Stand Firm in the Lord

Monday, 18 March 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

17 March 2019

I. Imitating Jesus Messiah

  • In some ways, we might expect the apostle Paul to suggest that others follow his example, that they become imitators of him – after all, it seems that Paul had no shortage of self-confidence – he was a leader in the early Jesus Movement and he was not afraid to challenge anyone, whether they were other leaders in the Movement, or Jewish religious or political leaders, or, indeed, even Roman authorities – given the strength of his personality, it is no surprise that he might say to his friends in Philippi “join in imitating me”
  • Let us not be too quick, however, to rebuke Paul’s pride – if we look earlier in Philippians 3, we find Paul asserting his claims for having what he calls “confidence in the flesh” – he had followed all the traditional requirements for men and for Pharisees in the Jewish tradition – more than that, his actions had in some ways exceeded the requirements – he was scrupulous in following God’s Instruction, zealous in persecuting Jesus’ followers, and blameless in righteousness under the law – it sounds like just so much more bragging
  • But then he turns the tables on that sort of thinking – he says that all of those things that lead to “confidence in the flesh” are no more than rubbish – they mean nothing in comparison to his relationship with God through Jesus Messiah – he asserts that he wants to know Christ and become like Christ in the power of the resurrection and in suffering for the cause of Christ
  • To add to context to the encouragement to imitate him, Paul assures his readers that he has not yet attained the fullness of that endeavor – he presses ahead, knowing that Jesus Messiah has already claimed his life and all he has to do is to hold fast to what he has already attained
  • Only then does Paul urge his readers to join together in imitating him – they are not to imitate him in his “confidence in the flesh,” which means nothing to him and should mean nothing to them – they should imitate him insofar as he imitates the prime example for the people of the Jesus Movement, which in Jesus himself
  • The problem is, of course, that there are many who present themselves as examples to follow – they name themselves as followers of Jesus, but the apostle says they are actually “enemies of the cross”
  • This might seem a strange way to identify people – after all, the cross was one of Rome’s primary means of torture and execution – it was a humiliating and painful way to die – in the way of empires throughout history, the Romans used the cross and the fear that it inspired in conquered people as a means of controlling populations – how could anyone not be an enemy of the cross
  • For Paul, however, and for the people of the Jesus Movement, the cross is not a symbol of torture and death – because of Jesus’ giving of himself to powers of the world, the cross has become a symbol of love, a symbol of the defeat of the powers of the world, a symbol of resurrection
  • While Paul does not identify the enemies of the cross in any specific ways, he does provide his audience with a general description – “their end is destruction” – they think they are on the road to true life because of their confidence in the flesh, but that path leads only to destruction – “their god is their belly” – they seek immediate satisfaction, what people used to call instant gratification, but cannot see that there is a more excellent way – they are lost in their appetites and hunger for more things in their lives –“their glory is their shame” – they are self-obsessed, thinking that they are the best, the greatest – but their glorying in themselves prevents them from participating in the transformation that Jesus Messiah offers – “their minds are set on earthly things” – and this keeps their eyes off of Jesus
  • In contrast to the enemies of the cross, the followers of Jesus recognize that their citizenship is in heaven – the people of the Jesus Movement are always foreigners, wherever we live – Jesus’ people are never fully at home in empires and nations because the things that Jesus’ people value are not domination, power, wealth, control – that is to say, the values of the people living into the Vision of God are not compatible with the values of nations
  • The work of Jesus’ people then is to stand firm in the Lord, to live according to the values that Jesus teaches and embodies, to live in ways that follow the way of the cross

II. Stand Firm in the Lord

  • This is not easy for us – we like to be liked – we like to have good standing in our world – we like to have a good reputation
  • But when we stand firm in the Lord, we often find ourselves standing in opposition to the ways of our world – to stand firm with the Lord, we stand firm against the injustice that is so prevalent, whether it is racial injustice, or economic injustice, or sexuality or gender injustice – to stand firm in the Lord is to stand firmly with the poor, with the marginalized, with the outsider, with the strangers, because our standing with the Lord marginalizes us and makes us strangers in a strange land
  • To stand firm with the Lord is to glory not in ourselves, not in our own accomplishments, not in our own wisdom and ways, but to glory in the transformation that Jesus Messiah brings into our lives – when we stand firm in the Lord, we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work in us, to rearrange our lives, so that we grow every day to see the world as God sees it, and to see our fellow human beings as God sees all of us – as we go through this transformation, we learn to trust more and more in who God is
  • To stand firm in the Lord is to realize that our citizenship is in heaven – that does not mean that someday, by and by, we will be citizens of heaven, but that we are citizens of heaven now, in this moment, in this place – in the ancient world, citizens of Rome were citizens of Rome wherever they traveled, even beyond the borders of the Empire – the idea that the followers of Jesus have citizenship in heaven, citizenship that supersedes our citizenship in this world would have been a powerful one in Philippi, which was a Roman colony
  • It should also be a powerful one for us in the modern world that invests so heavily in nations and borders that our investment too easily blinds us to the knowledge that race and nation are human social constructs – beneath and behind those sorts of identifications, we human beings are all in the image of God – standing firm in the Lord shows us our essential oneness – we do not all look the same, or believe the same things, or act in the same ways, or live the same sorts of lives, but we are all one, nevertheless

III. Conclusion

  • As we continue through Lent, what would it be like for us to live truly as citizens of heaven in this place? – what would it be like for us to stand firm in the Lord?
  • Let us think on these things – let us turn our minds, our hearts, our spirits toward God and live the example of Jesus, of Paul, and of those in our lives now who give us a good example – let us stand firm, not in any legalistic sense, but in the sense of the cross of Jesus
  • Let us stand firm in love, in grace, in mercy, in generosity, and compassion – let us stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved
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The First of All the Fruits

