God and Sour Grapes – Lectionary 08/18/19

Isaiah 1:10-20

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.

He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;

he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,

judge between me and my vineyard.

What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?

When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.

I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;

I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.

I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;

I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Psalm 80

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might, and come to save us!

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.

Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted.
They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Sermon Text

Today we read two scriptures that tell the same story. The story of people who feel that God has abandoned them. The despair that the Psalmist feels is given a more concrete form in the parable put forward by Isaiah. God, the good gardener tending the prize crop of the garden, has seemingly abandoned that crop to be destroyed by pestilence. In Isaiah God is depicted as purposefully removing these protections, the lack of charity and justice from the Israelites has led to them being punished. Remember the language of Hosea from a few weeks ago, “I will treat you as you treat the least of these.” Here God is rendering judgment on Judah as Israel had previously suffered before.

This portion of Isaiah is dealing with the coming Babylonian scourge. The time in which all of Judah would be destroyed and subjugated under a new empire. Up until this point Israel had been a vassal of Assyria – but when it fell to Babylon, they were given a brief window where they had no master but themselves. Rather than using this time to set things right, to abolish the harmful taxation which they had been using to pay their Assyrian masters, they kept on as if it were business as usual. The wealth went to the wealthy, the poor were left to die in their fields.

The rich are who are being spoken to in the Isaiah text. As so many of the prophetic texts are written, the average person is not the object of wrath. The people of Israel who were in the fields and suffering under the oppressive regime of their kings were not who Isaiah was writing against. However, when the poor leadership of their kings opened them up to invasion, when they abandoned the teachings of God which would have given them a strong people and a strong community to repel foreign invaders and to have brokered peace before war was even thought of, the day to day person suffered. When the invading Babylonians rode in on their chariots they did not ask whether or not the peasants in the fields were good Jews, they killed without discrimination.

For this reason, the two texts talk to each other. The kings are told that they have lost all their rights to protection. The rich who withheld their wealth will have their wealth taken from them. The rulers who crushed the innocent under their boots were now going to be crushed. God mocks these people; Isaiah closes his admonition with something like a song. The Hebrew for, “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” builds on itself, so that those who heard it would have noticed how similar these words really are.

לְמִשְׁפָּט מִשְׂפָּח, לִצְדָקָה צְעָקָה

This rich would have heard Isaiah’s prophesying and this part would have stuck with them. Directly after this, the exact nature of their sins is laid out. They bought up all the land and pushed people out away from the protection of the cities. If you’ve been to a big city recently or have seen anything on gentrification then you know what this looks like. In Morgantown, a famous example was when the University conspired with the city council to buy an entire street and evict all the people who lived there. The buying up of land for buildings was matched by the purchase of farmlands. Now the farmers of the land were serfs, they owed all their money to their new landlords rather than keeping any for themselves.

The farmers, the peasants, the tradespeople who worked outside of the city are clearly the losers in this situation. The sins of their leaders were bringing them to starvation, but it also opened them up to die at the hands of the Babylonians. As usual, the little guy was losing.

The prayer of Psalm 80 is written from the perspective of those who were suffering at this time. There is some reason to believe this Psalm was written by an Israelite before the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom. It consists of an Israelite staring down the oncoming armies, looking to God, and saying, “What on earth are you doing!” The image we are given resembles the curse which Isaiah put on the ruling class.

The Israelite looks to God and says, “Why have you torn down the fence of your garden! Why did you tear down your watchtower! You have brought us this far and then you just abandon us!” The Psalm goes beyond just expressing distress though, it asks God to remember. “God, you looked into Egypt and saw us. You plucked us up because you thought we had value, you carried us into this land and made room for us. God, take care of us like you did then.”

The mystery which we of the modern church face in reading this cry is that we receive both these messages for our benefit. On one hand, we have a lot to repent of. We are the people who have produced unfitting fruits. We are the redeemed, the body of Christ to the world, and we fall short. We are not an obedient people, we have not heard the cries of the needy. God looks to us and says, “I should throw you out! What are you doing!”

However, God does not live as someone who looks down on us with anger. God does not hold grudges like we do. When God looks down on us, he sees what he saw in us from the first day. When God made humanity, we are told he looked at them and said they were, “very good.” The human beings, made in the image of God, were the pinnacle of creation. Our disobedience pushed us out of Eden, but God never stopped chasing after us. The question which God asks Adam and Eve when they hid from him, “Where are you?” is the same one we hear today. As a Jewish philosopher once put it, “All of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of [us].

God looks at our fallen state and sees the creation he originally made. The sinfulness of the human soul can never overcome the goodness which God created within us. The image of God remains no matter what we do, but it is not what it could be. When we accept the calling of the Christian, when we confess our faith and are baptized, we begin our transformation. The washing of the water represents the cleansing of the soul, but also – by way of metaphor, the watering of a crop.

The sprouting vine which God saw and loved, that God pulled out of the ground and placed in safe soil, naturally becomes entangled in weeds over time. The little sins and evils of the world overtake it, threatening to destroy it. However, God never forgot how to tend gardens. God enters in as gardener, God tears the weeds from around us and gives us a chance to grow. The fertile ground of scripture is watered by our faith, and we have a chance to grow and produce fruit.

We can produce good fruit or bad fruit. The good fruit comes of a life lived in the grace of God. Peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, all other fruits of the Spirit are produced in the life that focuses on God – that stops running away and lets God catch up to them. The sour grapes we once produced do not need to be the only thing we make. God works wonders in us, clears away those impurities within us, and perfects us back into the image we were originally created in.

