Sermon 05/28/2023 – All the Lord’s People

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord, and he gathered seventy of the elders of the people and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders, and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Sermon Text

What do we expect from people in ministry? I do not mean pastoral ministry only, I mean ministry generally. When you picture someone working in feeding ministries, prayer ministries, care ministries, and yes even pastoral ministry – what pictures come to mind? What do they look like, how do they act, what must they do, and what must they not do? Hold those thoughts in your head, the images you conjured as well as the attributes you’ve established as most important. We will return to them later.

For the people of Israel, the Hebrews in the wilderness, they had a pretty set structure to life. Everyone had a role – some were craftspeople, others agricultural workers, others cooks and household managers. The whole community was led by the priests, Levites of many clans that attended to the ritual needs of the community. At their head were Aaron, the head priest, and Moses, the prophet of God. Moses was in charge of most aspects of leadership – being the person who spoke to God on behalf of the people. However, when you have thousands of people, one person cannot hold all that responsibility and stay sane. This is where the elders of the community came together.

Elders were exactly as the name suggests, older people in good standing who led the various clans within the twelve tribes. The traditional number of these elders, at least the most prominent ones, is seventy. This number was not set in stone, and sometimes it would go up or down based on how things were in Israel and Judea, but the tribal leaders kept to seventy individuals as the ideal. In Jesus’s time, the Sanhedrin were the seventy or so people who handled community matters in Jerusalem – although what constituted a quorum of their meetings was unclear. For Moses’s day, however, the seventy were the first of their kind, seventy men who led the community in everything they could.

Moses brought the elders before God at least twice. The first time they just got a glimpse of who God was.[1] The second meeting, the one we talk about here, has God blessing the Elders with the Spirit. That touch of divine inspiration makes them prophecy. What does that mean? It is hard to say, but the signs would have been evident to the people gathered there. After the meeting with God the leaders of the people come off the mountain and are told that God was not exclusive in the gift of the Spirit. When they left the mountain, people tell them that two men of no importance were also prophesying. Joshua, the man set up to take Moses’s place after his death, asks the prophet to stop them. Moses, does not, he is clear – “I will not stop them, because if I had my way everyone in this camp would be blessed as they have been blessed.”

The conflict has several levels. The leadership of the camp would have been worried that these two upstarts would be a threat to their power. You can’t just have regular people speaking on God’s behalf! What if they say something that doesn’t go along with what I want as someone in leadership? Some opposition may have come from a genuine concern for the content of these prophecies. What if they use their new found gift for their own gain? What will we do? They’re not part of our in-group so we have not had a chance to vet them What will we do, if God gives even more people this gift?

Those in ministry, of any kind, are called to a higher standard. There is no doubt about that. If you are in pastoral ministry especially, you cannot do or say anything you want. You have to think of what you represent, who you represent. I am thoroughly myself wherever I am, but there is always an appropriateness, always boundaries, that must be preserved in leadership. The Elders of Israel would know this, Moses knew this, they feared these two upstarts might not know it.

At least that is the optimistic view. As I already said, there are reasons that we might reject God’s work in people around us that are less altruistic. In our own life, we often doubt people who are doing God’s work because of various aspects of their life. We might criticize their dress – it’s too formal or not formal enough. “I hate that they always wear X.” “Why can’t they show up wearing Y instead of Z.” Maybe it’s how they talk. I’m not saying appropriateness of speech contextually, but style. “They never use proper grammar.” “They always sound so prim and proper.” The list goes on and on and on. We are always ready to disqualify people from ministry, because of things that do not matter.

When the Church was formed two thousand years ago, many communities were egalitarian in their leadership. Women and men shared responsibilities, more based on what they could do than any aspect of who they were. Quickly, as the Church got bigger, it sought to look more like the world around it. Women were banned from leadership, men took exclusive power in the Church, and those early egalitarian impulses were buried in an ethic that asked women to be silent in public and submissive at home. Gender was not the only determining factor in leadership though, over time the ability for anyone to enter the clergy slowly shifted to the well-to-do of the world taking ministry roles and the poorer folk maybe finding their way into a monastery. Women might be able to have so agency in a nunnery, but nowhere else.

Jewish Christians, once the foundation of the Church, became pariahs. As Europe expanded its conquest of the rest of the world, people of various races were subjugated by Christians under Christian justifications. A new category emerged to disqualify people from ministry – race. The white, well-to-do, ministers they brought the word of God – how dare any upstart question that.

Eventually the ministry became more egalitarian again. Women had more leadership as time went on, until now women can be clergy in most American denominations. Though, it must be said, many churches refuse or abuse women clergy. Race is no longer a barrier, at least on paper, as even long-time holdouts like the Methodist Church integrated following the passage of the civil rights act. Yet, still the church is largely segregated across this nation. People of various backgrounds can find their way into leadership in a church. Still, the cost of seminary and of professional training generally bars many from getting the training they need to shine.  Our world in the United States has theoretically become more open to people to take part in ministry, but in daily life, on small scale in local contexts, the story is not nearly so different than the worried cry of Joshua to stop those people from living out their call.

God does not care what people wear. We pretend we believe that, until someone comes in in raggedy clothes and we want to know why they didn’t put on their best for Sunday worship. Why are their shoes scuffed or their clothes ill fitting? We are fine with people joining a church if they have a little money to give, but when we talk about reaching out to the community the first impulse of many is often, “They won’t, or can’t give money, so who cares?” We look out and see people with bad manners or dress or different habits and backgrounds to us, and we put those as reasons we are worried about our church’s future. We ignore, that the Lord gives the Spirit to who God will. Those who get that Spirit will be given all other necessary things.

There are foul mouthed people with hearts of gold, ready to spread the Gospel – but we heard them curse in public once and wrote them off. There are poor people ready to proclaim God’s word to all the world, but we see their poverty and write them off as lazy or unfit for the ministry. There are hicks in the holler who ain’t never said a lick of proper English, and from their lips can come the wellsprings of life. We are not the gatekeepers of the Spirit, and we will never see the Church flourish as long as we try to be.

