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 11/13/2022 – 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.

Sermon 11/03/2022 – All Saints 2022

Ephesians 1:11-23

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may perceive what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Sermon Text

How do we know about the glory of God? I’m asking a real question, I’d love to hear a few ways it can happen. There are the things that happen to us in our own life that do it, the miracles we witness and the lives we see transformed. There are the words of scripture that testify again and again that God has and always will be with God’s people. Prayer, the feeling of assurance and connection that it brings. Each of these are some of the ways that we connect to the reality of God’s presence among us. No force is more powerful, in my opinion, than the community of faith which we are called to be a part of.

When we are called into the Church, we join something much bigger than ourselves. We are all in this room part of something together, and so are all other Christians in this town. All Christians in this town, this county, this state, this world, are all part of something far beyond ourselves. This is the Church, the body of Christ, the Communion of the Saints. Those who are saved by faith in Christ are made sacred by the grace of God working upon them. The Greek faithful called these people, Ἁγιας, “Holy Ones,” and through a series of translations we called those same people “Saints.”

We usually use the term Saint, in protestant contexts at least, to refer to those who have died and are present with God. We in our earthly existence are still prone to sin, only a few of us being perfected so as to avoid all intentional sin. Yet, even the most perfect human will fall short of the mark somewhere along the line. Only when we experience death are we fully cleansed of the effects of sin, exposed fully to the sanctifying grace of God which grows into a glorifying presence within us. Our souls, awaiting the perfection of the physical self, go beyond us and become present with God, we enjoy the state between death and resurrection with all those who went before us. We live in peace, fully and truly, with one another.

The life of the dead in Christ is something we can never fully comprehend. We can imagine what Heaven may be like, but scripture gives us very little to work on. Oftentimes scripture uses the image of Jerusalem, an idea more than it is a city in much of the history of God’s people. This city upon a hill represented the hope of a return from exile, the end of the long walk from Egypt into Canaan, and a place where all people might someday meet to find the God that had created and adored them. Yet, we cannot see Heaven as just a city, not a municipal power with roadways and sidewalks, and plumbing. This is just one way of understanding the future of God’s people.

When God’s throne is described, the image is far more abstract. Gemstones take on unnatural tones and stretch across miles, while many faced cosmic entities praise the flaming presence of God at the center of reality. The locus upon which everything turns, radiating heat and light and life itself. This image screams opulence, it screams power, it testifies to the inexplicable nature of the divine. Yet, it is still just another way of describing something we cannot yet grasp.

Our eternity with God is described more helpfully in terms of family. We are adopted by God, we are adopted into Abraham’s lineage, we are adopted as Children of the Most High and Siblings of Jesus Christ. Alongside our new relations, we have all the believers who have ever lived. We celebrate together, we weep together, until all things are set right, we suffer the troubles of life together. The joy of Heaven, mixed with the melancholy that it is not yet joined to Earth, that is the nature of the people of God until all things are set right with Christ’s final victory over sin and death.

The hardest part of losing someone we love to death, as people of faith, is not often a complete feeling of loss. We have hope in the life that comes after this one, so we do not give in completely to despair. Yet, we cannot deny the complete separation that death brings. One moment you are living your life with someone, making plans, putting off phone calls, skipping a social event, enjoying meals together, or sitting in comfortable silence. We both take for granted and fully appreciate people in equal measure throughout our life. Death, shuts off the potential to grow into that. The whole rest of our life we are spent with that relationship left off wherever it was.

We cannot, in the face of eternity, pretend that later there will be enough time to make up what we do not do here. There are some friendships I did not treat well in college, people who I pushed away, and later reconciled with. Those friendships were not able to just go back to how they were, nor will they ever. We grew apart over that time, and we grew separately into better and different people. Those who are with God, likewise grow, more merciful, more loving, more accepting. They will embrace us when the time comes, they will be better than earthly people are at picking up where we left off. However, we can avoid those issues if we treat each other well now.

We all have regrets, we should not cling to them for those who are gone. They will find us, they will have ample forgiveness and absolve many things that we feel guilt over that they never thought of. For the living though, our responsibility is much plainer. Next week we will tackle some of what that means, to live together in mutual love and respect. For now, let today be a reminder that while our life in Christ does not end, we have no excuse to use that not to treat one another well on this side of eternity. There will come a time where we cannot meet up and enjoy a meal, or apologize for the sins we committed intentionally or accidentally. The time to ask forgiveness, and give it, is now. The time to grow closer together in love, is this very moment.

