Contentment – Lectionary 09/29/2019

1 Timothy 6:6-12

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

Sermon Text

Do we expect to be paid for having good faith? I’ll repeat, do we expect to make money from being faithful? Ok, so we don’t expect money. Notoriety then. A good reputation? What is that we want? We must be doing this for some reason. There has to profit to being Christian… Or is there? Is there really any benefit to the faith? What can we gain.

For many today and in the earliest Churches, the Gospel was the perfect way to gain. You could handle money, like Judas did, skim off the top and no one will need to know. Insist that you are someone who has a unique message, one that the people will perish without. All it will cost them is a few small payments of good, “Seed Money.” Or maybe you are simpler, and you want the power of being a leader in the community. Someone that everyone might look up to, a king among paupers defined by your faith.

The earlier Church was not unaware of these problems. False prophets were not in the business just to make people believe lies – the were in the business to make money, to be famous, to be the pastor everyone knew and respected. To counter this, some mindful disciples wrote rules about how to handle the ministers who traveled through towns. Let’s look at a few: “Whosoever then comes [and teaches the truth], receive him. But if the teacher himself be perverted and teach another doctrine to destroy these things, do not listen to him.” That one is easy, that makes sense.

“Concerning the Apostles and Prophets, act thus according to the ordinance of the Gospel. Let every Apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord, but let him not stay more than one day, or if need be a second as well; but if he stay three days, he is a false prophet.” So it is more than teachings that defines a false prophet, it is also how long they linger to eat up what they are offered. Let’s see if there is anything else, “has his judgment with God, for so also did the prophets of old. But whosoever shall say in a spirit ‘Give me money, or something else,’ you shall not listen to him; but if he tell you to give on behalf of others in want, let none judge him.” Huh… Again, it seems like being a false prophet has a lot to do with what we expect out of our work for God, not just what we preach or teach.

It is easier to see the qualities of a false prophet in a minister. Those of us who stand and preach are not the most subtle people. When we start asking for money, when we start moving the narrative to suddenly give ourselves all power and authority, we can hope that those sort of things are obvious to us. Though some especially deceptive ministers can lead congregations to give them more than they ever deserve in terms of money and authority, most are removed from the equation before then. Either the systems that give them their ordination catch on or the congregations they’ve hurt take a stand against them. Not always of course, but hopefully often.

The problem is never just in leadership though. The clerical abuses are usually the most evident and they impact the most people. Those with authority carry more responsibility and therefore abuse of their authority affects more people. Still, the allure of power is present to all members of the faith. WE want to have more control than we did before, and if our faith gives us that power we are prepared to sacrifice the authenticity of our belief to gain it.

It seems strange to put it that way. That our faith gives us power. But it does. Not just spiritual power, but societal power. Though we sometimes pretend otherwise, the church maintains a great deal of influence in the world. A majority of the United States remains enrolled in Church membership, and a majority of that majority attend services at least once a month. To be a member of the church is to have connections, it is to have a place of authority to speak from, it is a way to instantly have rapport with people.

The promises of God seem to some people to be a way to grow in importance. The opportunity to speak truth, to work wonders, to pray authoritatively. These all can become a distraction from our actual mission and life in the church. This is why Jesus, in giving his church authority over the continued mission of the church told them, “Do not rejoice that the spirits are under your authority, but that you are saved.” The membership in the body of Christ, our place in the world to come, these are the things that we are to take joy in – not the power we gain because of these things.

The sacrificial nature of the Christian life is rooted in giving up our power. It is rooted in us not taking advantage of the things that God has given us. This means that we do not take from those in need, it means we do not horde our wealth, it means we should consider others more significant than ourselves. The church is not to be a place where the power plays of the world are played out. We must work to stand separate from it all – we cannot give in and worry about who is an alpha or beta in a social interaction, over who is superior for one reason or another, but honestly seek to live in peace with one another.

The advantage of faith is not to be found in our authority. It is not to be found in us gaining advantage. We are, after all, to give that up. What then do we gain from being in the church? Eternal life of course. The benefit of God’s presence in the world to come, but does that benefit only exist in the hereafter? Or is there something for us now?

The truth is that when God breaks into our lives and we decide to pursue a life based on sacrificial love rather than worldly power plays then the life eternal immediately begins. We are not waiting for heaven to experience our salvation, we are living it out now, and we need only to pursue it to enjoy it. If we are willing, if we listen, if we look to the kingdom and not toward our own elevation.