The Church is made for all people, and especially those who disagree with one another. Moses wished for a day where all God’s people would receive the Spirit of God. The prophet Joel predicted a day when God would pour out the Spirit on all flesh. Today, on the Pentecost we celebrate the Spirit falling on the Church, giving it life like it never had known before. The Spirit has opened the doors again and again for people to know God, and to serve God through ministry to all the world.

I ask you to return to the images you came up with at the start of service. The images on minsters and servants of God. Think of them now, not as an ideal to be aspired to, but as a template we have tried to force people into again, and again and again. If we want the Church to grow, to thrive, to adapt, the same one-size-fits-all minister is not gonna cut it. Christ calls all to come to the altar, to come and die to self, and all – truly means all. We must be willing to say yes to people when the Lord stirs their heart. Leadership will always be held to the high standard of Christ, but may we never think they must be held to the high standards of our own prejudices. – Amen.

[1]Exodus 24

Sermon 05/07/2023 – The First Martyr

Acts 7:55-60

But filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Sermon Text

Stephen is someone I look up to. A Greek speaking Jew, a Hellenist to use Biblical Language, he was something of an outsider in Judea. Judean Jews would not see him as being really Jewish. Likewise, Gentiles would look at him as just another Jew in the gutter. He is a foil to Paul in the book of Acts. His death inspired Paul to go on with his attempt to persecute the Church – a mission that was as much about Paul denying his identity as it was any genuine religious conviction.

Unlike Paul, Stephen embraced his identity. Though we are given just a handful of verses describing him, we can see that he was a trust member of the Christian community and someone who made a lot of difference. Firstly, we know he was a Hellenist by his name. Stephen is a thoroughly Greek name. While all the apostles names are written in Greek, most are cognates. In other words, people like John, are named Yoannen in Greek, which is just another way of saying the Hebrew Yohenen. In the same way today John is the same as Jean is the same as Johannes. Stephen is just a Greek name, and so we know that Stephen is of Greek descent.

Secondly, we know he was trusted because of the moment he enters the Biblical narrative. A concern is raised by Hellenistic Christians that their widows are not getting the same help that Judean widows are. We are never told the cause of this – was it intentional because of bigotry? A barrier of language? The scripture never says because the Disciples were focused on remedying the problem more than they were trying to find someone to blame. They called forward several Hellenists to take over the distribution of food. One of these people was not even Jewish, just a God-fearing gentile.

The work embarked upon by these men erased the issue. No longer did anyone feel that they were being overlooked. I think today of our modern struggles with racism. Sometimes you hear people worrying that if people of color are put in positions of power they would abuse white people in the same way that they have historically been abused by white power structures. While we must admit that power is a corrupting influence, we cannot have oppression ever be considered a natural condition of humanity. Stephen and the other Greek Jews did not begin to deny Judean widows food once they were in charge of food distribution. Why? Because the oppressed are never the enemy of one another. We could learn a lot about listening, and about promoting leaders from all backgrounds, from just this brief episode in Acts 6.

After this episode, Stephen is arrested for the preaching he has been doing in Jerusalem. Stephen is, again, an outsider. His preaching would have been easier to attack than that of the Judean disciples. The words he spoke were easier to paint as heretical, because people were already looking for excuses to exclude him for one reason or another. A false accusation of blasphemy is brought against him and a mob is formed to take him before community leadership. Reading the text, we might be led to believe this was the full council of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, but that is unlikely.

Jews in the first century were against the death penalty, those who were in power at least. This makes it unlikely that the death of Jesus or any other apostle was carried out with the full council present. Secondly, the full Sanhedrin was seventy people, good luck getting even half of them into a room at a given time. Instead, this is probably a small group of community leaders and a mob who opposes Stephen’s work. Stephen, who does preach a sermon born out of frustration with his Judean brethren, has angered a select group of people willing to kill. Stephen is lynched by a mob, not executed by a lawful authority.

Stephen’s death marked the first time someone died on behalf of Jesus. It started the series of events that would bring Paul to be converted, by first inspiring in him a plan to execute the same mob justice in other cities and towns. His ministry was perhaps the most dangerous one to the status quo of anyone who had been active in Jerusalem at the time. He was getting people to come together, Jews from Judea and from outside Judea. He had a Gentile under his leadership who had committed to living among God’s people as a believer. He created, in microcosm, the Church as it is meant to be. A people who care for one another, a people from all walks of life, a people saved by God’s grace and committed to the community they have become a part of.

Stephen will always be someone I look up to. He transformed his anger and frustration at the way the world was into action on behalf of, not only his own people, but all people. He was devoted to service and to love. Many have used him as a weapon, describing his murder as justification for attacking Jews. That is a travesty, a misuse of his legacy. Stephen, like so many advocates today, was fighting against a system that overlooked the least of these, and as a Greek Jew, his people were first on his mind. Stephen was willing to look injustice in the face and tell people that he and his people mattered just as much as anyone else. As such, he like advocates who say something similar today, he was rejected – and, yes, killed – for that belief.

We have to band together as a people, to serve one another, and to promote goodness in sthe same way that Stephen did. Listen to people when they tell you about their pain. Advocate for putting people in power who want to change the world, not double down on obviously broken systems. Work to repair this world that has become fractured, not by ignoring the problems that are but by fixing them at their root. We choose, day after day, if we will be with Stephen or with the mob that killed him. I choose to be with Stephen, with the Church, with Christ. – Amen.

Sermon 04/30/2023

Acts 2:42-47

[The believers,] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

“They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem, and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Sermon Text

It may come as a shock to many of you here, but I am a collector of miscellaneous knowledge. All things I can know, I would like to know. Whether that is the full workings of an obscure computer program, the long and storied history of a piece of media and its strange creator, or just the little bits and bobs of what different parts of the world are properly called. Whether it is identifying aglets on the ends of strings or cataloguing the rise and fall of a single video effects artist – knowledge is power and I wanna be real strong. It is my passion and my goal to know about everything, everywhere as much as I can.

