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Sermons (119)

Sermon for November 22, 2019

The closest thing we have to kings and queens is the royal family of Great Britain.  Some of us follow the lives of the royals out of curiosity and fascination.  We are amazed that Queen Elizabeth is still so active at 93 years of age.  There is intrigue in the lives of Prince Harry and Prince William and their wives, Meghan and Kate.  Those who follow the royals know that Prince Andrew, the brother of Charles, ended up in big trouble this week.  His ongoing relationship with Jeffrey Epstein and his subsequent lack of remorse showed us once again that kings and queens are fallible.  They can easily get caught up in their own self-interest.  The fallout from Andrew’s actions caused many financial supporters of his non-profit work to distance themselves from him.  There is a report that Andrew has been thrown out of Buckingham Palace, and he will no longer represent the family in public.  For us, Andrew’s failings are more of a sidelight because we don’t live under the rule of a king or queen.  We  don’t have that personal experience.

Human leaders often make mistakes.  Some of their mistakes hurt others and sometimes their mistakes impact them individually.  Today, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King.  The kingship of Jesus is much different than that of human kings or queens.  Some things Jesus does remind us of an earthly king but he has done so much more for us.  I ask you today to reflect on what the kingship of Jesus means to you personally. 

Complaining about leaders is nothing new.  The reading from Jeremiah starts with a complaint about the kings, the priests and the prophets of Judah.  The leaders who were supposed to be the shepherds of the people lost the kingdom.  The Lord will punish them for their evil doings.  Jeremiah’s warning applies to everyone in a leadership position today.  Every leader is expected to take care of the people.  Jeremiah’s words apply to me personally. As a pastor, I am expected to care for everyone in this community.  I pray that I will follow God’s will.  I pray that God will guide me in everything I do.  And I ask forgiveness for the mistakes that I have made.  I hope that I am one of those mentioned in Jeremiah, ‘I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them”. 

Jeremiah was not speaking just to the leaders.  In one way or another, we are all leaders of this church and this community.  Jeremiah is asking all of us to do what is best for the community and to support each other.  And God is asking the future leaders of this place to put their trust in him. 

This passage from Jeremiah is also about hope for the Jewish people.  Despite his disdain for leaders, Jeremiah wrote about hope, “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety”.  Jesus was a descendant of David.  We understand the words to be about Jesus.  We carry that hope forward because of our Jewish heritage and our Christian faith.  We have hope that God will care for us. 

Jesus our king, will rule with justice and righteousness.  Jesus will keep us safe. The meaning of Jesus as our king is clearly described in the reading from Colossians.  Paul provides us with a long list of the gifts that Jesus gives us as our king.  Jesus will make us strong by giving us some of his strength, and power. He will help us to endure everything with patience.  Jesus gives us joy because we have been rescued from temptation and those things that leads us astray.  He invites us to join the saints of God. 

The gifts of strength, patience, joy, everlasting life:  These are not gifts that you would receive from an earthly king.  Jesus changes the world.  He makes each of us special.  Let us be thankful for each of these gifts from Jesus.  While there are many gifts from Jesus, I am especially moved by the themes we hear about fear.  Jeremiah started it when he wrote “and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”.  In the Psalm we learn that “we are free to worship without fear”.  Paul wrote that “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son”.  Darkness was a place of fear.  We speak of Jesus as the Light of Lights.  He takes us out of the darkness and brings us into the light. 

I think of all the things that we are fearful about.  We are afraid that someone will hurt us.  We are afraid that we will be killed in an act of mass violence.  Some of us are afraid that we will become sick.  Some are afraid that a leader will be chosen that will do all the wrong things.  We are even afraid of things we think will happen but usually don’t.  Through all of this, Jesus takes away our fear.   Jesus frees us from fear if we let him.  Being freed from fear does not mean that we will never die.  It means that Jesus is with us in everything that we do.  It means that Jesus loves us and invites us to join him in that eternal kingdom.  Jesus gives us comfort in times of trouble.  It is just as Psalm 23 says. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil for you O Lord are beside me. 

In the gospel for today we read the story of the crucifixion of Jesus.  It is a strange way to think about Jesus as our king.  The Roman soldiers called him king and so did the Pilate, the Roman leader.  Even the sign on the cross declared Jesus as the King of the Jews. They thought they were mocking Jesus but instead they told the truth.  Their statements and the actions of Jesus teach us that Jesus was and is the perfect king for his people.  Jesus is the Lord of righteousness.  He is the one who brings us into relationship with God.  As our shepherd, Jesus sought out every person.  He would not let anyone be lost from God.  Jesus searches out every one of us, leaving no one behind.  Jesus didn’t sit on a throne and decide what he needed.  No, he went out among the people and cured them from their ills.  Jesus didn’t let others fight for the rights of his followers.  No, he led them himself.  Jesus sacrificed his own life to save the life of those who were following him.  Jesus gave us the gift of forgiveness just as he offered to those who persecuted him.  He said, “forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”.  They didn’t understand that they were killing God who came to earth to share our humanity. There is a second story of forgiveness.  The thief said “this man has done nothing wrong”.  Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.  That same forgiveness is given to us as well.  Jesus replied “This day you will be with me in Paradise:” Just as Jesus forgave his persecutors and the thief, he forgives us.  Whether we sin and know it or sin and don’t realize it until later, Jesus is there to forgive us for what we have done.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed in a concentration camp in World War 2.  He sacrificed his life for his faith.  He wrote about the sacrifice of Jesus this way, “The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.”  What a wonderful way to contemplate our own mortality.  C. S. Lewis spoke about the sacrifice of Jesus this way, “It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things; but to convert rebellious wills cost Him crucifixion.” God is willing to do anything to save us. 

Jesus is our King.  We worship him and follow him as our king.  We are changed by his kingship.  He is the one who showed us how to care for others and how we should live our lives to bring God’s kingdom to earth. Let us see the beauty of Jesus as our king.  Let us turn our hearts to be with him and allow him to be with us.  What might speak to you today?  Is it the strength Jesus gives you, the patience, the forgiveness, the freedom or the joy?  Maybe it is just his comfort and peace. Today we celebrate and we give thanks and rejoice for Jesus is the King of Kings.  Amen. 

 

 

An old lady was on an airplane flight.  She was sitting beside a young businessman.  Not long after takeoff, she took out her Holy Bible and started her devotion.  The businessman glanced at her and said.   Do you really believe those stuff in the Bible is true?  "Well, yes, as a matter of fact I do," said the old lady.  "Yeah, right..." the man scoffs, "like... what's that guy's name, the one who got swallowed by a whale..."  "You mean Jonah?"  "Yeah, Jonah, I mean, how do you actually survive for 3 days in a fish's belly?"  "I don't know," replied the old lady, "but I can ask him when I see him in heaven  someday."  Feeling smart, the young man said: "Ok, but what if he's not in heaven because he  went to hell?"  "Then young man, *you* can ask him" replied the old lady calmly.

Today is All Saints Day. We celebrate the saints both past and present.  Each of the scripture lessons paints a picture of the life of a saint.  Yet each of the lessons also provides an example of the evil that exists in the world.  In Daniel we hear about four great beasts that will rise up, evil ones. Daniel wrote that “holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever”.  In the Psalm, the faithful people of Israel must be ready to fight the evil forces of the world.  In the letter to the Ephesians, the community must deal with the powers of hostility and disobedience.  Being a Christian is not easy.  We are lifted up by the saints that have succeeded before us.  Some of the saints we know through scripture, others through biographies, and still others we have known personally.   Today is more than a celebration.  We may find joy, thanksgiving, inspiration, sadness and most importantly hope as we reflect on saints today.

