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

A Double Share of the Spirit – Lectionary 06/30/2019

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets, who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. They said to him, “See now, we have fifty strong men among your servants; please let them go and seek your master; it may be that the spirit of the Lord has caught him up and thrown him down on some mountain or into some valley.” He responded, “No, do not send them.” But when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, “Send them.” So they sent fifty men who searched for three days but did not find him. When they came back to him (he had remained at Jericho), he said to them, “Did I not say to you, Do not go?”

Sermon Text

Unless you are a parent, a business founder, or a charismatic cult leader, you are not likely to be the first person in any job. There is always the person who came before you and living in community with those who knew them, you will meet with expectations and practices which were built up in a community and more likely than not you will butt against a few of them. No matter how peaceful a transfer of power is, the unspoken presuppositions of a position will come and rear their head.

In particular, transfers of position in the church can cause a lot of trouble. People become attached to their pastors, and if they have been there for any amount of time that attachment will be extreme. It is not limited to pastors either – new council chairs, new mission leaders, Sunday school teachers – all these spiritual workers must undergo some amount of transition and deal with comparisons with the person who came before them. It is an inevitability, and it will only differ in terms of the degree to which people desire to have their expectations subverted by a new person with a new vision.

Today’s scripture takes us through one of the most difficult transitions in the history of God’s people. The greatest prophet in the history of Israel, appointed to inherit the legacy of Moses, was about to end their time on earth and be taken up into Heaven. Elijah was going far away and Elisha was to take up their position and lead the people in a new way. This story does not give us much in the way of transition strategies for those of us within churches, but it does give us a message of God’s faithfulness across generations of spiritual workers. In particular, I hope this message from scripture will give some hope to those of us who – effective July 1, 2019 – are entering into new pastoral roles in the United Methodist Church. Lord, in your mercy.

The beginning of this scripture takes us through the final mission of Elijah. He is led by God from Gilgal to Bethel – a journey that would take about 15 hours to complete on foot. Gilgal is the first stepping stone of the Israelites into the Holy Land. Beginning their final journey here makes it clear that this is a mission built up from the history of Israel, not one that is divorced from its context or from those who went before. The long winding path would have gone past no major cities – it was a walk through the wilderness, through untamed land.

As we enter into a new ministry, we come into an untamed land. This is not to say that we come into an untended environment, neglected by any means. However, the path which we are brought through must highlight the areas of our ministry areas that are so far untapped. A church is like a farmhouse sitting on a massive amount of land. The work of the church will slowly begin to cultivate land, grow crops that produce fruit, and eventually expand to cultivate land that was never worked before. Whenever we enter into a new position or a new church we have to look and take stock of all the places that have been cultivated before, are being cultivated now, and will be cultivated in the future.

To travel through and take stock does not mean that make ourselves critics of the previous work, saying how much better we could have worked in these circumstances. It does mean that we have to honestly look at what has been done and make a plan for the future. That plan may involve some changes, it may mean staying on course as the church always has before. It is necessary, all the same, that we are aware of the lands that we are entering into. That we take time to enter in and understand before we begin to act. We cannot take up the mantle of those who have come before us unless we truly understand one another. Understanding is the key to all cooperation; it is the foundation of true community.

The second leg of their journey ran from Bethel to Jericho. Again Elisha is told that he would do better to stay in Gilgal, the path that has been laid before Elijah is long and as they return to the Jordan they now have to go through a large expanse of mountains. While their previous journey through the wilderness allowed them to follow along valleys, the two now have to pass through the harsh mountains which lead to the river. Their journey would take them across peaks and through valleys that would result in a descent of nearly 3,000 feet.

We can see this in two complementary interpretations. As we move closer to the Jordan, to the point when we cross over into our new role, we do so with difficulty. We are leaving behind the work that we have done and going into unknown territory. We are passing through new worlds which we have never seen before. There are new and unseen dangers in this area – around every corner, we may face an adversary, or maybe find a new ally.

Crossing the mountains, we can see the land that stretches out before us, and all the land that lies behind. This is a time for reflection. What has brought us to this moment in our lives? What have we done in the past and what might we do in the future? The journey is the final steps before we take up our mantle, and what can we do with it? Hopefully, we learn, we understand that our path has not just been us walking alone toward our goals – it is a journey that God has supported at every step.

The ultimate lesson of this comes in the moment that we arrive at our destination. Jericho – the first obstacle which the Israelites faced in their entrance to the Holy Land. It was an insurmountable obstacle which became nothing through the power of God. Though we walk through the difficult paths of ministry, God is always ready to remove the obstacles in our lives. The physical symbol of Jericho reminds us of the spiritual reality, God is with us and God is advocating for us.

The final path across the Jordan is the moment that we take on our responsibility. There is never a moment in which someone in the Biblical Narrative crosses the Jordan and is unchanged by the process. It is here that the Israelites transitioned from wanderers to a people with a home, it is here that Christ began his mission, it is here that impure waters become the means of purifying a people and a world. The passage through the Jordan is the moment of no return, we enter as one person and exit as another.

For Elisha, this meant crossing the river as an apprentice and leaving as a prophet. The work he did with Elijah was just the beginning. The taking up of Elijah represents us the final departure of the person we follow. They are taken up by God and sent to something new, something fundamentally different than what they were doing before.

