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May God Light Up Your Eyes

Ephesians 1:15-23, with Allusions to Jeremiah 29:11 and 32:6-15

Paul’s prayer for congregations reading this letter is a heartfelt mix of thankfulness for their faithfulness and love, and of loving concern for them.  He understood how challenging it can be to hold on to hope when the world gives us so many reasons to lose hope.

The respite we enjoyed earlier in the summer was short-lived.  Now COVID has come roaring back in the delta mutation.  This new wave of sickness and death is heartbreaking enough.  What’s especially challenging my sense of hope is that this human tragedy has become politicized.  We could and should be working together to contain and vanquish the virus, but instead relationships are being torn apart.  People are fighting over vaccinations and masks.  People are fearful and angry.

I’m also fed up with legislators focused on fighting and defeating each other, and focused on manipulating voters to solidify their power, instead of working together to serve the people, all the people.  I can’t help thinking of what Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address, when he said that the civil war was testing whether or not a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people—men, originally—are created equal can long endure.  Government of the people, by the people, for the people is being mightily tested now.

We are not the first to live through times of multiple traumas, wars, and disasters, both natural and human-made.  It was this bad in Jeremiah’s day, and he agonized over what was happening.  Babylonian soldiers were encamped around Jerusalem.  Any day now they could push through the city walls.  And that would mean more death.  And more people would be carried away into exile in Babylon.  

What made it even worse was that the people in control were in denial.  Jeremiah and other prophets saw that a certain amount of cooperation with Babylon would lessen the devastation and save people’s lives.  But King Zedekiah and his cohorts harbored grand illusions of pushing the much bigger empire, Babylon, away.  What’s more, wrongheaded notions about God were part of the problem.  The king was among those who said, “We are God’s chosen nation.  God’s Temple is here.  God is not going to let Jerusalem fall.  God is going to come and rescue us.”  This led them to believe they could rebel against Babylon and succeed.

Zedekiah was tired of all Jeremiah’s warnings of disaster and his preaching that the government ought to work with Babylon instead of continuing to antagonize Babylon.  In the eyes of the king and his minions, Jeremiah was unpatriotic.  Jeremiah was a traitor, and Zedekiah tried to intimidate him into shutting up.  So he had Jeremiah placed under house arrest in the courtyard of the palace guardhouse.  Jeremiah’s eyes were worn out with weeping over all that was happening, and over people’s stubborn refusal to listen and take productive action.

The people of Paul’s day were certainly no strangers to death and disease and dysfunctional and downright bad government.  In every age hope is a challenge, and so Paul wrote, “I am so thankful to God for your faith and your love, and I hold you in my prayers, always.  I pray that God will light up the eyes of your hearts so that you can see and know the hope that God is calling you to.  May God light up your eyes with hope.”

Then he points to where this hope comes from.  The source of this hope is the power of God, the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  Jesus Christ was tortured to death, leaving his followers in total despair, total hopelessness.  But God raised him up, put him on the throne that is above all thrones, and now the living Christ is the ruler above all rulers.

This same powerful, life-giving God is still at work, and our hope starts there.  When hope lights up our eyes, we may not be able to see the details of what God is dreaming of and working towards, but we know that death cannot stop God.  The God of resurrection continues to will and to work for what is good, right, just, loving, redeeming, saving, and life-giving for all.  Christ the king of love and light is on the throne.  God is the ruler yet.

God is the ruler yet.  By the Spirit, God reminded Jeremiah of that.  He was grieving what was happening in his country, but he was also listening intently for a word from God.  And here came the word instructing him to do something that did not make practical sense.  Despite the fact that Jerusalem and the nation was about to be overrun by Babylonians, God said, “Jeremiah, your cousin Hanamel wants you to buy his field in Anathoth.  When he offers you this land, I want you to buy it.”  Hanamel was likely cashing in and planning to get out of Judah before it was too late.  Cash is portable.  Land is not.

Jeremiah did what God said, bought the land, got everything all signed and sealed and witnessed and filed the documents away in a clay jar for future reference.  With doom on the horizon, why would Jeremiah buy a field that he in all likelihood would not live to be able to use?  It seems nutty.  

Well, this wasn’t just a real estate transaction.  This was a sermon in action.  Jeremiah explained it this way: “This is what God says: homes and fields and vineyards are again going to be bought in this country, just you wait.  God is going to make a new life here one day.”  In buying the field, Jeremiah said, “I am counting on God to make a future.”

Earlier, God put the promise this way: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you a future with hope.”  Jeremiah literally put his money down on that hope.

Jeremiah’s eyes were alight with hope for the future as he imagined God taking action, even though it was action he would probably not live to see.  Jeremiah’s eyes were lit up with hope even though they were still filled with tears.

I join Paul in praying that prayer for us, that God might light up the eyes of our hearts with hope—we who pray again and again, “Thy kingdom come, God, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  May God light up our eyes, even when they are brimming with tears.  May God light up our eyes, that we might glimpse what the God of resurrection is working on even in the midst of the present darkness, or at least help us find the strength to trust that this God is at work; for whatever God is doing, it is leading to justice and righteousness.  It is leading to life.

This week I read some reflections on the challenge of hope by artist Jan Richardson.  She paints and writes as an expression of faith.  Jan survived the sudden, devastating death of her husband.  “Christ who wore our flesh abides with us still, hoping for us when our hope is shattered, breathing new life into us,” she writes.  And not only that Christ encompasses “us in the arms of a community that holds us with hope.”  In other words, hope is held in community, and when we are in despair, the community holds on to hope and holds on to us.

Jan describes hope this way:  “Hope is not always comforting or comfortable.  Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. [Hope] calls us to keep breathing when loves ones have left us, to turn toward one another when we would prefer to turn away.  Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future, but propels us also into the present, where Christ waits for us to work with him toward a more whole world now.”  (Jan Richardson, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/11/19/so-that-you-may-know-the-hope/)

Living into hope means looking towards the future with imaginative eyes, looking for what God is doing on the horizon, and letting that shape what we decide to do in the present.  We join God’s work towards a more whole world now.

