God Near By

Monday, 15 August 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

14 August 2022

I. Introduction

  • There is a verse from the Apostle Paul that kept coming to mind as I read, prayed, and studied for today’s sermon from this difficult text from Jeremiah
  • The apostle says that the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine but will find teachers who will speak words that will soothe their itching ears – they will turn away from God’s truth and wander off after falsehoods (II Timothy 4.3f.)
  • Those words are an echo of Jeremiah’s ancient sermon

II. Against False Prophets

  • The prophet Jeremiah preached in a particularly tumultuous time in the history of Judah, the southern kingdom of God’s ancient people – the northern kingdom had been gone for a hundred years or more, since the Assyrian Empire had depopulated Israel and moved in foreigners to replace them
  • Judah had continued, but the life of the kingdom was an uneasy one – there were always more powerful nations around them – indeed, the Assyrian Empire, which existed for hundreds of years, finally fell to the Babylonians, which would in turn fall to the Persians after less than a century of domination – Jeremiah preached during the period when the Babylonians exerted their influence over Judah and other nations
  • You may have heard people refer to Jeremiah as the “weeping prophet,” in part because he was so reluctant to preach harsh words to the leaders, the priests, and the people of Judah – he would rather have kept it all to himself, but said that if he were to have kept silence, that he felt something inside him like a fire shut up in his bones, and that he could not hold it in (Jeremiah 20.9)
  • So he preached words of warning and judgment against the leaders and the priests and the prophets in Judah – his words were often harsh, or so they might seem to our ears, and the price that he paid for preaching them was severe – he was arrested, beaten, placed in stocks, reviled, mocked, derided, his life was threatened, and more – no wonder we call him the weeping prophet – I would weep, too
  • Much of his preaching focuses on the abuses that the leaders, priests, and prophets perpetrated on the people, especially on the poor, the weak, the widows, the orphans, and the strangers – God is not well pleased by any of it, and sends Jeremiah to call the powerful people to account
  • In the part of Jeremiah’s sermon that we read this morning, God’s primary emphasis is on false prophets – these are preachers who claim that they are speaking at God’s instruction, but are not – they say, “says the Lord,” when God has said no such thing – they say that they have dreams and vision, but are actually speaking the visions of their own minds (Jeremiah 23.16)
  • God is intimately aware of what is happening – God is near by – near enough to hear the words of the false prophets – while we likely think of the words “God is near by” as words of comfort in difficult times and places, they are not words of comfort to the false prophets – God is near by and knows what they are saying to the people
  • At the same time, God is far enough away to have sight of the big picture – God fills heaven and earth, and knows all of the secret places in which the false prophets think they can hide from God – God is both near and far – in scholarly terms, God is both immanent and transcendent – God is in all times and all places all at once and knows what the false prophets say – “I have dreamed,” they say falsely, “I have dreamed”
  • The circumstances are so bad that God has Jeremiah employ the words of lament so familiar in the Psalms – “how long?” God says through the prophet – but this lament turns the tables on the usual form – usually when we hear these words, the people direct them toward God, asking how long God will allow an intolerable situation to continue – here, however, God directs the lament toward the false prophets – how long will they refuse to turn back to God – how long will they strive to make the people forget God’s name, to make the people forget who God is – such false prophets are no better than their ancestors who followed after Ba’al
  • God’s decision is to let the false prophets who have dreams to tell their dreams and to let the prophet who has God’s word to speak God’s word faithfully, and leave to the people to decide which is true – the difference between the two sermons will be as the difference between straw and wheat
  • The dreams of the false prophets might bring false comfort and empty promises to the powerful ones of Judah, but God’s word from a true prophet comes as a fire and as a hammer that breaks rock – for the present, God will allow the false prophets to tell about their so-called dreams, but makes clear that God stands against all the false prophets and their vain words, and warns that their actions will not benefit the people at all

III. God Near By

  • The obvious group today on which we might expect that these words would have the greatest effect is preachers – anyone who undertakes to speak anything about God would do well to listen carefully to Jeremiah – I know I have told you before that there is not a week that I do not think to myself, “who am I to say this to God’s people?” – I am a frail, fallible, broken human being who has the task of presuming to say something meaningful based on the text of the week – how do I do that?
  • For me, I always try to remember that I am not preaching to you – that may seem an odd thing to say, given that I am the only one speaking here, but I hold that it is true – I preach out of the ongoing dialogue that is our life, our mission, our ministry together – but if I were to think to myself that so-and-so really needs to hear this, then I would be belying our relationship – instead, I direct my sermons to one person: myself – I can do no other
  • While Jeremiah’s words from God speak to me clearly as a preacher, they also have something to say to those who do not preach – non-preachers have the task of determining what, if anything, in a sermon is word of God for them, without giving in to the temptation to have their itching ears soothed – here we have the difficulty that nether Jeremiah nor other writers of the Bible tell us directly how we determine if what we hear is straw or wheat, a false word or a true word – that is your part in sermonizing – you have to listen for the truth for yourself and discard whatever honestly, truthfully, and earnestly not your truth – fortunately, or more properly, providentially, we have the presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit to guide us into God’s truth – and we have to trust that they will do their work – God is the God near by to show us what we need to see and to speak to us what we need to hear
  • This is all hard work, for all of us – for me, strive to understand, interpret, and proclaim God’s word faithfully – for you, to listen with ears of faith for God’s word when it comes to us

IV. Conclusion

  • Let us not seek teaching that simply suits our own desires – let us seek teaching that challenges us to follow the paths of God now and always
  • May the God near by be with us constantly, to guide us into God’s truth for all people

