Category: Weekly Sermon

Pentecost – Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

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Have you ever asked yourself “Where would I look to find the Holy Spirit?  How would I know if I am in the Spirit’s presence?”

In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is called “ruach” and likened to the power of blowing wind, blowing exactly where it wants, sometimes gently and at other times with gale force winds.  Ask anyone this time of year, the storm season, if they are eager to see a storm blow in from the Gulf Coast or off the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.  When I was seven, I lived in Florida with my grandparents.  The biggest hurricane that had ever come inland raced across the state, moving the lake that could be seen from Grandpa’s back porch 600 yards, right up to the back door.  When the storm was over, an alligator had sought refuge on the back porch step and other creatures could be found in places I did not want to find them.  I was not allowed to go into the garage or laundry room until Grandpa checked them for displaced snakes.

In our search for the Holy Spirit, the life force within each person takes us deep within ourselves and beyond.  The Spirit is a force to be reckoned with.  It is concerned about the way we communicate with each other.  Paul describes the Holy Spirit as a catalyst within us motivating us to use our God’ given gifts.

At the Confirmation service last week, I prayed for God’s Spirit to watch over and to guide Kyle and Kylee all the days of their lives.  Even though we want God to work in us, do we want God’s Spirit to be disruptive, blow through us, stirring and unsettling us?  Is God’s Spirit unsafe at times, but good?  In the way that the Holy Spirit can move us in directions we are not sure we want to experience, maybe the stirring can be a step in creating new possibilities.  Pentecost marks the descent of the Holy Spirit of God.  It is the hurricane like wind that, if we have the courage to plan and act together, it will rearrange us into people who can be more than we are and to do more than we do–not just for ourselves, but for others.  It is the earth shaking the blast that motivates with power to choose love instead of hate and acceptance over judgment.

 

The past week 54 youth and teens, plus a whole crew of adult volunteers to direct crafts, recreation, snacks, discovery time, music, Bible stories and all kinds of lively activities was evidence that God’s Spirit was on “overdrive.”  Workshop of Wonders was the overall theme in which the kids learned to Imagine, Build, Grow, Work and Walk with God.  We all learned that God is with us to motivate us to be in relationship with God and the people around us in our community; whether it be in our neighborhood or in our faith community where we worship and study about God.  God works with us to help us to stretch and grow in our understanding of God at work in our lives.  It would be a mistake to assume that God’s Spirit is only disruptive, seeking to move us out of complacency.That is the wind part when it blows with hurricane intensity.  But then comes the breath part which lives deep within you and me.  The breath part says to us, “In the midst of all that is swirling around you, be still. Go to the place inside you where you find your core strength and goodness.”  This is the Spirit’s gift when we feel overwhelmed or overcome by what is happening around us, when life conspires to disconnect us from our core truth and keeps us on focus on the things that matter least in life, rather than on what matters most.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus told his disciples, “Lies within you.”  Writer Anne Lamott speaks at commencements and tells new graduates, “Your spiritual identity is something to feel best when you are not doing much–when you are in nature, when you are very quiet, or when you listen to music.  Music is the voice of the heart. When you listen to music, you can feel the Spirit and hear it in the music you love, in the bass line (boom-it-t-boom), in the harmonies, in the silence between the notes.  We can feel the Spirit if we pay attention to our breath–breathing in and out, allowing our minds to calm down so that we can listen from the core–where the Spirit lives and speaks most profoundly.

How can we sort out the Spirit’s voice from our own?  How can the Spirit speak to us to get our attention, to point us toward God”  It is the Spirit’s presence that buoys up my internal anxiety, with the assurance that when we are worried, things will turn out okay.  The Holy Spirit shifts our perception of another person or situation, giving us the capacity to be kind when we are hurt, non-defensive when we are challenged, accepting when we are disappointed and forgiving when we would rather exhibit anger.

Friends are another place where we can encounter the Holy Spirit in relationship to one another, by working and walking with God to take care of the poor and hungry, to lift up the hearts of those who are poor in spirit, are worried or have given up hope.  When we are willing to allow others to deal with their imperfections and to simply offer help, the Holy Spirit will meet us more than halfway.  When we take the time to be kind to one another, to meet the needs of annoying, sometimes neurotic folks, that’s where we see the Holy Spirit most brightly.

Let God’s Spirit blow all around you, gently or fiercely, and pay attention to what the powerful Holy Spirit might be saying: go deep within yourself, breathe deeply and pay attention.  Celebrate the beautiful children in our midst and their families who present them for baptism to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit to pray God will watch over them and protect them from worldly dangers, that goodness will prevail and the Kingdom of God will become a reality.  Pay attention to the ways you might be part of the blessing they are seeking.  The Holy Spirit is around, between and in us, a force to reckon with and God’s greatest gift to those who are open to receive it.  Image, Build, Grow, Work and Walk with God as we work together, to make the world be the place God intends it to be.  Utilize the power of God’s Holy Spirit. “May the force be with you.”  

 

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Misplaced Christ – John 20:1-18

Each of the gospel accounts of the first Easter are similar, but there are also some interesting and significant differences in them. John’s gospel, instead of mentioning that several women went to Jesus’ tomb on the first day of the week, individualizes the account and centers it around one woman, Mary Magdalene.

Mary is one we would have expected to come to Jesus’ tomb on an errand of love. She had ample reason to love Jesus, because he had done something for her that had radically transformed her life. We are not sure about the specifics of her condition, but we are told that Jesus cast out seven evil spirits/demons from her and healed her infirmities. In those times evil spirits were associated with physical ailments and moral and spiritual defects. Shame would have most likely been associated with her condition. Jesus had given her wholeness of body and spirit, and restored a sense of dignity and value, which gave her a new purpose for living. It is not a surprise that she chose to go early in the morning to Jesus’ tomb (for privacy).

I cannot imagine how shocked Mary must have been when she did not find Jesus’ body in the tomb! She had witnessed his crucifixion along with Jesus’ mother and other women. Mary lingered outside the empty tomb crying tears of distress and occasionally looking inside the tomb, hoping that she is mistaken. Through tears, Mary sees heavenly messengers who ask her why she is weeping and she tells them that Jesus’ body is missing. She turns around and sees someone she presumes is the gardener and asks if he, perhaps, has carried him to another location. If you remember, Jesus was hastily laid in a borrowed tomb before it got dark–before the Sabbath began at sundown, according to Jewish tradition. Women were not considered credible witnesses, so she went to find Peter and John and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him. ” If he was not in the tomb where he had been carefully placed, then his body, logically, must have been moved to another location.