For the person left behind, there is no trace of them except for their mantle. In taking up that piece of cloth they become something new, they hold all the authority and responsibility that that cloth represents. Taking on a title – becoming a pastor or a council chair or whatever it may be – is taking on a mantle. When you enter into a new position to lead, then you inherit everything that that title means. This does not mean that you become an authoritarian who constantly points to their title as justification, but it does mean that you owe all people you serve what the title suggests – more on that in a moment.

When we take up a mantle we do not do so alone though. We are able to seize the promise which is extended to Elisha. If we follow God all the way through this journey toward our new roles, then God will give us a double share of the Spirit of those who have preceded us. Again, this is not a declaration of our innate skill or that we will be any more glorious or praiseworthy as those who have gone before. God is faithful, and God will do wonders. This is the truth of our ministry and what we must hold to.

God’s faithfulness allows us to pursue even the most difficult appointments. We go forward as people who are anointed not only by the authorities of the Church, but by the Lord God! We cannot shy away from this promise, and we must be willing to accept the responsibility and the abilities that will come from this. A double share of the Spirit allows us to take up our charge, it allows us to use our abilities for the good of our people and our God.

It is the double share of Spirit that allows us to come into our new position and for people to see us and say, “The Spirit of Elijah rests upon them.” The same Spirit that did wonders in the past allows us to do wonders now. God endorses our ministry as long as we stay in that Spirit, follow their movements, do all that we are led to. As said before, the Spirit holds all true authority and power, we must respect that and act as people of the Cross.

There will be resistance. There will be struggles that arise naturally and people who oppose the work which is to be done. Some people will want things to be the way they were, for the new leader to be exactly like the old. These are the people who will send 50 people to any and every mountain they can to try and get Elijah back. Elijah has moved on though, God has taken them somewhere else, somewhere to do works previously unimagined.

The mission goes on though. The Spirit moves and Elisha takes his place in Israel. We all go forward now, in this season of change, as people transferring mantles to one another. Let us not do so with pride or jealousy, but in all places with a Spirit of peace – with the Spirit of God. May God give us all a double share, and may the pat we tread rise up to meet us. – Amen

Deep Calls to Deep – Lectionary 06/23/2019

Psalm 42 and 43

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.

Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me. By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me! For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off? Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy? O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

Sermon Text

Suffering is never easy, and it never gets easier. There is never a time when the losses of this life do not have some sort of sting attached to them. We do not mourn as those without hope, but we do mourn. There is something which is lost when someone passes away, or we lose something which we had become attached to in life. The promise of faith is not that we do not suffer, or that suffering is somehow made into a good thing because we have faith, but that our suffering is not meaningless. There is something that can come out of the barrenness of the darkest night, not because God orchestrated them to educate us – but because God is in the business of redemption and mending.

Today’s scripture begins with a familiar prayer, “As the deer panteth for water, so panteth my soul for God.” We know the hymn, and we love the image of God satisfying our needs. What we miss in many of our readings, especially if we are only thinking of the hymn – is that the psalmist is not writing from a place of comfort. No, like many of the Psalms the author is writing from the depths of despair – crying out to God and demanding water to spring up in the desert – not sitting beside a quiet stream.

The Psalmist is seen here as having suffered, they cannot find any relief, they look everywhere for relief from God – they ask only to see God’s face! They do not though, they see themselves as already in the pit, already in the grave. Even though they live, they might as well be dead. They do not see hope, they do not see joy, they are living in the lowest points of their life, and they cannot fathom ever escaping from it. There is great darkness, there is no reasonable chance of deliverance. All people would look at them and say, “Here is someone who has lost everything, where is there God?”

The question comes naturally. Whenever we suffer something extreme, we cannot just write it off as part of God’s plan. We cannot say it is not a big deal. We feel it deep within ourselves, and if we are honest we are more likely to say it is counter to our understanding of God – not in line with it. The cry of our broken heart is the same as what Christ yelled out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” Such concerns come naturally, even to God. When we suffer so terribly, we know it is wrong, that it doesn’t fit into the way things should be. Even God knows that.

What stands out is the way in which the Psalmist, even in the depths of despair and completely unsure of what is going on, calls to God. It is an accusative cry, one that is willing to say that something is wrong with what is going on, but it is a cry that is fundamentally seeking to be answered. The answer does not even have to be an explanation, it only needs to be a confirmation that someone is there. The Psalmist does not need to know why they are suffering, they need to “see the Face of God.”

The Psalmist believes that God will show up again. They offer up a promise to worship God if they are allowed to make it through this trouble. They are not holding this in front of God, trying to bribe or extort, but are expressing the state of things. “God, I cannot worship you in this state, I am too heartbroken to sing songs to you. I’m not you’re even there. Answer me, I do not even need to be where I used to be – I just need to know there is a future!” The future promise of praise is not a bribe, but another cry to God. An expression of the desire the Psalmist feels to return to a proper relationship with God.

What stands out above anything else in these Psalms comes in one of the closing remarks of Psalm. “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.” If that does not chill you the bone, I do not know what could.

The word here in Hebrew is the same as what is used in Genesis to describe the formless waters before creation. Deep here refers not only to the depth of feeling which the Psalmist feels, or the depths of God’s love – but the unknown expanses which the two parties are entering into. God knows the pain of the Psalmist, but until that pain is given a voice the Psalmist cannot feel they are being heard. Likewise, while the Psalmist is trapped in the depths of their despair they are lost in the darkness which has covered them.