The problem with the church generally is that those of us who benefit from the power that Christianity gives us are far too willing to sit and enjoy the rights and privileges granted to us and not willing to extend them to anyone else. It is so often the poor or the marginalized who we ask to live sacrificially. “Do not worry about money. Be happy with what you have. Yes you are not being treated fairly, but simply keep the faith and at least you can be happy in that.” While we can never say it is bad to be optimistic about a situation, telling people who suffer that their real problem is their outlook is a hollow gesture.

Christ asks us to take our abundance and count that as loss. To give to those in need and to take the lower seat whenever possible. If we are able to do this, to remove our desire for money and power, then our life becomes something greater than it was before. The money that would have led us to commit evil no longer controls us, we are free to do good. We are no longer concerned with where people come from, what they look like, what they can give us socially – therefore we gain new friendships, the family of the faith grows.

When we are committed to God, not because it makes us important or gives us worldly power we come into our full inheritance. We behold God and love God for who God is. We love one another because God first loved us. The tapestry of creation becomes a story we can understand because we know that different as we all may be, the image of God is sculpted deep within each and everyone of us.

Then, and only then can we be truly content. Not so that we never desire justice for ourselves, not so that we are satisfied with a broken world. But that we can be self-sufficient in the love of God. That desiring nothing but God’s will, riches mean nothing to us, we want only what is right, and with little or much we know always what is ours and what is Gods. Let us commit ourselves to love of God, and not love of money, of power, of advantage. – Amen

Mourning and Comfort – Lectionary 09/22/2019

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?”)
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!

Sermon Text

How many oceans could be filled with our tears. How many springs would we need to swallow down to have enough tears to really let out our sorrow. The truth of life is that for many people it is a brutal thing. There is no one who passes through this life unscathed by sadness. Even of our savior it had to be said, “Jesus wept.” We have talked for a long time about what it is to repent. We have talked for a long time about the burden of our sin. Now, we need to look to something else – the burden of our sorrows.

Jeremiah gives us more than we would ever need to understand the life of a person in crisis. The prophet saw his home destroyed, his leaders taken away in chains, and the land made fallow by the pillaging invaders. Those who did not die in battle were killed in famine, those who were not taken to famine were driven to despair, to suicide, even – we are told, to cannibalism. The world which Jeremiah inhabits is not bright, it has no hope to ever be bright again. It is darkness, it is destruction, it is the world turned upside down.

When disaster comes, we are left in a similar place. While we cannot imagine what widespread devastation like that that Jeremiah faced would be like, we know what it is to suffer. We have seen our good days fade away into dark ones, and we are left crawling in the dark, groping to find anything that might give us hope – a pulse of the life that once was. The fact is that when we are lost, we are lost entirely. We do not help ourselves by pretending otherwise. We become like Jeremiah. We wander the streets, we cry out to God, but above all – we look to be healed.

How wonderful if there were some magic words in scripture that made these moments cease to be. How magnificent if God could reach down and in a moment erase the pain from our lives. There is no such verse those. There is only the reality of grief – the fear that comes from loss.

We all have our own stories of loss. Family and friends who have left us too soon. Tragedy that has upended our life. Disasters that have left our world formless and void. The only hope that we have is for resurrection to be made real in our life, for God to take the dust of the ground, the ashes we have thrown ourselves down on, and breathe life into them again. We sit, we wait, we mourn, and we certainly cry.

The Church has had a problem with tears. We look at the scripture which asks us to, “In all things give thanks,” that has Paul reminding us, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” and we decide that God will accept anything but our tears. How could we ever be sad, God is so good. What reason have we to mourn? God is in his Heaven. Yet telling ourselves to be thankful is not enough, claiming that we are rejoicing is not real rejoicing. We have cut ourselves off from receiving much of God’s peace, because we refuse to own our unrest. We are sick people lying to the doctor about our symptoms.

Or perhaps we are honest, perhaps we pour our soul out to God constantly and we hear nothing. We are told the sun is shining and we see no light, in the same way God is near us but we do not feel it. The presence of God, constant, internal, profound – seems dull, far off, like a memory we have begun to forget. We know that there is relief from our troubles, somewhere far off and distant. We cry out like Jeremiah, “Is there no Balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” We know the answer – there is a balm to cure us and there is a physician to heal us, but he is there and not here. This is the house of mourning. These are the doors of suffering. It is the door we have shut up and said to everyone else, “Abandon all hope ye that enter here.”