Dressed for Action

Monday, 8 August 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

7 August 2022

I. Have No Fear, Have Proper Treasure, Be Prepared

  • Our gospel lesson for today begins with Jesus telling his “little flock” not to be afraid because it is their “Father’s good pleasure” to give them the kingdom – or, as I think of it, it is God’s good pleasure to give them the Vision for the world
  • Our reading comes at the end of a section that is not a part of the lectionary, but very much sets the stage for our reading – early in chapter 12, Jesus tells his little flock not to be afraid for their lives – there are people who can take their human lives, but God knows what happens to every bird in the sky and numbers the hairs on every head – whatever happens, the little flock need have no fear – God sees them and will not forget them (Luke 12.4-7)
  • Then Jesus tells his followers not to worry if they get into a situation in which they will have to defend themselves verbally – even if they do not know what to say, the Holy Spirit will give them the necessary words (Luke 12.8-12)
  • Next comes a teaching, including a short parable, about trusting too much in the world’s wealth – doing that increases fear and distress, and, after all, as the saying has it, you cannot take it with you – in the end, bigger barns avail nothing, whereas caring for the poor and needy makes one rich toward God (Luke 12.13-21)
  • Finally, Jesus tells his flock not to worry about this life, about what to wear and having enough to eat – again, God knows what human beings need, and by striving for the Vision of God, everything in the lives of Jesus’ flock will have its proper perspective and place – Jesus reminds his friends that their worry accomplishes nothing – they cannot add a single hour to their lives by their worry – the only thing fear and worry do is to take Jesus’ people’s eyes and hearts away from the Vision and from their mission – instead, all they have to do is to trust in God (Luke 12.22-31)
  • There is no need for fear or worry because God’s good pleasure is to give them the Vision – instead of striving for things that are temporary, for the things of this world, they should strive for something that is eternal – and that God’s good pleasure is to give them the Vision tells them that God, who loves and cares for them, sees everything that happens, and even though it appears that violence and death rule the day, they cannot ever succeed unless human beings allow it to happen
  • Jesus goes so far as to say that his little flock should sell all their possessions and give to the poor, because that will help them trust in God for everything – Jesus knows that having possessions presents people with the temptation to trust in themselves and in their possessions rather than in God – because where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also – we wish that it were the other way around, that where our heart is there we would put our treasure – but all too often for us humans, our possessions possess us rather than the other way around, and in truth our hearts go to those things that we value most, to our earthly treasures
  • With the encouragement to have their treasures and their hearts in the right place, Jesus talks to his little flock about being ready for the completion, for the fulfillment, of the Vision – to be dressed for action, to be ready for the fulfillment of the Vision, is one of the objects of discipleship – when disciples lay aside their fears, put their treasure and hearts with God, and dress for action, they are ready for whatever God calls them to do – and so are we

II. Dressed for Action

  • After all, in some essential ways we are not so very different from Jesus’ first little flock – we have many of the same desires for life, health, and family – we still live in the world, but with a very different set of guides from those of the world – we know all too well what the guides of the world are and where they lead – our worldly guides, which we treat as gods, lead to fear, worry, division, destruction, and death – for us as followers of Jesus, as members of his little flock today, however, as we live into the Vision of God, our guides are God, Jesus, the prophets, and our tradition, and these guides lead to love and abundant life for all of God’s children
  • A significant part of our work as members of Jesus’ little flock of this day, then, is to be dressed for action, to be prepared to follow where God leads
  • I like to think that as we mark the 152nd anniversary of the founding of Salem Church, that that is what our forebears did – they were dressed for action, and when God called them to this place in which to work and serve the world, they were ready
  • For us to be ready does not mean much different from what it meant for the first little flock, or from what it meant to our founders – it means listening for the voice of God calling us to action – it means not allowing our possessions to possess us – it means using what we have to care for the poor and the outcast – it means refusing to grant things more importance than people – it means giving our lives in service to God wherever we are and whatever we do
  • As we do these things, we discover God’s good pleasure all along has been to fulfill the Vision in us and through us

III. Conclusion

  • Let us be dressed for action – let us be the people God has called us to be – because it is God’s good pleasure to give us the Vision

The Holy One in Our Midst

Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

31 July 2022

I. A Parent and Child

  • As we near the end of Hosea’s sermons, we are still in territory that must be somewhat familiar by now – the people of the Northern Kingdom, which is called Israel, are moving in unhelpful, unhealthy, and unjust directions, and God’s messenger attempts to bring them back to God’s path before things have gone too far
  • The prophet continues to use a metaphor of family to speak of the relationship between God and the people – whereas he began with a metaphor of marriage, now the image is of a parent and a disobedient and rebellious child
  • God’s message to the people begins with a look back at Israel’s youth in Egypt – God loved God’s child, Israel, when they were in that place of oppression, and because of God’s love, God called Israel out of Egypt
  • Israel did respond and followed God, and God’s messenger Moses, from slavery and into freedom, but once out, the more God called, the more God’s willful and disobedient child went off on their own way – the more God called, the more they offered sacrifices and incense to foreign gods
  • In their willfulness, Israel ignored God’s teaching, training, healing, and provision – in their willfulness, they failed to recognize that God cradled them in God’s arms, trained them with cords of kindness and bands of love – employing a particularly beautiful and tender image, the prophet says that God lifted God’s child to God’s face like a mother with an infant – and God fed them
  • Even so, Israel would have their own way – they would return voluntarily to Egypt, to a slavery they know at least historically, and go unwillingly to Assyria and a slavery they do not yet know – they have acted as if these were their only choices, failing to see that there is yet another option – they could return to God their parent – they could stay true to the Holy One who has been as a parent to them
  • Running to Egypt, or waiting to see what Assyria would do to them, both are disastrous – those are the ways of death by the sword because by following those ways, the people put their trust in human institutions and human power rather than in God their parent
  • The questions that God poses through the prophet are, of course, rhetorical – how can God give up Ephraim? – Ephraim here is another name for Israel, being historically one of the tribes of the Northern Kingdom, the descendants of Joseph through his son Ephraim – how can God allow to happen to Ephraim what happened to Admah and Zeboiim, cities destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah?
  • The questions are rhetorical because there is really only one answer – how can God give up on the people? – the answer is that God cannot, and will not give up on the people, even though they are stubborn, rebellious, and disobedient – they might not be faithful to God, but God will always be faithful to them
  • God will roar like a lion, but not to frighten God’s child, Israel – God’s roar will be a call for Israel to return like trembling birds from other places – God will be faithful and God’s child Israel will return to their homes, says the Lord

