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.

Sermon 10/09/2022 – The Simplicity of the Miraculous

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from a skin disease. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his skin disease.”

[The king of Aram sent a letter to the Israel regarding this matter] When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his skin disease? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God and would wave his hand over the spot and cure the skin disease! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.”

Sermon Text

I like a good mystery, and some of the most satisfying one’s have some of the most basic answers behind them. From Sherlock Holmes stories like, “The Speckled Band,” which gives us a classic locked room murder scenario. While speculation swirls over what might have caused the death at the center of the story, a simple answer is hidden in the seemingly mundane set pieces of the room. The death is not because of anything magical or impossible, but instead the result of the titular “speckled band,” a snake smuggled into the country and used to invisibly kill its victims.

Agatha Christie would write her own mysteries with goiters and handkerchiefs being the missing piece to find how mundane the mysteries that Poirot and Ms. Marple investigated really were. Real life mysteries often have equally common solutions. There is a photo, for example, of a child out with their parents. Somehow, a mystery figure appeared in one single photo taken that day out at the picnic. Looking all the world like a spaceman, people for years questioned how something like that could suddenly materialize without anything being physically present. Well, fast forward to our digital age, the photo was adjusted slightly, to reveal the figure was just a woman in a dress, the little girl’s mother.

Simple explanations often hide just behind the most baffling aspects of our lives. The simplicity of those explanations do not decrease the wonder we can feel at the existence of the seemingly impossible. We love a good mystery book because they impress us with how the little things come together to solve something bigger. That picture of a spaceman is still one of my favorite miscellaneous bits of trivia to go back to. The way that light can completely change the way we interpret a situation, that something as small as how little particles of energy hit a receptor can make so huge a difference, it fills me with a different kind of awe.

For Naaman, the simplicity of the miracle that he was about to receive seemed insulting. He traveled from another land, just to bathe in a river that is best described as muddy and shallow and perhaps equally accurately described as a dirty streak in the Levant. The Jordan, despite the significance it holds for us as a place of repentance of transformation, is not a mighty river. By the standards of first century baptism, for example, it was considered unsuitable for baptizing Jewish converts and sub-optimal for baptizing Christians.[1] It was not the river anyone would go out of their way to have something miraculous happen in, but it was a fulcrum for transformation none the less.

At the Jordan the people of God reaffirmed their commitment to God, at Gilgal and Shechem, the crossing of the Jordan transformed the people from the Hebrews in the Wilderness to the Israelites in their home of Canaan. It was the Jordan that saw Elijah spirited away, that healed Naaman, and that one day would have a prophet stood on its banks baptizing Pharisees, Sadducees, sinners, and saints alike in the name of a new kingdom. By the washing of Christ in those waters long ago, all water was made holy.[2] We remember with every drop of water that touches our hands, our face, somehow even our soul, that we are beloved of God.

A muddy river, hardly worth mentioning except for the exceptional things that happen around it. That is the site of today’s miracle. The general whom had led his people to such success thought for a moment that this would be beneath him, but by the end of our story he sees the simplicity of God’s gift, the most mundane of water becoming a balm for his afflicted skin. After the conclusion of our reading, Naaman takes soil home from Israel, wishing to worship the God who rules that land for the goodness he was shown. Simple dirt, simple water, simple joy.

It can seem trite to suggest that there are simple miracles around us every day. While we might, when we are feeling especially holy or joyful, look at a flower and call it a miracle, it does not always wow us to see its petals reaching toward the sun. The simple act of breathing in and out, the exchange of billions upon billions of atoms with billions more to fuel the molecular processes the produce life within our bodies, is both miraculous and terribly mundane. If we want it to be, life is just about energy moving from higher levels of concentration to lower, but why would we ever want that to be our point of view.

Naaman, of course, had a more direct route to see something miraculous going on. If we could dip in some water and come out cleanses of illness, I think we would all be willing to travel as far as we possibly could. It probably would be cheaper than most prescriptions too. In that regard, perhaps we are looking in a different direction than Naaman as we seek out the miraculous. We are not given the obvious signs often, not everyday has something defying the laws of nature happen to bring about a change in our life. However, that never was the case. It is not as though there were millions of Naaman’s in Israel, in face only one ever crossed the shores of the Jordan and he was form Aram. Yes, despite the seeming quantity of them in these pages, miracles of that scale were rare even at the heights of prophetic power.