The description of this mystery and the way that the deep things of God are related to creation are further intensified when we consider the mysteries of creation. By tying the relationship between the suffering Psalmist and God to Genesis, the scripture puts suffering into a universal context. This does not make it so that our suffering is small in comparison to the vastness of the universe, but instead deepens how we see our suffering and how God interacts with it.

Our universe was set into motion around fourteen billion years ago. Hot forges of proto-matter burned in the gravity of a million million stars. Explosions, black holes, and a variety of other cosmic events led to the eventual formation of galaxies. These galaxies, with their millions of stars, produced some that had planets, and on one single planet sprouted up life. This life, like the rest of the universe around it was made up of atoms, smaller than can ever be seen. These atoms banded together to form molecules, and molecules banded together to make DNA, tissues, organic structures that all life contains.

The complexity of creation does not prove God. If we depend on things we do not understand to “prove” God, we open the door for later people who do understand them to “disprove” God. A naturalist could explain creation arising naturally out of Chaos, we are not special because we draw a different conclusion out of the complexity of the universe.

What is instead evident is that, as we are people who have faith not as a rational decision from evidence but from spiritual realities that have been revealed to us, is that such a complex universe deepens the depths in which God resides. That so infinite and complex a God as could make the smallest atom and greatest of the galactic networks which web their way through the universe, cares for us – that is the wonder which our prayer reveals to us. Deep calls to deep, the universes which construct in our imagination and the pain which we suffer in them – these interface with the universe around us, with the universe which was made by the God whose face we seek.

Surveying the works of God’s hands, we see how wonderful creation truly is. However, a beautiful sunset is not always the cure for our pain. Suffering is not made beautiful because of the beauty of something unrelated to us. However, that such beauty came out of the formless void, out of the deeps which existed before all else – this gives us reason to hope. Hope, that is the essence of how we survive pain. Not necessarily hope that the pain ever ends, but that the pain isn’t meaningless at the end of it all.

The Psalmist does not depend on deliverance as their primary means to escape their pain. They look around them and see that they may in fact die, that there may in fact be an end to them in their present state. Nonetheless, they hold onto the goodness of God. They are overwhelmed by the goodness, the creative potential of God. Carried away in the waters which flow from the void of ignorance, and into the light of understanding and life.

The Psalmist calls out and asks that God would do what God in the beginning. Cry out, “let there be light!” and in so doing, “send out your light and your truth.” God hears the prayer of God’s people and those who trust in God receive this light. It is not always a physical deliverance that follows, but it is entering into a new God-oriented perspective.

For those of us in the Church today our light which burst into the darkness was in the person of Christ. The Way, the Truth, and the Light of all creation did not tear through the dark but entered into it. Christ stepped down and entered into our limited human bodies. Taking on the form of a human being, of a slave, God shone light into the world like it had never seen before. It was a light like no other when it was crushed and snuffed out it lit again brighter than ever. The death of Christ, the descent of God into the pit which we were trapped in, was completed with that pit’s destruction and the illumination of all the world.

God does not always give us answers, and sometimes we are not restored to the place we were or the place we want to be. What is true is that God is always somewhere nearby, always extending the truth of the divine light to us. Sometimes that light will be completely obstructed by the darkness of life, the chaos of the deep seems insurmountable. We cannot deal with the mysteries within us or within God. What remains even in that darkness – that is hope.

Hope is not something which is used to silence the pained voices of the world. It is something which stands beside those in pain. Christ did not come into the world to silence those that sufferer. Christ came into the world to become a suffering person, to be in solidarity with all those who ever suffered. Hope is the promise of a light which will burst out one day and erase all doubt. It is not the promise that suffering will make sense, or every question will be answered, but that somehow at the end of it all – we will understand the love of God fully.

Today, let us not strive for any particular action. Today, let us commit ourselves to hope – and let us think that is enough for now. – Amen.

One God, Three Loves – Trinity Sunday 2019

Romans 5:1-5
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

John 16:12-15
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason, I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Sermon Text

Today we as the Church universal celebrate the Holy Trinity. The mysterious unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons in one being, one being made of one substance, true God of true God from eternity to eternity. The Trinity is something which is not often directly spoken about from the pulpit – except to say that it exists and that it is important. It is too easy a thing to get wrong, and oftentimes those of us standing behind the pulpit are afraid that in our hubris we will mislead rather than enlighten our congregations.

Believing in the triune God as we do, I hope that our time today will enlighten us all, and we will learn a little bit more about the God we love. That the Spirit is present among us in such a way that even when our discussion inevitably falls short in describing the way that God lives, works, and loves – it still will bear good fruit. Let us trust together, that this work of the Spirit will be evident in our time together.

Our discussion of the Trinity begins in the Gospel of John, the wordiest and most confusing of the gospels. Whenever John described Jesus, he was not afraid to do so as if the person reading fully understood what he meant. He throws around complex formulas of how God is one with Christ is one with the Spirit are all present with us and far away, as if it was so obvious that a child could understand what he meant.