But this cannot be the end. This cannot be the last chapter of our book. The darkness can only last for so long before light breaks out. The world tends toward chaos, entropy increases, but the light never goes out. As long as there is energy and movement and hope, there is something that keeps us going. As long as even one candle burns, the darkness does not overtake the world. There are no magic incantations to set the grieving heart right, but there is one overwhelming truth that things change – that someday the clouds break open and we see the horizon open up once again.

The testament of our entire faith is that even death is not absolute, that one day it will be crushed and be no more. The promise that tears will be wiped away, all sorrow abolished. No one will ever need to come home to an empty house that once was full, no illness prevent us from dancing, no tragedy will ever again shake the foundations of the world. One day, blessed day that it is, God will be among us. We will be with God. Peace will reign. Joy will finally be ours to hold on to. When heaven and earth meet, when Zion is rebuilt, when light shines perpetually upon us…

These promises are what we cling to. The hope that never goes out. The light that was attacked by the darkness, that we tried to put out, it still shines no matter what. It shines, distant at times, nearly imperceptible. But still it burns.

 

The early church had a tradition, at the tomb of the Holy Sepulcher, the burial place of Christ. They would go behind a curtain, into the cave where Jesus died. And every evening they would light a lamp in the tomb. That light would be taken out from the candle, and all people present would light their lamp from that flame. A hymn would then be sung, praising God, “Oh gladsome light… Son of God and Giver of Life.” The light emerged from death, from darkness, yet it could light up the whole world as the worshippers walked home.

That lamp is what our hope is like. We return to God to have it lit time and time again, we walk into the dark of the world with its light guiding us. It is small, and fragile, and the thing we need most in the day to day. It shines, not so bright that we can see the whole path ahead, but so that we can at least take our next step. As long as that lamp burns, as long as even one flame of hope is lit, the darkness can never overtake us.

The lamp still needs lit though. The light comes only when the time is right. When the sun fades and the evening comes. We try too hard to be well before our time. Like someone who is recovering from surgery, and runs a marathon before their stitches are out, we open old wounds and create new ones by not letting ourselves heal.

When we are honest that we hurt. When we do not rush toward recovery, when we give lament it’s fullest room to breathe. In those moments we see God in ways we never would have before. It is not easy. There is no point to suffering. We do not suffer to learn lessons, but we can learn despite that. We can grow despite that. In the dark, in our deepest despair, there we can find deep waters. Springs that do not give us tears to shed, but that bubble up full of life.  Let us hold onto our hope, no matter how dim it seems to shine. – Amen

Like a Searing Wind – 09/15/2019

Jeremiah 4:10-12

And I said: Ah, Lord GOD! Surely You have deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying: It shall be well with you— Yet the sword threatens the very life! At that time, it shall be said concerning this people and Jerusalem: The conduct of My poor people is like searing wind from the bare heights of the desert— It will not serve to winnow or to fan. A full blast from them comes against Me: Now I in turn will bring charges against them.

Sermon Text

Reading today’s scripture we face two difficult verses back to back. First Jeremiah accuses God of being a liar, and then God accuses the conduct of the people of Judah as being, “like a scorching wind.” What are we to do with these words? Is there a lesson to be drawn from the cry of Jeremiah and the charges which God is placing on God’s people?

Jeremiah raises his question to God, “Have you deceived these people?” After God has described the coming Babylonian invasion. We have discussed this invasion at length before, in our examination of Isaiah’s prophecies. The rulers of the land had abused the peasant workers outside of Jerusalem, idolatry had become prevalent throughout, and the community had broken down to a point where everyone was chasing after their own well being at the expense of others.

The coming Babylonians were considered an inevitability. Jeremiah had been handed down two chapters worth of oracles against the people of Judah. In true jeremiad fashion, he now raises his voice to say, “God this is an awful lot! How can you bring down such fire on your people?” The danger of such a question, of course, is that God might have an answer prepared for us when we ask it.

God looks at Jeremiah and says, “You think that I am causing trouble here? Have you looked at what you all have done?” God is not passing the buck in this passage, but is reorienting the Jeremiah’s viewpoint. In an attempt to deal with the wrathful God who seems to have presented themselves to Jeremiah, Jeremiah is accusing God of backing out on the covenant. That ancient agreement between God and the children of Jacob, the agreement renewed at Sinai. God does not take this accusation lightly, and explains exactly why God has set up such a harsh punishment for the people of Judah.