The love of God does not diminish in God’s people because of the occasional nature of the miraculous. Just because the sun does not stand still does not mean that we are not enamored by the stars moving in their courses. We have always been in a world where the miraculous stands out because it is rare and exceptional. In those rare and exceptional moments, we see something distinct, wonderful, and praiseworthy. Likewise, somehow simultaneously, the mundane elements of life carry another kind of spectacle to them. We are wowed both by the things that defy explanation, and the things that are simply magnificent in themselves.

Jesus, when he preached to his disciples about how they ought to trust God, told them to look to birds and to flowers to understand how God cares for all of creation. No one, looking at a flower, will suddenly understand the seeming lack of food and care in the world. No one looking to a bird will feel that they fully understand human suffering. Yet, there is something in those mundane things that reveal some of the extreme care and love God has in the universe. The sun sitting in a space-time nest, heats us and gives us life and light, while all the time also spinning around a black hole bigger than we can imagine, in a galaxy that boggles the mind, in a universe as constantly expanding as our own thoughts.

There is such a grand impossibility to life itself. From matter staying together and not spinning apart, to nucleotides coming together to make something as complex as an organism. Naaman saw in the Jordan a river weaker and less impressive than those of his homeland, but it was a river built from eons of erosion and tectonic activity. It was filled with water that had been part of ancient seas and that had felt the breath of titanic dinosaurs. It was clouded by dirt, yes, but dirt forged from the fires of creation itself, diluted bit by bit into the rich mud and clay that only a riverbed can make.

The Psalmist was amazed by the works of God’s hands, how the stars take shape in the yawning void of the cosmos and how our origins trace back to the depths of the earth itself. Mysteries answered simply in some ways, with wave equations and chemical taxonomies, but mysteries no more amazing for having a solution. The work of God, to simply make us be, and to live in a world that is not only effective, but pleasant. Is a miracle to itself. Yes, for Naaman something simple became the vehicle for a supernatural healing, but before even that a million unlikely wonders had to happen to bring him to those waters. Let us seek out the small wonders of life, so that we understand the baseline of how simply miraculous our life truly is. – Amen.

[1] While Messianic Jews argue the Jordan is a Mikvah, and therefore able to facilitate baptism, however the Mishnah Parah, specifically states its waters are unfit as it is “mixed,” water. Didache 7 is more lenient in what constitutes baptismal water, but the focus is still upon fresh, cold, water.

[2] Mysteries of the Lord’s Baptism St. Maximus of Turin

Sermon 10/02/2022 – Living into Our Communion

1 Corinthians 11: 17-34

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.

For when the time comes to eat, each of you proceeds to eat your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have households to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.

Sermon Text

Taking Communion Unworthily is not something people talk a lot about in the Modern Church. As a rule, we focus on our open communion or closed communion theologies and leave it at that. Sometimes we might wonder what the bread and the cup really mean, what they become when we pray over them, but we do not think about whether or not us drinking from it is done in the right spirit. Definitely, I do not think anyone has ever, in my life, talked about it like Paul does here, linking physical health to morality of ingestion.

When I come, month after month, to communion, I find this table is one of the most consistent places I can find rest. It may seem hifalutin to pray the whole of our Great Thanksgiving, but each word carries a special weight to it. We do not have the first Eucharistic liturgy ever used in the Church, nor do I think the form taken in our hymnals will be the last that the people called Methodist use. However, I think that there is a power in the words we do use, the Spirit guided those who wrote it to touch on something essential and innate to our Spiritual pursuits in life.

We are invited to take and eat from the body and blood of Christ, first eaten on a Passover long ago, and perfected upon a cross on Calvary’s hill. We are invited freely, but not without condition. “Christ invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.” Three conditions to being part of this table – to love Christ, whether that love is newly awakened or older than the teeth in our head, it is that love that brings us to want to take of bread and cup. Earnest repentance – not just to say the words of some prayer but to put sin behind us and move beyond it, to grow as people and as a community. Seeking to live in peace with one another – uh oh, that one might be the hardest part of all.It may be a great surprise to those gathered here, but people are difficult to get along with.