We talk a lot about what we must do as Christians, what it is to be transformed into the image of God. The list of expectations for the Christian life is long, and we should not hold ourselves to any standard but the high standard of Christ and his life. However, we have to remember the most central aspect of the Christian life – and that is just to have faith.

Have faith that God loves you. Have faith that God is not done with you. Have faith that God died for you. Have faith he got up again. The work will come, and we will accept it when it does. In between though, we get to bask in our identity a little. Christ tells us we should not think too highly of ourselves, but there is a difference between being secure and being braggadocious. Security says, “I am valued. I am loved. I have a purpose.” There is no sin in that kind of honesty. The life of the Christian is balancing two identities, that of the Sinner and the Saint. The sour grapes which we produce are mixed with the good fruits, our weed-choked soul is the vine that God loved enough to pluck up and tend to.

The story of the Bible, from beginning to end, is that God is seeking us out. For the Israelites this meant God turning from Sinai to Egypt and taking his people back. For us, the scope is broadened but the story is the same. God looked on the world and dove down into human form. God put on a face that we could see, hands that we could touch. God chased down his beloved, and God died for his beloved. God rose from death for us to follow them into life. But the path we follow begins only after God has found us, and oftentimes that means we have to take time to stop running. To stop, to rest, to Sabbath.

The commandment to take Sabbath is the same as the entreaty of the Psalmist, “Be still!” Literally, “Cease!” Stop doing anything but beholding God. Faith is relationship, it is responsibility, but more than anything it is living a life in the presence of God. An ancient father of the Church put it this way, “The Glory of God, is a living person, and the life of a person is in beholding God.” This is why our Psalm for the day contains the refrain, “let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Salvation is many things, but sometimes, brothers and sisters, it is simply finding the light of God in the world and sitting with it for a time. Let us enjoy our salvation, and let us enjoy the light.

Live in Charity – Lectionary 08/11/2019

Isaiah 1:10-20

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Luke 12:32-40

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.  You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Sermon Text

The Church has a duty to every person who is in need. From our founding on Pentecost we have had two charges put before us – Love the Lord your God and Love your Neighbor as Yourself. These two overarching missions define everything we do. The Methodist Church has interpreted these two charges in its mission statement, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World.” This transformation can take many forms, but the most essential one is that there should be no need among anyone who lives near a church.

I will repeat that. There is no reason anyone within, let us modernize the metric, twenty-five miles of a church should be hungry. No reason that they should be cold at night. With how many people are in the Church in America. With every person who claims to be, “Christian,” there is no reason that anyone should suffer under poverty. To break this down, there are some numbers I would like to share with you all.

In the United States, there are – apparently – two hundred and fifty million Christians. The average income in the United States is somewhere around fifty thousand dollars. If everyone who identified as Christian in America gave 10 percent of their income directly to the causes of hunger and homelessness – then there would be neither and an additional trillion-dollar would be left to do good works every year. If every Christian gave 5 percent of their income, a bit more palatable – then there would be no homelessness, no hunger, and there would still be about 550 billion dollars left to do good work with. Now, here is the terrifying question. If we gave, just 1 percent of what we made direct to causes of hunger and homelessness. Then we could solve both, and still have seventy billion dollars to do good work with.

The most that the average Christian would have to give to the needy every year is $500 dollars. The more we have, the more this would go up of course. A billionaire would have to give more, but by the time you have a billion dollars you have no risk of going hungry by giving 1% of your income.

Now, we get scared when we hear we are to give our money. Money is how we live in the modern-day. Money has taken the place of crops or livestock for most of us, and even people who raise these have to worry about selling them. Money, as several songs will tell us, makes the world go around. To quote Ecclesiastes, “Money, can buy everything.” There is much to be found in scripture about money.

If you took the bible and cut out every reference to it, you would have a shredded document, entire chapters simply gone. Money, like it or not, does a great deal in the love. The problem with it is when we fall in love with it. Something so powerful definitely demands our attention, sucks us into its influence and leaves us feeling totally dependent upon it. When we put all the power of our life in money, then we give ourselves over to as Paul calls it – “The root of all kinds of evil.” I personally would translate the phrase more strongly, “The root of all things evil.”

The two passages we have tell us exactly what the cost of loving money is. It is the soul, the essence of all we are. The love of money renders us incapable of true worship, it prevents us from seeing God in others, and it leaves us unprepared for Christ’s return. We begin in Isaiah, and by way of Ezekiel we will come to the Gospel, weaving our way through scripture this morning we are going to find the straight and narrow takes more biblical literacy then we might think. Today the word of God speaks against Sodom, it speaks against Rome, and above all my brothers and sisters, it speaks against us.

The text from Isaiah introduces us to a shorthand for evil in the Old Testament. Sodom, much more than Gomorrah for some reason, is among those names which instantly mean the scripture has a critique for those reading it. To be compared to Sodom, the ancient city which ousted angels and threatened violence against them, that burnt under God’s wrath, that is a heavy accusation to weigh against anyone. Sodom has a specific charge which is always put against it in scripture, and it probably is not what you’re thinking. This is the problem we read about in Ezekiel chapter 16. In this, the people of Israel are once more compared to the ancient object of God’s wrath, now so alike to Israel that they are called one another’s sister.

Ezekiel cries out to Jews in exile and says to them, “As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it… Bear your disgrace, you also, for you have brought about for your sisters a more favorable judgment; because of your sins in which you acted more abominably than they, they are more in the right than you. So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous.”

