Making Way for the Kingdom – 06/20/2021

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

“At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

Sermon Text

The greatest obstacle to people accepting the Love of God is often the Church. Now, some may quibble with me that anyone who is obstructing God’s work is not truly acting as “the Church,” but I disagree. I am still my mother’s son, even when I do something she raised me better than to have done. Yes, we in the Church, even at our most faithful, can obstruct the grace of God which is meant to freely flow upon all the earth.

The Corinthian Church has, by no intentional design of my own, frequently appeared in our Sunday and Wednesday services. The draw of this congregation to our modern eyes is that they dispel any notion of the early church as being perfect. They are not holy beyond belief, not united in mind and heart. They are as divided and unsure as we are. Yet, like us they are full of faith in God – constantly seeking to do what is right even in the moments they are utterly unsure. There is no pretense of perfection, only the reality that we know about ourselves. The reality that we have room to grow.

The Corinthian Church was struggling to define itself, working not only against pressure outside it, but within it. A group of teachers had arrived from Judea claiming authority that was greater than Paul’s – maybe even than any other apostles. These teachers carried letters of recommendation and were sure to list what exactly made them qualified to assume this position over others. The continued conflict in Corinth built upon previous questions of Apostolic authority which began when some people favored Apollos or Paul, one over the other.

Paul returns again and again in 2nd Corinthians to the idea that he and the other workers of the Gospel are not to be identified by anything but the results of their work. The grand gestures of the “super-Apostles,” were empty shows of boasting and their actions worked to split the faithful again and again. Paul counters the well-manicured image projected by his opposition with the reality of Christian living. The true believer is like an earthen jar that carries treasure, they are like a tent easily torn down. The power of Christ – not the vitality or mystique of its bearer – is what makes an apostle authentic or compelling.

The shift in Paul’s writing from re-establishing the authenticity of his work and the work of his peers toward specific instructions is found in our reading for the day. Paul calls on the Corinthians, once again, not to be lost in factions or prestige, but to rejoin the wider communion of the faith. Paul looks at the grand displays that have defined the Corinthian dissenters and refutes them with the troubles he and the other gospel workers have faced. The defining characteristics of evangelism is not praise and accolades, but in trials and tribulations.

Paul would not have done anything exceptional through this comparison, not compared to his other writings. What sets this apart is his discussion of the grandstanding of his opponents as “[an] obstacle.” The word he uses here “προσκοπη” (proskope) is used here in distinction to the similar word, “σκανδαλον” (skandalon) which we usually translate as “stumbling block.” The latter is usually used to describe something difficult, but inherent to a thing. Some parts of our faith – whether they be the crucifixion, the resurrection, or some point of doctrine – can act as “stumbling blocks,” that people struggle to get over. In contrast, an “obstacle,” is something erected specifically to keep people from accessing God’s grace. The obstacle that he cites here, the one epitomized by his Corinthian opponents, is one of prestige and opulence.

There is much about our lives that, if we live into what Christ asks of us, may seem off-putting to the world around us. Sometimes this will be a matter of simple disagreement, other times it will precipitate into very tangible consequences. For Paul, this meant all the various struggles he had cited in this text. These and many more indecencies have been suffered by the faithful throughout history. Many, today as well as then, follow Paul and before him Christ to the ultimate sacrifice of their life for the sake of the Gospel. For those who face persecution, it is clear how they can choose between respectability and sacrifice. Yet, for us today where we stand – in a comfortable place in a comfortable church – how do we live authentically into our faith so that we do not become an obstacle for those who wish to enter into it?

As we have discussed before, the solution is not to seek out or manufacture persecution. The solution is to be willing to give away the abundance given to us by God (something we will discuss in depth next week,) and to remove any pretense we hold of being above other people. The only things, says Paul, that anyone has any right to be proud of in their ministry is the things they have sacrificed in order to serve God. The indecencies Paul lists made him a pariah to many, he gave up any status he may have had, all for the work of the Kingdom.

When I think to those I know who are not part of the Church, it is seldom the Gospel itself that keeps them from the pews. I would go so far as to say that many people never get so far as truly hearing the Gospel even when it is spoken to them. Are they blocking up their ears? It would be easier if they were. Instead, I believe that we who have received the grace of God have become obstacles to those who might hear of it and receive it. We are obstacles in the incongruity of our high calling and our usual behavior. We are obstacles in our love and worship of a poor, homeless Messiah that somehow has not softened our hearts to the poor and unhoused among us.

If we wish to fully live into the grace filled love of God, then we must not be an obstacle to those who might also receive God’s grace. To “receive Grace in vain,” can be understood in two ways. Firstly, the superficial receipt of God’s grace – an appearance of holiness but nothing more. Secondly, an ineffectual reception of grace – we are saved “but only as through fire.” We do not grow and we do not share the Gospel meaningfully with those around us. The Gospel becomes an empty thing, a badge of honor, and old trophy collecting dust on a shelf.

The transformation required for us to truly know the fullness of the Gospel is to welcome discomfort as a colleague and friend. We must be willing to form tangible connections to the world around us. We must not desire to be respectable or proper in the worldly sense. We must be authentic, holy, and down to earth. We are not rulers or nobility; we are slaves of the Gospel. We serve God only so much as we are willing to shed our benefits in life and hand them off to others.

Paul here has made it plain to us, ours is not a life of fame or glory. It is love lived out anyway it can be. The power of God is given, not for us to become mighty, but for us to make much of Jesus. Our wealth belongs to the poor, our time to the needy, our visitations to the sick and the lonely. Only if we can remove the impression so many have of the Church, the great obstacle that is our conduct, will the Gospel come freely into the ears of all. We must not live as a social club collecting members in order to be more prominent. We must live and share the Gospel, we must make disciples through love and forgiveness, and we must look to God for spiritual guidance. If we keep to that, then God will truly make fruitful the Gospel we so often render inert. – Amen.

Growing the Kingdom – Lectionary 06/13/2021

Mark 4:26-34

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Sermon Text

            The vision which Christ gives us of the Kingdom of God is powerful. Like seeds, it finds its home where we would not expect. Like wheat it grows up out of nothing into a full bloom. Then, from that one singular plant, many more may be born. The reduplication goes on and on, a harvest of one batch producing – not only fruits – but the means for another harvest entirely. Lest the image of wheat proves too specific for us, Christ paints the picture another way. The Kingdom of God is like a tree that, born of something small, spreads out and makes itself large – providing shelter to all that seek it.

These two images are not the only way that Jesus gives us insight into how God’s kingdom grows, but they are often the ones we bring to mind. The idea of the mustard seed in particular sticks with us. It was so compelling an image, that Jesus uses it elsewhere to describe our individual faith. The miniscule seeds of mustard, the fledgling trust of God we demonstrate through faith, these things whisper to us and show us something deeply relatable. Parabolic speech has this advantage for us, we seek after images more readily than words. We cannot say definitively what the Kingdom of God is, but we can say what we it is like.

The deep mystery of faith is that it seemingly works independent of our attempts to grow or squash it. It is grown in us by the grace of God and nurtured by the environment around us. Though we certainly have some part in its growth – some of our greatest backsliding can happen surrounded by Saints and other times we simply stumble into holiness unwittingly. Spiritual growth can come from discipline, but it seems that God holds something that catalyzes our growth. The grace which we receive is the beginning and end of our Spiritual journey and without it we are like grass that withers, trees that never grow beyond saplings.