What example do we have in this? Why, the example of the saints who went before us. We all know people we loved who are with God now. They taught us how to be good, how to love, and forgive. Also, probably, they taught us a fair share of bad habits too. However, the glory of God is not shown through most anything except other people. I see the glory of God when I look in the face of another person, and I see their humanity. Irenaeus put it this way, “The glory of God is a living person, and the life of a person is in beholding God.” The dead see God face to face, we see as in a mirror darkly, but all of us bask in that glory.

Today, as we observe All Saints Day, we testify to the people who have gone before us. We remember that life has an end, and that we only have so much time to make things right before God must step in and do so. No one owes us the restoration of a relationship, but we can choose to be part of that healing. We can practice in many ways, but continuing the legacy of those who came before us is a good way to testify God’s goodness. Whenever I care for my family, I do so with the lessons my grandfather gave me close to my heart. Whenever I lose hope in love, I remember a woman I once knew who, despite not understanding the things that had come between her and her child, did everything she could to understand and love him.

In gathering at this table today, we are joined with those we have lost. They testify to the grace of God, so as to absolve us of any guilt we feel about how we treated them. They testify to the goodness of God, so as to inspire us to be better now. They show us that God has rectified the gap even between life and death itself, so that we can reach out and do what we can to fix any relationship that might be broken in this life. Christ has set a table for the living, those alive on earth and alive in Paradise. May we who feast today do so as people with hope, people who want to love each other more fully, and people who want to leave a legacy of love and peace that we might leave as an inheritance to all who come after us. – Amen.

Sermon 10/30/2022 – A G-G-Ghost?!

1 Samuel 28:3-25

Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. Saul had expelled the mediums and the wizards from the land. The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams or by Urim or by prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go to her and inquire of her.” His servants said to him, “There is a medium at Endor.”

So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothes and went there, he and two men with him. They came to the woman by night. And he said, “Consult a spirit for me, and bring up for me the one whom I name to you.” The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the wizards from the land. Why then are you laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?” But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He answered, “Bring up Samuel for me.” When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice, and the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” The king said to her, “Have no fear; what do you see?” The woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up out of the ground.” He said to her, “What is his appearance?” She said, “An old man is coming up; he is wrapped in a robe.” So Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did obeisance.

Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams, so I have summoned you to tell me what I should do.” Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done to you just as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 

Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you today. Moreover, the Lord will give Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me; the Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.”

Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground filled with fear because of the words of Samuel, and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. The woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Your servant has listened to you; I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me. Now, therefore, you also listen to your servant; let me set a morsel of bread before you. Eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” He refused and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him, and he listened to their words. So he got up from the ground and sat on the bed. Now the woman had a fatted calf in the house. She quickly slaughtered it, and she took flour, kneaded it, and baked unleavened cakes. She put them before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.

Sermon Text

Tomorrow is Halloween, and tonight we are holding out Trunk or Treat here at the Church. There seems then no better time in the Church’s calendar to address a text like the one we just read. It has so much that it leaves unsaid, and yet tells us plenty that we can use to expand and challenge our viewpoints on life, the supernatural, and even what the afterlife might be like. The overwhelming weight of this scripture has overwhelmed more than a few ministers, and I am going to tread lightly as we try to understand what happened long ago between the King of Israel, a diviner, and a dead prophet.

Samuel was the leader of the people of Israel before the Monarchy began. He served as a moral guide to the many judges that looked over the tribes. He also anointed the first King of Israel when the leaders of the tribes demanded that they be ruled by a single leader rather than remain a loose confederation. Samuel was reluctant to make a king, and Saul, the first king, proved to be more than deserving of those doubts. Saul was slow to listen to the prophet, quick to strike out at potential threats, and generally unwell. When he was reaching the end of his reign he had taken in a young shepherd turned mercenary in as a confidant. His son, Johnathan, was especially fond of this young renaissance man named David.