I often think about Peter because he was a failed human being who grew into a saint  Peter was the outspoken one, he talked before he thought.  He called Jesus the Messiah one minute and then told Jesus he couldn’t go to Jerusalem.  He rejected Jesus just before Jesus was crucified.  And yet, Peter loved Jesus and had great faith.  He was changed by the resurrection and he became a speaker for the entire community.  Peter was able to perform miracles and escape prison.  Peter stood up for Jesus until he was martyred.  He inspires me. 

Susan Smith Allen reminded me about Saint Polycarp.  He is not well known.  He was born in the first century and may have been a follower of the apostle John.  He became bishop of Smyrhna.  Along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is regarded as one of three chief Apostolic Fathers.  He lived a long life.  On the day of his martyrdom, Polycarp said this about Jesus, "Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong." He also said, “How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”   He died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake, then stabbed when the fire failed to consume his body.  May we be as passionate about our relationship with Jesus as Saint Polycarp was.

The Hispanic community celebrates the day of the dead, a remembrance of their relatives who have gone before.   In this congregation we remember those who died in the last year and whose memorial service was held in this church.  We remember Roz Cope who brought energy and joy to all of us.  We remember Levita Doherty, the mother of Elena Little and we are thankful that Elena was reunited with her mother and they were able to experience each other for some years before she died.  We remember Barbara Milton with her strong personality, her dedication to her faith and the wonderful family that she raised mostly by herself.  You may have a loved one who passed away this last year that you remember today. I am saddened by the loss of a cousin who died two weeks ago.  I hadn’t seen him in a long time but I remember his gentle and caring heart and times of joy that we had when we were children.  So, we join together in community to share our feelings of sorry and thanksgiving.   

In our gospel today we hear Jesus offering blessings to those who are suffering. I read a reflection by David Lose on the word blessings.  He suggested that we have lost sight of its meaning; it no longer has value.  When I write a note, I will often end it by writing the word Blessings in closing the note.  I mean, “May God bless you” but I wonder if people understand.  When Jesus told people they were blessed, he wanted them to feel God’s presence.  We also translate that word as happy. Perhaps it would be better if we thought of the word as “unburdened” or “satisfied.”  Not many of us are poor or hungry that Jesus blessed but I think all of us have wept and all of us have been hated or reviled or excluded or defamed.  Each of us has the opportunity to be blessed by Jesus.   We may also find ourselves identified by one of the woes that Jesus described.  It might be better to think of the word woes as watch out, rather than condemned.  Our instant reaction to the blessed and the woes is to assume that they indicate what will happen to us in the future.  The blessed will go to heaven and those who have the woes will go to hell.  It must be why we have this reading on All Saints Day. 

But Jesus most likely also meant for the blessings to be given to people while he was still on earth.  Jesus brought with him a ministry to the sick and the outcast. He fed the hungry.  Jesus dealt with the problems of the poor and hungry.  I think that when Jesus told them they were blessed, he meant that if people joined him in his ministry, they would be filled with good things.   Jesus went about fixing the problems in his time, not just encouraging them to wait until they got to heaven.  For those that were wealthy or well fed or laughing or well treated would one day understand that those things are illusory, they don’t give us permanent happiness or fulfillment.  Only the love and grace of God can do that.  He warned those people to be cautious and follow God.  When Jesus spoke about the blessed, he invited people to join him in a community of love and solidarity. Just as Jesus built that community, we are called to come together in community to bring God’s blessings to those around us. 

Paul wrote about the importance of Christian community in his letter to the Ephesians. The people came together in community to share the love of Christ with each other.  They were the first to set their hope in Christ.  Because of their faith in Jesus, they would know the greatness of God’s power.  And they would obtain an inheritance as children of God.  They would be redeemed as God’s people and they would receive the benefit of eternal life in heaven.  And we sure hope that we too will join the saints in heaven. 

I ask you to think for a moment about this Christian community.  We have the sick and the suffering in this congregation. We have the poor with us and those who weep or are mistreated.  We also have the wealthy and the successful. We come together as one family in Christ united in his love.

On this All Saint’s Day, we may feel many different emotions.  We are inspired and joyful, we are sad and reflective.  Let us also hear the message of Jesus and of Paul. Let us live in Christian community, sharing God’s love and being in solidarity with each other.  We are called to be the holy ones of today, the ones who have faith in Jesus.  In today’s Christian community, Jesus calls us to bring God’s kingdom to earth.  Let us be inspired and thankful for the saints who have gone before us and let us celebrate the love and grace that each of those saints have given to us.    Let us look forward in hope to the coming of God’s kingdom.  Amen.

 

This week, I saw a wonderful story on the news.  Caleb Freeman is a high school student from Oklahoma who ran cross country.  Two years ago, he was involved in a terrible automobile accident that left him in a coma with a severe brain injury.  His father was told that he would probably not live.  If he woke up from the coma he was not supposed to eat or talk or walk. It took two months for him to wake up from the coma.  That was just the beginning of a long struggle for Caleb to recover from his injury.  But Caleb would not give up. Now, two years after the accident, Caleb was able to run a race once again.  His steps were unsure, he fell down four times on the course.  He did not finish until well after the other runners completed the course.  The other runners went back to run with Caleb after they had finished to encourage him to continue.  So, he persisted until he finished the entire three-mile course. 

One message that I found in Caleb’s story was that the family prayed at his bedside throughout the ordeal and the family also set up a pray for Caleb’s Facebook page to track his journey back.  Prayer can be powerful.  Caleb made the point that he just needed to cross that line to give people hope.  Caleb and his family persisted in prayer and Caleb was committed to the rehabilitation program necessary for him to return to running.  He still has a long way to go but his persistence is making a big difference in his life.  I ask you to consider the incredible story of Caleb and to be inspired by his words and actions.  Caleb’s persistence and perseverance fits perfectly with today’s Scripture selections.  Jesus told us to be persistent in our prayers and another reading encourages us to be persistent in following the commandments of God.

In the 2nd letter to Timothy we are encouraged to be persistent in witness. Our lives should proclaim the message of God.  We are to be steadfast to the sacred writings because we know that all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching.  We must always be listening for the truth, for we may be led astray by false teaching. As the writer said, we may have itching ears, searching for someone who tells us what we want to hear not what God has told us. 

The parable in our gospel is referred to as the unjust judge but I prefer to call it the parable of the persistent widow.  In our judicial system today, we wish for judges to be impartial and unbiased to provide justice based on the law. We don’t have an expectation that a judge must be God fearing or have respect for people which was the problem with the unjust judge.    We only expect the judge to understand the law and to apply it properly.  During the time of Jesus, judges were expected to watch out for the powerless, the poor and the foreigner, and especially for widows who may have nothing and no one to help them.  The widow in our story returned time and again to the judge until finally he granted her wishes.   He may have done so simply because she was complaining time and again and if he gave her what she wanted she would leave him alone. Jesus told his disciples that if the unjust judge will grant the widow’s request won’t God in the same manner grant justice to us when we pray to God unceasingly?  We know that God is merciful and loving.  So, we pray continuously to God.  Certainly, our prayers will be heard. 