Despite this propensity and love of the quixotic aspects of life, I have a bold statement to make about what information I have accumulated. That is simply this: knowledge, though incredibly helpful, is not the single most important aspect of life and especially the life of faith. I do not say this in an anti-intellectualist way, there are a thousand million different ways that knowledge can augment our faith, protect us from scam artists and bad actors, and generally help us in our discernment throughout life. However, even all that knowledge is not enough without a proper understanding of something far more important – κοινωνία (koinonia.)

A pretty speech about the potential follies of knowledge, followed by a Greek word, how trite. Trust me though! This Greek word has a purpose here, in fact, I would say that koinonia is the only Koine Greek you need to know! Why? Because Koinonia is the foundation of all Christian ethics, all Christian life, and all Christian religious practice. It is, in a single word, community. To put a few more words to it, it is the way that a community comes together to share, love, and care for one another. This single word undergirds everything we do because it calls us to be together and hold all things in common. In fact, Koine, the root word of Koinonia, just means whatever is common, banal, vulgar – the things all people share.

For me, knowledge is the thing that I have to subject to this rule, but it stands for any advantage we might have in life. When we have money, that means nothing without and undergirding of community. When we have talent, it does not matter unless we use it to better the lives of others. When we have any advantage of circumstance, birth, or labor, we subject them to this one idea which the Church established from the very beginning – shared responsibility for the good of one another. No one joined the early Church without an expectation that they would be cared for and that they would be expected to care for one another.

Expectations are something we all fear to have put upon us because expectations naturally breed responsibility and even worse, regret and disappointment. I think one of the things that has damaged the Church in its witness to the world is we stopped having expectations of anything that was not programmatic. We expected on a Sunday the sermon would be just so and the music and the order of worship exactly as we like it, but once we left the building, who knows or cares? Our private life is somehow removed from our religion and we are not willing to always take the things we hold call, “mine,” and transition them to a more communal “ours.”

This problem is more apparent in the wider Church with a big “C,” than this particular church we now stand in. As I have said many times, this is a generous congregation, and one that does far better at taking care of its members and the community around it than most. I would encourage us, however, not to rest on our laurels when it comes to this virtue. There is more than money and time that goes into making a community vibrant, it takes all kinds of gifts and work to really see something like what we see in Acts comes together. It takes the strong, the knowledgeable, the gifted, the moneyed, the visionary, the [insert gift or talent here,] ad infinitum to make vision a reality and the Church in the Community of God.

Going back to my particular gift – I know lots of things. It is one of my pride and joys in life to be a veritable encyclopedia of miscellanea. However, that is a useless endeavor if not for the commitment I put next to that – to use my knowledge for good, to teach others all of it I can, and never presume that intellect is the same as know-how. I’ve been blessed with a life and a curiosity that makes me willing and able to seek out the rabbit holes of life that let me know things others might not. The only true value these things have is in being able to share them with others, so that they may build up their own stores of know how and critical thinking. Likewise, it is only circumstance and interest that has let me get here, the second I think that I am any better than anyone else for knowing that “Phoenix,” and “Palm Tree,” are the same word in Greek is the moment I have lost the point of this life.

Put another way, the Apostle Paul called us to understand “Love,” as the guiding force of every aspect of our life. “If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”[1] Love, Community, Care – these define a human being as being part of God’s family, God’s Kingdom, and whatever our gift or ability we have to use them for the good of all people.

So let us combine our forces – whatever we can bring to God, God will accept gladly. If you have money to spare, and do not use it for good, then it is useless. If you have talents and never apply them to help those in need – they are going fallow. Whatever you bring to the table, set it down and let God do something with it. Cause when all is said and done, we will be evaluated by nothing other than our ability to love and serve one another. The only word we need to know in Greek or any other language is, “Community,” because in that one word is all love, cooperation, goodness, and greatness that defines our faith. Be a “Community,” not an island, and give your best as best you can. – Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3

Sermon 04/23/2023 – Hearts Aflame

Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.

“They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem, and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Sermon Text

            Today’s scripture is one of my favorites. It is the oldest cliché to have a sweaty old minister up front starting off a sermon that way, but believe me that this really is one of the scriptures I hold closest to my heart. The story seems almost to be a continuation of what we talked about last week. People of faith, wandering in the midst of something awful, knowing that God is doing something but completely unsure what that something is or how it is going to bring something good out of all the mess around them. Two believers, leaving the disciples who were proclaiming the resurrection in Jerusalem, unsure if the words spoken to the women at the tomb were really as true and as incredible as they seemed.

Like many of us, the two in this story Cleopas and the other disciple, were forced into a place where they had to wrestle with what they thought they knew about God. For them the Messiah had always been taught as a savior, riding in on a white horse to save his people from the empire that oppressed them. That great warrior would establish a kingdom on Earth, one where God’s people were treated with the respect they deserved, and the rest of the nations would be forced to accept just how great God really was. This show of force, this great comeuppance to Rome, never happened. Jesus died, some say he rose again, but Rome lived long enough to die of the national equivalent of natural causes.

The disciples are confused, shocked that the world continues to be an unfair place to live in. They met Jesus, they knew what people could be like, and were told what the world could one day be. Yet, that Jesus was not with them anymore. Without the benefit of Upper Room appearances and lakeside dinners with the risen Christ, these two were likely never to know what really happened in that tomb and where Jesus really was. Not unless Jesus himself were to walk up, tap them on the shoulder, and tell them how it was.

Luckily, that exact thing happened. Jesus sought these two out. Chance meetings are a feature that defines a lot of stories in the Hebrew Bible. A protagonist will be making their way from one place to another and suddenly find themselves talking to just the right person. This is more than just a piece of narrative convenience, but a sign that God is active even when we least expect it. Every chance meeting, every time that something lines up just right… These chance meetings are so much more than random collisions of particles in the void.

