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Weed-whacker from Flickr via Wylio

© 2006 dvs, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Here is a sermon about the wisdom of Rabbi Gamaliel, who was one of Paul’s teachers.  His counsel of restraint is just as wise today as it was in the days of the Book of Acts.

The Wisdom of Gamaliel

A Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Acts 5:27-42; 22 (sel. vss.)

Paul did not listen to the wisdom of his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, and he later came to regret it.

Paul was among those who were enraged by the witness and teachings of the apostles of Jesus. He thought Jesus’ followers were just plain wrong. They were dangerous. They were preaching lies. They were misinterpreting the scriptures, and they were dishonoring God.

Paul, then called by his Hebrew name Saul, threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of eliminating and erasing the church. It was he who stood by holding the coats while his colleagues pelted deacon Stephen to death. It was he who breathed threats and murder against the people of Jesus, dragging off to prison any he could lay his hands on. It was he who ravaged the church. Paul was enemy number one.

Or to use the imagery of today’s parable, Paul believed that the followers of Jesus were weeds in the field of true faith, and Paul himself was a self-appointed, industrial strength weedeater.

As we think about this, it’s important to remember that at that time, Christianity was still a movement within Judaism. The church was born inside the Jewish faith. This was a family conflict.

It’s also important to note that the religious authorities and council members came from different groups within Judaism. Pharisees and Sadducees held differing viewpoints on some matters of faith, and sometimes there was friction between them. They tended to disagree vigorously.

It’s also important to remember that some among them were sympathetic to the church, and some, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who were both Pharisees, even became followers of Jesus.

We don’t know whether Gamaliel, also a Pharisee, ever became a follower of Jesus or not. There’s not enough in the story to be able to tell, but the possibility is there. Some traditions say that he did. But there are a few things we can say with certainty about Gamaliel. He was well-respected then, and also down through the ages by both Jews and Christians.

Gamaliel did not think violence was the way. He didn’t think killing the apostles was the answer to the conflict. When he saw the rage in his fellow council members’ faces and heard them calling for the death penalty, he took the floor of the council meeting and called for an executive session. The apostles were taken out.

Then Gamaliel said, “Fellow Israelites, be careful what you do to these men. Remember what happened with those other men, Theudas and Judas the Galilean who had followings for a while. They both got killed and their movements fizzled out, and their followers scattered to the four winds.

“I’m telling you,” Gamaliel continued, “keep your hands off these men! Let them alone! If this program or this work is merely human, it will fall apart, but if it is of God, you won’t be able to stop it whatever you do. You might even find yourselves fighting against God himself!”

To put Gamaliel’s point succinctly: Be careful! You might be wrong!

Which is also one of the main points of Jesus’ parable about not trying to pull the weeds out of the wheat: You might be wrong!

Continue Reading »

Living is Christ

Art by Pamela Etling

Art by Pamela Etling

Here is the sermon I preached for our congregation’s recent Homecoming Sunday.  As we gave thanks for the past, and looked ahead to the future, it seemed appropriate to lift up Christ once again as the heart of the church and the very life of the church.

Living Is Christ

A Sermon on Philippians 1

 

Given everything that Paul had gone through, it’s understandable that he recognized that death would bring welcome relief. No, he wasn’t suicidal. But life was often a struggle, and ministry was often an uphill battle. Paul had been through so much: hunger, cold, illness, opposition, sometimes violent opposition, imprisonment. Something he called a thorn in the flesh caused him pain that was never completely relieved. And here Paul was in prison again, dependent on the goodwill of others even to have something to eat. This might be his last imprisonment. Execution was a very real possibility.

 

Friends in the church at Philippi had sent Paul support and encouragement, and now he was writing to return the same to them. They weren’t having an easy time of it, either. They were bearing up under opposition from somewhere, perhaps outright persecution like what the church in Iraq is experiencing now. But even the mildest forms of opposition are no fun, as when the community looks down its nose at you, or maybe even worse, just doesn’t care, has no regard for you at all. The church at Philippi was experiencing pain from without, and there was internal stress as well. Later in the letter Paul alludes to the stress that occurs when church members don’t see eye to eye on something.

 

Paul and his Philippian friends had a history of bearing one another’s burdens. He shares some of his own distress in his letter, but he mostly wants to help them in their distress.

 

After reassuring his friends of his ongoing love and prayers for them, Paul shares the vision that is keeping him going, hoping it will help them keep going, too. He sums it up succinctly like this: to me, living is Christ, and dying is gain. Continue Reading »

Lifesaving Stations

Here is a link to an old story that has been on my mind as I think about ways to share Jesus’ life-giving and lifesaving love in the world and in our neighborhood as it is today.

http://cms.intervarsity.org/slj/article/4249/0.1

 

Here is a link to a collection of prayerful music by a British group called Dean, Lee & Mills.  Number 8, “I Belong to You,” is my prayer for the day.

Recently I wrote a review for the Presbyterian Outlook of the book Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities.  The authors, Jeanne Hoeft, L. Shannon Jung, and Joretta Marshall, show why the church’s presence is critical in rural communities, and how congregations of God’s people care faithfully for one another and the community around them.  While it’s not an easy read, it is an important read for all who want to be faithful witnesses in a country context, and for all who care about small congregations and God’s work there.

The review starts this way: Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities

I grew up in the 1960s in a dairy farm family and in a tiny rural church where everyone had ties to farming. The congregation shared a pastor with three other small congregations. I remember hearing my father, the clerk of session, report that the pastor thought that all the churches should close and become one large church in a central location, about fifteen miles from our farm. I remember thinking, “He doesn’t understand.” I realized then that the pastor didn’t understand the realities of farm life, and I realize now that he didn’t fully understand the sense of place that shaped our lives and our modes of caring for one another in community.

“Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities” is an essential book for all who want to understand and to care faithfully. The authors challenge the whole church to learn from the wisdom that comes out of rural and small-town communities. Moreover, they issue a powerful reminder of why it is crucial for the body of Christ to maintain a presence and witness there.

Read more here.

Friends, I recently attended the 2014 NEXT Church Conference in Minneapolis, MN, and I was inspired by rich worship, creative ideas, and heartfelt testimonies.  Here is a testimony from a college student, Nathan Are, about the power of the church in his life.

Sarah Hart is another person who loves and serves God through music.  She has written and recorded many songs, and some of them have been recorded by other artists, such as Amy Grant.  You can sample her music at spiritandsong.com, and learn more about her at her website: www.sarahhart.com.  Print editions of many her songs, and arrangements for choirs, with parts for various instruments, are available at OCP.org.

Those who have been making music with me in Morton Church’s Music for Little Friends program may recognize her as one of the singers on some of the CDs that we use for our class.

Here is a youtube video in which Sarah sings “Come, True Light” for Pope Francis at a large gathering at the Vatican.  At the end of the video, she meets the pope and gives him copies of her CDs.

 

 

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