God Wins!

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

2 June 2019

I. Introduction

  • When I was in high school, the only way that I made money in the summers was by putting up hay – in those days, at least in southern Indiana, there were no huge, round bales that got left on the edges of fields for storage – maybe it was the same in Missouri – the first hay that I helped with, I was on a wagon attached to the back of the baler that was attached to the PTO of a tractor that my dad’s uncle drove – I would pull the bales off of the chute as they came out of the baler and stack them on the wagon – after we filled a couple of wagons, we would take them to the barn, where I would get in the loft while my dad’s uncle put the bales on a conveyor that would lift them to the loft and I would stack them there – I was the only one working other than and I got paid a few cents per bale
  • Later on, when I worked with a crew, we would either have one of us do the baling, or someone else would do the baling, and the others of us would pick the bales off the ground – and we would move them to a barn or some other storage facility – we would get paid more per bale, but we had to split that money among the crew members
  • Whichever way we did the baling and the picking up and storage of the hay, almost inevitably when the last bale came off the wagon to go into the barn, someone would say, “That was the one we were looking for” – in other words, the last bale of the day
  • I can imagine that for some of us, we will look at this sermon as we would look at the last bale of hay – finally we have come to the end of the Revelation – maybe this is the sermon we have been looking for
  • As I have said since beginning this quick trip through Revelation, the central message of the Revelation is that God Wins – whether the early followers of the way were being persecuted, or whether they were being too accommodating, too comfortable, with the Roman Empire, the message is the same – the Empire and Caesar are powerful in this world, but God is greater – in the end, God Wins – this text, these last ten verses of the Revelation, these last ten verses of the canonical Bible, emphasize that message one last time

II. Closing Statement

  • The way that the prophet, John of Patmos, expresses this message here is by affirming that Jesus is coming again – in verse 12, Jesus announces his coming to “repay according to everyone’s work” – whether that work has been positive, building up the Vision, bringing people into the Vision, working for the healing of the nations, or whether that work is negative, divisive, destructive, death-dealing, there are consequences – another way to think of it, keeping in mind the message of the book, all receive their payment whether they worked for the Vision of God or for the Empire – the payment is the consequence of the choices we all make throughout life – emperors and empires come and go, but Jesus and God are the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end of all things
  • The form of the payment that Jesus brings in his coming is blessing for those who wash their robes and withholding blessing for those who remain outside the holy city, the New Jerusalem –to wash their robes refers to those who come through the ordeal of life (Revelation 7.14) – to wash one’s robe is to remain true to God and to the Lamb, to live into the Vision – we wash our robes by trusting God – we wash our robes by embodying the Vision, by making it real and apparent to everyone around us – we do that not by pointing to our superiority, not by thinking of ourselves as better than others, not by forcing them to live as we do, but by serving them, by giving ourselves to them, by loving and healing them
  • The ones who remain outside have done the opposite – they have not lived lives of service or love – they have lorded their belief over others, judged others – they are not literal dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters and ones who practice falsehood – they have simply shown themselves to be false to the Vision – they have made themselves comfortable in the lap of the empire
  • Jesus further announces that he is the one who sent the angel to the prophet with this testimony for the churches – he is in the Davidic line of kings – he is the bright morning star, the light that makes the other stars, even the sun, unnecessary
  • So the Spirit and the church and everyone who hears the sermon prays for Jesus to come, calls for Jesus to come – and everyone who is thirsty for right relationship with God and with others may come, too, and receive the water of life as a gift
  • Following a warning not to take away from or to add to this book of sermons, Jesus affirms again that he is coming – Amen, Come, Lord Jesus – the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all, which I think is how the author ends the book – not just the saints, not even just all the saints, but all – so be it

III. God Wins

  • The coming of Jesus is the final declaration that God Wins – according to our tradition, God conquered death by raising Jesus from the dead – according to our tradition, Jesus gave the work of healing the world to his friends and followers, which, we hope and pray, includes us – and as we trust in God, as we live into the Vision, we find that God draws us closer and closer to God, closer to that New Jerusalem
  • But what does it mean for Jesus to come? – leaving aside for a moment a rather generous interpretation of “soon,” what does it mean for Jesus to come? – I think there are two aspects to Jesus’ coming – one of them is what we might perhaps call a personal coming – I think that Jesus comes when we are baptized – I think that Jesus comes to us every day – maybe we could think of that bright morning star in terms of the brightest star we know – I think that the rising of the sun is a reminder that Jesus always comes and that we are not alone
  • But there is another coming that the prophet also has in mind, a greater coming, if you will – that is a coming to complete the Vision, to demonstrate once and for all that God is above every empire and every nation – this coming will be good news for some, for those who have trusted in God and lived into the Vision – but it will be difficult for those who choose to remain apart, for those who continue to value empires and nations above service to God
  • The greater coming is a coming that no one has yet seen, despite a huge number of attempts to predict it – the year 1000 was supposed to be the time – then the year 2000 – remember Y2K? – it was supposed to be the end of the world as we know it – the Millerites thought it would be about the year 1843 – and when it did not happen, they called it the Great Disappointment – in 1988, I received in the mail a booklet with the title, “88 Reasons the Rapture Will Be in 1988” – and in 1989, guess what I got – a booklet titled, “89 Reasons the Rapture Will Be in 1989” – there is no shortage of guesses about when Jesus will come, and all of them have been a waste of time – and all attempts to discover it will always be a waste of time
  • The when of Jesus’ greater coming is of no concern to us – there is nothing we can do to stop it and there is nothing we can do to instigate it – what is left for us to do, all that we could ever or can ever do, is to trust God, to live in Jesus’ Vision, and love and heal the world
  • These closing words of the prophecy come to remind us that God Wins and we need to choose whether we are going to be a part of the victory or outside looking in – the choice is always ours to make

IV. Conclusion

  • God Wins, the prophet tells us, and we share in that victory in our service and in our worship – we do not get medals – we do not get places of honor above others – we do not get seats at the right and left hand of Jesus
  • God Wins, and we get to gather before the throne of God in the New Jerusalem, the holy city, and worship God – and it will be glorious
  • The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all – So let it be
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Lamplighter Article, June 2019

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Dear Friends,

During the recent Lafayette County C-1 High School Baccalaureate service that we hosted on behalf of the Higginsville Ministerial Fellowship, the high school choirs sang a stunning piece entitled “I Believe.” If you are like me, and if you are of a certain age, then you probably thought first of the pop song from many years ago. It is a pretty song and speaks well of faith in the midst of struggle. I thought it was going to be an appropriate song for such a service. I had no idea what was coming.

