Sermon 05/21/2023 – An Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we, too, are his offspring.’

“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Sermon Text

One of the greatest missed opportunities we can have as Christians is to not learn about other faiths. It seems counter to how we typically think of things. People struggle at times to know their own scripture; how can they learn about someone else’s? More than that, there is a fear in many a God-fearing Christian’s heart that by learning about other faiths, something might get mixed up in our minds and we will form wrong ideas about God. I can understand that instinct, after all we have so many ideas about “Karma,” in our society generally, and plenty of it permeates into the Church. Can we trust ourselves to learn about faith outside our own, and come out of it stronger, more thoughtful, without also just confusing ourselves?

Paul, it seems, believed we definitely could learn about other cultures and faiths and benefit from the study. In his time, after all, there was no separation between religion and daily life. People lived with the expectation that gods were part of everything they touched. Everything you did, everything you wrote, every little aspect of life had some religiosity to it. With the exception of atheists, most people their entire life as being invested with some amount of religious significance. As such, poetry, law, and writings of all kinds, came across religious ideas at some point in their composition. Even the driest bit of philosophy, because it is founded in a fundamental belief of how truth or knowledge functions, depended upon a belief on how something, or someone set the world up.

In this passage, we have just read Paul is quoting two poets. If we did not look into what the quotes were referencing, we might thing these are odes to the “Unknown God,” named in the passage. However, the truth is that both of these poems are in praise of a single God, the king of the Roman and Greek Pantheons – Zeus (or Jupiter.) One of these two poems praises Zeus for all that he has done:

“From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood. He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock, and what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees and for casting all manner of seeds. For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations, and for the year devised what stars chiefly should give to men right signs of the seasons, to the end that all things might grow unfailingly. Wherefore him do men ever worship first and last. Hail, O Father, mighty marvel, mighty blessing unto men. Hail to thee and to the Elder Race! Hail, ye Muses, right kindly, every one! But for me, too, in answer to my prayer direct all my lay, even as is meet, to tell the stars.[1]

The second quote is known to us, only because Paul quotes it here and a few other Christians in the early church had copies they could elaborate on. This second piece is apparently a favorite of Paul’s because he quotes it in Titus as well. That text is more oblique in how it would have anything to do with Paul’s sermon, since it comes from a very specific argument about how the people of Crete viewed Zeus. I quote here a reconstruction of the verse:

“They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one, Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies. But you are not dead: you live and abide forever, For in you we live and move and have our being.”[2]

In just two short quotations, Paul opens up a wealth of questions for us. He, being born in a Greek city on the coast of Turkey and raised among Hellenistic culture, was seemingly unafraid to mix the poetry of the culture around him and his faith which came from the scriptures of Judea. The God of Israel, one in person, substance, and will – could be described in poetry written specifically for Zeus. While Paul removes Zeus from his quotation, placing its subject as the Unknown God he walked past, the audience he spoke to – the learned men of Athens – would know immediately who and what he was quoting. Paul saw a truth in a piece of poetry devoted to a foreign divinity, and used the shared language it gave him to speak to others about his God.

That principle of universal truth can easily become a universalism that denies faith, but more often a discerning person can augment their faith through this kind of study. E. Stanley Jones, a missionary who served in India, worked with people of many faiths. India has some of the most diverse religious makeup of any country. There are Muslims, Christians, Jews, traditional native religious practitioners, Sikhs, Jains, and so on and so forth. Jones would have all these different groups come together and sit in meetings called “Asherams.” In these meetings they would share their thoughts on given topics and afterward they would dismiss and, often, meet and talk more outside the meetings. Sometimes people would convert from these discussions, sometimes they would not, but everyone took away something they could use.

Jones believed that there was only one truth, the truth of Christ and the Gospel. However, he believed that because that truth had been revealed through nature, through Sinai, through so many different things, that religions outside Christianity or Judaism must have found some of it. If truth truly is singular, then you cannot earnestly seek truth without finding it. As such, religions as old as Hinduism, predating Judaism by eight thousand years and Christianity by ten thousand, must have a wealth of information we could benefit from. Jones was not looking to dilute Christianity with extra-Biblical ideas, but to apply lenses from all over to his faith, so that he could understand even just one more shade of what God was doing in the world.

This is easiest among faiths that are similar to one another. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam can easily interface with each other and build one another up. Judaism birthed Christianity after all, and Islam was born from influences of both. The three “Abrahamic,” faiths are naturally made to speak truth to one another. I own a Quran, I own a Tanakh, and I have online access to any text written in interpreting either of them.

St Francis of Assisi, you probably know him as the statue of a man holding a bird in your Catholic friend’s garden, tells us what this can look like. He spent time with al-Kamil, an heir to Saladin and sultan during the fifth crusade. Little is written about his time with the Sultan, but it is widely considered a successful interchange of faith. Though Francis failed in his plan to convert the ruler, all reports of the meeting were positive. After this meeting, Francis seemingly took two lessons away – both to do with prayer. In his Letter to the Rulers of the People, he called for people to pray every evening, and for that time of prayer to be initiated with the public sounding of horns – similar to the call to prayer that rings from minarets in mosques every day. [3]Likewise, his The Praises of God lists all kinds of attributes of God, in a way similar to the ninety-nine names of Allah in Islamic tradition.[4]

In my own life, I take a lot of cues from Rabbis when it comes to questions, I hold about certain aspects of faith. Rabbinical discourse is more willing to ask tough questions than Christian thought  is. Philosophy, often the placeholder for religion in our more secular age, also gives us tools to express our faith. Nietzsche, Camus, Sarte, and many other founders of modernism and post-modernism are good to know. They describe the world in terms we do not always think to use and even when we oppose or disagree with them, our mind is better for the interrogation. Practically, I don’t have time to read all that much though. So what do I do? I talk to people who think differently than me, ask questions to understand and not to convince. I try and see the world through their eyes. In this way, we can find new ways to see the one truth of the Gospel, in languages we now only know the sound of.

We can start in our own Christian family, sometimes that is easier. Listen to a Christian from outside our traditions and see how they talk about God. I can tell you that even within Methodism, if you go to different parts of the world and the country – you will hear different aspects of God lifted up. I thank God that I was at a seminary that had a lot of Black Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal students. I learned more about God through that injection of culture into my life than most anything I picked up in a classroom. We should learn from Christians of other backgrounds, other political ideas, and generally different mindsets. Not everything is something we can take home and call our own, but that is how life is. I cannot know what food is good, unless I am willing to take a bite, and the same is true of knowledge.

People found faith in Athens because Paul spoke their language. He was able to look at them and say, “You know what you say about Zeus, it actually fits my God too, and more than that we preach that the dead will be raised one day and that this is done through a guy named Jesus who was, and is, the God I am talking to you about today.” The first part drew people in, and the second part pushed most of them back out, but for those who were willing to stay after that – there life was changed forever. How many lives might we change if we knew about ideas we currently might not think are “essential?” How many hidden treasures are we unwilling to dig up, simply because they were planted in a soil we consider foreign? God is God all, and while many may see God as Unknown, they are constantly seeing signs of God’s activity in the world.