God calls the conduct of Judah a, “Searing wind,” that is dry like the desert. The vivid imagery imagines a destructive force that leaves nothing behind. If the people of Judah were crops they would wither up in a moment. If they were land they would dry and crack in a moment. Their conduct destroys one another, it rips and tears and does nothing top build one another up, nothing to help one another. This wind is not contained to Judah though, but is described as going outward, reaching even as far as God’s throne.

Throughout scripture we see examples of the worship of God’s people rising up to God as a pleasing aroma, like incense wrapping around itself as it rises from a censor. This is one of the few times that the work of the people is actively offensive to God’s senses. The foul smell of human sin had reached God in the time of Noah. The prophet Isaiah told of God rejecting the prayers and rituals of God’s people. However, Jeremiah is the first time that God seems to be physically affected by the conduct of God’s people. God feels the heat. God is parched.

Whenever we picture God as a judge over the nations, we often do so as if God is an unchanging presence standing above us. We see God as unaffected by what we do – condoning or condemning us based on whether or not the thing we have done matches the rules God has established. The unflinching judge, the old man with grey hair and a stern look on his face. This sort of God is the one that hands out punishments like candy.

Scripture does not leave us with this image of God though. Scripture shows us a God who cares enough about creation to take an active interest in it. When God’s people become destructive toward one another and to the world at large God reaches out to set things straight. The violation of covenant through idolatry is one thing, but to hurt one another, to support the rulings of unjust judges and the policies of discriminatory officials. That is too much.

The grandeur of God and of creation can cause us to come to a place of repentance. Honesty about our own imperfection can get us to tip toe toward a place of repentance as well, but it is oftentimes when the consequence of our actions catch up to us that we are finally willing to change. As one author once put it, “Change can only happen when the pain of staying the same is too great.” For the people of Judah this manifested in a moment when even God had to stand apart from them.

The damage they caused the land in through farming that was only concerned with crop yield and not with sustainability. The damage they caused by starving the poor and selling them off as slave workers. The damage they caused by seeking profit over peace. The burning of their conduct had destroyed the lives of the people of the land, the land itself, and had distanced them from God. When everything was gone, would the pain of staying the same be enough for them to turn back toward God?

When we look out into the world we do not see something that can stay on the path it is set upon. We cannot maintain a world where every month brings another list of people killed in mass shootings. We cannot live in a world that sees people dying in the streets while the rich buy up houses just so they can, “invest in real estate.” Looking into the world, which literally grows hotter day after day, we would be hard pressed to disagree with God’s assessment. Our conduct is like a searing wind, it is too strong to survive. If we let it go one like it we have now, there will be nothing left to be redeemed. We will be like the barren fields of Judah, ripped to pieces by our own greed before Babylon ever draws near.

The first and most important change we make when transforming the world is transforming ourselves. The hatred we see in the world begins in our heart. The violence that tears apart families begins with our own cruel words toward one another.

So how do we change? We began this month looking at the example which the Eucharist sets for us. We talked about being a willing participant in God’s redemptive work. What we must do today is go beyond talking about change and actually change. If any part of us is still clinging to our desire to control those around us, to harm those we disagree with, to fracture the community we live in, we must give up those feelings. The fact is that when we talk about repentance we cannot do so as if it is a nebulous concept, something theoretical.

Repentance is the constant reorientation of our life to align with God’s vision. This vision is also not something abstract. It is made up of each and everyone of us, we are the Body of Christ, we are the first fruits of God’s perfect reign. The question is whether or not we can embody that high calling. We must love one another as God has demanded. We must raise those in need up and challenge the proud who hold them back. We must go beyond practicing what it right and speak against those who do evil in the world. We must call out against our rulers today who have no regard for those in need, we must open our hearts and minds to those who are displaced.

We must change and we must change now because the problems of the world are not going to shrink on their own. The natural trend of creation is toward entropy and disorder, not organization. Later in Jeremiah’s prophecy in chapter 4 the world that we have let continue on in hatred and despair is described as, “formless and void,” our cruelty toward one another leaves God’s good creation in complete disorder. The carefully molded universe is rendered, “formless and void,” as if the chaos waters of Genesis had never receded. We are in such a world today, we are wading in the waters of a world that has been destroying itself from the moment that we stepped out of Eden and into it.