II. The Holy One in Our Midst

  • The key contrast in this difficult and hopeful message is between God as the parent of God’s people on the one hand and human parents on the other
  • Human parents are, after all, human – human parents might want to continue to love intransigent and intractable children, but human parents are just as likely to give up – when their children take off in harmful or unhealthy directions, human parents are sometimes as likely as not to give in to anger and to frustration – even though parents invest themselves in the care, feeding, and training of children, when all of it produces undesirable results, parents sometimes just throw up their hands and give up
  • The prophet, however, reminds us of this very important fact: God is God and not mortal – God is the Holy One in the midst of the people – God will not give in to anger or frustration – God will not come in wrath to God’s people
  • Jesus comes every day to declare that truth anew – God is God and no mortal – God does not carry anger and frustration toward any people – God’s parental love will never give up on any of us – God’s parental love is the demonstration that God is in our midst
  • I find is sad that so many followers of Jesus still hold on to the image of an angry and vengeful God – an image of God that sees God acting in anger and wrath toward God’s children, or at least toward God’s children who are different from us in some way
  • Jesus’ consistent teaching about God’s steadfast and faithful love toward human beings sometimes seems to count for very little – the teaching of the prophets about God’s desire for the best possible life for all of God’s children, abundant life living in God’s peace in the world, falls to the wayside and in its place is a picture of God as an unforgiving, ungracious, cruel, and capricious God
  • I have occasionally wondered why we see God in this way, but I think the answer is clear – we see God this way because this is how we are – we do not like some other people and we assume that God does not like them either – we create God in our own image
  • But God is God and no mortal – God is the Holy One in our midst, calling us in love to leave behind our allegiance to other gods, and to leave behind our lives of slavery to our own selfish desires
  • Just as was true with the ancient people of Israel, we find our new gods alluring and seductive, and they, too, are in our image – the modern gods of power, wealth, status, race, nation, and so on, attract us with promises of more stuff, more power, more wealth, more domination over others – but these modern gods are the ones who are not kind, not forgiving – they are gods of our own creation and once we have given them our allegiance, we find that they do not and indeed cannot deliver on their promises – they are limited and finite and completely insatiable – they always devour and destroy and will devour their creators as quickly as any other offering
  • The Holy One in our midst, however, knows no limits – there is no limit to the Holy One’s love for us – there is no limit to the Holy One’s mercy toward us – there is no limit to the Holy One’s desire for life for all of the Holy One’s children
  • At the same time, the Holy One in our midst will never force us to follow – we are always free to return to Egypt or to face the worldly power of Assyria and live, or die, with the consequences

III. Conclusion

  • The Holy One is in our midst every moment of every day – we live in God’s power and love, which enable us to love and serve everyone we meet
  • This is our hope and our calling – God will not and cannot give us up or hand us over – and we must not give up on the world around us
  • Let us embody the life of the Holy One in our midst every day of our lives

Children of the Living God

Monday, 25 July 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

24 July 2022

I. Introduction

  • You all probably know that I am a fan of science fiction – these days, I have no shortage of sci-fi television shows from which to choose, especially in the Star Trek universe
  • In several of the shows in that imagined future universe of Star Trek, there is a group of warrior women who take up lost causes – when they confront forces who oppose the cause they have taken as their own, they say to the opponents, “Choose to live, my friend” – after hearing the statement several times, we learn that it is an abbreviated form of a statement that in its longer form says, “The path you are on has come to an end. Choose to live, my friend” – the threat, both implied and explicit, is that if the opponent does not choose another path, then things will not end well for the opponent
  • In essence, both last week’s text from Amos and this one from Hosea are the prophets’ statement on behalf of God that the path that the people of Israel are on has come to an end – the time has come for them to choose another path and live – in both cases, the alternate path is God’s path of justice and fidelity

II. More Hard Words

  • The story that provides the framework of Hosea’s sermons is a difficult one on several levels – first, the metaphor in which a marriage between the prophet and a promiscuous woman as an image of God and God’s people does not reflect our modern understanding of marriage
  • For example, there is no sense in which Hosea and Gomer are equals – according to the ancient way of thinking, Gomer essentially is Hosea’s property – her supposed unfaithfulness, then, is a negative reflection on Hosea’s honor – she has no choice in the marriage, any more than she has a choice in the naming of the children – oh, and by the way, the children are also basically Hosea’s property, to do with as he chooses
  • Gomer’s name does not appear in Hosea’s sermons outside of these few verses – and nowhere in Hosea does Gomer speak – in short, we know nothing about Gomer other than what we read here – she is the daughter of Diblaim (about whom we know nothing more than that he, or she, is a parent to Gomer), she is married to Hosea, and bears three children
  • The problem with having so little knowledge and understanding about Gomer is that she represents God’s people in the story – Hebrew men, women, and children, are all wrapped up in who Gomer is and what she does
  • Even that, however, is not what the story is about – the story is about God and about God’s experience with the people of Israel
  • Once again, as with the sermons of Amos, the setting is the Northern Kingdom – the two prophets even work about the same time – their messages, however, are not precisely the same – remember that there is relative peace and prosperity in Israel, even with the Southern Kingdom of Judah – as far as the religious and political authorities in Israel are concerned, all is well
  • Amos did not think it was so – remember that he preaches about the abominable treatment that the poor receive at the hands of the powers – the rich cheat the poor and treat them as if they were things instead of people – the rich have even considered the holy days of new moons and Sabbaths as inconveniences, as impediments to doing business and making a profit – in his sermons, Amos expresses God’s displeasure, declaring that God has had enough and  will neither forgive nor forget how the nation has treated the poor and the outcast
  • Hosea takes a somewhat different tack from Amos, although we cannot make an absolute distinction between the two – whereas Amos’s focus is primarily on social justice, Hosea’s concern is for religious fidelity
  • As problematic as the marriage of Gomer and Hosea is, it is nevertheless the metaphor through which the prophet views the unfaithfulness, the infidelity, of the people to God
  • Hosea uses the term “whoredom” to describe Gomer – God instructs the prophet to take a “wife of whoredom” and have “children of whoredom” because the land commits “great whoredom” by chasing after other gods – the term is harsh, even vulgar, but it makes an implication that is a distraction for us modern readers – for many of us, the idea of whoredom relates to prostitution – there is no positive statement that Gomer is a prostitute, and, to be honest, there is no statement that she is not – but the metaphor leads me to believe that a better term for Gomer, although still problematic, is “promiscuous” – she may not be a prostitute, but in the metaphor, she is certainly unfaithful, just as the people have been unfaithful
  • When Gomer becomes pregnant and births a son, God instructs Hosea to name the child Jezreel, which means “God sows” – that does not seem so bad, but the reason is that God is going to avenge blood that was shed in the Valley of Jezreel – the assassination that took place there led to the king who currently holds the throne in Israel – this injustice displeases God and God will not allow it to stand
  • The second child, a daughter, gets the name Lo-ruhamah, which means “no pity,” or “no compassion” – she represents the end of God’s compassion and forgiveness for Israel’s faithlessness, which the people demonstrate by engaging in the worship of Ba’al
  • The third child, another son, gets the name Lo-ammi, which means “not my people” – Lo-ammi embodies God’s undoing of the Covenant – the Covenant had said that God would be Israel’s God, and Israel would be God’s people – but the people’s faithlessness has brought that to an end
  • Or has it?
  • By the end of our reading, God has already declared that God will be faithful even if the people will not – where they have earned the name Not-my-people, God will still claim them as Children of the Living God
  • The prophet’s metaphor avers that God is done with the people and their following after other gods, but once again we learn that God’s mercy is greater than God’s frustration and disappointment, and that God will not, cannot, let the people go
  • Having said that, within a few decades of the preaching of both Amos and Hosea, the Assyrian Empire crushed the Northern Kingdom and Israel was no more – the prophets told the nation to choose another path – Israel largely ignored the prophets and received the consequences for their choice

