good. God tells them, “You don’t have to send a man up a mountain to know what you have to do, it should be obvious to you.” Indeed, this word is very near, it is in your mouth and in your heart. The most essential parts of the Christian life are evident to us – they do not take much thought. God does not say, “It is in your mind,” as if it takes a lot of thinking to figure out – it is in your heart that you will feel it and know it, it is in your mouth that you speak blessings and not curses.

    When we are called to act as a neighbor to those around us, God does not put a burden we cannot handle on our shoulders. If we believe that Christ’s, “Yoke is easy, and [his] burden light.” Then we cannot say it is impossible to do good. We will definitely fall short of the example Christ lays before us, and at the end of the day what we do does not save us – only our faith. However, we must commit ourselves to a better goal, to doing the work of God which is in our heart. We have the assurance that God will see us to our goal, and the assurance that our short-comings will be forgiven, now let us live out both these realities.

    We are like Christ, we are like the Samaritan, we travel a world in which we do not belong. We must take the time to help those we meet along the path. Our destination is Heaven, but who will we send down the same path as us? The ones who we become the face of mercy to, the ones who we show the path to, those who we are able to become Christ for. We must go forth into the world and proclaim the word of God, but we must go forth and do it, but we don’t have to go far to find it. This word is very near, it is in our mouth, it is in our heart. We must go now, and put it into the world. – Amen

There is A Prophet in Israel – Lectionary 07/07/2019

2 Kings 5:1-14
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!
Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Luke 10:1-11
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.
Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

Sermon Text

Today we have two words before us. Both of them telling us what it is to be a prophet in the land. At one end there is the work of Elisha toward Namaan, and at the other the work of the Seventy Disciples in proclaiming the Gospel. Two stories of prophetic action, two stories of the kingdom of God coming near, both with ample lessons for us to take into our lives today. Today we will look specifically at the idea that we are called to be a prophetic voice in the world, to proclaim the good news to all people no matter the circumstances.

We come into Elisha’s ministry shortly after Elijah was taken up to Heaven. Elisha served his predecessor faithfully for quite a while, and the initial transition into his new role was met with some trouble. When he first put on the mantle of the chief prophet of Israel, the other prophets looked to him and acknowledged he was in the full power of Elijah… and then immediately ignored him. “Truly you have been given the Spirit of Elijah… But, could we please go and find him? We would really like him back and we think God might have put him on a mountain.”

Elisha was kind though, and despite what could be perceived as a slight he allowed his followers to look for Elijah. They searched every mountain peak and found nothing, returning to Elisha and admitting that they were wrong to think they could dwell in the past. The future was now, and they were ready to follow him wholeheartedly. At this point, Elisha must have let out a sigh of relief. The hard work of winning over the other prophets was over, and now he only had to keep the king in line. What could possibly go wrong there? Well, it turns out quite a lot. Israel had, after all, been abusing its vassal states and one of them got fed up with being taxed and not getting anything for all that they gave. It was essentially the Coal wars played out in South East Israel. Moab rebelled, and the king was left with no choice but to turn to God.

Elisha helped the king, though he had fallen into idolatry. He called upon God and water sprang up out of Edom, flowing through the camps of the King and equipping his armies to win a victory over their enemies. Elisha would then work among his own people – supplying the necessary supplies for a widow to save her sons from being sold into slavery. He removed poison from food with nothing more than a bit of flour. He multiplied food and fed the hungry. His ministry was challenged from the beginning, yet he pushed through and with God’s aid conquered every obstacle that came his way.

It is this dependence on God that made him strong. He was not a prophet because he spoke well or because he was richer or stronger than anyone else. His ability to prophecy came from God alone. God gave him the authority to preach, to call down miraculous signs, to testify against kings and all authority. Nothing that Elisha did was of his own accord, but everything he did was initiated and blessed by God. This was his strength, and this is what leads us into his encounter with Naaman, general of the Arameans.

Naaman we are told, was given victory by God in a battle – giving him great respect among his people. When he contracted leprosy, a slow death sentence in those days, the king was willing to pay silver and gold equivalent to 3.8 million dollars. Which is a number that is huge on one hand, but on the other isn’t much more than they charge for ambulances now. The King sends this offer to the King of Israel and awaits a response. King Joram, ever a calm and collected soul, goes into full mourning at the idea. Having just barely won a war with the rebellious Moabites – taking everything but their main city – he was not ready for another war. In the eyes of the king, this call to send a healer for Naaman was nothing but a prelude to war. They were looking for an excuse, for anything which the spin doctors in Aram could make into sufficient justification for a war.