What was the sin of Sodom that has defined it in scripture – lack of hospitality. Inability to care for the poor. Whatever else the manifold sins of Sodom, this is the one that is constantly brought up against it. Sodom had more material wealth than it knew what to do with. Rather than give to the poor, and at the time those would be the people outside the city walls, they hoarded their money in their own treasuries. The wealth of Sodom was so great that the people inside the city had no worries, no need to be hospitable because all those who were anyone would already be living within their walls. When Lot welcomed the angels in, the angels would have stood out by humble dress as opposed to the richness of all those in the city. Lot was righteous because he shared his wealth, even though he had grown to be a rich man of note in the city – even though he was seated in the City Gate where all civil legal matters were handled.

This is also why, when Jesus tells his disciples to brush the sand of their feet when they have been turned away, that, “It will be better for Sodom on the day of Judgment.” Again, turning someone away who is in need is one of the most vile things you can do in God’s eyes. The help that you could have given but did not stains your hands as much as murder ever could.

That is why, through this winding path, we come to the Gospel reading for today. In this passage, Jesus tells us that we are not to keep our wealth to ourselves. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!” This is a Kingdom which is not to be built out of hoarded wealth, not to be protected by a lack of generosity, but one that is strengthened by self-emptying. Do you find yourself with an overabundance? Then share with the needy. If you do not see an abundance, take stock of what you have.

There is the amount which we all need to live a fairly comfortable life – to have furniture and clothing and transportation – but if the Christian lives in as much luxury as the non-Christian who makes the same amount then we must question whether or not enough has been invested in the needy. Again, the question is not as large as giving up our houses or our hot water, but it one that we must be careful to attend to. “Do I need to eat out today, or can I eat some of the food I have at home?” “Do I need to upgrade my phone when the lease is paid on it, or can I go on for another year or two without a new one?” “Do I need to buy a new outfit every fall and spring, or is can I live with what I already have.”

Then we can save money to protect ourselves, then we can make money with purpose. Above all though, being aware of the riches we have and how much we are holding back lets us give more fully. Twenty dollars a month to those in need, that’s not much. Fifty even isn’t much. Yet, if we all gave that, there would be no need in the world.

When we read that Jesus expects us to be ready, like attentive slaves, it is not just that we live a life worthy of Christ so that when Kingdom comes we may enter it, though this is true. Jesus is also begging us when someone knocks at your door or crosses your path on the street and they are hungry, that you feed them. That you clothe them or pay for their needs. The beggar who arrives unexpectedly is Christ, and Christ will not tell you when he is coming to visit. So be ready, because Christ is more often dressed as a pauper than a king and as St. John Chrysostom said fifteen hundred years ago, “If you cannot see Christ in the beggar on the Church Step you will not find Christ at the altar.” Seek Christ in those around you, attend to the needs of every person, give simply so that others may simply live, this is the witness of Scripture against us today. – Amen

The Ransom of Life is Costly – Lectionary 08/04/2019

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.

All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?

It has already been, in the ages before us.

The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance

of people yet to come by those who come after them.

Psalm 49:1-12

Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together.

My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp. Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?

Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave. When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own. Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.

Sermon Text

The Ransom of Life is costly. The Ransom of Life is costly. I will say it again; the Ransom of Life is costly. This is something which is easy to forget – we live comfortably enough; we gather together and worship a God who has proved to us the power of the resurrection. However, that does not remove the truth of the matter – that the ransom. Of Life. Is Costly.
We have in Psalm 49 several meanings which can be drawn out of the text. On one hand, it is a call for the rich to care for the poor. When we look to the poor and say, “I cannot afford to help you.” Then we have decided that they are too costly for us to save. The text begs of us then to take care of the poor, because in the end, we come to the same place. We are gathered together in the grave. We are told, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp,” other translations put it as, “Mortals die though they were once famous.” However, it is something much more mundane – Even though people once called their name. So, on one layer, this verse carries a message carried throughout the bible – care for the poor, and don’t make excuses about it.

Another way to read it is to place it in conversation with the text that seems to have been written in a similar mindset as this one, namely our reading from Ecclesiastes. We read in Ecclesiastes that we, you and I, all people – are nothing. We are a “vanity”, we are “utter nonsense”, we are “meaningless.” These texts are both written to describe those moments in life when we butt up against the existential terror of life. We all know that we will die, we all know that there is a great deal of suffering in the world, and in our darkest moments we turn our eyes up to the hills and we do not see God. We do not see the Love of the divine, our purpose seems abstract or imagined. There are times in the life of every person of faith where, for a moment or a season, the light drops out from the sky. We believe God is out there, we just don’t believe in him.
This is natural. The scripture is adamant that the life of faith is filled with doubt. There was never a prophet who did not look to God and say, “Why have you done this! How can so much bad exist if you are really in control!” Abraham questioned God in the plains of Sodom, Moses at the base of Sinai, and Jesus from the cross. Yes, Jesus shouted out questions to God. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” The life of faith is an up and down journey. The straight and narrow is not a strictly uphill journey, there are valleys so deep we feel like we will never get out.
If we do not question God sometimes, I do not think that we are engaging with God honestly. Maybe some people could, but I have not met them. There comes a time when you see the suffering of people in the world when you hear the hate that people pour out toward one another, when death seems to have overcome all light. In those moments God does not just tolerate questions, God expects them. God wants your questions, God wants your anger, God wants you to be engaged in authentic relationship.
I’m not sure about you, but there is always seldom a time where I know a person and feel the same way about them all the time. The basic relationship is the same, I love my family no matter what, but sometimes you don’t want to be happy with them, sometimes you want to be angry. You should be angry with people sometimes, scripture tells us, “Be angry and do not sin!” Resentment is evil, but anger can be a righteous thing. Anger tells us that a boundary has been crossed. God tends to cross our boundaries, and we have a right to shout back. I know God crossed boundaries because he took a chemistry teacher in training and said, “No! You’re a minister and don’t you pretend otherwise.” Now here I am preaching instead of synthesizing NSAIDs in a lab somewhere.
Or maybe you come to God in one of these dark moments and you’re not angry. Maybe you’re just upset. Maybe you could fill a lake with the tears you’ve cried. God respects those tears. Jesus, when he was facing down his death wept so fiercely that blood came out in place of water. When Lazarus died, he wept openly. God respects your tears because God has cried those tears. Your emotion is valid, whether they good or bad, God wants them. God accepts them. There is power in your expression of emotions, and there is no one who is too big or bad, no one who is such a pillar of the community that they cannot be vulnerable.