In particular our passage for today tackles the way in which God relates through Jesus, and by extension, how we relate to God. God the Father, the capital L-O-R-D of the Old Testament is unknowable to us. The invisible Spirit described earlier in John, invisible to our eyes and worshipped without idols or images. That we know God at all is only through God’s mercy, through the giving of God’s Spirit to the prophets in the Old Testament, and to all of us now.

When we accept Christ into our life, we receive the Holy Spirit. Even the most unworthy among us is transformed in an instant into a temple of God. The work of Christ on the cross is more than enough to make us worthy of this reception, not because of anything we have done – but because of God’s intense love for us. The prophets of Old would have the spirit come upon them and leave them, but we are assured that while there may be times the Spirit leads us more directly, we always have the Holy Spirit working within us.

This Spirit was how Christ, incarnate in a limited human body, was able to commune with his Father in heaven. Praying in the desert, calling on the power of his triune existence to work wonders, all this was done in the power of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit is only a divine telephone, but that the Spirit is a person who bridges gaps. When Christ was on Earth, he was still near to God, because the Spirit inhabited him, the Spirit conceived him, the Spirit never left him until his work was completed on Golgotha.

God works completely together with Godself. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit never take turns out of step from one another. When the Spirit visited Mary, it did so with Christ and the Father. When Christ healed the sick, it was done with the Father and in the Spirit. When the Father declared, “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.” Christ was not surprised, and the Spirit endorsed the messaged whole heartedly.

This is what is meant in today’s Scripture. Christ sends the Spirit to the disciples through the Pentecost event. The Spirit dwells in the Church, telling them all the instructions which originate from the Father and the Son. Christ is glorified through the Spirits revelation; The Father is glorified in the revelation of Christ and the teachings of the Spirit. The mutual relationship, the sharing of glory, all these things originate not only because one member of the Trinity supports the other, but because all three work for the mutual benefit of the other. God is three persons, but they are never divided.

Paul, in our other scripture, put things a bit more clearly – something which he was surprisingly good at. Paul describes we of the Church as having received Peace with the Father because of our faith in Christ. Whatever kept us away from, or at odds with, the Father is erased by the work of the Son. The Son, in suffering and dying, acted in solidarity with us, this transformed our suffering from a mindless thing we are put through, to something that potentially could unite us to God – not by design, but because God was willing to suffer beside us. Finally, all this was made possible because the Holy Spirit poured out love into our hearts. We would not know the work of God, we would not respond to the Gospel of Christ, if the Spirit did not first open up our hearts to that message.

The Spirit initiates our contact with God, because the Son died for our sins, to reconcile us to the Father. Are we confused enough? It is perfectly ok if we are. We are dealing with the infinite, the indescribable, and the utterly worshipped God of creation. We do not believe in a God that neatly fits into a box, or three boxes, or one triangular box with three spaces in it. We believe in a God that is bigger, more wonderful, and more magnificent than we can imagine.

Now, at this point the question necessarily arises. We have talked about theology, we have talked about how God works together at all times which, by the way, is called the communicatio idiomatum by those who like to make simple concepts a bit more complicated with Latin. Having established that such a thing exists though, we can now begin to translate the work of God into our lives with one another.

What stands out in how God interacts with each member of the Trinity is the way that they work together for the good of one another. The Father glorifies the Son glorifies the Spirit. The Father loves the Son loves the Spirit. We in the Church must too model this way of living together. Do we act together to benefit one another? Do we try to unite, not necessarily in opinion or in preference, but in mission and in love? That is what the Trinity, in its simplest understanding means for us – that we are to work together in love to love one another.

There is no fighting for supremacy in the Godhead. There is no arguing over who could do what job the best, but there is humility and there is a willingness to listen. The Spirit listens to the Father, the Son listens to the Spirit, the Father answers the Son, and so on and so on. When we work together, imagine if rather than fighting to be the hero of the mission, or to have work done our way, we listened and learned and loved.

There are two metaphors which, while not perfect, capture what the Divine work can look like in the Church. The first is that of a dance. I, when I was much smaller and a bit more energetic, was a dancer. The key to any piece was knowing that you were only as important as the role you were given. Among dancers of equal status, it did not matter if you took a back seat in one movement, because you would later become the centerpiece of another. The day for every dancer came in which they were under the spotlight, but each member was necessary to complete the dance.

The second imagery is perhaps more suitable for today, and that is one of a family. Specifically, a family in which the child is an adult and therefore on a fairly equal playing field with their parents. The Child defers to the experience and authority of the parent, the parent respects the autonomy of the child, but ideally the two work together – not one fighting to control the other, but so that the two are both happy in community with one another.

We of the church are given a difficult job. We are not only to love those who are easy to love – our family, our friends – but the most difficult people – coworkers, unpleasant neighbors, even the people we don’t like in the pew across the church. The family of the faithful is not the perfect unity of the trinity, even on its best day – but it is supposed to aspire toward it. The work of God in our life is the only thing that allows for it.

Christ sent the Spirit to dwell among us, we are filled with the Love of God. We can produce among one another the same Love that God has felt from before creation. The love that eternally begets the Son and sends forth the Spirit. The Love that was willing to die on Calvary and the Love that brought our savior back three days later. Do we love our neighbors? Do we love the poor? Do we love the sick? Do we love those who are different than us politically and culturally? Do we love those of other races and nationalities?