Mary’s searching was misdirected. She was looking for Jesus in the place where she thought he should be. She expected him to stay where he had been placed but he did not. Do we deal with the same expectation today? We must remember that we are not dealing with a dead body. We may presume that Christ will not move around too much. We want to keep him located where we can easily find him, whether it be in a secluded garden tomb or in the thick of our common life.

Twenty years ago I was invited to preach on Good Friday in a Roman Catholic Church. I was “allowed” to do so because Jesus is proclaimed dead on Good Friday and the mass in which Christ’s body is offered to the people cannot be served as the host. But I KNOW that Christ does not stay put. He has broken the bonds of death and sin and cannot be confined to particular places.

Mary’s search for Jesus was focused on the past. Jesus had redeemed her and she cared enough to tend to his lifeless body. Fortunately, we know the rest of the “story.” The Resurrection tells us that Christ cannot be confined. He is our eternal contemporary. Jesus keeps bursting out of the grave clothes of the dead past to confront us as a living presence. To look for Jesus only in the past, is to be misdirected in our current searching process.

It is said that if you do not expect anything, you will not be disappointed. At times, in part because of our past disappointments, we may allow a spirit of unexpectedness to settle down over our lives, and Christ may be close at hand without our recognizing him. Mary’s preoccupation with her past experiences with Jesus may have contributed to the delay in her recognition of Jesus. She was so preoccupied in her search for a dead body or a misplaced Christ, that she could not recognize the living Christ. There are many things in life with which we may become preoccupied: our problems, our regrets, our guilt, our dreams, ambitions, pleasures, making a living, getting an education, succeeding, surviving, and on and on.

The gospel point of the matchless story of Mary’s search for the misplaced Christ is that in the end, it was not Mary who found Christ, but Christ who found Mary. Mary had been searching for him to no avail; then she discovered that he was seeking her and she was found by him. Jesus’ search for us always precedes our search for him, and when we finally deduce that, we have found him, we discover that we are the ones who have been found. God’s amazing grace: ” I once was lost, but now I am found.”

The good news is that if you are astray from God, you can be certain that God is not far from you. When you think you have lost contact with God, accept the fact that God has not gone off somewhere and left you alone. To Mary, Jesus was the misplaced Christ and sometimes it might feel like that for us, as well. We long for his fellowship, but struggle to find him. If we expect Jesus to stay where we put him while he is busy bursting the bonds we try to wrap around him, then we may be focusing on the past while Jesus wants to be a living presence with us.

We need to go back to John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection and Mary’s joy when she realizes that Jesus is alive in her midst. Jesus can arise in the midst of any death that may surround us. If we have ears to hear, we may hear him call our name. Jesus comes to each of us who are willing to welcome his love, forgiveness, joy and strength. That is the Easter Good News, Jesus LIVES and is available to us all, all the time! Hallelujah!

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Shake, Rattle and Roll – Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45

On this fifth Sunday of Lent, our scripture passages explore the dimensions of death and affirm the ways that God empowers life. The dramatic oracle (vision) in Ezekiel vividly evokes the image of a battle scene, with dead bodies of the defeated lying grotesquely on the ground. All that remains of the bodies are the dry bones, with no possibility of life. In poignant, unforgettable words, the dead bones receive all of the tissue they need, and the breath of life. The oracle assures the dejected, devastated community that God can restore them to vitality.

In 586 B.C. the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon (modern Iraq) before and after the complete destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the exiles’ family members were killed, wounded or missing. They wondered if God had abandoned them forever? Would they cease to exist as a people so far from home? Would they ever be able to go home? How could they survive in a strange land?

The Lord, directly or through a vision, set Ezekiel down in a valley of dry bones. It was as though a vast army had been slaughtered, their armor and clothing stripped, and their bodies left unburied for scavenger birds and animals to pick clean and scatter, and for the winds to scour and the sun to bleach the bones. Ezekiel must have shuddered when God asked him if the bones would live. An astonished Ezekiel must have responded, “How should I know, Lord? Only you could possibly know that.” God told Ezekiel to speak to the bones on God’s behalf and God would cause the wind of the Spirit to blow and enter them; to breathe life into them. Ezekiel did as he was told and rattling, rumbling and shaking of seismic proportion could be heard like an earthquake. The bones came together with muscles and skin, and Ezekiel prophesied that the breath of God should animate them, and they lived. The bones are identified with the whole house of Israel and reminded them of the covenantal relationship they had with God, who had put his spirit within them to give them life. He calls them “my people.”

This account in Ezekiel has been fodder for many years, inspiring thrill rides at theme parks like Denver’s Elitch Garden Water Park, with rides like the Tower of Doom, the Mind Eraser, the Half Pipe ride and others. Sixty years ago a singer named Big Joe Turner gathered with a group of rhythm-and-blues musicians in New York City. In the offices of Atlantic Records, they pushed the furniture to the walls, and recorded a song called “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which was quickly picked up and recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets, and then by Elvis Presley to become an international rock ‘n’ roll hit. It was Bill Haley’s first gold record and best seller for Decca in 1954. Even earlier, James Weldon Johnson, credentialed as a lawyer in 1894 worked on Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, was appointed as U.S. Consul in Venezuela, and later, Nicaragua. He became an early civil-rights activist and served as head of the NAACP. He is best remembered for his poetry and song writing ability creating “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” His most widely known composition was inspired by Ezekiel 37: “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones (3 times). Now hear the word of the Lord.” When my brother was seven years old, my mother was a Cub Scout den mother and we had eight little boys in our basement meeting every week. The Scout Pack had a talent show and I remember my mother coming up with costumes and an act for the boys. They wore jeans, white t-shirts, my Dad’s sailor hats and their faces were blackened for their vaudeville rendition of “Dem Bones.” They sang and danced and won first place. I do not know if my brother remembers that event, but I can still see it in my mind.

More recently, “Schindler’s List” was a movie of a true story about World War II, focusing on the heroism and self-sacrifice of Oskar Schindler, a Christian from Krakow, Poland. Schindler went from being a wanton war profiteer to a conspirator who worked at freeing condemned prisoners from Hitler’s concentration camps. I was reminded of his life-saving work when I got on an elevator in Israel with the name of a prominent elevator company stamped over the control panel. It was not OTIS, no. The name was Schindler. In one scene of the movie, Jews were herded like cattle onto freight trains, hungry, hot, and very thirsty. The train was destined to various death camps. The German soldiers were lolling about and enjoying the suffering they were witnessing. Schindler appeared in a white suit (the “Good Guy” suit, like The Lone Ranger, riding up on his horse) and the Colonel offered him a refreshing drink. Schindler had a bright idea. “Let’s hose down the cars!” He convinced the Colonel to give him a soldier to man the hose, and they began spraying the cars. The captives entrapped in the cars could drink and be cooled. Schindler pretended to be having so much fun with the fire hose, he even got the Colonel to order another length of hose to be able to reach the last car. The prisoners were squealing and reaching for the much needed water and the Colonel said, “Oh, Oskar, you are too cruel! You are giving them hope.” In that scene people on the trains were condemned to certain death, and had no hope, while Oskar desperately wanted to save them and to give them as much hope as he could (not unlike a prophet trying to bring hope to God’s people).