If the creator of Heaven of Earth, the literal pillar of creation can cry. If that creator can turn over tables. If that creator can laugh and celebrate with sinners. If that creator can express all these emotions, then why can’t we? The essence of our Christian life is not found in what we believe, or what we do. It is tied up in faith. Faith is not just one thing – it is not ascent to doctrine, it is not believing in God, it is not good works – it is all these things, but it is something more. Faith that thing which pushes us forward even in the dark, even when we don’t believe in the goodness of God we can hold onto our faith in God.
The Ransom of Life is Costly. It is a ransom that Christ paid though. Not only in his salvific work on the cross, not only in the resurrection but in the full life which Christ lived among us. As we gather today to share in the Eucharist, to remember the work that God has done among us. We gather as people who may be in mourning, as people who may feel far from God, or perhaps as people who have never been closer to God, as people who are the height of celebration. Today as we celebrate, we do so as a complete body. All are invited, all are welcomed, all are legitimate, the table has been set. Today we feast upon the goodness of God.

Save Us, O’ God – Lectionary 07/28/2019

Hosea 1:2-10

When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.”

So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. And the LORD said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.”

She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the LORD said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”

When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.”

Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”

Colossians 2:6-19

As you, therefore, have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Sermon Text

Writing sermons is not a glamorous activity, and I never understand people who claim it is. I preach the Lectionary, which means that I have four or five texts to pick from each week, and I decide what will be the best one to base a service around. The sermon is, after all, only part of the service. If the Spirit hasn’t shown up by the twenty-minute mark of a service, I don’t expect that the Spirit will be there by the time I’m done talking either. That is why, once the scripture is selected, I don’t read it or look at it until it is time to write the sermon. I approach the research and the time I take to put together as something Spirit-led, as something I don’t want to have too much of a prepared response to.

Now, many of you will at this point wonder why I’m talking about the method I use to write a sermon and why I haven’t started actually preaching yet. Well, that is because today’s sermon was especially Spirit-led, because it is on a text I don’t much like. Hosea is a book which is used so often to excuse the bad behavior of people, especially the bad behavior of husbands toward their wives. As someone who has been on the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse in a relationship, I find the way that God speaks in Hosea very disturbing. God tells a prophet to marry a woman – not out of love, not out of compatibility, but as an object lesson. God tells him to name his children after negative emotions and as though they are just illustrations in a story.

For this reason many commentators have suggested that Gomer and her children don’t exist. They are just a story used to make a point. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the text to suggest this is the case. We read this story and we are led to believe that God had a man marry a woman to make a point. That God had a prophet punish a woman simply to make a point.

That is disturbing. It should lodge in our hearts as something that isn’t quite right. God is not in the habit of toying with people. God is loving, God is all-merciful, and even in wrath, we are led to believe that God is looking out for people’s good. Even this text takes a moment for God to say, “Yes, I will punish you, but there is still hope for some of you.” Even the text acknowledges this language seems out of place for God. Yet, we cannot look to it and say, “Well God didn’t really say this.” Or, “God didn’t really do this.” To do so would be to ignore something just because it is not agreeable to us, and the text does not let us do that.

What the text is doing, or rather, what the text is not doing, is creating a guide for how we as human beings deal with one another. This is not God saying, “Israel is like an adulterous woman, and I’m going to treat Israel like one.” God does not support the abuse of any person, and to say that God is looking to Israel and saying, “I only hurt you because I love you,” is to cast God as a monster. Instead, we need to look at what was going on in Israel at the time, what would lead God to use this particular image, in this particular way.

The reasons we are told of in this text are that Israel has violated the covenant in several ways. Firstly, they have committed war crimes against their enemies. The bloodiness of their campaigns against their enemies has disgusted God. Like when Cain killed Abel, blood is crying up from the ground and God is disgraced by the violence of humanity. Secondly, they have begun worshipping other Gods. Usually, we think of this as the Israelites leaving God to worship new deities, but it was more complicated than that. Oftentimes, the Israelites would put other Gods with the God of Israel. Ba’al was the God that their God sent ahead of him to bring the harvest, Asherah was the Goddess who would cause them to grow. The Israelites thought they were keeping the covenant so long as the Gods were lower on the list than the God of Israel, such was their interpretation of, “You shall have no other Gods before me.”

Both these issues tie into Israel’s chief sin at this time, namely that they are oppressing the poor and the needy. The farmers in the fields were no longer growing food they could use for food, they were not tending cattle like they used to. The King and the rulers had demanded that they grow crops that grew quickly and could be sold for high profit. Olive trees, barley, and other cash crops were planted and then taken from the people. They kept none of the profit and were expected to give up all they had so that the rich in the country could grow richer and so that the rulers could pay off their debts without digging into their own coffers.