That God exists in community, not as three copies of the same person, but three distinct persons in one, means that we must love the distinct people around us. Especially those that are in the body of Christ which we call the Church. If we believe that we are literally subsumed somehow into Christ, then we cannot live in discord or in hate of one another. If we hate other Christians, if we let ourselves get caught up in worldly conflicts without substance, then we are not imitators of God, and we glorify only ourselves.

What we must aspire to, and what our discussion ends on today, is the love which God shows every day. Every day you wake up, regard it as the Son giving us life on Easter. Every time you pray, as the Spirit being poured upon you at Pentecost, and every time you show another person love, as the Father opening his arms the same way he did when you first believed. Only if we can resemble the community which God innately is, can we truly become a Church rooted in the work and the love of Christ. – Amen.

A Church for All Nations – Lectionary 06/09/2019

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Sermon Text

Two stories, two tales of languages multiplying. One is used to disperse the powers that had threatened to destroy the world, and the other was used to unite the world, and to bring more people in to the saving work of Christ. Two works of God, two acts of the Spirit, both done to save the world from itself. The messages at first can seem contradictory, that on one side God is working against the unity of people, and on the other God is promoting unity, but the message of the pieces work far better together than one might initially think.

The first story we are given, that of the Tower of Babel, is part of a series of stories in which God steps in to protect humanity from itself. The first example is in the Garden – humanity transgresses God’s prohibition against the Tree of Knowledge and so God expels them before they can become immortal – saving them from eternally suffering in a fallen state. The second example shows a world that is infested with monsters and evil, we are told that not a single good deed was done on earth outside of the work of Noah and his family – causing God to do the awful work of undoing all of creation.

After God recreates the world, we are left with hope that the people of the world will finally do what is right. Immediately though, Nimrod decides to build a Ziggurat that would tower higher than God’s own thrown. We can compare this to Nebuchadnezzar, a much later Babylonian King, who Isaiah described as, “Day star, Son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the Ground… You said in your heart, “I will raise my throne above the stars of God.” But you are brought down to Sheol!”

We often put our desires before God and what God wants for our life, but seldom do we see the sort of work that Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar put into the usurpation. On one hand, a massive temple was set up to literally climb over God, and on the other Nebuchadnezzar tried to anoint himself as the divine appointee of his God Marduk, The destruction of the Tower of Babel and the confusing of the tongues was not done out of fear that humanity would be able to harm God, but out of the knowledge that a unified humanity that placed itself above God would inevitably harm itself.

Any human being who considers themselves to have a divine right to rule over others inevitably causes great harm to their people. For these rulers, not even God had the authority to deny them anything. Since they saw themselves as the final word on any matter, they would exploit anyone they needed to to get what they wanted. The confusing of tongues seems like an attempt by God to protect Godself, but the truth is that by dividing tongues Nimrod could not harm as many people as if he had kept full power over all of humanity. The ethic of the story is not that God fears strong humans, but that God rejects oppressors at every turn.

The stories in the early part of Genesis are difficult because they are meant to tell us more about ourselves at times than about God. They describe humans as perverse, violent, and transgressive. We are oriented toward self aggrandization and not toward the mutual help of one another. God’s actions at every turn in Genesis, when understood outside of a literal reading of events, make it clear that God leans toward mercy even when we lean toward violence. The flood could have been a complete return toward the formless void, the Garden could have been obliterated in Hellfire, and the human race could have been crushed rather than scattered in the shadow of Babel.

That God responds to human failings with mercy is not to say that God is constantly saying, “I could hurt you, I just choose not to.” It is saying that God, unlike us, does not desire senseless vengeance, and always strives to do the least amount of damage necessary in any given situation. These points, again, stand in the context of the narrative that Genesis 1-13 gives to us. The day to day is seldom so clear, and anyone who tells you that your suffering is, “Merciful” in comparison to what could have happened is missing the point to say the least.

When we see God work in Pentecost, we can understand the divided tongues as a way to bring humanity back to what they once were. The division which was produced following Babel could now be erased, the diverse people of the world brought together under the united banner of Christ. This work would begin the process of rebuilding the world which existed before humanity began to damage it. The united humanity, the good works of a people in love with God and God’s mercy – this is the promise behind Pentecost.

Moreover, the world to come is greater than the world that was. God, in diversifying the languages and cultures of peoples, did not create multitudes of lesser cultures, but multitudes of equal and different ones. The different cultures formed different practices, different ways of describing things, of worshipping, of arts and poetries. The chorus of the saints now no longer would be in one style or language, but in infinite combinations of both throughout eternity. IT allows for Heaven to be more fully realized than we could ever imagine.

The scattering of the nations in Genesis opened the door for the Great Multitude of Revelation to come into existence. God saw a future where you would not have one people ruling over another, one race or person placed above another, but where all people would be equal in dignity and love. Not only did the palette of the world become more diverse, but the love of God was also able to be shown more diversely. The immensity of the Triune God’s eternal self-revelatory existence is opened up in part to us in our love of one another. The work of God through Christ in our life made manifest in the love of one another, our ministry to all people.

There is sometimes a resistance among members of the church to talk about cultural identity outside of Christianity, and we do ourselves a disservice when we do not discuss our differences. God does not create differences needlessly, and we can learn a great deal from different ways that God reveals Godself across cultures and languages. I offer now, just a few examples of how language can inform our knowledge of God.