The personal understanding that we form concerning growth must also be made plain in our communal ethics of the same. If we wish to see the Kingdom of God expand, mature, and shelter all the world, we must not see faith as happening only in our hearts. The work of faith is communal, the Kingdom is defined by a people called to be together and work toward the same divinely appointed end. We have to seek the Kingdom together, because definitionally it is not a monolith. No, the Kingdom is found wherever the Spirit is at work, whenever the seed is planted and permitted to grow.

The seed which is planted is the believer, having received the word they are thrown into the world to go forward and grow. As they mature, they produce fruit, the nutritive aspect of God’s kingdom is made clear. The believer not only brings about other believers but supplies the earthly needs of those around them. The hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the lost find comfort. Grain is grown to sustain life and so the Kingdom meets the needs of those within it. As we grow together, we ought to care for one another. If we cannot do this, we will wither away.

A division emerged in the 1900s in, mainly American, theology over whether the business of the Church was in saving souls or helping the poor. Jesus was clear – it is in both. We cannot tolerate starvation and poverty and we cannot blame the victims of either for their situation. The Kingdom is the grain that sustains all people – it gives the word of God for the soul and tangible aid for the body. To neglect one calling of the Church for the other is to forget how high the expectations really are. Like wheat we must produce abundance, but like wheat we must not keep that abundance to ourselves where it will perish. We must send our bread upon the waters that it may return us after many days.

Yet, the kingdom is not just a place for nourishment, nor is it kept to a single location. Whereas the first parable of today’s scripture can be read to mean that we individually must grow up together and work to produce a harvest, the second casts the entirety of God’s kingdom in a different way. The Kingdom is described, not as multiple seeds, but as a single seed. From this one seed grows the massive sheltering presence which gives a home to all who seek it. Jesus speaks this parable early in his ministry, when the disciples are few. The Kingdom has potential to grow large, but at present Jesus looked out at a handful of early members. The small seed had been planted – now it would only be a little while before it grew.

The last message we shared together spoke of the danger of schism, but here we see Jesus lay out the wonderful alternative to breaking apart. Jesus asks us to imagine a tree, and from that tree many branches spreading out to cover the earth and give shelter to those beneath it. The ideal of differences in the church is that, even if it causes us to part ways, our differences should not stop us from accepting one another. The rise of ecumenical dialogue over the past sixty years has led to a resurgence in our understanding that Baptists, Methodists, and any other denominations are not truly separate – but all answer to one God.

We are beginning, fragile though our understanding is, to see the branches we stand upon all have one source. If we look at our personal convictions and expressions of faith, we can likely see how we ended up where we are. I could not be a presbyterian – I will not ever be convinced of Calvinism. Likewise, I could not be a Pentecostal, the fire of the Spirit does not burn in that way within me. Yet, though I am thoroughly Methodist, I can acknowledge God’s ownership of both groups. I can look to my time working in the D.C. Baptist Convention and to my time attending a Pentecostal Church, and my Presbyterian colleagues and see the Spirit shining through them. We share one source, and if we could only acknowledge that we would accomplish much in this world. I sit on my Methodist branch, another soul on a Catholic one, but our roots are in Christ alone.

The radical nature of this of this is not relegated to denominations or even congregations, we all have unique features as individuals that can bring people in to be sheltered by God’s love. Think of the labels you apply to yourself. For example, I would describe myself as a nerdy alt-rock fan who can best describe their personal aesthetic as “Eldritch Prairie Home Companion.” I like reading, British Murder Mysteries, and science (mostly chemistry honestly.) My politics include – actually no, my manuscript here just says, “Best not get into that on your way out.” So I’ll trust my past self and move on. Still, you get the point. We are all called to be part of the Church and as a Church, as a charge, and as a denomination we offer chances for people to meet God and know God’s love in ways we would not if we all alike.

Now, today we have discussed how these two parables can give us insight into the growth of the Church. On one hand we grow into a source of material and spiritual help to the world, by being that source of help. On the other we grow by being diverse and allowing diversity of personality, viewpoints, and even certain points of doctrine to give shelter to all who seek after Christ. Both these perspectives are dependent, at their root, on God’s grace. If we do not thoroughly apply ourselves to depend on God, then we will go adrift.

Jesus casts the growth of wheat as a mystery. Like the farmer, no one can look at the Church and instantly know what caused it to be as it is. The best laid evangelism and discipleship programs can be overthrown by chance and the most haphazard attempt at service may be the most fruitful. The only definite steps we can take is to live as Christ taught us to. If we do this, then growth will come. Let us feed all the world and let us shelter all manner of people. Let us pray earnestly for God to bring growth to the seed that has been scattered from the hand of Jesus. Let the Kingdom grow from something small to something great. Let God be blessed this day and always. – Amen.

Uniting the Kingdom – Lectionary 06/06/2021

Mark 3:19b-35

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Sermon Text

As is often the case, there is much in our scripture we could discuss. Gathering as we are in celebration of Holy Communion, it seems appropriate that we should investigate the most consistent thread throughout this Mark reading, the idea of unity in the Church. A united household is the only one capable of surviving conflict. This unity testifies that the Spirit of God is good, and that our lives together are defined by the will of God we live out and share with one another. God has called the Church to stand united against evil in this world. The question for us today is whether or not we are united as the Church, and if not, if we can become united.

The story of Christianity is like any history we might survey. It is not often that we can identify true “good guys,” or “bad guys,” within it. Though we certainly try to see a Hegelian spiral of successive narratives, with us standing as victors at the end of that story, history is a human science. The raw data of the past is scattered through the prism of personality and what caused a thing to happen, let alone the goodness of that thing, is difficult to figure out.

In the early days of Christianity there were distinct schools of thought regarding faith. These were usually defined by which apostle or what minister began the church the various groups were a part of. We know Paul and James differed from one another in how they taught about the Gospel, as did Apollos. In Asia Minor the apostle John taught a faith that at times seemed alien to that of the other apostles. Yet, all stayed united by the reality of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. The early conflicts within the Church were focused on people who challenged either of these tenets and that threatened the unity of the Church.

The focus on unity began to degrade over time. With the Edict of Toleration, the emperor Constantine set a precedent that would make Christianity the eventual religion of the Roman Empire. His reign, and that of his successors, eventually lead to a Western shift in the faith. Rome had become one of the major centers of Christianity and political and creedal divisions eventually led to the first major split in Christianity – the Great Schism of 1054. Now Christianity was split along two major factions. Conflict would further splinter Western Christianity as various Catholic factions grew up alongside nation states.

The Protestant reformation solidified these informal separations. Now every country, except those that remained Catholic, claimed their own church. The various churches would then split again, and again, and again. If we were to drive even down the main street of our own town, we will see the evidence of this fracturing. Even Shenandoah Junction, as small as it is, has three churches from three denominations, on each of its three main corners. The house of God is divided, can it hope to stand?

The root of our divisiveness is not unlike what we see in Mark. We see other Christians engaging with God in ways we do not agree with or understand. Perhaps we blame leadership for acting one way or another. Legitimate disagreements are sometimes behind these conflicts, but we historically have the initial impulse, in the midst of struggle, not to try and come together but to threaten to leave. The scribes who saw Jesus did not understand Jesus and so labeled him as evil. Why? Because it was easier to write off him off as a dissident than to figure out what God was doing through his ministry. It was easier to leave him there and fracture God’s people, then come under a banner of mutuality.