The rich and powerful of Israel are those who are represented by Gomer. These are the sorts of people who could take as many wives as they wanted, and who would treat them as objects even beyond what was common for the time. The Kings of Israel and the elite would collect wives as a show of force, again degrading the quality of human life. The way that they had taken crops they were now taking people, especially from the poor. This evil was not new to this generation, but it was a high point of it. This generation in the time of Hosea embodied the warning of Samuel centuries before, “[Your rulers] will take your sons as soldiers will take your daughters as slaves, and they will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards”

What God is doing in picking the image of Gomer is saying to the rulers of Israel, “I want you to understand that I see what you’re doing. I am going to treat you the same way you treated the needy. You are going to be cast out like you cast out your wives, you will go hungry in the same way you starved the poor, you will no longer be called my people because you refused to regard to needy as you people.” It is the same lesson as we learn of in Matthew 25. God knows us by how we take care of the oppressed – not by how much money we have, not how holy you are, but how well you react to the love you are given by giving it to others.

How timely a passage we are given. In a moment of our history where the rich and powerful are constantly exposed for the evil, they are committing. In the past few years, people are being outed for the evil that they have done in secret. Secret racism, years of abuse that has been covered up – not just in the government, not just in the private sector, but even within the church, are all being exposed because people are now willing to stand up and make it known the way that they have been done wrong.

The lesson of Hosea is that God has no patience for the abuse of those who cannot defend themselves. In fact, most of the lesson of Scripture will tell us this. Matthew 25 – God knows us by how we care for the least of these. Luke 12 – A fool saves up money, but a wise man gives to the poor. Luke 16 – the rich man who lives a life of comfort is damned while the poor man who suffered is saved. Most relevant to this text, John 8 – The woman that is dragged naked into the streets, the one who is called a whore and is threatened with violence. She alone is given the grace of God, and all those who stood against her are sent away empty.

We of the church are recipients of unique gifts. We hold the keys to Heaven and Hell as heirs to Peter. In carrying the Gospel into the world we are tasked not just with the salvation of people’s souls, but the preservation of their flesh. We are to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and speak to the outcast even when it is means we have to make a sacrifice. Maybe we give the coat we’re wearing because we have more at home. Maybe we give the twenty dollars we were going to use for lunch out away. Maybe we talk to someone that people might get the wrong idea about. We have to take risks as Christians because the only thing that is unacceptable in the life of faith is to sit comfortably while others suffer. The one thing which strikes out against all the work of the Gospel is to take the light we are given and shut it up in bank accounts, in church pews, in closets.

The Christian stands as someone who is, “More than [a] conquerer.” We are given authority over demons, principalities, powers, all manner of spiritual evils. We are given the words of life, and oftentimes we are given material goods alongside them. We have a choice – either we take on the fullness of God’s gift, and commit ourselves to the identity which we claimed in baptism – or we sit quietly and wait for the world to burn and take us with it. In the mouth of the Christian, there can be no hateful word, the hands of the Christian are not to do harm but to heal wounds, the thoughts of a Christian are to be toward the good things of God and not on the degradation of others.

When we neglect the work of God we become like the rulers of Israel. We stand idly by while innocents are massacred – while Yemenese children starve to death in ruined cities and while the homeless die en mass from exposure. We bow down to God’s other than the one we know in Christ – Gods of money, of power, Gods in Washington and Charleston, Gods on TV screens and in our radios, on Youtube and Snapchat. In all things we commit atrocities, if not through the active participation in them then by quietly sitting by while they are committed.

In Deuteronomy God, through Moses, stood before the people of Israel. He said to them, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.” How often have we committed evil under the sky? How often have we walked the earth as a people who curse and not bless, who love death more than life? When we commit ourselves to follow Christ’s example we set down a narrow path, and it is one that many cannot go one faithfully. The stakes are too high not to. So we must treat people, all people, as we wish to be treated – Heaven and Earth will testify against us if we don’t – and God has made it clear, “I will treat you as you treat the least of these. The call which sounds out from Hosea is the entreaty which is extended to us by Paul. Choose the path of life, choose the path of blessing, choose to be good to those around you, love the foreigner, bless and do not curse. That is what it is to live into our identity as Christians, to go beyond a saved people and to become a sanctified people. We are told in the Epistle today that we are to grow as God has given growth, and I pray we will do so. Growth is a sign of life, and we must earnestly pray to participate in life – not just a comfortable life, or a happy one, but an abundant one. Seek the life abundant, never settle for anything else. – Amen.

The Word is Very Near – Lectionary 07/14/2019

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the LORD your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Sermon Text

    “Who is my neighbor?” just might be the most loaded question in scripture. We often think about the other questions that Jesus was asked were more inflammatory: “Are you a king? Are you the son of God? Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for another?” All of them direct and piercing questions, but none of them were as meant to snare someone as much as, “Who is my neighbor.” The man in the story was asking it to justify himself, and those listening were ready to do the same. 

    If Jesus said, “The person who lived in your town.” Then everyone could let out a sigh of relief, “I volunteer at the soup kitchen, I have followed the commandment.” If Jesus said, “Those who agree with you politically.” Then the Centurions watching in the back could relax, “The Jew I kicked into a ditch didn’t count, I’m still a God-fearer.” And, heaven forbid if Jesus had said, “Your neighbor is the person you like and get along with.” Because then we could all say, “Surely, I will inherit eternal life.” Afterall, as Jesus says elsewhere, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? Even sinners do that!”

    Instead Jesus puts something before us that we might look at and say, “Oh that’s too much.” Jesus gives us the charge to, “Love our neighbor as ourselves,” but is sure to define neighbor as God intends neighbor to be known. Jesus takes the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and transforms our understanding of it. The question is not, “What kind of person should I love,” The question becomes, “What kind of person am I?” The man who was trying to justify himself in talking to Jesus was hoping to be told – help this kind of person, and instead he was told what kind of person he should be.