 

Things do not have to stay that way though. Jeremiah questions whether or not God lied to God’s people. “If this is inevitable, then why did you ever make a covenant with us to begin with!” The question has an answer… The destruction was never inevitable. It was inaugurated and created by human action. God is not completely removed from the coming armies, but God does not see their action as “Good” the violence that they commit will not contribute to God’s vision for the world. God, even in promising, “I will not relent from this judgment,” offers a choice for the people of Judah.

Continue on in your ways. Rebel against my vision of love and community. Destroy yourselves and one another. Or. Turn back to me. Walk in my ways. Give up your pursuit of wealth and power and instead seek justice and mercy. Give up the empty trappings of a religion that justifies your own cruelty and accept the true religion that challenges you each day to be better. The way of God is a way that leads to life, not because God is holding a sword to our neck and demanding conformity – but because God asks us to live in peace with one another, as loving members of a single family, of a single kingdom that transcends all borders and all factions.

Let us commit ourselves today to make the necessary changes, to side with God and God’s vision for the world. Cast off the yoke of your own expectations. Look at the creation which God has made and seek to preserve it. Look to those around you and truly love them as neighbors and siblings in Christ. Let today be the day that starts the kingdom of God on earth. Here, now, in Shenandoah Junction. In this church. In our pew. – Amen.

Repent and be Transformed – Lectionary 09/08/2019

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up;  you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me— those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Sermon Text

There is a lot that we have broken in the Church. People have a lot of baggage about coming through those doors for a reason, and that reason is usually us. People associate the Church with judgmental prudes who spend their time scrolling Facebook sharing hurtful memes and conspiracy theories. People think of the Church as protestors with big signs and as street preachers calling down hellfire on everyone around them. People think of the Church as an old, outdated institution that has lost touch with the world around it. I am not going to argue with them on any of those points.

It is easy for us to become self-congratulatory. We are God’s saved after all. God died for us. If there is a problem with people coming into the Church, it cannot be with us. Other Churches maybe, especially if they’re a denomination we don’t like. Catholics and nondenoms, they’re the source of evil, not us. Certainly not our congregations, certainly not our pew, certainly not… our heart.

The difficulty of the life of Faith is that we are not just a group of people – we are the body of Christ. We are not saved by our works, but by our faith. If that is true, then we can do as the Super Apostles did in Paul’s time. Literally, “Upper Apostles,” they looked at everyone and said, “I’m saved. Because of that I am also perfect. Since I am perfect, you all must follow me, and don’t you dare question me.” One day we will have an entire sermon on this group, but today they serve as an extreme example of what I am talking about. The Church looks at itself and says, “Yeah, we have trouble… But I’m not why we have trouble, and neither are the people I know. It’s just those people over there!”

Well, as we discussed a few weeks ago, when we start pointing fingers that usually indicates that someone struck a nerve. We feel vulnerable when we are asked to confess for our sins and repent of them. Remember the reaction of the Pharisees, many of which would fit into our church just fine. They were good people many of them, did their duty to the poor and to God. They loved God and worshipped him often. Yet, when the reality that they still were lacking, that they did not have something needful, they killed the people who said it to them. John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod because he spoke against him, Jesus was crucified because he dared to say we were lacking in love for one another and God. Stephen for saying we don’t love those different than us. Paul for saying the Emperor was not God. And so on, and so on.

When good people are told they are not what they should be, they get defensive. Because we associate what we are now with what we are. We cannot know what’s ahead of us, what is past is already gone. We get defensive when someone tells us we need to change, because we cannot see the potential in us in the same way that other people can. It was once put to me this way – that we know God’s voice when it sounds like someone else, and that Satan will only ever speak to us in our own.

There are several things which bring us to a point where we might understand our need to repent. To literally turn away from the path we have made for ourselves and back toward God. However, one of the simplest ones is the presence of God. When God appears to us, we know that we are not where we should be. The majesty of God is so great that the soul is utterly lost in its presence. When God shows up in a moment of worship, when we are wrapped in our savior’s arms. Then we disappear into the fullness of that moment, the smallness and the fragility of our little existence in this massive universe strikes the infinite love of its creator and we are left starstruck. The Psalms tell us about this time and time again.

