Trust in God

Monday, 26 April 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

18 April 2021

Confirmation Sunday

I. Introduction

  • When I was in Columbus, Ohio, my congregation and I participated in a local, congregation-based, direct action organization – the group organized many congregations around the city to deal with issues of justice and race – it was a powerful and effective association
  • Each year, we would select an issue to address – to discern what that issue would be, we asked members of the congregations what was on their minds when they awoke at 3:00 a.m.
  • Waking up suddenly at 3:00 a.m. is not an uncommon problem for us – it happens to many of us, maybe most of us, possibly all of us, occasionally – we find ourselves suddenly awake and cannot get back to sleep because something keeps running through our minds – worries, stress, anxieties, problems, issues, concerns, all seem worse in the middle of the night, in the dark, when all the world around us seems to be asleep
  • It is certainly an experience familiar to our psalmist for today, and she has an answer, or at least a response, to whatever faces us in the dark of night

II. In Case of Distress…

  • The psalmist begins with a demand, or at least an imperative request – “answer me when I call, O God my defender!” – the demand or plea is a confident one because the composer of the psalm has experience with God – God gave her breathing room when she was in a tight spot in the past, so in the current situation she speaks to God with boldness
  • There are some who believe the worst of her – they try to shame her with lies, with “vain words” – one natural response to such an attack is to feel shame, but our psalmist refuses to play that role – instead, she asserts her confidence that God has set her apart for God’s self and that God hears her
  • She encourages others, maybe even the ones attacking her, not to allow distress to distract them from the trustworthiness of God or from their religious duty
  • In the end, the psalmist knows that God has given her joy, even more joy than she has in the best of times – and God has given her peaceful rest because her only safety, her only security, is in God – any other source of security and safety will inevitably fail her because any other source lies with human beings – failing one another is what we human beings do all too often – she knows that in case of distress, God is still her defender

III. Trust in God

  • H, I want to speak to you directly, now – if you do not mind, we will let everyone else listen in, but I want you to remember what I tell you now because it is especially for you
  • I would like to wish you could know a life free from distress – I would like to hope that you will never have any sleepless nights – I would like to wish those things for you, but it probably would be pointless – very few of us can say that we never have troubles that disturb us – maybe you will be one of those rare people – I can wish that for you
  • The key for followers of Jesus is not how to avoid distress, but to learn how to respond to it – both this psalm and, perhaps providentially, the verse you selected as your confirmation verse give you some guidance on how to respond to the difficult times that you will face, as we all do
  • On the beautiful banner that Miss Fay made for you and for this day, we see the words of your verse: The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts – the verse goes on to say “I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him” (Psalm 28.7)
  • This echoes the guidance from Psalm 4, which tells us that when your life, and all our lives, get difficult, we can ask, even demand, that God help us – and God gives us breathing room when we are in tight places
  • I hate to say this, but when you put your ultimate trust in someone other than God, we will fail you, not always, but too often, I am sorry to say – even your parents, who love you more than they love their own lives, will fail you sometimes – it does not mean that they do not care – it only means that they are human
  • God, on the other hand, will not fail you – no matter what you experience in your life, whether good or bad or anything in between, you will never experience it alone – God will always be with you, watching over you, which is way less creepy and way more reassuring than it sounds – God will be with you even in the times when you feel that God is far away – there is nothing in this universe, nothing you can do or say or think, no power that exists or ever has existed or ever will exist, nothing will remove God’s love from your life

IV. Conclusion

  • So trust in God, H – trust in God and you will lie down and sleep in peace and safety – trust in God because God is your strength and your shield
  • And, my sisters and brothers and friends, that is true for us all

God’s Command

Monday, 26 April 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

25 April 2021

I. Introduction

  • The book of the Bible that we know as I John is not really a letter, even though we usually call it an epistle – it is really more like a sermon – it seems to be a sermon the author of which intends to deal with a particular problem in his community of Jesus’ followers – this community is clearly related to the community of the author of John’s Gospel
  • The problem seems to be that some are leaving the community, although the reasons why they are leaving are not clear – so the composer of the sermon points to God’s nature, which the readers and hearers of the sermon can see in Jesus, as the example for how the members of the community are to relate to one another
  • The key to those relationships lies in God’s command

II. A Sermon for a Community

  • Our portion of the I John sermon today begins in the middle of a section in which the preacher contrasts the children of God with the story of Cain, son of Adam and Eve, who was not only the first son born in the Bible but also the first murderer – for the preacher, the contrast illustrates the difference between the ways of the world and the ways of God – so different are these two ways that the people of the community of John should not be surprised that the world hates them – and the reason that the world hates them is because they have heard and follow God’s command to love one another
  • For the preacher, love is not a sentiment – it is not a disembodied emotion – in this the preacher echoes the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels – he echoes the words of Paul – he echoes the preaching of the ancient prophets – he echoes the teaching of God’s Instruction – the preacher’s words have their roots in all of those voices and in Jesus’ actions, especially in giving his life for the world – and Jesus’ self-giving becomes the example for Jesus’ followers in all times and all places
  • That example is not simply about the community giving their lives in the ultimate sense, as did Jesus – Jesus’ example is about his followers being willing to give generously when they perceive a need – for the preacher, not giving when there is need is a sure sign that God’s love does not abide in the one making the refusal
  • The preacher emphatically declares that love is not love unless it manifests in action – the preacher says that followers of Jesus Messiah know love because of what Jesus did – for the community, if they are not willing to help others in need then laying down one’s life for another is beyond the pale – if they do not love others, then they cannot love God – and if they cannot love God, then they will not love others
  • The foundational idea for the followers of Jesus to love is that it is, quite simply, clearly, and directly, God’s command – the command has two aspects, but that does not mean it consists of two commands – in fact, trying to separate the two aspects more or less nullifies both – God’s command, says the preacher, is to trust in the name of God’s son, Jesus Messiah, and to love one another – Jesus’ followers love one another because of their trust in Jesus’ name, and trusting in Jesus’ name finds expression in loving one another – Jesus’ followers cannot trust in Jesus’ name without loving one another – trusting in the name of Jesus gives rise to love for one another – and loving one another is the demonstration of a trusting relationship with God through Jesus’ name – in this way, the preacher ties word to deed, belief to action, because love can never be simply a word, and trusting Jesus can never be only in our heads and hearts
  • For followers of Jesus, then, there is assurance – if they believe in Jesus’ name by loving one another, then they know love – they know that they abide in the full reality of Jesus, in all he is and does, which is what the phrase “Jesus’ name” implies, and Jesus Messiah abides in them by the presence of the Holy Spirit – this is good news indeed for anyone who feels unsure about relationship with God – when our hearts condemn us