Monday, 11 March 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

10 March 2019

I. Retelling the Story

  • The wider context in this part of the ancient story is Moses telling the people what they will have to do once they have settled in the land that God is giving them – in this particular case, the prophet describes an act of worship having to do with the spring harvest – fifty days after Passover, there is a holy festival that focuses on that harvest – the Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot, is the basis of our Christian Pentecost
  • As the teller of the story reports it to us, Moses and the people have not yet entered the land, so instead of saying that the people are to take the first fruits of their harvest to the temple, the story says that they will take the offering to the place that God will choose as a dwelling for the holy name, which refers to the nature and presence of God
  • While bringing the offering of the first fruits, the worshipers will present the offering to the priest in charge and make a declaration that indicates that the worshipers know that God has blessed them – they have come into the land that God promised to give to them, and their offering recognizes that the harvest is a sign that points to God’s promises and provision
  • Having presented the offering to the priest, the worshipers then tell a story about their collective past – telling the story keeps the memory of that past alive – keeping the memory of the past alive keeps hope for the present and the future alive without limiting the present or the future to what happened in the past – it is a fine line to walk, but an important one
  • The story that the worshipers tell begins with a “wandering Aramean,” which refers to Jacob, also called “Israel,” whom went down to Egypt with his entire family centuries before the Exodus that took the people out of Egypt and which is nearing its end at this point in the story – no doubt it also refers to Abraham, who came from the area of Aram and who also went down to Egypt and lived there as an alien
  • Even in Egypt, God was with Jacob’s family, and the family grew to become so numerous that the Egyptians felt threatened and decided to control the aliens by enslaving them and forcing them to work
  • While the people labored under Egyptian oppression, God heard the cries of the people for liberation and God saw the people’s affliction – in response to having heard and seen, God acted and led the people out of slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with power and signs and wonders, and God has led the people on a wandering path of their own for forty years – now they are on the brink of settling in a land of their own
  • The offering of the first fruits is an acknowledgement that throughout the entire story, God has been with the people – retelling the story keeps the trust in God’s faithfulness alive
  • Their worship is not complete, however, until they share the bounty that God has given them with others, with the Levites, who have no property inheritance in the land, with the aliens and strangers who live in their midst, and with the widows and the orphans (Deuteronomy 16.11, 26.12) – without the sharing of the blessing, their worship stops short of being what it needs to be
  • Retelling the story of their nation’s relationship with God, the story of God’s liberating actions in the past, gives the worshipers in the place where God chooses as a dwelling place for God’s name a reminder that God has always been with their ancestors and with them – God has been faithful – God made a promise to the ancestors and is keeping that promise – now the people are to share the blessing of that promise with the ones who have few blessings in their lives – the sharing is a part of their worship – the sharing shows the gratitude of the people for what God has done for them in their wanderings and it blesses the ones who still wander in the midst of God’s people

II. The First of All the Fruits

  • This may seem an odd story with which to begin the season of Lent – the ritual practices of an ancient tradition might not appear to have any relation to our worship or to our living into the gospel today, but the connection is there
  • The connection is there in the communal nature of worship – we tend to focus on the individual aspects of Lent, usually in some meaningless or trivial way such as giving up a favorite food or drink during the season, or refraining from a favorite activity – instead of “giving up” something for Lent, what if we committed to being intentional about our discipleship? – what if we committed ourselves for these next six weeks to growing our gratitude to God? – what if we decided truly to give God the first of all the fruits of our lives? – what would that look like for us?
  • It might look like volunteering to deliver meals to the citizens of our community who need them – perhaps it would be coming to help Stanton Thompson and his crew prepare for the weekly distribution of food in the food pantry – maybe it would be returning a kind word or gesture for a word or action that we perceive as an attack – all of these things, and so many more, could be signs of giving God the first of all the fruits of God’s presence in our lives
  • We need not think of the ancient ritual in too literal a sense – we need only begin by asking ourselves how God has blessed us – God has blessed us all with so much life, so much hope, so much love, so much kindness, all in abundance, that we complete our worship by sharing those blessings with others, especially with those who cannot repay us in any way, with those who do not have the advantages or privilege that we have
  • The story of the offering of the first fruits is only partially about the blessing of God – it is also about the responsibility and opportunity that the blessing of God presents us – from everyone to whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12.48)
  • During Lent, indeed at all times of the year, we care for one another, for the strangers and the aliens, for the widows and orphans, for the poor, for the broken, for the lonely, for everyone whom the world excludes – it is our offering of the first of all the fruits of our lives

III. Conclusion

  • Through the next six weeks, let us all strive to bring to God the first of all the fruits of our lives – let us strive to be the people who love, who share, who are generous, who are kind, who are forgiving
  • Tell and retell the story of our lives – tell of the faithfulness of God, not because we have earned it, but because that is who God is – tell of God’s blessings in our lives and in the life of Salem Church
  • These stories will remind us of our past – they will give us hope for the present and future – they will keep us mindful of all the blessings of God’s love and mercy, and tell us that the offering of the first of all the fruits always includes those whom the world excludes
  • You see, the first of all the fruits is ourselves and we complete our worship when we share ourselves freely and generously and compassionately with everyone we meet – let it be so in Lent and in every season of the church and of our lives

The Abundance of the Heart

Monday, 4 March 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

3 March 2019

I. Introduction

  • Here is my rant of the day — my doctorate is in American religious history — one of the things that the academy teaches us is that we have to give proper attribution to ideas and quotes that are not our own — thus, if I want to quote people in a sermon or elsewhere I want to know that the ones I cite actually said what I am saying that they said — when I search for quotes online, however, I am amazed at how rarely anyone cites a source — here is a case in point
  • I wanted to begin the sermon with the quote “A good example is the best sermon” — most people who use the quote say that it originated with Benjamin Franklin, but none of the people I found on Google say where Franklin said it — so I am left wondering whether he said it or not — it has nothing to do with the sermon, I suppose, but the warning is for us not to assume that any person said anything unless we can prove it by naming a source — rant over
  • So, someone, I do not know for certain who it was, once said that a good example is the best sermon — regardless of who might have said it, the sentiment of the statement fits with what Jesus says to his students and followers in this portion of the Sermon on a Level Place, and we do well to listen to Jesus and to act accordingly

II. The Sermon on the Level Place Concluded

  • We have taken the last few weeks to talk about Jesus’ Sermon on a Level Place, which bears some similarity to the more famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 5-7) — here in Luke, Jesus begins the sermon with blessings and woes, which redefine the social order in the light of the Vision of God — for the people of the Vision, our understanding is that God’s blessing is not on the rich, or the ones who have plenty to eat, or the ones whose lives are full of laughter, or the ones who have a good reputation in the world — they are the ones who have every advantage and privilege in the current social order, but they see little need for the Vision of God and therefore do not see God’s blessing — instead, because they so often do not even want to live into God’s Vision and order for the world, their lot is woe, even if they do not recognize it
  • Instead, in God’s Vision, in God’s social order, God’s blessing is on the poor, on the hungry, on the ones who mourn, on the ones whom the world hates, excludes, reviles, and defames — they are the ones who perhaps more naturally see the need for the redefinition of the social order and are willing to live into the Vision — they recognize their need for the abundance of God’s Vision and they are in a position to receive God’s blessing
  • Then Jesus presents his students and followers with some examples of how to bring our lives, and eventually the rest of the social order, into alignment with the Vision of God — he presents his students and followers, including us, with a test — it is not a test for any of us to use to evaluate the lives or commitments of anyone else, but to evaluate our own lives and commitments — the examples in Jesus’ test give us some questions that we can ask ourselves: are our thoughts, words, and actions loving? Are they kind? Are they just for everyone? Are they generous? Are they merciful? Are they forgiving? — we are to treat others the way that we want them to treat us, regardless of how they treat us — we must not judge or condemn others, and we must always remember that the measure we use regarding others is the measure that we get in our own lives — all of this is hard work and sets Jesus’ students and followers at odds with the world because we have a different Vision to follow
  • As we come to the end of the Sermon on a Level Place, Jesus uses three stories to focus his students and followers on some further key ideas about the hard work of being both a student and a follower — first is a story about Vision — Jesus says that without the Vision of God, we cannot see where we are going — this leads us to see others and ourselves in ways that bring strife to everyone — the Vision of God gives us the tools and the ability to see ourselves as God sees us, with all of our imperfections and failures and know that God loves us anyway, which then becomes our example of how to see other people — we cannot despise them for their imperfections and failures, but we are to love them just as God loves us
  • The next story is about trees and the fruit that they bear — good, healthy trees do not bear bad fruit, and bad, unhealthy trees do not bear good fruit — the condition of our hearts determines our thoughts, words, and actions, and our thoughts, words, and actions demonstrate the condition of our hearts — from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and we act — we are what we say and do in this life, regardless of what we believe — that is a sobering thought, at least it is to me
  • The final story has to do with the nature of discipleship, of being a student of Jesus — if we hear Jesus’ words and act on them, then our lives have a solid and stable foundation and we can face any of the difficulties, struggles and trials that come into our lives — and be assured, they will come — they come into all our lives — in contrast, to hear Jesus’ words and not act on them is to build a life without a solid foundation — in that case, when the difficulties, struggles, and trials come, we return to the old, unhealthy, unhelpful, self-seeking, self-serving ways of the established social order — we go back to what we have learned and known, thinking that there is hope in those ways — but there is not — our hope, our life, our healing, our abundance, all lie in relationship with God through Jesus Messiah