The nature of the Church is such that when we disagree on even the simplest matter, we are able to convince ourselves that our side is not only correct, but that the cause we stand for is the difference between salvation and damnation. “The other side” must be in league with the devil because we are clearly in the right. Priests of the opposing faction are labeled as demonic and their leadership as antichrists. We see all wicked things in them and all goodness in us. Whether we divide over matters of Calvinism and Arminianism, sacramentality, ecclesiology, meat eating during Lent, or whatever else may motivate us to part ways, we see ourselves as heroes and the other side as villains. More than that, we will employ our most effective tool to try and persuade the opposing side that they should reconsider.

One of the reasons we default to leaving one congregation to go to another as the Church is because we know it has such a strong effect on our community. People begin to question if they too should leave, the trust the community had built up begins to fracture, soon everything is in question because the community has confessed its willingness to implode if its demands are not met. Oftentimes the damage is done, one group leaves, another stays. Both are dismayed to look at their opposing faction and find out that God is still working the Gospel through them, even as they continue to label them as in league with Satan.

In our division and our accusations, we commit a grand sin. We label those that God has called to serve the world as demonic, and in so doing we accuse the Spirit. Not content with weakening the Church through our actions, we grieve the Spirit directly. Think of all the churches you have known, with rare exception God uses them to do good. With rare exception the Spirit finds a way to take sinners like you and me and make them instruments of peace. I would go so far as to say that it is the schismatic that is the greatest threat to Christianity – more than most any other worldview or disposition.

Jesus defines the family of the faith as anyone who does God’s will. There are plenty of people I know who do God’s will whom I disagree with. Sometimes this disagreement is intense, the issue along a binary, and yet both those who agree with me and disagree with me are servants of God doing what they can to bring about God’s will on earth. It is only in threatening to leave, to destroy the unity of Christ, to end rather than continue these conversations, that we do damage to the Church.

The United Methodist Church is planning to split. That is a wretched thing. We have the chance to do it gracefully, but in setting out detailed plans on how we will split, we have admitted defeat. The Global Methodist Church will not be magically cured of its problems, nor will the Post-Separation United Methodist Church, or any of the other denominations that fracture off of this latest implosion. If we believe our present solution, which is that all parties take their ball, stop playing, and go to their respective homes will fix anything, then we are fools. A house divided cannot stand, and the actions we take over the next few years will divide the Church still further. When the dust settles, when will still have not grown and all our troubles are still there, even if every congregation changed church signs, will we then acknowledge that schism has never saved a single soul?

We gather soon to take the body and blood of Christ. We remember our savior who died for us. We were baptized in one baptism to be a part of one body in worship of one Lord. Can we find in these accidents of bread and wine an unmistakable and unbreakable substance? One savior, for one Church. A Church that is in the world presently broken, divided, and standing but by the grace of God. Let us repent of our divisiveness, let us stand together even in conflict. Let us praise the work of the Spirit even and especially in those Christians who think differently than us. – Amen.

One of Unclean Lips – Lectionary 05/30/2021

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Sermon Text

Last week we explored the importance of maintaining Vision in our life. The Spirit works within us and pushes us to find the means by which God will set the world right. The vacant stare of our cloudy eyes is made whole when God reaches down and sets a future in our heart to hope for. Beyond the darkness of the unknown, there is the faint light of God’s truest intentions for us. We see at a distance, as though through clouded glass, what life could be. Heaven is just a little ways off, but we can draw it closer if we are only willing to accept that God too wishes to draw us near.

The problem that can come to us, regardless of any other barrier erected, is that we are flawed and limited human beings. We tend to twist even the purest intentions of our hearts in one way or another. Our good works which we are meant to do in secret are turned into publicity stunts. The missions we go out to do become trips of tourism. Our works of mercy are made to scold rather than to embrace and love. The many acts of the Church throughout time have been marred, not by God’s part in them, but our own.

We do not have to live in this diminished state. The Spirit that works among us is also the Spirit that purifies us. The Justification we receive through God’s work in Christ and that is sealed in the Spirit prepares us to be sanctified to take the long road to perfect our intentions and in that perfection of will, find our actions likewise transformed. Though they may never be wholly sanctified, they are made nearly faultless, as faultless as any person could ever be.

We can only begin to see ourselves reach this purified state if we are honest about our own need to be made pure. The sick person who refuses testing will never know what the proper treatment is. If we cannot do the difficult work of introspection, then we will not truly root out the evil desires that have made themselves at home in the midst of our goodly ones. Like weeds among flowers, we must be discerning in how we cut and prune – always maintaining an honest conception of self.

We typically think of this revelation of our fallenness as something that happens at the outset of our faith. While it is true that God’s goodness and our own depravity inspires the first pivotal moment where we realize our need for salvation, that is not the only time we come to this realization. Periodically, we will feel the Spirit reminding us of some part of ourself God is still not welcome within. These deep bits of ourself are the growing edges that must be made smooth. Through Christ they can be made into something new, redeemed and reclaimed for God.

Today our scripture captures one such moment when a person of faith (a prophet no less!) realizes their need to be made right before God. Though this is usually seen as the start of Isaiah’s ministry, it is important to make note of two aspects of Isaiah’s life. Firstly, being a prophet in the Ancient World was a profession, and Isaiah had likely been called to this work long before he received this vision from God. Secondly, five chapters of introductory prophecy come before this event. This could be a simple mixing of chronologies, but it seems to tell a story. We receive many calls from God throughout our life and our present call does not deny the arrival of another.

Isaiah, standing in the temple, is greeted by the sight of burning angelic visitors. The Seraphim, literally “Burning Ones,” are angels that attend to God’s throne room throughout scripture. The exact nature of their form and function is unknown, but their appearance is always a serious matter. The angels surround and worship God. God is seen seated upon a throne that fills the temple near to bursting. The Glory of God, defined by God’s presence, cannot be contained by anything or anyone. Yet, through a wonderful act of mercy, God appears to us in a way we can discern and conceive of. God fills the Temple, who could otherwise not be held by the entirety of creation.

Isaiah is immediately overtaken by this glorious sight, crying out that his unclean state will be the death of him. The prophet who spoke God’s word was still far from perfect. There was still much left unsaid and what had been said was not yet wholly intelligible. The truth can remain true when it is not fully formed. The identification of a flower as a flower is not a falsehood, even if it is more properly called a daffodil. There is much more to be said, and Isaiah knows he is not in the proper place to proclaim it just yet. His realization is in itself a request to be made whole.

As soon as this plea leave his lips, an angel flies down and purifies Isaiah. The burning coal of incense represents many things, but perhaps most obviously it represents prayer. The words of our heart are given form and are carried by God’s Spirit. We are able to begin healing and recovery only in the moment when our acknowledgement of that need is offered up to God. We are carried out of darkness, set up to act in righteousness, and prepared to engage with God in a new way. We find our ears opened and hear God calling out to us, asking us to go out and prophesy to the world. We hear the call, what will be our answer to it?