Are we willing to learn how to translate one to the other? I hope so, and it starts with talking to people you might think are too different, and listening deeply to those we might cast aside as “other.” Listen, learn, and speak life into a vibrant world, seeking the truth. – Amen.

[1] Aratus of Soli. Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams. Lycophron. Aratus. Translated by Mair, A. W. & G. R. Loeb Classical Library Volume 129. London: William Heinemann, 1921.

[2] Rendel Harris, J. (Oct 1906). “The Cretans always liars”The Expositor. Seventh Series. 2: 305–17.

[3] Full text available at:

[4] Full text available at:

Easter 2023 – … He is With Us

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed, for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb, and she saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not touch me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Sermon Text

This morning, at our Sunrise service, we talked about how we live as the image of God in the world until Christ returns in final victory. The light of Easter morning lives within us, shining out for everybody to see. Whenever we are living as the Church ought to live, and being as we ought to be, people can look at us and glimpse the Image of God imprinted in our souls and perfected through our faith. When we gather today especially, we are making a proclamation for all the world to see and know who we are as the people of God. Christ is here, present with us, even when physically absent, through the incredible work of the Church and the Spirit.

We know from our talks in Lent that there are a lot of things that help God’s light shine out. Speaking to each other properly, with intention and love can make a world of difference in how people see and know God. Knowing the limitations we have as human beings allows us to stay out of trouble. Seeking to live in genuine peace with each other, allowing God to transform our worst aspects into better supports for our best. All of this, while continually looking toward Christ, the source of our life and perfecter of the same. We talked about all this because of the key lesson revealed to us by Ezekiel – the Spirit of God, the presence of Christ, is only truly realized when we come together and act as one body, one people, called to one purpose.

When Mary happened upon Jesus in the Garden, unsure if this resurrected Lord was the same one she had known simply as her teacher before, she got to see him face to face. She met Jesus in a personal moment, individually significant and weighted with such joy and amazement and potential. We all have that moment in our lives, that initial meeting with God that brings us to join the people of God, to wash in the waters of baptism, and to pursue the fullness of what a life lived in faith might have for us. We, like Mary, begin our journey in the faith through that singular meeting with Jesus and then are called to do something amazing.

We are called to go and join with the other disciples, those who know God’s work but may not know that it is still active in the world. When we go and are able to say what the Lord has done for us, not just in the far flung past, but /today/ then we are able to testify to God still being right here with us. Together, gathered with the news of this ultimate resurrection from death, of the promise of the same for us, we praise the life God is bringing into the world and the part we have in that. That initial, private meeting, becomes a shared experience with the other people of God. We share our stories, we remember how God worked in us the same way God is now working in another, or else dream of the day we too see God as clearly as they did.

The reality of faith is that it is not something solely between us and God. Sure aspects of it always remain private, but a lot of what defines whether we are walking the walk as well as talking the talk, is found in how we actually treat one another. The Wesleyan formula for this is to say that, “There is no Holiness but Social Holiness,” in other words, you cannot truly be a Christian without interacting with other people. God calls us to love one another, and so a Christian must love those around them. God calls us to forgive and so we must forgive those around us. God calls us to set right the wrongs of this world, and so we must find them and work alongside people to accomplish the good that is sorely needed.

Easter, the proclamation to the world that Death is not final, is a time for us to come together as one people and join the chorus of every Christian who came before us. We join in the ancient call and response, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” Because we need to hear it affirmed again, and again, and again. We do all this, because though Christ may not be with us physically now, the Spirit is with us. That Spirit is sometimes hard to see in myself, but I sure can see it in the face of another person. We are the Church together, whenever we gather, and whenever we proclaim the work of God in our lives, we can confidently stand by the empty tomb and tell all the world. “He is not here… He is with us!”

Sermon 03/05/2023 – Beyond John 3:16

John 3: 1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Sermon Text

Our scripture from last week focused upon the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While it was our decision to disobey, and not the fruit of the tree itself that sealed our fate, the tree and the serpent hanging from it remain a strong symbol of human sin. We see in that image, in the shadow cast over all life, an emblem of what is broken. What is wrong in this world is easily described with those three simple images – a serpent, a tree, and humanity. Simple and clean symbolism.

Yet, when Jesus comes to this world, lives his life and carries out his ministry, he is not drawn to this image at all. Aside from a teaching on divorce, he seems completely uninterested in using the opening chapters of Genesis for anything. How sin entered the world, for Jesus, seems to be far less important than its cure. It is only when Paul begins his ministry of letters that any real attempt to relate Adam and Jesus comes about. To Paul, the relationship between a first and second Adam is more important than just about anything to explain how salvation is possible. Jesus, however, looks to something else in the history of God’s people to explain the ins and outs of salvation.

In the Wilderness, one thousand-odd years before Jesus walked through Judea, Moses led Israel on a decades long trek. They were fed by God with Manna and quail, led by pillars of flame and smoke that housed presence of the same God. They faced trouble after trouble, each moment carrying equal parts faith and doubt within their souls. Every step along the way we are given story after story of highs and lows. Few of these episodes carry more significance and power, than the arrival of “burning snakes,” and God’s deliverance of Israel from the fire of their venom.

The people became discouraged after seemingly walking in endless circles for years and years. They begin to speak openly against God and Moses. Their complaints echo through the ages and reflect other complaints they made earlier in their journey. Having now been free of Egypt and slavery for years, the Israelites are able to forget the evil they once faced. The terror of slavery has dimmed, and now they are imagining their past oppression as if it was some kind of salvation. “If only we were still in Egypt! They had so much food.” “If only we had never left, Pharaoh was a lot, but he really wasn’t that bad!” “If only… If only… If only…” The wilderness was tough, but to call enslavement better than wandering, well only time allowed them to imagine that was the case.

God, not pleased with this rebellion, sends snakes to infest the camp. What that means is a little unclear – whether the snakes were summoned to the area or if they already were there – but whatever brought them there, the result is the same. The snakes are called, “Seraphim,” or “Burning Ones.” These attack people and when they do, those people die. Moses eventually intercedes for the people and God provides a cure. Craftsmen beat bronze into shape and a snake takes form from the hot metal. This snake is lifted up on a pole for all to see. Now if you are bitten by a snake, all you need to do is look up to the bronze serpent and you will find yourself saved.

This story is easily lost in the rest of the book of Numbers, but it is the background from which Jesus draws out an explanation of what it means to be born again. Jesus says that his actions on the cross can only be understood if we know how, “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” Salvation is coming to the world and to understand exactly what that means we have to first understand how the arrival of poisonous snakes, and the making of a bronze copy of them showed God’s love and mercy long ago.