III. Children of the Living God

  • As we hear this story today, we might want to think that we are on Hosea’s side, but the structure of the story is such that we are to see ourselves in the characters of Gomer and her children – too often, we follow after other gods, the gods of wealth, domination, hatred, intolerance, and anger, among others – and through these ancient prophets God says to us that such paths have come to an end – the time has come to choose another path and to live
  • The path that God offers to us, the path that God desires for us, is the path that Jesus embodies – Jesus’ path is the way of peace, mercy, love, and forgiveness – Jesus’ path is the path of serving others, including putative enemies – Jesus’ path is the path of children of the living God
  • Jesus’ path is the path of hope for all people – it is the path of life, abundant life, for all people – it is the path that God sets before us every day

IV. Conclusion

  • Let us choose to live, my friends – let us choose each moment to live and work for the best possible life for all of God’s children – let us show the world and our neighbors the loving, life-giving, gracious, merciful ways of the children of the living God

First Judgment, Then Mercy

Monday, 18 July 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

17 July 2022

I. Introduction

  • A prophet’s work is always difficult – the prophet confronts the powers of the world with God’s will and God’s word – such a confrontation is not pleasing for either party – by doing as God instructs and leads, the prophet often comes face to face with the full worldly force of the powers – as for the powers, they do not enjoy having anyone challenge them, and when the challenges come, the way of the powers is to deal with the challengers with anger and violence
  • Occasionally, when the situation in the world is difficult, the prophet might stand a better chance of gaining a hearing with the powers and authorities – when all is right with the world, or seems to be, however, the work of the prophets is almost always more difficult
  • As Amos confronts the powers of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the situation is quite comfortable – there is an extended time of peace with the surrounding nations – there is relative prosperity for the people – no one wants to hear what this prophet from the Southern Kingdom has to say, the king and priests least of all – and yet this is where God has sent Amos, and this is where Amos goes to preach the message that God gives him

II. Hard Words

  • This portion of Amos’s prophecies includes several visions, which then lead to words of judgment on Israel – from a swarm of locusts attacking the land, to a shower of fire raining down, to a plumb line that God sets in the midst of the people, and, in today’s text, a bowl of overripe fruit just about to go bad – we do not get the word play in this text because it does not easily translate into English, but the Hebrew word for “summer fruit” sounds very much like the word for “the end” – the basket of summer fruit is at the end, and is a metaphor for what has come upon God’s people – and it is not a pretty picture
  • God is not going to “pass by” the people again, which is to say that God will not pardon the failures of Israel any longer – God will not turn a blind eye – temple songs will become wailings and there will be dead bodies everywhere – and then God commands that the wailing stop – BE Silent! – Hush!
  • Into this silence, God speaks hard words for the king, the priests, and the people – they all have acted with injustice toward the poor – they all have diminished the holy days of new moons and Sabbaths, wanting the sacred services to be done so that they can get back to making money
  • If that were not bad enough, they also deal dishonestly – they use short measures of grain for sale and they use heavy weights for the required payments, so that the buyers get less and pay more – they keep a finger on the scales so that they are out of balance – they buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – they value things more than they value people – and God swears that God will not forget any of it
  • There will be darkness at noon – feasts will become mourning – songs will be lamentations – everyone will wear sackcloth – everyone will mourn as if for the death of an only son
  • Worst of all, after all of that harsh judgment, God says that God is going to stop talking – just as God commanded silence from the wailing singers, now God will be silent – this is most shocking of all – there will be a famine on the land – this will not be a famine of bread or an unquenchable thirst due to a shortage of water – this will be a famine of God’s words – this famine will be so upsetting, so disorienting, that people will run from south to west, from north to east, from sea to sea, searching for God’s words – the people will search madly, running everywhere, but they will not find God’s words
  • The people of the Northern Kingdom think that they are on top of the world – everything is going so well – they have plenty of money and peace with the nations around them – and if the poor do not have enough, well that is really not the nation’s problem – so the prophet’s sermons might seem a bit disconnected from reality
  • The threat of a famine of God’s words is beyond imagining – to the rich Israelites, maybe it is just so much fantasy that they feel justified to ignore it – the picture that the prophet paints for them is among the most gut-wrenching, heartbreaking images of the entire Bible – surely God will not allow it – surely not

III. First Judgment, Then Mercy

  • Although we find the sermons of Amos in the middle of the books of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, Amos is among the earliest of God’s preachers – and he sets a pattern that we see often among the prophets
  • Amos does not predict the future – he issues a warning – he tells the people that things have to change – God has set forces in motion that will lead almost inevitably to the downfall of the nation of God’s people – Amos’s warning treats the message as if it is all already done and dusted – the whole matter is settled – he does not say that there is anything that the people can do to avoid the disaster that is come, and yet there is something of a warning in it all
  • The warning, and a word of hope, does not become apparent until the closing verses of Amos’s sermons – after another devastating vision and accompanying sermon, after “all the sinner of my people shall perish by the sword” (Amos 9.10), after the worst has happened, only then will God begin the process of reclaiming the people
  • In the end, after all is said and done, after judgment has run its course, God’s mercy is greater – first judgment and then mercy – as always, God’s judgment is that we receive the consequences of our actions and choice – as Jesus puts it, with the judgment we make we will be judged – the measure we give will be the measure we get (Matthew 7.2)– if we choose to be unforgiving, uncaring, and unjust, then that is the measure of our lives – as the apostle says, we reap what we sow (Galatians 6.7)
  • There are some in the world who say that the poor have earned their poverty by bad choices and bad living – they say that we have no responsibility for the poor – Jesus and the prophets say otherwise – Jesus and the prophets tell us to deal well and honestly with the poor – when we do not, then come the consequences of our injustice
  • We do not escape the consequences of our choices – even though God’s judgment is always mercy, the consequences of how we choose to live remain ours to bear
  • But then comes the mercy, God’s mercy, God’s grace, which we do not earn but can share and must share freely in the world – caring for the poor is never about receiving a reward for our work – it is simply a matter of doing what God calls us to do, of caring for the ones for whom God consistently demonstrates a preference
  • A part of our work is to make sure that the world around us hears the message of God’s justice and hope, the message that God cares for the poor, the broken, the marginalized, and so, too, must God’s people care for them