The piece that the choirs sang is a modern piece, composed by Mark Miller. It begins with a piano playing softly, then a single voice begins to sing. Soon the whole choir joins in, growing to a climax that does not prepare the audience for the end of the song. After reaching the peak of the crescendo, all the voices drop away and the same single voice sings the final words.

The lyrics for the song are:

I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when God is silent.

There are several video performances of the song on YouTube. The one I like the best is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PT-VdH2lwZk

After the service, I told Crystal about the song. She immediately looked for it online (Can you say “librarian,” boys and girls?), and discovered that the original poem was found after World War II, written on a wall of a cellar in Cologne, Germany. The story of the origin of the poem, which may be more complicated than it appears, tells us that the house was owned by Roman Catholics who sheltered Jews in the cellar during the war. The apparent original version of the poem had the second and third lines switched, so that the point of the song is the belief in love rather than belief in God. Either way, “I Believe” speaks of hope in the midst of despair, and encourages us to hold on to our beliefs.

There is so much in our world today that divides us. Issues of politics, race, religion, human sexuality, class, nationality, ethnicity, and many others, drive us apart. The people on the different sides of the issues so often feel that they cannot talk to one another. We too easily move into thinking about what is best for ourselves rather than what is best for all. We are so invested in being “correct” on the issues that we cannot even allow that another point of view is possible. Being correct is more important to us than being loving, or gracious, or even human.

My hope is that we will all learn to love one another regardless of the positions we take on issues. I hope that the friends and followers of Jesus will lead the way. I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining. I believe in God, even when God is silent. I believe in love, even when it is not apparent. Will you join me?

Grace and Peace,

Tommy

God Will Be Our Light

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

26 May 2019

I. Introduction

  • We are nearing the end of the Revelation – the parts that the lectionary skips tell us about beasts with multiple heads, about celestial signs and omens, about dragons, about battles that never quite happen – and all of it leads to the breaking of the powers of the world and the world’s gods, and the completion of God’s Vision for the creation
  • Behind all of the imagery, running through all of the imagery, underneath all of the imagery, and coursing ahead of all of the imagery is that singular message that is at the heart of Revelation – and what is that message? – God Wins!
  • The crowning symbol of God’s victory over the powers of the world may be a surprise for some of us, perhaps for many of us – we know that God Wins because there is a new heaven and a new earth, the first heaven and the first earth are gone (Revelation 21.1) – the old things and the old ways are gone – in their place is this crowning symbol of God’s work in creation and God’s victory – the symbol of God’s victory is a vast, immeasurable city – the sting at the end of the story is that the city is not Rome – the city is God’s city – it is a gift from God – it is the new Jerusalem

II. God’s Gift, the New Jerusalem

  • As our reading for today begins, this vast city comes down out of heaven, from God – it is not a human creation – it is God’s gift to humankind and to the universe
  • Between verse 10 and verse 22, John of Patmos describes the city – the city has wall, and it has gates, but the gates never close – anyone can enter the city – everyone is welcome in God’s city – the only ones who remain outside of God’s city are the ones who choose to remain outside – God invites everyone to enter and turns no one away
  • The city’s walls are made of precious jewels and stones – the city is gold, but it is as transparent as glass – the city is fifteen hundred miles long on every side, and fifteen hundred miles high – in terms that we might think more appropriate, the size of the city is quite beyond any human measurement – it is large enough for all who enter it, and with room to spare
  • We might think that the Vision of God’s city would include a temple, but there is no temple – there is no house of worship – there is no place set aside especially for God – there is no need – God is the temple – the Lamb, a reference to Jesus, is the temple – and God Almighty and the Lamb are always immediately accessible to everyone in the city
  • There are no celestial bodies – no sun, no moon – again, there is no need for them – the glory of God is all the light that the city of God needs – when the Vision is complete, the nations of the earth will walk in that light – and all the glory that the powers of the earth might hold come to God as acts of worship
  • The river of the water of life and the tree of life are in the heart of the city – the river flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb – fed by the river of the water of life, the tree of life endlessly produces fruit that feeds and heals the nations, all the nations and all the people of the nations
  • There will be no more night, no danger, no threat – the light of God will be there for all and will provide anything that anyone needs
  • For the ancient readers of the Revelation, the contrast to God’s city is the city of Rome – for us it might be any location of human power – the contrast remains the same – human cities are locations of brokenness, of division, of exclusion, of strife, of apathy, of human power, of darkness – God’s city is the location of peace, of the healing of the nations, of inclusion, of love, of life, of the light of God