If we say yes or as Isaiah puts it, “Here I am!” Then we will find ourselves taking part in God’s plan to renew creation. The vision we cast of what could be, will be transformed from potential to reality. Each of us, equipped with a purity of heart, intention, and focus, can truly bring about change in this world. This is all accomplished through God, the source and sustenance of all our life. We who have been set right will not fail, and even when we fall short, we will find God is good and revive our efforts.

The presence of God should be enough to inspires us to honestly assess our walk in this life, but we must be willing to do that work. Unless we can admit our faults, they will not be healed. Unless we see where sin has regained its hold on us, we cannot recommit these things to Christ. The power of the resurrection equips us to pursue God without ceasing. Let us therefore be prepared to run our race without additional weight set on our back.

Our return to God, our ministry on earth, all matters under the sun, are tied up into how we live our life. We ought to be holy as God is holy and run from evil wherever it presents itself. If we do the hard work of growing in faith, we will not be disappointed. For in the hands of God are peace and abundance and that peace transcends all else in this life. Let us see this peace inspire us to fearlessly repent. May that repentance reinvigorate our ministry to all the world. – Amen

The Spirit of Life – Pentecost 2021 – Lectionary 05/23/2021

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Acts 2: 1-4

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.

Sermon Text

            Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The Spirit which enlivens us and supports us. With their gift it was possible for the 120 members of the Church to quickly expand the Church to include hundreds and hundreds of believers. Each one in turn would receive the Spirit, each one going out into the world to spread the Good News of Christ’s resurrection. Death had been conquered and nothing could be done to restore it to its former reign over human life. We who once were freed, could only return to captivity by choice.

The Spirit is a member of the Trinity that is seldom offered their due regard. Though we praise all members of the Trinity through praise of one, we often call on the Father or the Son and only on occasion invoke the Spirit. Yet, the Spirit is someone we cannot live without. It is the Spirit that lifts the mere matter we are made of and gives it life. It is the Spirit that marks our true baptism into God’s Kingdom. The Spirit sustains us, provides for us, connects and unites us. The Trinity is a unity of three persons and without any part of it creation would not exist.

The Spirit takes the spotlight at least once a year on the Pentecost. Here their contribution to God’s economy of grace cannot be denied. The Church grows because the Spirit gives us words to speak, power to do, directions to go in. It teaches us all the ways of Christ and discloses the nature of our Father in Heaven. They are the presence of God in all the earth, without which we would be left adrift in the void of a lifelessness, and existence devoid of substance. They are the blessing which we simply cannot persist without.

The question can still sit with us. If the Spirit is truly within us, if we have become a Temple to the risen Christ, then why do we lack the signs of the Church we see in Acts? Glossolalia has not opened up our mouths and made any of us bilingual. The Church is not, as we have discussed before, growing at any discernable rate.

It seems we have fallen away from a fully enlivened existence. If the Spirit is within us, then they seem to have met a substantial obstacle. God cannot be bested, that is true, but neither does God coerce us into action. The Spirit is only as capable at acting upon us as the flesh is willing to give up control. For though the Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

The state that we often find ourselves in is not the overwhelming glory of the Pentecost, but the tired and scattered existence testified to in Ezekiel 37. The impossible height of mountainous fear locks us into a valley of Death. The horizons close in around us, we begin to lack dreams of anything but what already is. At best we hope to be sustained, at worst we long for our end to come quickly and as painlessly as possible.

The prophet Ezekiel wrote to a people in exile. At that time, there was a division among the people over what their expulsion from Judah meant. Some believed that God had justly punished them, others that God had grown tired of them and abandoned them, still others feared that God had been destroyed alongside the Temple. Ezekiel answers many of these concerns throughout his oracles. Most striking, however, is Ezekiel’s commitment to making clear that God is alive and active, willing to include the people in the renewal of creation. There was a promise of a new Temple, a new city, even – provocative beyond all else – of a new life.

In our scripture, God gives Ezekiel a vision. A valley filled with bones. This reflected very real scenes in the years after the Babylonian conquest of Judah. In the carrion field, Ezekiel is commanded to call the bones to take form. The Spirit is promised to them and the mere words of the prophets is enough to inspire the bones to find their peers. Bodies reformed as flesh and blood returned to them. The resulting forms are mere homunculi, images of humanity that lack any life-force of their own. They are the mere matter of creation that awaits the divine spark of life.

God calls upon Ezekiel to do what may seem impossible to us. God asks Ezekiel to prophesy to the Spirit itself. The breath of God, the wind that births all other winds, hears the words of the prophet and is moved to act. The command of God – enacted through the prophet – is manifested in a movement of the Spirit. A mystery is made plain to us, how prayer can bring about results, and we see life enter into the vacant bodies of the valley. Life has returned where once there was no life, a new start for all people.

This is revealed to be an image of God’s people. In the way that these bodies were reconstituted, so too would the scattered people of God be gathered and set right once again. Where stagnation had reigned, there would now be growth and the growth would shape all things into the blessed vision which God has given us from long ago. When we see this vision of a Valley of Dry Bones, we should see in it our present state. We are people in need of redemption, of rebirth, of a renewed infusion of God’s Spirit that will establish our ministry in all the world.

If we wish to see ourselves live into the legacy of Acts, we must know the revivification of Ezekiel. Our lifeless matter, drained of vitality by normalcy and doubts, is renewed by the intervention of God within our life. The key to achieving this is found in believing God is capable of it. This belief is accomplished by the testimony of prophets. A prophet is not someone who tells the future, but who casts an alternate vision of the world. Prophetic speech, to borrow a phrase from a popular musical, “make[s] you see how the world could be in spite of the way it is.”[1] The vision of the prophets is of a world where God is given proper placement within the throne room of our hearts.

To begin to grow the Church, we must first decide what it wants to be. Is it a place of learning? Of fellowship? Does it fulfill God’s command to feed the hungry and care for those in need? Without a vision there is only flailing, a floundering attempt to find land with no concept of what land even looks like. The Vision has its origin in God, and we can only find it by listening closely to God’s words towards us. Until the Spirit is given our ear, they will not give us the words we must speak, if we do not hear their words then we cannot breathe that same Spirit into the world.

Today we celebrate the birth of the Church. We also look forward to the day that God will re-invigorate our modern Church. This will not be like any rebirth before it. Revivals in tents and old-time expressions have had their time. God is doing something new in the world, if only we would be willing to hear the proclamation of its coming. Let us seek God’s vision for our life and for this church. Let us together join and seek the re-invigoration of God’s breath in our life. – Amen.

[1] Anaïs Mitchell, “Road to Hell (Reprise),”  Track 39 on Hadestown (OBCR,) Sing it Again, 2019, Digital.

Irreplaceable Witness – Lectionary 05/16/2021

Acts 1:15-26

          In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the book of Psalms,

‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; And ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Sermon Text

            Today we begin with a simple truth. You, yes you, are significant. Let us say it again. Every person gathered here as individuals, is significant. The call upon your life, given by God, belongs to you alone. The breath of Life in you is meant to animate you particularly. Your existence is not accidental nor are the circumstances which have nurtured you to be where you are today. God has given you life for a purpose.

            There is a great injustice in our modern age that this sort of message has been co-opted by feel good, self-help personalities and prosperity Gospel preachers. Yet, there is an essential truth in our life that we are magnificently beloved. The claim of scripture from Eden to the New Jerusalem is that God loves creation and seeks to make it more lovely. The garden planted for primordial humanity was full of all good food and required no plowing or planting to be tended. It was an ideal place where God was together with not only humanity- but all living things.