    The story is backwards from what people would expect. People who heard the story would have insisted that Jesus should have made the man who was beat up the main character and had him find each of the other characters and help them. The version they would have expected would go something like this, “ A man was walking along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Along the way he saw a priest in trouble, and he helped him. Then he saw a Levite in trouble, and he helped him. Finally, he saw a Samaritan in trouble, but he did not help him.” The lesson of this parable, and I would say of a great deal of preaching, is that the people you have helped up to this point are your neighbors and no one else. The Lawyer acted the same way we do today, he was looking for a message that would condone his behavior and condemn everyone elses.

    Jesus goes beyond what the man asked, which is essentially, “Who am I allowed to ignore?” and gives the real lesson. We should not go through life asking, “Who do I have to love?” Instead the question is, “Am I loving?” The man asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response at the end of this passage tells him, “You are a neighbor to anyone you show mercy to.” In other words, the only way to love your neighbor as yourself, is to be a neighbor to all the needy.

    In the parable it is not power or lineage that determine a persons status as neighbor. Levites were attendants to the temple, descendants of Jacob like any good Jew would be. Priests spoke on behalf of God, at least in theory. Yet, these people did not show mercy to the injured man. These people who were theoretically the most shining example of what it was to be a faithful Jew, they lost their participation in God’s kingdom by refusing to show mercy. The Samaritan enters in as more than an example of unlikely help, he is an example of God’s grace working in us.

    The Samaritans were not just foreign people to the Jews. They were the descendants of survivors from the Assyrian massacre of Israel long ago. They were part Persian, part Israelite. They practiced different religious traditions than the Jews, they still do today. Jews at the time did not like them because of these differences. Even though they both worship the same God, they could not stomach having someone worship God differently. It reminds me of when I went to my first Catholic mass and someone I knew looked at me and said, “I just don’t know why you would experiment with other religions.” To me, it looked like a cross at the front of the church and the ministers were still reading the scripture, but to this person the other differences were unacceptable.

    Jesus tells this story in a way that sets people up and constantly makes them question their expectations. We have to imagine him tell this story like any good storyteller, he is trying to get the audience interested. We can hear in his words the build up and the fall. “Now by chance a priest was going down that road…” Oh good, our hero! “and then he saw him by the side of the road and…” This is where he helps him! “he passed on the other side.” The crowds would be disappointed – that isn’t the right ending.

    Jesus repeats the disappointment with the Levite. Then comes the Samaritan. The crowd would have expected at this point that everyone in the story was going to abandon the man, that Jesus was going to talk about how all people failed to keep the law. However, the Samaritan went above and beyond what was expected. Carrying the man from the road to a hostel, paying to take care of him, and opening a tab for anything that might the man needed. This man may have objected to the help, to having a Samaritan do all this for him, but regardless of whether or not he got credit for his good work, the Samaritan in the parable carried it out. The crowd would be confused, they might even be angry. “How can he say these people get it more than we do.”

    Jesus wanted to speak to two tendencies which we in the church face today. The first is that we like to be selective in who we help. We take the command to love our neighbor and the command to share things in common and we relativize them. We can do that, but not for such and such a person or only in such a such a scenario. We have no commitment to doing the work of God at all times to all people. Here though, Jesus has insisted that we are not only to work for good always and with all people, but that we cannot limit who God can work through. When we think the only people who can do right are the ones we agree with, who look and act like us, then we have forgotten what God has told us before. 

    Our text from Deuteronomy touches on the second excuse we in the church cling to. Namely, that it is impossible to follow God’s command. We look at the people we know and the world we live in and say, “It would be great if we could follow that commandment, but that’s too hard!” This is when we fall into empty truisms, things that while not wrong can easily become excuses. For example – “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” Is true, but if we use that as a reason not to do good then we fall into sloth, we give up before we even started. To prevent any such talk, God speaks through Moses and is very clear.

    God tells us directly, “This commandment I give you is not too hard.” Translated another way, “It is not a mystery.” God tell us, “It is not far away from you.” I did not hide it Heaven or in a distant land so that you would not be able to get it. The language used here is telling. God reassures them that they do not need a great man like Moses to guide them to do good. God tells them, “You don’t have to send a man up a mountain to know what you have to do, it should be obvious to you.” Indeed, this word is very near, it is in your mouth and in your heart. The most essential parts of the Christian life are evident to us – they do not take much thought. God does not say, “It is in your mind,” as if it takes a lot of thinking to figure out – it is in your heart that you will feel it and know it, it is in your mouth that you speak blessings and not curses.

    When we are called to act as a neighbor to those around us, God does not put a burden we cannot handle on our shoulders. If we believe that Christ’s, “Yoke is easy, and [his] burden light.” Then we cannot say it is impossible to do good. We will definitely fall short of the example Christ lays before us, and at the end of the day what we do does not save us – only our faith. However, we must commit ourselves to a better goal, to doing the work of God which is in our heart. We have the assurance that God will see us to our goal, and the assurance that our short-comings will be forgiven, now let us live out both these realities.