IV. Conclusion

  • First judgment, then mercy – God gets the final word – we get the privilege and the responsibility of making that word real in a broken world

Not Too Hard, Not Too Far

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Not Too Hard, Not Too Far

Salem United Church of Christ, Higginsville, Missouri

I. Moses Teaches at the Border

  • According to the tradition, at the time of this story the people of God have wandered around the wilderness of Sinai for forty years – the four decades of travel have not been unimportant – much has happened to the people – perhaps most importantly, they have come to know who God is and who they are in relation to God
  • The people have learned that God loves them and protects them – they have learned what God requires from God’s people – they have learned how they are to live in community together and with the world around them – they have learned that God is their God – they have learned that God listens when they call – they have learned that God’s love for them is steadfast
  • They have also learned that there are consequences for their choices – when they choose to ignore God’s Instruction and follow their own ways and wishes, God’s judgment is that they will reap what they have sown – that is the way God works – after all, when God first led them to the borders of the Promised Land, they chose to live fearfully rather than trust God, and spent the next four decades wandering in the wilderness – they understood their struggles as originating with God, but the fact is that they experienced the consequences of not trusting God
  • Now they are back at the borders of the Land once again, and Moses speaks to them about their future – if they hear and live in God’s Instruction, then they will have wondrous lives in the Land – the consequence of trusting God is abundant life – this life will not always be easy, but they will never be alone – Moses points to their history, especially to their ancient history, dating all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, as the basis for trusting with all their heart and with all their soul that God will be with them in this new homeland – God was with the beloved ancestors and God will be with the people as they enter the Land
  • Their problem seems to be that they believe that hearing and following God’s Instruction is too hard for them – of course they are trying to find a loophole for all the times that they know will come when they go their own ways rather than God’s ways – they want to be sure that God understands that they are going to do their best, sometimes anyway, and that they have the best of intentions, but this work of observing God’s Instruction is hard – they simply want God to remember that idea when the time comes, and be merciful to them
  • Moses’s response is that they are only fooling themselves if they think keeping God’s Instruction is beyond their abilities – God’s prophet tells the people that God’s commandment, God’s Instruction, is not too hard for them and it is not too far – they do not need anyone to go up to heaven or across the wide sea to bring God’s Instruction back to them so that they can hear it and observe it – rather than being too hard and too far, God’s Instruction is quite near, as near as their own mouths and hearts – and they can observe it – even more, God expects them to observe it
  • The prophet Jeremiah will echo this same idea centuries later, when he tells the people of the of God that God is creating a new covenant with them, a covenant whose conditions and promises and instruction are written on the hearts of the people, and no one will need to teach another because everyone will know that God is their God and they are God’s people (Jeremiah 31.33-34)

II. Not Too Hard, Not Too Far

  • I am sure we can well imagine that this was one of those good-news-bad-news situations for God’s ancient people – on the one hand, God’s word, commandment, and Instruction are as close to them all as their next breath – their lives are in God’s hands, and in that they can trust – that is good news, indeed
  • On the other hand, because God’s Instruction is not too hard for them and not too far from them, God expects them to keep it – God expects them to live lives that reflect their trust in God and to allow their trust to guide them in their dealings with other people – in some ways, that probably seems like bad news to them
  • In part because of the Protestant Reformation, we have an even more difficult path toward living in God’s Instruction – one of the foundational principles of the Reformation is that we are saved by grace alone – our tradition teaches us to avoid even the hint of what we call “works righteousness,” which is the idea that we can “save” ourselves by our good works
  • For the Reformers, the concept of God’s Instruction, which they referred to as “the Law,” was anathema, and they avoided it at all costs – over the centuries since the Reformation began, we have expanded and hardened works righteousness so much that many of us think that we should actually avoid any good works lest we fall into the trap of thinking we can save ourselves
  • Here is the thing: even Jesus says that he has not come to abolish or abrogate God’s Instruction (Matthew 5.17) – God’s Instruction still applies to human communities, and followers of Jesus are to keep it not because we think that by doing so we can save ourselves but because observing God’s Instruction demonstrates our trust in God
  • Whether we like it or not, God’s Instruction is not too hard and it is not too far – just as that was true for the ancient people of God, it may be even more so for us, by our relationship to God through Jesus and by the gift of the Holy Spirit, we know exactly what God wants us to do and how God wants us to live
  • Observing God’s Instruction actually is not too hard, not too far, but too often we just do not want to do it – twice in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us exactly what observing the Instruction entails – in the first instance, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that anyone who wants to follow God’s Instruction will treat others the way that they want others to treat them – Jesus says that this is the law (God’s Instruction) and the prophets (Matthew 7.12) – later on, Matthew the Evangelist says that Jesus names the greatest commandment and its corollary as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and then “Love your neighbor as yourself” – he caps it off by saying that all the law (God’s Instruction) and the prophets hang on these two practices
  • This is what God calls us to do – this is what all of God’s Instruction leads to – Love God, love neighbors, love ourselves, and treat everyone as we want everyone to treat us
  • But we simply do not want to do it – loving others is inconvenient – we think it makes us look weak to forgive and welcome others – we would rather not, thanks all the same
  • None of this is too hard – none of it is too far – we only have to do it – and having decided to do it, having put our hand to the plow, to use an image from Jesus’ teaching, we cannot turn back
  • If we choose not to live into God’s Instruction, then we cannot blame our choice on the difficulty of the Instruction or on how far away it is from us – it is inside us, written on our hearts by the Lord our God

III. Conclusion

  • Let us choose to be the people who keep the Law – let us be the people who love extravagantly, as God loves us – let us live fully the life that God gives us – it is not too hard, not too far

Lamplighter Article, July 2022

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Dear Friends,

When I was a young person, I remember calculating the year that I would turn 65 years old. I do not now recall how old I was at the time. In those days of yesteryear, most people, or at least most people of my acquaintance, retired when they turned 65. I added it up, and discovered that I would have my sixty-fifth birthday in the impossibly far-distant future year of 2022. The date was so far removed from my experience that I could not even imagine what it would be like. Maybe we would have flying cars!

Then, I went to sleep one night and woke up and the year was 2022. I still cannot comprehend how this has happened.