            The fracture of sin meant that we were torn from our God. The ultimate giver of love in all existence was now unable to be with their beloved. The gap which seemed insurmountable had to be bridged not only for the sake of human beings, but of God. God desired to be present with us, no matter how far afield we seem to be. No matter how lost we may be and how twisted our conduct may become, this remains the case.

There are those who believe God created the universe to be glorified through a sheer show of power, might, and will. I believe it is just as likely that God created to glory in the relationship God made between humanity and the Divine. As God so loved Godself – the Father loving the Son loving the Spirit in infinite cycles – so too could God now love us and we love God.

The Divine call rang out across all of creation, “Come Home!” The desire of our God to know us could not be quenched. Though we tried by murder and theft, crime of all persuasions, the flood waters of our iniquity were not enough to halt the redemptive powers of God. From Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses, our scripture recalls God’s continual attempts to redeem a world that tried its best to remain wicked and apart from its source. Sinai smoked and burned, wonders were worked to show the assembled people they had found their way to bliss. Still, there was an impulse within us to stay, to build idols in the Shadow of our God.

The prophets attested to God’s love, of a world beyond our own broken one where God would make right the hurt we had inflicted on one another. Though we stopped up our ears, the love of God reached outward until God finally enacted a drastic plan to set things right. Rather than sending envoys to tell us, God would put on flesh and live among us. The Trinity volunteered the architect of creation, the Divine Word of God, to take on a human life full of joy and grief, celebration and pain.

This same Divine Word who lived among us taught us of the great love of God. Love that could overpower sin, that could expel all excess and cruelty and render us holy and beloved in the presence of our God. Though this love shown bright, we did our best again to reject it. We snuffed out the bright light that set the stars to burn. The world grew dark, our victory over our God – who longed only to embrace us – seemed complete.

The victory was false on our part, because as we know nothing can stop God. Our rejected savior tore down the Gates of Death and broke the pivots to ensure they could never be erected again. The Love that had pursued us this far would not be stopped by something as trivial as death. Soon, at last, we began to accept – as a few had done in every generation – the love of our God. The disparate people scattered throughout all the world, now they could claim a common heritage. We of one source, now loved through the death and resurrection of the same. This long, twisting love story is what the past seven weeks have celebrated. The season of Easter comes to a close this week. With this ending we begin to turn outward in a new way – enlivened by the Spirit to serve God as we never have before.

Yet today we can choose to glory in the love of God. Our unique story of love between us and God defines the story of our lives. We all have a testimony of faith, some of us were born into the Church, others found their way here over time. Some have a long and convoluted past and others have lived quiet and simple lives. All stories find legitimacy under the banner of God’s love, all people find a home. There is a wideness in God’s mercy and in that mercy, we find ourselves at home with a family that stretches back eternally and of a God who never stops seeking to know us more.

Our call is restorative it depends on us repenting and chasing away evil from our hearts. God calls us not so that we can have a surface level faith or a half-hearted devotion. God desires us all and asks us to cast off the sin that had so long kept us apart. The reality of our need to reform should be plain. God did not die to free us only so that we could willingly give ourselves back over to our old ways. We were not saved simply from Hell but from the oppression of Sin and Death, freed for joyful obedience to our God.

The balance of our life is between the freedom we are given by God and the responsibilities that freedom has given to us. Yet, it seems that we can over emphasize either one – toward legalism or antinomianism – a pendulum from one error to another. Thankfully, despite our attentiveness and the necessity of our devotion, the focus of our life is not upon our striving but upon our status as, “Beloved of God.” Through endless ages, the truth of creation is summed up in God’s loving care for us, God’s loving redemption of us, God’s glory in raising us from the depravity of our loveless life enraptured with ourselves into the incredible love of our God.

Our scripture today is a story of the apostles trying to replace Judas, but the wonder of the Gospel means that this action is impossible. Judas was given a share of ministry all his own. Though he rejected it, it would always be his. Judas, the great betrayer, was beloved of God, a friend of Christ. Even on such as this was capable of redemption, if only he had heard the call and returned home. If only the fear of disaster had not overcome the reality of God’s love.

If God had a place for Judas, can we ever doubt God’s place for us? We are all of us members of Christ’s body, the Church, redeemed by his blood. While we must never cease to chase the holy life Christ would have us live, we do not have to chase God’s love for us. We have run long enough, have wallowed in guilt and doubt for long enough. The shackles upon our lives are of our own construction, we are free in Christ. We are loved in Christ. As a people we are loved. As a person you are loved. The everlasting love of God is what we witness to with our life. No one can witness in your place – because God has called you to proclaim that love in your own way, in your own time.

Praise God, who of all people, saved us. Praise God who longs to see the same for all people. Praise our Risen Lord who wants you as you are and will walk beside you all the way home to Glory. Praise all Eastertide long, for next week is the Pentecost, and we go forward to share this love with all the world. – Amen.

Endless, Scandalous Grace – Lectionary 05/09/2021

Acts 10:44-48

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Sermon Text

             This week we continue a focus on Baptism. Last week we saw Philip offer the gift of Baptism to an Ethiopian convert. We do not know exactly who this convert was, what their beliefs had been until they met Philip or if they were a Jew or Gentile – although the latter is more likely. Yet, with Philip’s act we know that the Gospel had grown, not just by a single believer, but by the opening up of God’s kingdom to those outside of Judea. The radical nature of God’s love had been revealed. It was for all people, and not just a single nation or people.

            We take for granted that God is a God for all people. We here in twenty-first century America are very far removed from those who were once believed to be exclusively God’s people. With some exception, we are not descendants of Israel at all, but would rather be considered “ethne,” or Gentiles. Because we are so removed, we do not think about people joining the church as anything too radical. However, in Biblical Judea, the idea that any other group could really join God’s covenant family was radical. Judaism and Christianity both struggled with the idea of including Gentiles in community in the first century. Scripture provides a few examples of this. Jesus frequently spoke to Greek and Roman “God fearers,” who were gentiles that believed in the God of Israel. The outer court of the temple even allowed them to worship there.

            Yet, it seemed that the Gentiles were still excluded from fellowship. The practice of eating separately from Gentiles is frequently referenced in the New Testament. Synagogues in Judea seemed to exclude Greek speaking Jews who had their own separate synagogues, and it is unclear if Gentiles were regularly included in either. Only in Acts, outside of Judea are we explicitly told of Gentile participation in synagogue life, suggesting that outside of Judea prejudices were not as defined.

            Despite this openness in extra-Judean synagogues, there was still a clear separation between Gentile and Jew. They were not considered equal before God. The seriousness of this separation cannot be downplayed. It permeated every aspect of life in Jewish communities. A Gentile could fall in love with the God of Israel, learn all the scriptures by heart, and would still only be considered a “good Gentile,” at best a good example of an otherwise anathema caste of people.

            This separation between Jew and non-Jew did not just appear from nowhere. Throughout the Old Testament there are laws and stories that make clear that marriages between Israelites and non-Israelites was forbidden. This was not purely a matter of race, as the concept of race as we know it had not yet been invented. No, it was a complex issue to do with land and religion and war and all manner of convoluted calculations. Beyond this separation of Israelite and non was also the various clans and tribes of Israel who had specific regulations regarding marriage. Relatives married one another to ensure land stayed in the family and religious obligations were met.