Today the Psalmist does not even have to look away from themselves to see the majesty of God. “You formed my inward parts. You knit me together in my mother’s womb. My frame was not hidden from you, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” The Psalmist had no idea that in this phrase they described a miracle that we sometimes can forget. That we are miracles. Inside each and everyone of us is a complex system of biological machinery. Everything finely tuned, everything balanced just so, and all of it made up of dust.

If you take up a rock, if you dig in the dirt, if you ever touch a flower, then you see all the ways that dust can come together to make something special. The same basic bibs and bobs, the cosmic clay that are the chemical elements. These are arranged just so in anything you ever see, everything you ever touch. The intricate ionic bonds in the rock you pick up are not unlike those that make up your bones, the pastiche of carbon and nitrogen in a flower are nearly identical to the ones that make up our soft tissues, and even the dust of the earth is made up of what we are. We are all, each and everyone of us, knit together in the depths of the Earth because each and everyone of us are made up of the same stuff as it.

How can we look at how intricate we are, how marvelous we are, and not see that something very great must have put us together? The Psalmist knows that if God made something as complicated as this, that God must have invested more time into them. God must know what they think, what they feel, what they do. The Psalmist imagines running into the deepest pits of the Earth, to the grave that is Sheol. Up into Heaven too they could fly. From one end of the other of this 13.8 Billion lightyear wide universe we live in, they imagine running and they know that God would be at each and every stop along the way. They respond to this with love, with worship, but also… With a degree of fear.

The Psalmist looks at how much God knows and God does, and knowing that God is good makes a request of God. “God, if only you would destroy the evil people of the world.” “Lord if only you would chase down everyone who commits evil and wipe them out.” Then, the Psalmist supposes. Justice would be complete on the Earth.

The Psalmist does not stop with this request. The Psalmist does not look at the wickedness of the world and say, “God just get rid of that.” They look within. The Psalmist takes a deep breath and then says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The Psalmist has called down Judgment on God’s enemies. They have asked God to do right and avenge those who have been hurt, all those who have had their blood spilt unjustly. They realized though, as we all must do, that the same wickedness that was in the so called, “Enemies of God,” was also in their heart.

People cry against the church constantly, “They are judgmental!” “They are hateful!” “They sit on their judgment seat and they condemn the whole world but do not look at themselves!” Imagine, if instead of fighting about whether or not they’re right. If instead of discounting the hurt which the Church has caused them, we were honest. I am judgmental. I am hateful. I sit on my seat of judgment and condemn the whole world, but not myself. Imagine what could happen.

Even now, as we hear this word we recoil back. “I know I’m not perfect, but they won’t ever acknowledge it.” Something within us will not even let us repent without being self-righteous about it. God does not want us to turn half heartedly away from our problems. God does not want us to look at the paths we are taking in life and say, “Yes I know its bad, but I’m saved aren’t I?” Because if we do that. If we just walk on our own path without really turning back to God, then we will never find God. Words mean nothing. Actions mean everything.

God invites us to be scooped up and reshaped. The potter can take the clay and remold it, but only if the material is willing. I do not know much about pottery, but I know that a piece of clay with the wrong balance of water or of silicate will explode in the kiln. When put under scrutiny it not only destroys itself, but all those pieces around it. The material which God plucks up must be willing to be transformed, atom by atom if necessary, so that it can be conformed to the goodness which God has set aside for it.

We do not like a wrathful God. We should not like a wrathful God, because any honest person who hears of one knows that their head should be on the chopping block. A God of wrath will not spare you simply because you know that they exist, nor because you pay lip service to them. A God of wrath would want you wholesale, would want you to ask yourself honestly what in this life is important.

I’ll be quite honest that this month is going to be one of scrutiny for us. Today we talk about repentance, next week about judgment, then about how God will lift us up, then about what it really means to mourn, and finally what it means that God is our king. This month is brutal in how the scripture will speak to us, this month is not going to be gentle. This month is not, however, going to be hopeless. There is never a time that we will meet together and leave without hope.

The hope which remains today and everyday is this. That God, the potter of our lives, was not content to destroy the vessels he made. God instead took on one such vessel. God became like one of us, and when God told us the way ahead of them was one of love and peace, we shattered him. That vessel was put together again though, and we who fought against the call of God are the same people now offered to be transformed ourselves. We must repent and be transformed, each and everyone of us, but the promise remains. One will follow the other. Repentance is not the end, it is the beginning of something new, something better, something abundant. Turn back, foreswear thy foolish ways, be born again in the Spirit of Christ. – Amen.