I also remember asking my dad once after Crystal and I had our two children when I would start to feel like an adult. He laughed and told me that he would let me know when he got there. He passed at age 86 and never told me when I would feel like a grownup.

Those are two moments that stand out to me in a lifetime, and they are significant because in a couple of weeks I will “celebrate” my sixty-fifth birthday. I put celebrate in quotes because I think that the last time I actually celebrated a birthday was when I turned 45, and that celebration was Crystal’s initiative. After so many birthdays, celebration seems somewhat anachronistic. The older we get, the less many of us celebrate another trip around the sun; many of us do, however, mark the passing of time.

I have no intention to retire for a while, but that day is much, much closer than it used to be. We talk to financial advisors and make plans, and life goes on. We continue our trips around the sun, doing all the things we do, and life goes on. Trips to the supermarket, dinners out, watching movies, reading books, listening to music, and life goes on.

The things that make our journeys enjoyable, or at least the things that make my life enjoyable, are the relationships we develop and share along the way. Not all of those relationships are life-long. Some of the most meaningful encounters we have are, on the scale of our lives, brief. I lived and served in Columbus, Ohio, for about four and a half years, a small portion of my total of 65. While the day-to-day aspect of the relationships that I developed there is past, the impact that the encounters I had with so many people will be with me all of my days to come.

The impact of those relationships reminds me of a moment from the now-classic film “Pleasantville.” At the climax of the film (SPOILER ALERT) there is a trial. Up to this time in the movie, Pleasantville has been exactly that: pleasant. Things are changing in the small, closed, pleasant town, and the trial is the result of the changes. One of the defendants in the trial makes a statement, saying is that, while we all want things to be pleasant, there are many other things that are better. He refers to things that are silly, sexy, dangerous, brief. Even brief meetings and partings can be life-changing.

Later this summer, in August, I will have been pastor at Salem for nine years. These years have been a time of dramatic change in our life together. I look forward to seeing what the future brings to us. Whatever changes we face, both as individuals and as a community of Jesus’ disciples, we can know that we never journey alone. God in Christ is with us every step of the way, and will never leave us or let us go. The future is bright with the presence of God.

Maybe I will even feel like a grownup someday.

Grace and Peace

Tommy

Going on the Way

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

3 July 2022

I. Early Missionary Journeys

  • Our story begins immediately where last week’s story ended – the prior story ends with Jesus making some strong statements about the urgency of discipleship, of begin one of his followers – not only is following Jesus urgent, it is also demanding – following Jesus is not a matter of convenience for the followers – it is an all-or-nothing matter – there can be no halfway disciples
  • Today’s story picks up the matter of the work of Jesus’ followers – this story is the second time in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus has sent his disciples and followers on a mission to preach the Good News – In Luke 9.1-6, Jesus gives similar instructions to the Twelve, whom he is sending out on a mission – they are to take nothing with them in preparation or support of their journey – they are simply to go preach and heal and bless, wherever they can
  • In our story for today, Luke the Evangelist tells us that Jesus appoints seventy others as messengers and sends them on their way – to this second and larger group, Jesus adds a word of warning – he tells them that he sends them out like lambs into the midst of wolves – whether the danger is physical, social, or spiritual, Jesus does not say – but in any case, the messengers could run into trouble
  • Some of the instructions that Jesus gives the group are the same as what he told the Twelve – they are to make no preparations for the journey – no bag, no food, nothing for self-protection – instead of preparing for the road, they are to go and depend on the kindness of strangers – given the social mores of the time, such dependence is less of a risk for the ancient followers of Jesus than we would be comfortable with today
  • The text records no itinerary for the messengers to follow, other than to say that they will go to every town and place where Jesus intends to go on his trip to Jerusalem – the Evangelist does not tell us if Jesus gives each of the pairs of missionaries a particular route to follow – and wherever the towns welcome the messengers, these emissaries are to heal the sick and to say that the Vision of God has come near to them
  • As they go on their way, the messengers are to wish peace on every house they enter – anyone who shares the peace will receive the peace that the messengers bring – but if the people are not peaceably minded, it will return to the messengers
  • When they come to a town that does not want to hear the message, they are simply to shake the dust of the town off their feet and move on, because there is no time to allow the past to slow down their progress – shake it off and move on – the mission is urgent – there simply is not enough time to spend it in a place where the people do not want to hear – the interesting and wonderful thing is, however, that the message for the ones who reject it is still the same: the Vision of God has come near to them
  • With these instructions and warning, Jesus sends out his followers – they are to follow the road wherever it leads – they are to go into every town they find along the way, but they are not to waste time – they are not to stop to talk to people on the road – the messengers must keep moving – the time is short – they must go
  • And so they go – and when they return to the master, they come with such joyous stories – even the demons submit to them in Jesus’ name – but Jesus tells them not to be so amazed at this – he has given them authority over such things – the authority is his, not theirs – so instead, they should rejoice that their names are written in heaven, which I take to mean that Jesus counts them among his followers

II. Going on the Way

  • As followers of Jesus, the same calling, the same instructions, the same warnings, and the same urgency and requirements await us as well as they did the earliest followers of the Way – the voice of Jesus still calls us to go out into the world bearing the Good News of God’s grace, mercy, and requirement –God does not force us to go to any particular place – rather, God goes with us as we are going on the way of our life – God does not coerce us into being messengers of the Gospel of Jesus Messiah – God does not compel us to doing anything – instead, God invites us to share in the ministry – this is our privilege and it is our calling – in living out our calling, we find a joy, a wholeness, and a meaning and purpose in our lives that we cannot easily find elsewhere, if we can find them at all
  • Like the early messengers of Jesus, we must also be aware that living into the Good News will at times take us into conflict with the world – being ministers and messengers of Jesus means being Jesus’ agents of justice and mercy and peace – it means accepting and loving people who disagree with us – it means showing to everyone the same love God has shown us – without exception – without judgment
  • It also means that we carry our calling with us everywhere we go, so that there is no place where we will not be God’s messengers and ambassadors – if it is going to be meaningful, if we are going to be followers of the Way of Jesus, our calling to be messengers cannot be something we put on and take off like clothing – having made the choice to follow Jesus Messiah, we cannot again turn back – remember Jesus’ words in the text at the end of chapter nine: no one who puts a hand to the plow and turns back is fit for the Vision of God
  • The message and the mission are urgent, and for followers of Jesus going on the way, we cannot allow anyone or anything to distract us from our work
  • An important question then is what Jesus means when he says that the Vision of God has come near – the Evangelist provides us with a clear answer to the question in Luke 4
  • You remember the story – Jesus is in his hometown of Nazareth and he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath – as a guest, the congregation asks him to read from the Torah – he selects the scroll of Isaiah and reads where the prophet says that the Spirit of God has appointed him to preach good news to the poor, healing to the broken, release to the captive, and freedom for the oppressed – then he tells the congregation that that is exactly what is happening right before their eyes – the Vision of God has come near
  • When Jesus calls us and sends us to go on the Way of Jesus, he gives us the content of our message – proclaim peace and the nearness of the Vision of God – we proclaim this message through everything we do and everything we say – this is our work, to do as Jesus has done, to preach what Jesus has preached – to bring good news to the poor, healing to the broken, release to the captive, freedom for the oppressed – the Vision of God has come near
  • We are not responsible for what the world around us does with the message – whether people accept it or reject it, our work is the same