The writers of the Gospel were able to express some amazing images of God and the church through the Greek language, and no image stands out more than the image of “κοινωνια” or communal sharing. On one hand, this word describes how the church shares its material goods with one another, on the other, it shows a spiritual fellowship. Still, yet, there is a meaning of solidarity with or participation in something. The disciples share material goods, the churches communed with one another in true Christian fellowship, and Paul shared in the suffering of Christ through his imprisonment and martyrdom.

The writers of the Hebrew Bible were able to capture a powerful image of God’s unfailing love through the word “chesed” or covenant loyalty. This word conveys images of legal participation on one hand, but on another conveys deep respect and care for one another. It is not simply keeping ones part of a bargain, but it is the transformative sort of love which puts the interest of the other party ahead – it is willing to go above and beyond the words of an agreement and strike at what needs to be done.

Even English, as troublesome as a language it can be, carries some fantastic interpretations of God. When we talk about, “Going Home” or finding our, “home” in God, we describe something alien to any other language. No word in any other language can tackle the complexities that home does – not simply as a dwelling place, but as a place we fundamentally belong.

The world was splintered at Babel, and it was splintered as a result of our own power hungry ways. Following centuries of division, God entered into creation in the form of a slave and lived the life of an oppressed and alien individual. Suffering death on a Roman cross, God suffered the same kind of death that saved the world from under Nimrod. God died under empire so that empire could be finally obliterated. While the kingdoms of the world dreamed of peace under uniformity, God dreamed of a unity which would include diverse peoples.

The ethic of Pentecost is that God is merciful, that God is radically inclusive. You cannot be a Christian living in the light of Pentecost and hold to any pretense of personal or racial power. The work of the Church is in bringing people together, not so that all people look and act alike, but so that God is the central focus of our life.

The erasure of any part of God’s people is a sin that we cannot minimize. God does not want to see Greeks become Jews, Jews become Greek. There is no need for any person to “assimilate” into the kingdom of God through a change of their customs, their clothing, or their language. The only change necessary for entry into the kingdom is a change of orientation, that the desires of our life are subsumed into the work and love of God. Lord, break every chain, wash us clean of our sin, and in your mercy bring together that which was scattered long ago. Let a thousand tongues sing your praise, O’ great redeemer. – Amen.

The Witnesses of the Ascension – Lectionary 06/02/2019

Luke 24:44-49

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Sermon Text

Are we standing on a road looking up? When Jesus talked to the disciples outside of Bethany, he promised them the Spirit, he gave them a charge to be witnesses of the Gospel in al the world, and the moment he ascended… They stood there, looking up. How long would they have stood there? How long would they have waited for Christ to come back down and “restore the Kingdom.”?

There is a popular saying in the church today that we often become,“ So heavenly minded that we can do no earthly good.” The church has always had to balance the now and the later, the Kingdom of God that is and the Kingdom of God that will be. However, in saying that we are standing on the road outside of Bethany , I do not want us to be left for a moment thinking it is bad to be waiting for Christ. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that in the same way we can be so heavenly minded we cease to do earthly good, we also can become so worldly in our understanding that we lose the power of the ascension.

When the angels at the end of our scripture speak to the disciples, the disciples are caught up in a moment of adoration, not in idleness. They have seen Jesus miraculously taken up to be with the Father, something so holy and mysterious has just happened so that they must praise God. Luke tells this story in such a way that the ascension is directly tied to worship, “They were continuously in the temple blessing God.”

No one will say that it is sinful to worship God, and I fear that we often in our discussion of what is worship of God what is work for the Kingdom of God create an unnecessary dichotomy. When we gather together in a church and praise God, then we are not doing any less a work of the kingdom than when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Ranking the work of the church so that one act is better than another is not helpful. However, again, we must acknowledge that we are called to serve others, not simply to sing hymns in churches locked off to the rest of the world.

The work of the church is not just in one act, nor is one act of the church above another. What we must understand is that the church is not called to simply, “work” we are called to “witness.” To witness is the biblical sense is not just to see something, or even to report that you have seen it, but to take that information and do something with it. A biblical witness says, “This is what God has done in my life, and this is what I have done in response to that work of God.

To be a witness is not to take the work out of God’s hands, but to continue on in participating with God in God’s work in your life. It is not a testimony to a single work of God, but the eternal ongoing work of the risen Christ. To bring it directly to the scripture, it is not just watching Christ ascend, but it is worshiping the same Christ in the temple. Not just worshipping the Christ who is present at the supper, but in waiting for the Spirit to come on Pentecost.

To be a witness we must be in the temple praising God, we must be in the places we live and work testifying what God has done, but we must also follow the lead of God’s spirit beyond our words. It is fine to preach, and it good to pray, but a love that does not follow forward in righteous action will naturally burn away. In much the same way that a friend who you only ever talk about doing something with will become less and less close of a friend, a God who you only ever talk about doing work with will become a part of your life only in the past tense.

We can praise God for what God has done, we can pray that God will act in the future, but what are we doing in the now? Are we looking up to heaven expecting Christ to come back this moment – ignoring the instructions we were left with, or are we staring at the dirt thinking about what “we” have to do so that “we” can save the world? There is danger in both, and the challenge of the Christian life is to find a way to open ourselves to worshipping and praising God for what God has, is, and will be doing as well as participating in that work through our witnessing of Christ in the world. To witness Christ, we must first see Christ.