The meeting they have with Jesus begins on a rough note. Not realizing who they are talking to, the men launch into explaining the events we recount during Holy Week. They tell how Jesus was arrested, killed, and how some are now saying that he has risen again. The summary they give is tinged with regret, however. Jesus was supposed to be a savior, but he died instead of rising victorious over the enemies of God’s people. This expectation again goes to ideas of who Jesus was meant to be, ideas that fell short of the really amazing thing about what God did on the cross. This reality is revealed in Jesus’s words to the two men immediately after they tell the story, Jesus looks at them as asks them to start from the beginning of God’s story, before they conclude Jesus was not really from God.

The story Jesus tells is of God’s continued deliverance of God’s people. From slavery, from Babylon, from all trials that came in their way. Jesus identified himself with the plight of Israel and Judah in this retelling. The prophet’s continual stress that the suffering of God’s people is seen by God is confirmed in what Jesus sets forward here. The Messiah, the Savior of all things and people, could only save them through going through what they did. In simple terms, it is not possible to get people unstuck from the mud without jumping down into the mud yourself. Jesus had to suffer for God’s people, because God’s people had suffered. The Messiah was always meant to take on the hardest parts of human life, and Jesus shows that clearly.

If this story was just about a lecture Jesus gave, then I do not think it would have made its way into scripture. Instead, I think that what Jesus does is much more important. The two men talk to Jesus and are enraptured by what he says. They latter describe it as being a conversation that sets their hearts aflame. They are brought to life, reminded of the passion they have for God and what God is doing, because of the words that Jesus gives to them. The conversation begins to make clear to them that this is more than just some stranger, something confirmed after they ask Jesus to stay and he blesses their evening meal.

It is that final idea, that they asked Jesus to stay, that stands out to me. Jesus was going somewhere, ready to keep walking after he had told the men what his suffering really meant. Before he can say goodbye and start on to the next leg of his post-Resurrection journey, the two men beg him not to go. Then what does Jesus do? He listens to their request and stays with them. The men were not done yet, Jesus had set a fire in their heart, but that fire was not going to stay lit until they had their fill of what Jesus had to offer. That fulfillment came when bread was broken, and the strange man they were talking to suddenly clicked in their head as the one and only Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only Son, and savior of all.

We talked last week about how faith gets us through the hard times, but I want to say that when the hard times come to an end, we usually find it is because of something a lot like what we just read about here. Jesus walks with us, in the hard things of life and in our moments of celebration. In the hard times Jesus ministers to us, his life of suffering and his death testifying that the Spirit works through even the darkest of days. This rekindles the flame in our hearts, it lets light emerge from within us to dispel the darkness. We could stop there, with that simple hope, but more than anything I want what the disciples get here. When Jesus begins to take steps to go to something else, to take action somewhere other than with us, we can say, “Lord, stay with us a little longer,” and Jesus will.

Now, as I said a moment ago, Jesus is always with us through the Spirit – not locked to any physical location, but always present with God’s people. To say that we can ask Jesus to stay with us may seem superfluous then, but I promise it is not. When we are making our way through life, our commitment to our faith is a continual request for Jesus to stay a little longer. The moments of intense trust in God, when all the world’s troubles melt away and we see Jesus at work here with us, are the moments when the word speaks to us most clearly. It is when we see that immediacy of God’s presence, the awareness with have of God, start to fade, that we call out, “Jesus, stay a little longer,” and find that prayer answered.

You see, God could have saved us and called it a day. Retreating to the Heavens, Jesus would have died for our sins and left us with a ticket to Heaven, and that would be more than enough. However, Christ was not content with a long distance relationship with the Church, not happy with just a future date to begin eternity. Instead, Jesus was determined to free us from every vestige of sin and fear. No longer do we have to do what we know is wrong, we are now given complete freedom to choose what is good, and to trust what God is doing. Why do we do that? Because Jesus got down in the mess of life and pulled us out of it. Because Jesus walks the long road of faith with us, setting our heart aflame again and again with passion for his Kingdom. Because when hope seems gone, and life seems to be trickling away from us, we can call out, “Jesus, just a little longer,” and know we will be given all the time in the world.

People of God, ask Jesus to stay with you, not just to walk with you. To sit and celebrate and remember and praise God. We do this, because we will always find God, if we are willing to ask God in. So do just that, and ask Jesus to tarry just a little longer. – Amen.

Sermon 04/16/2023 – Precious Faith

1 Peter 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him, and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Sermon Text

Faith is a precious thing. Looking out in this room, I think we all know pretty well how precious a thing it really is. Faith is what gets us through this life in one piece. Faith that God is doing wonders all around us. Faith that the darkness that currently is will not persist. That every dark night of the soul gives way to a beautiful morning of something new, and amazing, and wonderful. Faith is the trust that something is the way we were told about it. It is a commitment to the reality we know to be real, even in moments when that reality is obscured. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish Philosopher of religion called it, “loyalty to an event, [and] loyalty to our response.”[1]

Faith is not a blind insistence that things are ok when they are not, it is a recollection that good things have been in the past and will be again. Faith is meeting God and trusting that the moment we felt, the moment where Heaven and Earth met, even for a minute, is something that can and does happen more often than we might realize. Faith is the knowledge that though it may take many forms, the presence of God in this world is an eternal reality, It is like knowing that my friends and family, far away from me physically, still continue to be my friends and family when I do not see them. I know that because I have the memory of the time we spent together and I am willing to be loyal to that reality in the time between when I saw them and when I will see them.