    We are like Christ, we are like the Samaritan, we travel a world in which we do not belong. We must take the time to help those we meet along the path. Our destination is Heaven, but who will we send down the same path as us? The ones who we become the face of mercy to, the ones who we show the path to, those who we are able to become Christ for. We must go forth into the world and proclaim the word of God, but we must go forth and do it, but we don’t have to go far to find it. This word is very near, it is in our mouth, it is in our heart. We must go now, and put it into the world. – Amen

A Double Share of the Spirit – Lectionary 06/30/2019

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets, who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. They said to him, “See now, we have fifty strong men among your servants; please let them go and seek your master; it may be that the spirit of the Lord has caught him up and thrown him down on some mountain or into some valley.” He responded, “No, do not send them.” But when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, “Send them.” So they sent fifty men who searched for three days but did not find him. When they came back to him (he had remained at Jericho), he said to them, “Did I not say to you, Do not go?”

Sermon Text

Unless you are a parent, a business founder, or a charismatic cult leader, you are not likely to be the first person in any job. There is always the person who came before you and living in community with those who knew them, you will meet with expectations and practices which were built up in a community and more likely than not you will butt against a few of them. No matter how peaceful a transfer of power is, the unspoken presuppositions of a position will come and rear their head.

In particular, transfers of position in the church can cause a lot of trouble. People become attached to their pastors, and if they have been there for any amount of time that attachment will be extreme. It is not limited to pastors either – new council chairs, new mission leaders, Sunday school teachers – all these spiritual workers must undergo some amount of transition and deal with comparisons with the person who came before them. It is an inevitability, and it will only differ in terms of the degree to which people desire to have their expectations subverted by a new person with a new vision.

Today’s scripture takes us through one of the most difficult transitions in the history of God’s people. The greatest prophet in the history of Israel, appointed to inherit the legacy of Moses, was about to end their time on earth and be taken up into Heaven. Elijah was going far away and Elisha was to take up their position and lead the people in a new way. This story does not give us much in the way of transition strategies for those of us within churches, but it does give us a message of God’s faithfulness across generations of spiritual workers. In particular, I hope this message from scripture will give some hope to those of us who – effective July 1, 2019 – are entering into new pastoral roles in the United Methodist Church. Lord, in your mercy.

The beginning of this scripture takes us through the final mission of Elijah. He is led by God from Gilgal to Bethel – a journey that would take about 15 hours to complete on foot. Gilgal is the first stepping stone of the Israelites into the Holy Land. Beginning their final journey here makes it clear that this is a mission built up from the history of Israel, not one that is divorced from its context or from those who went before. The long winding path would have gone past no major cities – it was a walk through the wilderness, through untamed land.

As we enter into a new ministry, we come into an untamed land. This is not to say that we come into an untended environment, neglected by any means. However, the path which we are brought through must highlight the areas of our ministry areas that are so far untapped. A church is like a farmhouse sitting on a massive amount of land. The work of the church will slowly begin to cultivate land, grow crops that produce fruit, and eventually expand to cultivate land that was never worked before. Whenever we enter into a new position or a new church we have to look and take stock of all the places that have been cultivated before, are being cultivated now, and will be cultivated in the future.

To travel through and take stock does not mean that make ourselves critics of the previous work, saying how much better we could have worked in these circumstances. It does mean that we have to honestly look at what has been done and make a plan for the future. That plan may involve some changes, it may mean staying on course as the church always has before. It is necessary, all the same, that we are aware of the lands that we are entering into. That we take time to enter in and understand before we begin to act. We cannot take up the mantle of those who have come before us unless we truly understand one another. Understanding is the key to all cooperation; it is the foundation of true community.

The second leg of their journey ran from Bethel to Jericho. Again Elisha is told that he would do better to stay in Gilgal, the path that has been laid before Elijah is long and as they return to the Jordan they now have to go through a large expanse of mountains. While their previous journey through the wilderness allowed them to follow along valleys, the two now have to pass through the harsh mountains which lead to the river. Their journey would take them across peaks and through valleys that would result in a descent of nearly 3,000 feet.

We can see this in two complementary interpretations. As we move closer to the Jordan, to the point when we cross over into our new role, we do so with difficulty. We are leaving behind the work that we have done and going into unknown territory. We are passing through new worlds which we have never seen before. There are new and unseen dangers in this area – around every corner, we may face an adversary, or maybe find a new ally.

Crossing the mountains, we can see the land that stretches out before us, and all the land that lies behind. This is a time for reflection. What has brought us to this moment in our lives? What have we done in the past and what might we do in the future? The journey is the final steps before we take up our mantle, and what can we do with it? Hopefully, we learn, we understand that our path has not just been us walking alone toward our goals – it is a journey that God has supported at every step.

The ultimate lesson of this comes in the moment that we arrive at our destination. Jericho – the first obstacle which the Israelites faced in their entrance to the Holy Land. It was an insurmountable obstacle which became nothing through the power of God. Though we walk through the difficult paths of ministry, God is always ready to remove the obstacles in our lives. The physical symbol of Jericho reminds us of the spiritual reality, God is with us and God is advocating for us.

The final path across the Jordan is the moment that we take on our responsibility. There is never a moment in which someone in the Biblical Narrative crosses the Jordan and is unchanged by the process. It is here that the Israelites transitioned from wanderers to a people with a home, it is here that Christ began his mission, it is here that impure waters become the means of purifying a people and a world. The passage through the Jordan is the moment of no return, we enter as one person and exit as another.

For Elisha, this meant crossing the river as an apprentice and leaving as a prophet. The work he did with Elijah was just the beginning. The taking up of Elijah represents us the final departure of the person we follow. They are taken up by God and sent to something new, something fundamentally different than what they were doing before.

For the person left behind, there is no trace of them except for their mantle. In taking up that piece of cloth they become something new, they hold all the authority and responsibility that that cloth represents. Taking on a title – becoming a pastor or a council chair or whatever it may be – is taking on a mantle. When you enter into a new position to lead, then you inherit everything that that title means. This does not mean that you become an authoritarian who constantly points to their title as justification, but it does mean that you owe all people you serve what the title suggests – more on that in a moment.