III. The Abundance of the Heart

  • As I said, I find it sobering to remember that regardless of what we say we believe, regardless of what we think we believe, what others see us doing is the surest indication of what we really believe — out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks and we act — a good example is the best sermon, but any example that we show others, for good or for ill, is the sermon we preach and live, the sermon that people hear no matter what we think we believe — whether that example is an imitation of the example of Jesus in our lives or an imitation of the familiar ways, the old ways, the ways of our making, is up to us
  • A part of our trouble is that want to think the best of ourselves — it is a natural thing to do — none of us wants to believe that we are even capable of harming another, or of thinking ill of another, but we are — by nature we are selfish creatures — please understand, I am not judging us harshly — I do not condemn us for our humanity — I just want us to admit it to ourselves and to strive to live into the Vision of God — we are broken people, but Jesus heals us — when Jesus tells the story of the blind leading the blind, it is with the words of his calling still echoing in our minds — he has come to bring recovery of sight to the blind — he has come to open our eyes and our hearts and our minds to the Vision of God, to the Vision of how the world can be — a Vision of the world as a place of justice for all people, of hope for all people, of abundant life and joy for all people

IV. Conclusion

  • Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks and we act
  • May the abundance of our hearts be the love, the grace, the kindness, the mercy, the forgiveness, and the compassion of God as we see them in the example of the one we call “Lord, Lord”

Is This a Test?

Monday, 25 February 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

24 February 2019

I. Introduction

  • We all go through tests every day – some those tests are minor – they do not really say much about us or about who we are – they might be tests of patience, such as when some task that we want or need to accomplish does not go as easily as we think it should, or the way we think it should, or the way that we expect it to go – we get frustrated or annoyed, then we shake it off and move on – these are also most of the tests that we take in school – they matter, but in the greater arc of our lives, they are less important than they seem in the moment – and if we ask if something is going to be on the test, that is probably a sign that we are facing one of the minor tests
  • Some of the tests of our lives, however, are significant – they are major tests that go a long way toward determining or demonstrating the kinds of people we are – these are tests of our character or tests of our person, tests that touch us in our core, or that require us to dig deep into ourselves to find the resources to face them– these might  be cases involving great personal loss or opportunities for some gain – these are tests for which there is no studying, no last minute cramming, no all-nighter that will make us ready – in fact, we might find ourselves asking “Is this a test?,” or not even realizing the nature of the experience until it has passed
  • The question of whether we are in the midst of a test might occur to us as we read these word of Jesus’ Sermon on the Level Place

II. Jesus Speaks to Those That Listen

  • Last week we talked about the beginning of the Sermon on the Level Place, the section that we think of as Luke’s version of the Beatitudes – in that first section, Jesus redefines the established social order – whereas in that order we tend to think that wealth, plenty, happiness, and a good reputation are signs of God’s blessing, Jesus says that they are signs of injustice in the world – on the other hand, the ones who find blessing in the Vision of God are the poor, the hungry, the mourners, and the ones who receive hatred, exclusion, revilement, and defamation because they follow Jesus – this is not the way we think it should be, but in God’s Vision, this is the way it is – it falls to the followers of Jesus to bring the established social order into alignment with the Vision – our text today shows us some ways that we can do that. – but know right up front, we are not going to like much of this, and it will never be easy
  • Not surprisingly, it begins with love, but not love for those who love us – this love that Jesus describes is not a feeling or an emotion – it is action – here, Jesus begins with telling those that listen, which in this moment is us, to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who abuse us – if anyone slaps our cheek, instead of slapping them in return, we offer the offer cheek for them to slap – if anyone takes our coat, we offer them our shirt – we give to all who beg – if anyone takes away our possessions, we let go of those possession – we do to others as we would have them do to us
  • Let us be honest, this makes no sense to us, does it? – we may be thinking that this must be one of those times when Jesus speaks metaphorically – if we do even a portion of this, we will not have anything left to call our own – that may be true, in which case, we go back to the blessings: blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mourners, the hated, the excluded the reviled, the defamed – so far, so bad – but Jesus does not stop there
  • Jesus goes on the negate the whole framework of reciprocity– we do not love only those who love us – we do not do good only to those who do good to us – we do not lend only to those from whom we expect to receive
  • In God’s economy, as God’s people we love our enemies, we do good, and we lend expecting nothing in return – and then Jesus gives the reason why – it is because our example is not other people or the ways of the world – our example is God and how God deals with us – God is merciful, so we are to be merciful – God loves, so we are to love – God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, which is who we are, let us be honest, so we are to be kind to them as well
  • We do not judge because we do not want others to judge us – we do not condemn because we do not want others to condemn us – we forgive because until we forgive, we cannot receive forgiveness – we give because until we give we cannot receive – and here is the real kicker: the measure we use is the measure we get – whatever we sow is what we reap

III. Is This a Test?

  • Let us return for a moment to the question of tests – is this a test? – is Jesus testing those that listen, including us? – I think that yes, yes, it is a test – it is not a test, however, that we use to evaluate others – it is a test that we use to examine our own lives – In the Sermon on the Level Place, Jesus holds up a mirror into which we look – but what it shows us is not just our outward appearance– it also shows us what is in our hearts – it does this by showing us what God asks of us and expects from us
  • I said at the beginning that this is not easy – none of it is easy – if we follow Jesus’ teaching, and if we follow the example God sets for us, then we are going to be out of step with the rest of the world – but we will be precisely in step with the Vision of God
  • This is a test, a true test that requires us to decide who we are in the world and to choose the paths that we are going to follow – we follow God’s path, the path of blessing, the path that unites us with every other person – or we follow the world’s path, the path of woe, the path that sets us against every other person in the world – it is test indeed