The first people to hear 1 Peter read to them are described as not having, “seen,” Jesus. This just means that they joined the community of the faith after Jesus’s ascension. They were not gathered there in Galilee while Jesus was preaching and teaching, but they heard the teachings of apostles and believers and received the Spirit through the faith that was fostered there. They, like us, were not firsthand witnesses to Jesus’s work on Earth, but they met the Lord in the gathering of the faithful, the sacraments celebrated together, the testimony and work shared with one another.

We too were not there when Jesus was working in Judea, but we have known Jesus working in our world and in our time. We’ve seen healing in broken hearts, lives turned around, and miracles worked. In our time, in our homes, we have been able to connect to the work of God and come to faith. Those moments that first showed us God’s power, mercy, love, these all are the things that we are ultimately staying true to in our life. For me, that was a spiritual experience in the middle of a worship conference. For other people, something much subtler is at work, a movement of the heart that leaves you weeping in an aisle at Kroger or reflecting on God’s goodness in a moment of prayer.

1 Peter does not leave us to just reflect on faith or the moments that we have held dear, the letter is written to people who are experiencing a lull in a difficult time of life. The early Church was treated as a nuisance in many places, and sometimes that nuisance identification rose to the level of a threat. Two largescale persecutions of Christians, and many smaller ones, took place over the course of the first two centuries of Christianity. 1 Peter was written after the second great persecution, to a church that was afraid their community would turn against them. The group did not currently know persecution, but the threat lingered as long as they were living in a world that saw them as a threat.

We are blessed to be in a place and time where persecution is not something Christians have to face. We talked recently in our Bible Study about the Beatitudes and how Persecution differs from general antagonism. Persecution occurs when loss of life, safety, or property occurs because of one’s identities or belief. The Church in America therefore is in a better position to persecute, still holding the majority of the seats of power in the nation, than to be persecuted. No, most of the time any negative response we get to our faith falls into the category of another teaching of Christ, mundane revilement and bad-mouthing. Although Jesus also says that it is only a virtue to be treated this way if we were not that antagonists, so we must be careful before we claim to have even received that treatment.

The reality of persecution is not something we face, but we do suffer. We suffer illness, doubt, deep depression, anxiety, physical injury, and all other manner of human conditions. We suffer. There is no doubt about that, no need to put it in any prettier terms, we are people who are pained and subjected to all kinds of trouble. Blessed as we are, with relative abundance and a community that cares for us when things get thin, we still face hardship. Life is expensive, life is short, and life is often quite painful. That is a fact of life, and anyone saying otherwise is trying to sell us something.

1 Peter does not ask us to take this hardship and thank God we get to suffer. No, suffering is always bad, or we would not call it suffering. If we were supposed to thank God for our trouble we would not pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Avoiding pain is always better than suffering. Instead, 1 Peter, and scripture generally, sees pain as inevitable. We will suffer, sometimes due to nature and sometimes due to our faith. What we do with it is where the shift in our perspective has to come. Not a perspective to suddenly make the pain worth it or good, but to see in the troubles we face a reminder of how precious our memory of God’s goodness is.

Think of when you stare into the sun, and the little after image of the light is imprinted for a moment on your retina. A little purplish splotch that has the exact shape of the sun, but is not the sun. It fades, but even as I describe that afterimage, I can see what it looks like slowly humming against my closed eyelid. When I look next at the sun, I see that that splotch was not anything like the sun itself, dull and fading while the sun is bright and ever burning. Yet, looking at the fullness of the sun, I see how one reflected the other.

When we are in the dark times of life, it can feel like our image of God is fading. We forget the good times when God felt close, the memory of that singular moment we first met God, and the subsequent moments we felt them once again, all seem distant. As someone with depression, my regular memories can feel this way. I remember that I was at one point happy, but how happiness feels, that escapes me. Yet, with the serotonin supply in my head and our experience of God’s grace, we do eventually find the memories fully realized once again. The image of God we kept close in our heart, dim though it had begun to seem, now burns brightly again. The happiness, the peace, the joy, comes alive once again.

When we make it through the hard times, staying true to the God who saved us, we see just how precious our faith really is. It is not that we must suffer to know what is good, instead we, through suffering, see something good return to us. Reunions are often sweeter than first meetings, because they resolve the pain we first felt in being apart. Suffering can make good times feel sweeter, because we missed them so dearly while we were away from them. If we are in a good time now, let us commit each happy moment to memory. If we are in a dark time, full of doubt or fear, or just plain sadness, let us honor the memories of good things – of faith, hope, and love. If we remain loyal to that memory, to the response it created in us, even the darkest days will be something we can overcome. More than that, let us remember that every dark night gives way to a bright dawn. – Amen.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Faith and Belief.” In Man is not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) 1976

Easter Sunrise 2023 – He is not Here…

Matthew 28:1-10

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Sermon Text

Easter is a day of transformations. It is a day when the past falls away and reveals, not just the present, but the brilliant future that God has inaugurated around us. The light of what will be bursts out and makes the world shine, even just for a moment, with a light only Heaven can bring about. The glory of Christ resurrected, the fullness of God represented in the fullness of a perfected humanity, this is a glimpse of what we all will someday know when God’s perfected world is established and Christ returns in final victory.

For the women at the tomb that day, the emptiness of their friend and teacher’s resting place was a cause for extreme alarm. Was the body stolen? Did the Romans dispose of it somehow? What caused them to be deprived of this one bit of peace, properly burying their beloved companion as all people deserved to be buried. The alarm they felt melted through the words of a mysterious stranger – “Be not afraid… He is not here. He is raised from the dead.” The reality of his absence was met with something new, the reality of his continued life. Christ had been raised, not by another prophet or miracle worker, but of his own power, a master over life and death, Christ showed us what he will do for all of us someday.

We are now in a place where, when people ask where Jesus is, we must say, “He is not here. He is raised from the dead.” We do not have the immediate consolation of Christ being a little ways off to meet us, reassure us, and comfort us. However, we of faith are given the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, to settle in our hearts. The presence of God, until that day comes where all is accomplished, sits within us. The light of Easter, of the resurrection, is ours to share, if we are willing. The light shines in the darkness, and shines out most brightly when we gather as we do this morning. The people of God, looking into the darkness of our fallen world, proclaiming the resurrection, and the hope it gives. We are Christ on earth today, proclaim the resurrection loud and clear wherever you go. – Amen.