III. God Will Be Our Light

  • It is a glorious Vision, but it is not a literal description of the new Jerusalem – it is poetry – it is metaphor – it is encouragement to the readers of Revelation, including us
  • The Vision of God is a Vision of the world as it could be, as it can be – the Vision of God is of a place, let us call it a city, a community, in which everyone is welcome – there are walls, but there is no need for protection from any outside force – the prophet tells us that the gates in the walls never close – the security of God’s city is not in its walls, not in its defenses – the safety and security of God’s city is in the presence of God within the city
  • The Vision is of a place where there is no hierarchy and no division – all the people of the city stand equal before God – the only power and the only authority is God Almighty and the Lamb – no human person is above another – there is no night, no darkness, no lack, no poverty, no need there, but all receive freely from the provision of God
  • There is life and there is plenty for everyone in God’s city because the city is full of the light of God – and God will be our light
  • That light, the light of God is in us, showing us the way to live, lighting our path – the light of God leads us away from our divisions, away from our squabbles and fights, away from our wars, away from the ways of empires and nations – the light of God is in us to lead us toward one another and, thus, toward God – to lead us to forgive one another and to forgive ourselves – the light of God leads us toward unity, so anything that divides us remains outside God’s Vision – and if we hold on to our divisions, if we hold on to our desire for domination, if we hold on to our striving for more of the things of the world, then we are choosing to remain outside of the Vision – God does not exclude us – we exclude ourselves
  • This Vision of God is not only for the end of all things – God has the power, the ability, and the will to accomplish this Vision by God’s self – and, Jesus tells us and shows us, that God chooses every day to enlist humankind in the work – God chooses to place the power of the Vision in our hands and then allows us to choose to do the work or not
  • God gives us the power to choose to bring healing and the glory of creation back to God as our worship – we can choose to heal creation or to perpetuate its brokenness – we need not worry about the specifics of how God accomplishes any of this – we need only live according to the light of God within us

IV. Conclusion

  • God Wins, and we share in God’s victory by serving God and serving one another – thus, our work is to live in ways that demonstrate that the light of God is in us
  • God will be our light, and then we are to go out and be the light of God in a dark, divided, and broken world

Before the Throne

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

12 May 2019

I. Introduction

  • Here comes the quiz: does anyone remember what I said that the message of Revelation is? – God Wins
  • That message, and the encouragement that it offers, holds true whether the ancient readers were in the midst of terrible persecution or whether they had become accommodating to the Empire – God Wins, and the people of God can stand firmly against the ways of empires and nations and stand firmly in the ways of Jesus because, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has already overcome the ways of empires and nations, which are the ways of war, destruction, violence, and death – God has done all that is necessary – all that God’s people need to do, in whatever time or place they live, is to trust in God rather than in empires and nations
  • Our text for today is a word of assurance that that is so – as always, however, we need to see the reading in its wider context

II. An Interlude

  • This text comes at an interesting place in the vision that John the Revelator shares with the people of God – this part of the vision has to do with the famous seven seals – each one of these seals refers to some dramatic event that is common to all of human history, but, at the same time, serves to remind the readers that God Wins – the seven seals keep closed a scroll, which seems to be a document that relates God’s dealing with history
  • If we were reading the Revelation all in one sitting, we would have just heard about the first six of those seals – each seal reveals something about God and about the human world – the first four seals reveal horses, the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” – the first horse and rider refer to Jesus Messiah, the one who overcomes and overwhelms empires and nations with love – the second seal reveals the horse and rider of war and bloodshed – the third seal reveals the horse and rider of famine, a common result of human war – the fourth seal reveals pestilence and death, a common result of famine – the fifth seal reveals martyrdom for those who oppose empire and pay the price of their lives – the sixth seal reveals earthquakes and cosmic catastrophes
  • All of these things are a part of the world in which humans live, and have been since time immemorial – they are common to all of our lives in one way or another, except for martyrdom – that is an aspect of a life committed to Jesus that is essentially unknown in modern Western cultures – it is so unknown that some Jesus followers will read persecution and martyrdom into situations that have nothing to do with persecution and martyrdom – there are places in the world where persecution and even martyrdom occur – but in the world in which we live, here and now, they do not exist, no matter how much some Christians say that they experience them regularly
  • Following the opening of the first six seals we read about the ones who are sealed as God’s servants – this may be a reference to baptism – the ones who are sealed number 144,000 – this is a symbolic number for an unimaginable multitude – and, indeed, when we come to today’s part of the vision, that unimaginable multitude has gathered before the throne of God – they come from every nation, from every tribe of humankind, from all peoples and languages – and they all praise God, waving palm branches
  • One of the heavenly elders speaks to John in the vision and asks who all these people are and from whence they have come – the Revelator declines to answer, allowing that the elder better knows who they are – and the elder does know and tells John that they are the ones who have “come out of the great ordeal,” having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb
  • To me, “coming out” refers to rejecting the ways of the empire, and washing their robes refers to immersing themselves completely in the way and the life of Jesus – and, as always, the way and life of Jesus are the way of love, grace, mercy, transformation, and reconciliation
  • After this interlude, this dramatic pause, between the sixth and seventh seals, the Lamb of God opens the seventh seal, which brings half an hour of silence in heaven before another cycle of seven begins, this time of trumpets
  • It is a fascinating interlude, one that assures readers of God’s steadfast love and kindness for all people, and of God’s abiding presence and protection

III. Before the Throne

  • One of the ways that the author of Revelation expresses this presence and protection is by the repeated references to the throne of God – did you notice them when I read the text? – seven times in nine verses, the author mentions the throne
  • The great multitude stands before the throne – God sits on the throne – the angels, elders, and living creatures stand around the throne and fall on their faces before the throne to worship God – the elder repeats that the great multitude stands before the throne, and says that the one who sits on the throne will shelter them – and the Lamb is at the center of the throne to become their shepherd
  • As I have always said, Revelation is not primarily about the end times – it is about living in this time – so I find myself focusing on these several references to the throne – which led me to the truth that for us the throne of God is within us – its “location,” is in our hearts and in our lives – we live and move, work and play, strive and thrive, before the throne
  • These many allusions to the throne serve to reassure us of God’s presence and protection in our lives – they tell us that God Wins, and that our calling is to trust in God, not in empires and nations
  • In ancient days when the Jesus People read Revelation, saying that God is on the throne was a treasonous assertion that Caesar is not – who, then, is on the throne in our lives? – who sits on the throne before which we fall down in worship? – is it an idea that excludes particular people because of nationality or ethnicity, because of sexual orientation or gender identity, because of race, because of wealth?
  • We human beings tend to place a lot of trust in things, especially things that we have created, such as nations and race – in contrast to those things, the Revelator reminds us that we live before the throne, that we live in the presence and under the protection of God – and it is in God that we should trust
  • God’s protection does not make us exempt from the trials and troubles of human life any more than it did for the first followers of Jesus – God’s protection means that whatever comes into our lives, God is with us – and because God is with us, and because God Wins, we can come out of the ways of nations into the ways of God

IV. Conclusion

  • I know that this approach to Revelation is new to most of us – but it is an approach that speaks to us today
  • We live our lives before throne, and the Revelator asks us to consider who, or what, sits on that throne – may we always live so that God is on the throne and that God is the one in whom we trust

Lamplighter Article, May 2019

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Dear Friends,

This month I want to share with you a poem written by Father Tom Hawkins, the priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church here in Higginsville. I am sure you will find it as moving and beautiful as I have.

And just for your information, 29 April was the 35th anniversary of my ordination by the Irving Park Baptist Church in Chicago. Much has happened since that Sunday afternoon, but some of that day is as fresh in my memory as can be. Almost as if it were yesterday. I can hardly believe it…35 years.

Grace and Peace,

Tommy

The Unexpected Passover

Father Tom Hawkins, April 2019. Printed by the author’s permission.

How I have longed to share this meal with you,”

the soon to be dead Jesus

tells his argumentative

and carousing disciples;

who have no conception of why He would say that.

“Isn’t that nice,” they think

as they pass the gefilte fish and wonder what is for dessert.

Things were going so well,

The entrance into the city could not have gone better.

What good things might tomorrow bring?

How many times have each of us sat at table

for a last meal with one who was dear

and had no concept that they were slipping away,

passing out of our sight,

and everything was about to change?

How many last Christmases?

Final birthdays?

Last Suppers of all sorts.

Last handshakes. Last laughs.

Last hugs.

All unnoticed

Last glimpse of someone about to be turned into a memory.

Last words heard before their voice is silenced

and they leave us sitting at the table –

unexpectedly surprised

that it really was all a gift.

How wonderful it would be –

and hopefully will be –

to sit across from them again and say:

How I have longed to share this meal with you.”

To God Be Glory

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

28 April 2019

I. Introduction

  • As you probably know, the common lectionary, which is the lectionary that most United Church of Christ churches follow, or at least the ones with which I am familiar, has three years in its cycle – each year (A, B, and C), mainly uses the first of the three gospels for the Gospel readings – this is Year C in the lectionary, so most of the Gospel readings are from Luke – that makes Year C unique, just as the other two years are unique
  • Another thing that makes Year C unique is that through the Easter season, there is an extended run through the book of Revelation
  • Many of us contemporary Christians tend to shy away from Revelation – it is just too weird, too bloody, too violent – we do not get all of the imagery of beasts and dragons and Babylon, so we tend to ignore the book – that is understandable, but unfortunate
  • I believe that I have told you all before that I think that we can boil down the overall message of Revelation to two words: God Wins – many scholars believe that the followers of the Way of Jesus in Asia Minor were under heavy persecution from the Roman Empire, and thus wanted and needed encouragement to endure through it, to remain faithful, to continue to trust in God even though it seemed as if there were no reason to do so
  • In recent years, another thought about that ancient time has gotten a good deal of attention – the newer thought is that there is not much evidence of persecution in Asia Minor at that time, so that might not have been the problem – the newer thought is that the followers of the Way had become too accommodating to the Empire, that they had begun losing their distinctive voice – the Revelation, in this case would be intended to encourage the Jesus People to continue to trust in God, to trust in Jesus, and not to trust in empires or nations
  • In either case, persecution or accommodation, the followers of Jesus needed encouragement to maintain their trust in Jesus and to hold on to Jesus’ Way because…God Wins
  • One of my goals in preaching is to try to make Revelation acceptable again – so, as we go through the book this Easter season, keep that message in mind, it will come up repeatedly – memorize it: God Wins

II. A Letter to God’s People

  • There is an awfully lot in these few verses – the preacher of Revelation has a lot to say
  • The book begins with a short introduction, which is in the form of a letter to seven churches – there were many more than seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), but to say “seven churches” is a way of saying “all the churches” – then we can extend the intent of the letter to include not only all the churches in Asia, but all the churches wherever they are and whenever they are – so the message of the preacher of Revelation is for all of God’s people in all places and times
  • The place to begin to give people the message that God wins is, not surprisingly, to speak of God – and in this, the unknown author of the book twice tells readers of the book that God is the one “who is and who was and who is to come” – of course this places God not in some far off heavenly land, but in the world – God is not distant and uncaring – rather, God is with God’s people in the present, whether that present is two millennia ago or this day
  • The author bestows the grace on the readers from God, from the “seven spirits,” meaning all heavenly creatures, and from Jesus – the author then describes Jesus as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” – this last is a radical and perhaps treasonous epithet – in the Roman Empire, there is no king but the Emperor, and the Emperor bows to no one – for the preacher to describe Jesus as the ruler of the kings of the earth is to place someone above Caesar – such a statement would have been enough to earn an execution, perhaps even a crucifixion, for the one making it
  • And yet, make it our author does – for the author, God rules the earth through Jesus and there is no king who can claim to rule in Jesus’ place – Jesus, in his death and resurrection, has recreated or rearranged or reordered the powers of the world – in whatever way we describe it, Jesus is above all rulers of all time
  • The proof of the claim is in the work that Jesus has done – of course, he loves all people and has freed all people from our sins – we have to be careful with the statement about the blood of Jesus – unfortunately, many followers of Jesus, especially in the United States, think that the blood is a sacrifice that takes away God’s anger toward us because of our brokenness – that idea is actually relatively new – prior to the Reformation, very few, if any, held that idea – for our ancient forebears in the faith, the blood was a sign of victory over evil, sin (i.e., brokenness), and death – God was not angry and did not require a blood sacrifice – humankind required the blood sacrifice and we eventually came up with a justification for it – for the author of Revelation, the blood is a sign of God’s love for us in Jesus, and Jesus gave himself to demonstrate the empty claims of power that are typical of all empires and nations – Jesus’ giving of himself frees us from such ideas and makes us priests, servants of the Vision of God
  • God is the Alpha and the Omega, a reference to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet – thus, God the beginning and the end of all things – God is the creator, the one who sustains the creation, and the one who, through Jesus, liberates the creation from human brokenness
  • So God wins – God is and was and is to come, the Almighty – all God’s people have to do is to trust in God, to trust in Jesus, and give God glory

III. To God Be Glory

  • It seems to me that much of this is the language of worship – in a sense, the author of Revelation begins the book with worship, with glorifying God and God’s son, Jesus
  • That is, or I believe should be, the purpose for our worship, too – worship is not about us – worship is about giving God glory
  • We have all heard people say, “I really did not get much out of church today” – maybe we have even said it ourselves – all I can say is that if we do not get anything out of worship it is most likely because we did not give anything to it – our culture has taught us to sit and wait to be entertained or enlightened or touched – that is what we get from television and from movies – we sit passively waiting for something to happen
  • Worship is essentially different – worshiping God is giving ourselves away, abandoning ourselves, letting go of ourselves, as we come into the presence of God, as we live into our relationship with God in Jesus
  • Remember the famous metaphor that the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard employed – if we think of worship in terms of theater, we see ourselves as the audience sitting in the seats while the preacher and the choir are actors on the stage for our benefit and edification – Kierkegaard challenges that way of thinking – in worship, the actors are the people in the seats, while the preacher and the choir are prompters, feeding us lines so that we may speak them to the audience – and that audience is and can only be God
  • When the leader prays, it is only to prompt us to pray – when the preacher preaches, it is to turn us away from ourselves to God and to God’s true word, Jesus – worship does not end with the closing benediction – worship continues as we go out into the world to be the people of God

IV. Conclusion

  • This is our encouragement for today from the author of Revelation – to God be glory, both in worship and in living – so let us go remembering that we live not for ourselves – we live for the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty – so it is to be – Amen

As Witnesses

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

21 April 2019 Easter Sunday

I. Peter and Cornelius

  • We might miss it if we are not careful – we might not see the dramatic shift that takes place in this story if we forget what has brought the actors to this moment
  • The story begins with Peter in Joppa, at the house of Simon the Tanner – he is on the roof of Simon’s house, praying, when he has a vision, a dream of sorts, in which a sheet comes down from heaven – on this sheet Peter sees every sort of unclean food imaginable – not only, one imagines, pigs, but other ritually unclean animals, including all kinds of reptiles and birds – then Peter hears a voice telling him to kill these animals and eat – not surprisingly, Peter is appalled by this directive – as far as we know, he is an observant Jew – he tells the unseen speaker that he has never eaten any unclean thing – to which the voice replies that if God has made a thing clean, then it is not Peter’s place, or anyone’s place, for that matter, to call it unclean – three times this happens before the sheet returns whence it had come – this vision is greatly perplexing to Peter, for obvious reasons
  • In Caesarea the day before Peter has his vision, a Roman centurion named Cornelius has a vision of his own – Cornelius is a devout man, a God-fearer who gives to the needy and prays constantly – in this context, a God-fearer is a non-Jew who follows God’s Instruction but has not committed fully – thus, Cornelius and his household believe in God, but have not converted to Judaism, which is, a difficult process – and there is no indication that they know anything at all of Jesus or the nascent Jesus movement – on this day, when he prays, he sees an angel coming to him to say that God has heard his prayers and has seen his offerings to the poor – the angel tells Cornelius to send to Joppa for Peter to come to Caesarea
  • Just as Peter’s vision ends, two slaves and a devout soldier from Cornelius arrive at Simon the Tanner’s house asking for Peter – Peter, who is still confused about his vision, hears the Spirit telling him that he should go with these men “without hesitation” – so Peter invites them into the house for the night, which is perhaps a less literal understanding of “without hesitation” than we might have expected – the next day, Peter goes with Cornelius’s men to Caesarea – Cornelius, in preparation for Peter’s arrival, has gathered his relatives and close friends to greet the apostle – when Peter arrives, Cornelius falls at Peter’s feet in a worshipful greeting – in response, Peter reminds Cornelius that Peter’s presence in the house of a Gentile is a transgression of Jewish law – the only reason he has come to see the Roman is the vision that Peter had had in Joppa
  • When Peter hears Cornelius’s recitation of Cornelius’s vision, Peter takes the next step in his transformation from thinking of the way of Jesus as a Jewish movement to thinking of it as a more universal movement – he is beginning to understand that the scope of the vision exceeds anything that he had imagined – he is beginning to grasp the concept that the Good News of Jesus Messiah could be Good News for Gentiles, as well as for Jews – this dawning realization prompts him to retell the Gospel story for the Roman – Peter tells the Romans of Jesus’ works of power, of his death, and resurrection, of his command to his followers to preach the Good News to the people, of the forgiveness of sins that believers receive – Peter makes it clear that he and the other apostles act as witnesses to all of these things
  • The conclusion of the story is that, while Peter is speaking, these Romans, these Gentiles, who hear him, suddenly receive the Holy Spirit, something that had happened to this time only to Jewish followers of Jesus – the Gentiles begin speaking in tongues and praising God, and the Jewish witnesses are amazed – whatever they thought might happen, this was not it – when they had left Joppa with Peter, they certainly had not expected to see Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit – to his credit, Peter’s response to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is to aver that they should be baptized in the name of Jesus Messiah
  • We would like to say that this moment of transformation is permanent, that Peter leaves Cornelius’s house a changed person – and in some ways that must be true – he returns to Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem followers of the Way, who had heard about the incident, criticize him for consorting with Gentiles – but Peter tells them all that happened to him, both in Joppa and Caesarea, and they fall silent – but apparently their criticism does not end – in his letter to the Galatians, Paul accused Peter of stepping back from his commitment to the Gentiles because of pressure from the Jerusalem church (Galatians 2.11-14) – perhaps it is not Peter’s best moment, especially considering all that had occurred to lead him to his new way of thinking – but Peter was, as he told Cornelius, simply a mortal, nothing more

II. As Witnesses

  • Peter reminds us powerfully that that often is the nature of transformation – frequently it is a matter of two steps forward, one step back, or one step forward, two steps back – transformation comes to us in fits and starts – to be sure, transformation can be sudden, but, in my experience it takes time, even if it is something that happens to us rather than something we seek out and for which we strive
  • As followers of Jesus, our transformation begins with the resurrection – the resurrection, as unbelievable as it is, is the moment when the Vision of God breaks the power of our rebellion completely – it signals the beginning of a new way of being human, a way that is the most inclusive and all-encompassing way we can know – in the resurrection, we see the fruit of God’s promise of life in God’s new age
  • The resurrection is also another reminder that salvation, that healing, is never only a spiritual matter – when Jesus Messiah left the tomb, he did it with some sort of body, a body that others could see and sense – a body that could eat and drink – it was unique because it was the first of its kind, but our blessed hope is resurrected glory of Jesus will transform us now and always
  • The resurrection is the news that transforms us – it is the news that opens our eyes to the new vision of God for the world – it is the news that confirms the words and deeds of Jesus – it is the news that shows us that our final enemy, even death itself, has fallen before the eternally creative power of God – it is the news that transforms us from being servants of ourselves only into being servants of all – it is the news that transforms us from being ministers of nothing and no one into being the ministers of God in the world – it is the news in which the love of God for us all becomes complete and concrete – and as we allow the resurrection of Jesus to transform us, we live as witnesses to the power and the reality of this new way of living in the world

III. Conclusion

  • Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we have a new Vision of the world and its peoples – our Vision is of a just world, of a place in which all persons receive the respect that is due to them as human beings – it is a Vision of peace and shalom for all nations and people – it is a Vision of freedom from hunger and want, from poverty and powerlessness, from oppression and slavery – it is a Vision in which faith, hope, and love abide eternally in all corners of creation – it is a Vision in which the news that transforms us leads us to live as witnesses of the love of God for all people, without exception
  • Let us go and live as witnesses of the resurrection, this day and all days

Turn North

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

14 April 2019

  • This text from the book of Deuteronomy may see an odd story for Confirmation Sunday, much less for Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday – and honestly, as I prepared for today, I was not much thinking about Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday – my focus was on our two confirmands and the next steps in their journeys
  • That concept of the journeys was actually what brought this piece of the Exodus story to mind – by this time in the story, the people of God have been on a journey for forty years – it has been a difficult journey from the very beginning
  • It begins, of course, in Egypt, where God’s people have been living for centuries, while God has blessed them richly with descendants – they went down to Egypt as a family and household, perhaps dozens or a few hundred people, we do not really know – but in their time in Egypt, they have grown so numerous that the Egyptian pharaoh and other leaders come to perceive them as a threat
  • The way that Egypt deals with the perceived threat is the way that nations and empires always deal with internal threats – the Egyptians impose strict social controls on the descendants of Jacob – the Egyptians force the Israelites into slavery and even attempt to have midwives kill the babies who are born – it is a harsh and cruel existence
  • The time comes when God hears the cries of God’s people and sends someone to confront the powers of Egypt and lead the people out and into a promised land – that someone is Moses, who had to flee Egypt himself after killing an Egyptian guard
  • Pharaoh decides to let God’s people leave Egypt only after enduring the famous ten plagues, which culminate in the horrifying and tragic death of the firstborns – Pharaoh quickly regrets his decision and goes after the people with an army, which he loses in the sea
  • We might think that things would get easier without the Egyptians chasing the Israelites, but they do not – there is growing unrest because of the difficulties of the journey – there is not enough food to eat – there is not enough water to drink – so the people grumble and complain and God responds with manna and water from the rock
  • Even after those wonders, when the people come to the land, their spies find it fruitful but filled with giants – many are afraid to face the dangers of entering the land even with God on their side – in light of their fear and their lack of trust in God’s promises, God leads them away from the land and they have to wander for forty years
  • As the period of wandering is coming to its end, we get this word from God through Moses – Moses is retelling the story of the Exodus prior to giving the people God’s Instruction (Torah), which fills most of the book of Deuteronomy
  • God tells the people that they have gone around that county long enough – it is time to turn north, to head once again toward the land – on the last portion of their journey they are going to come across some ancient relatives, the descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau – the people are to deal kindly and gently with their kinfolk – they are not to provoke their relatives into a confrontation, but to deal with them fairly and justly so that everyone will continue to thrive
  • This instruction ends with God reminding the people that God has been with them on every step of their journey, guiding them, leading them, providing for them
  • The instruction to turn north is, if you will pardon the pun, a turning point in the Exodus – the people’s situation has changed – a generation has lived and died during the Exodus, and now, the ones who remain must hope, they are ready to enter into the land
  • Turn north, God says, your wandering is over – turn north, the journey is reaching its end – turn north, and enter into the promise
  • That is what I want to say to our confirmands today – you, too, have been on a journey – I am sure that at times it felt as if you were wandering around a wilderness – I am sure that you think even now that some of what we discussed was not really all that clear or comprehensible – in the last two years you have studied a little bit of biblical history, church history, both of the United Church of Christ and of Salem Church, some introduction to theology (ways of thinking about God), and how things got to be the way they are
  • You have also studied the Bible through the stories of many of the characters and personalities in it – you have seen clearly their humanity, their successes and their failures – and you have seen how God was with them all throughout their journeys
  • All of that study may have seemed to you like a lot of wandering in the wilderness – what we have tried to do, both in your growing up in Sunday School and in confirmation, is to lay a foundation
  • Now you are at a turning point in your journeys – now it is time to turn north – of course that is not a literal turning – it is a way of saying that now is the time for you to take a more active role in your journey – now it is time for you to begin to make your own choices and your own decisions about how you will walk with God
  • I think I have said this same thing every year on Confirmation Sunday, but this is not the end of your journeys – it is only another step for you – to be sure, it is a significant and meaningful step – now with the foundation we have laid together, with the knowledge and experience you have, with the guidance of your parents and your church family, it is time for you to turn north
  • Always remember that you are never alone on your journey – God is with you, guiding you, giving you the tools you need to follow in the way of Jesus and in the life of Salem Church – we expect you to continue to participate in our life together because you need us and we need you
  • Let us all turn north together, turn toward God together, turn again into the way of God in Jesus together as disciples of Jesus and members of Salem Church

A New Thing

Monday, 8 April 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

7 April 2019

I. Introduction

  • I do not know about you, but I love the smell of a new car, not that I get to smell it often – like so many things, someday scientists will probably discover that that smell is toxic or carcinogenic, but I love it – it is the smell of newness, of something different – and the fact that it will soon fade seems to make it all the more special – soon after buying a new car, that smell goes away, never to return – there is a car air freshener that is supposed to duplicate the smell, but I do not think it works – when the smell is gone, it is gone
  • I have heard, though I cannot say where, that our sense of smell ties closely to our memories, that one of the most powerful triggers for memory is smell – so perhaps when we smell that new car smell we are remembering something special from our pasts – who can say?
  • New things are often a delight, to see, to touch, to hear, to taste, and, yes, to smell – of course, older things can be a delight as well – there is nothing like the smell of an old book, or the feel of old leather – and it is the older stuff that is the temptation for us
  • The idea of perception is important in this text as God proclaims through the prophet that a new thing is coming

II. Old Things and New

  • Remember that during the time when the prophet spoke these words the people are still in Exile in Babylon – we have spoken several times before about how much this dislocation hurt the people – about how they felt cut off from their roots, from their land, from their God – there they are in the midst of foreign people who are worshiping foreign gods and doing foreign things, wearing foreign clothes and eating foreign foods – it is all so strange to them to be so completely out of touch with who they are – this experience of being foreigners in a foreign land becomes the reason why God’s people are to welcome foreigners into the land – they know what it is to be foreigners, so they are to make foreigners welcome
  • And into the midst of their dislocation comes a prophet from the school of Isaiah, the great prophet in Jerusalem during the eighth century BCE – the prophet comes to say that even though the people feel that they are alone, they are not – even though they feel cut off from God, God is still with them – not only is God still with them, but God is about to do a new thing, a thing they could not have expected
  • While in the Exile, the people did continue to tell the stories of God – they began to collect the stories and to write them down in ways that they never had before – and of course they had the rituals with which to remember those stories – one of the stories was the story of the Exodus
  • You remember that story, right? — the family of Jacob (also called Israel) moved to Egypt during a great famine – Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, was there and welcomed them and shared the abundance of Egypt with his relatives – after many years, the tradition says 400 years, the children of Israel were numerous, and their presence in great numbers was a threat to the Pharaoh, who enslaved them as a means of control – through many trials and difficulties, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God brought liberation to the people – one of the most memorable of the events of the Exodus is the time when God parted the waters of the sea, which allowed Israel to walk through, but when they were through, the waters rushed back in on the army of Pharaoh – we see that event in this text when the prophet speaks of God making a way in the sea and of the quenching of the army and its horses
  • But having brought to mind that powerful image of God’s work of liberation, the prophet tells the people to forget it — “Exodus? Fuhgeddaboudit” — “do not remember the former things or consider the things of old” — but, why? Why forget the past?
  • Forget the former things because God is about to do a new thing – it is right there, right in front of you – just around the corner perhaps – do you not perceive it? Do you not taste it in the air? Do you not hear it in the songs of birds? Do you not see it just there in the corner of your eye? Do you not feel it in the ground? Do you not smell it in the freshness of the day? — it is there, just there – and it is coming
  • Instead of making a way through the sea, God will make a way through the wilderness – instead of drowning armies, God is going make rivers in the desert so that God’s people will have plenty to drink as they journey home to Jerusalem – but that is not the wonderful part of this image, as wonderful as it is – the wonderful part is that this journey is a piece of what God is doing to form the people for God’s self so that the people might declare the praise of God – there is also a sense in which they will be praise to God – their very existence is the embodiment of praise to God
  • There is continuity with the past, but God does not repeat the past – God’s action in doing a new thing is both a continuation of the past, although with a new tone, and a completely novel thing – the past is not bad, but it does not limit God — it did not happen in the ancient world that conquerors allowed conquered peoples to return home – and yet the prophet says the people will return through the wilderness
  • That really is the wonderful thing – God the creator will re-envision the past in new ways to do a completely new thing – and in the process, God takes another step in creating a people of praise

III. A New Thing

  • My training in graduate school was as a historian – as historians, and even as non-historians, we often like to quote George Santayana, the philosopher and writer, who famously once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – that makes sense to us – the idea being that we look back to see what we have done and what others have done, and, ideally, we learn from that so that we can avoid the mistakes of the past
  • As followers of Jesus Messiah, however, as believers in God, we cannot simply look at the past and assume that what God has done God will do – the work God in the world is not that simple – God is always doing new things – our choice is to join in this creative, novel work or not
  • Our task is to look for the new thing that God is doing today – we cannot predict what it might be, but we can be ready for it when it appears – we cannot say that God will do this or that, but we can say that God will act in creative, loving, gracious ways
  • We prepare for the new thing that God is already doing, not by forgetting the past completely, but by not living in it – we prepare not by expecting God to act in a particular way, but by expecting that God will act – we prepare not by doing what we have always done, but by setting out into new territory, both as a community and as individuals – we all know the seven last words of the church – there are two versions of those words — either “We’ve never done it that way before,” or “We’ve always done it that way before” – in either case, if that is the feeling of any church, they should close the doors because they have already done all they are going to do – before we know it, we may be doing things we never thought of doing or expected we would do – God is at work in us – we are not yet done becoming what God creates us to be, calls us to be, and empowers us to be