III. Conclusion

  • As we are going on the Way of Jesus, we find that we do not go alone – by the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus and God are with us, providing the peace that we carry to the world, providing the substance of the message of the nearness of God’s Vision
  • The Vision of God has indeed come near to us and near to all – let us go on the Way of Jesus as his messengers, as his friends, as his followers

Follow Jesus

Tuesday, 28 June 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

26 June 2022

I. Introduction

  • Anyone who is a bit familiar with the Star Wars film franchise will likely remember a moment in the second movie that was released, which is now the fifth in the complete Star Wars story arc – in that film, the hero is a young warrior named Luke Skywalker, and he has gone to a planet to receive training from the greatest trainer of warriors who has ever lived – when Luke finds the great warrior, Yoda, he cannot believe that this is a warrior at all – Yoda is an ancient creature, very small and wizened, looking nothing at all like a warrior – but what Luke does not know is that Yoda, like all the great warriors in the story, is able to connect to the Force, which is the power of life that binds all things together – using the Force, Yoda is able to do incredible things – as part of Luke’s training, Yoda tells him to lift a nearby spacecraft by the power of the Force – Luke’s response is, “I’ll try” – Yoda then tells Luke, “No. Try not. Do—or do not. There is no try”
  • We often tell each other that we will try to do things – we will try to get to our friends’ home for the party – we will try to remember to stop by the market to buy the milk – we will try to do this or that – when we say we will try to do something, we are indicating our willingness to do the thing, but not committing ourselves actually to do it – we might even tell each other that we will “try” when we have no serious intention of doing any such thing – it is a dodge for us
  • So, when Luke tells Yoda he will try to lift the spaceship, he is actually saying to the master that he has no serious belief that he, or anyone, could actually do what Yoda asks, but he will try just to humor Yoda
  • In today’s Gospel reading, we find two of the disciples who have lost the focus of Jesus’ ministry – we also find three individuals who are potential followers of Jesus – and we find important lessons about what it means to follow Jesus

II. Fire and Potential Followers

  • We begin with an incident in Samaria – Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, a goal from which nothing will divert him – as he and his group enter a Samaritan town, the people there refuse to entertain him – the Samaritans seem to know that he is on his way to Jerusalem, and, as anyone who has ever been to Sunday School will tell you, the Jews and the Samaritans have a great dislike for each other – when the Samaritans do not receive Jesus, two of his disciples, James and John, ask Jesus if he wants them to call down fire from heaven onto the village – as if they could
  • Jesus turns to the brothers Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder” (Mark 3.17, and maybe the nickname is a humorous reminder of this moment) – I can imagine that Jesus’ mouth is agape in shock at what he has just heard – the Evangelist simply tells readers that Jesus rebukes the two wayward disciples – we do not know precisely what he says to them, but it seems likely that he tells them that they need to think about all that he had said and done up to this time and compare their last statement to that standard – obviously, they will find that they have come up short – again – as do we all more often than not
  • Even with such an absurd question from the two, they are disciples – they are on the way to Jerusalem along with Jesus – they are followers of the way of Jesus, but they lost their way for a moment
  • And this is not going to be Luke’s last look at the Samaritans – in the next chapter of the Gospel, Luke writes about one of Jesus’ most famous stories, in which a Samaritan man is the hero because he shows what being a good neighbor means
  • The next part of the text refers to three potential followers of Jesus – the first comes saying that he will follow Jesus wherever Jesus goes – Jesus’ reply is not exactly encouraging – he tells the would-be follower that he will take the follower away from all that the follower has found comfortable – Jesus does not tell the potential disciple that he should not follow, but if he is going to follow, he needs to know the reality of what awaits him
  • The second potential follower comes in response to Jesus’ invitation – he will follow, but he says he must first bury his father, a duty that any child might owe to a parent – shockingly, Jesus tells the potential follower to let the dead bury the dead – the focus cannot be on ceremonial and dutiful actions, but must be on the ongoing proclamation of the Good News of the Vision of God – either the man will accept Jesus’ invitation or he will not – either he will follow, or he will do what his tradition requires – he cannot do both
  • The third potential follower says that he will follow Jesus, but he wants to go say his farewells to his family – Jesus’ response to this man is the harshest response of all – “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” – relationships in the Vision of God supersede familial or clan identities – the candidate cannot say in one breath that he wants to follow Jesus and in the next say that there will be a delay due to a family thing – follow or follow not, Jesus says, there is nothing in between – there is no gray area here

III. Follow Jesus

  • How wonderful it would be if life were as clear and as simple as the Gospels show us it – how many of us would begrudge anyone who has experienced the death of a parent or a spouse or a child the time to grieve and to bury the dead? – how many of us would not find it in our hearts to allow someone to continue a relationship with family while also following Jesus Messiah? – I am not sure that I can see a problem with holding on to old relationships and, at the same time, living a Christian life
  • According to the Gospels, Jesus often speaks in hyperbole, in exaggerations – I think the three short glimpses of would-be followers of Jesus are exactly that – they show us Jesus overstating his case to produce the effect of an understanding of the importance of living a life committed to the Good News – living such a life is the bedrock of who we are – at the best of times, our Christian faith informs our decisions and choices – it guides us to living lives of integrity, hope, peace, joy, and love – it keeps us from praying that God will send fire from heaven onto people we do not like
  • Jesus says that at the heart of the matter, there is no middle ground for disciples of Jesus – either we are his followers or we are not – Jesus also knows full well that we are human and can never be anything other or more in this life
  • He knows that we have families and obligations, that we will always have to make choices and decisions – Jesus knows that at times we choose well and at other times we choose poorly – his knowing these things, however, does not remove from our lives the urgency of willing and following the way of Jesus in all the situations of our lives – we will never do anything more important than to commit ourselves to being followers of Jesus Messiah – everything else will flow from that commitment