Saul knew that his reign was in danger, and after a final confrontation with Samuel before his death, Saul suddenly found that he no longer had no access to the word of God. The prophet was dead, and his sycophantic replacements were not giving actual advice. The high priest had nothing to tell, not even with the urim and thummin – soothsaying stones held in the Temple. There was nothing to help Saul make decisions, not even good advisors to tell him what he should or should not do. In his desperation, he decided to go against his own policies and convictions, calling upon the help of a magician in a land we do not know today.

In Endor (not the forest moon of Endor, but some unknown region,) Saul finds a medium who can bring the dead back to life – albeit temporarily. This was forbidden in the Torah, and Saul had outlawed the practice in his kingdom as an act of obedience to that law. However, now that he needed answers he could not get elsewhere, he reaches out to that forbidden source of knowledge, he calls upon the magician, and strange things follow. The magician opens up a channel to the world of the dead, and calls up the prophet Samuel to proclaim Saul’s doom. A prophet of God, coming up from the chthonic realm of the dead, to deliver one last prophecy.

The Church, and alongside it Judaism, has been uncomfortable with this text. The Greek translators of this text chose to translate “אוֹב” as “ἐγγαστρίμυθον,” in simpler terms translating the term “medium,” as “belly-button talker.” In modern language, a ventriloquist. This line of thinking was also taken by many rabbis throughout history. The witch was a charlatan and was simply imitating Samuel speaking against Saul. There was no necessity in the eyes of these readers for the exchange to have any reality, but only for Saul to have been ripped off by a scam artist.

Christians were more willing to play with the text. While many stuck to the idea that Saul was the victim of manipulation, others suggested that he was courting demons. Many Church Fathers saw the witch, or the presumed figure of Samuel, as demons actively working against Saul. While this eliminates the discomfort we have at a dead person being brought  back by illicit magic, the text does not claim any demons are involved here. More than that, if the witch was using a demon, or somehow was a demon, then we would not expect the specter to tell the truth, which absolutely does happen.

We are left then having to take this text somehow on its face value. We have talked before about the lack of a coherent belief in the afterlife in ancient Israel. Some believed that the dead slept, others that they lived as shades imitating their earthly life, and still others that they essentially ceased to exist. It was not until the Babylonian Exile that the afterlife becomes a significant interest in the eyes of scripture and of Judean believers. For Saul and Samuel, the expectation was that death was more or less the end of everything, and so Saul was expecting the shade of Samuel to be a lesser form of the prophet, but the prophet nonetheless.

The witch describes Samuel as rising up from the ground, consistent with where the dead were buried and believed to live. Like Hades in Greek myth and the underworld of Sumerian myth, Sheol was the place the dead lived in Israelite teachings. Samuel does not appear as a shade though, but is described as “אֶלֹהִים,” a word used elsewhere for God, that generally means “Godlike,” or “in the power of God.” For Samuel to come from the land of the dead, not diminished, but somehow enhanced, seems to reveal a little more about how we exist between death and the final resurrection.

Later texts describe the dead as existing in two categories, those who are holy live near Abraham and by extension God, while those who are not are pushed to the extremes of the underworld. By the time Jesus was ministering, this view becomes a full-on place of punishment and reward. All the dead reside in Hades until the end of the age, but one part of it is a taste of Heaven and the other a preview of Hell. Adapting these later terms, Samuel comes up from sitting beside Abraham and shines out the holiness that he had in life, unburdened by the corruption of sin and freed from its evils through death. The witch is terrified, as is Saul, at the revelatory nature of this revivified prophet.

I do not think that ghosts are something common, nor that most people who claim to be witches have any power beyond taking on religious trends from the 1960s. No, I do not believe in Ouija boards or divination in its many forms, but I cannot deny either the mysteries of the world. We had a talk in Bible Study recently about the mysterious things we’ve seen in life. Ghostly shadows and footsteps that have no person to produce them, just a taste of the unspeakable things we encounter in life. This is not to mention other spiritual experiences that defy explanation. For every 100 Ghost stories that are easily debunked, one is compelling enough to make you think.

The important thing for us, as people of faith, is to trust that God is more powerful than any force we encounter. Samuel, being raised from the dead somehow, was not darkened by the fell magic around him. Instead, he shone out in Godly light and prophesied as though he was alive. How does that work? I do not know, but God seemed to use this medium to make it happen, to deliver one last message to the King that was now to be deposed. For us, we can feel comfortable that the dead are cared for. They are not roused by magicians, because Christ has conquered all powers in Heaven and Earth, and nothing can wrest the souls of his beloved from his care.