In this present time of strife and fear and sorrow, we still look to the God of hope and to the king of love who is on the throne, and we remain determined to live and act the way he teaches us to live and act, with concern for the wellbeing of everyone.  Everyone.  Including those people whose attitudes and actions we just don’t understand.  We still look to the God of hope to show us where to put our money down, where to buy the field of hope.

My hopes were lifted yesterday during a lovely phone visit with my friend Bettie Powell.  Some of you may remember meeting Mrs. Bettie when she and her son Randy came to visit us one Sunday at Morton.  They are leaders in the St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church on Tarboro Street.  We almost always pray when we visit, and Mrs. Bettie prayed so eloquently and with so much heart that God’s dreams of loving community might be realized here in our divided nation.  She prayed for her church and our church, too.

Friends, I hold you in prayer, too, echoing Paul. Echoing Mrs. Bettie.  I thank God for your faith and your love.  May God light up the eyes of your hearts, that you might glimpse and know the hope God calls us to.  May God light up our hearts to glimpse God’s great power at work for good, the same power through which God raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.  May God put glimmers of hope in our eyes even when, and especially when our eyes are brimming over with tears.  AMEN.

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One of my favorite Bible storybooks.

God Is Love. Really.

A Sermon on 1 John 4:7-21

God is love.  Really.  Love is who God is.  Love is what God does.  Love is why God created everything, and why God created us in God’s image, the image of love.  Love is God’s number one concern.  Every telling of God’s story must start with love, and end with love, and be filled with love all the way through; for God’s steadfast love endures forever.

But so many people tell the story as though God’s number one concern is sin, and stamping sin out is God’s number one goal. Since sin is totally incompatible with a holy God, God can’t stand to be around it or even to look at it.

There were some in Jesus’ day who put sin at the center of the story.  Their focus was on controlling sin.  We certainly should not knock the very good and moral lives they lived, trying to honor God by keeping God’s law down to the last detail.  Trying to walk in the ways of God is honorable and worthy of respect.

But these people felt they HAD to be right or else.  There was one right way of interpreting the scriptures—their way, and one right way to practice the sacred laws—their way.  And any other way was itself sin.  Any other way did not please God.  Any other way invited God’s anger and judgment. 

These are the people that Jesus got in trouble with.  He read the scriptures differently, and he put them into practice differently.  It seemed to them that Jesus was lax in his observance of the sacred law and even worse, teaching others to do the same.  That in itself was sin in their eyes.  Jesus was leading people astray.  What’s more, Jesus didn’t just tolerate people whom they judged unclean and immoral—the “sinners.”  Jesus welcomed them.  Jesus even shared the table with them.  Being soft on sin was in itself sin.

Some of these folk set out to prove themselves right and Jesus wrong.  I’m sure ego and pride and wanting to maintain control was involved, but I think fear was the deeper motivator.  Fear is the motivator when people feel they have to be right.  Things had to be just so.  A few even believed that the Messiah would not come until all of God’s people got their act together and kept the law perfectly.  “If we want to be an independent nation again,” they maintained, “everybody needs to get with it and follow God’s law!  God will never rescue us from the Roman oppressors unless and until we all stop offending God and start pleasing God!”  No wonder right scripture interpretation and right practice meant so much to them. 

When people center God’s story on sin, God often comes across as somebody with a hair-trigger temper who gets offended easily, won’t accept anything less than perfection in every way, holds grudges, and has to be placated and appeased to keep his anger in control.  If God’s number one objective is to destroy sin, that’s just one step away from saying God’s objective is to destroy sinners.  The result is an understanding of God based on fear, and not the healthy kind.  Not the kind of awe and respect that prompts one to bow the head.  Fear, instead of the thankfulness that prompts one to open the arms and the heart to God.

Heard through fearful ears, God’s story comes across this way: Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, God has borne a great grudge against all humanity.  Adam and especially Eve didn’t get it right, and nobody since has gotten it right, and nobody can get it right.  That’s sin.  The penalty for any sin whatsoever, big or small, doesn’t matter, is eternal punishment.  As a consequence, by default, all souls are destined for everlasting torment in hell.  Somebody’s got to be punished so God can forgive us.  Somebody’s got to be the target for God’s rage, so God sent Jesus to be the target and take the blow that should fall on each and every sinner. 

But that doesn’t have to happen to you if you just get this one thing right.  Believe that Jesus did this for you and accept him into your heart.  Jesus saves you from God.  If you get this wrong, the punishment is eternal torture.

Think about what that implies: God’s steadfast love really isn’t forever because if you don’t get this belief right before you die, that’s it.  God’s love for you is over. God will not be even as merciful as the worst human terrorist.

Anxious people looking at the salvation story this way are often critical and judgmental of others who, in their eyes, don’t have their scripture interpretation and beliefs right, and/or don’t have their actions right, and/or don’t take a hard line on others who don’t get it right.  For them it isn’t just sin that destines you for hell.  Being soft on sin also destines you for hell.  And if you don’t warn others that they’re being soft on sin, God will ultimately hold that against you.

Fearful people sometimes play on people’s fears as a way to tell the story of Jesus.  Scaring people is even applauded.  Here’s an example: Every once in a while our church gets an invitation in the mail to an event called a Judgment House, or to a show with a title like “Hell’s Flames, Heaven’s Gates.”  They especially want churches to bring their young people.  They dramatize the torture that lies ahead for all who don’t accept Jesus into their heart.

Is fear really a good foundation for a loving, life-giving, life-saving relationship with God?  Is fear a good starting point for telling the story of Jesus?  John the writer of today’s readings doesn’t think so.  The foundation is God’s love.  The starting point is God’s love.  We love because God loved us first.  We are here because God loves us.  And the reason we can love is that God loved us first.  God pours God’s love out for us and into us in the same way we do our own children, only even more.  That is why John calls us beloved children of God, born of God.