When we see Nicodemus come to Jesus to understand what his teachings man, we enter into a conversation about the “New Birth.” Jesus says that to be born again, a person must be born “of water and the Spirit.” The waters of Baptism initiate them into the community of the faith, but only the Spirit can really “save them.” This salvation is not just an escape from Hell, but a rebirth. Once the Spirit touches us, we should be different than we were before. Some parts of us will always be around – the defining traits that define who we are, what makes “us,” “us.” The things beyond this, the evil we take part in and the wrong we perpetuate, these fall away from us. The light and goodness of God take their place, and we find a completely renewed, “us.”

The Spirit does the work here, but we choose to follow “the sound of the wind.” The wind that blows over our life, guiding us to be better than we were before is the Spirit that gives us life, and life renewed. It allows us to know God more fully, to see things as they really are. The Spirit, though given freely by Christ to the Church, did not begin with us. It crafted the world around us, sustained its life and inspired the prophets and the people of God in the scriptures.

The Spirit led Moses somewhere he never would have dreamed of going. To save his people, God told Moses to build a bronze serpent. The making of a an image like this, cast in metal or wood or stone, was forbidden by the Teachings Moses brought down from Sinai. God had asked them to do something that, logically, would seem impossible – even forbidden – but he did it to save the people. Could something even as basic and important as the prohibition against a graven image be superseded by a need to save people? Moses only followed because he trusted that while he did not know where God’s spirit was coming or going, he trusted that God sent it for good.

Jesus’s work on the cross exists somewhere adjacent to the work of those metalworkers who were called to make a serpent at Mount Hor long ago. Jesus becomes the image of an invisible God, an εικων. God, in becoming incarnate, becomes the ultimate graven image – taking on flesh and bone which, in resurrection, exists to this day alongside God the father. Jesus acts not only as the image of a perfect God, but of sinful humanity. Though perfect himself, nothing about Jesus’s physicality is different than ours. The same ingrained temptations and pitfalls are present within Christ, yet in his rejection of all that is not good, he shows us what humanity could be.

The image of divinity, of perfected humanity, and of sinful humanity, two natures at once present and three aspects existing as an emblem of salvation. Christ, the cure for the sin we have chosen time and time again, looked no different than sinful humanity. Christ, the ultimate peacemaker between God and humanity, was the perfect image of both. This imaged lived a human life and then was lifted up to die on a cross. All so that, now, all who look upon him, wherever they are, may know salvation from sin, from pain, from death itself.

Like the Israelites long ago, for who the snakes did not disappear, we too still face life’s troubles. Yet those troubles have an answer, a way we can find peace, and it is through Christ. Christ who lived, died, and rose again for us. The Spirit is rushing around us, from where and to where we cannot know, but we still can follow it. We follow it because through it we are born again. And we have work to do! We must go now and proclaim the truth, beyond even God’s love, such that Christ may die for us. Yet that love is so wide and far spread that all may know Christ is here – not to condemn, but to save. Our call is to spread the same truth – one of salvation, not condemnation, of transformation and not rejection. Lord, may we live into that call and may we never forget the power of the salvation we proclaim. – amen.

Sermon 12/25/2022 – The Infant Divinity – Christmas 2022

Luke 2: 1-20

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.

Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.

Sermon Text

Today is a Sunday like no other in the Church year. Not just because we are gathered in the sanctuary in pajamas, but because we are celebrating God’s being with us. All of history has been the story of God getting closer to the people of Earth. From the moment we left Eden, Heaven has sought a reunion with Earth. Cain and Abel knew God well, but Cain’s violence separated them. The world continued to learn violence until a flood seemed the only way to cleanse the world of its blood-guilt. This did nothing to stop human evil. God shifted the plan, stopped the work of eradication and began the work of rehabilitation. Through Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and beyond – God was determined to reform humanity and bring Heaven to Earth.

The ultimate show of commitment to this goal was achieved on a day we do not know the anniversary of, but that changed creation forever. God, eternal and unchanging, sent out part of Godself – the eternal trinity was added to for the first time. Human flesh coated the Word of God, and a small child carried the Spirit through which all things were made. In a manger, stinking of animals and unfit for something as delicate and dangerous as childbirth, the God of Heaven entered a human existence that would never be taken away. Now Heaven and Earth were fused for all time, God and humanity, linked in God’s very own skin.

Today we celebrate the unity of Heaven and Earth. Today we sing songs testifying to the glory of God. Today we testify that God is with us. Though we do not see Christ face to face today, we see him in the love we share here together. We see Christ in those who we serve in this holiday season. We see Christ in the lights that surround us, and the table which is set before us. Today, we testify that Christ is here, that God is with us, and that the love of God is such that we are never alone. We testify to God’s love this way with every blessing we offer today. – Amen.

Sermon 12/24/2022 – The Baby

Luke 2:1-14

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.

Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Sermon Text

The story we have told tonight is a simple one. Two people, going to their home town, welcome their baby into the world upon their arrival. They run into trouble because there is nowhere to stay, except for alongside animals, with a small food trough acting as their child’s first crib. We cannot relate to some details of the story, we do not have to walk long distances to get to our hometown now that we have interstates. We usually do not find ourselves so lost for options of where to stay that we have to see if the animals have room where they sleep. Most of all, most people today will not give birth in a stable, opting for hospitals and OBGYN’s keeping watch.

The simplicity of this story, aside from those details that make it seem strange to us, allows us to understand it more readily. We all know, from experience or proximity, how the birth of a child is. The rush of emotions everyone feels at this new life entering the world, the peril of making sure everything is set for them to enter safely. For these two parents long ago, much of the emotions were the same, the joy of finally holding the child they had cared for from afar, and the peril of seeing that he lived beyond that first fateful night.

The thing that sets this story apart is something that we know that only Mary and Joseph really knew up to this point. This child, somehow, was the savior of the world. This child was God given flesh, something eternal now wrapped up in something finite. Jesus the Christ, the eternal Word of God, now had come home to humanity. This was not in the grand trapping worthy of a God, but in the small package that is a baby. A mouth without teeth, a head with probably no hair, no attendants or nurses. In that moment when the newborn baby let out their first cry of life, the power by which all creation was spoken into being found only a mother and father to answer its need. The need to be warmed from the cold around him.

I have said many times that for me, the thing that makes Christianity most compelling, the power that we get from coming together and following our God the way we do, is that this God we worship came and became of this world. The world we know as being so messy that we often sit and worry about every little thing, God looked at that and said, “Let me live in that.” God did not choose a time of mass communication or technological ease to enter the world, but did choose a time when the stage was set for something that would make clear forever what the Divine felt about the Mundane. God sought out the poor, and was born to them. God sought out the oppressed, and became one of them. God sought out the unhoused, and started his life homeless. God came down and dwelt among us, and God took on every struggle God could.

At Christmas, and throughout Advent, we sing out an old song, “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” Return, God with us, to be God with us once more. We long to have a visible sign of God’s solidarity with humanity, we want to see Jesus face to face and know that God has faced all the trouble we have and that God cares for us because God knows what it is like. God knows what it is to be hungry, and cold, and sick, and dying, and brokenhearted, and lost, and lonely, and pained in every way. We want to see God and we want to see a comrade in the struggle. Today we celebrate that God came down and was that partner in suffering, and we celebrate that one day Christ will return to once again show solidarity through the rebirth of all creation, into the world it was always meant to be.