Maundy Thursday 2023 – Nothing but Love

John 13:1-17, 31b-35  

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them…

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Sermon Text

 If there is one metric we have to apply to how we live our life, it has to be how much we are willing to love. Sometimes we can create a feeling that an abundance of love, or saying the word too much, cheapens the sentiment somehow, but I do not know if that is true. Love is a pure and unbounded thing. It is as infinite as God is, that is why God chooses to identify with that one term – “Love.” Sometimes people will talk about how there’s multiple kinds of “love,” that Greek generally, and the Bible specifically talks about. That is an exaggeration of sorts.

Love is usually called “αγαπη,” (agape,) and rather than being a special kind of love, it is the transcendent character of love. Let me put it plainer. All love – for family, for friends, for our beloved – these all spring from one place, and that place is agape. Scripture talks about love most often in this general term, not because it wants to be vague or take away the power of “love,” as a declaration, but to show that all love is rooted in the Divine. When we work to live and work and grow alongside our friends, our family, our neighbors, we do it all in the Spirit of 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter that best defines love in words.

We seek to be patient, and kind, to not envy or boast. We do not seek our own way or bitterly struggle against each other. We forgive, and we chase after truth. Rejecting evil we trust, embolden, and affirm one another. We stand together against a world that can be cruel, difficult, and just plain nasty. We aspire to do this, not only in the abstract world of words, but in actions. The action that speaks loudest and best to the nature of love, is the one we model today. We wash one another’s feet, we kneel down and submit to those around us. We do this because Christ did it first. In re-enacting this one act of love, we prepare ourselves to accept Christ’s love which he showed the day after he washed his disciples’ feet. We prepare ourselves to behold the crucifixion, and in preparing to behold, we prepare ourselves to imitate our God, our savior, our Jesus. – Amen.

Sermon 04/02/2023 – The People and the Crowd

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:

“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Sermon Text

Sometimes it pays to go along with the crowd. If we were in Jerusalem long ago, we would have likely found ourselves among the people of the city. Seated peacefully in our homes, maybe doing work out in the marketplace, but tucked behind the walls of Zion for sure. We would have been prepping for the Passover, dealing with the extra traffic the festival brought and also making sure that our household had everything it needed to celebrate. Everything was busy, everything was loud, and yet something louder and stranger than the usual festival rush was happening just outside the gates of the city.

Taking a break from our work, we could see what the hubbub was about. A mob had formed outside the city. It was large, but how large you could not quite be sure. The group did not seem organized and in fact, they seemed to just be coming and going with no real plan to what they were doing. Some people are walking away naked, which though more common in the ancient world is never not strange. Other people have climbed up into trees and started throwing down branches from above the road. Those on the ground are grabbing them, waving them or throwing them on top of the discarded clothes sitting in the road.

At the center of that mob is a man on a donkey, maybe two donkeys? Hard to tell from where you are standing. Something clicks in your head, “Oh, it’s a political rally!” Someone is claiming to be God’s anointed, and they are riding a donkey like Zechariah said the Messiah would. It’s weird though, usually the crowds for someone claiming something like this are more… Organized. This guy seems to just be picking up people as he goes along. You lean in to ask someone who the guy on the donkey is and hear something that might just change your life. “The prophet, Jesus of Nazareth.” I say it might just change our lives, because there is a choice to be made as the parade passes by.

Jesus, in all his ministry, was not what people were expecting. His disciples, who knew him best, often struggled to wrestle what they wanted Jesus to be away from who Jesus really was. Some of them saw him as an amazing prophet and teacher. Others still saw him as God’s messiah, come to free them from Roman oppression. Still, others combined the roles and saw Jesus as something more, something different, something approaching the savior we know him today to be. The public opinion of Jesus was even more scattered. Was he a revolutionary? A con artist? A traveling teacher? All depended on who you asked.

In our own experience, as post resurrection people, we know how this story ends. As we honor the work of God across the next week, with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we will do so knowing that Easter Sunday is waiting to break out. This ultimate liberating act of God, the moment death was conquered, puts who Jesus was into perspective. We cannot deny the Godhood of someone who can tell the grave it has no power. We cannot deny the glory of a person who after death was transformed into a still more brilliant life. We cannot see the way the Spirit has brought us to embrace faith, and not deny that Spirit is the same one carried and given by Christ.

Yet, we still can fall victim to the same traps that people in Christ’s time on earth stumbled into. The appeal of life as we would like it to be, God as we can easily understand, is always a threat. We can want God to associate only with people like us. We can want God to reject those we reject and embrace those we embrace. My enemy is God’s enemy, and my friend is God’s friend. Not only that, but my plans and my ideas are second only to God’s, so close are our intentions and mindset. We can look out into a situation and just know exactly what is true, and good, and right about it. We are wise and discerning, and do not need to wait and see anything about what is going on beyond the surface of things.

We often make the mistake of believing that the people that rejected Jesus’s ministry were all irrational or evil. Some of them were, but most people who turned away from Jesus’s ministry were those who looked at him and decided they knew what sort of person he was. He was another revolutionary that would come and go, or else he was another speaker you could take or leave. The pharisees, perhaps his biggest adversaries, were not that different from him. They taught similar lessons, often traveled in the same way, but when they disagreed the only solution those in power could think of was to push out this thorn in their side.

For those who found a reason to take issue with Jesus, they would often point to the crowds that surrounded him. The term in Greek for the people who welcomed Jesus into the city is οχλος (Ochlos,) and it is almost always used as an insult. While you had the dignified people of the city, the πολις (Polis,) and the average person on the street, the λαος (Laos,) there was always the masses beneath them. This rabble, this common crowd, this mob, that is the kind of people Jesus attracted. He was not getting the people in town with businesses and good repute, he was getting the people those people would never let near them.