Next week, we observe All Saints Day, and we look to the way that God cares for those gone from us. Yet, here in this strange story, we get a quick look at what that care looks like. God’s sanctifying glory shines out, even beyond death, in those who love and serve him. May we all reflect while alive, even a portion of such glory, testifying the truth of God in the face of kings. Let us also face the unknown with a confidence that God is with us, and a willingness to embrace our questions alongside God’s revelation. – Amen.

Sermon 10/23/2022 – Humility Above All

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Sermon Text

Sometimes Jesus told parables that I really question whether or not they are something he saw recently. Similarly, to how Nathan got David to admit his wrongdoing by shifting the people in the story to being shepherds, so Jesus seems to address very real people in mildly fictionalized scenarios. I think to back when I watched a lot of Law and Order in High School, or even Criminal Minds for that matter, inevitably they would have a story ripped straight fROm the headlines, and they would do next to nothing to hide that fact. That produced something of a voyeuristic effect within the show, a definite knowledge that I was being entertained by something awful that really happened.

The effect is different in ancient discourse, and usually it was not for the purpose of entertainment. While we remain captivated by many of Jesus’s parables, even two thousand years later, I would not say that many of them entertain me. The parable of the figs, is just a thing that happened to Jesus the other day when he yelled at a fig tree. The parable of the Good Samaritan, a bit better in terms of entertainment value, but the message is kinda obvious so I’m not left wanting to know more about the characters. No, the parables lack that sort of problem when they’re representing real people in the life of Jesus and his disciples, but they still have a stamp of familiarity that is hard to deny.

Maybe what we see is not Jesus throwing any amount of shade, as our first instinct might be, but instead a projection of our own feelings. We can think of people in our lives that resemble the characters in the parables and so we imagine Jesus must also have such specific people in mind when he tells these stories. Maybe that’s the secret to a good story, creating characters that become vessels for the listener to explore their own emotions and place in life, and not just to make some statement about our own.

Regardless of the exact intent behind the story, Jesus does have a point to make in this parable. There is a right and a wrong way to go about our devotion to God, and I would say any aspect of our life where we feel we are doing exceptionally well. A difference between expressing joy and basking in the goodness God has allowed us to experience, and lording those opportunities over others as if we alone made them come to be. It is a difficult thing to be humble, especially when addressing things that we legitimately should be lauded for. Yet, the person of faith has to walk that line and see that there is utility to humility.

Likewise, it should be said, the downtrodden in the world need to be elevated and lifted up. There are so many people in life that refuse to think one good thing about themselves, and that is no less a problem than excessive pride. Jesus here sees the tax collectors broken heart and praises it, not just for its humility, but for what it means. Tax collectors were considered pariahs in Judean society, not just because they collected taxes – although that gives us all indigestion – but because they were seen as traitors and thieves. They helped the Roman empire, the active oppressors of the people, and often asked for money beyond the tax itself to line their own pockets. To see the tax collector lamenting in the Temple meant they might be ready to make a change, something the Pharisee never would.

Pharisees were in many ways like pastors for ancient Judea. They had a bit more sway in the community and its daily life, but still basically pastors. That meant that you had good pastors and bad ones. There were pharisees as humble as Moses and pharisees as proud as the Morning Star at its zenith. Despite the multiplicity of actual morality among the pharisees, it is not surprising to me that Jesus would use them as an example of what is wrong with God’s people. You want to see virtue in a church, a pastor is not a bad place to look, but you can also find a lot of rot rising up to the top of any power structure.

The two characters embody as much dispositions of self-image as they do a willingness to respond to God. The Pharisee here loudly proclaims all that they have done for God so that the people know that they keep the law and then some. For this person, the Law has become a means to an end. For the tax collector the Law is what it is always meant to be – the instructions of God through Moses for the betterment and perfection of humanity through the Spirit of God. The tax collector will leave the temple thinking what he can do to better serve God, while the Pharisee will leave determined he already does enough.

Some of that might sound familiar to those who were here last week. It turns out that beyond our general stances on how quickly we become holy when we accept Christ’s call upon our life, there is a necessary willingness to be conformed to that image and calling. Humility is ultimately an honesty about the necessity of change and an acknowledgement of the progress that has already occurred. The humble person is not one who denies there is any good within them, but the one who can see where they stand before God, aware of the large gulf between, while noting that the separation was once much more pronounced.