Tonight, whether it is for the first time or the hundredth time that we have heard it, we praise God that God cares for us. Tonight, whether as an old friend or someone new, we welcome Christ into our hearts and our lives. Tonight, we will light candles as a testament to the truth that we, the Church, are the light of Christ until he returns in final victory. Tonight, we celebrate the birth of our God into this world, and the salvation we all crave. – Amen.

Sermon 12/18/2022 – The Angels

Luke 1: 5-17, 26-38

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord…”

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
           “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Sermon Text

We go backward from our story last week to the pre-infancy of Jesus and John. Years before they become the ministers we know, they were merely the promises given by God to their respective parents. John was promised to Zechariah, though he could tell no one about it, and Jesus to Mary, though no one would believe her. A child born to impossibly old parents on one hand, and to a young woman out of wedlock on the other. Scandal and mystery stand side-by-side, as they often do, and we as people who know the ending look on in wonder to know that God made such wonderful things come from these circumstances.

Strange to both these stories is the appearance of angels. While we tend to think of the Bible as being full of angelic beings, they are really quite rare in scripture. Much like the miracles we consider synonymous with the pages of our scripture, angels were not more common long ago than they are now. Hundreds of years would pass between one recorded appearance of an angelic being and another. If we take out the prophetic descriptions of angels, which often come from ecstatic visions, then we can make that gap even larger. To see an angel is never a common occurrence, and the presence of these messengers here is nothing but spectacular.

Our term “Angel,” just means “messenger,” and the Greek (Angelos,) and Hebrew (Malak,) reflect this. In the Hebrew Scriptures, angels were seen as being wingless young men. The idea of angels with wings comes from the use of wings in Greek art to denote messengers of the Gods (e.g. the winged shoes of Hermes.) The angels in this story would have been differentiated from regular men somehow other than having big wings floating behind their back, but something about them stood out to those who saw them. Maybe it was their sudden appearance or disappearance, the clothes they wore, the sound of their voice.

The appearance of these men are not nearly as important as the things that they said. To the two women, in very different circumstances of life, the same message was given. You’re going to have a baby! It’s a boy! For one person this was the answer to years of prayer and struggling with infertility. For the other, this is a major reason to worry. You’re not married, the kid isn’t your fiancé’s and he knows it? That is a recipe for disaster. People could get killed for that kind of thing in the first century, if not by the powers that be, then by an angry mob. The two contrasts of these circumstances show something about what these children would mean to the world.

John was welcomed at first because he seemed to be bringing a message that everyone could resonate with. Redemption was coming! The harder part of his message was that we had to get ready for that redemption by changing our hearts. This is the message that was harder to hear, but still one that brought even Pharisees and Sadducees to come and be washed by him. John was not an easy person, not an attractive person, but he brought a message that people struggled to find a way to fight against. At the end of the day, his ministry ended over a personal squabble with a politician, and not because of the message he preached. John was the long-awaited prophet that promised something new, and even in his bizarre way of being, he found his niche.

Jesus was a more complicated figure. His birth to an unmarried woman made him a pariah. Legitimized though this birth may have been through his mother’s marriage, there were always going to be rumors. Jesus took John’s message and made it even more urgent. The time to repent is ending, the time to join the movement was short, the Kingdom of God was dawning. Jesus drew in massive crowds, like John before him, but these crowds were far more varied. Even some gentiles began to come to him looking for the redemption he fulfilled. Jesus offered an alternative to the way the world ran, and the world silenced him for his trouble.

I think it would be too simple to make too much of those contrasts. However, I do think that the birth of these men, relatives by blood, shows something of the contrast in their life. Both would die at the hands of the powerful, both lived lives in service to God, and both were ordained by Angels. Yet, while John was seen as another prophet in a long line prophets, Jesus was regarded in a much more varied way. John was the child of two people of good repute, and Jesus was the seeming bastard of a couple too poor to offer more than a few birds at the temple.[1] The worst that John’s critics could say was that he was not really a prophet, but the Gospels say they would never say such a thing in public.[2] Jesus could be shamed, though, because he was born to nothing, and sought to have nothing, and so was deemed to be nothing.

The announcement of two births, in two different circumstances. Both necessary for the start of something new, but both not quite what anyone might expect. Jesus our savior, Jesus the Lord of All, who we celebrate as coming to be with us, and as coming one day to set all things right again. That Jesus, was from his conception someone the world doubted. For Mary long ago, the news of her conceiving a child would have been terrifying as much as it was an honor. There is a reason that the Catholic Church honors her with a prayer modeled after the words the angel says here. To them her willingness to follow God into this terrifying adventure is the start of something amazing, and terrifying.

Faith is the sustaining blood of this life. It is what gives us the ability to hope. It feeds our love for one another. It is the simple commitment to the truth that is revealed in our meeting God, face to face. It is also a big scary thing. To have faith is to say that you trust something you cannot always see, and that you are ok with the road not always going where you expect.

Angels are universally met with fear in the Bible. They appear and people get ready to run. The first thing out of their mouths, therefore, is “Do not be afraid.” I think that those words are very necessary in our walk of faith. “Do not be afraid,” is the natural response to us realizing there is a God. “Do not be afraid,” is the response we need when we realize we have failed to do what is right. “Do not be afraid,” is the comfort we need when we are lost and alone and heart broken. “Do not be afraid,” is the little bit of drive we need to keep going, even when things seem tougher than we can ever imagine.

Mary is the real hero of today’s Gospel reading, because she accepted a heavy burden. She would always be seen after this angel’s visit as an object of scorn. She’d be called all kinds of nasty things by those who knew her kid wasn’t Joseph’s. She’d grow up with a child she could only begin to understand was somehow God and her little boy. She would walk with him as he preached his hard messages, and as countless people called him all the things she had tried to shield him from. She would know the greatest pain of watching him be killed for crimes he did not commit. Stranger still to meet him again, resurrected and glorified. Her little boy, long ago promised, now fully shining as the deity he was. Mary, our lady of sorrows, and mother of God, stands out as the first evangelist. She took Jesus into herself and gave him to the world at great pains to herself.

The angels still speak, though maybe not by appearing to us. The Spirit of God whispers to us, asks us to take the hard road, to try and bring about the Kingdom here and now. Sometimes we like Elizabeth and John, get to face hardships with relative dignity. Sometimes, we like Mary and Jesus, must abandon our self-image and our reputation to do what is right. May God give us the strength to do either, and may angels give us all rest this holiday and for ever. – amen.

[1] Luke 2: 22-24

[2] Mark 11: 27-33

Sermon 12/11/2022 – The Baptist

This sermon is an updated version of one preached for the second week of Advent 2019

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Sermon Text

We continue to look at those who paved the way for Jesus, by look at one of the most influential people in the New Testament, John the Baptist. He is someone who we are not given much information about. He will appear, say a few words, and then disappear before coming back and saying a few more things. From birth to death we are not given a full biography of John the Baptist. What he taught, who he taught it to, or how he ran his ministry. The only thing we know is that whatever he did it must have worked. Whatever it was he did, he was immensely successful at it.