The acts of Christ are the visible works of the invisible God. When we see Christ praying in the desert, we see God’s ability to communicate and bless Godself. When we see Jesus reading the gospel in the temple, we see God’s self-revelation to us. In Christ’s ministry to the least of these, we see God’s work constantly opening the doors of the Church to more and more people.

We are meant to become more like Christ, and more like God Therefore, when we witness God, we must follow through and act in the same way. We must go and pray to God, not only when people can see, but as a personal show of love and faith to God. We must proclaim God’s work in our lives in our congregations and out into the world. We must go into the world, we must reach out to people we never thought to before and proclaim God’s work – not as people who are trying to defend God or strong arm people into faith – but as witnesses of a risen God who has done wonders in our life.

What comes out of authentic witness? We can look to any number of the Saints that have gone before us, but today let us think on the life of Stephen, the first person to witness to the coming of Christ’s kingdom through their death. It is because of people like Stephen that we today have the word, “martyr” itself a word taken directly from the Greek for “witness,” (ματυς)

Stephen came into the Church sometime after Pentecost. He was a Greek-speaking Christian, likely a Hellenistic Jew before his conversion. Stephen enters into the Biblical narrative during a dispute between the Greek and Hebrew widows. The Hebrew widows, whether by accident or design, were being overlooked in the distribution of food. The disciples were called in to weigh in on the matter, and their final decision was to appoint several workers to make sure that food was given to who it was owed without any preference to one race or another.

The Disciples understood something better than we ever could, namely that Christ’s work cannot be completed across diverse peoples unless diverse people are involved. The leaders of the church were made aware of the problems with Greek and Hebrew Christians and the ways that Greek women were being denied basic supplies, and they immediately got Greek Christians involved in the distribution of goods. Seldom can you properly do ministry for people well, but you will rarely do ministry with people poorly.

Stephen worked in the distribution of food for a time, preaching and doing wonders while he did so. We are told of Stephen’s work in preaching and miracles after we are told about his work in food ministry. Moreover, we are told that it was the sharing of goods which caused the church to grow, not the preaching or miracles alone, although the two are not easily separated.

Stephen’s preaching is what finally got him placed before the Sanhedrin. Working miracles among the people made him unpopular with the ruling class. When miracles are made the property of all people, and not just the religious elite – there will be those who push back against it. However, like any person who truly does good work in the Kingdom, when Stephen was put before the Sanhedrin, they could not find any legitimate claim against him. He is, after all, described as having, “A face like an angel.”

Stephen would later be killed for his works. The world rejects the work of God, especially when it crosses social boundaries. His death was the death of an innocent, someone who only did what the lord required. However, it was a life that showed us what it was to be a witness of Christ to the end. He did the work of the church, testified the truth of God, worshipped God in all fullness, and stood his ground even to the point of death. He witnessed Christ in resembling Christ directly from beginning to end.

The work of the church is the work of witnessing. We as a gathered people must go forward and do the complete work of our witness. Ministering to the least of these, proclaiming Christ fully alive and arisen, and testifying to the work of Christ within our lives. God is, at every step, the author of our lives, we are only the willing characters walking along that path. When we take a step, we must be confident God will catch are foot when it comes back down. We will not slip if we stay to that path, whether we suffer or face all manner of hardships, we can prevail.

Are we looking up, standing on the roads outside of Bethany? We are not. Are we counting pebbles that will erode away to nothing? We are not doing this either. We are a church testifying the work of God in the world. We are that work given motion. Let us keep our heart in heaven, our eyes toward our neighbor, and our hands constantly to the work which God has given us. – Amen.


The River of Mystery – Lectionary 05/26/2019

Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Revelation 21: 22-22:5

And in the spirit, he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Sermon Text

Baptism is a beautiful Sacrament. We are washed in the water. Cleansed of the stain of our sin and welcomed into the Kingdom. The work of Christ which leads us to accept the grace afforded to us begins from the moment we are born. The slow working of the Spirit in our life, in those we love and in the manifold gifts of God bring us closer to the Father’s love. The waters of the font become for us waters of life through the work of the Spirit, passing through death and into life.

Our scripture for today tells us of how Paul followed God’s call and came into Macedonia to preach the Gospel. What stands out in this text, what we discuss here today, is the way that God’s work leads to resurrection for Lydia and her household. This story is God initiated and completed by God’s work.

Though the reading begins with Paul’s vision of the Macedonian, Lydia was the first to move. As far as we know, Lydia was a merchant who was originally from a major trading town named Thyatira. Her work with purple cloth would have moved her throughout the Mediterranean, she was not just a dyer – she was an executive of an ancient multinational. Likely born to a Greek family and as a Roman citizen, Lydia would have been raised as a practitioner of the Roman Imperial Cult or some religion regional to the area.

Somewhere along the way, Lydia converted to Judaism. When she settled in Philippi, she joined with a synagogue there, fully integrating into the faith. He business continued, but when she settled she established a household of note. She was a woman with everything – faith, industry, power, and connections across the Mediterranean. The ministry she carried out in the region was far-reaching, and we know from the text that she led services by the waterside.