Ezekiel was a temple priest carried off to Babylon in 586 B.C. and called by God to prophesy in great mystic visions to the people of the Exile. He wrote to those back home about God’s judgment, and of restorations and promise. Ezekiel asked God if the bones could live and God proves, “Yes, the bones can live.” Asking if bones can live is like reaching the point of the rebirth of faith –or the birth of a new faith. It is out of the death of hope that the hope of life springs. Hope and joy can spring from loss and pain–it only takes a willingness to step away from the apparent loss and grow with the situation. Ezekiel’s message brings hope for people who have lost all grounds of hope. There is a God who can achieve the impossible. The human end of it is to continue in the knowledge of that God.

The account of Lazarus’ resurrection to life in Bethany sets the scene for Jesus’ coming resurrection at Easter. Martha was distraught that Jesus had not come running to prevent her ailing brother from dying–he purposely arrived days later to call him out of the tomb, so that new life could be breathed into him. Imagine the testimony (not mentioned in Scripture) that Lazarus would have given to any and all who would have listened about the power of God to give life, hope and joy. We live in faith that we have eternal life. Life is lived here and now, and we have eternal life here and now. That is the truth that makes us free. The most amazing thing about eternal life in the here and now is that we can live each day in faith, no longer in fear of dying. In the midst of the uncertainties of life, the Christian has one great certainty: God loves you, whomever you are. God has shown the depth of his love by giving his Son for you, whatever you have done. The greatest act of God lies not in the creation of the world, but in the giving and raising of his Son as the Savior of the fallen, sinful world.

Ezekiel has his eyes opened by the knowledge of God. We have the grave opened by the knowledge of Jesus Christ. In him we know the grace of God,” God’s answer to the tragedies of life. That is our hope. Can these bones live? Shake, rattle and roll. Easter is the best answer we can have!

Amen

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Thirst No More – Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

The biblical scholars in their wisdom have tied the Old and New Testament readings together quite well. As the Israelites traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land via the Desert of Sin, they camped at Rephidim, but there was no water to drink, so they got angry with Moses and tested the LORD. A frustrated Moses implored God to help him before the people stoned him. God ordered him to take the same staff he had used to divide the Red Sea and to strike a rock at Horeb to get water for the people to drink–take elders of Israel with you to do this task (to act as witnesses to God’s power). The fact that the Israelites doubted God’s willingness to provide for them, even when they did not deserve it, does not stop God from giving people what they need (justification by grace and providence).

Growing up in the dry, rocky land of Israel, Jesus knew firsthand that water was a precious resource. He must have seen his mother and other women spend hours of their days hauling water for cooking, drinking and cleaning. When he met the Samaritan woman at the well in the hot noonday sun, he knew how hard she had to work to meet the needs of her family. Water is heavy. Remember the old adage, “A pint is a pound the world around?” So, a five gallon bucket of water weighs at least forty pounds, plus the weight of the bucket or water jar. Imagine having to carry water several times a day to meet the needs of a family and often it was at least a mile to the source of potable water. My Grandma had an old EZ washer (there is an oxymoron for you!) and there was nothing easy about washing and rinsing clothes with that machine. My brother and I carried two 2 1/2 gallon buckets in two different trips from the lake (one trip for wash water and another for rinse water) because the well water to the house had excessive tannic acid in it and it would turn the clothes orange. Do you know what a clothesline of orange underwear looks like? If Grandma decided to have an extra rinse (for either white or really dirty work clothes) to insure that the clothes were clean, we had to made a third trip to the lake 600 yards away from the house. We understand how hard it must have been to do laundry for a family without a washing machine and having to walk long distances for the necessary water.

Have you been a bit thirstier than usual this time of year? It is 10+ degrees warmer and the humidity was only 4% yesterday, adding to our thirst. Jesus knew that he needed to overcome his thirst in the heat and asked the woman to give him a drink but male Jews did not talk to women in public and Jews did NOT talk to Samaritans. In spite of the gender and cultural differences, Jesus asks because she can meet his need. Jesus has an “a-ah, relief” moment on the way. Water is necessary for survival and we in Arizona already know that but do we ever think about our spiritual survival and the living water Jesus offers through the Holy Spirit? The Samaritan woman has her “a-ah” moment coming soon.

The narrative never tells us if Jesus gets the cup of cold water he requested but there is something much more important going on. We do not know if this unnamed woman took the time to draw water for Jesus. She does stop what she is doing, because she is amazed that Jesus is speaking to her at all. By merely noticing her, Jesus has opened up a world of new possibilities to a woman weighed down by guilt and shame. Jesus has not come into her life to demand something that he needs. Surely, Jesus was thirsty, but he knows that the woman at the well is carrying a far heavier burden. He wants to give her much more than just a cup of water, he wants to offer her water that will remove her thirst forever.

·Jesus knows who the woman is and can see the painful secrets in her heart.
·Jesus recognizes her thirst for forgiveness and acceptance.
·Jesus offers what she needs even before she knows enough to ask for help.

Unlike Jesus, the woman does not even have to voice her request, “I can give you living water,” he says, “Water that can heal your spirit and ease the pain in your heart.” This water is truly refreshing.

The woman is so consumed with the daily task of hauling heavy buckets of water that she cannot grasp the magnitude of the wondrous gift Jesus is offering. She is eager to end the back-breaking work that defines her life. When Jesus tells her that he has water that will forever cure her thirst, she replies, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (v.15). Jesus is offering to open up all of eternity to her, and she is focused on making fewer trips to the village well.

How often are we ready to settle for less than what God wants to offer us? How often do we hesitate to ask for anything from our generous God who is prepared to let love and blessing and forgiveness flow over us like an ever-flowing stream?

There is no way that the woman could visualize how refreshing this water is. Jesus is not suggesting a better way to do her chore. He is NOT proposing to create a better work environment for her. He is offering to ease the burden of her troubled soul and to release her from the pain of guilt. This woman is living with a past that makes her an outcast in her own village-and she has been married multiple times, and even worse for her day, age and culture, she is now living with a man who is not her husband. She carries a burden of guilt, shame and rejection–a far weightier burden than the water she hauls every day. Jesus does not want to ease the burden of her hands and back, he wants to ease the burden of her heart–to remove the pain of isolation and disgrace. Jesus is offering the gift of God’s life-giving Spirit, water that wells “up to eternal life” to God’s people (v. 14). The Samaritan woman has exactly what Jesus needs in that moment–water–and he has just what she needs, even if she does not realize it: grace, forgiveness and the promise of new life. WOW! How refreshing! Not a bad trade for a cup of water.