Despite the little bit that is written about him, the biblical text and other ancient texts give us a good idea of who he was and what the general work it included. John the Baptist firstly was non-sectarian. He was not a part of the Temple Sadducees or the Teaching Pharisees or the Monastic Essenes, he existed in a space betwixt and between all of them. Not only did he stand out in this way, but he is the first person in history to be given the title of “Baptizer.” Not only this but he created the concept of “Baptism,” by transforming existing Jewish and Greek rites which were repeated for the sake of ritual purity into a declarative act of repentant reorientation.

His washing was not just a means to becoming clean, but a moment to commemorate something new was happening. That the baptizand had died to this reality and was born into a new one. John’s baptismal ministry gathered a group of disciples who appear throughout the Gospels. Sometimes they worked alongside Jesus and his disciples, sometimes arguing with them.

The strange thing about all this is that, though John was Jesus’s cousin, John never really interacts with Jesus. They usually sent messengers back and forth, and the text following today’s scripture, the baptism of Christ is the only time scripture records a face to face conversation between them. John and Jesus, two distinct separate messengers working toward the realization of God’s kingdom.

Yet, we see in John some indications of what Jesus would bring. John’s ministry was radically inclusive. He preached a message that managed to reach people where they were. He was so effective in his speaking that no matter how he got it out there, people from all over Judea were willing to come out and see him. Judea was not very large, smaller than most states, but to travel from one side of it to the other would be a trip of days if not weeks. People were willing to uproot their lives to hear the message and receive the Baptism of John.

This message, far-reaching as it was, was simple – “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” We’ve talked about repentance before. We understand the idea that we reorient ourselves toward God. That we reorient our vision of the future to be in line with the goodness that God wants. It is the transformation that comes with the renewing of our minds so that we can become good and do God’s good work. That is the essence of repentance.

If we go a step further I would say that most of us, except in moments of intense doubt or despair, feel as though we have room to grow and are capable of growth. That something can push us to grow by the Grace of God and that we can attain something beyond our current state. With this confidence of self and of God’s goodness, we have a sort of assurance. Here is the question though, is that assurance of God’s grace and our hope of growth just for people like us? Is it only for people in circumstances and situations and churches and pews and denominations like ours? Has the Kingdom of Heaven drawn near to a select few or to all people?

John answers this question in ministering to two groups – the crowd who we can assume were likely peasant farmers or other laborers from throughout the region, and distinct from them the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups controlled, on one hand, the religious instruction of the people and on the other the religious rituals of the Temple. Abundance and necessity, power and powerlessness, potential for action and inability to act met on the banks of the Jordan that day. In the way that John writes a potential confrontation was set up. “[John] saw that many of the Sadducees and the Pharisees were coming to see him.” The moment they are set apart is the moment we know something is about to happen to them.

Many times in reading this we put ourselves in the place of the repentant crowd, watching on as the Pharisees and Sadducees are made an example of, but today I want us to take on the role of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Imagine that you have heard the preaching of this man and that you come out from Jerusalem and step into the muddy waters of the Jordan to see him. Moving through a crowd of people you hear dialects and smell smells that you have never seen before. You walk between crowds of people who society tells you are all beneath you. You walk to see a preacher who your fellow leaders in Jerusalem have decreed a dangerous revolutionary. An apocalyptic preacher who only could cause trouble for someone in power like you.

But you know the power of this man’s preaching because it made a Pharisee and a Sadducee go up to see him. Two people who could not agree on anything religiously suddenly agreeing that this man was worth listening to. Imagine what it must be like then when this preacher you have come to see, looks at you from across the crowd and starts yelling. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come?” And if it wasn’t bad enough that he insults you and calls you a snake he accuses you of not really being invested in what you’re doing. “Do not presume,” As I am assuming you are, “to say, “I am a child of Abraham because God could rise up children to Abraham from rocks if God wanted.”

Now step away from that time and place and join me back in the here and now. Reading this text I find myself asking a question, which rocks are John pointing to? Is he pointing to the memorial stones down the Jordan at Schechem, can God raise up children of Abraham from the past? Is it to the rocks of the Temple, can God raise up children to Abraham through religious devotion? To the pebbles under his feet, is he recalling Genesis? Or is he pointing to those around him, to the crowd and to the Pharisees and Sadducees, saying, “From these stones, God could raise up children to Abraham.”

The Gospel does not use any special word here to indicate a metaphorical or literal meaning. It does, however, use the same word for stone as Greek translations of the Ezekiel do in describing our hearts before God transforms them. “Hearts of stone,” transformed into, “Hearts of flesh.” So we see that while John is critical of these people he is still looking beyond their present state to what could be. That God could take even a literal rock and turn it into a child of Abraham is a statement of God’s incredible power and grace not a statement about Humanity’s inability to meet expectations.

If the message is that a stone can become a child to Abraham what does it mean for a flesh and blood person if they are willing to take the leap? This is not to say that John is minimizing his criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees or that the wrong they have done does not matter. John is clear in laying out the stakes. The people must, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” No free pass is given simply because you apologize to God or anyone else you have hurt, but if you are sincere in your commitment to change, then the Kingdom cannot be denied you. If we are people who believe, who speak our contrition and act out our penance then the Kingdom is opened to us.

Yet we so often read this scripture as if it ends with John warning the Pharisees, “Bear fruit or perish.” Yet if we read the text honestly we see that his following statement does not change direction. He is still speaking to the Pharisees when he says, “I baptize you with water for Repentance, but the one who comes after me is mightier than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John gives correction to the Pharisees and Sadducees but he also gives them hope. “Your present is not the endpoint of your life and even I, John the Baptist, am not the fullest version of myself I could be. But I lead the way for one who will transform all of this.”

Let us return now to the Pharisee walking toward John. Having been insulted, accused, and told to straighten up you are now dipped in the Jordan. You are told those words, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” Now you hold in yourself the hope of the coming Messiah. As you leave the river, the Grace of God literally dripping from your clothing. Ask yourself one simple question, “Can I deny others what to me has been so freely given?” Let that question lead us, shape us, transform us in how we give Grace to the world around us. – Amen

Sermon 12/04/2022 – The Prophets

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge for the poor and decide with equity for the oppressed of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Sermon Text

Last week, looking into the Torah, we saw a reflection of a deep truth. In God’s promise that the enmity between the serpent and the woman would not be eternal, but have an end through the intervention of her child, we could see a clear image we could use to understand Jesus, born of humanity, and his work against evil. The work of the Gospel, perfectly embodied in the mere matter of a snake and its destruction. Today we jump forward in the history of God’s people. Looking far from the primordial state of the world, we look to the chaos of a world in ruin.