How deep is this love?  If we are tempted to doubt God’s love, John says to look to the cross.  Remember what God did through the cross and resurrection.  Yes, it is an act of sacrifice, but it is not the act of an enraged father punishing his child. The sacrifice is God’s letting go in love, not pulling his son back out of harm’s way.  Not withholding his son or his love from humanity.  Even when humanity rejected him, Jesus didn’t pull back.  He laid his life down.  And here’s the wondrous mystery: he defeated sin and death by taking it on himself.  Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ disarms sin and death, breaks its power, delivers us from it.  Sin is real and it is a killer, but through Christ we live.  The cross and resurrection are the sign, the seal, the guarantee of God’s mighty, eternal love.

This love is overwhelming.  This love is perfect.  This love chases fear away.  There is no fear in love, but love casts out fear, John writes, for fear focuses on punishment.  This love holds us safe.  Safe in Jesus, who is God’s supreme offering of love, we are not afraid of judgment. 

God’s primary objective is not to stamp out sin, but to love us in every way, and that includes rescuing us from the grip of sin and death.  The heart of the salvation story is not how to keep God from punishing us, but an invitation to let God love us.  To stake our whole lives on God’s love, to live in it, to abide in it, to embody it for others.  There is no need to be scared of being wrong.  John wants everyone to know and believe the love that God has for us.  I think that’s why he keeps saying the same thing over and over again, why he keeps on urging us to abide in God’s love, to rest in it, to live it.  That is why he keeps on urging us to share it with others.

And we can share it with others, courageously, freely, graciously, generously, even when they don’t love us back because we are safe in Jesus.  We are safe in God’s love.  Like Jesus, we dare to put our lives on the line, loving with all that we are and all that we have.  Concern for others’ wellbeing is as second nature to us as well as our own, because we know God’s got us safe.  God’s seeing to our wellbeing, always.  We love because God loves us first.

God is love.  Really.  Love is who God is.  Love is what God does.  Love is why God created everything, and why God created you and me in God’s image, the image of love.  Love is God’s number one concern.  God’s steadfast love really does endure forever, for you and for me.  Really.  And that’s the story I love to tell.  AMEN.

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Photo Credit: “new decisions”, © 2016 Siaron JamesFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

He’s On the Loose!

A Sermon on Mark 16:1-8, with allusions to Isaiah 25:6-10a

Easter

Mark’s Easter story may be the most realistic one.  The women burst out of the tomb and ran away in stunned silence.  Maybe they ran because they didn’t get what resurrection meant.  Or maybe they ran because they DID get it.

They went to the tomb looking for closure, expecting to finish the traditional burial customs.  Yes, they would have to see about getting the stone rolled back, but that problem wasn’t insurmountable.  If the stone could be levered into place, it could also be levered out of place.

Jesus’ death was heartbreaking, but in a way, it was also a sad relief.  Now Jesus’ followers wouldn’t have to struggle with the challenges he kept laying before them, what he called laying self down and taking up the cross.  Now they wouldn’t be so out of step with the powers that be around them.  They could go back to being civilians, normal expectations intact, back to something like the life they knew before Jesus came along calling them to something more.

Expectations began to crumble when the women arrived at the tomb and found the stone already rolled back.  Somebody had obviously gotten there ahead of them.

Once they got inside their expectations were utterly blown away.  There was no body.  Instead, there was a young man clothed in bright white.  “Don’t be alarmed,” he said, which is what just about every messenger from God in the Bible says because at the very least such an appearance is startling.

“Jesus is not here because he is not dead.  He has been raised,” the messenger announced.  “Now you tell the disciples, Peter in particular, that he is going to Galilee ahead of you.  You go to Galilee, and you will see him there.  Remember what he told you?”

The women’s reaction was not relief, “Oh, so this is happily ever after starts.”  No!  They recognized what this meant.  It means Jesus is out there, on the loose, and up to something in Galilee.  And if they go to meet him there, he will soon have them up to something, too.   And what’s he going to be up to?  They’ll find Jesus right back where they saw him when they met him the first time, with the sick, the suffering, the outcast, the needy, forgiving sin, and ushering in the kingdom of God, the good, just, righteous way and rule of God.  He’ll be right back to realizing God’s ancient dream of people from everywhere gathered around God’s table, where there’s plenty of nourishment for all, where everyone’s tears are wiped away.  He’ll be right back to doing loving things, which are often difficult.

No wonder the women ran.  No wonder they were speechless.  When they got their wits back about them, they had a decision to make.  All Jesus’ followers had a decision to make: Would they go to meet Jesus, would they put themselves on the line with him again, risking struggle and broken hearts and more?  Or would they grasp at old expectations and old certainties, and work as hard as they could to get back to the old normal, the way things were before Jesus came along in the first place?

We are getting closer to coming back out in the open after a year of being closed in.  I admit I’m unsettled and a little apprehensive.  When you come out of darkness and into the light, it’s hard to see well at first, and the light can even hurt.  Wide open possibilities can be more intimidating than a narrow set of options.

Short term, I wonder how best to tend to and heal the many emotional, relational, and communal wounds the pandemic will leave behind.  Like—what if the strife carries over into conflict between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated?

Long term, what might meeting the risen Christ in Galilee mean for us?  For he is risen, on the loose, and up to something.  He is out there, calling us to come to him,  daring us to dream his dreams, daring us to embrace God’s ancient dream of the bountiful table for all.  Death has not stopped the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is out there daring us to believe that the way things in this world seem to work is not the way the have to work, not as far as God is concerned.  For what is worldly wisdom to God?  With God the dead don’t stay dead.  Who knows what else is possible?

The Gospel of Mark ends with Jesus’ followers completely unsettled and on the point of having to make a big decision.  Easter puts that big decision before us individually and together as a community of faith.  As we emerge from the pandemic, we could decide to do everything in our power to resume our former patterns, to find and settle back into what is comfortable, what meets our own needs.

Or we could decide to rivet our eyes to the risen Christ who goes ahead of us into the future, decide to put our lives in the hands of the one who has lavished healing love on us and spread it among us at Morton, the one who has shown us in our life together how good sacred community can be.  We can decide to follow the risen Christ who stands in the midst of a world that desperately needs all of God’s dreams to be realized, a world that desperately needs sacred, beloved community.  There he is, still holding up God’s vision before us, still working tirelessly to realize it, and still calling us to join him in it. To do loving things with him, which can indeed be difficult. There’s no way around that.

Mark ends with the women running away from the tomb.  But they won’t be able to run away from that decision.

We do know this: We are blessed because of the decision they eventually did make.

It’s Easter, the risen Christ, the living God is out there on the loose, calling to us and beckoning us to come where he is.

And once again to join him at the table.

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God Listens.

There is so much pain these days, and so many tears need tending to. People need to be heard.

The Burning Bush, by one of the Morton Church children

A Sermon on Exodus 2:23-3:12 (With allusions to Mark 10:46-52)

Moses had no plans to go back to Egypt.  He had left the pain behind.  He had left the whole situation behind.  A fat lot of good it had done when he reacted impetuously to the brutality he saw all those years ago.  It had forced him to flee for his life to Midian.  Now he was well into middle age with a good family, a good job, a good life.

But God never left the suffering and the suffering people behind.  God heard every cry for help and pitied every groan.  God saw everything, knew everything.  And God remembered God’s covenant with all the ancestors of the people.

We do not know how many generations the Israelites endured trauma upon trauma.  Genesis 15 says the oppression lasted 400 years.  Year succeeded year with no relief in sight, and it impacted people’s psyches, shaped their outlook, shaped the lives of their children and grandchildren.  I am sure their cries echoed those that are collected in the Bible in the Book of Psalms, cries like: Are you listening, God?  Have you forsaken us?  How long must we bear this pain?  Is there no one to help us?  When it feels like those cries have not been heard, not been heeded, the pain is multiplied.

But God was listening, and when a new Pharaoh came to power in Egypt, God saw an opportunity to take action.  However, God needed at least one human partner to help.  With his life story, and with his passion for justice, even though it had gone dormant, Moses was just the person God wanted to work in, with and through.

One ordinary workday, God caught Moses’ attention out in the field.  And when Moses came nearer to see what was going on with that bush, God spoke to him.  “I am the God of your ancestors,” God announced.  Then God poured out what was in God’s heart.  “I have seen how miserable my people are,” God said.  “I have heard their cries, and I know how much they are hurting.  I know what slavery is doing to them.  So I have come down here to do something about it, to get them out of there and take them to a fertile place where they will be safe and free.”  Then God repeated, “I have heard their cries!  I have seen what the Egyptians are doing to them!”

Moses’ heart must have stirred with the memory of what he himself had seen.  It certainly was about time God did something!  “And so,” God was saying, “I am sending you to speak to Pharaoh and bring my people out of Egypt.”

“Oh, no,” Moses groaned inwardly.  “Who am I to do that?” Moses exclaimed to God.  And thus began a long argument between Moses and God.  Moses steadfastly maintained he was not the person for the job—no way!—until he finally said flat out, “Lord, please send somebody else!”

There were a lot of reasons why Moses was reluctant to say yes to God’s call.  One objection he raised was his difficulty in speaking clearly.  But God had an answer to that objection and all the rest.

I’m thinking one reason was that if Moses says yes to God’s call, that means Moses will have to see and hear and know what God sees and hears and knows, and I can’t blame him for not wanting to get close to all that anguish and hurt again.  It is not fun to witness people’s distress.  It is distressing to hear people cry.  It can leave you crying, too.  How perfectly understandable if Moses wanted to shield himself from such things.  It’s uncomfortable.  And sometimes people’s cries strike others as a nuisance, even offensive, as Bartimaeus’ loud cries annoyed the people around him.  They wanted him to hush and not interrupt their time with Jesus.

How tempting it is to try to say something to make the hurt stop, like telling an anguished person all the reasons why the situation isn’t all that bad, or that they are overreacting, or explaining that a tragedy is God’s will.  The unspoken message is, “Be quiet.  Move on.” The suffering person is left feeling unheard.

Being unheard, not being taken seriously, especially if it happens again and again, adds to the trauma and leaves lasting effects.  I’ve shared this experience with you before, and thank you for bearing with me as I relate it again.  Surgery is traumatic in general, but it holds special distress for children.  I have vivid memories of surgery and hospitalizations.  When I was nine years old, I went in the hospital for surgery, one of the less invasive ones.  It was the Monday after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.  That night I didn’t sleep well at all.  I was so nervous I had to get up and go to the bathroom every fifteen minutes.  The next morning I had to wait a long time because the surgery was towards the middle of the day.  Then they took me down to the surgery suite too early and left me waiting all alone on a stretcher out in the hall for what felt like a very long time.  Finally I just couldn’t stand it any more.  I was grieving the whole situation and dreading the sickness I knew was coming on the other side of the operation.  I lost it, and I started crying.  In the operating room, a man in a mask, a doctor I guess, said to me, “If you don’t stop crying, I’m going to slap you.” 

It took me a long time to heal from the damage that did to me.  I never told anybody about it until I was an adult.  I was in my twenties before I told my mother.  I thought it was my fault, that something was wrong with me because I could not stop my tears, that my tenderheartedness was a weakness.  

I don’t think that any more.

My next major operation was at age 12.  That time I didn’t cry.  But I got sick at my stomach before I even went to the operating room.

If that is my small experience, what about people who have been through so much worse?  What about the Israelites who couldn’t stop crying then?  What about people now who cannot stop their tears?  People grieving huge losses.  People afraid for themselves and others.  People for whom fresh news of justice denied or justice delayed rubs more salt into wounds that go way back, memories of thousands of episodes of justice denied or justice delayed, of many, many small cuts, cutting remarks, cutting looks. People who have been told time and again just get over it already, just be quiet.  Disappointed people, angry at the way their lives have turned out, angry that they haven’t been taken seriously.

What about the Israelites, and all God’s children with tears they cannot stop?  God never leaves suffering people behind.  God is listening.  God hears every cry.  God heard my cries that day, and many more since.  God hears your cries.  And God is enlisting partners to do something about it.  

The other day I read a quote from a theologian named Paul Tillich.  He said, “The first duty of love is to listen.”  Amen and amen.  Being still and quiet enough to hear people out is a form of love.  It is a way to humble oneself and take up the cross, to see with God’s eyes and to listen with God’s ears.

God says: I see, I hear, I know the pain, and I have come to do something about it, to take people to freedom and safety.  And so I am sending you to crying children, to struggling children everywhere, to people whose bodies and souls ache, to the anxious and frightened, to those whose wellbeing is precarious for any number of reasons, all of whom need to be listened to well.  Help me get them to a place of freedom and safety!

God said, “I’m sending you, Moses.  Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go.”  So Moses went to his father-in-law Jethro and said, “I have to go back to Egypt.”

AMEN.

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Wise Disciples

Jesus said that people who have been trained for the kingdom of heaven are like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. That is what Jesus does, and what he invites his disciples to do. What new treasures will emerge as the church follows God through the COVID-19 pandemic?

A Sermon on Matthew 13:51-58

At the end of a series of parables about the kingdom of God, Jesus asked his disciples, “Are you getting all this?” They replied, “Yes”—though like all of us they still had lots to learn.  Then he added another twist with another parable about treasure.  “Every expert in the law who becomes a disciple, a learner in the kingdom of heaven, is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasure as well as old.”  Notice that Jesus mentioned the new treasure first.  Cherished treasures can be old, like a family heirloom, a family tradition, memories, and stories.  But treasures can also be new, like a precious new baby that God has brought into the family, a new tradition, a new song.  Wise disciples cherish the new along with the old.

Bringing out new treasures along with the old is what Jesus himself was doing.  “I haven’t come to abolish the old tradition, the law and the prophets,” he declared early in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount.  “I have come to fulfill them.”  Jesus cherished the old tradition, but he also brought new treasure to add to and fulfill it.  Through Jesus, people could now see deep into the merciful heart of God in a new way. 

Not everybody was open to the new treasure, though.  Right after Jesus concluded that particular teaching session, he went home to Nazareth to teach in his home congregation.  You’d think family and friends would be bursting with pride and welcome what he had to say.  But what was their response?  They were offended.  “Where is this youngster getting this quote unquote wisdom?” they complained.  “What gives Jesus the authority to speak a new word from God?  We know Moses, and he’s no Moses.  He’s just the carpenter’s boy, Mary’s boy.  We’ve known him since he was a kid. Who does he think he is telling us that we need to look at things in a new light?”  Tragically, Jesus’ hometown folks hardened their hearts against Jesus and his teaching.  Thus they closed themselves off from the powerful good new things he might have done in their midst.

Hard-heartedness can prevent God’s people from recognizing and embracing new treasure.  I can’t help, for example, thinking of all the treasure that people miss when they refuse to consider that God might speak a word or shepherd a flock through a woman.  And how often has the church forgotten that the old treasures, like favorite old songs and old programs like Sunday school were once brand new?  Sunday school as we know it didn’t originate until 1780, and believe it or not, people in the church resisted it.

Hard-heartedness certainly prevents people from recognizing new treasure, but so can broken-heartedness.    That was the case for God’s people in exile.  Painful memories and guilt and shame hindered them from seeing and latching on to the new treasure that God was offering them.  “The prophets were right,” they confessed.  “We were arrogant and greedy.  We didn’t pay attention to God’s cries for justice for the poor and the widowed and the orphan and the alien.  No wonder God didn’t stop the Babylonians from crushing our homeland. We might as well get used to it,” they concluded.  “We will never see a golden age like the Exodus or the time of King David again.  And even if the Babylonians did decide to let us go home, there’s a huge desert between us and Jerusalem.”  God’s people lost their ability to dream.  If you don’t dream of new possibilities, then you won’t get hurt when they aren’t realized.

That didn’t stop God from dreaming, though.  The people were resigned to life in Babylon, but God was already fashioning new possibilities and doing new things.  “Remember what you saw me do in the past?” God said through Isaiah.  “Well, that’s nothing in comparison to what I am about to do.  Watch for the new thing I’m going to do.  It’s already underway.  Where there seems not to be a way, I am going to make a way home for you, and you are going to sing a new song of praise.”

In the years that followed, some people dared to dream and go with God, and some didn’t.  Some sang new songs of the wonders of God, and some didn’t.  Some welcomed God’s new thing, and some didn’t.

According to Jesus, wise disciples cherish the old treasure and open their hearts to the new.  They give thanks for and draw from the old, old story, but they also get ready to sing a new, new song in response to the living God who is even now up to something new.  

We aren’t in exile in the same way as God’s people in Babylon, and yet we are experiencing an exile.  COVID-19 has exiled us from the church building, and from gathering closely together.  It is challenging us to find new ways to do many things in our families and as a congregation.  Right now it is especially challenging for our families with school children, and their teachers, persevering through a lot of trial and error and ironing out technical issues as they try to keep learning going.  Necessity is definitely the mother of invention.

This pandemic is challenging emotionally and financially, and in so many other ways.  It has also pulled back the curtain that for so long has allowed our nation to continue to look past big inequity, inequality, injustice.  What other nation with the kinds of resources we have, for example, continues to allow a situation where millions and millions of people are only one illness away from bankruptcy?

What could God be up to in the middle of this mess and uncertainty that is causing pain to so many?  What God said to the exiles in Babylon God says now: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.  Even now it is springing forth.  Do you see it?”  God never stops dreaming and fashioning new possibilities, and God is still in the business of making a way where there doesn’t seem to be any way. 

What’s emerging among us at Morton? What new treasures are on the way to us in this “necessity is the mother of invention time”?  I am looking forward to seeing how God is going to take the new skills we are learning and use them to help us share the old story of Jesus and his love near and far.  Now people can participate from afar.

Building or no, the essentials are getting done.  Prayer?  Check.  Worship and the word?  Check.  Sacraments?  Check.  Caring for the wellbeing of others inside our fellowship and beyond?  Check and check.  What other possibilities await as we live as active citizens of the kingdom of God?  God says, “Behold, I am up to something new.  Do you see it?”  Maybe not yet, but we’re on the lookout.

Thanks be to God for precious old treasure.  Thanks be to God for new treasure, challenging and hope-filled.  Wise disciples cherish them both.  AMEN.

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Treasuring Wholeheartedly

This week Morton Church and I are celebrating thirty years of ministry together.  I am thankful.  This congregation is a luminous pearl in the kingdom of God.

A Sermon on Matthew 13:44-46

There was one occasion when Jesus urged people to count the cost of following him.  But not here.  “Picture the kingdom this way,” he said.  “It’s like a farmhand working in the field.  And when his hoe strikes something hard—surprise!  It’s not a rock.  It’s a treasure so great that with joy he quickly reburies it, hurries off, liquidates all his assets, and uses the money to buy that field.”

“Or picture the kingdom this way,” Jesus went on.  “It’s like a merchant constantly on the lookout for fine pearls.  And one day he finds the most precious pearl he has ever seen.  He hurries to sell all his assets, and uses the money to buy that pearl.”

When these men realized what they were looking at, they were ready to put everything they had on the line.  The treasure was so valuable, the pearl was so luminous and beautiful that they didn’t hesitate at all.  They let go of everything to have something that meant everything.

In parable form, Jesus was calling for the same kind of commitment, the same kind of total life reorientation that he later asked directly of a rich man who came to him looking for the way to eternal life.  There Jesus put it plainly: “Sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

To participate in the kingdom of God, to know its precious treasure, Jesus calls us to be ALL in.  Wholehearted commitment to Jesus and his way, living by kingdom values and kingdom priorities.  It means putting all that we have and all that we are on the line, like the surprised field hand, like the persistent pearl merchant who put their all on the line, treasuring something far greater.

But Jesus isn’t asking anyone to do something he himself has not done.  If anyone knows what it means to be all in, it’s God.  God knows what it is to cherish a treasure so much that God would give anything to have it.  What could mean that much to God?  Human beings.  People are the treasure that is so precious to God, and there is no length to which God will not go to embrace this treasure.

God pours out God’s own life in Jesus Christ, loving each and every one of us with all God’s heart.  Jesus is all in for us.  In Jesus’ eyes, each and every one is worth opening his arms wide on the cross.  Each and every one is worth the effort he made, worth the pain, worth dying for.  Our Savior longs to rescue us all from the sin that kills our love for God and each other.  Our Savior longs to rescue us all from death, and so he gave his all.  Beloved, you and I mean everything to our Savior.  We are his treasure.

Knowing that is who we are is itself precious kingdom treasure, for there are so many voices in the world, even within ourselves that tell us we are not worth it, that we are only worth what we can do, that our flaws and weaknesses, and mistakes render us worthless.   In the kingdom of God, all are beloved.  In the kingdom of God, love is the purpose of life, and that love is lived out as we seek life with peace with justice and wellbeing for all.  In the kingdom of God, the wondrous will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven.   The kingdom of God and what God is up to in it are bigger than the earthly span of our lives, but our lives don’t stop mattering when we die.  We rest in the love of God through Jesus on earth and in heaven, here and now and then and there in eternity.  We are safe and saved, treasured forever and always.

Again and again Jesus calls us to let go of lesser treasures and stake our lives on this one: abundant life in God’s kingdom forever and always.

Life together in beloved community is certainly one of the precious treasures of the kingdom of God.  It is luminous, lovely, holy.  I understand the joy when the field hand discovered the treasure, and when the merchant discovered the beautiful pearl.  When I met you all for the first time, when John and I spent that first day here with your search committee, we recognized the loving presence of God here right off the bat.  That afternoon in the sanctuary I preached to the committee about the four friends who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus.  Then we sang “Blest Be the Tie” together.  Back around the table in the fellowship hall, the committee made it clear that it would not matter to you all that speaking clearly is an issue for me, and that folks might have to listen harder to understand my speech.  That meant everything to me.  Before we left, Peggy threw her arms around me.  When we got in the car to head home to Richmond, I said to John, “I think this might be it!”  I rejoice in this treasure that I found, and that found me.

What treasure to talk together all these years about the God we know in Jesus, getting to know him more deeply and learning to trust him more and more.  We have prayed oceans of prayer together in Jesus’ name, through many joys and sorrows and everything in between.  What treasure that the Holy Spirit has been among us faithfully, challenging, comforting, and sustaining us.  What treasures are the people that God has brought together through the years, the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses.  We have learned so much from one another about many things—faithfulness, forbearance, forgiveness, and more.  

Our quest continues, to lift up Jesus together, to tell the story of Jesus and his love whenever, wherever, and however we can.  For all this is too wonderful to keep to ourselves.  It’s the nature of kingdom treasure.  When we embrace it with all our hearts we can’t keep it all to ourselves, because we long for the time when all will know Jesus and his love, when all will find healing, wholeness, salvation, when all will find their place and their purpose in the kingdom.  We love to tell this story that we have loved so long.

Jesus, the king who embraces us wholeheartedly, calls us to embrace the kingdom wholeheartedly.  We are called to treasure wholeheartedly the one who treasures us, and to treasure wholeheartedly the way of the one who treasures us.  For where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.  AMEN.

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Going Viral

A sermon about mustard seeds, yeast….and viruses.

Going Viral

tiny size of seeds inside of a jar

Photo by Castorly Stock on Pexels.com

A Sermon on Matthew 13:44-46

Some of Jesus’ parables are short stories, complete with characters and a plot.  The Good Samaritan story is a famous example.  But other times, Jesus simply sets an image before his listeners, a snapshot of a common item or situation, like a mustard seed or a pinch of yeast, and we have to think about the picture for a while.  “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that sprouts and grows,”  he said in today’s reading.  “It is also like yeast that a woman mixed into a batch of bread until the whole thing was leavened.”

Mustard seed and yeast may sound like ordinary, harmless substances to us, but that’s not how people saw them in Jesus’ day.  Jesus might as well have told them that the kingdom of God is like a weed.  The yeast is an even more surprising example for Jesus to use.  Why?  Because every other reference to yeast and leaven in the Bible is negative.  Leaven was thought to be a symbol of corruption, rot, and sin.  To this day, Jewish Passover rules instruct families to get rid of every last speck of yeast in the house, and then to eat unleavened bread for the duration of the holy feast.

These associations would have given these two parables extra punch to those who heard them.  Who could forget?  To imagine a parable packing that kind of punch, imagine Jesus putting one before us that goes like this:  The kingdom of heaven is like a virus that someone breathed in.  It invaded a cell, where it tricked the cell’s DNA into churning out copies of the virus itself.  The new viruses invaded more and more cells until the whole body was infected.  The person breathed out more viruses, and then they went on to infect other people.  Pretty soon there was an epidemic, then a pandemic.

How can the kingdom of God be like an invasive weed, or like multiplying yeast, OR like a spreading virus? (more…)

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Sower2

Sowing Seeds of Faith

 

God does not reserve God’s goodness only for those who respond in the way God hopes…

The Foolish Farmer
A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, with allusions to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Sunday, July 26, 2020

Farmers can’t control every variable, but there are things they can do to make a good harvest more likely. This time when I went home my brother Charles and I talked a lot about soil management at the farm, crop rotation and such. He was filling out reports on what he has planted in every field this year. We also talked about what he and his co-worker have been doing to condition the soil more deeply. It gets compacted over the years, and it has to be loosened.

One strategy that Charles has used, though not this year, is to plant giant radishes in a field between the crop seasons. These radishes grow to the size of baseball bats, and they push deep into the soil and break it up. Eventually they decompose, adding organic matter to the soil.

A farmer went out to plant, Jesus said to the crowd, and it quickly became apparent that this farmer was not like the wise farmers we know. There was no strategic plan, no soil analysis, and no soil preparation. Instead he threw seeds willy-nilly everywhere. Some landed on the path, where the soil was hard and needed something like the giant radish treatment to break it up. Those seeds never germinated. Birds quickly got them. Some landed where the soil was too thin to support the emerging plants, and they withered. Some landed in the weeds, and the weeds choked the seedlings. Thank goodness some seeds landed in promising ground, where they germinated, grew, and brought forth an abundant harvest: thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold.

What foolishness is this? What true farmer has seed to waste? Not in the real world. It’s clear Jesus is talking about a different world here. Jesus is inviting his listeners into the parable zone, where deceptively simple little stories challenge our usual assumptions, where the values and priorities often turn out to be different, and where worldly wisdom sometimes gets turned on its head. In the parable zone, for example, workers who get hired at the eleventh hour get paid the same as those who have toiled all day. In the parable zone, wayward sons who have thrown their lives away get treated like royalty. In the parable zone, farmers foolishly broadcast seed any and everywhere. “Let those who have ears, listen,” Jesus said.

Those who do listen and walk around in the parable zone, who wrestle with the strange things they see there, learn something about the kingdom of God, where God is in charge, about the great farm where God is the farmer in charge. They learn the strange wisdom of God.

God the great farmer isn’t worried about wasting seeds. The seeds of God’s great faithfulness, mercy, and love truly are unlimited. God is determined to sow good seed everywhere whether it is well-received or not. It is the great farmer’s nature to sow the seeds of love broadly, reaching out to all. God does not reserve God’s goodness only for those who respond in the way God hopes.

Jesus stepped out to sow God’s love in this way. He sowed his word and his teaching generously everywhere. He shared God’s gifts of love generously, everywhere, even in places and with people that some pious onlookers believed Jesus shouldn’t be wasting his time on. Often it was the outsiders, people who could not hide the pain and mess of their lives who were the most receptive. They turned out to be the most fertile ground for Jesus’ message.

Unfortunately, some of the religious leaders who knew the scriptures best turned out to be the least receptive. How dare Jesus be so soft and loose on the law of God! How dare he throw grace and forgiveness around so willy-nilly! Jesus ought to get tough on sinners, which is what they themselves decided to do: get tough on Jesus. By the middle of Matthew 12, just before the array of kingdom parables we are now exploring, this powerful contingent of scripture experts was plotting to destroy Jesus, like he was some kind of noxious weed. (more…)

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Come to Jesus

Our congregation feels the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic and the weight of the suffering and strife in our community, nation, and world.  We are still worshiping via Zoom as cases of the illness continue to rise in North Carolina.  We shared communion today after we reflected on Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:25. The video below is a rendition of Sylvia Dunstan’s hymn, “Come to Me, O Weary Traveler,” a loving invitation for these hard times.  (Video from the First Congregational Church of Houston.)

Come to Jesus

A Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30

One translation of today’s gospel lesson reads: “Come to me all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads” (Common English Bible).  We get it.  We know what it means to shoulder up heavy loads:  Struggling with worries and pressures and illness in ourselves and others.  Shouldering responsibility for loved ones who are helpless or frail.  Feeling the weight of the pandemic and the unrest in our country.

Jesus always saw clearly what was weighing on folks.  He recognized the yokes they wore.  And on that particular day in Matthew 11 what he saw weighing on so many was the burden of being unable to measure up religiously, being spiritually second class, at least in some self-appointed religious experts’ eyes. Jesus took special notice of them.  He called them “little ones,” as opposed to the “big shots,” the experts who thought they had God and God’s ways all figured out.

Whereas God had meant for the sacred law to be a gracious, guiding yoke for humanity, these wise in their own eyes experts had turned God’s gracious law into a heavy yoke that was hard for ordinary people to shoulder, and downright impossible for many.  Later in Matthew 23, Jesus puts it this way, “They make up heavy loads and pile them on people’s shoulders, but then refuse to lift a finger to help them carry these loads.”

These little ones were the people who couldn’t get everything right in the eyes of the big shots.  They were too poor, or too sick, or too disreputable to be able to get with the spiritual experts’ “program.”  Some had bodily conditions that rendered them perpetually unclean according to the purity laws.  And if they were unclean, they could not come into the house of the Lord.  Some made their living at occupations—such as shepherding—that made it impossible to comply with all the rules.  Some didn’t have the time, or the strength, or the money to do what the experts said the law demanded.  Grace was their only hope before God, and they knew it.  Jesus saw these little ones were in the crowd that day, and he said, “Come to me.”

“Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest,” he said.  “Put on my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in spirit, and there you will find a resting place for your souls.”  The yoke Jesus is picturing is one that yokes two together to pull as a team.  The yoke he offers is his own, the one he himself is already in.  “Come be yoked together with me, and I will give you rest.”

“Come away from the ‘get it right or else’ crowd,” Jesus called.  “Come away from those who take the focus off God and put it on the rules.  Come away from endless efforts to try to please or appease an angry God.  Come to me, get in the yoke with me, and through me, come to the God who loves you.  Learn from me.  I will teach you what burdens you can let go of.  And I will help you carry the ones you do have to carry.”

Jesus recognizes the loads people labor under.  He knows all our burdens.  He knows all our worries and fears.  He knows we cannot carry them alone.   “Come to me, all of you.” 

“Come to me,” Jesus calls to all the sick, to everyone who is hurting in body, mind or spirit.  “Come to me,” he calls to the poor and hungry, to the outcast and the rejected, to all who are seen as little in the world’s eyes.

“Come to me, little children, let me take you in my arms.”  Jesus  knows children carry heavy burdens in their bodies and in their hearts, too, things that make them sad and afraid. 

Jesus always sees the loads we carry, and he says, “Come be with me, all you who carry heavy burdens, who struggle, who need relief, and I will help you.  I will give you rest.”

“Come get beside me in the yoke, and learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls.  Come join me at my table.  And you will find food for your souls.  

I will give you rest.

I will give you life.

AMEN.

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When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36.

A Sermon on Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 9:35-10:1

Remember that time when Jesus wept?  He was so moved by the pain he saw in his grieving friends Mary and Martha that he cried.  And then he did something about it.  He raised their brother Lazarus to new life.  The gospel lesson we read today makes it clear that Jesus was often deeply moved when he saw people’s pain and struggle.  When he saw the crowds, it says, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

The English word compassion does not do justice to the Greek word that is used there.  The Greek word is much more powerful.  It means to be moved deep in one’s guts.  It’s similar to our English idea of the heart breaking, but an even closer equivalent might be to say he was torn inside.

The words translated “harassed” and “helpless” carry more of a punch, too.  Among the meanings I discovered for those words in Greek are dispirited, confused, scattered, aimless, bewildered, distraught, and distressed.  Jesus saw so much pain and lostness.  He could see the brokenness.  Many were sick or coping with disabilities.  Many were poor.  Food insecurity was a big problem in Jesus’ day.  They were at the mercy of forces they could not control, while the religious and political leaders, the shepherds who could have made a difference were preoccupied with securing and maintaining their own power.  Taxation, for example, fell heaviest on those who could least afford it.  What did they get for their tax money?  They got a king named Herod, the latest in the rapacious Herod family, who were not above murdering each other to get and maintain power.  Herod was a developer.  Their tax money went into Herod’s big, expensive building projects.  And they could not vote this man and his cronies out.

On top of that, their tax money paid for their own oppression.  It went to maintain the Roman Empire and the Roman army that was stationed everywhere.  Roman soldiers regularly strung people up on crosses to reinforce the message: don’t you dare dissent.  Don’t you dare get out of your place.  Don’t you dare resist.  They couldn’t vote these people out, either.

Think of what all this did to people’s souls, not to mention their bodies.  But many of the religious experts spent a lot of time finding fault with others who did not agree with them, or who could not practice the faith the way the experts said it must be practiced.  They did not ease people’s burdens.  They acted like “sin police.”  From almost the very beginning of his ministry, they were finding fault with Jesus.  One example is in the passage immediately before the one we read.  Instead of rejoicing when Jesus set a man free from a demonic spirit, these experts complained that Jesus must be doing this by the power of the ruler of the demons.  Lord, have mercy!

As Jesus gazed at all these shepherdless sheep, his grief echoed God’s grief in Ezekiel’s day when God’s people were being so poorly shepherded politically and spiritually.  Many were already scattered into exile in Babylon, and a second deportation to Babylon was on the way.

When God gazed on the wreckage of the community of God’s people, God was moved to the core, and God poured out blistering critiques of the nation’s leaders through the prophets, like the one we just heard in Ezekiel.  Here’s a sample:

“Thus says the Lord: you have not fed the sheep.  You have not healed the sick.  You have not bound up the injured.  You have not sought the lost and brought back the strayed.

“Instead you ruled with cruelty.  You led my people astray.

“Worst of all, you ate the sheep entrusted to your care!”

The pain of people today moves God to the core.  What must God be thinking as God surveys the flock now?  What, for example, must God be thinking about how the political and spiritual shepherds of our American flock are handling things now that we have the pandemic putting us into exile in our homes, on top of the usual struggles of life?  The current crises have pulled back a curtain so that we are forced to look at ugly realities in our life together as a nation and at wounds that remain unhealed.  Like scattered sheep without a shepherd, we Americans can’t seem to work together to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.  We are doing stuff like fighting over wearing masks.  God has got to be shaking God’s head.

The critique God would deliver through Ezekiel today might sound something like this:

(more…)

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