In our modern context, Jesus appealed to the junkies and the backpackers, the men riding bikes from one end of town to the other, and the women doing what they need to, to survive. Jesus did not care about whether his camps would take down property values, and he always rejected the leaders in each town who suggested his gathering was somehow improper. The Kingdom was breaking out, the celebration was already beginning outside the city and it was really starting to pick up. The well-to-do and the respectable were not going to be attending, it was going to be the people who were willing to learn what the world should be like, and not those who had decided long ago what they wanted the world to be like. We are all standing at the gates of Jerusalem, and we all make the choice. Will you join the crowd? Or lock up your heart?

Sermon 03/26/2023 – Sinew and Skin

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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

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

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

Sermon Text

As far as I’m concerned, Ezekiel’s vision could have taken him to this very moment and in this very place. The valley of dry bones was not a literal place, it was a vision God placed in Ezekiel’s mind of God’s people – not as good as dead, but long dried up and left alone. It was also a vision of their revivification. For him this vision meant the people of God in exile – the Israelites scattered across what once was Assyria and the Judahites scattered across Babylon – would someday leave there exile and come home. But, what does it mean for us now?

We are in a difficult time in the Church. The ages of being the default social group people in society is long past. Denominations are all shrinking – non-denominationals are seeing the end of their peak period and are experiencing a slide much like what the mainlines before them felt. The majority of people in the United States still identify as Christian, at least in name, but that will change.[1] We will shrink, we will see more churches close, and more denominations struggle to keep up the image they once held of themselves. We are in a waning period in our history, the collapse of the world as it was, and the start of something new.

The simple truth of prophecy, of the words which God offers us to inspire us to change and to embrace the work of God in the here and now, is that it is never positive in the short term. There is abundant hope in what God has to offer us, a future where all will be made right, but in the short term you seldom see a prophet bring good news. Jeremiah, in a moment we all can relate to, rebuffs a false prophet on a single basis. When prophets come to the people of God, they bring news of a world that is broken and about to break even more, and that false prophet only had good news about what was coming down the pipeline.[2]

We are at a point where the heat of the sun is beating down on the people of God. We are tired, we join in the cry of the dry bones in today’s text, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost…” I don’t know about you, but there are plenty of times where I find myself feeling that my hope is gone. The troubles of the world, multifaceted and terrible as they are, have very little hope of clearing up in our lifetime. Poverty, war, an unbridled and impossible to combat materialism that has reduced the world into a countdown clock to environmental disaster, all weigh heavy on the mind. Things are grim dear people. Things have given us every reason to worry about what the future may bring.

We who gather here are not given the escape of just imagining things will get better on their own. We know that there has to be a revivification of the world or else it will continue to dry out, to die bit by bit. Sometimes we think we could just magically flip a switch, and everything will be like it was. We’ll worship how we did then. We’ll have as many people as we did then. We’ll do everything we loved and took pride in then. And you know what that would do, if such a miracle could be achieved? We would just postpone our decay for another twenty or thirty years. The slow decay of the world, of a congregation, is exactly that – it is slow. By the time we notice that the pews are emptying, and the waters of life seem to be drying up in the wells we dug long ago, the problem has been around much longer.

I know sometimes we will try to point to singular moments or events that caused our present troubles. The Pandemic is the current monster we look at and say, “If only this had not happened, we would be so much better off!” Well, I tell you that the pandemic was the head of a beast that came out of the sea for sure, but it had been gnawing on the roots of many a congregation for years before that. We just called it a million other things, a million small cuts and fractures that eventually had a chance to burst into a problem we had no answer for.

The Prophet did not come into the valley of dry bones and prevent the thing that brought about disaster. The damage had been done, the bones were as dry as they possibly could be. If anything was going to happen, it was not going to be from fighting the battle that got them there in the first place. Looking to blame some Satanic force like we did in 80s won’t bring renewal. Coming up with some imagined culture war will not inspire people to take the leap into a new life. Even singing and preaching for weeks at a time won’t be enough to change the world as it is. The only thing that can revivify the world we are in is a movement of the Spirit, and it will only come when follow the lead of prophecy as we see it in our text today.

We have to walk in the valley of dry bones, we have to count them and notice just how much we have let go fallow, and then we have to cry out to God. We have to call for God to bring the Church back together – to unite us in love and power. I talk all the time about how the Church needs to fight to sort itself out, but we need to see that we go to war with one another more often than we have any healthy family spat. Our denomination is exploding, and it is not because one group is Biblical and the other is not. Both parties in this struggle are trying to serve God however they feel convicted to do so. No, the reason things are exploding is because we cannot bring ourselves together enough to begin to be the body of Christ.

The thing that the prophet sees happen is firstly that the body of the slain comes together, and then and only then does the Spirit fill them and give them life. The Church is definitely going through a rough time, and it will get rougher before it gets better, but the first thing we have to do to get better is to come together. We’ll be a charge soon, and that is the most obvious sign of coming together, but it needs to be more than that. We need to serve one another, we need to love one another, and not just in this room – but across churches and across denominations. We have to reach out a hand, to draw the disparate pieces of God’s body back together, and we have to pray to God each and every day for the Spirit to bring us together and give us life. – Amen.

[1] Even if denominations do experience growth, the present trajectory of belief in the United States is toward increasing loss of belief, and shows no sign of increase.
Pew Research Center. “Modeling the Future of Religion in America.” Available at:

[2] Jeremiah 28

Sermon 03/19/2023 – Shine a Light

Ephesians 5: 1-14

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But sexual immorality and impurity of any kind or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no sexually immoral or impure person or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them, for once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Walk as children of light, for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness; rather, expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly, but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Sermon Text

 Recently I had the chance to watch a sunrise. It is a simple fact that we have a sunrise everyday, and there is often very little keping us from observing it except our own tiredness an the clouds that seem to constantly cover our view of the sky. This morning where I saw the sunrise was a special day though. I got to wake up early, climb up a hill where I was staying, and look out at the world before it had woken up. Some deer just over the nearst gulley, light creeping over the mountain in front of me. Several minutes after the sun had crested the horizon line, it crested that distant hilltop, and shone out, wreathed in clouds that made its light seem even brighter by contrast.