In all probability Jesus will be thirsty again after he drinks the water from the woman. His living water will meet a deep need inside her. Even if we do not know for certain that Jesus received water from this woman, we get to “see” Jesus’ transforming love when it is given and received. Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah, the One that they all have been waiting and hoping for .

Jesus tells her that the time has come for true worshipers to worship the Father in spirit and truth, for God seeks such as these to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth” (vv.24-25). Jesus offered this tired, thirsty woman a chance to be transformed. She can be made clean with only one drink of the water he is offering her. The woman has been through a lot in her life and when she finally understands what Jesus is telling her, she rejoices and wants to share this gift of new life and hope with everyone she knows. The sins of the woman’s past are behind her and she takes the “living water” and runs back to her town to tell the good news to others. Every one she approaches, she tells, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he? They left the town and were on their way to him” (vv.29-30).

Are we thirsting for someone who knows us as completely as Jesus does and still loves us anyway? Are we looking for forgiveness and a new start? Are we looking for understanding, rest, renewal and peace? Are we willing to acknowledge the mistakes we have made, to cast off the burden of guilt and the weight of regret? Jesus offers us all these and more if we are willing to accept the “Living Water.” I invite you to take a sip of this water and say, “A-ah!”

Amen

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Nicodemus and Jesus Face-off: Checkmate! – John 3:1-17

Through the years as I have talked with worshipers, I have heard some interesting, thought provoking responses like every Sunday is the “same old,” same message, the order of worship gets monotonous, or I come to church to clear my slate, get my batteries re-charged and start fresh for a new week.  It seems like two opposite sides of the chess board are at work; similar to the feeling I get in a room of theologians who all have differing rationales for interpreting the gospels, especially the message as presented in John’s gospel for today.


In the on-going game of “Life,” we are surrounded by people who are like pawns on a chess board, with the goal of moving in one direction, but are constantly challenged by folks moving in multiple directions all around us. As Christians, our goal is to ultimately meet God face-to-face but our journey is arduous, and we are constantly learning to deal with everyday obstacles to accomplish our mission.  Today’s gospel reading tells us about a Pharisee called Nicodemus, who has been struggling with the message (and interpretation of Scripture) of Jesus and the way Jesus, a rabbi, lives his life:  healing, accepting, forgiving and loving people from all stations in life–even those unacceptable by the standards set by the Pharisees and their interpretation of God’s Laws.  He is in a real quandary trying to sort out what moves Jesus makes, and the Scriptures he quotes in his teaching that are directly related to everything he has been taught as a Pharisee–but why does Jesus keep breaking the Law, and speaking about the Kingdom of God; that is already here and yet, not completed–the match is not over yet!  Nicodemus, afraid to meet with Jesus in the daylight, comes to him under cover of darkness to attempt to meet his match. Checkmate!  I have often referred to Nicodemus as “Nic at Night,” a take-off on the children’s program from Nickelodeon, which sends a message to our children and is often aired at night.  Is there a subliminal message here?


Jesus’ words in John 3:3 declare that one must be born again to enter into the Kingdom of God.  In Greek that means “from above” and “again new.”  Just as the kingdom is often referred to as both now and yet to come, entering into this kingdom requires one to come into a new lifestyle and a new identity–to be born “from above,” the heavenly place the kingdom generates from. Both the Kingdom of God and being born anew have spatial and temporal components.  Jesus’ tone grows perceptively crisper as he continues to make the requirements of the kingdom clear to Nicodemus.  By v. 7 he is warning Nicodemus, “Do not be astonished…” and cautions his nighttime visitor that he cannot restrict the approaching pneuma/Spirit.  Nicodemus’ frustrated comeback to Jesus’ response is “How can these things be?”  Checkmate?  Nicodemus has met his match. His old way of interpreting Scripture as a Pharisee is about to be changed, re-focused on the message and interpretation Jesus gives to him.  Jesus seems to be resigned to the lack of understanding and stubborn refusal of his listener and proceeds to use Nicodemus as one example of the kind of attitude that will ultimately lead to the cross.  Only the “Son of Man” voluntarily descends from heaven so that he might be lifted up in sacrifice.  In one last attempt to draw Nicodemus into understanding him this great moment of revelation, Jesus used the familiar Old Testament image of Moses in the desert, of lifting up the bronze serpent on a pole in the desert–to describe what will be the work of the cross.  By being lifted up, offering his own life as a sacrifice, the Son makes new life “from above” possible for “whomever believes.”


My travels to the Holy Lands prepared my heart and mind in so many ways for this season of Lent.  Walking the places Jesus walked and visualizing the terrain, showed me many physical obstacles that made it tough for Jesus to meet people on their own turf and to try and show by personal example the intense love God had for all of them and for all of us at this time, in this place.  Standing on Mt. Nebo where Moses viewed the “Promised Land,” the destination he had been seeking for forty years, I saw a huge staff erected with a serpent entwined as a reminder of the obstacles experienced by God’s people in the desert when they refused to believe and trust God (Numbers 21:5-9).

Nicodemus was one of six thousand Pharisees, the religious elite and one of seventy that constituted the Sanhedrin, the council of authorities empowered to make judgments in Jewish religious and legal disputes.  He was not required to officiate at daily Temple services, but he had the exclusive right and duty to perform certain services:  Day of Atonement, Passover, Succoth and others.  The Pharisees worked with the consent ofthe Roman government, sharing in the rule of their country.  He was a renowned teacher, referred to for decisions requiring extra wisdom or breadth of experience, and he was master of a great fortune; yet, he walked the street, covering his face in his robe, which served for more than sheltering himself from the cold weather–the possible cold reception of his peers for meeting with the controversial teacher, Jesus.  He battled with his conscience, what he had been taught through the years of going to temple services, studying God’s Laws and going through the familiar rituals of worship, but now he was suspicious about Jesus’ power to heal, do miraculous deeds and interpret God’s Word.  If Jesus could enlighten him in the darkness of his struggle, it was almost worth coming but that confusing statement about the wind was a definite obstacle to his faith understanding.  Nicodemus was in deep in this chess game. He had grown old physically and spiritually.  The continued Roman occupation had diminished his hope for a free Israel. Serving on the Sanhedrin, hearing endless disputes over possessions and power, had pretty much stifled his love for people.  His compassion for the less fortunate had died as his earthly fortune had grown.  His wife and mother of his children had died, and her bones were waiting in the tomb to be joined by Nicodemus.  How could he start over this late in life?  How had he missed something as important as a religious leader at the center of Israel’s law, the middle of God’s revelation to the Hebrews?  Was the Pharisee’s minute and careful observing of the Law God’s goal for everyone?  Was his life’s commitment on the trail to God’s Kingdom or had he come to a dead-end? Checkmate.  Could Jesus show him a new way?  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  Nicodemus had lost the game as he was overpowered by Jesus’ authority.  God had fulfilled his promises in this Son. Nicodemus was slow to walk, slow to change, but he left his meeting with Jesus that night, having met a greatness that was disorienting and uncompromising and sensing the certainty of God’s love.  The blowing wind of the Holy Spirit held much in store for Nicodemus.  He later defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin and helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus in a tomb, the place where Jesus would be set free at his glorious resurrection.  It is the same old story, presented in yet one more way to help us re-light the flame of our faith in Jesus’ saving power to set us free from our sin and to prepare us for the day we will be with God in glory, forever. Checkmate!  Can we feel the Spirit blowing amongst us in this familiar place?  