III. God’s Command

  • While the preacher of the sermon of I John had in mind keeping his community together, he also would have been familiar with John’s Gospel and with the words of Jesus we read there – in particular, the familiar words of John 3.16 and 17 (For God so loved the world…God sent the Son into the world that the world might be healed…) and John 16.34 (Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as he has loved us) and John 17. 21 (that they may all be one)
  • With these words in the hearts and minds and spirits of the community, thinking that Jesus has in mind a wider unity, a broader definition of “one another,” a more far-reaching expression of love than existing in the community alone is no stretch of the imagination
  • Jesus came into the world and laid down his life for the world to show the world that God’s loves every person – the preacher would know that when Jesus did much of his teaching about love, Judas was present – and when Jesus enacted his love by giving his life, it was for Judas, too – and if Jesus tells us that God loves every person, then, as our example, loving every person is part of God’s command for all who follow Jesus
  • Too many of the followers of Jesus in the world today appear to have forgotten that simple command of loving everyone whom God loves in truth and in action – too many of us who say we trust in Jesus and love one another have invested ourselves in being right and in being in control and in being on top of the world and in forcing our ideas on others without regard to the cost to the others – to many of those outside the communities of Jesus, and many inside them as well, this does not look like love – it looks like coercion – in looks like intolerance – it looks like distrust, dislike, and distance – it looks like hatred – and that is what it is
  • God’s command to put our trust in Jesus into action in our love for others does not carry with it any sense of condemnation – it is, rather, a word of encouragement and empowerment – if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and loves us – and what God calls us to do, God also enables and empowers us to do – we do not have to love others by means of our own strength alone – our trust in Jesus’ name means that Jesus is with us, by the Spirit he has given us (I John 3.24), and Jesus will give us the desire and fill us with love to love others

IV. Conclusion

  • If we trust in the name of Jesus, then we are here in the world to love others as an expression of that trust – this is God’s command for us and for all who follow Jesus

Living Together in Unity

Monday, 12 April 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

11 April 2021

I. The Unity of Kindred

  • This short psalm is full of meaning for its readers – in its original context, as “A Song of Ascents,” was probably a song that pilgrims would sing on the way to Jerusalem for a festival – in such a setting, the “kindred” would likely refer to the pilgrims’ immediate family or perhaps even the entire pilgrim and worshiping community – either way, the image is somewhat exclusive, limited to the people of God heading toward Jerusalem, the direction to which is always “up,” hence “ascents”
  • The goal for the kindred is unity, and when unity is present, the situation is good and pleasant – it is also filled with extravagance and abundance – we get these images in two metaphors
  • The first is the metaphor of the anointing of a priest – Aaron was the brother of Moses, and the people of God viewed him as the archetypal priest – following God’s instruction, Moses consecrated Aaron as a priest by anointing his head with oil (Exodus 29.7) – the image in the psalm is more than one of simply anointing a priest – the extravagant use of oil is a sign of abundance – there is so much oil that it not only covers the priest’s head, it flows down into his beard and runs through his beard onto his robe until it, too, is soaked in oil
  • The second metaphor is an image of dew on Mount Hermon – Hermon is one of the highest mountains in Syria, north of Israel, north of the sea of Galilee, more than a hundred miles from Jerusalem – Hermon is high enough that it is usually snow covered, which is an effective image of an abundance of moisture – that abundance either becomes a symbol of an abundance of moisture on Mount Zion, which is where Jerusalem sits, or the implication is that the abundance on Hermon will reach all the way to Zion – either way, the picture is one of extravagant and abundant moisture in a dry land
  • Finally, the singer of the song tells the pilgrims that the purpose behind the unity that God dreams and desires for the people is life forevermore – this is not a reference to what Jesus’ followers today call “eternal life” – it is a reference to abundant blessing in this world, blessing that never ends – and all this abundance and extravagance and blessing and life have their roots in unity
  • In my understanding, that gets close to the meaning of the psalm for the pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem for a festival – but there is more for us today