As with much of scripture, the prophet Isaiah preached during a time when conquest was just over the horizon. I was not a secret to anyone that the powerful armies of Assyria would begin making their way through the Levant. The only thing between the recently fallen Northern Kingdom and Egypt was Judah and its neighboring countries. There was no hope for the people not to be taken as collateral in the bid for control of the entire Eastern Mediterranean. Horses and chariots, siege engines and soldiers, all were loaded up and ready to reduce all opposition to their campaign to stubble and ash. This particular prophecy comes when Israel still stands between , this incredible army and the people of Judah, but neither country had a chance.

The promise that Isaiah brings is therefore one that is somewhere down the road. It is not deliverance in the form of a present King, but a future King. From the lineage of Jesse would come a hero who would purify the world. The wicked would be blown away, and peace would spring from where violence once sat. Wolves and their prey are now playmates in the fields. Blood is not shed, but life-giving springs bubble between all creatures in all places. Even the serpents of the world, literal and not metaphysical, are reduced to the toy things of small children. Asps and vipers, copperheads and moccasins, now just friends to all other life.

This idyllic vision of the future is one that any person would gladly see fulfilled around them. To see a world with no more pain, no more struggling just to get by, that is a blessed thing. Not only that, but a world where the wicked are punished and the righteous are allowed to live a full life, unfettered by the cruelty of circumstance. Now that is something worth dreaming of. Isaiah stands looking out over the countryside, knowing that much of it will soon be in flames, but he knows that there is a future ahead for God’s people and for all the world to flourish under.

Assyria would not completely destroy Judah, but it would reduce it to a vassal state. No longer independently governed, it owed taxes to the Assyrian capital and was expected to contribute to its military campaigns wherever possible. This end was far better than Israel, the northern kingdom, which was all but destroyed. The survivors in the land saw their culture merged with people from other Assyrian vassal states, and over time became what we now call “Samaritans.” The friction between Samaria and Judah was still decades off, but only a few days walk from Jerusalem would be the reminders of a people that once were, and now were not, the destruction of their siblings, the loss of ten tribes of the twelve in Israel.

The huddled people of Judah took in what survivors they could, some would go on to have descendants that cross our path in the New Testament – Anna the Prophetess being one such person. Yet, the dream of a king that removed all troubles never seemed to come. It was not achieved by the vassal-kings of Judah under Assyrian rule, nor when Babylon conquered a few generations later, nor when Zerubbabel ruled the exiles in the time of Ezra. Nothing seemed to bring about this prophecy’s fulfillment. The world is still in chaos, copperheads will still bite and kill, and wolves are not the best dogs to keep around our sheep. The world still waits in anticipation for the resolution of this prophecy, for peace without wickedness, but the day of that decisive peace seems distant, like a small light flickering in a dark attic.

It is not surprise then that the Early Church saw this prophecy as something that resonated with their experience of Jesus. Jesus, born into the family of David, was the thing that would someday bring about the kingdom that the prophet had long ago dreamt of. In Jesus’s time on earth we saw that light, distant and flickering, flare up brighter than any star in the sky. In Jesus there was a glimpse of something completely unlike what this world has shown us till now. There was a King who was first and foremost a servant. There was a God who allowed himself to be a slave. There was a Kingdom that promised the best for those with the least, and retribution for those who dared to have when others had not.

The bizarre nature of Christ’s life was a testament to the bizarre and wonderful nature of God’s kingdom. Repentance and forgiveness poured freely from the foot of the cross, a never ending stream that blessed all the world. The Spirit of God descended upon the Church after the resurrection, a great wind that blew them to the four corners of the known world proclaiming this new kingdom. An end to violence was possible, if all people banded together in love and service, a new era dawned upon the land. The root of Jesse had bloomed into a grand tree, and many found shelter beneath its branches.

Yet, of course, the Church has never been perfect, and seldom even successful in this mission, not on a grand scale at least. It took only a few hundred years for worldly powers to take over the Church. One of the first councils of the Church was called by an emperor, not a priest or even a believer, but an emperor seeking to create stability in his newly seized empire. That emperor set the tone of a unified force of Church and State that lasted centuries. The monks at first fled to the desert to avoid it, but even their monasteries fell in line. The Reformation simply moved the pieces around, and by the time of our own revolution even a country that claimed separation of Church and State could not resist power courting power.

The appeal of Christianity, its power and presence across all time, is that it is an alternative to the world. It is not like everyone or everything else, but is instead singularly focused on the object of its devotion – Jesus Christ, the Word of God present here with us. At this table all separations cease, there are no nations or denominations, no borders of IDs. When the bread is broken and the cup is lifted up, there is no distinction in sex or gender or circumstance or fare. We are all, each and every one of us, made equal in distance and proximity to Christ. We can see a little bit of what it is like not to have anger or violence rule the world, even just for a few minutes, if we let the time we gather here be like it was for the disciples to be in the presence of Christ. Here everything melts away, here there is only peace, here there is the glory of the Kingdom that God has always dreamt of.

In this Advent season, we await the coming of Christ into this world. Not just the birth of a Child two millennia ago, but a King riding triumphantly into a city that will know no end. This season, leading up to Christmas, is the time we tell the world that there is a good ending to the story of history. At the close of the book, there is not fear or doubt or struggle, but light everlasting and the life abundant. I hope that when we look into the worlds, shabby and broken as it is, we can do what Isaiah did.

Looking beyond the horizon, beyond all troubles and worry, there is a dawn approaching. Out from the darkness of all our sin and betrayal of God’s true kingdom, one that knows no distinction and seeks no power, there is a blazing flame that seeks to make things right once again. The conflagration at the center of life’s cyclical path is not a devouring and wicked thing, but something that purifies, refines, and will someday see all things made beautiful. Today, as we ought to do everyday, we must make clear the glory of our Lord through the communion of this congregation. We must see in one another the face of God, and show the world the world as it could be. – Amen.

Sermon 11/20/2022 – Too Far Gone?

Luke 23: 33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by watching, but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Sermon Text

The death of Christ is something that we as Christians depend upon. The resurrection is the moment that seals our salvation, proves God’s love and power, but that resurrection would not be necessary if we did not reject Christ in the first place. Jesus lived a life without sin, loving in ways we would call impossible, even praying till the very end for those who were actively killing him. A love we can never fully understand, made plain in every way, for the entire span of this amazing God-man’s life. The wonderful, dread sight of a Roman cross somehow spells the most dreadful moment of history, and the one that sealed the salvation of not only all believers, but all creation.

Jesus was not alone on the Hill of Calvary, but was joined by two criminals. The nature of their crime is unclear, as the term used for them across the Gospels can mean any number of condemning things. Perhaps they were thieves, ruffians who attacked their fellow citizens, or tied into something more dangerous and iconoclastic. Whatever the nature of their crime, they were now in the same place Jesus was. Hanging on Roman crosses, stripped of their clothes and their dignity, dying alongside a roadside at eye level with the people who passed by. Did the people turn their gazes? Did they spit and swear? Did they have any mercy for the people who had life draining from them, bit by bit.