Amen
Categories: Weekly Sermon

Facing Temptation – Matthew 4:1-11

This past Wednesday was the official beginning of the Lenten season just before Easter, when for forty days, excluding Sundays, we remember Christ’s forty days in the wilderness.  The Arizona Republic reported that Episcopalian priests and deacons were at Phoenix transit stations to present “ashes to go” to the faithful who were too busy to get to church to participate in the ancient tradition of humbly presenting one’s self to God–a carry-over from Old Testament times when folks would wear sack cloth (burlap/gunny sack) and sit in ashes as a sign of penance for their sinful behavior.  The sign of the cross is made on the forehead in ashes made from burning the Palm Sunday palm branches from the previous Lenten season.  The primary focus of Lent is not merely giving up one or two of life’s minor pleasures, but rather on re-dedication of ourselves to the Christian life in preparation for the Easter season to come. Personal sacrifices instead of being ends in themselves, become means by which we put our whole existence under scrutiny, reject those things that have drawn us away from Christ, and refocus our lives with Christ at the center.  Lent is a time for introspection, for slowing down our helter-skelter existence and for times of quiet questioning.

The text in Matthew 4 today has been the object of much reflection and comment over the centuries.  Allusions to some of the renown figures in the Old Testament such as Moses, Elijah and Job are unmistakable.  Theological connections between Jesus’ trial in the wilderness and pivotal events in Israel’s history leap out of the narrative.  Four times Jesus’ adversary is called “the devil;” the tempter and Satan are each used once.  It is important for us to consider how Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness may have shaped his teaching on prayer, recorded in Matthew 6.

Soon after his baptism Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil which should get our attention because Scripture asserts that God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one (James 1:12-16).  Given that Jesus is God’s Son and cannot be tempted, we wonder why Jesus faced a trial with the devil.  Hebrews 4:15 tells us we have a high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are yet without sin, while he was God in the flesh.  Matthew’s account reminds us of Israel’s wandering in the desert forty years and the testing of Job.

Matthew 4:2 says that Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights.  I cannot imagine going forty hours without food or water, let alone forty days!  For Israel the number 40 triggers a host of memories:  rains fell forty days and forty nights in the Noah account; the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness for forty years; Moses was on Mt. Sinai for forty days and 40 nights where he neither ate bread nor drank water; spies were sent into the Promised Land forty days and when the Israelites’ faith faltered upon hearing the spies’ report, the Lord sentenced Israel to forty years wandering; both kings David and Solomon reigned forty years; Elijah reached Mt. Horeb after forty days and nights and Jonah gave Ninevah a forty day warning.  It is clear that the Spirit leads a vital role.  Besides leading Jesus into the wilderness, the Spirit was an active agent in Jesus’ conception and at his baptism, where the Spirit declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 1:18, 20, 3:13-17).  To mention that Jesus was famished, sets the stage for what is yet to come.

Do you think that if a single pill could suddenly, permanently make you smarter, you would take it?  So far, no such pill exists but it is under study how to increase the IQ of our yet unborn children.  Cracking the code of the human genome has opened the door to many possibilities.  The Thursday evening news showed a child crippled with a genetic  disease and in a wheelchair for ten years. After genome studies, she received medication and was able to walk the next day and surprised her entire school by walking in the door for classes within three days of medication.  Scientists are working at cracking the code for intelligence and they predict that within ten years, they will be able to boost the IQ of children by as much as twenty points.  Will having smarter kids enable them to make wiser choices?  I suspect NOT! Sometimes people, even super-smart people use their intelligence to come up with clever rationalizations to yield to temptation.

What about Paul who said, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).  Think about Jesus.  If anyone was likely to have type-free DNA, it was the only begotten Son of God, but our text finds him in the wilderness tempted by the devil.  Whatever our IQ, temptation is part of our human condition.  I ask you, even if higher intelligence could immunize us against temptation, would that be a good thing?  In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “lead us not into temptation.”  Could Jesus have accomplished what he did without this time of struggle in the wilderness?  Could Jesus have done the will of God without confronting the tempter within?  The whole point of Jesus’ temptation experienced in the wilderness was to drive a wedge between Jesus and God.  Because Jesus did not yield to temptation, that did not happen.  “Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18).


Temptation can lead us to an understanding of our core being and help us to assess our limits.  It can reveal to us the strength (or lack of) our commitments and values.  Jesus resisted the devil’s command to turn stones into bread to assuage his hunger.  Jesus resisted the devil’s command to jump from the highest pinnacle of the temple because God would send angels to protect him, and he would not dash his foot against a stone.  Rather than test God as the Israelites did after being rescued from Egypt, Jesus trumped the devil by saying, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the LORD your God to the test’ ” (Deuteronomy 6:16).  Finally, when the devil shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” and offers them to Jesus if he will fall down and worship the devil, Jesus rejects the offer.  Jesus does not choose to be separated from God and responds, “Worship the LORD your God and serve only him” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

Weary after the three enticements, angels come to wait on Jesus.  He has triumphed over the devil!  Jesus later taught his disciples to pray: “Do not bring us to the time of trial [lead us not into temptation] but rescue us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13)[but deliver us from evil].


