Take off the Yoke – Lectionary 08/25/2019

Isaiah 58:9-14

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Sermon Text

Take off your yoke! Banish your extended finger! Throw away your evil words! These three commands are what our scriptures ask of us today. Three things which are presented as foundational to the basic work of our life. If we want to serve Christ, to live the life abundant, then we have to do away with three basic things. Our dependence on self, our criticism of others, and the words we use as weapons. A yoke, a finger, and a harsh voice – three symbols that transcend time.

We begin our discussion with our voice after all this message is delivered through speech. The scriptures are meant to be read aloud, the voice of God is a proclamation not the inclination of a mind. Words have immense power, and if we are not careful how we use them then we can cause unimaginable harm to one another. Today in a world where so much communication occurs away from one another, written out and thrown into a void of social media or else plastered across streaming sites, we must guard our speech more than ever before.

The command which is given in scripture today is not translated as it should be. “Throw away the speaking of evil things…” What does that even mean? Does that mean that we should not talk about problems in the world? Does it mean that there are some subjects we can never bring up as if God is waiting to pounce on us the moment we touch upon a forbidden topic? No. The command here is not against, “speaking of evil.” It is against, “evil words.” More specifically it is against, “harmful words.” Isaiah puts before us something to guide how we speak, but not a means to censor ourselves. All things are lawful to talk about, but the way we talk about them can be quite damning.

To give us an idea of what we are not to say, we must look to linguistics. A statement which excites me, and bores most everyone else. The word which is used in Isaiah for, “Evil” or “harmful” is a play off of a different word. “Ah Ven” means “harmful” but “Ah Vown” means “to grow strong.” And in that comparison, we are given the guideline for how we are to speak. The words of Proverbs comes to mind, “Knowledge puffs up, but wisdom builds up.” We are forbidden from speaking in demeaning ways as a Christian. We cannot speak of people in ways that tear them down, but should always look to edify them.

This is not to say we can’t be frank with people, but it means we have to speak to others how we would want to be spoken to. When we do wrong, do we want people to be snide about it? Do we want passive aggression? No! Then why are we ever that way with someone else? To put away our evil words is to treat one another with the dignity and respect that we would want for ourselves. Put another way, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Honestly is not cruelty, and gentleness is not in any way neglect.

Jesus in our parable is clearly not giving a gentle answer to the Pharisee, and there is a reason for that. When we are dealing with the world, there are those who claim the authority of God to do evil. This is a fact as old as time, and it only persists because good people are silent about it. Jesus speaks in a frank way to the leader of this Synagogue because he is being harmful to others. “How dare you seek God on the Sabbath!” is a ridiculous statement, and Jesus is right to be harsh to the man for it. It should not surprise us that, for those who use words to abuse others, it is sometimes necessary to intensify our reaction to them. We can not be gentle about hate, we cannot be gentle about the abuse of power, and we cannot be gentle when God is being withheld from people.

The difference between righteous speech that happens to be frank, and evil speech that pretends to be righteous, is tied up in the second command of our text. Put away your pointing finger. Another translation, perhaps a bit more poetic, “banish your menacing hand.” The text is telling us plainly, among all our sins there is the tendency to push blame elsewhere. If not blame, then to diminish others so we feel bigger. To quote the late, great  Toni Morrison, “If you cannot be tall without someone else being on their knees, then what do you have?”

Toni Morrison was speaking of racism in that quote, a subject we talked about at length earlier this month, but I think there is a truth to it that extends beyond this. There is a tendency in our hearts to look outside us for things, after all, that is where our eyes are pointed. We find ourselves sad, or mad, or feeling inadequate and a natural posture comes about. Our hands curl, as if by magic, and point to something other than ourselves. We cannot stand feeling small, and so we make something else smaller.