The lives of those two thieves are cut off from us, but they are not foreign to us. We have known plenty of people in our lives guilty of all manner of evil. Some have been punished for their crime, others have escaped justice. Sometimes the harm they caused is small, to property or constituting a wound that might heal. Other times the damage is something that we are able to mitigate over time, but that will always leave some scar. Sometimes to the society around us, and other times to us individually or to the people we love.

The dreadful thing about God’s grace is that it truly is open for all people to receive. It is not just to the people we are able to agree with or support, but to all people who are willing to accept it. It can come in the earliest days of a person’s life, infused into them by family and friends since the moment they are born, or it can come as they draw their final breath. Either way, God’s grace cannot and will not be limited by our own imagination or preferences, and that is not something we take lightly.

The atrocities of the ages give us all the reason in the world to be mad that God would dare propose something so against our concepts of justice. It is patently and plainly unfair, and yet somehow it is obvious to us that a good God must always be willing to do something so plainly impossible as forgiving the unforgiveable. A God who suffered being crucified must care for those driving in the nails enough to suffer that kind of death. It is an impossibility, a conundrum and a half, but it is the example laid at our feet for all our own conflicts.

We talked last week about how community requires us to work together or it cannot exist. That means that sometimes forgiveness cannot equal completely with reconciliation, try as we might. We were being general then, applying it broadly to how we live together in community. Now we can be specific – we have people in this life we cannot associate with, not because it is impossible to be reconciled somehow, but because the two parties cannot do the work necessary to make it happen. I can forgive anyone in this world, I can have no ill will in my heart towards them, but I would be aiding and abetting their transgression if I pretended that things were as they always had been.

This is why we have policies in place that allow people who have committed crimes against others, for example, to be members of congregations and participants of ministry, but not without certain caveats. Some would say that absolution of sin is the erasure of consequence, but to do so is to deny the justice due all people and prevents us from cutting off the temptation toward additional harm. In our own lives, there may be people we have allowed back into our life, but cannot trust with the close things of our heart again. There is no erring in that, it is the most natural thing that can be.

I was in a relationship once that was abusive in all ways but physical. I was not happy and neither was my partner. Yet, we stayed together out of some kind of fear or convenience. As part of that cycle of toxicity, I was made to cut certain people out of my life. They had committed no sin against me, had been nothing but good friends, but because of the preferences she held, I found myself fracturing my own soul to keep the piece. Some of those people are now fully restored to the relationship we had before, now years after my seeking therapy allowed me to break my chains and end the abuse. However, not every relationship could come back to where it was. Forgiveness has been given me, but time shifts people and growth happens that puts us in different places. To paraphrase a secular prophet, “Not everyone, [we]’ve abandoned, is still standing by.”[1]

Even for my abuser, forgiveness is something that has settled deep in my heart. I see how their own situations have led them to where they are. I cannot hold any true animosity for them, broken as they are and broken as I was to stay there with them. Yet, I would not ever try to patch things up, to be a friend to them again. There is no outcome of that that would be mutually good in either direction, and so a door is closed that will remain shut. The slate is washed away, but with it comes a block that cannot be removed. So great is the necessity of preserving what is good over what some might call “best.”

In a discussion I had recently with someone I stated how the process of reconciliation begins first with the person who did what was wrong realizing they made a mistake. Then they have to go and ask forgiveness of God and the person they did wrong. The next step is baffling to us, but necessary. The person is forgiven in their confessing, their sin somehow washed away in a moment. Then, and only then, are they to do all they can to fix what is broken. “Why?” We might ask, “Would you bother to do work, when you are already in the clear?” Because I would answer, we are not trying to be guiltless in this life, but righteous.

If I wrong my wife every day, and she forgives me every night, but I never change how I act, our marriage won’t grow or flourish in any way. If I go out and lie and cheat and steal, then I can be forgiven a dozen times, but unless I stop my lying and cheating and stealing and face up to the consequences of my evil, I will continue doing harm. We are trying to be better and to be good, like Christ was good before us, and that means that regardless of being forgiven, we have to change. Repentance is the act of turning around, confession of fessing up. If we only ever get to admitting our wrongdoing, but not changing, than we are actively denying the better portion of God’s gifts.

Yet, the thief on the cross shows us that even the very end of life can be the moment we turn our lives around. I do not recommend it though. This thief missed out on a life of shared commitment, of happiness, of friendships and family ties by blood and by association. He enters Paradise a stranger to all who are there ahead of him, able to make friends and connections in eternity and among the perfected. However, it is better to go somewhere knowing some people to welcome us in, rather than having a committee of strangers standing there. It is better to be in Heaven as a Saint in training than a Saint in name only. Today do the hard work and forgive someone in your life, but I implore us to do the harder thing and make things right that we have broken. – Amen.

[1] They Might be Giants. Sometimes a Lonely Way. Idlewild, 2013.

Sermon 11/13/2022 – A Mutual Responsibility

2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13

Now we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from every brother or sister living irresponsibly and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not irresponsible when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living irresponsibly, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Sermon Text

A “Rorschach Test,” refers to a particular psychological test created by Hermann Rorschach in 1921. Rorschach, besides being unnecessarily handsome, saw the test as an opportunity to draw from a person’s initial reactions to the images some deeper understanding of their unconscious thoughts. By looking at the inkblots a person might feel strong emotions or see figures, that could be helpful to understanding something within themselves. The inkblots are not used much in modern psychological practice, but do provide the basis for certain kinds of art therapy used today.

Hermann Rorschach being unreasonably attractive.

The text we just read is similar to these inkblot tests. Depending on a person’s political and social standing, the text can mean wildly different things. For years in American politics the injunction that “Those who are unwilling to work, should not eat,” has been a foundation of anti-welfare stances and the general Conservative ethos around any government program. Meanwhile, the same text was immortalized by Vladimir Lenin as a core tenant of his brand of communism, and enshrined within the Soviet Constitution.[1] For one group the target of vitriol was the imagined “Welfare Queens,” dreamt up in the political campaigns of the 70s and 80s, for the other the very present reality of the rich making money off of the poor without lifting a finger to help society except in moving money from one rich person to another.

Reactions to this text go in either direction – either we must attack the rich for their unwillingness to work alongside everyone else in society, or the poor for any number of things they may or may not be doing. As with anything in American culture, the words of Paul in this text become a weapon, and we just need to find who we want to hit with it. We are a combative people, and we want to know who is going to get it at the end of the day.

I would submit, however, that this lesson is not meant to be the foundation of an economic system as we presently imagine them to exist. At the time of 2 Thessalonians writing, Capitalism would not emerge for another sixteen hundred years, and Communism another seventeen hundred. To force Paul to support one side or the other of the Cold War is to on one hand apply modern standards to the ancient world and on the other to force Paul to only be relevant in the here and now. Two hundred years from now, when new economic systems are the norm that we do not yet have names for, will people look at this text as we read it today and decide it no longer matters? Only if we lock it in as an argument about something as transient as economic theory.