On Friday and Saturday, nine people from our church attended the diocesan convention. The theme of the convention was “Walk in Love.”  It comes from the phrase “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God”.  I often say that at the beginning of the offertory. The verse comes from Ephesians.  At convention, we broke out into groups so that we were not with anyone we knew.  We were asked to share how our church was walking in love.  It was good to meet with other people and I believe that it helped create a sense of community across the diocese.  Our guest speaker was Scott Gunn who leads Forward Day-by-Day Movement.  Scott said that for us to walk in love we need to focus on Scripture and on prayer as the way we will ensure that we are following God through Jesus Christ.  It is as if he was giving a sermon on today’s scripture.  The reading from 2nd Timothy calls for us to be constant in our study of scripture and the gospel tells us to be persistent in our prayer life.  Scott Gunn asked us to go and live that life of love and to share it with others.  How might we be even more attentive to our life of prayer and our study of Scripture here at Transfiguration? Today, we focus on being persistent in prayer and study.

As we heard in the sermon at convention, it can be difficult to pray constantly when we must wait for God to respond to our prayers.  It is difficult when God doesn’t respond in the timeframe that we expect.  We are in good company for the disciples were also impatient with getting a response from God.  The parable of the unjust judge comes not long after Luke shares a question from a Pharisee about when the kingdom of God would be coming.  The disciples of Jesus were concerned and worried about when Jesus would return.  When Luke wrote this gospel, there must have been a feeling among the followers that God was not listening to their prayers for the return of Jesus because they were being persecuted or because they just wanted Jesus to be with them. The words of Jesus comforted his disciples and his followers after he ascended into heaven and those same words comfort us today.  We are still praying for the return of Jesus, and we pray that the kingdom of God will come soon. 

The feast of Saint Luke was this past Friday.  Our gospel is named after Luke and we remember that Luke was a physician, a healer.  In response to Luke’s feast day, we offer unceasing prayers for healing.  Our prayers of the people will focus on prayers for healing and we will offer an opportunity for you to come forward and receive an individual prayer for healing as well as anointing with oils. It is one more way for us to be persistent in our prayers just as Jesus taught us.  We know that God hears our prayers but we do not know the timing or the way by which God will provide healing.  We offer this prayer of healing:

“Almighty God, who inspired your servant Luke the physician to set forth in the Gospel the love and healing power of your Son: Graciously continue in your Church this love and power to heal”

When we pray, we should never be concerned about whether we ask for the right thing in our prayer or whether we say our prayers using the right words.  An Episcopal priest named H King Oehmig, offered these thoughts about our prayers, “The only mistake we can make is by not praying. Jesus never rebuked a disciple for asking wrongly in prayer.”  Many of us imagine that God will make fun of our prayers but Oehmig suggested that God will not shame our requests and run off howling with rage or doubled over in laughter.  Mahatma Gandhi said “it is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart”.  

Let us then take Jesus at his word.  Let us be persistent in our prayers.  Let us pray without ceasing.  We do so not because God needs to understand what we want.  God already knows that. Instead, we pray because we need to be reminded that we are limited in our ability to meet our needs.  Our prayers are not intended to wear down God’s indifference because God has mercy.  Our prayers are meant to wear down the unjust judge in ourselves, so that whatever is wrong in us may be made right by God’s grace.    Jeremiah told us that No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.  Yes through our unceasing prayer we will come to know God.   Amen.   

Humans often think of people that are of different cultures, races or faith traditions as their enemies. We sometimes refer to people we don’t know as the other. History tells us the other people have been treated in the worst possible way. We remember times when Jews where treated as the other. We remember the programs in Russia and the genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazis. The same could be said of the treatment of Muslims in Bosnia in the 1990s or of the mass killing Tutsi’s in Rwanda, also in the 1990s. As a white person of European ancestry, I can speak about the things that European conquerors did as part of their efforts to subdue and colonize territories throughout the world. European countries entered into the slave trade in Africa in the sixteenth century and continued that practice for 300 years treating people as the other. The European conquerors treated the people they found in the new world as the other. In the United States, we mistreated the native people of the land and destroyed the tribes, the people and their culture. Soon, we will begin offering prayers for the Native American community as part of an effort to better connect with them. We are supporting the people who lead Native American ministries in our diocese. We already have connections through our Chile Garden as we grow native seeds to help those communities to grow crops that come from their own heritage.

We may wish that people were only treated badly in the past but I think it still happens today. Most of the time, when we get to know the people better we realize that they are just as human as we are. They have similar hopes and dreams that we have.

This past week, I was surprised to hear of the backlash by some people over the fact the Ellen DeGeneres and George Bush were seen talking and laughing together at the Dallas Cowboys game on Sunday. Some people thought that a gay liberal entertainer and a conservative former president should not talk to each other. DeGeneres responded to the criticism this way:   “I have friends that are conservative and I have friends that are liberal. I try to understand each side of the story and sometimes I realize that we cannot talk in detail about a political situation. Still, we are friends.” Her comments cause me to ask whether it is possible to heal the hostility that exists between ourselves and others? Is it possible that little acts of kindness can make a difference? I think so.

In today’s gospel, Jesus refers to the other as someone who acts better than the people he is normally associated with. He was talking about the Samaritan. We all remember that the Samaritans had separated themselves from the Jewish people. The difference between the two cultures was only that Samaritans worshipped God on Mount Gerizim instead of in Jerusalem. We might think the differences are small today and yet it was a significant difference in the time of Jesus.  It is the second time in Luke this year that we heard about the goodness of the Samaritan. In July the gospel story was about the Samaritan who cared for the man who had been beaten on the way to Jericho. The good Samaritan was the enemy of the Jewish people who loved and cared for a Jewish person. Luke wants us to understand that the other is the same as we are. Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves and that everyone is our neighbor.

In today’s gospel, we learn God loves everyone. Jesus healed all ten of the lepers. He didn’t exclude the Samaritan. Jesus, our Savior, healed the enemy. God loves our enemies. It is a reminder that God cares for everyone and wants us to get along with one another.   And the Samaritan was the only one of 10 lepers who returned to Jesus and thanked him for healing them.  The message is clear that we are to value everyone and that we can be friends with people who are much different than we are.   It seems that we should “see our worst enemy, no longer as enemy, but as an agent of God’s love”. 

There is a second message that comes out of today’s gospel.   It is a message of thanks and gratitude to God and to our neighbor. Prayers of thanksgiving are one of the important prayers that we offer. And yet, we sometimes overlook the thanksgivings that we have for God. We get stuck asking God for the things we want or need and we forget that we should be thanking God for what we already have. I think that sometimes my prayers of thanksgiving are perfunctory, I say the words but I do it by rote, not realizing that each time I should say those words of thanksgiving with meaning. Let’s take some time in this service to remember the many things that we should thank God for. I am thankful that God put me here in the United States, a place of freedom and abundance. We are fortunate to have food and clothing and a place to live. We are thankful that God blessed us with friends and family. We are thankful for the beauty of creation. I am most especially thankful for the diversity of Creation that I experienced in the Galapagos Islands this summer. I saw things I had never seen before on that trip. We are also thankful for our faith.

How do we make gratitude a way of life? Our gratitude toward God begins with awareness and attentiveness. We open our minds to the things that are happening around us and the difference that God has made for us. We think about the times that God has healed us from whatever our infirmity has been. We think about all the other things that God has done for us. We spend the time to sincerely thank God for all God has done. Our thanks goes with the praise that we offer to God, praise that Jesus is our redeemer, our advocate. Praise and thanks go together.