We are aware of our sins, but rather than just dealing with ours, we take on someone else’s. Not that we become a sin eater or anything, but we point to them and say, “At least I don’t do that.” The amount of time that is spent in Christian circles talking about people outside the church is exhausting. Not that we shouldn’t think of mission, or pray for those outside the fold, but my oh my we love to swivel our finger around. “The movies these days! The Video Games! The Television! These things are degrading us.” There are a lot of problems in media, trust me, but there are only so many hours in the day, and if all we do in our time is point out other problems so that we don’t have to deal with our own… I just don’t think that’s healthy.

Consider our Gospel lesson again. The Leader of the Synagogue tells Jesus, “How dare you heal this woman on the Sabbath! There is not to be any work today!” Jesus looks to this complaint and says, “Yes, but when have you ever kept the Sabbath truly?” Jesus is not here looking for a gotcha moment. It is not the perfect Son of God saying, “Well you’re not perfect either.” No, this is Jesus saying that he has fundamentally missed the point of the commandment.

When Jesus points out the Leader’s hypocrisy he is not justifying his own behaviors through another person’s failings, he is pointing out that the leader has almost grasped the truth of it all. “You would care for an animal on the sabbath, but not a person?” The idea is to intensify the belief of the leader, not to shame him for shame’s sake. The Sabbath is holy and to be kept, but if a creature is hurting you should help it. God asks us to cease on the Sabbath, to put away the burden of the rest of the week. God does not ask us to hurt others through inaction on the Sabbath.

The Leader of the Synagogue felt threatened by Jesus’ use of the Sabbath to heal. It shifted the orientation of the day so that, if it was not challenged, the Leader would be exposed as the second most holy person in the room. The accusation of the Leader was in response to a greater righteousness than his own, and when we oppose a righteous thing because it makes us uncomfortable than we have transformed ourselves into a self-righteous person.

The person who is constantly speaking evil of others. The mocking tone of a Holier Than Thou Person. This is what we of the Church constantly risk becoming. We are surrounded by other people who are pursuing a Godly life, and we can feel insecure if we perceive ourselves as not measuring up. When we feel insecure we get defensive. Our finger goes out, our mouth opens up, we try to diminish what we see in someone else because it does not line up with what we see within.

Sin oftentimes bubbles out of hurt. We in the Methodist Church describe sin as a disease, it is something which seeps into our bones and corrupts us from the inside out. And if you’ve ever been sick, really sick you know how bad it can be to get hurt while you’re healing. Cancer patients are most at risk when they get Pneumonia, and so too the sin-sick soul is in danger when it faces hurt. Maybe someone said a cruel word, physically hurt you, maybe you were fired, in these moments we can lock up, become defensive. Assume our old posture.

That’s the thing of it. If we are concerned with how we look. Not our self-esteem, because we should like ourselves. As we discussed last week, feeling valued and important is not a sin. However, being obsessed with what other people think can sure contribute to some sinning. As a minister once told me, “The speck of sawdust in my eye may be small, but it sure feels like a log when it’s in there.” We see our small failings and make them define us as if we have been consumed by our negative features and have therefore lost our good ones.

The Gospel tells us another thing though. The Gospel tells us that if we cast of the yoke we have built for ourselves, one that is loaded up with our expectations of what life should be like, if we throw that off and put on Christ’s – then we will find peace. Christ who looks to the sin-sick soul and says, “Be healed!” To those who have suffered for eighteen years and says, “You will now be like you were before!” Christ’s burden is light because Christ expects nothing from us – but us.

Does that mean we do not work? No! We do good work because Christ has freed us to do it. The pretenses of the world – the love of money and of pomp, of looking better than other people around us – once we cast these off the natural outpouring of the soul is in love and compassion. When we remove the harmful expectations, we have for ourselves then we will freely, “offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” In the Light of God’s affection, the darkness of our life is swept away.  A God-centered life tends toward perfection, and we are all on our way. Sabbath finds its way into our lives, rest produces mercy, and love blooms in the desert of our souls. Let us give up our yoke and put on Christ’s. – Amen

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.