There is a deeper reality to the words of the Apostle, and they reflect the need for a society, and on a smaller scale a community, to see themselves as being responsible to and for one another. When I come in this room, I am not just someone doing a job, although I am a “Religious Professional,” I am someone covenanting to be a part of this community. I am responsible to help everyone here be well. While all clergy in the Methodist Church belong to the annual conference rather than to any one church, the church we serve is a community we swear to lead with authority and to be a part of in all ways we can. In the same way, every one of us who attends this church, who has taken membership vows to it, or who simply helps when we can, all of us have taken an oath to be with one another and uphold one another.

I have rained praise of this congregation time and time again for its ability to love one another, and the community around us, so I do not feel like I have to start from square one on what mutuality looks like. However, I do want to go through Paul’s command here to show us just how broad the issues of a mutual society go. Firstly, by establishing what “mutual responsibility,” looks like. When I say, “Mutual,” What comes to mind? Working together, a single-mindedness of will? A car insurance company that really needs to stop with the emu mascot?

Mutualism, mutuality, mutual responsibility, however we term it, is fundamentally an act of regarding other people as equal to ourselves and treating them as such. If I want to help you, I do not do it as if I am better than you. If I seek help from you, I do not see myself as beneath you for needing that help. If we are fighting, I treat you like someone with equally valid emotions and thoughts as me. In all things, we are equal, except perhaps expertise and circumstance. Whether I am well off a the moment or particularly good at something does not make me better than you, nor would the inverse make you better than me.

That is hard for human beings to accept. We want the world to be hierarchical because it makes it easier to categorize the things around us. In the era of instantly sorted entries on any website we want, we are even more primed than ever to say one thing stands above another. For Thai food and movie musicals that is a fair way to sort our priorities, but it cannot be the same for people. The value of a human life cannot be determined by any measure except equality. The person who lives off the money left to them by their parents is just as valid as the person who works 40 hours a week and just scrapes by, at least in terms of their dignity.

However, if those two people are living together, the reality of their life cannot remain the same while still acknowledging that dignity. The person with all the money in the work, and no need to work, cannot look at the person struggling to get by and say something as blasé as “they should just get another job,” or “they are not my problem.” Something is broken if someone exists who can live without working and another person must work themselves to the bone just to get by.

This teaching affects the comfortable much more than the poor, it is simply a reality of scripture that equality demands more of the well-off than the struggling. We as a culture are primed, by those in power and with money, to distrust one another. Jeremiah talks about this when he searches the streets of Jerusalem, where the rich live for righteous people. Having been primarily out in the farms around the city, he thought that among the well to do he might see something different. Jeremiah instead lays out the reality of the situation. The poor have turned on one another, stealing and cheating to get ahead, and the rich have pretended they do not exist, pushing them far away from view and feasting while they starve outside their gates.[2]

This acknowledges the reality that scarcity can cause people to become unpleasant. When you do not know where food is coming from, you are more comfortable lying, or cheating, or stealing. Survival trumps ethical concerns, our brains are wired that way. More despicable is the mindset that many of us here, more comfortable in our lives than those pushed to that brink, still hold onto. We look to those desperate to make it by, both those who do so through acceptable and unacceptable means, and we see an existential threat that simply is not there. We see in the pilfering of a blessing box that is set up with no strings attached, a violation rather than a fulfillment of purpose.

We see in the occasional theft of items from our porch, some grand sign of human evil, rather than a sign of the societal decay we have facilitated. We see in the faces of the needy, people to regard with suspicion, rather than people just like us, simply trying to get by. All the while, those better off than us pull the strings to keep us all pushed down, to make sure that we do not trust one another. The bread and circuses laid before us are not like they were in Rome, of gladiators and literal bread. They are in the cries to destroy homeless encampments, the entertainment we get from “People of Walmart,” and similar meme pages, the desire to set us on edge against one another rather than work together toward our mutual good.

Younger people are less enthusiastic to join the workforce. Why do we think that is? Many would talk about entitlement or general laziness, but we know that cannot be the truth if we consider young people equally dignified. The answer comes in a knowledge that work does not always contribute to something meaningful in life. We all need to live, we all want to work to help other people, but busing tables at 3 different restaurants just to make enough money to pay rent is not going to do it for anyone. Mutuality would dictate that, in the name of allowing young people a chance at a half decent life, those who run businesses must be willing to take a hit to profits, consumers must be willing to pay a little bit more, and, yes, worker must come to the shift they signed on for.

This bleeds beyond the economic into all aspects of life. Do you have someone who did you wrong, you forgave them and tried to make things right, but they won’t change what caused the problem? Mutuality would dictate they must make as much an effort as you did. If they won’t do that, wash your hands of it. This community in this room stands or falls based on our willingness to regard each other as equals and work for the good of one another. We can sit and pray and wish and dream all we want, action is required to really keep things going. Paul looked at the Thessalonians long ago and saw that there were people not willing to play the game, not willing to be in community with one another, and his words to them were straightforward and harsh – if they will not contribute, they will have no part in this.

We can see that as a weapon, a threat to menace people with. However, that is not what scripture is for. It is “God breathed and good for instruction.” When we hear that we must do our part in our community, we should feel something stirred up within us. For some of us, it may actually lead to laying down a few responsibilities and giving them to the other people who are enabled by this teaching. For others, it will encourage us to seek a new way to contribute to those around us, to see in our neighbor a reflection of our own humanity and dignity and goodness. We can see this as a chance to grow, or as a chance to feel worse about ourselves than we already do.

For my part, I choose growth. I want to be more involved in God’s kingdom, and that means being willing to say yes to helping others, seeing no work as beneath me. I live one the charity of others, though I work 40ish hours in a week, I am paid out of the giving of this congregation. My existence can become exactly what Paul warns against, someone who “Works around,” but never “works with.”[3] I do not want that to be the case. So, this teaching sits in my heart as a challenge.

Again though, this is not just about money, though money is a big part of life. In our lives, we have a mutual responsibility to each other. We must serve with the mindset we are all equal. I cannot rant and rave about something someone did without acknowledging they probably had a reason to do it. I cannot destroy my self-image at the altar of another person either, because I must acknowledge that even the person I have everything in the world to learn from, is just as human as I am. Mutuality, “philios,” in Greek, is simply loving one another as a family, and in Christ, all the world is our family. Rich, poor, Socialist, and Capitalist. In coming together we all must mortify some aspect of ourselves and elevate others, may we do so in the name of the common Good, the pursuit of the Gospel, and the realization of the Kingdom. – Amen.

[1] Vladimir Ilyieh Lenin, The State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1943)

[2] Luke 16:19-31

[3] 2 Thessalonians contrasts the people who “work” (ἐργάζεσθαι,) with those who “work around,”
(περι-εργαζομένους,) By adding, “peri,” to the verb he is making clear that his criticism is of the kind of people who, hearing there is a dinner to be prepared, choose to go hang shelves in the garage. Occupying time, but to the help of no one.