When we take up a mantle we do not do so alone though. We are able to seize the promise which is extended to Elisha. If we follow God all the way through this journey toward our new roles, then God will give us a double share of the Spirit of those who have preceded us. Again, this is not a declaration of our innate skill or that we will be any more glorious or praiseworthy as those who have gone before. God is faithful, and God will do wonders. This is the truth of our ministry and what we must hold to.

God’s faithfulness allows us to pursue even the most difficult appointments. We go forward as people who are anointed not only by the authorities of the Church, but by the Lord God! We cannot shy away from this promise, and we must be willing to accept the responsibility and the abilities that will come from this. A double share of the Spirit allows us to take up our charge, it allows us to use our abilities for the good of our people and our God.

It is the double share of Spirit that allows us to come into our new position and for people to see us and say, “The Spirit of Elijah rests upon them.” The same Spirit that did wonders in the past allows us to do wonders now. God endorses our ministry as long as we stay in that Spirit, follow their movements, do all that we are led to. As said before, the Spirit holds all true authority and power, we must respect that and act as people of the Cross.

There will be resistance. There will be struggles that arise naturally and people who oppose the work which is to be done. Some people will want things to be the way they were, for the new leader to be exactly like the old. These are the people who will send 50 people to any and every mountain they can to try and get Elijah back. Elijah has moved on though, God has taken them somewhere else, somewhere to do works previously unimagined.

The mission goes on though. The Spirit moves and Elisha takes his place in Israel. We all go forward now, in this season of change, as people transferring mantles to one another. Let us not do so with pride or jealousy, but in all places with a Spirit of peace – with the Spirit of God. May God give us all a double share, and may the pat we tread rise up to meet us. – Amen

Love the Living – Good Friday 2019

John 18:28-19:42

Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?”

They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.”

Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.

But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit. Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face.

Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.”

The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”

Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”

Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.  So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.

Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.”

And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.

They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Sermon Text

Christ died on the cross for our sins this day. The righteous victim of our crimes, a pure sacrifice offered up for sins he did not commit. Death entered the person of God for the first time today. Never had God known pain like this, known what it was to feel cold as blood drained from his body, known what it was to sink into darkness, to draw one final breath and then, suddenly, cease.

What is striking in the account that John gives of Christ’s sacrifice is that no one advocated for Christ on the day that he died except for Pilate, and even then only half-heartedly. The powerful Roman, the vicious and violent Governor, was the only one to acknowledge that Christ was being killed for no reason other than out of fear and jealousy. Time and time again he questions Christ, and time and time again Jesus tells him he is sent to begin something beyond this world, to testify to the truth, proving his innocence time and time again.

Yet despite all this, Pilate acts as expected and capitulates to the vengeance of the Temple elites. He turns Jesus over to be crucified and washes his hands of any guilt. Not to be completely silenced, Pilate places a plaque above Jesus’ head – “Here is Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The temple leaders are furious at this, “He only claimed to be a king! Do not give him a title he does not deserve.” Yet, Pilate insists he will not change it.

This does two things – on one level Pilate is getting back at the leaders who forced his hand. A way of saying, “You win in this, but I will not let you win completely.” On the other, Pilate is giving Christ the due recognition he deserves. This is the Christ, this is the King of the Jews, but Pilate only gave him his proper title when he was dying on the cross. An act that, from an earthly view, is far too little far too late.

Likewise, we are told that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus chipped in to let Jesus be buried and embalmed properly. One gave the tomb and the other the necessary spices. Again, in earthly terms – too little, too late. Where were these men at the Sanhedrin, why do we not hear them rising up to defend Jesus during his trial? We can only assume that these two were standing there in the trial, silent as the defamation of Jesus’ character played out. The events leading up to the crucifixion and those that followed were significant in that on either side we see the people of God failing to show up for Christ.

Today, we look back and know that the death of Christ was not the final victory of death but death’s final action. This was not so to those who chose to let Christ die alone and without an advocate. Even for us today, we are left with a choice. Either we stand up for the Christ that is present among us – the poor and needy in all places – or we stand with our own comfort and our own power. Pilate feared an uprising, and so let Jesus die. Do we feel we will be disenfranchised, and so let the powerful kill the oppressed? Joseph and Nicodemus likely feared being ostracized or chased out of the assembly. Do we worry we will be excluded if we radically love those who are not accepted by others?

This is the day that changed history. Christ, in Christ’s sacrifice, washes us clean of our sin and allows us to be the Church. However, it is also a constant reminder of what God looks like to us in the day to day. God is not clean, God is not respectable. God is the dirty vagrant you cast out from public places, God is the dope peddler you sneered at, God is the homeless trans woman you called a freak. God’s place is among the oppressed because Christ died for us, sinners that we are, alone, without an advocate, and as a punching bag for the powerful.

Today we remember the act of God that set us free, but let us not view this liberation as something which God worked only so that we can die and go up to Heaven. No, instead let us see Christ as freeing us from the constraints of a broken world, and showing us what really matters. Not power, not acclaim, not even a good reputation – but loving the least of these even if it means we lose all that we care about. The call of the Church is a call to come and die, and at Calvary, Christ sets the perfect example of what this means.

Christ is crucified until the kingdom is inaugurated in final victory. Crucified in everyone who suffers, in every evil that is committed. The eternal sacrifice of God for our sins is played out in every interaction we have, let us advocate for those who bear the image of Christ while they live. Let us give into the temptation to see their death as tragic, as unavoidable, as anything but our fault.