If temptation is a road, it must have forks in it.  We are forced to make decisions.  Will we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit or succumb to the opportunities offered by the devil? Sometimes the pull of temptation is so demanding that the choice of turning at a major intersection is all we can see.  At other times, it is in small choices, slight detours that lead us to ungodly destinations.  The big problem with temptation is that we do not get to make just one big correct choice and the battle is won.  In this account in Matthew, Jesus refused to yield, but later on Peter tried to get Jesus to stop saying that he was headed for suffering and death.  Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me” (Matthew16:23), revealing that the temptation to turn off the road God wanted him to walk on was still continuing.  We may not be tempted by the things that tempted Jesus, but we still deal with mistrusting God’s readiness to strengthen us to face our trials.  Paul told us that God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and forks in the road are good places to remember that for ourselves.  We need to ask God for grace and power not only at fork intersections, not only at the onset of a temptation, but in our regular prayer life:  “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We know we need God’s help every day and we who are not geniuses are still learning.  We can pray every day relying on God’s help.  Thank God.  

Amen

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Rising Star – 2 Peter 1:16-21; Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent officially begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday.  The gospel reports that six days after Jesus’ lesson on discipleship (Matthew 16:24-28) or after Peter confessed him to be the Christ (Matthew 16:13-23), Jesus took Peter, James and John to a high mountain.  Jesus’ face is changed, becoming radiant like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white.  Then Moses and Elijah appear and enter into the conversation, quite likely emphasizing the compatibility between Jesus’ gospel and the law given to Moses by God.  Peter marvels that it is good to be present and offers to make shelters for Jesus and his guests.  Maybe he is hoping to prolong this vision or he is trying to tie it to the Hebraic Festival of Booths, a thanksgiving celebration at harvest time (Leviticus 23:33-34).  While Peter is speaking, a bright cloud overshadows them and a voice announcing that Jesus was his beloved Son was heard.  The disciples fall on the ground overcome with fear, but Jesus touches them and reassures them everything will be okay.  As they descend the mountain, Jesus tells his friends to tell no one until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.  What happens when you say to “tell no one?”

It is interesting that we are coming down from the hype and glitz of the Winter Olympics where millions of eyes were turned to televisions to observe the festivities.  The greatest light show featuring Jesus receives very little recognition–except by Christians on Transfiguration Sunday.  My mother informed me that she thought after ice-skating and luge competitions were viewed, nothing else was very exciting on the Olympics telecasts.  I am not usually a betting person, but I would wager that tonight as the Academy Awards are presented, Mom will be watching.  It is one of the most widely watched events on television (over 40 million will tune in) to see the world’s wealthiest, most handsome/beautiful actors/actresses and directors give themselves awards.  Ask anyone who tunes in faithfully why they watch this event and they can give you a list of reasons:  red carpet glamour, taking note of who is wearing (or not) which designer outfit, there is an opening number by a host or hostess, drama of unexpected winners and unpredictable acceptance speeches.  To receive an Oscar is a cultural anointing, to win is to be instantly inducted into the Hollywood elite.  There is no telling who will win, but one thing is certain, onlookers have to cherish the moment because there is no guarantee of perpetual relevance and enduring respect.  At least with the IOC, names are remembered and recited at ensuing events, adding to the list of accomplishments of the athletes. 



Peter in today’s text is writing to Christians who had their doubts about Jesus after his resurrection.  They had pinned their hope on him but his moment of glory seemed to be over and his light and fame were fading.  As time passed from Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, as persecution of Christians intensified and it was becoming increasingly difficult to be a part of the young church, it is understandable that some were beginning to wonder if Jesus was really the biggest star that had ever shone.  Were the stories about his deity and power fact or legends?  Were the details of his imminent return inflated?  Was he a Walmart DVD Bargain Bin figure (Oscar failure films) or was he a Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep kind of star: real, enduring, bright, shining?

Peter’s response is made to assure his audience that Jesus is a lasting star with genuine divinity and is the fulfillment of the Scriptures.  Peter points to the transfiguration on the high mountain when he stood with James and John as witnesses to the bright lights of heaven shining down on Jesus, with even Moses and Elijah making an appearance.  Talk about amazing technical effects, the voice of God was heard saying, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” Peter sees this moment as one set apart from any other divine experience that a run of the mill wannabe messiah or over-achieving rabbi might have.  Jesus was no fly by night star seeking a one-time award for “Best Supporting Actor.”  No, he deserves the lifetime achievement award, the Oscar that bestows the biggest form of recognition.  Jesus’ recognition was given by God, publicly declaring that Jesus was the biggest and brightest of stars!  And standing on the platform with Jesus, were Moses and Elijah, the two men whose lives and words were at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Their presence was a declaration that their work was Christ’s work and that they were merely the preamble to what Jesus would accomplish.  the proclamation of Christ’s divinity and of his emerging kingdom which quickly spread around the world was based on the body of work that God had been doing since the beginning of time.  Imagine, if you will, that Jesus is the co-writer, executive producer and star of the greatest story ever told!  For Peter, the transfiguration experience had set the scene.  Everything was in place for what was yet to come: betrayal, crucifixionand resurrection!  Despite false teachers, a kingdom that is seen in part but still hoped for in full, this Christ is worth hitching your hope for.  Jesus cannot fail us.  His truth captured in the Old Testament and proclaimed by those who knew him as a man on earth in what would become known as the New Testament, is absolutely trustworthy.  Go figure.  When someone tells you they will rise from the dead–and they do, you believe what he tells you!  You trust him!  And when a renown, respected figure in history like Moses or Elijah comes back from the dead to say the same thing, you really trust Jesus and what he has to say.


Peter speaks of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophetic message and as a lamp shining in the darkness.  In John 8:12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  (Speaking of eternal life)  The message of Christ is alive and well, trustworthy and divine.  The Word of God is like an opulent gift (the 2013 gift bag for Oscar nominees was valued at $47,000) that keeps on giving.  It speaks  pardon to us in light of our sins.  It proclaims that we are sons and daughters of God despite our rebellious behavior/nature.  It guides our feet on the path and convicts our hearts.  It fills our minds with peace in the face of pain and death.  These are the gifts that Christ’s enduring, divine and prophetic word gives.



Peter’s audience was afraid that their Savior’s time in the spotlight had faded, that Jesus had been played off the stage but Peter was there.  He saw Jesus in the spotlight at the moment of glory, the “Transfiguration.”  Jesus’ body of work is unmatched.  Jesus’ words are still cutting through and shining light in this world.  No one has played him off the stage or snuffed out his star.  Jesus is the real deal!  

Amen.
Categories: Weekly Sermon

Do No Harm – Matthew 5:38-48

I was fortunate to see the mountain where Jesus preached the message often called “The Sermon on the Mount.”  It was a grassy place with a gentle breeze blowing by that would have been appreciated in a warm country with lots of arid desert land.  I am certain that Jesus’ sermon could rub people in today’s culture the wrong way.  If you watch television, a large number of programs deal with growing violence.  Jesus is pretty clear on his teachings, “You have heard that it was said ,’An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv.38-39, NRSV).  Before we look at what Jesus means by this, there is something he is NOT saying.  If you or someone you love, is in an abusive relationship, Jesus is NOT saying that you should just take the abuse!  What Jesus is saying is that when you encounter violence, do not respond with violence.  The word translated as “resist,” as in “Do not resist an evildoer” should conjure up images of armed resistance, not submission.  So, Jesus is not saying that we should continue to put up with violence.  He is not telling us to submit to it.  He is telling us to resist violence, but not with more violence.
If the violent world in which we live is to be different, it has to start with us.  We have to break the cycle.  Whether we are righteous or unrighteous, evil or good, we are all God’s children on whom the sun rises and the rain falls.  All of us.  NO exceptions.  While Jesus is most certainly concerned about justice for the weak, the poor, the marginalized, he is also concerned about justice for the powerful, the rich, and the mighty.  Here is the truth woven throughout the Sermon on the Mount:  there is no justice for one of us unless there is justice for all of us.

Let us consider some Old Testament thinking attributed to “Eye for an eye”:  If you kill my sister, my family will kill your sister.  If you attack my village, my village will attack your village.  We understand that the underlying problems that lead someone to kill or destroy will not be fixed or redeemed with an eye for an eye action.  Jesus does not call us to break that cycle of reciprocal violence to be clever.  He calls us to practice non-violence so that everyone has a chance at redemption.

Earlier in his sermon in vv.17, 19, and 20, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law of the prophets, I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.  Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”  It is not about one side winning or one side losing.  Both sides must realize there is only one side, that we are all children of God and an “eye for an eye” does not allow for that.  So…bottom line…how do we turn the other cheek, give to everyone who begs from us, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, go a second mile with the one who forces you to go the first mile, and to the one who wants to take your sweater, well, give your coat as well?  Really, where is the thrill in doing stuff like that?



When someone bad-mouths you or does you wrong, you have to decide on how you are going to react.  My professor for conflict management at McCormick used to say, “If you remember nothing else about this course, remember, “Respond, do NOT react!”  You can hit back, which may make matters worse, or you can turn the other cheek, refusing to add to the problem.  Most likely, we would agree that doing no harm is a good thing but it does not impact us the same way confrontation and discord do.  In the account of Cain and Abel, most would say that Cain was the evil guy, but from the story angle, he was the more interesting character.  Abel does all the right things and is approved by God, but without Cain there would not have been the conflict necessary for creating a good story.  Not making matters worse may be the right thing but it is hard to generate much enthusiasm about it. 


The Sermon on the Mount is not the only New Testament place where “do-no-harm” teaching shows up.  In Peter’s first letter, the apostle observed Jesus: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten…”(2:23).  Doing no harm is not something Jesus talked about, but something he actually practiced.  Just about every day we are in situations in which we have no idea how to make them better but we are pretty clear on how to make them worse:
·       Interfere in someone’s else’s conversation or activities;
·       Tell tales or spread rumors;
·       Blame others for your own screw-ups;
·       Bore people to death by going on and on about your own problems;
·       Vent your anger on people who are not involved in your situation;
·       Disparage/put down others to make yourself look good;
·       Bear false witness/lie.


Submission is a spiritual discipline with which we view others, and in which we relate to others, and in which we relate to and treat them.  It is the willingness not to get our own way, and the ability to lay down the burden of needing to come out on top.  In some situations, submission is the freedom to drop the matter in order to let the other person have his or her say (not way).

Submission has its limits.  Most of the situations we deal with are due to differences of opinion or somebody’s self-centeredness or hang-ups showing.  Often the way we love that neighbor or relative or spouse with whom we do not see eye to eye is by first doing no harm. Sometimes we have to: say nothing, not pass along gossip; give a person time to work things out; compromise and seek the common good; think about what doing no harm means and try to put it into practice.  Jesus tells us to strive for perfection.

The Pharisees were known for their zealous and fastidious keeping of the Law of Moses.  To exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, Jesus’ hearers needed to actively live the Scriptures.  Jesus’ message for today means that doing no harm means no hitting back, turn the other cheek.  Instead of making a fuss about being forced to go one mile, volunteer to go a second mile.  Instead of seeking to hurt your enemies, pray for them!

Intentionally doing no harm is a vital practice in living a holy life; a way of loving our neighbor.  Jesus returns good for evil–that is the new ethic of God’s world.  “Do no harm” may sound unexciting but it is just one aspect of the ethics of God’s world, and it has the power to change the world in a positive way.  Strive for perfection!


Offer God’s unconditional grace making possible the love of neighbors.  
Amen.
Categories: Weekly Sermon

Baby Steps to Understanding – I Corinthians 3:1-9

Watching our children (including nieces, nephews, grandchildren) grow up, we notice particular mile-markers: cutting the first tooth, saying the first word, crawling, walking and other activities.  With today’s technology we would probably document those exciting moments, with a digital camera or telephone. It is exciting to observe the development of young children’s experiences.

    The apostle Paul, when writing to the Corinthian church, tried to keep in mind that they were a young and growing church, but he did not want them to develop bad habits or to be misled by the ideologies of those who did not adhere to Jesus’ teachings.  Paul was concerned for their souls and wanted them to be equipped to deal with the temptations prevalent in culture around them.  Does that sound like a familiar challenge for Christians today? 


    What happens when someone brings a baby into our church or fellowship hall?  People gather around to coo and jabber in “baby gobble de gook” to communicate with the baby.  If the parent is not careful, a lively game of “pass the baby” begins and the child gets handed off, hugged, smiled at and jostled until it objects or the parent appears to claim the child.  At one baptism a number of years back, a baby sat in the choir with “Aunt Ethel” until the service was over.  Showing affection and talking to our children is good.  We know that the language little ones hear is key to their development.  Using proper language establishes a healthier vocabulary early in life.  Good words properly pronounced and used lead to mature speech.  The more words and the context in which they are spoken aid a child’s speech development.  The parents’ response to the child’s speech attempts really matters if they want their children to grow up with a mature vocabulary.

    It seems that when Paul was away from Corinth, the church had begun to listen to other kinds of speaking that identified the church with various people who had come to visit.  There was confusion about the church’s leadership vocabulary which resulted in squabbling about the respective qualities of Paul, Peter, or a man named Apollos.  Paul attempted to do some remedial training with them, reminding them that the church, the body of Christ, is not divided.  Paul had come to them to demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit, teaching particular cues to the church so that they could name them on their own while they matured in faith. Paul referred to them as toothless baby believers who were only responding to baby talk and baby food.  New Christians, Paul understood, need the “milk of the Word.”  Paul wanted the congregation to develop beyond the baby stage.  Paul equated the Corinthians as “infants in Christ” to “people of the flesh.”  The people had come to know words about Jesus but they had not assimilated them into practice.  They were struggling with their old ways of being and doing.  They were behaving like selfish children, with “jealousy and quarreling” making them more fit for sitting in the church nursery rather than engaging in the mission of the church.  The church needed to digress; to go back to a very basic faith formula before it could begin to chew on solid food, speak, and act with maturity.
    A church is not defined by who is in charge, but by a group of people gifted to work together for a common purpose (I talked about grace, gifts and a guarantee from God and that we respond in gratitude).  The church is a group of “God’s servants, working together as God’s field, God’s building” —a sign of God’s kingdom.  The church may be planted by one person and watered by another, but it is grown by God.  Some define a church by the conversation of the members; some focus on its mission.  Some admire the facility and others emulate the music.  Some define the church as a place where their needs are met (as if the church dispenses religious goods and services). A church can be associated with things a self-focused infant is concerned with.  They get what they need and want.
    Mature Christians know that a church is founded on the self-serving needs of people.  Their faith rests on the power of God.  Jesus said we must become like little children if we want to enter the kingdom of God–to be open to a different set of definitions and sit at the feet of a parent who will teach a vocabulary that leads to maturity, faith, mission and genuine hope for life with God forever.

    Paul wanted the Corinthian church to grow up, but he began by going back to the basics developing a solid vocabulary around what it means to be the church. It is a mission; it is about being God’s servants, about joining and working together for the harvest of God’s field, and the building of God’s kingdom.  

Amen
Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Church–A Work in Progress I Corinthians 1: 1-9

I remember back to my childhood when parents of some of my friends at Sunday school would drop them off for Sunday school and return to pick them up after church…but..they never came in the door. From a child’s understanding I wondered if they had faith in God, and what had happened in their lives that they wanted their kids to have religious training. Hopefully, they would develop faith in God. Unfortunately, that is still happening today but it is opening the gate to young people to meet God at work in their lives–and that is a good thing!

There are a few good reasons to quit the church. Top on some people’s lists are hypocrisy, violence, and intolerance. Other people leave the church because they find it irrelevant to their lifestyle, mediocre or boring. A further comment might be, “If only we could go back to what the church was like thirty, forty, or fifty years ago.” Well, folks, that just cannot happen as the world has been changing all around us and there are changes we need to make. Paul taught at Corinth for eighteen months (Acts 18:11) and he knew the people well. In his letters to the believers at Corinth, Paul addressed numerous ugly issues: sectarian divisions in which each side claimed to be more spiritual than the other, boasting about incest (I Corinthians 5:1), lawsuits between fellow Christians, eating food that had been sacrificed to pagan idols, disarray in worship services and even predatory pseudo-preachers who masqueraded as super-apostles. The most realistic way to deal with the church’s faults and failures is to name them, own up to them, repent of them, and do what we can to correct them. Losing our illusions about the church ( or disillusionment) is necessary and good. It is easy to take incredible things for granted, but after the extraordinary is accepted and expected as the “norm,” what happens next?

Think about flying. The airplane envisioned by the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina has evolved into multiple daily flights–more than 30,000 per day in the United States alone! Some folks love flying and others could produce a long list of complaints about customer services: lack of food services on flights, cancelled flights or my favorite, over ticketing, late arrivals, and on and on. Could it be that flying is less fun and more frustrating than it used to be? Do we need to be reminded that planes fly at 550mph and reduce ground travel time considerably? It is a long swim to Europe and other places we might want to experience. Things could be whole lot worse.

If we surveyed the church in Corinth, we would confirm that people were fighting for power, abusing the sacrament, endorsing false teachers and their marriages were melting down (marriages are still not made in heaven). The church of Jesus Christ is made up of people saved by, and yet still desperately in need of Jesus. The truth is that the church in Corinth is not all that different from every church today. There will be immorality that comes to light, politics at play, messy marriages and a mission that misses the mark. There are definitely rumors generating discouragement.

Before attempting to correct the mistakes being made in the church, Paul made it clear that despite all that was broken in the church he was still deeply and truly satisfied with what God was accomplishing in the church. He said, “I give thanks to my God always for you.” In spite of the immorality, gossip, immaturity and selfishness exhibited by people in the church, Paul was overjoyed at the miracle that is the church.

It would be so much more healthy if folks would pause from lamenting and complaining about God’s people and how much they are missing the mark, and recapture the perspective of being the church. There is a reason to be satisfied with the church. We need to be thankful and satisfied with the church body because we have grace, gifts and a guarantee. John Calvin wrote about guilt, grace and gratitude but I enjoy Paul’s understanding of how God works in our lives.

Grace is what makes a body of believers realize that it is not the great things done by them, but the great mercy shown to them. Paul was elated with the church at Corinth because of their gift of faith and the flood of forgiveness that had washed over them. The promise of the gospel is that no matter how messed up we were prior to meeting Jesus, once we are connected to the work of the cross, through belief and baptism we are adopted as sons and daughters and made heirs of God’s kingdom. We deserve death and destruction but God sentences us to life and love. What a sentence!

Not only did the church at Corinth have grace but it had gifts–it was equipped to be the church by the power of the Spirit. It was not without hope because it was promised a reservoir of gifts and talents that needed to be identified, encouraged and utilized. What gifts do you acknowledge that God has clearly given to this congregation? I would offer to you Spirit filled worship with uplifting music shared by our organist, pianist, choir directors (chancel, youth and handbell) and all the folks who participate in the various choirs. Think about the ministries we share in serving: the Agua Fria Food Bank (some of the poorest people in Maricopa reside in the Avondale/Goodyear area and would go hungry if we did not take hundreds of pounds of food, plus money, school uniforms and school supplies, clothing and other needed items), the Peoria Youth Pantry which provides food to high school kids at risk (who would not eat on the weekends or during holidays) New Life Shelter and Eve’s Place (working in partnership with us to meet the needs of Kellis High School youth, provide jobs for some and offer assistance in other ways). God is meeting the needs of people through our collective family of believers.

Paul found great joy in the Corinthian church because of the bright and glorious future guaranteed to each and every person waiting for the revealing of Jesus Christ, who will sustain us all to the end. Corinthian Christians had imperfections and so do we but our future is secure because Christ has promised that in the end, he will return, resurrected and find us faultless. He will establish his kingdom and until that time, he will keep his church alive. The church will endure. There is reason to rejoice in spite of the struggles, the church has a lot going for her. Not because of what we bring to the church, but because of what God has done to us and through us in Christ. Occasionally, we might experience some turbulence on the ride, but Jesus is still our pilot, keeping us on the correct flight route.

Amen

Categories: Weekly Sermon