It is also a time to be thankful for the work of others in our life. I ask you to think about all of the people that you are thankful for. And I ask you to consider the ways that you might show them your appreciation. I am thankful that God has brought a special group of people to this place, people who give their own time, talent and treasurer to this church.   I am sure that you can come up with other things to be thankful for. It might be easier if you remember a time you were thanked for something you did. Yesterday, our daughter was going through a tack trunk which held some items that she had used 17 years ago. Everything in the trunk was in good condition and our daughter called us to thank us for purchasing items that were still useful after all of these years. It made Jan and I feel so good to hear those words of thanks. We appreciated her remembering that we were part of what made her life special.

Gratitude is not just something nice that we do. We don’t show thanks to others just because our parents taught us that we should. Gratitude is a biblical call. We do it because Jesus told us we should. The Roman statesman Cicero was not a Christian but he said that “a thankful heart is not only the great virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.” William Law was a seventeenth century Anglican priest who wrote that “the greatest saint is not the person who prays the most; it is the one who is the most thankful.” Thanksgiving must be part of what helps us to be virtuous and God loving in other parts of our lives.

We have spent the entire Pentecost season reading from Luke’s gospel. This year, I have found Luke to be consistent in themes and today is no different. We have been told over and over that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have been told that we should care for those less fortunate than we. I am sure that Luke has also been adamant that we are to be thankful for all we have been given but I haven’t heard it as clearly as I did this week. Let us be aware this week of all the things that we have to be thankful for. Let us turn and give thanks and praise for all that God has done for us. Amen.

 

Friday was the feast of Saint Francis. Francis is the most beloved of all the saints. When people are asked which saint they most admire, the answer is Saint Francis. As we honor Francis, we celebrate the fact that he was especially connected with nature. That is why he is the patron saint of environment and animals. The picture on the front of the bulletin is a typical image of Francis, surrounded by animals, off by himself living in nature. We have been told that he preached to the birds. The story is told that he calmed a man-eating wolf.   I think he was an animal whisperer, someone who had a special touch with animals. Just as animals meant so much to Francis, we bring our pets to church to have them blessed because they mean so much to us. Our pets give us company, they greet us with joy when we return home after a bad day and they know when we are sad or sick so they come to comfort us. All this we do in remembrance that Francis was so closely connected to nature.   We often imagine Francis as a quiet and calm person off by himself in nature.

But there is much more to the story of Francis than that of an animal lover, perhaps the first animal activist. In the first place, he did not grow up as a saint. He was born into a wealthy family and as a young man, liked to party and rebelled against the rules. He dreamed of becoming a famous knight and receiving acclaim for his daring deeds on the battlefield. So, Francis was excited when his city, Assisi, entered into a war with a neighboring town, Perugia. I am sure that the wealthy Francis was outfitted with splendor. Sadly, his town was overwhelmed in the battle and Francis was taken prisoner. He was imprisoned for a year until a ransom was paid by his family. 

His time in prison caused a dramatic change in Francis. He slowly turned his attention to God. Francis connected with the poor and the sick. Francis had a vision of Jesus asking him to repair the church. Francis understood that call from Jesus literally. He took some fabric from his father’s shop and sold it to give money the church. His father considered it stealing, brought him before the bishop who simply asked that he return the money to his father. Francis refused, disowned his father and immediately turned to a life of poverty. Just as he rebelled against the rules of life as a teenager, he rebelled against the common understanding of wealth in his time and turned his life over to God.

He wasn’t afraid to confront challenges either. It is told that during the Fifth Crusade, Francis traveled to Syria seeking to convert Muslim people to Christianity. He was captured and met the Sultan and convinced the Sultan of the beauty of the Christian faith. Another story is told that he battled with the ruling bodies of the church. He was told that he must control all of his followers and that total poverty was too much of a burden for anyone to bear. It is believed that he had several altercations with the pope.

You see Francis was not a quiet person who chose poverty over wealth and nature over civilization. Francis was a fighter, someone who was so convinced of his faith in Jesus that he would take up the fight with his father, the bishop, the pope, the Sultan, anyone to convince them to follow Jesus. Francis is a great example of a consistent message found in Scripture today. The message is about the power of faith and the gifts we have been given by God. That message is most clearly stated in this passage from 2nd Timothy, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline”. 

It is a good day to reflect on all of the gifts we have been given. And none is greater than the gift of faith. Faith is found throughout our lessons today. The author of the letter to Timothy wrote “I am reminded of your sincere faith”. It was a gift given by God and nurtured by Timothy’s mother and grandmother. Paul was thankful for the faith that was given to Timothy, for the faith with that has been given to every one of us. We too can be thankful because of the faith of others, people who show us how to live. I am thankful that my parents demonstrated their sincere faith to me and their courage and faith helped me even in those times, like Francis, that I strayed from God.

Paul specifically encouraged Timothy to rekindle the gifts that he had been given by God. Timothy was given the gift of proclaiming the gospel. Each of us has different gifts but the same spirit lives in us. Can we turn to the Holy Spirit and ask the Holy Spirit to set our hearts on fire? Can we fan the flame of faith that may have died a little bit in us and turn it into a roaring fire, a power that helps us to live the gospel of Jesus in all that we do?

Our faith is not always the burning, emphatic and strong faith that we would wish. We are often like the apostles who asked Jesus to increase their faith. They did so because they believed that with a stronger faith, they could deal with the ups and downs that life was sending to them. The response that Jesus gave was not a put down. I find it really encouraging. You don’t need a great deal of faith, Jesus said. Even just a little faith is enough to make magnificent things happen. In Luke, Jesus said their faith could move the strong mulberry tree. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus said their faith could move mountains. I don’t think that faith is some magic which allows us to do things unimaginable given our understanding of science. But I do think there is great power in faith. Saint Francis began his new life with just a little faith. That small amount of faith grew until Francis was able to share with us a whole new understanding of how we are to follow God. It brought kings to their knees, it reminded clergy leaders of their duties to their people. Faith isn’t something that we quantify. Faith is what lifts up our hearts when we wonder what is the right thing to do. What have you been able to accomplish with just a little faith? What might you be able to still do if you let faith be your guide?

Faith is a power that helps us in the most difficult times. The reading from Lamentations for today is the sad reflection of the Jewish people after the destruction of Jerusalem by the invading armies of Babylon. The writer describes the loneliness of one who has suffered great loss. The tears describe someone who is distraught. The grieve is real.

The Psalm seems to be a continuation of that overwhelming loss. The people who were taken into exile can no longer sing the songs of the glory of Jerusalem. They have to hang up their harps. But their faith has not been destroyed. They pray that they will never forget the place of God, Zion. Even in great distress, their faith saved them. They demonstrated inceasing devotion and loyalty to Jerusalem. Sadly the Psalm ends with one of the worst verses in all of Scripture. The Jewish people were so upset at the loss of their Godly home they wanted revenge over their conquerors. They looked for such a stunning revenge that they prayed for the babies of their enemies to be killed. We pray that we will not have such thoughts in our hearts. We pray that God will help us to forgive those who have destroyed all that we care for.