IV. Conclusion

  • Most of you know that I am a member of the Higginsville Rotary Club – every meeting of the Rotary Club ends with what we call the Four-Way Test of the things we think, say, or do – the test was created in the 1930s by a businessman who believed that the only way to save his business during the Great Depression was to create an atmosphere of high ethical standards and fairness – Rotary International adopted the test in the 1940s when the businessman offered it as a suggestion
  • The Four-Way Test asks four, simple but insightful questions – Is it the truth? – Is it fair to all concerned? – Will it build goodwill and better friendships? – will it be beneficial to all concerned?
  • Using the Four-Way Test as a model, I want to suggest some additional test questions for all of us to ask ourselves about what we think, say, or do – Is it a loving thing to do? – Is it just for all concerned? – Is it generous? – Is it kind? – Is it merciful? – Is it forgiving? – Would I want another to think, say, or do this think about or to me?
  • Following Jesus is a test, my beloved – it is the deepest and truest and most important test we take in our lives – may God give us the courage and the grace to take Jesus’ test

Blessing and Woe

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

17 February 2019

I. Jesus’ Sermon on a Level Place

  • Some of this text, especially the “blessings,” may sound familiar to us – there are some clear connections with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and our Gospel reading for this morning is a part of what we sometimes call the “Sermon on the Plain,” or the “Sermon on a Level Place”
  • As I have said many times before, we have a problem seeing a big picture in the Bible because we read it in bits and pieces from week to week, whereas the first readers of the gospels would likely have read each one, or significant portions of them, in a single setting – so, there are a few things that might help us to come to grips with this gospel story if we can keep them in mind– first, when John the Baptizer begins to preach and baptize (Luke 3.4-6), the Evangelist says that it is a reference to the prophet Isaiah (40.3-5), when the prophet proclaims that God will return the people from the Exile – in doing so, the people are to make the paths straight, fill every valley, make low every mountain and hill, make the crooked road straight, and the rough places smooth (or level) – for the Evangelist, the location of the Sermon in a Level Place, of which this gospel reading is a part, is not simply a matter of geography or merely a contrast to Matthew’s more famous Sermon on the Mount, but a reference to the work of God’s people in bringing all people home to God
  • Next, when Jesus begins his public ministry in Luke’s gospel, he does it in the synagogue in Nazareth, the town in which he grew to adulthood – in the synagogue, he reads from the book of Isaiah (61.1f; Luke 4.18f) and, in effect, declares that his ministry, his work, will follow the prophet’s statement – Jesus will proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of God’s favor – the quotation from Isaiah, according to the Evangelist, demonstrates that from the beginning, Jesus’ has a preference for the poor
  • Finally, immediately preceding our reading we find the story of the selection of the twelve disciples (Luke 6.12-16) – Jesus goes up a mountain to pray, and when morning comes he chooses the core of his group of students – and, having named them, the Evangelist says that they all come down from the mountain to a level place and Jesus begins to teach them what following him and learning from him means – although the Evangelist says that Jesus looks at his disciples, it is clear that Jesus, the disciples, and we all know that the entire crowd is overhearing the message
  • Within that larger group of hearers are Jews (from Judea and Jerusalem) and most likely many Gentiles (from the coast of Tyre and Sidon) – the larger group has come to Jesus for healing, to witness Jesus in action, to try to touch him so that they can receive the power that flows out from him
  • The larger group is also present to hear Jesus teach – it has happened before [Luke 5.1-11, about which you heard last week, or would have heard if we had been able to meet], so I doubt that anyone could be caught off guard
  • The Sermon on the Level Place (or Plain), begins with blessings and woes – these blessings and woes are radical and revolutionary because they completely redefine the established social order – that order said, and still says by and large, that wealth, plenty, laughter, and the praise of others are all signs of blessing – they were and frequently still are signals to anyone who sees that God is with the ones who have such things in their lives
  • To these people, however, Jesus preaches woe – let us be clear, Jesus does not pronounce judgment on them – he says that their lot is full of woe
  • Woe is not a word that we use much today, but it has the sense of anguish, grief, distress, hardship, misery, affliction – to be full of woe is not a happy or blessed state – for Jesus to say that what we usually think of as blessing are actually signs of the opposite of blessing has to be shocking for his students and for the crowds, or at least for the rich among the audience, and maybe for us, too
  • Instead of riches, plenty, laughter, and praise being signs of blessing, Jesus says that his followers will find blessing in poverty, hunger, weeping, and receiving hatred, exclusion, revilement, and defamation from others on account of Jesus (the Son of Man, the Human One) – the poor have the Vision of God, the hungry will be filled, the weeping ones will laugh, and the ones receiving mistreatment because of following Jesus will rejoice and leap for joy and receive reward – this is not a justification for injustice – it is not “pie in the sky, by and by” – it is a redefinition of what truly matters in the Vision of God

II. Blessing and Woe

  • The problem that Jesus addresses here is not simply the problem of wealth and poverty, but what wealth and poverty represent – they are not signs of blessing and woe as we usually reckon such things – they are signs of the essential brokenness of human society and culture – poverty is not punishment from God – it is evidence of injustice because there is enough in the world for everyone to have enough – as long as there is poverty in the world, wealth is not a sign of blessing – it is the other side of the same evidence of injustice
  • Thus, the poor are blessed because they see the justice of the Vision of God and are more willing not to participate in the injustice of human ways – that they would be so willing to have a different way is no surprise to anyone, is it? – no one wants the stigma of poverty that our world holds – we blame the poor for causing their own distress – if they would just work harder – if they would just make better choices – if they were not so lazy – we have all heard these sorts of allegations – most likely, we have even said them ourselves
  • On the other side, the rich have woe because they are not particularly inclined to participate in the change of the system that keeps them wealthy – they like the status quo – they like society as it is because they receive its benefits and privileges – they can change, but they have little incentive to do so, at least from a human way of thinking
  • You see, as followers of Jesus, we live in two worlds – we live in the world that is, the world of power, wealth, plenty, and all the injustice that those characteristics represent – at the same time, we live in the Vision of God, which is the world as it can be, the world of possibilities
  • The choice of which world we will give first place in our lives is up to us – God will not force us to live into the Vision – God will not punish us for falling short of the abundant life that God desires for all – but our choices bring their own blessing and woe – following the way of Jesus, which is the way of justice and blessing, brings plenty for all

III. Conclusion

  • The Vision of God does not simply overturn our established order so that the poor become rich and the rich become poor – the Vision that Jesus teaches says that we are responsible to one another and for one another – it says that if there are poor ones in our world, taking care of them with dignity and integrity is up to the rich – it says that if there are rich ones in the world, their calling is to make sure that everyone has enough to thrive, which is a very good definition of justice – justice does not mean that everyone has the same, but that everyone has enough
  • Jesus goes into precisely what that means in the rest of the Sermon on the Level Place, and I invite you back to talk about some of it next Sunday
  • For now, remember that blessing and woe are the results of our choices – when we choose to follow our own ways and the ways of the world, it leads to woe for everyone, for others and for ourselves – to be blessed, we need only to be a blessing to others