Sitting in your pew today, you should be able to see a difference in how you think and act now to how you did a year ago. Hopefully, beyond that you can see that that difference is good. If not, a different conversation has to happen. However, humility allows for the conversation to go either way. The more we learn about being good, the higher the standard becomes, and so we are not ever in a place where we can lord our goodness over another, not if we truly know the meaning of the word. Likewise, no one can fall from a height to the place they cannot climb back up again, the path often being worn down and easier the second time than the first.

When we see Jesus blessing the humble, we might believe that we suddenly have to have very low self-images. I know many people will insist that there is not one good thing within them. I think that downplays the work of God upon us. We are justified through faith alone, yes, but the sanctification that God works in us makes permanent and definite changes to our soul. Those paths I mentioned a moment ago, are things we can go up and down, but they have been cleared by God’s spirit. The goodness within us is hard won, and it is won through the power of God, but it is all the same present with us.

The humble man, contrite and wanting to change, probably did more good on a regular basis than the proud one. The amount of grief he felt at his wrong certainly allows for him to be more than ready to bounce back and make amends for whatever evil there might be. Just one chapter away from this Parable, Jesus sees his story enacted by Zacchaeus, a tax collector who repays all those he cheated and then some. Zacchaeus did not do this because he already knew how to be good, or because he was exceptionally proud, but because when he met Jesus and was aware of his evil, he was more than ready to do the good necessary to fix it.

Perhaps that is the thing we need to keep in mind. Humility is the ability to look in the mirror and make a change. Pride is covering the mirror and substituting some imagined self-perception upon it. However, cover up the mirror, and you will not be able to keep yourself in the state you last remembered. When we do not reflect and seek to change, we change nonetheless, however rather than growing we shrink. We become less than we were, not able to find contentment in growth, but false comfort in delusion. We miss out when we do not seek out truth, and truth sets us free. It frees us from guilt by allowing us to take action, it frees us from sin by allowing us to become holy, it frees us to the freedom we are called to. All this, if we can only be honest about the real problems, to come to the real solutions. – Amen.

Sermon 10/16/2022 – A New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:27-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:

“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of the one who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.

Sermon Text

Of all the unfulfilled prophecy of scripture, I think that our reading for today is the most heartbreaking. The promise that God’s people would come to a place where there might be peace in every aspect of life. No more sin, no more evil, no more suffering or questions. There would only be the surety of God’s goodness and the wonderful joy of human participation in that divine economy of grace. The future when the past does not affect the present, for all has been wiped away except what was good and worthy.

The future painted by Jeremiah here is something that God’s people have always sought after. We all want to live in a world where we do what we ought to. Even at our most downtrodden and in those moments we do what we want, knowing that it is not right, we want to be good. The acknowledgement of the conflict within us is something that Paul gives as evidence for the work of God within us. When we can see ourselves resisting temptation it is a sign of our own strength and our growth. God has given all people a conscience, and that conscience is refined by the Spirit into something corrective. We do not live in guilt and doubt, but we take every opportunity to serve one another in love to grow and to change.

Yet, the promise here is not the gradual change of the soul over a long time, but an immediate realization of a new world. This is a dream within the heart of God, one that will see fruition someday. This dream is that the saving grace of God will finally eradicate sin from creation, a clean attempt to remake the world as it should be. The people of God would be unable to err because all that was within them was goodness and light. This is done all through God reaching down and scooping out the things within us that have gone awry, and nurturing all that is right. An infusion of goodness to match that of our example in Christ, the perfection of the human condition into a perfect divine reflection.

Different people have seen this miraculous flip switching at different times in a person’s life. We in the Methodist Tradition usually see the language here regarding the instantaneous nature of our sanctification as actually reflecting a prolonged process. The Hebrew here, after all, while seemingly immediate, only says that God “Will,” write upon our hearts, not how long the transcription process takes. So, Wesley and many a Wesleyan after his example insist in a slow transformation through the constant discipline of our hearts. In pursuing holiness, we are transformed into what we ought to be. Unsatisfied with this, the holiness movement, led by innovators like Phoebe Palmer, suggested that when we come to the altar and confess our faith for the first time, we ought to never sin again – having laid it all down, we should at once be made whole.

I want us to see something of use in both these understandings. There is a trap that the earnest practitioner of holiness can fall into. Since we are all aware that we are on a journey, not where we need to be yet but well on our way, we can be comfortable not making much progress. That goes beyond issues of faith to anything we practice. I have not made the hats I ought to have since I started knitting, and I still only know how to work in one color and with one kind of cast-on. I should be farther along in that art I enjoy, so imagine the holiness I would rather put off for another day.

This lack of practice that can come from being overly comfortable with the process rather than the outcome requires us to claim some of our urgency back. We never know when our life will end, and I want to end my life in the best possible place I can spiritually. I want to know God as much as I can while I live, to treat others with the love and respect that only holiness and insight can give, to be transformed fully while there is air in my lungs. We must be urgent in our pursuit of holiness, because our time is limited on this earth.

What of the other end of the spectrum? Among the holiness school there ought to be a greater adherence to God’s ways, and I think there often is. Some of the kindest people I know, who excel in showing God’s love to the world, are Pentecostal or Pentecostal-Adjacent. I know that hearing about some of the hooping and hollering and Spirit filled altar calls of this congregation, many of y’all weren’t far from that tradition back in the day. The United Brethren on the corner of 19th and Pride were, what I think would classically be called, “Holy Fools.” The Spirit led you to do what you were gonna do in worship, and ain’t no one gonna stop it.

The immediacy of action that the Pentecostal mindset calls people to is invaluable. The problem, at least how I see it, is that it can also make us stagnant in a different way. While we see in our Methodist tendencies of holiness a risk of losing momentum to eventuality, the immediacy of altar theology means that we can imagine the work is already done the second we stand up. On the other side of the coin from the Holiness mindset that embodies grace, kindness and love, are the people who let their holiness become “Holier-than-thou-ness.” We’ll be talking about humility more next week, but I will suffice it to say that we all know people who get a drop of the Spirit and then decide everything else they ever thought is anointed and of God.

I, as may be shocking to you all, despite my love and appreciation for the ecstatic traditions of the faith, am not an ecstatic in any way shape of form. Put in other ways, while I feel the Spirit in my words and my teachings and my life, the Spirit does not manifest in some of those more Pentecostal tendencies. I have not had much occasion for holy shouting or dancing, my hands usually stay about a few inches to my side in acts of worship, and seldom do I enter that lovely flexile swing of many of the good Baptist preachers I worked alongside in the Baptist Convention. For me, I embody many of the aspects of the old-guard of Episcopal Adjacent ministry. Full of energy, but an energy that does not leave the six inches around my body.

I bring that up to say that I am a biased interpreter in this respect. The Spirit works gradually in the soul, that is something I know. I also know that I am someone who carries the Spirit in a way different form other people I know. It manifests differently in my preaching than it does in other ministers I know, sometimes in how animated I am, or how demure. In the same way, the Spirit manifests in our pursuit of holiness differently. There are some, Wesley even admits, who may receive instantaneous sanctification when they come to the faith. For those people, maybe they can stand up from an altar and ne’er sin again.

I am not a soul such as that, nor do I think most of us gathered together here are. In truth, the slow walk of righteousness is something that can become an excuse, but is more often simply a reality. We will all know a day we do not sin, but it will not usually be on this side of eternity. Likewise, even those who are perfected are not immune from accidental evildoing, so to see an immediate transformation as the only way to be, or the normative way to be, seems strange to me.

The ideal would be immediate transformation, we cannot deny that. I wonder then, what we are doing that keeps us from growing. Do we cling to habits and mindsets we know are wrong? Why hold onto the dead past when a new and abundant life is in front of us? The pen has been places against our hearts, God is writing the goodness and grace necessary for us to live out the life we are called to, so why are we constantly shoving the divine instrument away? Why do we keep fighting, keep cursing one another, keep feeding into the evils of this world? We have the power, the full force of the Spirit of God and the Gospel of Christ to live out the Will of God. We are more than conquerors, yet we yield power over to time or to pretension rather than striving to be holy. Let us all think hard what we are doing now, and let the fire of the Spirit burning beneath our heart send us forward to really change, and not to sit still in our error. – Amen.