Saint Francis chose God over the common perceptions of the day. He listened totally to the message Jesus gave to the rich man, “sell all of your possessions and come, follow me”. He encouraged us to show love to our fellow humans. The prayer attributed to Saint Francis asks God to help us use our gifts for peace and for the improvement of the life of everyone. The Franciscan order carries this message even today and seems willing to find its own space somewhat removed from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

I don’t think that we must sell all of our possessions as Francis did to be true followers of Jesus. But I do believe that the message of Francis is found in the message to Timothy. Let us rekindle the gifts that God has given us. Let us trust that just a little faith can make a big difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Amen.

 

Sunday September 29, 2019

In the early 1900s the Carnation Evaporated Milk Company was trying to find a way to get consumers to try their new milk product. The head of the company knew that high quality milk comes from healthy cows and they invested a lot of money in the health and well being of their bulls and cows. Because of his efforts, Carnation cows held the world milk production record for 32 consecutive years. They took this idea to another level with a slogan created in 1907, "Carnation Condensed Milk, the milk from contented cows”. The phrase became popular and it spawned a radio variety program entitled "The Contented Hour," which featured entertainers such as Dinah Shore, Jane Powell and Burns and Allen. Much later, the phrase became the inspiration for a book called “Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk - The Plain Truth about Employee Engagement and Your Bottom Line” which was published in 2012. The book promotes the idea that contented employees produce better results.   I don’t want to talk anymore about cows today but I would like to share how God helps humans to be content.

The first verse of today’s letter to Timothy encourages us to be content. “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment”. How do we find contentment in our own life? What does Scripture suggest we do to be content? How might we pray that God will give us productive lives following in the footsteps of Jesus?

The letter to Timothy warns about the temptation that comes with money. It is clear that we should be satisfied with food and clothing and that nothing else is necessary for our human living. I have met some people who live like this and some are very happy and contented people.

We often misquote the phrase about money. How many times have we heard the expression that money is the root of all evil? That is not exactly what was written to Timothy. It says that money is a source of all kinds of evil. But there are many other sins that do not come from money. Still, money often leads us into temptation, for the love of money can trap us with many senseless and harmful desires. We don’t need money to be content, that is the point of the letter.

One of the risks of having money is described in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. We have no reason to believe the rich man came by his money in nefarious ways. He wasn’t a sinner because he had money. Rather the story suggests that the rich man was selfish, selfish to the point that he ignored the needs of the poor beggar Lazarus. Helping the poor is not something that is just nice to do. Jesus told us that we must help the poor in order to get to heaven. It is as simple as that. We are guilty if we do not help the poor. I found an interesting quote about guilt this week. It comes from Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest whose teaching we may study more in the future. Fox wrote that “the opposite of guilt is not innocence - no one is innocent; the opposite of guilt is responsibility. We choose to wallow in our own guilt rather than to take responsibility for social justice and healing”. Fox seems to have taken this perspective almost directly from the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was guilty because he did not take responsibility for the needs of poor Lazarus.  

So, I think Jesus would say that we are more content, happier when we help others. Philip Sydney, an English poet and scholar, suggested that “doing good is the only certainly happy action of a man’s life.” My own experience would agree with that opinion. Helping others usually makes me feel better about myself. The only exception to that is when I feel as if I have been taken advantage of.

And the letter to Timothy goes further. Paul gives us a whole list of the things we should do: “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness”.   “Fight the good fight of the faith,” he wrote. It seems that we are content when we live in the arms of Jesus. There are many synonyms for contentment including two of my favorites, comfort and satisfaction. But another way to say all of this is to use another synonym which is peace. I believe that we find inner peace when we are close to God and when we follow God’s will. For that is the time when we know we are doing the right thing and we know that God is with us.

As you are aware, I have been thinking a lot about peace lately. It really began after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. I feel that those killings and other killings have put us on edge. We no longer feel safe and we therefore are not at peace. For some, the shooting in El Paso takes on a special feeling because the shooter said that he wanted to shoot as many Mexicans as possible.   This massacre takes on greater meaning as an indication of racial divides that still exist in the United States and a reason why some might feel as if they are not wanted. When we are fearful, it is hard to find inner peace. So, let’s pray for an end to violence. When we do not feel connected to others in the world it is hard to find peace. Let us pray that all may be one.

We may be searching for peace in our own lives. We may wish to be reunited with a loved one from whom we have been separated. We pray that God will give us health in our relationships. We pray that God will release us from some struggle so that we may have peace in our hearts.

We may be worried about the threat of violence in our world. At this time, we in the United States feel the threat of terrorism but we may also be worried about the threatening words between Iran and the United States. We pray for peace for ourselves and throughout the rest of the world.

We may be saddened and disappointed at the inability of our elected representatives to listen to each other. Let us pray that our elected officials will work together for the common good. For our part, let us seek to understand those people who don’t see the world our way. Let us realize that they may have some good reasons for the beliefs that they carry. Let us pray for understanding and acceptance in this place and beyond. May we find peace with each other.

I believe that true peace will be found in the arms of our loving God. The reading from Jeremiah gives us a great sense of that. Jeremiah had been put in prison. The king was not happy with the prophet who kept telling the people of Judah to repent. Jeremiah warned of the impending threat from invading armies. But in the midst of his imprisonment and the expectation that his country would be lost to others, Jeremiah found peace in the promise of God. The peace was found in God’s encouragement to purchase land. The message was that God would once more make the land fruitful and that God would bring a time of peace to the people. 

Words of peace and contentment are found in the Psalm today. God is our refuge and stronghold. God will protect us from those who want to do us harm. I see an image of God as a magnificent eagle protecting us with strong talons, keeping us from danger with those magnificent wings. We don’t have to be afraid of the night. We don’t have to worry that anything bad will happen to us because God is bound to us in love. If we just call out to God, God will protect us.

Last night at our Saturday service, we prayed for peace. I hope that you will pray for peace. I know that the specific thing that you will pray for may be different than what I pray for. Last night, each of us wrote our own prayer for peace on a piece of paper and we put the folded papers in the basket on the altar. I invite all of you to take a piece of paper and a pencil from an usher and write your own prayer for peace and put it in the offering plate today.   Your prayer will not be looked at. It is between you and God.

Paul wrote to us that our contentment and our peace are found in godliness. We turn to God in all of our struggles, whether it be fear or anger or frustration or guilt or just a wish that humans would come together again. May you find your peace in the presence of God and may you share God’s peace with those around you. Amen.

In the last few weeks the Hebrew Scripture readings have been from the writing of the prophet Jeremiah, and we understand that the time period in which he wrote was disastrous for the people of God. And by now, we also know why the book following that of the prophet Jeremiah, which is called Lamentations, was previously attributed to Jeremiah. Jeremiah raises lamentation to an art form! He clearly saw how things were going, not to mention knowing why, and Jeremiah is genuinely grieved for his people. Nevertheless, Jeremiah’s faith in God is absolute, for not only does he hold out hope to his people – without excusing their contribution to their own difficulties - Jeremiah continues to articulate God’s anguish with his peoples’ situation, clearly seeing that all this disaster would have been avoided had the chosen people remembered their covenant relationship with the Lord our God.  And Jeremiah expresses our Lord’s grief for His people! “Is her King not with her?” “Is the Lord not in Zion” WE hear the anguished Creator saying to the children, “Have I taught you NOTHING?”