II. Living Together in Unity

  • Just as there are narrower and broader understandings of “kindred” in the psalm’s roots, so also the understanding expands even further in these post-resurrection Easter days
  • As we think about it, if the ancient understanding were still in place, we who are not a part of the Jewish community would have no access to the blessing, except through the Jewish community – our inclusion in God’s family comes by way of God’s boundless love and grace that we see manifest in Jesus’ words and actions – and if God includes us through Jesus, it makes sense to me that God also includes others who are not us
  • The goal for all of the inclusion is unity – unity and harmony between human beings is part of God’s Vision for the creation – what, then, does unity mean for us?
  • Rest assured, unity does not mean the end of individuality – everyone remains an individual – the only relationships in which people do not remain individuals are abusive, controlling, oppressive relationships – when individuality ends it is due to violence and a desire to control others, and that absolutely runs counter to God’s Vision of unity
  • In fact, unity becomes all the more meaningful when individuality continues – when individuals voluntarily and purposefully commit to striving for unity, every step in that direction is more significant and eloquent because we choose to live into the Vision
  • Keep in mind that we deceive ourselves if we think we can live in unity with God while we live at odds with one another – as we divide ourselves from one another, as we push others away from us for whatever reasons we can concoct, we divide ourselves from God, too – unity with God requires unity with one another and unity with one another is an expression of our unity with God
  • Living together in unity with people who are like us, who look like us, who believe as we believe, who desire the same things we desire, is difficult, but manageable – we can conceive of unity with “our people,” but unity with people who are not “our people” is another matter
  • The difficulty is, of course, that when we come together in any way it will be messy and complicated – we human beings are likely to surprise one another – we do things that we cannot explain to ourselves, much less explain them to others
  • At the same time, living into God’s Vision for our unity is full of blessing, abundance, and extravagance – imagine it – imagine how different this world could be if we were able to live together in unity – with all of our differences intact, with all of our individualities contributing to a greater possibility, we could accomplish more than we can even begin to dream of
  • We could bring an end to war and to injustice – we could elevate the life of every person – we could be the channel for blessing, for life forevermore, for everyone
  • Living together in unity is part of God’s plan for all of humankind – because of that, it is both a given and a goal – living together in unity is a given because its roots lie in who God is and in God’s nature – and it is a goal because God calls us to participate in making the Vision a reality —

III. Conclusion

  • Living together in unity is a part of God wants for us and for all people – unity means that every person receives respect and the consideration that is due a human being
  • Living together in unity is a high and holy calling – may we, the children of God, the people of Easter, the people of the resurrection, strive for God’s Vision of unity for the blessing of all people, life forevermore

So We Proclaim

Monday, 5 April 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

4 April 2021

Easter

I. The Proclamation of the Good News

  • On Resurrection Sunday, reading this portion of Paul’s epistle to the Corinthian Jesus People is obviously a good thing to do – throughout the 15th chapter, the resurrection takes center stage – without the resurrection, Paul would have no reason to write – without the resurrection, there could be no good news – without the resurrection, Paul might still be Saul and unknown to us
  • After dealing with whole host of troubles in the Jesus Community at Corinth, Paul turns to what might be the most significant trouble of all – if we look at the epistle to determine what the issues might be that led to it, we have to conclude that there are some in the community who deny, or at least doubt, the reality of the resurrection of Jesus
  • Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians of the content of his message of the good news – this is important because it forms the foundation in which they all stand and provides an explanation of what God does through Jesus in order to heal them of their brokenness – this is the message that he proclaimed to them and in which they have trusted
  • Paul says that he received this message and, most likely, we are to infer that he has received the message from God – Acts tells us that after Saul’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus Road, and after he meets the people he has gone there to persecute, Paul begins to evangelize enthusiastically (Acts 9.19b-22) – the apostle says in Galatians that he did not “confer with any human being” about what to preach, but went instead into Arabia, not to Jerusalem, for some unspecified period of time before returning, not to Jerusalem but to Damascus – it is three years before Paul actually goes to Jerusalem, where the Jesus movement began(Galatians 1.13-17)
  • The apostle’s short rehearsal of his proclamation, which he says is of “first importance,” is simply this: Jesus died, was buried, and God raised him from death on the third day – the death and resurrection happen “in accordance with the scriptures,” but he does not say which scriptures he means – even if he had said, the references would probably be meaningless to most of the Corinthians because they would not be familiar with the Hebrew Bible – and there was no collection of Christian scriptures at the time, so the Hebrew Bible would be the only scriptures Paul would know
  • What the reference to the scriptures does tell the Corinthians is that God is not a newcomer to the scene – God has been at work a very long time, in history and through the prophets, striving to call human beings to fidelity to the covenant, to remember that we are all God’s children and that God loves us all
  • The question of the resurrection persists, however, so Paul names a number of people who have seen the risen Christ – some of the witnesses are people we know from the Jesus stories: Cephas (also called Peter), the twelve (disciples), James (probably Jesus’ brother) – there are also many we do not know because the apostle does not name them – there are five hundred brothers and sisters in Christ, most of whom are still alive, and all the apostles, which is a larger group than the twelve
  • All of the ones who have seen Jesus after the resurrection lend credence to the reality of the resurrection, but not even they are proof
  • Finally, Paul names himself as one of the apostles, even though by rights he should not be one – he persecuted the church of God and had a reputation as a fearsome opponent – he had not known Jesus before the resurrection, so he has no right to the title or office of apostle, except that God has made him one – by the grace of God he is what he is – even though he claims he has worked harder than any of the other apostles, only the grace of God working in him and through him has given the message to proclaim – so he proclaims and so the Corinthians have come to believe – and so have we believed and so we proclaim

II. So We Proclaim

  • We do not have the privilege of knowing Paul personally – we do not have the opportunity to talk with all those who were witnesses to the reality of the resurrection – all that we have are stories and the Holy Spirit, and that is all we need
  • We cannot prove empirically or scientifically that the resurrection occurred – believe it or not, that is a good thing – if we could prove it beyond any question then there would be no place for trusting in Jesus Messiah – faith, as belief and as a personal relationship with God through Jesus, would be unnecessary – we would have fact and to pretend that the facts do not exist would be pointless – so we have the stories of the Bible, the stories of the Church, the stories of our own congregation, and our own stories – and from them we proclaim the good news
  • We have also to be careful with the Jesus story – as the apostle rehearses the story, we could read it as three distinct elements, that is, death, burial, and resurrection – but to separate them from one another does disservice, maybe even damage, to the story – they are in no way distinct – after Easter, we can never separate the crucifixion from the resurrection – the whole of Paul’s proclamation is one thing, as if deathburialresurrection were all one word
  • Thus, I do not think that Jesus died to remove our sins or our brokenness – he died because of them – he died because human beings wanted him to die so that they could, they thought, hold on to their earthly power – Jesus went to the cross and endured death because of our trust in ourselves – and his death demonstrates the unimaginable extent of how much God loves this world – in Jesus’ resurrection, God says “Let there be life” – and it is so – Jesus lives for us
  • What heals our brokenness, what demonstrates God’s forgiveness, is the resurrection – in the resurrection, God shines a light on the emptiness of the human desire for power – it brings our reliance on violence and control out of the shadows and into the light – it shows us the hubris and the futility of our trust in ourselves – the resurrection is God’s affirmation of life in the face of death and of our fear
  • Having trusted in the Jesus of our stories, so we proclaim the resurrection to the world – we do not prove the resurrection because we cannot – even so, we trust it and it is the foundation on which we stand

IV. Conclusion

  • We have heard the Easter message and so we proclaim – through Jesus’ resurrection, God brings life where we only see death – Easter is God’s declaration that life is God’s word to the world – and so we proclaim
  • Hallelujah! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Lamplighter Article, April 2021

Monday, 5 April 2021

Dear Friends,

I recently read an article that I found fascinating. The author writes about a theoretical physicist whose primary study is time. The physicist, Carlo Rovelli, states that there is no variable for time in the equations that describe the world. On the quantum level, which is extremely small, time is meaningless because events occur so rapidly. The same is true on a cosmic level; time is meaningless because our “now” is never the same “now” at any other point in the universe.

Rather than being a universal concept, quite literally, time is a perspective or a perception. There are events in our lives in which we experience time passing in different ways. One event may seem to pass more slowly than another, or more quickly. We may feel time as something that gets away from us, that we can never get or have enough of, or that we have too much of on our hands. We spend time, we waste time, we lose time, we find time, we gain time, we make up time. My dad used to say, “Tempus fugit,” which is Latin for “time flies,” and he was not wrong. Our physicist friend tells us, however, that it is all a matter of perspective, and that beyond our little blue marble in space, our perspective does not hold.

In fact, while human beings have perceived and marked the passage of time for millennia, there was no standardized measure of time around the world until the nineteenth century and the growth of the railroad industry. Before the railroads, every town kept its own time according to whatever measure it adopted. Railroads needed to be able to print schedules and keep them, so we came up with the twenty-four time zones around the world. The creation of the time zones and the standardization of time was a business decision. Thank goodness for it! Even so, at a theoretical level, this too is meaningless.

Rovelli offers this rather poetic interpretation of time: He says that time is a story that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our lives and of our world. The story is always in the present tense, and there are many of them, both individual and collective. Time is the persistence of memory. Without memory, we would not even perceive the passage of time. Time is a mental process that happens in the space between memory and anticipation.

Of course, this is all abstract. We experience time and therefore it is real for us. And yet people of spiritual wisdom tell us that we should always strive to live in the present, to be mindful of each moment, each second, and that our lives will be more satisfying if we can do that. To dwell too much on the past is to live with regret and questions about things we have done and said that we might have done and said differently. To dwell too much on the future is to live with anxiety because we none of us know what the future will bring.

What we are left with is this moment, the present. Each second of our lives, if we may actually speak of seconds, is a gift. Each now is a gift from God for us to use wisely and well.

As we approach Easter, which is one of those great moments in our memories, let us be aware of the presence of God is every breath we take, in everything we do, in everything we say. Let us live now giving praise and glory to the God who raised Jesus from death and who fills our lives with abundance. We have all the time in the world to do good, and it is all…right…now!

Grace and Peace

Tommy

PS, If you are interested, here is a link to the article: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/this-physicist-s-ideas-of-time-will-blow-your-mind?utm_source=pocket-newtab

The Lord Helps Us

Monday, 5 April 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

28 March 2021

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

I. A Word for the Weary

  • There is in Isaiah 40-55 a series of poems that scholars have called The Servant Songs – the poems are about a servant of God during the Exile in Babylon, but we never learn who the servant is – the servant could be a prophet in the Isaiah school, carrying on the work of his eighth-century predecessor – the servant could be the entire people of Judah living in Exile – the servant could be some other, unnamed person who embodies the traits and the experiences of which we read in the Servant Songs – or the servant could be an idealized person, one who exists only in the mind of the prophet, whom the prophet uses as an example of how the people of God should act in their time of difficulty
  • As this part of the poem begins, the servant is the one speaking – the Lord God has given the servant the tongue, not of one who teaches but of one who is a disciple, a student – as a student of God’s Instruction, the servant has learned and continues to learn how to sustain the weary with a word
  • The way that God teaches the servant is by waking and opening the servant’s ear so that the servant can listen – from listening, the servant is able to hear what God says and what the weary need to hear – the servant does not rebel against or turn away from God’s Instruction
  • Something has happened, however, that causes the servant to run into trouble, even abuse – the abuse may be related to God’s Instruction and it may be from trying to speak comfort – the prophet says that someone, we do not know who it is, for some reason, we do not know what it is, has abused the servant with beatings and pulling the beard, with insult and spitting – the servant bears all of this, and maybe it, too, is a part of listening to the needs of the weary
  • The servant does not feel shame or disgrace because of the abuse – the abuse means nothing to him – in fact, the abuse has stiffened his resolve and his confidence in God – so confident is the servant that the servant challenges anyone to oppose him – who will contend with me?, he asks – who are my adversaries – it is the Lord God who helps the servant, who will declare him guilty – all of their abuse and bluster wear out and turn to moth food
  • But the Lord God stands with the servant and the servant stands with the Lord God, and that is what matters
  • That is what matters because God is the one who acts throughout this part of the poem – the Lord God gives the servant the tongue of a disciple – the Lord God opens the ears of the servant – the Lord God helps the servant – four times in this short section of the poem, the Lord God acts – and because it is the Lord God who acts, the servant can always trust in God

II. The Lord God Helps Us

  • Today is the beginning of Holy Week – we began today with a sort of a reenactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – we call it the “Triumphal Entry,” but if we think about it at all, that is a term that has difficulties – it presumes that Jesus is celebrating, that he enters the city as a victorious conqueror – I do not think that is his intention
  • I think that the entry into Jerusalem is an act of rebellion, an act of religious and political challenge – it is a declaration that he has come not as an obedient servant of Caesar or of the Empire – he has come as an obedient servant of God – and there is the connection with the ancient servant of Servant Songs in Isaiah
  • The prophet of old does not predict the coming of Jesus or the treatment that Jesus receives as the hands of religious and political power structures – the prophet writes of the Lord God at work on behalf of the prophet and for the benefit of the Exiles
  • Jesus comes into the world with the confidence that God works on his behalf and for the benefit of all people, especially the ones whom the powers of the world overlook or oppress
  • This is a theme that the writers of the Christian New Testament carry forward into their world and, by extension, in ours – surely I am not the only one who heard the words of Paul to the Romans echoing out of this poem: “31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8.31-35, 37)
  • While we are not prophets in the same way that Isaiah was, and while we are certainly not Jesus, the Lord God still helps us – as we listen for the voice of God, as we listen to the needs of the broken world around us, as we give ourselves over to God’s Instruction through the Gospels and through the Holy Spirit, I have no doubt that we will fulfill our calling to be servants of God, knowing how to sustain the weary
  • If the words of the prophet teach us anything, if the violence that Jesus faces once he enters Jerusalem teaches us anything, if the division and brokenness of the weary world teaches us anything, it has to be that we all of us need the Lord God’s help – we cannot heal the world on our own – we cannot heal the world by our own strength – but we do not have to do it
  • The Lord God helps us to do what the Lord God calls us to do, which is to live lives of obedient servanthood – we are servants of the Lord God in this moment and in every moment of our lives – like the Exiles in Babylon, we are weak and we are tired, and the Lord God helps us

III. Conclusion

  • As we move through Holy Week, may we find strength in the stories of what Jesus endured to show us all that God loves us, and all of us
  • The Lord God helps us, and in the confidence and strength of that declaration, we serve and strive to heal the weary world in the name of Jesus Messiah

A Clean Heart

Monday, 5 April 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

21 March 2021

I. A Penitent’s Prayer

  • If you read this text along with me in an actual Bible, you may have noticed that the psalm has a superscription – this is not unusual in the psalms – sometimes the superscriptions are dedications, such as “for David” – sometimes the superscription names a tune or a style to use when singing or reciting the psalm – Psalm 51 goes further than that
  • It is a message “to the leader” of the worship or of the hymn – the composer of the psalm dedicates the song to David, remarking that the setting is “when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba
  • You probably know that terrible story in II Samuel 11-12, in which David has sex with another man’s wife, gets her pregnant, has the man killed in battle, and, after an appropriate time of mourning, marries the woman – by any measure, it is a disgraceful series of actions, and David should be ashamed – but he is not
  • We are not surprised to read that David’s action displeases God – God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David – Nathan does this cleverly, by telling a story of a poor man who has one ewe lamb and a rich man who has many flocks and herds – when the rich man has to provide hospitality for a traveler, he does not want to part with one of his own animals, so he takes the poor man’s lamb and cooks it for his guest’s meal
  • Even though the prophet apparently tells this to David as a story, David takes it as an actual event and is angry – he wants to know who the man is so that David the king can force him to make restitution to the poor man
  • Nathan’s reply to David is the classic line, “You are the man!” – he goes on to tell David that the king has displeased God and done something evil – God knows it – Nathan knows it – David knows it – and David knows that God knows it – and David learns that actions have consequences, even for kings
  • I do not think that David actually wrote this psalm, but by connecting it to a heinous thing that the king did, the author gives us a starting point for talking about repentance and forgiveness
  • By connecting this prayer of penitence to one of the worst stories in all of the Hebrew Bible, the author lets readers know the depths of human brokenness – when the author pleads for mercy and asks for God to cleanse her completely, she knows that she can rely only on God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy – she is aware of her brokenness and she knows that she cannot make herself whole
  • Saying that she has sinned against God alone is a bit of a puzzle – in the David, Bathsheba, and Uriah story, David certainly sinned against both Bathsheba and Uriah – but the psalmist also recognizes that when we sin against one another, when we impose our brokenness on others, then we also sin against God
  • We also have a tendency to think of the statement that she was born guilty (v 5) as a declaration of original sin – the Hebrew Bible, however, knows nothing of that Christian concept – the statement, rather, is a declaration of the depths of human brokenness – it is as if we are born this way and we cannot heal ourselves
  • God does want us to be whole, to know God’s truth in our deepest selves, but the question is about how we can get to that point – how do we get to where we can hear joy and gladness, where all our crushed selves can rejoice?
  • We get there only by God’s actions – when the composer of this psalm asks God to create in her a clean heart, she is asking for God to transform her, for God to make her whole again – being whole again is the restoration to the joy of God’s salvation – being whole again is to live in God’s presence
  • While David probably did not compose this psalm, I would like to think that it expresses his penitence – it does express his need for healing, just as it expresses ours

II. A Clean Heart

  • We all come into this world as innocents – in most circumstances, we learn very quickly to love unconditionally – we are open and trusting – we accept others as they are, without any expectation that they will change to suit us
  • Before many years pass, however, we grow out of our innocence – we become aware of what we want – our egos take over and brokenness becomes our reality – to be human is to be broken – to be human is to have a heart that needs healing – to be human is to live in broken relationships with others and with God – such relationships are not what God wants for us
  • To be honest, the church has not helped us in this matter of having a clean heart – traditional church teaching has told us that our lives are sinful, but we have reduced sinfulness to a matter of committing sins – there is a difference
  • We think that we can deal with our sins on our own – we can live better – we can do better – we can be better – and to some extent, this is true – we can make choices that are less hurtful to ourselves and to others – we have rituals that help us to do this – we call these rituals sacraments – baptism and confirmation and communion help us to deal with our brokenness, but only when we remember the power and grace to which the sacraments point
  • The problem is that when we live thinking that we can be better on our own, we are dealing with the symptoms of our brokenness without actually admitting or facing our brokenness – we need more – we need the kind of healing for which the psalmist pleads – we need for God to transform us, to create in us a clean heart
  • Jesus shows us what living with a clean heart looks like – Jesus shows us how we can live unbroken lives with unbroken relationships – Jesus was human, but without the ego, without the desire to be in charge, without the need to control others – Jesus shows us what we can have if we allow God to cleanse our hearts
  • A clean heart is a heart that God has transformed – a clean heart is a broken heart, a broken life, that God has restored to the wholeness that God wants for all people – we cannot make ourselves whole – we cannot cleanse our hearts on our own – only God can accomplish this – and it is God’s grace, God’s free gift to us all

III. Conclusion

  • As we approach Easter, may this penitent’s prayer be ours – may we join with the psalmist in allowing God to create in us a clean heart so that we may live into God’s Vision of healing and wholeness for all people and for the world

Walking the Way of Jesus

Monday, 15 March 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

14 March 2021

Ephesians 2.1-10 (New American Standard Bible)

2 1And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

I. Walking Our Own Way

  • At its heart, the epistle to the Ephesians is about reconciliation – reconciliation is a wide-ranging concept in this letter – it includes reconciliation between God and the world, reconciliation between human beings, and the work of Jesus in making reconciliation possible
  • We have to admit at the start that Paul the apostle may not be the author of this letter – there are some parts of it that clearly come from Paul’s teaching and there are some parts that are unlike anything Paul said anywhere else, at least in his writing – so we need to think carefully about the letter and not make assumptions – to borrow an idea that we read in Philippians, which everyone takes as authentically Pauline, we have to work out this letter with fear and trembling, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us
  • Before the apostle can discuss reconciliation in detail, he begins with laying a foundational understanding of humankind – and he does it by writing about walking – we do not clearly get that in most of our English language translations, which is why I chose to read from the New American Standard Bible today – most English translations employ the sense of the metaphor of walking, which is “living” or “following” – the translators of the NASB, however, keep the word “walking” and allow readers to take it as we will – for our purposes, I wanted us to keep the metaphorical language in mind – so we are walking today
  • The apostle says that we are dead in our brokenness, that we walk in a state of death by following the course of the world – “the world” here does not mean the physical planet, but a way of walking that does not fit at all with the way of Jesus – so different is the way of the world from Jesus’ way that the apostolic author credits its author as being the ruler of the power of the air – we are supposed, then, to understand that this ruler is the devil, but I do not take it that way
  • As I understand the concept of the devil as a personification of evil, as one who stands in opposition to God, it is a way for us to shift the responsibility for our choices to an external force that leads us astray – we do not choose to do evil things, to walk in the way of the world, the devil makes us do it, the devil leads us in the wrong paths, as if we have no choice – my truth is that we do not need the devil to lead us away from the ways of Jesus – we can do that quite well all on our own
  • We walk in the ways of the world by following our own desires, our own choices – and then along comes Jesus to show us a more excellent way to walk – walking in the way of Jesus is possible because God is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which God loves us, because God chooses every day to make us alive along with Jesus and God chooses to raise us up with Jesus
  • For God saves us, or, better, heals us – God heals our brokenness not because of who we are, but because of who God is – God is gracious and merciful and steadfastly loving and kind – there is nothing in it about which we have any reason to brag – it is God’s work in Jesus from the beginning to the end
  • We are the products of God’s grace so that we can do good works in the world, works that God prepared from the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1.4) so that we would walk in them

II. Walking the Way of Jesus

  • The good works that the apostolic author refers to are important, not because they will lead to our healing or to our reconciliation with God and with other people – obviously the author has just stated that nothing we do can bring about our reconciliation – the works are important, says the apostle, because God has prepared them for us, so that we would walk in them
  • Such good works take on the character of Jesus and embody Jesus’ teachings – the good works that God has planned for all people reflect the nature that God has created in us through Jesus – thus, our good works include mercy, love, grace, and faith – taking into consideration the primary theme of this letter, our good works also include peacemaking, reconciliation, and striving for unity with all people – this is what it means for us to walk in the way of Jesus
  • It also means that whatever drives wedges between individuals and groups is the way of this world – whatever causes us to think that we are above others in any sense is the way of the world – racism, nationalism, political divisions, these are all the way of the world
  • I like the metaphor of walking because walking is active – walking means that we have made decisions – we have decided to walk – we have decided to go this direction rather than another one – we have decided where we want to go and how we want to go
  • The apostle says that we have a choice to make as followers of Jesus – will we walk in the course of the world, the course that leads to violence, separation, and death for all? – or will we walk in the way of Jesus, which is the way of unity, peace, love, and life for all?

III. Conclusion

  • Lent is a logical time for us to give consideration to the path of our lives, to think about the course we walk
  • As we think, meditate, pray, and consider our journey, may we find that walking the way of Jesus is the way for us to go

Remember and Trust

Monday, 8 March 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

7 March 2021

I. Jesus and the Temple

  • All of the Gospels include a story that focuses on the event about which we just read, which makes me think that it actually happened in Jesus’ ministry, or at least something like it – we refer to the event as “the cleansing of the temple” – in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the event comes at the end of Jesus’ public life and ministry – for the Synoptic Evangelists, this moment was a motivating factor in the opposition to Jesus – we might even say it was the trigger event – it was the last straw that led the religious and political authorities to plot his arrest, trial, and death
  • In addition, the Synoptic authors have Jesus cite Isaiah and Jeremiah – the Isaiah citation states that God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56.7) – the Jeremiah text asks whether God’s house, which is called by God’s name, become a den or robbers (Jeremiah 7.11) – the implication is that not only is commerce going on in the temple but that it is corrupt commerce, at that
  • For John the Evangelist, however, there seems to be a different purpose – the story comes at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and it follows immediately on the telling of the sign at the wedding in Cana – that sign pointed to the revelation of God’s glory in Jesus – then, with little transition, the scene shifts to Jerusalem and to the temple, where the people of God believe that God’s glory resides
  • Jesus goes to Jerusalem to keep the Passover festival – in the temple he finds people selling animals and changing money – we have to understand that these people are performing a necessary service for the temple, so that the sacrifices and offerings are acceptable in the temple of the one true God – thus, John leaves out any implication that the commerce taking place in the temple is corrupt – even so, doing something that is not “wrong” does not make it right – and in John’s version of the story, Jesus takes the time to create a whip, which he uses to drive the animals and the merchants out of his “Father’s house,” and then simply accuses the merchants of making God’s house into a marketplace, as if God’s house or God’s love or God’s grace were for sale
  • Notice that the temple officials, which is the group to whom the Evangelist refers to as “the Jews,” do not ask Jesus why he has done this disruptive thing – maybe they already know why – instead, when they challenge Jesus, they ask him about his authority to drive the merchants from the temple – they ask him by what sign he does this – but Jesus does not really answer their challenge – instead he redefines what, or rather, who the temple is – and his redefinition is something about which we need to think long and hard, because John refers to Jesus’ body as the temple, or at least as a temple
  • Jesus’ teachings and his actions are in keeping with the prophets of old – and his words and actions in the temple are a sort of a sign in themselves, a sign that the temple officials either cannot or will not understand
  • To be fair, the disciples do not immediately understand what Jesus has said and done – and they probably know Jesus better than the temple officials, even though they have not been around Jesus all that long as yet – it is only after the fact, well after the fact at that, that they remember – they remember what Jesus says and they begin to understand its importance, its significance – they remember and eventually they learn to trust both what Jesus says and what he does

II. Remember and Trust

  • That is so often the way it is for us – when we are in the middle of something, we cannot see it for what it is – all we can see is what is right in front of us – all we can feel is what we are in the midst of at the moment
  • Sometimes these events, these moments, are times of difficulty – the loss of a loved one to death – the breakup of a marriage or a family conflict – someone we love, whether friend or family, has a diagnosis of a serious illness – a time of financial instability that threatens us – times of global pandemic – such difficult times cause us pain, grief, sorrow, loss, and we cannot see past them
  • Sometimes these events are times of joy – births, marriages, school graduations, personal and family recognitions of various kinds, birthdays, anniversaries, times of celebration – oddly enough, those good times can block our vision just as much as the difficult times
  • Whether with bad times or good times, life can overwhelm us – life happens, and we are not quite sure how it happens – only in looking back can we begin to see the hand and presence of God at work
  • The disciples had to remember before they could trust – the text in the NRSV says that they “believed” – the problem is that, as I have said before, we tend to consider belief in terms of our thoughts, as if the roots of belief were in our heads – but the ancients understood belief in terms of a relationship – so, for us, maybe a better way for us to go is to consider belief as trust, trust in God, trust in Jesus, trust in one another
  • Thus, the disciples had to remember – they had to remember that when Jesus got so very angry that the temple officials had allowed God’s house to become a marketplace, and that his zeal was like the psalmist’s zeal – that Jesus’ anger came from his absolute trust in God and the lack of trust that the merchants seem to demonstrate
  • The disciples had to remember that when Jesus talked about rebuilding the temple, he was not talking about the building that Herod’s family had erected on the temple mount in Jerusalem, but that he was talking about himself, that he was saying to the temple officials and to the disciples that he was the temple, that he is the temple
  • Having remembered, then the disciples were ready to trust in the one whom they remembered
  • We, too, must remember – when we look back on the times of our lives, we must remember that we were never alone, even if we felt as if we were – we must remember that Jesus was present with us, in us, by the presence of the Holy Spirit – we must remember that come what may, Jesus will always surround us in God’s love for us and for all people and all peoples
  • Then, having remembered, we are ready to trust in the Scriptures, which Jesus fully embodied, and in Jesus’ words and actions in our lives

III. Conclusion

  • Remember and trust in God – this is a significant part of discipleship – and Lent is a perfect time for us to remember – this season of self-searching, of self-examination, is a perfect time for us to remember God’s love for us in Jesus – it is a perfect time for us to trust Jesus enough to live fully into that love and to share it with all peoples