            However, by the time of the Babylonian Exile, this system no longer stood. No one owned land and as such none had to stay in the family. The exiles doubled down on religious obedience, so they were less likely to stray. The biggest influence behind breaking these barriers was God. In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29, the exiles are told to settle in Babylon and to live among the Babylonians. They are to take wives and husbands in Babylon and work to make Babel succeed. They are to break down the barriers between Jew and Babylonian and allow themselves to become one people blessed by God.

            This unity was short-lived, as the return to Judah led to a reactionary purging of non-Jewish people from Jerusalem. The reign of Nehemiah and the tenure of Ezra over the returning exile community caused several problems for Judah. The descendants of those who remained in Judah during the exile – mainly poor farmers – were suddenly made servants to the returning nobility. Though they were native to the land and had never left, they were treated as foreigners. Those who returned were not exempt from their administration and found that they were to be punished for obeying Jeremiah. Ezra and Nehemiah, using God to excuse their actions, banished all non-Jews along with those who refused to divorce them. This “purification,” was justified as removing idolatry from the people, but in fact was a covert act of rebellion against the Persian rulers of the day.

            The return to a strictly separate conception of Jews and Gentiles remained at least until the first century. Yet, something began to change. God’s spirit was moving among the people. The ability to convert to Judaism began to enter into Jewish practice. Baptism was the act which allowed for this transformation – sometimes in addition to or supplanting circumcision. This belief grew up along Christianity, but it seems Christianity began to fully include Gentile converts a bit sooner. Here we see the most obvious start point for this inclusion.

            Peter, having received a vision from God, begins to seek out its meaning. After hearing a Gentile has been looking for him, he sets out and hears how God had spoken to Cornelius – the one who called for him. Peter begins his sermon, iterating the Gospel to Cornelius and his household with a bold statement – “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” The Jew and the Gentile could live and worship together, being united by their faith in Christ. There was nothing that could prevent God’s love from reaching out and encompassing all.

            The love of God is a radical thing – it takes hold of all the world and brings life where once no life could be. It cannot be held back by anything or anyone. The arc of human existence, from Eden to Calvary has been a journey of God tearing open heaven and earth to come closer to the beloved creation. God’s work cannot be held back – not by anyone. Peter here sees the partition between Jew and Gentile melt away and now understands the Grace of God is radical in scope. More than that it overtakes our own standards and expectations – it is a scandal to all who see it. Yet, if we are willing, we will not stumble over God’s goodness, but rejoice alongside those who believe.

            As those washed in the water, we are given a choice. We can rejoice at the wide net God has cast to bring people together or close the doors and resist this movement of God. We can be like Jeremiah or Ezra, like Peter or the Judaizers. If we truly believe our God is good enough to love and include sinful gentiles like us, then we must accept others with equal fervor. This means not shutting God’s grace off to anyone for any reason. We cannot bar the gates of the church or stop up the font of Baptism.

            In all things we must let God’s grace lead us to accept others as they are. To expand our definition of God’s kingdom. To welcome rather than chase away or chastise. The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let no one prevent it from filling all the earth. – Amen.

What is to Prevent me from Being Baptized? – Lectionary 05/02/2021

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Sermon Text

 Baptism is a first step toward a lifetime of faith. The one time washing of our body reflects God’s continual absolution of our souls. The water that is thrown upon us or into which we are plunged takes with it our bodily impurity, but the spiritual funk that defines our life before, and honestly during, our walk with Christ can only be carried away by the Spirit working within our lives.

We take for granted that a person receives baptism as part of their journey in faith. Yet, for those in the time of Jesus the ritual was not a given. Ritual baths were practiced but they were repeated periodically. John the Baptist and Jesus were the first to institute a single washing as an initiatory act. Caught up in it there is more than just a symbol of God’s actions or our own. There is a real move of the Spirit that cannot be put aside as simply memorial.

Our scripture today invites us to see the Spirit at work in our life. In this passage, Philip, a servant of God, is told by an Angel to take a walk from Jerusalem toward Gaza. The journey was not along any of the main Roman highways, but on one of the twisting networks of backroads that crisscrossed the mountains and rift valleys. No specific route is named because the author assumes we would know which they mean., However, it is likely the road went along one of the flatter parts of the region, somewhere that allowed a carriage to be utilized as a means of transit.

Along the way, a chariot is seen, and God’s Spirit tells Philip to come near it. Philip would have been joining a large retinue of retainers that would have surrounded an official’s vehicle. This vocal command of God is enviable. As I have said before in worship, God seldom blesses me with something as overt as this, but whether verbal or not I hope we all can relate in some way to Philip’s call to come near to that cart. These sudden impulses to speak to someone or take a chance are things that only God can give to us. Seldom vocal, sometimes obvious, but always discovered upon reflection.

The chariot carried in it a eunuch, a castrated man in service to royalty. In this case, the eunuch turned out to serve an Ethiopian queen named Candace. Ethiopia has a long-standing relationship with both Christianity and Judaism. The ancient kingdom of Sheba, from whence came a queen to visit Solomon, is in what we now call Ethiopia. Ethiopia is also considered by many today to be the oldest existing Christian community there is. The Ethiopian Coptic Church, oft forgotten though it is, predates Rome and Byzantium as centers of Christianity by hundreds of years. The only community that might be as old as this is the Thomistic Orthodox of India.

The eunuch is heard reading from a version of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, and Philip asks if the Eunuch fully understood the words of the prophet he was reading. The passage in question, Isaiah 53, is certainly a difficult one to parse. While we usually read it as explicitly referencing Jesus, that cannot be all it meant to Isaiah or his audience. So, people question, even to today, just as the Eunuch did, “Of whom is the prophet speaking?” Was the suffering servant Isaiah? The King? Israel itself?

Philip explained, although his exact words, or rationale is lost to us, every way that the scriptures led to the reality of Christ and of his death and resurrection. This sort of extemporaneous explanation is difficult, and though we can only speculate about what exactly Philip said, I have to imagine the rush that this moment gave. Outside of cold, sterile explanations of scripture, there is the spirited explanations in which God intervenes somehow to impact the words we say. The Spirit, in these moments, does not control our words. Many people, filled with the Spirit, will still take use it as an opportunity to get what they want rather than what God wants. In fact, the early Church speaks directly of how to respond to people lying while speaking, “in the Spirit.”[1] Yet, the Spirit lends strength and confidence where there was none.

As some of you may know, I am a horribly shy person. Outside of Sunday mornings, I try to be a quiet passerby in this world. While I open up in familiar spaces, I am fundamentally a private person – and nothing will change that. Yet, I stand here and preach or sit in front of a camera and record services, putting myself out there for all to see. To some degree it is the fact that I used to do theatre that lets me do this, to another just going for it and allowing myself to expend some energy on being social in this way. However, it is not skill or ability to compartmentalize my anxieties that allows me to do this well, but the gift of God which allows me to work in this way.

The Spirit of God is not always revelatory, it is also supportive. My experience in itself would be enough to perform a weekly service, but not for me to authentically lead worship. Yet, the Spirit props up our strengths and even uses our weaknesses to proclaim the good news of Jesus. We do not know what Philip said in that chariot – whether he spoke perfectly or stumbled over words, whether he was confident or worried, well versed in his argument or so-so in presenting the Gospel. All we know is that the Spirit was at work and the Spirit brought results.