IV. Conclusion

  • Friends, sisters, and brothers, let us follow Jesus – let us go and fulfill the calling of Jesus Messiah in all our lives – let us go into the world proclaiming the message of hope and life, of love and forgiveness, of the Vision of God for the world – let us follow Jesus, for ultimately there is no other way for us

Return and Declare

Monday, 20 June 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

19 June 2022

I. Opposite Galilee

  • Luke begins our story for today by saying that the group of Jesus and his friends arrived at the county of the Gerasenes – we know from the previous story that this is on the other side of the lake from Galilee (Luke 8.22) – the trip across the lake, that is the Sea of Galilee, is not an easy trip – in fact, as the group crossed, a sudden windstorm blew in, creating waves large enough to begin to fill the boat with water – do you remember what Jesus is doing as his disciples struggle to keep the boat afloat? – he is asleep – a storm rages all around them, and Jesus falls asleep – his disciples wake him, he sees the evidence of the windstorm, rebukes the wind and the “raging waves,” and all is suddenly calm – he looks at his friends and asks, “Where is your faith?” – Luke does not say this, but I think Jesus lies down again and goes back to sleep – his friends are afraid and amazed and ask one another who this is who commands wind and waves and they obey him
  • Our familiarity with the stories of Jesus tells us who he is, but Jesus’ friends’ experiences with him thus far in the gospel have not been enough for the little band of followers to grasp exactly who it is that they follow – and in the gospel story, their fear, their amazement, and their question are very important
  • When they arrive at the country of the Gerasenes, they are in a sort of a foreign land – although it is just across the sea from Galilee, it is not a Jewish area – at the time of Jesus, the area is heavily Greek and Roman – the people had driven out most of the Jews – there is no reason for Jesus to think that anyone there will have heard of him or care who he is, which may be part of the reason he wanted to go there – Jesus, however, is going to get a surprise in this non-Jewish place
  • As soon as the group is off the boat, a wild man accosts them – he is naked and raving – the Evangelist tells us that he has demons that torture him, that he does not live in a house but among the tombs – when the demon seizes him, he seems to have extraordinary strength, so that he is able to break out of the chains and shackles that the people of the nearby town put on him – he is out of his mind, hurting himself, and under the control of unclean spirits – and he is the one who recognizes who Jesus is
  • As soon as he sees Jesus, he falls down before Jesus and asks why Jesus has come to this place – he begs Jesus not to torment him because as soon as Jesus perceives the situation, he begins to order the spirits to leave the man – Jesus asks the demon for its name, and the reply has considerable baggage – the name the demon gives is Legion, a word that everyone at the time recognizes as a large unit in the Roman army – in effect, Luke compares the demon inhabiting the man to the Roman army that occupies and oppresses the homeland of the Jews
  • The unclean spirit sees an innocent herd of pigs feeding on a hill close by and asks that Jesus allow it/them to go into the poor pigs – surprisingly, Jesus agrees, and the unfortunate pigs run down the hill into the lake and drown
  • This is a problem on many levels, but the problem that comes to the fore is that the swineherds are suddenly out of a job – they run into town and into the surrounding area all tell everyone what has happened
  • The people who come out to take a look at the situation find two things – first, they see a whole herd of dead pigs – this is not Luke’s commentary on the uncleanness of pigs according to Jewish dietary laws – Luke is Greek – for all we know, he loved pork – in the story, this is a tragic situation for the owners and herders of the pigs
  • The second thing they see is the man who had had a demon sitting calmly at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind – even with the tragic and disturbing loss of the pigs, we might think that the townspeople would be happy for their fellow citizen – but, rather, they are afraid, and they ask Jesus to leave their town
  • The man whom Jesus healed begs to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him that he has to stay – this Gentile, formerly a demon-possessed mad man, has a job to do – he is to return to his home and declare what God has done for him – the man goes home and, as Luke says, tells everyone what Jesus has done for him – that he is a Gentile is beside the point – that he once had a demon does not matter  — that the disciples still do not get who Jesus is is not good, but for this story is in the background – what matters is that the man has a story to declare and he is to return to his home and declare it
  • We do not know what becomes of the man whom Jesus healed – we never here about him again, so far as we know – he does not become famous – we do not know his name – what we know, all we can know, is that after Jesus sets him free from his demons, Jesus gives him a job and he goes and does it

II. Return and Declare

  • This story is so vivid that we might get lost in it – there are so many details that attract our attention that we can spend all our time seeing the trees and miss the forest – and many of those details might even make for a good, moving sermon – for today, I want us to focus only on the man whom Jesus healed
  • He is an outcast – the demon that controls him drives him to self-destruction and isolation – of course, that is the nature of demons – we do not usually speak of demons except in a metaphorical sense today, but we do have demons, even now
  • There are demons of addiction and mental and physical illness and greed and racism and nationalism and many others – our demons drive us out of our right minds and lead us to unhealthy and unwise ways of thinking and of being in the world – they lead us to devalue the good parts of our lives and to overvalue the destructive parts – this is what happened to the demon possessed man, and it happens to us
  • When Jesus gives the man his freedom, when Jesus gives him a task, a significant part of that task is to return to his home – read the Gospels closely sometime, and notice how often Jesus tells people whose lives he has healed to go home, to go to the priests, to return to their communities – Jesus knows what our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous know – he knows that there are many layers to healing – having removed the problem from the man, having acted as the man’s higher power, Jesus returns him to his people
  • Real healing from our many struggles requires that we recognize that the power they have over us is real and we cannot overcome it alone – we need connection to the power of life that God offers to us in Jesus, and we need others to walk the road with us – usually the journey is not short, nor are there any shortcuts – and the journey may be life long, but it need not be a lonesome or solitary journey – in fact, the best things happen when it is not a solitary journey
  • And I would add that we need a job, a task, something to do with our healing – for people in twelve-step programs, the job is that they walk the path with others who come after them – in Luke’s story, the man is to return to his home and declare what God has done for him – and that is our job, too
  • Our stories, and our struggles, may not be as dramatic as the ones of the man Jesus healed or of others we know, but our stories are our stories – they belong to no one else – our job, our work, is to tell our stories of what God does for us, what Jesus does for us – if we do not tell our stories, who will?

III. Conclusion

  • Let us return, then, to our homes, to our families, to our friends, to our vocations, to our world, and declare the power of God in Jesus that is at work in us and in all