And then in the Psalm, we hear the despairing response of the people of Zion: “Look at what they did to us, O LORD, our homeland is a wreak! How long will You be angry?” And then, they beg God to get those heathen, essentially claiming that our Lord should remember HIS covenant with them, while evidently conveniently forgetting that they, too, had some covenant obligation! Faced with the consequences of their own choices, they have chosen to ignore the concept of relationship inherent in the term ‘covenant.’   Does this not seem vaguely familiar??? Have all we, throughout history, at one time or another, wanted our relationship with our God to be rather one-sided – to our benefit?  And then we hear the very touching, “Remember not our past sins, let Your compassion be swift, for we are brought very low!” My kids report that some of my granddaughters, faced with evidence of some minor infraction, have claimed that “I shouldn’t be punished because I’m cute and you love me!” Sounds like those ancient Hebrews – “they is us! Maybe what works for grandchildren works with God. . .!

And then we are relieved to hear the Epistle from 1st Timothy, calling us to prayer. Authorship of this Epistle may be unclear but it is certainly consistent with Paul’s theology. In any case, whoever wrote it, has issued a sincere and moving call to prayer. Hopefully WE are led to think of our prayer vigil next week, and sign-up to participate. How wonderful that we are called to “Offer supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings…for everyone, that we may led a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. Now THAT’S appealing! And the only way we get to quiet and peaceable is with God. Some of us may be like me, a wee bit shy on the godliness, and the dignity, but prayer is NEVER wasted.

At Bible Study last Wednesday we had fun with the claim to innocence in the Epistle – (I am telling the truth, I am not lying.) Ya just Gotta wonder why the territory needed defending.         And then, of course, we get to the Gospel. This Gospel has always bothered me, for I just could not imagine our Lord advising the people of God to “make friends for themselves by means of dishonest wealth.” I find this whole passage INTENSE. Jesus sets the scene in three short sentences, we understand the dishonest manager’s situation, and then Jesus describes the manager’s scheme for survival quite clearly. NOW, we’re amazed when Jesus says the landowner commends the thieving manager for his cleverness. But we’ve indicted him for thievery! Jesus notes that the master says this, because “the children of this age are better at dealing with their contemporaries than are the Children of Light,” whom we understand to be the followers of Christ. Like us! We are reminded of Matthew 10:16, wherein Jesus says to the disciples that He is sending them out amidst wolves, so they should be, “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Then, Jesus continues with that surprising recommendation to His disciples that they, too, “make friends by means of dishonest wealth.” But that’s not all Jesus has to say! Jesus then reiterates some of the things He has said previously and will say again. But we are puzzled when our Lord suggests that the reason we ‘go and do likewise is because we will need such dishonestly gained friendships, not only in our lives here, but also in the ‘eternal homes,’ which we take to be heaven with our God. Not helping! This simply adds to the puzzle. Jesus follows with the observation that those who are honest in small things will be honest in major situations, and the converse is also true, that if we are dishonest in small ways, we will doubtless be dishonest in large ways. So, says Jesus, IF one is not faithful with ill-gotten gain, who’s going to trust that person with true riches? Remember that we are urged to store up treasure in heaven, as opposed to earthly wealth. In other words, we devote our time and effort to living according to God’s instruction, as opposed to making ourselves wealthy at the expense of others. This passage ends with Jesus’ observation that one cannot serve two masters, for one or the other will be shortchanged.   And in the Bible Study, we were certain of two things: God is NOT recommending dishonesty, and if we could just work this out, we’d realize that while we don’t always know what our God is saying OR doing, we do know it’s right. And it seems to me that we can draw two things from this Gospel. The first is a bit like Pascal’s Wager. If we choose to deal honestly in all things, no matter with whom we deal, we will be ahead, having chosen the better way. And the second is, our God is completely aware of what it is to live in our world, among those who neither know nor care about the precepts by which we as Christians choose to live, and that if we are to survive such a world, we must be as shrewd and worldly-wise as the wolves and serpents among whom, and with whom, we live and work; and yet honour our obligation to God as well as maintain our integrity, as does an innocent bird who doesn’t try to be what it is not. In any case, we enjoy the relief of knowing that our God loves us, provides us with what we need to live, including wisdom. Our God understands us and knows our desire to live righteously while we live and work in conditions and situations not conducive to honour and integrity. And the best thing is, in all of this, we KNOW through Jesus’ odd conversation with his homies, that our God CONTINUES to accept, love, and receive us. There IS a Balm in Gilead!   God bless us, everyone!    

THANKS BE TO GOD!

A couple trying to break into society hosted a dinner party.  As the guests were enjoying their dinner salad, the maid called the hostess from the table. The maid informed her that the cat had climbed on the kitchen table and eaten a large portion of the salmon's mid-section. The hostess decided to fill the eaten portion with some canned salmon and other camouflage.

As the guests were enjoying the fish, the maid called the hostess into the kitchen and announced while wringing her hands, "Madam, the cat is dead." The hostess and her husband informed the guests and suggested it might be best if everyone went to the hospital and had their stomachs pumped. Returning home, the couple asked the maid where she had put the cat. "It is still out on the road where the car ran over it.” 

Our gospel for today contains a parable by Jesus. He offered some advice about how we should live. He emphasized two words that begin with H; humility and hospitality. The dialogue occurs in the midst of a dinner. But the outcome was much different than what happened in the story of the couple I began with. Let’s spend a few minutes considering how the words of Jesus might teach us about our life today.

We have been reading from the gospel of Luke during this Pentecost season. Luke had a special interest in food. He mentioned nineteen meals in his gospel. Meals symbolize nourishment and celebration. Luke used meals to describe healing, hospitality, fellowship, forgiveness, teaching, and reconciliation. These are all part of what we should expect when Christians come together. Luke also emphasized the ministry of Christians to the outcasts, for victims of oppression and those at a disadvantage in society {Mark Allen Powell New Testament). Jesus said early in his ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Luke is consistent Jesus talks about the sin of pride and helping those less fortunate.

Jesus was invited to dinner by a leader of the Pharisees. There were times when Jesus got along well with the Pharisees. They seemed to enjoy debating issues of faith with him. And the Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him. But the Pharisees did not like the fact that Jesus ignored the religious rituals about eating. They didn’t like Jesus healing people on the Sabbath. And they didn’t like the fact that Jesus associated himself with sinners and poor people. The Pharisees thought that Jesus should avoid or even shun the poor. Jesus did just the opposite. I suppose that is why the Pharisees watched him so closely to see what he would say. Jesus didn’t disappoint. He gave them a lecture about their behavior.

I believe the Pharisees expected to be honored for their learning and their position and possibly their background. They all wanted to be respected. We know this from an earlier passage in Luke when Jesus said to the Pharisees “you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places”. Can you imagine the jockeying for position that must have happened at the dinner?

Can you imagine how Jesus reacted to seeing these Pharisees seeking a place of honor? I don’t think that they had a printed seating arrangement but there must have been unspoken rules about who was most important. People came early to grab the most important seats. But prominent people often came late and those less prominent were forced to move. They would be shamed by the public slight that they endured. Jesus told us that we should take the less important seat. Then when we are moved up, we are treated and feel more honorable. His words seem to be like just good advice. This advice is consistent with words found in the Book of proverbs.

Jesus was telling us not just how to behave in a social setting but sharing the importance of humility and the risk of having too much pride.   Pride is such an easy trap to fall into. We want others to know how important we are. We might do that by taking an important seat when we don’t deserve it. Or we might show our pride when we take the lower seat and then we are asked to go to a better seat. That is when we gleam with pride. Hey everyone, look at me. I am way more important than all of those who are down at the bottom of the list. When we try to look humble, we may be showing our pride underneath it all.