As they talked in the Chariot, the Eunuch was overjoyed to hear the Gospel. We do know Philip’s speech must have talked about baptism, because the Eunuch felt the desire to be baptized well up into his heart. His cry to Philip is direct. When they see water by the side of the road, a literal translation of his words would just say, “Look! Water!” and immediately he follows this sighting with a request to be cleansed in that water.

We do not know how much water was there, but it was enough to stand in. The eunuch was washed, perhaps by dunking or affusion, and found their faith given definite form. Life began anew, the Spirit of God settling within them, their excitement saw them jumping in the chariot and riding away, rejoicing all the while.

In Baptism we join the Church, and through faith we receive the Holy Spirit. It is our duty to follow it as Philip did – to places and people we do not know or expect. However, we do not do this unprepared, as the Spirit strengthens us even in our weaknesses that we might complete the work which is set before us. The key thing we must not lose in the midst of all this is our love and devotion of God and our praise for the gift of our baptism. We go now to a time of prayer, but as we prepare for communion, we shall also prepare to remember our baptism.

May the Lord bless our walk with the Spirit and may the Spirit we received in Baptism be a source of perpetual joy to us. – Amen.

[1] Didache 11. Available at:

Questioned Because of a Good Deed – Lectionary 04/25/2021

Acts 4:5-12

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is

‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Sermon Text

            There is a special sort of danger that comes from doing a good deed. In fact, good is so intoxicating a presence in life that when the most good possible – God in Godself – was among us, we sought to kill that goodness. Christ our Lord, the most Good, was killed for the egregious crime of doing what was right. Doing what is right means doing good even when it is unpopular, it means loving even and especially when that love does not benefit us. We must do good, no matter what, because that goodness is the ultimate act of obedience to our God, who had the parting words to us, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)

            The Church, despite this high calling, lacks the reputation you think they would have for living selflessly. Why might this be? Some point to a cultural conspiracy, some grand scheme to represent God and God’s people as monsters. While it would be hard to deny some people definitely have an unfounded grudge against the Church, I do not think that constitutes enough people for our reputation to be as it is. The mission of the Church is not to become popular, but it is nonetheless meant to be reputable. The righteousness of the Christian must be such that no dirt thrown at them can stick – not because it is denied outright, but because they have no guilt to be dug up. (1 Peter 3:13-17)

            The reality of our situation and position in culture is complex, but the decline of Christianity cannot be denied. No denominations are growing, few local churches even, and most, “converts,” that any church logs in their records are just moving from one congregation to another. We are increasingly unpopular, increasingly scarce, and increasingly liable. As much as it would be nice to point to forces outside our control and blame them, I refuse to accept that we are not culpable. If we say that forces outside the Church are capable of destroying us, then we admit defeat outright and we put more power in earth and people than Heaven and God.

            While the complexity of our present state does not allow us to come to a single cause or source to our present concerns, I submit that one of the chief problems we face is that we are never accused of doing good. Never are we brought before councils for making the infirm well, or the poor secure, or the lonely loved. Never are we brought before courts to attest by what authority we care for the wounded or welcome the stranger. Never are we rejected for the good we do, never are we put out of step with our society in the name of justice. Where is our abundant mercy which we offer the world in the name and authority of Christ?

            Some may lift up certain people penalized for one thing or another. Refusal to participate in some event or some aspect of their job they consider noncongruent with their faith. While the veracity of such displays is worth discussing in other contexts, I would insist that these are not acts of mercy or goodness but acts of negation. Not doing something perceived as bad is not enough, especially when the matter is one of contention. No, we must actively do good and not merely passively avoid evil. We must not be known as the people against a thousand others, but the people who are for all people, who do all good, who seek out chances to act in mercy and love.

            Without a doubt we have fallen, not in totality, but in part, because we lack the love which we are called to give to those around us. While there are occasional headlines here and there of churches doing community work that meaningfully helps others, most of our business is posturing and pretension. Still more, churches are seldom among those fighting for other people in the public sphere. When homeless camps are cleared in midnight raids, where are the Christians to defend them?

When people are being evicted en masse, where are the Christians to aid them? When there is hunger and disease and lack of housing, where is our mercy to care for others?

            While there are organizations that do good in the name of Christ – World Vision, UMCOR, and our very own JCCM come to mind – many more do so for profit or else using methods we have known for decades cause more harm than good. How many villages have been wrecked by ill informed and performative missions? How many hungry people turned away from Salvation Arm tables and shelters for being deemed, “too different?” With rare exception, much of our missions infrastructure corporately is as broken as it is individually. While it can be fruitful to send money to people who are doing good, and sometimes better than trying to do something ourselves we do not know how to do, we cannot depend on sending money away to try and make the needy of the world someone else’s problem.

            There was a time when the church was the source of support people could depend on. Hungry? Seek out a church. Cold? Seek the people of God. In despair? Go to they that serve a Risen Lord. Over time this tendency decreased. Partly this came from a shift in needs people had and services provided by the state. Yet, we cannot deny a shift in the culture of the Church. Though it is a perennial problem that the church puts membership numbers and income ahead of people, the 1900s saw it morph into a platform. Churches adopted business mentality, business ethics, and replaced conversion with recruitment and salvation with a commodity.

            The upheaval in, “Christendom,” over the last hundred years is part of a through line that stretches back to Constantine. One of power and profit and wicked intent. We must divest ourselves of these inclinations and root ourselves in the righteousness of Christ.

Righteousness that manifests in acts of love and mercy, in real aid to one another in times of need. The work of the church cannot be tied up in sitting here on Sunday and waiting for people to walk in the door. It can neither be found in abstention from culture or lambasting of the Other. No, it is to be found in active acts of love in and among and with others.

            Though there is no one answer to how we regain our zeal for good works, I invite us to look to Peter’s trial before the Sanhedrin. After his arrest for public preaching and healing of an infirm person, the officials in the temple realize they have no legitimate grounds for his arrest. So, they point to the healing which Peter performed and begin their examination with two questions. “By what power? By whose name did you do this?” Peter opens his defense with a question that reveals the absurdity of the accusation. “Are we to be interrogated for a good deed?

            The Church functions best when the worst someone can say of us is that we will do anything hep others. The truest legacy of the church is not found in the pulpits of revivalists or the throngs of the megachurch – not even in the hallowed halls of denominationalism. The legacy of the church is found in radical and outrageous mercy. We attest to God best when our conduct is oriented toward helping. We must live a life by which people will come to ask us, “How has this person been saved?” And where we can answer, “By the name of Jesus of Nazareth whom God raised from the dead.”

            “Seek ye first the Kingdom,” and live into its righteousness. Let us abandon our love of scandals of abstention and pursue the scandal of God’s mercy. Go forward and proclaim the mercy of our Lord through the mercy his love enacts in us. Open wide the gates of Heaven, for a feast is set for all who attend. – Amen.

Ignorance Kills – 04/18/2021

Acts 3: 12-19

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,

Sermon Text

            Our scripture today asks us to grapple with our sins that we have committed, “ignorantly,” or perhaps, “unawares.” It was, for the Jerusalem priesthood and their supporters, an act of ignorance that led to them killing Jesus. If, Peter argues, they had been aware that Christ was God, they would have never done what they did. The tragedy, of course, was that Jesus has been clear from the very beginning that he was the Messiah. However, there are two kinds of ignorance in the world, intentional and incidental. Incidental acts of ignorance are moments when we truly act without knowledge of a situation. However, intentional acts of ignorance are far more deadly, they come from stopping our ears and making excuses. This evil has reigned supreme for all of history.

            Yet, today I want to deviate slightly from my usual mode of sermonizing. Instead, I would like to share a recent experience of mine in which I spent two weeks – sadly virtually – visiting a Reconciliation Center on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation. Here, at this Lutheran ministry, work is done to try and heal the rift between those of European descent and the tribe. A rift that was initiated by our ancestors, wounds which reach back into history and refuse to let go.

            I, like many here, realized quickly that I was truly ignorant about both the history and present reality of Native people – least of all the Lakota. My great uncle, (by marriage,) was Osage and while I have distant memories of seeing one of their sacred dances, my knowledge of Indigenous peoples extended little further than my own readings into history. Yet, over the course of those two weeks I saw history and the modern day became more clearly defined. The work of the past does not cease to be but have consequences throughout time.

            The Lakota people inhabited the Great Plains and lived a nomadic lifestyle following buffalo herds. The herds provided all they needed for life and are seen to this day as sacred siblings to the Lakota. Lakota stories tell of a Heavenly woman, taking the form of a white buffalo calf, who gave the people their sacred rituals. Life was tied to the buffalo and to these rituals that followed the Lakota throughout their life.

            Yet, at a certain point, the Lakota came into contact with Europeans. The first of these had settled in Barbados, far from the plains. Yet, those first Europeans, the Spanish, quickly spread throughout what we now call South America and the Southern coast of, “Turtle Island,” the name which many Native peoples used for North America. The governor of the, “Indies,” Christopher Columbus, was later removed from his post and tried in Spain for the cruelty and, “tyranny,” he exercised over the Native peoples he had enslaved.[1]

            Later, the French came and gave a new name to the Lakota, as well as their linguistic relatives – the Nakota and Dakota. When describing these tribes, the French borrowed a word from the Ojibwa people, calling them “Sioux,” a word meaning – “Snakes.” Despite this being a term of derision, it is used to this day to describe the three tribes as a whole. The French initially claimed the plains for their own, but due to difficulties on the European continent, they were compelled to sell the land to the former British colonies which now called themselves the United States of America.

            The United States, was remarkable anti-Indian from its inception. The Declaration of Independence describes the Natives of North America as, “merciless Indian Savages,” so called for their supposed sin of defending their land from invasion.[2] The treatment of the Native Americans is a dark stain on all of our natural history. In an early draft of this sermon, I tried to list all the offenses we as a nation have committed against Native peoples – I ran out of room. Yet, as our focus so far has been on the Lakota people, we can briefly discuss our treatment of the tribes.

            The Lakota were highly involved in negotiations with the United States regarding their land. The hope of leaders in the tribes – including, Sitting-Bull, Red Cloud, Big Foot, and Black Elk to name a few – was that peace could be brokered somehow. Yet, time and time again, the treaties that were made by the tribes and the U.S. were broken by government forces. These culminated with three especially brutal exchanges.

            Firstly, the systematic destruction of buffalo populations to deny the people food. Secondly, the battle of Little Bighorn – one of the most definite victories of the tribes over the U.S. Army. Finally, the massacre of wounded knew – where men, women, and children were gunned down indiscriminately shortly after completing their, “ghost dance.” A sacred ritual began by Black Elk. These events, though it is a simplification to put it like this, led to the “defeat,” of the Lakota and their forced migration to their reservations.

            The next century saw still mor indecencies thrown at Native peoples. They were taken from their homes and forced into boarding schools. Their hair was shaved or cut into European styles, their language banned, and all Indian culture forbidden. Having eliminated Native peoples from ancestral homes, blasted their sacred mountains for gold and to make monuments, and decimated them with disease and gunfire – now even their culture and language was to be eliminated. The program of these boarding schools, fourteen of which were Methodist, was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” These boarding schools were in operation into the 1950s.

            The irony, not lost on all people, is that beyond any consideration of general humanitarian concerns, the abuses against Native peoples were often abuses against Christians in the name of Christ. You see, since the Spanish first came to the continent, Natives had converted to the faith. John Wesley famously came to Georgia hoping to convert native people, only to find they were already Christian and wanted Communion instead of conversion. Though not a majority of tribal peoples, the pretense of, “saving,” people through these acts of cruelty falls flat when this is considered.

            Today, there is no monolithic culture among any surviving tribe. No reservation is exactly like another nor any individual Indian identical to another. On our trip many people asked our speakers to address the Cherokee or Ho-Chunk people – as if they were related beyond living on the same continent. We can only know the views of modern Natives by speaking to them and listening closely. Reading their accounts of history and not only ours that rejoice in their destruction.

            The people we spoke to over the course of our visit to the reservation were complex – as any person would be. They had different ideas about how to handle the poverty, unemployment, and addiction that grips the reservation. We were struck, listening to their problems, by the similarities that they have with our own here in Appalachia. Though what brought us to where we are is quite different, the end results are the same. People going hungry people coping how they can, people in need of help.

            Yet, I think our similarities go beyond just having similar problems. We know in Appalachia what it feels like to have people come and tell you how to fix your problems. Those who arrive and tell us, “You wouldn’t have opioid issues if you just did this…” Or, “You wouldn’t be so poor if you just…” We in our depressed corner of the world know how it feels to be told by outsiders to do this or when they don’t even really know who we are outside of headlines and stereotypes.

            We should, on this Native American Ministries Sunday, invest time to understand our Indigenous Siblings. The reconciliation center I visited with puts the people at the center of their work. The ministries are not simply inclusive of Native People, but dependent upon them. They offer services and ministries based upon needs the community brings to them, not that they foist upon the community. All ministries should be conducted in this way.

            Here in West Virginia we are often told that we have no tribes that lived here before settlers arrived. This is not true. Here in the panhandle the Chesapeake and Massawomeck, members of the Iroquois nation lived. The West of the state were people with the Osage. Several more tribes lived in the South and North of the state. Despite what our West Virginia history courses taught us, we stand on land that once belonged to others. The only consistent acknowledgement of which I see of this are two Iroquois nation flags on route 480.

            Together, we can become aware of our native siblings and the work they have embarked on thus far. They are not a historical relic, they are alive and active now. Whether we reach out and help them through Lutheran ministries or Methodist ones, or even just our own participation in existing initiatives, it does not matter. What matters is that we come together and help those who need their voices lifted up and which have long been silenced.

            To return to our initial thesis for this service, we must accept that our continual ignorance about our siblings around us causes them harm. This is not true only of Native Peoples but all peoples. I would ask you all to look at our bulletin today to take in one final note of what could be. This image by Kevin Poor-Bear is called, “Peace on Earth,” and the medicine wheel at its top represents many things to the Lakota people. More than anything though, we heard that it meant all races of the earth were related and dependent on one another. Whether we trace that relationship to Wind Cave or Eden, let us open our eyes to the stories and needs of our siblings around the world. Beginning, at least today, with our indigenous siblings.

Repent, learn, bring life where once was death. – Amen

[1] “Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean” in Madrid. Mon 7 Aug 2006 04.40 EDT. Available at:

[2] Fulltext available at: