Author: AJ Langston

Redeemed

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Message Delivered on July 12, 2015

Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29          “Redeemed”

Whenever I think of redemption, my mind wanders back to the days of Holden Red Stamps, S&H Green Stamps and Gold Bell Gift Stamps, reward programs offered by gas stations, department and grocery stores.  I remember shopping at Rogers Department Store on Wednesdays because it was “double stamp day.”  I always wondered, if the redeemed prizes were free, why did you have to pay sales tax on the items? — Not free!

Today’s text from the Apostle Paul, written to the Christian church at Ephesus, gives us one of the longest continuous sentences in ancient Greek literature.  Ephesians 1:3-14 is one complete sentence from the lofty viewpoint (“heavenly places”) the epistle writer reveals in what he has glimpsed–the vision of God’s purpose and plan for the church and for all who become his “adopted children” through the work of Christ, to be “holy and blameless.”  In love, Paul says, “We are all chosen by God in Christ.”  Our adoption rests wholly upon God’s “good pleasure.”  God’s “glorious grace” is the only official stamp on our adoption papers and no value added tax has been added!  Verses 7-10 enumerate three of God’s great gifts now made available to us through Christ.  First is the redemption  we have received from the sacrifice of Christ’s own blood.  Second, forgiveness, so that no guilt, no past events may stand between us and our full acceptance as adopted children of God.  Third, God bestows on us ” wisdom and insight”  through which we can finally glimpse “the mystery of God’s will.”  The unifying plan of God continues to inform the final thoughts of this text.  In verses 13-14, the writer turns to Gentile believers and notes that “You also” are a part of that select group, full members of the inheritance (Predestined).  Through Christ, Jew and Gentile have been brought together to form a seamless unity, an undifferentiated family in God’s grace.

Phyllis Trible, a Christian author has written about a book she authored called Texts of Terror,  in which she examines the most awful texts in the Old Testament.  They are the accounts we wish would disappear from Scripture: the story of Jephthah’s daughter in the book of Judges.  The little girl loses her life because of her foolish father’s promise.  Mark’s gospel has its own text of terror.  The story of John’s beheading is gruesome.  It reminds me of the beheadings in the Middle East today.  The events leading up to John’s death are hard to believe; they are like reading a soap opera.  King Herod divorced his wife so he could marry his brother’s wife, Herodias.  Oh, yea, there’s more:  Herodias was also the daughter of another of Herod’s half-brothers, so when he married Herodias, he was marrying his sister-in-law and his niece at the same time–a clear violation of Old Testament law.  John the Baptist publicly denounced the marriage, angering both Herodias and Herod.  At least, Herod had a conscience.  He did not want to kill John.  He respected and feared John because he was a righteous and holy man.

Sadly, Herod chose cowardice over courage.  Rather than stand up for what he believed, he gave in to the selfish obsession of his wife.  John was beheaded and the head presented on a platter to his wife’s daughter, who presented it to her resentful mother, fulfilling her wish.

Where is the hope in this story?  It is a story where evil triumphs over good.  True, the righteous man loses his life, and the weak and vengeful people get away with murder, making this a sordid tale of anger and revenge, resentment and death.  The name of Jesus is never even mentioned.  But this account comes right after Jesus’ instructions to his disciples.  Jesus tells them how to embody God’s love in the world.  He even tells them to expect opposition and trouble.  All they need to do is take the gospel to people and trust that God will do the rest.

There is often danger when you tell the truth, especially to those in power.  The story of John’s death reminds us that being a follower of Jesus does not guarantee success in this life, but might even bring some suffering.  This story is also about the delusions of the powerful.  Herod is afraid.  He fears that Jesus is John raised from the dead.  Since Herod had John killed, he thinks that John has returned to get him in the form of Jesus.  Another soap opera plot in the making.  Can dead men come back to harm those who use their power for evil

One of the things that kept Ghandi, Prime Minister of India, going against overwhelming odds was the conviction not just that love would conquer but that evil would defeat itself. Ghandi said, “When I despair, I remember that throughout history tyrants and dictators have always failed in the end.  Think of it.  Always.”

Oscar Romero, was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador because the church hierarchy thought he was a safe and conservative scholar.  He surprised them by becoming a champion for the poor and spoke out against the oppressive government forces.  He won the love of the people he served and the hatred of those in power.  He was murdered during a mass and he became the unstoppable spiritual force in the hearts of the Salvadoran people–and a symbol of freedom and justice around the world–at a price.

God’s work is risky.  When you speak the truth to the powerful, there may be a bitter price to be paid, but God’s plan cannot be stopped.  Being faithful to God is not easy.  John lived for the truth and died for it.  When I was eight years old, the Sunday school gave me a Bible, which my mother wrote in: “Always be truthful to yourself and others.”  This was Polonias’ advice to his son in a Shakespeare play.  God’s truth permeated even Shakespeare’s works!

Jesus lived for the truth, the truth that sets us free, and died that we might be set free from sin, forgiven and promised to be heirs of the Kingdom of God by virtue of our faith inspired by the Holy Spirit.  John Calvin summarized this theology as “guilt, grace and gratitude.”  We are guilty of sin, set free by the grace of God through Jesus’ death on the cross.  Our response is to serve the Lord as a sign of our gratitude.  We have been saved, redeemed, like those stamp books we used to cash in for prizes.  The greatest difference is that salvation, redemption from sin, is free–no tax or cover charge.  Jesus’ saving death accomplished for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

One of the Presbyterian theological bugaboos is predestination, described in Ephesians in today’s reading.  I explained to a realtor in N. Carolina who questioned me about Calvin and his interpretation on the phone: Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit inspires us to faith in Jesus Christ, who died to set us free from sin that we might spend eternity in heaven with God.  We believe we are chosen by God to be heirs of the Kingdom and profess our faith in baptism as we pray for the Holy Spirit to be with us always–always renewing our faith and preparing us to be redeemed servants of our Lord and Savior, Jesus.  Redemption is the free gift of God–no strings attached.  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Eating for Eternal Life

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Message Delivered on August 9, 2015

John 6:35, 41-51     “Eating for Eternal Life”

The current suggested lectionary readings for five weeks in a row all have to do with Jesus as the Bread of Life with the eating of the bread of his flesh.  How palatable…  Bread is the universal stuff of life.  Anywhere I have traveled around the world the waiter first brings bread, sometimes butter or oil infused with spices–or not.  In America there are 19,000 bakeries employing over 350,000 people, and each year they mix 11 billion pounds of flour, 163 million pounds of dried milk, and 616 million pounds of shortening.  The average American eats about 70 pounds of bread annually.  That is over one loaf of bread per week!  The top food sold in supermarkets is bread, with 96.8% of shoppers choosing from over 70 varieties.

Spiritual bread is more important and the church’s most vital task is to distribute living bread to every person in the world.  This bread is so vital that Jesus identified himself as “the bread of life.”  It was no accident that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Hebrew meaning “House of Bread.”  Bethlehem was situated in a good, fertile area which abounded in grain.  After Jesus’ baptism, Satan asked him to turn stones into bread.  In Jesus’ model prayer, we petition for “daily bread.”  Jesus provided bread for thousands all from five small loaves.  When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he took bread, blessed and gave thanks for it, and said, “Take, eat.  This is my body.”  There must be something terribly important about bread in order for it to get so much attention from Jesus and to form the basis for Chapter 6 in the Book of John.

What if Jesus said, “I am the peach of life, from Xi Wang-mu’s (Shee Wong moo) garden.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  Holy Communion services around the world would be forever changed.  Instead of pieces of bread, we would be eating slices of peaches.  Kind of a messy thought.

Peaches have a connection to eternal life in China because peaches grown in the garden of the goddess Xi Wang mu are an example of godly gastronomy.  Chinese mythology teaches that the gods are nourished by a steady diet of special peaches that take thousands of years to ripen, the peaches of immortality” from Xi Wang mu’s garden give long life to anyone who eats them–3000 years from a single peach!  One time, the trickster god, Monkey, devoured an entire crop in one year.  To punish him, he was expelled from heaven and sentenced to a lifetime of stone fruit.

Jesus does not say that he is the peach of life—no, bread of life.  The person who eats this bread is promised endless satisfaction–freedom from hunger and thirst and life everlasting.

Today there are many popular diets.  Pick up any magazine or watch television and see commercials for Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutri-

System, South Beach, Pro-biotic and a whole lot of others that encourage

healthy eating for a longer life–but which diet advocates eating for eternal life? 

The Jews complained about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  How could he say that when they knew him as the son of Joseph and Mary, Galileans from Nazareth?  If your neighbor told you that he/she had come from heaven, you might recommend a visit to a mental health professional.  The Jews were not exactly opponents of Jesus, they were confused and concerned.

 

Jesus insisted, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life” (v.47).  This is a clue to understanding that belief is the key to receiving

the benefits of the bread of life.  Eternal life comes from putting faith in Jesus Christ.

Augustine preached about the connection between faith and the bread of life.  He said in a sermon about Holy Communion, “What you see is the Bread and the Chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the Bread is the body of Christ and the Chalice is the blood of Christ.”  With your eyes you see bread, of course.  With your faith you receive the body of Christ.  Jesus invites us to believe in him and to receive the eternal life that he offers us.  The ancient Israelites ate the bread (manna) in the wilderness and they died.  But it was physical bread–the kind that you can see with your eyes and taste in your mouth.  Jesus offers himself as living bread.

Second clue: Jesus offers living bread that is not bread at all but a living person.  Belief is key.  If you want to see living bread, look to Jesus.  “Whoever eats of the bread he offers will live forever, and the bread that he gives for the life of the world is his flesh” (v. 51). Jesus wants us to believe in him and to take him into ourselves; much as we would eat a piece of bread, digest it and incorporate it into our bodies.  Jesus invites us to trust that he is the living bread that has come down from heaven, bread that is broken in communion, just as Christ’s body is broken on the cross.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14) and “God so loved the

world that he gave his only Son” (3:14).  Bread.  Flesh.  Life of the world.  Love for the world.  The bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is nothing less than his own flesh.

Jesus is all about giving, not taking.  This is the third clue.  The body of Christ.  Whoever eats this bread will live forever.  We can trust Jesus to be at work inside us.  Because he forgives us, we can forgive others.  Because he loves us, we can love others.  Because he fills us with his Spirit, we can inspire others.  After receiving the body of Christ in worship, we can go out to be the body of Christ in the world.

It all begins with belief and understanding that Jesus gives, offering himself to tax collectors, healing lepers, and blessing the children.  He forgives sinners and challenges his disciples to do likewise by showing hospitality to the strangers at our doors, supporting medical missionaries to underserved communities, helping children to feel welcome in worship, offering forgiveness to those who hurt us and feeding the hungry families who are living all around us.

Believe.  Look to Jesus.  Give.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.

Now, that is a menu for eternal life! 

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

No Shame

Message Delivered on August 2, 2015

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a                    “No Shame”

Have you been to a ball game, a meeting or any kind of public gathering where someone stands up, says whatever they feel like saying off the top of their head–and then–sits down not worrying a bit how their words or actions will impact the people in the crowd?

People seem to be at their worst when they travel.  It is one thing to be seated next to a mom whose child is hollering, but babies are babies.  What about the person next to you who chats incessantly?  Nancy’s dad used to say that some people rattle like an empty wagon, making lots of noise and saying nothing relevant.  What do you do when your seatmate on a plane, train, or bus clips their toes nails, or a mother changes a baby and stuffs the dirty diaper in the seat pocket next to yours?  These things all happen– and then some.  Flight attendants could fill volumes on their experiences.  Recently, a new URL has been created: Passenger Shaming.com, in which smart phone pictures have captured the behavior of passengers and they have been posted on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  The pictures show piles of newspapers and other trash, passengers sleeping with their feet between the seats of the passengers in front of them–no shoes or socks–bare feet in the aisles and other obnoxious views.  The site is supposed to be a deterrent for bad behavior.  Whether or not it works remains to be seen.

In the account of David and the prophet, Nathan, Nathan paints a word picture for David about a rich man taking a lamb from a poor man and David is greatly agitated, espousing that the perpetrator deserves to die for his crime.  David had behaved badly by abusing his power when taking Bathsheba for his pleasure and then manipulating her husband, Uriah, to assure his death on the front lines of battle.  David then wants justice for the poor man whose lamb was taken from him and Nathan lowers the boom stating, “You are the man!”  Nathan does not need to spell out the details.  Everyone sees and knows, except David, who is oblivious to the consequences of his actions.  Many, or most of us, sometime behave in ways we do not immediately see as a problem for the people around us.  We can become frustrated with those who drive while being distracted by talking on the phone–until we get an important phone call about a family emergency–and then resort to Bluetooth headsets to chat while driving.  How about sitting in a restaurant next to someone whose phone rings constantly while you are trying to carry on a conversation with your dining companion?

What happens when you are venting to a friend about a bad experience with someone who likes to gossip–and then–whoa! Lights and bells go off when you realize that you are guilty of hypocrisy as you gossip about that person, passing judgment on him/her?  We are so good at seeing the bad behavior of others and missing it in ourselves.

After David’s wake-up call, he realizes that not only has he been blind to his own bad behavior, but he has also been blind to the blessings of God.  Nathan’s “story” about the rich man was a reality check for David.  He had begun to think that he could take whatever he wanted without consequence, including the wife of another man, if only for an afternoon–or if it could be arranged–even longer.  Nathan reminded David that it was God who made him king, who kept him safe from Saul when he tried to kill David and who gave him all his riches, including his wives.  If David wanted more of anything, all he had to do was to ask God .

In the moment that David spotted Bathsheba bathing on the roof top, he was not thinking about how incredibly blessed by God that he already was–or the huge flocks he owned, or the protection he received as king.  All he saw was what he wanted and he put everything he already had in jeopardy.  Do we lose sight of what we already have and in a weaker moment, make a grab for more?

Years ago people dressed up to get on a plane or to take some kind of public transportation.  Things have certainly gone a long way in the opposite direction.  Some have forgotten what they have in our modes of transportation and have lost the ability to appreciate it for what it is.  It is easy to avoid casting ourselves in the role of David as the sinner.  We want to see the sins of others and to be charged with pointing them out.  We are not Nathan.  We have not been called to fulfill his difficult job of advising David.  To David’s credit, he repented.  His prayer of repentance is found in Psalm 51.

There is an old story about a Catholic priest who was hearing confessions.  Nothing the priest heard that day was out of the ordinary…until one man walked in, sat down and quietly closed the door.  The man told that he had not been to confessions for many years.  He had systematically stolen building supplies from the lumberyard where he worked for many years and no one had noticed.  The priest asked, “How much do you figure you stole in all those years?”  The man replied, “Enough to build my house,  a house for my son, and one each for my daughters.”  The astonished priest replied, “That is a lot of lumber.”  The man responded, “Did I tell you that we also had enough left over to build a cottage by the lake?”  In a stern voice the priest continues, “What you have told me, my son, is very serious.  I need to think of a highly demanding penance to give you.  Have you ever done a retreat?”  The priest was wondering if the man had ever gone to a prayer retreat to contemplate his life’s plans and outcomes.  “No, Father, I have not,” said the man.  “But if you get me the plans, I can get you the lumber!”

Some people have no shame.  We can all laugh at or be disgusted by someone else’s poor behavior.  It is so easy to see it in others.  Yet, when it comes to our own bad behavior, we often do not see it.  David needed God, through Nathan, to point out his sin and to remind him of all that he had.  We need to be open to the voice of God telling us about our bad behavior.

We all have sin in our lives and have forgotten how blessed we are.  There is no time like the present to repent. Read Psalm 51:10-12.  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Traveling Light

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Mark 6:1-13         “Traveling Light”

Have you noticed the signs of doors of public buildings that have knives and guns with a big red X drawn through them?  It will come as no surprise to anyone today that no guns, knives, crossbows, meat cleavers, box cutters, mace or similar items are allowed in carry-on luggage if you plan on boarding an airliner.  That makes sense to me but what is wrong with mascara, toothpaste, mouth wash, hair gel, yogurt or pudding cups in your carry-on bag or purse?  A few personal care items are permitted in very small amounts, if packed in a special way (see through Baggie), but not any of the other stuff in any quantity. Unfortunately, explosives can be disguised to look like those innocent products, so we either have to put them in our checked bags or leave them at home.

The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) would be happier if we all took nothing more than the clothes on our backs for air travel, but that really is NOT practical. Essentially, Jesus told his disciples when he sent them out in pairs to cast out demons, heal the sick and to call people to repentance, “Take nothing for the journey.”  According to Mark, Jesus allowed them to take a staff and to wear sandals, but no extra clothing, only that which they were wearing.  Like the TSA, Jesus had a list of prohibited items:  no bread, no bag, no money in their belts and no second tunic. (Matthew and Luke do not allow a staff or sandals.) Jesus banned items that could undermine the mission on which he was sending the disciples  They were to depend on GOD to provide for them through the hospitality of strangers.  There is an exercise in faith for you!  How they traveled and were welcomed was to be a demonstration of God’s care.  No check-on bags and only one small carry-on.

A lesson for us:  when Jesus sends us out to be his people in the world and tells us to rely on him–and take nothing, zip, nada, with us–only who we are, including our normal baggage. The baggage we carry is the personal history we drag with us that interferes with our living fully in the present.  This baggage could be non-productive ways of dealing with conflict, inappropriate responses that are triggered at inopportune moments, unresolved fears from childhood, psychological damage from abuse, scary ideas about God–just about any holdover from our past that keeps us from getting on well in our relationships or with our daily responsibilities.  Most of us have some kind of baggage that travels with us even when we think we have taken nothing for the journey. What can we learn from Jesus and his sending out the twelve?

  • He tells them to take nothing extra for the journey, only the clothes that they are wearing. They will be vulnerable.They

can take their shortcomings, scarred psyches and damaged emotions, and they can still do the work to which he calls them: cast out demons and heal the sick.

  • The disciples were working for the Divine Healer.Mathew adds to his account that by casting out spirits and healing the sick that Jesus had fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet, Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:17).  Healing diseases and taking away infirmities (casting out spirits); infirmities could include emotional baggage which needs divine healing.  Sometimes folks who have high opinions of themselves are guilty of pride, while those with low self-esteem attempt to hide how worthless they feel.  These kinds of baggage need healing.
  • On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told listeners not to be anxious about their lives, what they would eat, drink or wear.Instead of worrying, he pointed out that we should trust God to care for us and to seek God’s kingdom.  The tendency to worry about everything does not mean we are not faithful followers of Christ, only that we have baggage.

So…how can we deal with baggage?

  • Ask God to help us face our problems head-on without rationalizations that keep us from doing well.
  • Take a look at those whom we blame for some of our hang-ups.Decide what to do to set those memories aside and move-on.
  • Accept the responsibility for how we are today.The past has shaped who we are today but we are responsible for dealing with life’s issues today–to become the whole persons God intended us to be.
  • Lay the problem before God to begin healing.Leave our baggage behind.

Grudges are like baggage.  They are a form of obsession we carry around with us.  When others have hurt us, we fantasize about revenge. Eventually, we come to realize that our grudge is a far greater burden than the original incident.  The only thing to do is to lay it down–like the extra coat Jesus says to leave behind.  When we shed that baggage, we will be traveling light, according to Jesus’ recommendation.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” came to mind when  I was writing this message:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon