We Are Not Alone

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

24 May 2020

I. On the Damascus Road

  • We have to remember that Saul is a good man – he is a man that we would definitely want in Salem Church – he is well-educated, a man of impeccable background and credentials – he is zealous and untiring in his commitment to God – he is the type of man who would do anything for God – he is scrupulous in his observance of the covenant law and forceful in his expectations that other Jews also observe the covenant law
  • We first read of Saul in the Bible in Acts 7 at the stoning of Stephen, where we read that the ones stoning Stephen laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul
  • From that time on to the time of today’s story, Saul gains a reputation, depending on one’s point of view, as either a defender of Judaism or a persecutor of Jesus’ followers – as our story opens, Saul receives warrants or permission or orders from the high priest in Jerusalem to go to Damascus to root out from the synagogues and to imprison all of the followers of the Way, which is what Jesus’ followers called themselves – and it is on the road to Damascus that Saul has his famous visionary experience of Jesus
  • Most biblical interpreters speak of this as Saul’s “conversion,” but I have never been convinced that he thought of it as a conversion experience – after his meeting with the risen Christ, Saul still thinks of himself as a Jew, albeit a Jew who follows Jesus’ teachings – the real change is that Saul moves from being a persecutor of the people of the Way to being himself one of them
  • Maybe we do better to think of this as a moment of transformation – Saul has met the resurrected Jesus – even though no one else with him could testify as to what Saul has seen or heard, the confrontation literally blinds Saul – even though his eyes are open, he cannot see – there is nothing for Saul to do but to follow the instructions he has heard – he has to go on to Damascus – in Damascus, Saul ends his journey in Straight Street, at the house of a man named Judas – while he is there, a follower of the Way, named Ananias, has a vision in which God sends him to find Saul and to lay his hands on Saul and open his eyes
  • This is very like an ordination – Ananias lays hands on Saul and Saul goes out to preach and teach the Way of Jesus, proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah
  • This is a transformative moment for Saul, not least because it means that he is going to have a lot of trouble, a lot of suffering, and a lot of hardship in his life because of it – in his vision, Jesus tells Ananias that not only has Jesus chosen Saul to be a messenger of the good news, but that he will also show Saul that the call will indeed bring hardship
  • The hardships begin almost immediately after Saul’s transformation – after a brief period of getting to know the people around him, Saul starts preaching that Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah, which upsets the Jews he has come to Damascus to support in getting rid of the people of the Way – so some of the Jews start planning to get rid of Saul by killing him – of course, Saul hears about the plot and escapes from Damascus by some of Jesus’ disciples let him down in a large basket through an opening in the wall around the city
  • Things would actually get worse for Saul, later called Paul – this is only the beginning

II. We Are Not Alone

  • I think two things are going on in this story of Saul’s transformation – the first is important because it is so unusual – the second is important because it is typical for many of us, but we may not see its significance
  • The first, of course, is Saul’s encounter with the vision of the risen Christ – the author of Acts will repeat the telling of this story twice more (Acts 22.3-21; 26.2-23) – Saul’s transformation is important because of the work that Saul/Paul does in in the book of Acts by taking the good news to the Gentiles – it is a huge part of the great story of Acts, the story that tells us about the spread of the good news from a small group in Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and onward to the ends of the earth – it is an important story because it tells us of the transformation of a persecutor to a champion of the Way of Jesus – and yet it is a story to which most of us cannot relate – our own encounters with Jesus have been much more mundane, more common – so we read the story of Saul’s transformation with squinted eyes and wonder what it might have to do with us – it remains unique, outside of our experience, and that is all right because there is more to the story
  • The second thing that goes on in this story has to do with the interaction between Saul and Ananias, which I have compared to ordination – as I read this part of the story, I see what happens between these two servants of God a moment that is a common moment in many of our lives – you see, I would also compare this part of the story with confirmation – what would it mean for us all if we understood confirmation not as the end of a journey, and not only as a rite of passage, but as our ordination to ministry? – how might we live differently if we viewed confirmation not just as a moment of entering full membership of a congregation but also as an affirmation of God’s call and claim on our lives?
  • Along with our ordination into the common ministry of the people of the Way of Jesus, we have a promise, an assurance from Jesus that our ordination will set us at odds with the ways of the world – following Jesus does not bring a promise of an easy life, free of worry and concern, simply a walk through the meadows of life smelling the flowers along the way
  • No, my beloved friends, following Jesus brings a promise that there will be hardships in our lives – we will know struggles, even beyond the struggles that are our common lot as human beings – as ministers and missionaries of the good news, we will stand against the evils that dominate our world – and our standing against those evils will bring hardship, too
  • But the good news is that we will not stand alone – the good news is that as we follow the call of the risen Christ, that same risen Christ will walk with us, sustain us, uphold us, even through the worst of those hardships – we are not alone
  • This is not a matter for us to lord over others – that the risen Christ walks with us does not make us better than others – the presence of the risen Christ gives us the strength and the courage and the experience that will allow us to serve and love others, no matter who they are, as they deal with their own hardships in life
  • Just as the risen Christ walks with us through our hardships, so, too, we walk with others through theirs – we exclude no one from our companionship for any reason – when we face opposition, we face it with love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness – we face it with hope and with the assurance that we are not alone

III. Conclusion

  • In this new world in which we live, we need to know and to let others know that the risen Christ walks with them, that they are not alone – the scales fall from our eyes and we see Jesus in the faces of the poor, the uninsured, the outcast
  • We are not alone – and neither are they

Excel in Generosity

Monday, 18 May 2020

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

17 May 2020

I. The Offering for the Saints

  • The saying is that the more things change, the more they stay the same – as we read this piece from Paul’s Corinthian correspondence that surely seems to be true
  • Paul is not in Corinth, obviously – he might be in Macedonia, where he had gone at the urging of the Holy Spirit – in the meantime between his earlier visit to Corinth and the occasion of this letter, relations between Paul and the Corinthian followers of Jesus had deteriorated
  • The Corinthians were a fractious bunch, a difficult community of people, under the best of circumstances, and these were not the best of circumstances – the apostle used much of the first Corinthian letter to address some serious communal issues in the Greek city – as far as Paul was concerned, the Corinthians had abandoned much of the way of Jesus in favor of their own way – rather than service to others, the Corinthians had turned to taking care of themselves – rather than looking to Jesus as their guide, they had chosen to follow other human teachers and argued about which teachers were best – rather than exercising their various spiritual gifts for the good of all, they had exercised their pride in certain spiritual gifts while denigrating others – no, these were not the best of circumstances
  • Quite a bit of this so-called second Corinthian letter deals with personal attacks on Paul and the apostle’s defense of his authority and his teaching of the good news of Jesus
  • Then, suddenly, the apostle begins to address the Corinthian participation in an offering for the Jesus community in Jerusalem – the apostle never gives us a clear reason for the offering for the saints – there may be a hint in the Galatian epistle, in which Paul says that the community in Jerusalem asked him to “remember the poor” when he spoke to Gentile communities (Galatians 2.10), which Paul was happy to do
  • When he was in Corinth, Paul began to raise the offering, and the Corinthians were eager to participate – they regularly set aside money for it, which Paul was to gather when he returned to Corinth and take to Jerusalem
  • But the Corinthian eagerness and enthusiasm waned, and the collection seems to have stalled – the apostle writes here to encourage them to reignite their enthusiasm for the offering – he does this in several ways
  • First, he tells them of the eagerness in Macedonia to share in the offering – the Macedonian followers of Jesus are poor, at least compared to the Corinthians, but, in a wonderful turn of a phrase, Paul says that “their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” – not only have the Macedonians given as much as they could but they have given even more than that, going beyond their means to share with their fellow Jesus people in Jerusalem
  • Paul does not do this to shame the Corinthians into doing what they have promised – instead, his is an appeal to their excellence – they excel in so many ways, in faith, in speck, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in Paul’s love for them – and if they excel in these ways, he wants them to excel in generosity, too
  • Next he turns to the generosity of God and of Jesus in Jesus’ gift for all people – although he was rich, Jesus became poor for the Corinthians so that they, in turn, could become rich – but the wealth that Jesus provides is not the wealth of people and nations – it is not in material things, such as money – the wealth that Jesus provides is an embarrassment of riches in love, grace, mercy, life, and peace – the proper response to such a gift is gratitude, which the Corinthians can express in their own generosity
  • And Paul emphasizes the mutuality of the life of Jesus’ followers – everything is a matter of a fair balance – as the Corinthians give eagerly now, so others will give eagerly should the need arise in Corinth
  • That is the nature of the life of disciples of Jesus – there is eagerness to serve, there is gratitude to God for all of God’s gifts, especially the gift of Jesus, and there is mutual love, respect, and support for other