Paul enters into the narrative after Lydia has already established a firm foundation. Her ministry did not grow out of Paul’s, but Paul’s out of Lydia’s. His call to enter into Macedonia was not a call to create a new group of believers, it was to welcome them into a new understanding of what it meant to serve God. Paul followed the call and came to preach to Lydia and her peers, introducing them to the story of how God entered into the world and how his love and sacrifice saved the world.

Paul, like Christ before him, broke down social barriers in his ministry to Lydia. Though she was a woman of business, and so would have worked with men in a professional capacity, it was not considered common or acceptable for men and women to speak unsupervised with one another. Like Christ, Paul did not preach to women as though they were a lesser group within the assembly of the faithful, but as equals. He does not stand above them and preach from some lofty place, but we are told that he, “sits down,” among them. Paul does not enter as the proud missionary civilizing the locals but as a humble person sharing with other faithful witnesses.

Paul’s humility meets with Lydia’s industriousness and not just in that they met here on the banks of a river, but because the God who was moving up until this point continued to do so. This tradeswoman and this tentmaker met completely out of God’s providence, and if this was the end of their story it would be sufficient. That Christ had called a missionary to the household of a faithful Jewish woman and brought her entire household into the blossoming church is miraculous, to call the two to a partnership that changed the world is nothing less than earth moving. Everything had to fall perfectly, not a single element could be out of place to bring these two together. If Paul had been a day later, or Lydia settled a single town over, none of this would have happened – God alone is capable of such precision.

It does not take long for any of us to look at our lives and see how God has made things come together in our lives. The chance meetings, those friendships which began by accident, those bizarre pieces of happenstance which have made us who we are today. Take a moment, think of your life and all the ways that God has blessed you with those unexplainable meetings that have brought you to where you are. What a blessing it is to have God’ work in such amazing ways, to plan these meetings in the far-flung past and to bring people together at a later time.

In scripture, we see many of these meetings. Jesus constantly runs into people in need of his help. People who are ill, possessed, or simply in need of illumination all happen upon Jesus on his way to Calvary. None of these meetings were chance, but the work of God bringing those people into Jesus’ path, into Jesus’ care. It is not hard to see that this is not very different from how we are brought into the faith. There is always a Lydia, there is always a Paul, and we can be either person depending on where we are in life.

What is most important in this story is not that God moved to people to find each other, and that salvation was brought to a household in one time and place, but that God used this singular even to propel many more people into salvation. Paul did not, as some have tried to say, come to rest in Lydia’s house permanently, and Lydia did not stay by the river and lead this small congregation for her whole life. The apostle went to Macedonia and made a new apostle, someone willing to follow God’s call and bring still more people into the faith.

We do not see much in terms of Lydia’s story in the rest of the Bible, and we do not have many documents that talk about her outside of the Bible, except in relation to Paul. However, what remains is still significant. When Paul speaks to Lydia or about Lydia, it is always with the same language he would use for any male coworker. She went on not only to be a financial supporter of the Church but to actively work to preach the Gospel through her business.

These connections were instrumental in the development of Christianity. While Paul traveled along the Roman roads, Lydia and her household worked along the trade routes of the empire. Her business was transformed – it was not a means to make money with the work of the church on the side, but a ministry which used the benefits afforded by the trade to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the Roman empire. Paul would open leather shops wherever he went to preach, but Lydia could work out of any textile stand she came upon.

When we are brought into the faith we are not brought in by the actions of any one person. It is God’s work throughout history and God’s work bringing people together that allows us to become members of God’s fold. The work of the church is initiated and completed by God. What is necessary for us after being brought in is to follow God in the forward momentum of the church. We do not have to abandon what our life has been up to this point, but we need to completely change what direction it is going in.

Let us say that you are someone who has worked in an industry for many years or a student who is pursuing a specific career when God calls you to join the church. Unless your call is to join a specific kind of ministry, then you have no reason to abandon that path. What must happen is that your work in that career reflects the work of Christ. God does not work through one kind of person, and any work that is not counter to the message of the Gospel can be done for the good of the Gospel.

It is not an easy call, but it is a necessary one. God asks all people, no matter what their background to deny self and take up their cross. We forego worldly riches and work to elevate the plight of the poor. We preach the Gospel without shame, no matter what obstacles come our way. We become ministers and apostles regardless of our background, we all in our own way become the presence of Christ in the world.

The beauty of this particular story is that it takes place in a moment of baptism. The river of time which has brought Lydia and Paul together is represented by the river which they met beside. With the blessing of the Spirit, the waters of that river become the waters of Life. Pouring over the members of this household, the moment when the new life begins is made manifest. God cleanses them of their sin, they are made into something new, having been united to Christ’s body through those healing waters.

Whenever we are brought into the kingdom, whenever we are washed in those baptismal waters, we enter into the life eternal. The oil which anoints our forehead represents that seal of Christ upon our lives. All of God’s blessing, the fruits of the Spirit which yield eternal life all become our own. We are not stationary beside that river though, we are walking alongside it as we move closer to the Throne of God. Let us, as members of God’s church, commit ourselves to follow that path wherever it leads. The God who our journey will bring it to completion, we must trust that wherever we go will grow the Church. We all grow out of the waters of life, and we can bring about healing for the nations. – Amen