In the broader sense I don’t think Jesus is just talking about dinner meals. I think he wants us to be humble in everything we do. Jesus showed us that in how he lived his own life. Everyone is important in this world and we are better off when we don’t try to make ourselves more important than others.  

The second story is about whom we should invite when we host a meal. Jesus told us not to offer food just to win over friends or to get a higher place in society. Jesus said that we are to feed the poor and the homeless. This story hit me in an unusual way this week. I often look at a website called TextWeek as I prepare my sermons. The front page always has some kind of image. It is usually a painting or an icon with a biblical theme. But this week it was a black and white photograph titled “children in a democracy”. It was taken in 1940 and looked like a family in difficult straits. There was a mother holding a baby in front of a small house. There were two older children timidly peeking out from the doorframe of the building. It turns out that it was taken on Arizona Highway 87, south of Chandler in Maricopa County, Arizona. It was a migratory family living in a trailer in an open field without sanitation or water. They came from Amarillo, Texas. They pulled cotton bolls near Amarillo, picked cotton near Roswell, New Mexico, and in Arizona. They planned to return to Amarillo at the close of cotton-picking season for work on Works Progress Administration. I thought isn’t it good that we have made so much progress in our economic situation since 1940. Some of that is true. But we still have many families who struggle to survive. We will always have the poor with us.

Today’s story about Jesus begins with the words, “Jesus told them this parable”. I find that interesting and a little confusing. Once again, it is more than just social advice. Making this a parable creates an understanding that this is a story about something else. I believe Jesus was talking to us about God’s kingdom. It may be talking to us about the heavenly banquet that we will look forward to. If so, then Jesus is telling us that the heavenly banquet is a place where all are welcome. It is also suggesting to us that we are to invite everyone to be a part of that heavenly banquet with us. It is also a reminder that God is the host of all things on earth. We are just supporting God’s will when we host a meal for those around us.

When we do something special for a stranger, we may get a pleasant surprise. I call to your attention a verse in todays passage from Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” You see, we may benefit more from hosting the poor and suffering that they ever will. I remember when I traveled to Central American. I encountered many poor people. But the poor people changed me because they were always so happy. They lived their lives with joy. It reminded me that you don’t really need to have anything except God in your life to be happy. They also encouraged me because they always shared what they had with others who were in need. We once shared a meal with some ladies who were to prepare our lunch and eat with us. The ladies cooked lunch for us and we paid for the meal. It was their way of raising money to help those who were really in need. However, right before the meal others from the town arrived and sat at the table in the cooks chairs. We asked the cooks to give each of us less food so they could join us along with the other guests who’d shown up. They refused to do so because they felt those joining us deserved to eat also and they wouldn’t shortchange us on what we paid for.

Luke gives us some tough lessons to live by. But in all things we should take heart. Yes, we should be humble and yes we should help the needy. Let us not lose sight of the fact that Jesus told these stories to remind us that God welcomes people of all types into God’s kingdom. All of us have sinned and all of us have failed to follow God’s will. Still, we are welcome in God’s kingdom, God is waiting for us with open arms.   Let us give thanks. Amen.

 

In 1970, a performer named Hoyt Axton wrote a song that was made famous by the rock band, Three Dog Night. The song was titled “Joy to the World”. The very first line begins, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine. Never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine”. There has been a lot of speculation about the meaning of that first line including a sermon that suggested it was religiously based upon the Biblical book of Jeremiah. The religious idea was that the song represents God’s desire to unite all people in happiness and the bullfrog is God’s distinctive call that stands out in nature.  The composer Axton actually nixed this interpretation explaining that the first line of the song was really just a placeholder, the words are meaningless, and the song was recorded before he had a chance to change them. And Axton was after all not a religious man especially in the way he lived his life. I still think Jeremiah was a bullfrog whenever I hear the name Jeremiah mentioned.

Movies often use themes from the Bible and this year the horror movie Us referenced a passage from Jeremiah. It is Jeremiah 11:11 and it says this, "Therefore thus says the LORD, 'Behold I am bringing disaster on them which they will not be able to escape; though they will cry to Me, yet I will not listen to them.'"  In this verse, Jeremiah is prophesying that God will bring disaster to Israel because they have not been faithful to their covenant with God. I don’t think that I will be watching the movie Us. I am not much of a horror movie fan.

I mention the book of Jeremiah because today I want to focus on the lesson from Jeremiah. The passage comes at the very beginning of the book and explains why Jeremiah became a prophet. It is a story about the call that Jeremiah received from God and I believe we should hear in this passage the call that God has for each and every one of us. It begins with the recognition that God knew Jeremiah before he was born. God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you”. Would you just dwell on that saying for a moment?

It is about Jeremiah but it is about you and me also. God knows you personally, God knew you from the time before you were born and God had a plan for you from forever. I just like to sit with that idea of God knowing me personally, the idea that I can turn at anytime and simply speak to God and God will be there. Each of us has the free will to decide if we are going to accept that call from God.

I really like the first response that we hear from Jeremiah. Oh God, I am just a boy and I do not know how to speak. Jeremiah reminds me so much of other people in the bible who tried to tell God that they were not capable of doing what God asked them to do. My favorite is Moses.   When God told Moses that he was to go and bring his people out of Egypt, Moses came up with every excuse as to why it wouldn’t work. I am not good enough, Moses said. The Israelites won’t believe that you sent me. I don’t speak well enough to lead the people, Moses cried. Moses begged God to send someone else. But in every case, God had an answer and promised Moses that he would be with him in every step of the way.

Moses wasn’t the only one who questioned God’s call. Isaiah and Ezekiel were also hesitant about their call from God. And Jonah was so convinced that he wasn’t the one to prophecy in Nineveh that he ran away. Of course, God helped him to understand that didn’t really work.  In every case, God told them and then followed through on the promise that God would help them with their call.

Today, I ask you to consider your call. What is God asking you to do? Remember that God will be there to help you with what needs to be done. And also remember that sometimes God called people who were older. Our call may not stop just because we have retired from our work life. I can say that from personal experience.

When we consider that God knew us before we were born, we realize that God must have known where we would be placed. You see, each of us has been put in a particular situation that we did not choose. There are many complex relationships and the people we encounter each live according to their own free will. We have been placed into that situation, and it will exist long after we have left the earth. Somehow, God has chosen us to be called into a very specific place at a very specific time.

Jeremiah was called into service, he was called to be a prophet. Jeremiah’s call is mirrored in a passage from the gospel of John when Jesus told his disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” What fruit will we bring to the world and the glory of God? How might we work in the vineyard in such a way that God will give us whatever we ask in the name of Jesus?

Jeremiah lived during a tumultuous time for Israel. As commentator Stan Mast wrote, “Jeremiah had to prophesy through the last 40 years of the kingdom of Judah, a time with an ever-changing political scene, a declining spiritual and moral climate, and an increasingly challenging international environment.” Judah had aligned itself with the Assyrian empire but that empire crumbled. The Judean King Josiah, brought religious reform to the country but also sought independence from other powers. Although Josiah was successful early on, he was killed in a battle with the Egyptians. Soon after Judah was taken over by the Babylonians and soon after many were sent into exile.