Church people, I might also say, are doubly hard to get along with sometimes. Churches have crumbled over discussions of serving candy in Sunday School, and sanctuaries quaked at the mere mention of a new layout for the pews. On one hand we can dismiss this as the chaff blowing away from wheat, as superfluous debate that we can cast off as silly. However, the fact that people associate the church with these kinds of fights reveals a deep truth that we have to deal with.

We all, as Christians, tend to see our ideas as right, not just because they are well thought out or applicable to a situation, but because they are given to us by God. The upholstery may seem silly to someone else, but we want to steward God’s house, so we are willing to fight over it. The candy is not about the candy, but the relationship between the Sunday school and the parents. In both cases, we do not have to blow up the unity of the church over relatively small disputes, but the closeness of our personal desires to our religious fervor can distort our priorities. We might find ourselves quickly leaping into something we do not need to and that we cannot control.

Let me move it beyond these issues we can all agree it would be silly to separate from other believers over. Let’s move to politics. What if your sibling in Christ supports a candidate you do not like? What if they take a position on an issue you believe is against your faith? What if you find out your minister supports a political party you have written off as too far gone to be worth working with? Let’s move to doctrine. What if a sibling in Christ believes something different about how God works in the world? Has a different view of human sexuality? Has a different view on the work of the Church in the world and in culture?Those issues make it harder to write off our differences.

For one thing, there are real consequences to how people believe in these aspects of life. Many people have views that do not align with the Gospel, but these are not binary choices of one side or issue or another. Virtue lies in the right thinking on an idea, not necessarily the furthest explanation of it. The Church is not a partisan entity, though we all wish it were sometimes. The people of God are not called to be factions fighting against one another, but a united front of goodness seeking the truth. The issue falls in that, because these discussions have such obvious real-world impact, we cannot just treat them as fun topics of debate.

It matters what we think about human sexuality, and it matters that even in the plurality of how our faith explores those ideas, we respect the humanity and dignity of all people. LGBTQ kids die every year from lack of support from their families, trafficked because of their vulnerable status or driven to self-harm because they’ve been told they’re broken or sick. That is unacceptable. For the more traditionally minded people in the Church, there has to be a serious consideration about how the belief they hold can exist next to a concept of Christian love and promotion of the well-being of other people.

More politically than morally, there is not a single political party today that is progressing the will of God on a large scale. Democrats advocate for social programs that, on paper, should accomplish a great deal of good. Sadly, they’re usually not actually written to address issues in a comprehensive way. Republicans are concerned with security and, again on paper, the protection of children and youth. Unfortunately, the security measures taken are often rooted in the abuse of the poor, the marginalized, and the foreigners among us. The programs for children and youth obfuscate deeper issues in exchange for talking points that guarantee re-election. Don’t get me started on the multiplicity of non-partisan and independent political platforms of this world.

The Church contains all these people though. There are gay Christians, Trans Christians, straight Christians, ace Christians, and non-binary Christians. There are Republican Christians, Democratic Christians, Libertarians, Non-Affiliated Voters, Communists, Socialists, and Anarcho-capitalists. That is just a fact. These people exist in the Church.

Now we may disagree with exact viewpoints or presentations of the faith, and I would for sure argue against a lot of positions held by a lot of people in the Church. However, I always go back to my dear sweet friend Tater. I agree with him on increasingly little, but he is still my brother in Christ. Even if he is wrong about so much. (Love you, bro.) We are both people of faith, we are both ministers of Christ, and we have the difficult conversations and arguments we do so we can come closer to what Christ needs us to do in this world.

The thing that wows me about Paul’s discussion of the Church here is that what makes someone unworthy of taking Communion. That is the exploitation of other people. The hungry are given crumbs while those with everything eat as much as they can at church gatherings. It is not in party affiliation, not in sectarian squabbles, not in doctrine that we make ourselves unfit for this table, but in a lack of love. Love informs our viewpoints, it makes us shape our worldview, it will change how we address issues in the world, but it lives above and in command of all other aspects of our life. In love I learn that I cannot hold all the ideology I would like to, nor all the political viewpoints I would prefer. I must let God transform my mindset.How do we begin this transformation? With bread and cup.

Today we gather together with all Christians around the world. The ones we agree with and look like, the ones we disagree with and look nothing like. Today as we drink and eat, we are not separate bodies poised to fight one another, we are one body with one blood flowing in our veins. We are the body of Christ to all the world, we are more than family, more than conquerors, we are love incarnate. – Amen.