Fish Stories

Monday, 11 February 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

10 February 2019

I. Introduction

  • When we hear the phrase “fish stories,” we probably all think of tall tales, or outright lies – but I want to tell you a fish story today that is the absolute truth, or at least as absolute as I remember it
  • Some of my favorite memories of my childhood involve my grandfather’s cabin on the East Fork of the White River near the town where I grew up – several times when we were younger, my brother and I would get to spend a week at the cabin with our grandfather, whom we called Daddo (I have no idea why) – our days at the cabin were a delight to me – they began before sunrise – the alarm clock, which was located next to Daddo’s bed, would ring out in the dark, but he would never turn it off – it was an old wind-up clock, so it would continue to ring until the spring unwound – we would sleepily get out of bed and dress so we could trudge down the hill to the river – then began the part of the day that was most exciting to me – Daddo placed trot lines in places along the river – a trot line, for those who do not know, is a line that extends across a stream or river – it has weights (Daddo used rocks, geodes, and railroad spikes) attached at intervals to hold the line on the river bottom – every five or six feet, there is a line with a hook on which he placed the bait – to the best of my memory, there were twenty-five or so hooks along the length of the trot line, but it might have been more or less – when my brother and I first arrived for our time at the cabin, the challenge was to find the trot lines in the morning glow as the sun was still behind the hill – the first day, Daddo might show us where they were, but he expected us to find them after that – we would move the boat downstream from the trot line on the side where it was tied to a fallen tree or a root, then motor up to the line until we could take hold of it – we would cut the motor and run the line, pulling the boat across the river by pulling on the trot line – if you have any experience with river fishing, you may know what we were hoping was on the line – we were looking for river catfish, which are bottom-feeding fish and can grow to several pounds – occasionally there would be a perch or even a bass, but mostly they were river cats
  • After running the lines, starting with the line furthest downriver and ending with the one closest to the dock, we would put the fish in a live box that hung down in the river – then we would go to the cabin for breakfast – after breakfast we would return to the river to clean the fish, skinning the cats and scaling any others – after cleaning the fish, the remainder of the day was spent in napping or collecting bait – in all the times I went with Daddo to the river, I never saw him buy bait – usually we collected bait by seining in ponds and streams – the seine nets would gather minnows and crawdads, with crawdads being favorites of the cats – as the day grew late, we would listen to the St. Louis Cardinals games on the radio – and finally, the last thing to do before bed, we set the lines, which involved Daddo using a carbide miner’s headlamp, so we could put the bait on the lines, which were even more difficult to find in the dark – once in a while there would be a fish on a hook, but not often – usually, it was well after midnight before we got back to the cabin after setting the lines
  • I can still hear the sounds of night as we lay in the cabin – the frogs, the crickets, and the train horns sounding from several miles away across the river bottom
  • Those were wonderful times for me, although I am sure I complained about getting up so early – but one of the lessons I learned from those experiences was that fishing, even fishing using trot lines, requires work – without gathering the bait and keeping the lines in good repair and setting the lines and running the lines, there would be no fish to eat – and I loved eating the fish – I still do think there is not much to compare with river cat breaded with cornmeal and fried in a large quantity of grease – but to get the delight of eating the fish meant putting in the time and effort to catch the fish

II. The Fishermen of Galilee

  • Jesus’ first followers, however, did not fish the White River – they did not set trot lines and leave them to soak for the night – they did fish at night, but it was much more labor intensive than my childhood experience – they had to row out into Lake Galilee (or Gennesaret in the Lucan text), throw nets out from their small boats, pull them back into the boat, and remove the fish – it was hard, back-breaking work – and there were times, as anyone who has ever fished knows, when the fish just are not there
  • Such was the case one morning when a group of fishermen return to the shore after a frustrating and fruitless night of toil and hard labor – as they clean and repair their nets, a man, Jesus, comes toward them with a crowd close behind him – Jesus gets into a boat that belongs to Simon, one of the fishermen, whose mother-in-law Jesus had already healed (Luke 4.38f.) and asks Simon to put out from shore a little so that Jesus can speak to the crowd – when he is done, he tells Simon to go out to catch some fish – on the face of it, this is a silly idea – the fishermen had not caught anything all night, and daytime is not the right time for fishing – even so, Simon does not refuse – he puts out, and when he and his crew drop the nets, they cannot pull them back into the boat – they signal their fellow fishermen to come help with the catch and there are so many fish that both boats are in danger of sinking
  • When Simon sees the great catch of fish, he falls down on his knees and says to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” – interesting response, is it not? – what did catching all the fish have to do with Simon Peter being sinful? – his response seems to me to be the result of a comparison between Jesus and himself – Jesus had told Simon to lower his nets, and Simon had done it, perhaps not expecting anything to happen – when the nets come up full, Simon recognizes, what? – his lack of faith? – his doubt? – his cynicism? – whatever it is, it does not stand up well to the comparison with Jesus
  • The load of fish, however, is not only a good haul for the fishermen – it also becomes a metaphor for Jesus to use to make an unusual declaration to Simon Peter and his fellows – they are going to be catching people, Jesus tells them – when they get back to the shore, Simon, James, and John leave everything to follow him – these three may or may not have been all of the fishermen, I think they were not, but they make an immediate choice in that moment – they are going to be doing new work, and they drop their old work, at least for the moment, to go and do it, with Jesus as their teacher

III. Our Fish Stories

  • I believe that every sermon I have ever heard on this text from Luke has emphasized the responses of the fishermen, the way in which they left their nets, their boats, their livelihood behind so that they could follow Jesus, who they had just met, and learn to catch people for the Vision of God – to be sure, that is a powerful message, and one we should hear with ears of faith – for, indeed, I believe that Jesus calls us all, whether we answer the call or not – Jesus invites us, urges us, to become people who commit themselves to the Vision, to inviting others to share in the Vision – I believe that the Vision is worth our time, our effort, and our commitment, and we should want to share it with others – we should want them to be a part of the fellowship we have and of the work that we do – so I do not want to disparage any sermon I have heard, or that you have heard, that stressed the immediacy of the fishermen’s response to Jesus
  • For the moment, however, I want to focus on the fish story, not on the truth or untruth of the story, but the story itself – what we have here is a miracle story that becomes a call story – Simon and the others have heard Jesus and they have seen him do a miraculous thing – but do not get too caught up in the miraculous nature of it, as amazing as it might be – the thing that seems important to me is that, for the fishermen, the catch of fish is a demonstration of Jesus’ identity – whether or not they think at that moment that he is Messiah, they understand that he is different, that he is a man that has something to do and that he wants them to share in it – in effect, this becomes their fish story – it is their fish story in the sense that they could say to anyone, “Wow! Do I have a story for you! We had fished all night and caught nothing, and then Jesus told us to try again, and what a catch we had! There is real power in his words and in his actions” – do you see what I am saying? – the story of their transformation, what I am calling their fish story, is not a story they read or made up – it is what happened to them – and it is a story they could tell time and again
  • If we are followers of Jesus Messiah, we have a fish story of our own, but most of them are not so dramatic as this – for us, it may refer to the example of parents or grandparents or friends – it may be a story of a sudden transformation, like a light coming on in our heads and hearts, or it may be a story of a process that took place over years upon years – but all who follow Jesus make a choice at some point – we choose to identify ourselves with the message, with the community, with Jesus, with the Vision, and the story of that identification is our fish story – it is the story we tell when anyone wants to know why we go to Salem Church, or why we try to follow Jesus – it is the story of one transformation, ours, and it can lead to others

IV. Conclusion

  • I began by talking about my childhood – it was not a story of transformation, although I will gladly tell you that story if you ask – what I told you was story of my formation – those memories, whether the events happened just as I remember them or not, are part of who I am – and the stories we tell bring us together
  • Our fish stories do the same – but they bring us together in spirit, in the fellowship of the church – and they invite others to share their own stories with us as well – we are not here to give answers so much as to listen to people’s stories – so go and tell your fish stories to all who will hear – in the name of Jesus Messiah, go! and listen!