Elisha is prepared though, and when he hears of the request he sees it for what it is. He calls to the king and tells him, “Send him to me. Let them see that there is a prophet in Israel.” In other words, “Let them come and marvel at what God has done.” Israel had, at this point, become an overwhelmingly idolatrous nation – especially its royalty. They had plenty of so-called prophets, but none of them were giving any meaningful messages. When Elisha called for them to show, “There was a prophet in Israel,” he would have raised some eye brows. People would have said, “We have our prophets, what do we have to prove?”

But they did prove there was a prophet. Naaman came, and Naaman was healed. Bathing seven times in the Jordan – in a filthy river of mixed salt and fresh water – he was made clean. Having skin that was not only free of disease, but new – like that of someone much younger than he was.

It is here, in the work of Elisha at the Jordan that the work of we in the modern church, and those Seventy Disciples from our Gospel Passage get our lesson. When we of the Church commit ourselves to making an example of our work and to becoming a true sign of God’s work in the world – that is the moment that we become prophets. A prophet is not someone who tells the future – although sometimes they might – a prophet is someone who brings the word of God to the world. We in the church each take on a prophetic voice in the moment we enter into it. Whenever a person is welcomed into the church, we recommit the baptizand and the church to:

“With God’s help… proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. Surround [one another] with a community of love and forgiveness, that [we] may grow in [our] trust of God, and be found faithful in [our] service to others.”

That is a high calling. However, it is one that we have all signed onto. We are to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, that he came and died for us, that we would not only be legally reconciled to God, but be placed in a solidarity with God. God working with us not only so that we could be saved from death, but renewed completely in our resembling of God, that image which we were made in long ago. We live out this image of Christ in acting like Christ. Preaching moves in concert with good works, the two do not overtake one another, they do not compete. The prophet proclaims, but the prophet also acts.

Those who were sent out in our Gospel reading went into the world act and to preach. They were to enter into households and declare they came as agents of peace. Ancient hospitality required that most, if not all, travelers were to be welcomed into your home if they did not do so through force or coercion. Thus, when we read their harsh reaction to being denied it becomes clearer – they asked for common courtesy and were given a door in the face. Those who accepted them were given the chance to hear the gospel, to receive healing and to see wonders. They went forward to prove to the world that once again, “There was a prophet in Israel.”

For those of us in the modern day, we are given more opportunities than ever to push into the world and do good, to go into the world and proclaim the Gospel. We live in a unique period of time, one in which more people from more places than ever living among us. People of all races, cultures, and backgrounds now live among us. We can respond to this in one of two ways – as a threat to the artificial distinctions which we have created for ourselves, or as an opportunity for God to enact God’s work in the world. God’s work not to have a church that looks just one way, prays just one way, speaks just one way – but a church that is open to all people from all corners of the world. People who live together in community, not uniformity.

The mission of the Church today is to enter into those areas which we are not comfortable with. We are to go into areas where we may not be welcome, but we are to enter into them as Christ came into the world. Though we are turned away, we do not respond with anger or with wrath. Those who reject us today may be saved tomorrow, and we leave them to God in the meantime. We go forward in peace, not aggressively. Too often we in the church enter into a situation and start picking fights with people, or respond aggressively to those who are at first apprehensive of us. If we enter a place and act in peace and love, and are rejected then we bear no guilt. If we enter in anger and wanting our own way, then the guilt is on us not our hosts.

If we are willing to work with people, to do good and act as Christ in the world, openly giving God the glory along the way, then we have hope of God’s work being known. The king of Israel was unsure of Elisha when his ministry began – Elisha responded to a general call, not a specific one. “Bring me a prophet of the Lord.” Naaman did not even know the name of Elisha. However, after the miracle of the waters from Edom and the feeding of the hungry and the care for the widow, Elisha was known in Israel. When the time came for someone to heal Naaman on behalf of the King, Elisha gave an order and the king obeyed – such was his influence which his good works had brought him.

We must go into the world as a prophet would. Our face like that of an angel, our desire for God’s glory to be known not for our way to be had or for our own gain. All that gold that was sent to Elisha was turned away; he would not take a piece of it. What he did accept was the words of Naaman, when he saw the work of God, he committed his life to worship of him. His washing in the Jordan was like a baptism for him, washing him of his past life and allowing him to enter into a new one. We too can bring people to the font of baptism, we too can do wonders. We must believe in the God who sends us, and face any opposition well. Let our hearts be clear, our motivations be of God, and our lips and hands be committed to the work of God alone. Let our lives make the world look upon us as say, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel!” – Amen