Jeremiah often wrote about God’s judgment which would be given to the Israelites for their failure to follow God’s covenant. In this passage, Jeremiah is told to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow. This passage that we hear today is a precursor to his oracles of judgment. No wonder the makers of Us found words about destruction for their movie. Jeremiah’s words were not heeded and the kingdom of Judah was destroyed.   Jeremiah later offered words of hope for the people who were left, a reminder that God does not give up on us despite our failures.

I suggest that as we listen for God’s call to us, we remember that we also live in tumultuous times. In our tumultuous time let us be sure that our walk is with Jesus. I really like the way that Stan Mast wrote about our call from God. He said, “We are God’s beloved children firmly anchored in his sovereign love. And we are not masters of our own fate who have to make our own way in the world; we are messengers on a mission from the eternal God.  We belong to him from all eternity and to all eternity, and that makes us victors in hard times, not victims of hard times.” 

Yes, Jeremiah was told to bring judgment but in the very end of this passage, God called Jeremiah to build and to plant. I think it is better when we leave the judgments to God. We may be called to remind people of their sinfulness. But we are also called to bring people the good news of God’s forgiveness.

In today’s gospel we find both judgment and mercy. Jesus healed the woman who had been sick for 18 years. He also declared judgment on those who followed the rule that you could not heal on the Sabbath. It is another time when Jesus showed us how we are to live our lives.

We are called to be in God’s service and to follow his will for us. I know that sometimes it is difficult to follow. We are called to bear fruit in this world. We may experience God’s judgment of sinners on our walk. But I think it is as important for us to find the healing touch that Jesus offered. Let us go and find the people who live in our world today who just like the woman who had suffered for 18 years need to feel God’s healing and forgiveness. Let us seek to bring them the love and mercy of Jesus. Amen.

 

Sermon 8.18.19

 

 “A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem bureau takes an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall. Every day when she looks out, she sees an old Jewish man praying vigorously. So, the journalist goes down and introduces herself to the old man.  She asks, “You come every day to the wall. How long have you done that and what are you praying for?”

The old man replies, “I have come here to pray every day for 25 years. Each morning I pray for world peace and then for the brotherhood of man.

The journalist is amazed. “How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these things?” she asks.  The old man looks at her sadly. “Like I’m talking to a wall.”

 Sometimes our prayers for peace feel as if we are talking to a wall, don’t they?  I am certain that God listens to our prayers but somehow the selfishness of human beings makes our prayers for peace difficult to achieve.

 

I have two more short stories.  This was an announcement found in a church bulletin: “The peace-making meeting scheduled for today has been cancelled due to a conflict.”  And this headline once appeared in a newspaper, “War Dims Hope for Peace.”  Today, our scripture calls us to consider what it means to have the Peace of God and to understand why Jesus spoke in an unusual way about peace.

 

I frequently offer a blessing using the words, “May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ”.  I don’t say those words lightly or just because they are found in our liturgy.  I believe that we find peace, true peace, when we let ourselves float in the love and grace of God, when we submit ourselves to God’s will. 

 

We think of Jesus as the Prince of Peace.  We remember what the angels said when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours”.  Or, how about the beatitudes when Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.  Peace is something that Jesus believed in and desired for the people of earth.  But somehow our gospel today suggests something totally different. Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”  Why did he say that and what does it mean for us today?

 

Jesus also said, “I came to bring fire to the earth”. I want this to be the fire of his love but it isn’t that simple.  Fire in this case, means judgment.   Jesus judged the actions of the Jewish community at that time and found them wanting.  He found divisions amongst the people about how they should live their lives.  Jesus didn’t agree with the interpretation of Scripture by some leaders of the Jewish faith.  When he challenged them about their teachings, they decided two things.  First, they decided that Jesus was wrong about how they should live their lives.  Second, they did not want to lose control of the world as they knew it.  Jesus challenged their wealth and their power.  They decided to have him killed.  Jesus spoke about the baptism that was to come and he was referring to his death on the cross. 

 

The world that Jesus lived in was not one of peace. People argued with Jesus about his teaching and they complained about his actions. Division existed from the beginning of his ministry and lasted throughout his life on earth.  When Jesus came out of the desert he went to Nazareth and preached in the synagogue.  He quoted a passage from Isaiah speaking about someone who was anointed to bring good news to the poor and release for the captives.  After reading this passage he said that he was here to fulfill that reading.  People were so angry with him that they tried to kill him. At other times, Jesus proclaimed that they did not walk the talk.  That is, they followed the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law.   

 

No wonder that Jesus said he did not bring peace.  For him, peace could not exist as long as the multitude of people lived their lives in sin.  He could not declare peace until the downtrodden were cared for.  He could not declare peace when people refused to hear the word of God that he proclaimed.   The family divisions he mentioned were created by humans who disagreed with how to live their lives, by some who listened to God’s word and those who did not.  They were not caused by Jesus but more by our human weakness.  

 

The division and sin that existed when Jesus came to earth existed when Isaiah was writing many centuries before.  Isaiah lamented the behavior of the people of Israel.  God had provided a beautiful vineyard for them.  It was a place where the fruit of the earth would grow abundantly.  The people of Israel did not treat each other with justice.  Because of their behavior, the vineyard produced wild grapes, not the tender grapes that produced good wine.  The people were not following the will of God. 

 

I think we can understand the issue of division for we experience it in our society today.  We have strong differences of opinion about many things.  In my own family, we have different believes about our faith and about about how our society should live together. It is common for people of various Christian faiths to legitimately disagree about what they believe and how God calls them to live their lives.   We have division between various Christian denominations about how we worship God and what things we believe are sinful. 

 

I think Jesus was asking us to confront our own sinfulness.  I prefer to focus in my talks on the love of God and the blessings we receive.  But Jesus asks us today to look inside. Has our selfish behavior created divisions or caused pain for others?   Let me give you two simple examples. Yesterday morning, about 5:30, Jan and I were out walking before the heat became oppressive.  Someone riding a three wheeled motorcycle came down the street.  It wasn’t that he was riding a motorcycle but the fact that his music was blaring so loudly that it hurt my ears. I hope he finds enjoyment but isn’t there a way to do that without causing pain to others? I contrast that with the times on my recent trip when several men helped one of our fellow travelers to make sure she did not fall in rough terrain or getting on and off the boats we took. 

 

Jesus and Isaiah spoke not just about individual sin but also about communal sins.  They wanted us to bring justice to all people.  Jesus spoke about this in Matthew’s gospel when he talked about judgment day.   He said we will be judged on whether we give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, or cloth the naked. We are called to visit the sick and those in prison.  I believe that if we do these things we will find the Peace that Jesus offered to us.  Peace comes to us when we deal with the things that keep us from God.  And peace comes to us when we deal with the sin that we encounter in the world.  If we know that communal sin exists and we choose to ignore it, then it will bother us as long as we live.  We don’t find peace in our hearts when we know that sin is causing pain and hurt for other people in this world. 

 

Rather than leave this place today despondent or depressed over the challenges of sin and injustice, let us look with hope to the message that is found in the passage from Hebrews. We are inspired by the faith of fellow believers who have gone before us.  We are amazed by what they accomplished.  We are overwhelmed by the suffering which they endured.  We hope that we can have just a little bit of the faith that they had.  We ask God to help us be strong in our faith for we know that it is difficult for our faith to carry us through all the trials and tribulations of life.  We know in our hearts that faith will be what brings us over and over again to God.  We understand that Jesus could not bring peace to those who would not listen and follow.  We ask Jesus to give us faith that we may always follow him and that we then can obtain the peace that God alone can give us.  Amen.