Lamplighter Article, February 2019

Monday, 11 February 2019

Dear Friends,

As I write this article, we have just had our annual meeting. It was a great meeting that followed a great meal. I would like to thank the Women’s Fellowship Service Committee for providing for us all so well. I would also like to thank the members of the Salem Council, and Council president, Delbert Goetz, for moving us through the meeting so efficiently and smoothly. The sermon this morning was based on I Corinthians 12.12-31, and I titled it “One Body.” A part of what I tried to say in the sermon was that in order for us to fulfill our mission and ministry, we must recognize that we all have something to contribute to our life together. Our luncheon and meeting are simple examples of what being one body and using the gifts that we each possess means in a practical sense. With that in mind, we should also thank ourselves for being parts of the body and filling our own roles the best that we can. Well done all.

One of the topics of discussion at the meeting had to do with a social media policy for paid employees and volunteers at Salem Church. This policy was a recommendation of our insurance company. It is an unfortunate statement about our world that such a policy is necessary. All the same, this is the world in which we live and it is necessary. Much of the policy is simple common sense, as Delbert said when he introduced the policy, but we all need occasional reminding even of what is common sense.

The policy is another example of what it means to be the body of Christ. One aspect of our mission is to care for the most vulnerable, for the ones who most need our care and attention. My prayer is that we will never have to invoke the policy. I pray that there will never be a need for us to address issues of sexual impropriety or the misuse of social media at Salem Church. I pray that we will always be aware of and care for “the least of these” in our congregation and in our community. The reality is, however, that we must both pray and act. We act by preparing to the best of our ability for what we pray we will never have to do.

Thank you all, again, for your willingness to act in a responsible and necessary manner on what is a sensitive and heartbreaking issue. We are one body; “If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance” (I Corinthians 12.26, The Message).

Grace and Peace,

Tommy

One Body

Monday, 11 February 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

27 January 2019

I. Introduction

  • I have told you before that when I was in Columbus, Ohio, the church I served received a grant to create a project that brought forward the idea and issues of scientists in congregations – for ten months, we sponsored programs on a wide variety of topics – we invited scientists and science educators from several colleges and universities in the area to come talk about a project on which they were working or in which they simply had an interest – I would focus on their topic and attempt to formulate a theological response or raise the issues that the project might place before us as a community of Jesus’ followers – those topics were widespread, from the life of stars to the developing science of nanotechnology, from language development in apes to the role of DNA in cancer – from the symbiotic life of plants in a desert climate to the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (also called “fracking”) to issues of ecology and environment
  • The programs were extremely challenging for me, but the only thing in my life that compared to the project as a rewarding experience was researching and writing my doctoral dissertation – it was exhausting, but I had a lot of fun with it
  • One of the things that I found consistently impressive was the incredible diversity of our world and, for all we know, of our universe – even more impressive to me was that we share the vast majority of our DNA makeup with most living things, and yet even within species there is an astounding degree of diversity – just look at the diversity within this room and then multiply it by millions, perhaps billions, of permutations and you begin to get an idea of the diversity of our species
  • In addition, the cells of our bodies contain the same DNA, but not all the cells are alike – each of the cells has its own purpose and function and in order for the body to function properly the cells have to perform their functions properly – when they do not then we see illnesses, diseases, and death
  • Paul’s use of the metaphor of the body to describe churches is one of the most familiar images we have from the Bible

II. Paul and the Body

  • Most of the Apostle Paul’s letters to the churches deal with problems in the churches – one of the major problems among the Corinthians is their apparent delight in dividing themselves from one another – the apostle begins the letter by chiding the people for following this teacher or that one while forgetting that Jesus is over all of them – Paul asks the Corinthians if Christ has been divided – the answer, obviously, is that Christ has not been divided – all of the fractured and fractious ways of the Corinthians are for nothing – they serve only to weaken the ministries that they might have in their city
  • So Paul encourages them to put away all the talk of division – he tells them that they have not understood the good news if that is the way that they live
  • Not only are the Corinthian dividing themselves according to their teachers, they are dividing themselves according to spiritual gifts and specific abilities – even though in the section immediately preceding our text for today the apostle says that all the Spiritual gifts are for the common good (12.7), the Corinthians appear to value some spiritual gifts above others – to counteract the divisions, Paul employs the metaphor of the body and develops it in specific ways – he emphasizes repeatedly in these words the organic nature of the body, the unity of the body, the necessity of all parts of the body – the pictures he paints demonstrate his belief that all people have a place in the body of Christ, that all people have something to give to the health and wellbeing of the body, and that no part of the body should consider itself superior to any other
  • In fact, says the Apostle, the parts of the body that we often feel most unsure of, the “less respectable members,” he calls them, are the parts that God glorifies for God’s own purposes – thus, even if we would think less of some part of the body, God will not
  • No gift is without purpose – no part of the body does not belong – even if one part thinks itself superior, or inferior, the apostle tells us that God thinks all are important, all matter – and if the Corinthians desire gifts, they should desire the gifts that build up and strengthen the whole body – these gifts are not greater in the sense of more important or more valuable, but perhaps in the sense of being the ones that bring the most people the most benefits
  • More important, however, than any of the gifts that have been divisive is the gift of love – because that is where these words are going – the more excellent way of v. 31 leads straight into Paul’s hymn about love, the greatest of the gifts, the gift that gives all the other gifts meaning and purpose – adopting the apostle’s metaphor, as followers of Jesus, love is our DNA – love shapes us and defines us – it is the basis of who we are as individuals and as communities of Jesus’ followers

III. One Body

  • We give a good deal of positive emphasis to this idea of the necessity and equality of the body, but we do not always believe it – certainly our world does not believe it – the world tells us that some people are better, or at least more important than others – the world tells us that CEOs of companies are hugely more important that the workers who make whatever it is that the company produces – we know that this is how the world thinks because companies pay CEOs six- and seven-figure salaries while paying the workers an hourly wage and may or may not provide the workers with health insurance
  • Even in the churches we see this sort of thinking – some people consider pastors more important than other members of the churches – some people consider the wealthy or the educated more important than the less wealthy and less educated among the members
  • Paul’s metaphor, however, precludes such thinking – the image of one body with many members, and the way that the apostle develops the image, tells us that every member is important, and for a variety of reasons – the thing is this: none of us can do everything that a church needs to do – none of us can provide everything that a church needs to survive – we all have different abilities, different interests, different levels of energy, and we need all of it to build an effective and compassionate ministry – if any one of us decides not to do what we can do, the rest of us pay the price for that decision – the part of the apostle’s image that strikes me as the most important, which is also the part that we seem to buy into the least, is that we suffer and fail together and we thrive and succeed together
  • Our culture today tells us we are on our own, that we fail or succeed on our own, that we build our lives without any outside assistance – that teaching is a divisive lie – no one ever accomplishes anything entirely alone – and neither do we work alone in the churches
  • We work side-by-side and hand-in-hand with the others of our community – we make a difference in the world because we can demonstrate to the world that every person has value – in the eyes of God, in the heart of Jesus Messiah, and in the life of our congregation, every person has something to contribute – we want every person and every person is necessary – every person belongs
  • We are one body with many members – and in a greater sense we all together are one member among many members in the larger body of Jesus Messiah – all of us, from individual members, to local bodies, to the larger body, are the hands and feet, the mouth and the heart of Jesus Messiah in the world today – and the life and health of the body depend on us all – and we all strive for the more excellent way – the way of love

IV. Conclusion

  • When I was in seminary I read a book called Embodiment, by James B. Nelson, who was at the time a professor at United Theological Seminary, a United Church of Christ institution – one of the most powerful statements Nelson made in that book was, for me, that bodies are not objects that we have – we are not merely the owners of these bodies, but that is often the way we think of them – Nelson declared instead that these bodies are what we are, and he referred frequently to our “body-selves” – our bodies are a part of our identity, not simply vessels in which we live – that was an eye-opening thought for me, and one that has continued to stay with me through the years
  • In a similar way, being the body together is not simply a state of being, it is a way of being – it is not only about what we do and where we gather – being the body together is who we are – it determines, or at least describes, how we relate to one another and to the rest of the world – and each one of us is important to the well-being and proper functioning of the whole
  • I invite and encourage us to embrace this way of being – let us delight in one another – let us build up one another in love – let us embrace and welcome one another as God has embraced and welcomed all of us
  • Always remember that we are one body in Christ and that we are part of one another and of the world

Let Us Not Keep Silent

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

20 January 2019

I. Going Home

  • Last week’s reading from Isaiah was written during the Exile and promised that God was about to act to return the people to Jerusalem and to Judah – God had remembered the people in their distress and was getting to work to end that distress – God called the people by name and would not abandon them
  • This portion of the book of Isaiah was probably written well after the Exile had ended and the people had indeed returned to what was left of Jerusalem and Judah – the place was little more than a shadow of the glory it had known in the days of David and Solomon – no doubt the destruction that the Babylonians had visited upon the land was still apparent in ruined buildings and houses – there were still people living there, a remnant of the people from before the Exile, and who knows what they may have thought of the return of the Exiles – the returnees had to have been, for the greater part, descendants of the leaders and the elites whom the Babylonians had carried away – more than fifty years had passed since the Exile had begun – the returnees who still remembered the glory of the former days could not have been a majority, but they may have been, and most likely were, people of privilege before the Exile
  • These returnees may have thought that they could go back to the homeland of their ancestors and reestablish life there as it had been – they may have thought that they could simply rebuild and pick up where they had left off – but it was not easy to carve a comfortable existence on the ruins of what they had lost
  • Life back in the land is a mixed lot for all of the people – and this text from the prophet seems to indicate that they are beginning to despair – they feel forsaken and desolate – after all, while they were in Babylon, God had spoken through the prophet to tell them that they were going home, that God remembered them, that all would be well – and things most assuredly are not well, not at all well
  • As this text opens, the message is a lament – the prophet is the one who speaks – he does not speak to the people – the prophet speaks to God – and what the prophet speaks to God is not a prayer for help – it is not thanksgiving – at its heart, the prophet’s lament is an accusation to God – it is as if the prophet is saying to God, “Well, you brought us back here with the promise that everything would be great. Does this look great to you? No, it does not. So what are you going to do about it? You better do something, because I am not going to stop reminding you that you have to do something until you do something. I am going to be such a pest that you are going to wish you had done it sooner. You have no idea how I am going to pester you about this.”
  • This is more than a little uncomfortable for many of us – the idea of accusing God of any sort of wrongdoing or failure might seem blasphemous or sacrilegious to us, but it did not to the ancient people of God – nor does it seem so to many modern Jews
  • Having admitted that there is reason for lament, however, the prophet can begin to move toward hope – if he were to have begun with the hope, his message to the people might have been much more difficult for them to hear – but when they know that he knows how they feel, and they know that God knows, then they can begin to sense the possibility of hope – then they can see the possibility that God considers them a crown in God’s hand, that they are not Forsaken or Desolate, that they might actually be the ones in whom God delights and Married
  • With hope in their hearts and spirits, they can even join the prophet in not keeping silent – they can follow the prophet’s example and tell God how they feel – and if they can speak for themselves, then they can speak along with others who also feel as they feel
  • Not keeping silent about things that have gone wrong is an important for the people of God – and it is a task that we need to rediscover for our day because there is still much reason to lament and even more reason to have hope

II. Let Us Not Keep Silent

  • In some ways, I think we modern followers of Jesus have lost the ability to lament, even though there are times when lament is necessary – there are times when we are justified in expressing our feeling that God has failed us – we are only human, after all, and that feeling of disappointment comes to us all – and it might even seem that God is responsible for our disappointment
  • We can pretend to ourselves that we do not feel as we do – we can suppress our disappointment in God – but then we are left with the fact that we still feel what we feel, while thinking that we should not feel that way at all, which can lead to shame and depression – and it leaves us with the sense that we should handle those feelings without God’s help, as if we can do anything alone
  • Expressing our feelings, all of our feelings, is not an improper thing to do – telling God how we feel brings all of those feelings into our relationship with God and affirms that God is sovereign over every part of our lives – giving voice to those feelings also serves to remind us who we are and whose we are, and then we can deal with the feelings honestly – it is a healthy way for us to go
  • So let us not keep silent when it feels as if God is far away from our lives and from the world – let us call on God to come and bring justice and healing to us all – but let us also be aware that when we call on God to bring justice into the world, God will very likely use us to do it – God works in the world through God’s people
  • We must also be aware that being God’s people does not place us in a position of power over others – not keeping silent when we see injustice in the world does not mean that we are in charge or that others should simply do what we think they should do – being God’s people and not keeping silent in the face of injustice and the marginalization of human beings is part of our prophetic mission – we cannot keep silent because God’s justice is for all people, excluding no one and no group

III. Conclusion

  • I was deeply disturbed this week to read about a group explicitly identifying itself as Christian wanting to have the mention of LGBT people removed from a proposed federal law to make lynching a hate crime – the Christian group does not advocate lynching, but feels that including LGBT people among the protected groups would open the door to allowing people with minority sexual orientations and gender identities to have the same human rights as the majority – the Christian group feels justified in limiting the rights of people who do not fit with the group’s definition of what is
  • When we see any people being pushed to the margins of society because of race or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity, let us not keep silent – when we see people being oppressed by any majority for any reason, let us not keep silent – when we see any person dehumanized or harmed or rejected in the name of Jesus, let us not keep silent, because all of those people are made in God’s image
  • Let us not keep silent in this world, but tell everyone, especially those who have worldly authority, that God’s love and justice are for all of creation – let us not keep silent

Called by Name

Monday, 14 January 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

13 January 2019

I. Introduction

  • You all know that our daughter’s name is Naphtali – some of you may even know the origin of the name – it was the name of one of the sons of Jacob – the name is probably related to the word for “to wind, to twist,” and it is a metaphor for wrestling (Genesis 30.8) – that may seem to be a really terrible name for a person, certainly not entirely complimentary, but Jacob’s blessing for Naphtali (Genesis 49.21) as Jacob neared death was that Naphtali is a doe let loose that bears lovely fawns, or that gives beautiful words – that seemed to me to be a lovely blessing to send a girl into the world – now I cannot imagine Naphtali by any other name
  • Names are important things – they are ways that identify us – they can identify the family of our birth, or the family of our choosing – they can be unique or they can be common – but whatever else they are, they are ours
  • In our text for today, calling someone by name is a sign of possession, but more deeply, it is a sign of protection and love – and that is something that we all need

II. God Speaks

  • The people feel lost in the Babylonian Exile – they are cut off from everything that they have known and loved – they are cut off from the land, the land that God had given them – and if they are cut off from the land, then they believe that they are cut off from God – to be cut off from God it to be truly in darkness – it is truly to be hopeless, helpless, lifeless – in some deeply theological and personal ways, to be cut off from God is nothing less than a definition of death – think about that
  • I do not think that we can fully understand the depths of their despair – there is almost nothing in our lives today to which we can compare it – the only thing I can think of is those times in our lives when we feel utterly alone – for some of us, those times come more often than for others of us – for others of us, those times come only rarely if at all, and are usually short lived
  • One of the questions the people must have ask is about how this had happened to them – how is it that the people of God, the same God who had created the universe and even created them as a people, could end up as exiles? – the answer they come to is that they and their leaders have been faithless – they had been like Hosea’s wife, Gomer, who sold herself cheaply to whoever came along – they had followed foreign gods and foreign ways – and their faithlessness to God has made them vulnerable to capture and exile – not to put too fine a point on it, the people had brought their Exile on themselves – I do not want to blame the victims here, but the prophets repeatedly told the kings and the people that they were going in the wrong direction – they were forgetting the poor – they were forgetting the stranger and the foreigner in their midst – when we read what the prophets say, this is a message that we will find a great deal
  • The nation also trusts in itself rather than in God – the kings and leaders trust their own ideas, their own methods, forgetting to trust in what God says through the prophets – it is an untenable situation and it goes badly for the people of Judah
  • In this text from, Isaiah, however, while there is no explanation for the Exile or any assignment of guilt or blame, there is a message from God and it speaks of something powerful – it speaks of a new beginning – it speaks of belonging – it speaks of hope – it speaks of redemption
  • The message begins with an affirmation of origins – God, the creator of the world and the universe, also created the people of Jacob, also known as Israel – even in circumstances as apparently hopeless as the Exile, the people need not fear because God has already redeemed them and they are God’s
  • The images of waters and rivers, fire and flame tell of times of trial and trouble – they tell of difficulty, stress, and danger – they also tell of a time when, according to the history of the people, God led them through the waters – in all the perils the people have ever faced, God has been with them – and God is with them in Babylon, too – they are not cut off from God – they are not alone – God is with them
  • There is, however, a darker side to this text – the prophet reports that God says that God will exchange another country, another people, for Israel – as the savior of the people, God will give Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba to redeem the people – this might not be good news to the people of Egypt, Ethiopia, or Seba, but later (Isaiah 45), when God tells the people that the Egyptians, the Ethiopians, and the Sabeans will be theirs, should we not also hear God saying to the people, “You are mine”? – if the Exiles are God’s possession, then those who belong to God’s people are also God’s possessions – it is important to keep that in our minds, too
  • Even with this darker side we see a picture of God that shows that there are no limits to God’s love – God will do whatever is necessary to make that love known in the world – so God’s people do not need to fear –wherever they are, God will be with them – scattered as they are to the ends of the earth, north, south, east, and west, they are never beyond the reach of God’s gracious, loving, redemption – everyone who is called by God’s name, everyone whom God created for God’s glory, everyone whom God formed and made, these are the ones with whom God will be present
  • One question that comes to me is this: whom has God created for God’s glory? – in this text, the answer would appear to be God’s people in exile in Babylon – but there is another way to look at this – since Jesus has come into the world, making manifest God’s Vision, revealing to us a larger picture of God’s work in the world, we understand that, in a real sense, all people are God’s people – and God calls us all by name

III. Called by Name

  • In biblical terms, the use of names is more than simply as identifiers – as in the case of Naphtali, names have meanings, and those meanings matter – for example, the name that we pronounce as “Jesus” is actually the Hebrew name “Yeshuah,” and it means “God saves” – we hear the same name quite commonly today: “Joshua”
  • But more deeply, in a sense that we have forgotten or de-emphasized to the point of making it meaningless, in the Bible, a name is the person – the name represents all that a person is, knows, and does – there is no distinction between the person and the person’s name – on this point, the Bible disagrees with Shakespeare’s Juliet – a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but it would not be a rose – in the Bible, a name change is a momentous thing
  • When the prophet says that God calls everyone by their names, it is to say that God knows all human beings completely – there is nothing about human beings that God does not know because God calls us all by name and says that we all belong to God
  • This is what we do in baptism – we recognize that God calls us all by name, that God loves us all, that God wants the best for us all, that we all belong to God – in the three stories of Jesus’ baptism that we have in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, as Jesus comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit announces that he is God’s son, the Beloved, and that God is well pleased with him
  • When we baptize, we make the same announcement, whether or not we use those same words – we say that God loves this child, that this child has already received God’s grace and mercy, that God calls this child by name, and that this child belongs to God
  • And if we have been baptized, then those same words are for us, too – God loves us, we have already received God’s grace and mercy, God calls us by name, and we belong to God
  • When we have been baptized, like Jesus, we then spend the remainder of our lives telling everyone we know, everyone we meet, that those words are for them – there is no one whom God does not love – there is no one who has not received God’s grace and mercy – there is no one whose name God does not call – there is no one who does not belong to God

IV. Conclusion

  • To hear God call us by name is a marvelous thing – to know that God calls us to be God’s people is a wonder
  • We can and should delight in sharing God’s call with others, in calling them by name and loving them as God loves them, seeing them as God sees them