Light is a common image we go to in scripture, but outside of moments like this, we get inoculated to just what a difference light can make when it chases darkness away. I think power outages are about the only time we get a good idea of what real darkness looks like. Some of us who camp might also know something  about that, but I can’t stand camping myself so that’s not where my mind goes. The precious nature of just being able to see where we are going is something we cannot understate. It is no wonder then that we constantly go back to it as a means to talk about life with and without God’s presence.

For people of Jesus’s time there was a fairly common understanding of people as broadly fitting into two categories – children of light and children of darkness. Now, splitting people into these categories is dangerous, and nothing I say here should have you start sorting people into one group or another in your head. Still there are good things and bad things in this world and the way that we conduct ourselves matters. We work constantly to try and make more good come from us than bad, and it is in doing that we push ourselves more into our identity as “children of light.”

My mother raised me with some very particular expectations about how I should act in given situation. I remember one time I was telling a story about how my step-mother had reacted to something I said back to her one day in a funny way, how exactly I don’t remember. My mother, rather than laughing with me at the strange situation, looked me dead in the eyes, face suddenly grave, and asked one simple question. “Are you telling me you’ve been talking back to your step-mother?” I quickly learned that my mother raised me to have sense in my head, and I would not find sympathy for the moments my senselessness caused anything to happen.

As I was reading this scripture and discerning what the message for us here today should be, I kept coming back to the way we talk. I think that there are few lessons we can take closer to heart, and meditate more upon, than how we speak to one another. 90% of what we do in a relationship is based in speech, and far fewer things are based in the work of our hands or feet. When I am interacting with friends, family, the people of God wherever they might be – I am interacting primarily through the words of my mouth.

Paul lists three kinds of speech that are not helpful, and he might go even further to call completely unworthy of being spoken. These are called “obscene, silly, and vulgar…” Those each have their own meaning for us today, but as always, we have to ask what Paul meant and then work forward to where we are now. We’ll spend a little time on each and then work toward something we can take with us into the world.

Firstly, there is obscenity. The word in Greek just means, “unclean,” and is not explicitly a word used for how a person talks. Paul is talking about talking though, so we can make that leap. What is obscenity? That’s hard to say because most every topic of conversation has its place in certain contexts, except I think, the sorts of things we can just call, “Gross.” What is a “Gross,” talking point? Well, let me try and explain.

There was a year when a stamped happened during a Muslim festival. Stampedes are unfortunately common in large groups of people. I heard multiple people afterward say something to the affect that they hoped more stampedes happened at these events. – that is obscenity. The conversations that several of my friends chose to have when women walked away from us where they felt the need to share their general inability to see them as something other than an object – that is obscenity. The words we speak in malice, or close mindedness, that deny the humanity of those around us – these things are obscenity.

The next category of language is “silly,” in the translation we read this morning. The word really means pointed jokes at another person’s expense. Plato uses it to describe when a student picks on their teacher and their teacher, graciously, allows it as part of youth.[1] I am not someone who believes you can never pick on someone a little bit, I would not be able to preach in this Church if I did not believe that lighthearted ribbing has its place in a community. Still, the difference between a joke that lands well and a joke that causes great harm is very, very slight. We have to be considerate, and careful, of how we talk to people around us, being aware of their sensitivities and backgrounds, so that we never harm them in what we say.

Finally, we are given “vulgar talk,” which we usually think of as cursing. I do not, as a rule, care about whether someone curses or not – context depending. My family is full of people with the mouths of sailors, and I do not see an inherent sin in their word choice. Time and place for everything of course, but I will not moralize the frequent and flippant foul mouths of my family. No, I think that we are better to see that this word is μορολογια, (Morologia,) Moros – Stupid; Logia – words. This is a warning against talking without thinking, and I found some amazing texts talking about this. In particular, people at Paul’s time thought that talking too much, and with too many words, was a sure sign that someone was not being earnest.

Now, as a long winded person, I am mildly offended, but I see what is meant by it all. Plutarch, an ancient writer, describes someone who speaks without thinking as being like a sieve. The second you pour knowledge in their head, they start talking about something completely unfounded until any benefit they might have gotten from the lesson is completely lost.[2] Again, a bit harsh, but there is a powerful lesson in our ability to think before we speak. More important than not saying things that are cruel, or things that are more serious than we treat them, is to not say something we have not thought to its end.

If you are thoughtful about what you say, then you’ll find yourself avoiding those other problems. When we speak, we need to take time to make sure what we say is really worth saying. Once we know it is worth saying, we have to be sure that we say it in a way that reflects what we really feel, and what is really the case, and not just what we would want to say. Sometimes you all will notice that I start a sentence and then stop one or two words in to rework what I want to say. This is not because I’m trying to clean up what I want to say (usually,) but because I let my wordiness get ahead of me. I have to stop my words, redirect them, and then hopefully have something to say that is true, helpful, and reflective of what I am thinking of.

Speech, the source of so many problems, is often times the one thing that we have complete control over, if we can only reign in our initial tendency toward these three vices. Going back to our initial image, light shining out on the world, and from that our identity as members of God’s family. Like my mother when I told her I talked back to my stepmother, we have to know that God wants us to act like we are children who have been raised with some sense. And the most sensible thing we can do, it be careful how we talk to one another. – Amen.

[1] Plato. Republic. VIII

[2] In particular, Plutarch describes word without thought as being like, “vain and silly discourse,” that comes from being drunk. Plutarch. De garrulitate 4.