An Open Table – Lectionary 09/01/2019

Hebrews 13:1-5

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”

Luke 14:7-14

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Sermon Text

The seat of honor is not a common thing to us anymore. There are very few events that I have ever been to where a table is large enough for people to sit at the head or the foot of that and for that to have any real meaning as to who was important in a gathering. We do, of course, have those gatherings where there is – the table. That is where event organizers put the most important people. Up front where we can behold them. Set aside from us all, these are the people with money, those who contribute to the organizer, the keynote speaker for the event.

This is the average person’s brush with, “seats of honor.” There are still some cultures and households that keep to them, but as I have said they are not common in our general setting. Now, this opens up a temptation in our life to say that Jesus’ lesson, to keep the seats of honor open for people no longer really affects us. Likewise, how often do we have a large meal that we open up the public as individuals. In Jesus’ times feasts were a major part of life.

A feast was held during harvests not just because of the amount of food which was available, but as a means to feed the hungry in an area. The community came together and everyone contributed. Because the rich would be making sacrifices of animals, the community feast was one of the only times that the average farmer would get any significant amount of meat in a season. When everyone came together and shared what they had, the festivals and feasts, the luncheons and communal meals.

The early church developed this into a practice that we ostensibly practice today. The ancient church would gather for worship and would share a meal together. The breaking of bread and drinking of wine together was known as the ευχαριστιας – the thanksgiving. However, a second rite was begun, simply called the αγαπη – literally just the love. However, this would later be called, “The Love Feast.” At the love feast food was shared together, the poor were fed by the rich – the most mature Christians communed with the newest initiates.

At the table of Love the church met. They fed one another because some were starving. They taught one another because everyone had something to learn from someone else. They prayed together because someone was always in need. This sharing is termed in scripture as κοινωνια, and it has no true English equivalent. It essentially means, “to hold in common,” “To be in community,” “To share.” It is why, as the rite of love feasts was subsumed into the rite of Eucharist that we created a new name form the Lord’s Supper – “Holy Communion.” The sharing of God’s grace with one another in the sacrament.

The Church does not have seats of honor. We do not often have guests who we put on pedestals. We do, however, sit in constant communion with one another. We talk every week, we share our concerns and our joys, we talk throughout the week as well in fellowship. Even I, as a minister, am set apart only in my authority. In pursuing orders I am not made a different kind of Christian, not invested with any magical strength, instead I am lifted up not to be honored or given special treatment, but to be an example and a leader for the congregation. If we read on in Hebrews, the role of the Elders of the church is made clear – they are administrators, presiders, examples, but they are never above reproach because they must be the servants to servants. Even those of us still in the process carry great power, and we must everyday offer it back to Christ or else be held in judgment.

For every person in this church, a ministerial role exists. For every person in this church, a seat of honor has been prepared at the table of grace. The mission of each and everyone of us is to never take that seat for granted. We should not ever look at ourselves and think, “I am holy. I am better than the average person. I deserve what I have been given in life, unlike the rabble.”

We are all bought by the Blood of Jesus Christ. We owe all righteousness and honor to the work of the Spirit within us. We are told that in the Kingdom the first will be last and the last will be first. We must be prepared to take the final position in life. We must accept that we may be the poorest, the most forlorn, the most despised people. Then when in life we find abundance, we find comfort, we find the love of one another – we see what a blessing is because we do not presume it. It is a complicated business humility, but it is best encapsulated in this phrase, “It is not thinking less of yourself, but of yourself less.”

When we say in our Invitation, “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.” Then we are given time to think of what our Christian life is about. We are asked to think about how we love God – in keeping the ordinances of faith and also in helping the poor and needy who are Christ to us. We are given the chance to repent of our sin, which is why we confess them following the invitation, to make it clear to one another that we are far from finished being sanctified. We are asked to live in peace with one another. When we gather together as a body we should look to those in the congregation and see who we have wronged, we should seek to reconcile before we leave this building. We should likewise take this time to think of who we have wronged outside the church, so that we may go out and make ourselves whole in relationship with one another.

Then, and only then does our table become open. The grace of God opens up and all those who seek Christ are able to partake. The mission of the Church in the meantime is to be truly hospitable to all people. To, through love and forgiveness, work together as a body to love the world. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, be at peace with one another. This requires us to check our privileges, our expectations, our entitlement at the door and to put others first. So now, put aside the place of honor you have chosen for yourself, and prepare for the one God has set for you.