IV. Conclusion

  • Our Lenten journey is proceeding apace – we have only this week and Holy Week before the resurrection celebration of Easter Day – as we move through these two weeks and beyond them into the future that God envisions for us, let us look constantly for the movement of God
  • Do not remember the former things – God is doing a new thing, and that new thing is right there before us – do you not see it? Do you not taste it, feel it, hear it, smell it? – A new thing is always in our future, as individuals and as a congregation, and God is leading us into it

God Forgives

Monday, 1 April 2019

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

31 March 2019

I. Happy Are Those

  • The psalm begins with a couple of beatitudes – in The Message version of the Bible, the one I read a few moments ago, Eugene Peterson begins the psalm with “Count yourself lucky” – the NRSV says “Happy” – older translations often say “Blessed” – in any case, the sense is essentially the same – those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered, those to whom God imputes, or assigns, no iniquity, in whose spirit there is no deceit, are lucky, happy, blessed – as Peterson puts it, the slate is wiped clean and God holds nothing against us
  • The flip side of that is that silence concerning our sin and brokenness causes a body wastes away, and we groan in pain, feeling God’s hand heavy upon us, and our strength dries up – the psalmist names the difference between these two conditions in v. 5 – that difference is that the psalmist acknowledges her/his sin, does not hide her/his iniquity, confesses her/his transgressions to God and God forgives it all
  • Here is an interesting bit of information – not only is it interesting, it is significant and is, I think, the most important aspect of the psalm
  • In the first five verses, the psalmist refers to sin several times using several words – in the NRSV, we see transgression, sin, iniquity – we might also include deceit and guilt, but those are suggestive words rather than actual synonyms – in the first five verses, there are at least seven references to sin – did you notice how many references to sin there are in the last six verses? – there are none
  • Here is why I think that fact is significant – and once God heals all brokenness, once God forgives Sin, or a sin, or many sins, all of it is gone – none of it exists any longer – God heals, God forgives, and then God forgets – the end – period – full stop
  • Once God forgives the psalmist’s sin, or ours, then God’s presence becomes apparent – God is a hiding place, preserving the forgiven ones from trouble, and that God is the deliverer becomes clear to all who will see
  • And then all of the forgiven ones become God’s instruments of further forgiveness – we might take it that the “I” of v. 8 refers to God, but it makes more sense if we understand the “I” to be the forgiven one, including us – all who are forgiven become instructors, teachers, counselors, guides for everyone – the forgiven ones do not become judges – telling others about their sin, about their brokenness is not the job of the forgiven ones – the job is to tell everyone that God forgives – the forgiven ones do this repeatedly, over and over again, until everyone gets the message
  • I think that the many torments of the wicked that we read about in v.10 are the consequences of not accepting God’s forgiveness – at the same time, God’s steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord, in God’s forgiveness
  • And the psalm concludes with an encouragement to be glad in God, to rejoice and to shout for joy

II. God Forgives

  • This whole idea of forgiveness is both extremely easy and extremely difficult for us to understand
  • Forgiveness is easy because God wants to forgive us – God is eager to forgive us – God desires to forgive us, to heal us, to restore us to right relationship with God – forgiveness is easy because it is so easily available – the only thing that forgiveness requires is that we understand in our hearts, our minds, and our spirits that we need it – as our friends in Twelve-Step programs have come to understand, the first step in our healing is to admit that we need it and that we cannot heal ourselves – once we can do that, then God’s forgiveness becomes active and God begins to heal us – I say “becomes active” because I believe that God’s healing and forgiveness are always already in our lives even if we cannot not see it or sense it – thus, forgiveness is easy
  • At the same time, forgiveness is very, very difficult – we know that we want to be forgiven – we know that not to be forgiven by another person, has the same effects as keeping silent about our brokenness as the psalmist describes it – the need for forgiveness eats at us – it saps our strength – it is a wound that we cannot heal – carrying around a burden of brokenness is exactly that – it is a burden – it weighs on us, it weighs us down like a heavy hand on our backs or on our hearts – carrying around our brokenness is a wearying task
  • Even so, too often we continue to carry our brokenness, not because God cannot forgive us, but because we cannot forgive ourselves – that inability misleads us into believing that God cannot forgive us, or, even worse, it deceives us into believing that God does not want to forgive us – so until we can forgive ourselves, we cannot accept God’s forgiveness – this makes forgiveness very difficult indeed
  • Another thing that makes forgiveness difficult, and we hate to admit this to anyone, not even to ourselves, is when we do not want to forgive someone else – in such a case, the lack of forgiveness is our responsibility – we are the source and the perpetuator of it – and just as surely as feeling a lack of forgiveness from someone else is a burden, so also is a refusal to forgive someone else a burden – when we withhold our forgiveness from others, we do not only hurt the others – we also hurt ourselves
  • So we have to remind ourselves that God forgives – God forgives us even when we cannot forgive ourselves – the forgiveness is there for us, but we cannot accept it – and yet God forgives – there is nothing that we can do or say that God cannot or will not forgive – there is nothing that any person can do or say that God cannot or will not forgive
  • One important part of our work in this world is to tell everyone, including ourselves, that God forgives, and then for us to forgive others and ourselves – God forgives everyone – God’s forgiveness is free for the asking – God forgives those whom we cannot forgive – God even forgives us

III. Conclusion

  • Lent can sometimes seem to be a dark and harsh season because of the focus on penitence – at least one corrective for that harshness, a corrective for our holding on to our sin and brokenness, a corrective for our refusal to forgive others, is Psalm 32
  • God forgives – then God forgets and our sin and brokenness are gone
  • Jesus shows us the way both to accepting God’s forgiveness for ourselves and to forgiving others – it is the way of love – it is a difficult way to go, but it leads to life and to healing – it leads to ridding ourselves of the awful burdens of sin and brokenness that we carry, and frees us to love, to be the people that God creates us and empowers us to be
  • God forgives everyone and God forgives everything
  • God forgives, and so are we to forgive