An Everlasting Covenant

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

28 February 2021

I. God Speaks to Abram and Sarai

  • Abram and Sarai are not perfect people, even if later on they are examples of trust in God – they make plenty of mistakes in their lives – after God had first spoken to Abram about establishing a covenant with him, when Abram was seventy-five years old, there comes a famine, so Abram and Sarai go to Egypt, where Abram tells his wife to pretend to be his sister so that Pharaoh would deal kindly with Abram – and, to be fair, she is, his half-sister (Genesis 20.12), but when Pharaoh takes Sarai for his wife, a series of disasters comes on him and his house, which brings out the truth of Sarai’s identity and Pharaoh sends them away (Genesis 12.10-20)
  • And when Abram is eighty-five years old, God reaffirms God’s promises to Abram – at the time Sarai and Abram still have no children with which to begin a great nation – the two decide to take matters into their own hands – Sarai sends her servant, Hagar, to lie with Abram – but when Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarai thinks that Hagar looks at her with contempt, so she “deals harshly” Hagar, implying that Sarai is abusive to her slave, which causes Hagar to run away into the desert, where God finds her and blesses her (Genesis 16.1-16) – God also tells Hagar to return to and submit to Sarai, which raises a whole other set of questions and concerns that we should talk about, but that is for another day and another sermon
  • Finally, when Abram is ninety-nine years old, and his son with Hagar, Ishmael, is thirteen years old, God affirms the covenant once again, promising that Abram’s family will become a great nation – this appearance of God to Abram is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this is the first time in the biblical stories that anyone refers to God as El Shaddai, which the NRSV translates as “God Almighty,” but likely means something closer to “God of the mountains” or, and do not be shocked, “God of the breasts” – whatever we might take as the translation, the idea that God gives God’s self a new name, or at least a new title, is a surprising thing
  • Every time that God makes and affirms the covenant promises to Abram, the act is at God’s initiative – Abram does not ask God to come and say something to him – God is not working on Abram’s schedule – God is at work on God’s schedule, even if Abram cannot see it – from the foundation of the world, human relationship with God has always been at God’s initiative, has always been a human response to the invitation of God, and human beings are always disappointing God – think about that – the man and the woman in the Garden – Cain – Noah – God reaches out and humans disappoint God – and yet God comes back to humans every time – and here God is again, giving new names and affirming old promises
  • God’s promises to Abram are lavish – by God’s creative activity, Abram, which means “exalted ancestor,” becomes Abraham, or “ancestor of a multitude” – and for the first time God makes a promise to Sarai, as well – God promises to bless her – God promises that she will give birth to a son who will continue the line of Abraham – through her nations and kings will come – and as a sign of the promise to her, Sarai becomes Sarah, which means “princess”
  • In these most ancient stories, the covenant is between God and Abram/Abraham, then between God and Abraham and Sarah, and then on to Abraham’s descendants – because God is the one making the covenant, it is an everlasting covenant, one that even comes to us, not as children of Abraham and Sarah by birth, but as children of Abraham and Sarah by the everlasting covenant

II. An Everlasting Covenant

  • We may rarely think of it this way, but at the heart of all of our relationships is the concept of covenant – some covenants are simply, such as everyone agreeing to stay on their side of the stripes on the roads, and some are complex – covenant is a way of relating to one another and living with one another that binds us together – covenant says that we are all one with one another and that as far as El Shaddai is concerned there is nothing that can break us apart from one another – but as we human beings always have done, so we do, too – we give ourselves to dividing ourselves from one another – and as God has always done, God allows us to do it and then comes to us over and over again
  • That is because God’s covenant with humankind does not depend on our response – it is God’s choice from first to last – notice what God says in v 8 of the Genesis reading: “I will be their God” – usually in the Hebrew Bible, that declaration is only the first of two parts – usually, when God says that God will be their God, God also says that they shall be God’s people – not here – God simply, straightforwardly says “I will be their God” – the relationship does not depend on human response
  • To be clear, God does state that the male descendants of Abraham will mark their bodies with the sign of circumcision and that if they choose not to do it they break God’s covenant, but God does not say that God will break God’s covenant – no – God says that God establishes an everlasting covenant
  • The apostle Paul recognizes this when he says to the Roman Jesus community that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus – there is nothing we can do or say that will cause God to withdraw God’s promise of love – we can reject that love of God, but not even that will move God to cease from loving us
  • Jesus declares the same thing in the Gospels – over and over again, in his welcome of strangers, in his compassion for people on the fringes of “acceptable society,” in his love for everyone, in his prayers, Jesus tells his followers that God’s love is for them and for everyone
  • God’s covenant, which God reaffirms to Abraham and Sarah, is an everlasting covenant – that is God’s nature – God does not give up on us, ever – even when we give ourselves to the ways of the world and of empires, even when we harden our hearts to the brokenness that we see all around us, even when we refuse to accept or to share God’s love, God still loves us
  • God promises to be our God, and that is the heart of the everlasting covenant – it is a covenant of grace with all of creation

III. Conclusion

  • Lent is a time of introspection – it is a time for us to consider again the depth and the breadth of God’s love for us and for all people – it is a time for us to think about how we live and whom we serve – we usually think of such introspection, such looking inside ourselves, as a solemn thing, and in one sense it is just exactly that
  • In another sense, however, if our introspection leads us to remember that God’s love for us is unconditional, it can also be cause for great joy
  • God’s covenant of grace with us is an everlasting covenant, and nothing in all creation can separate us from the promises and love of God – and that is a wonderful and powerful thing