II. Excel in Generosity

  • But, as I said, the more things change, the more they stay the same – for whatever reason, the apostle has to remind the Corinthians of these things – and we need those reminders, too
  • Even though Jesus tells us that we cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6.24), and even though Paul tells us that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (I Timothy 6.10), we find all sorts of ways to keep for ourselves as much money as we can – learning to love God and not our own wealth and comfort is for us a lifelong journey
  • Of course, this gets us into the practice of stewardship, which concerns not money alone, but our use and care for all the resources that we enjoy – our struggle with stewardship connects to the untruth that rules the economies of our world – that untruth says that there is not enough for everyone so we have to get our portion first and keep it – it is the lie of scarcity
  • Jesus teaches us, however, that we do not live in a world of scarcity – the life that God offers to us all through Jesus is a life of abundance – at the heart of the good news is our trust in God that there is enough for everyone
  • The early response to the spread of the coronavirus was to fall immediately into the fear of scarcity – people began hoarding toilet paper, of all things, as well as cleaning supplies – there was always enough for everyone, but because we took more than we needed, we created a scarcity – we were afraid and we confirmed our fears all by ourselves
  • God has provided all that we need – our work as disciples of Jesus involves learning to trust in the abundance of God, and to share from our abundance with others so that “the one who has much does not have too much and the one who has little does not have too little”
  • This also works as the basis for justice in our world, which is also a concern of stewardship – I have said many times, borrowing words that I heard from John Dominic Crossan, that justice does not mean that everyone has the same, but that everyone has enough

III. Conclusion

  • This is our stewardship of all of the gifts of God, the gift of life, the gift of this planet, the gift of our relationships with God and with one another – God calls us to share in the stewardship of every gift of God, which we have in abundance, for the good of all people
  • As followers of Jesus, let us live in the truth of the good news that tells us that there is enough and that in our eagerness, in our gratitude to God, and in our love for others, we too can excel in generosity

It All Comes Together

Monday, 11 May 2020

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

10 May 2020

I. The Lord Opens Lydia’s Heart

  • The story begins with a vision – in this story, Paul and others, possibly including the author of Acts, are traveling in Asia Minor and they are having absolutely no success there with the message about Jesus – then Paul conveniently has a vision of a man telling Paul to come to Macedonia and preach, across the Aegean Sea from where Paul and his company are – they all decide to leave Asia Minor at once, and they end up in Philippi, a principle city of the district and a Roman colony
  • They are in Philippi for several days and come Saturday, the Sabbath day, Paul and the others look for a place worship – they end up down by the riverside in the company of women, and there they find a receptive audience for the gospel
  • In the context of Acts, this is a significant moment because there by the riverside Paul meets Lydia – Lydia is an independent middle-class woman, or perhaps even a wealthy woman, who has her own business – here is what I think is going on – I think that everyone who works in her business is a woman, and that several of them are Jews – I think that their house and their business are near the river because they need a good deal of water in their dye work – I think that they are out there by the river by themselves, almost as if they are their own separate community
  • The author tells us that Paul and his group believed this gathering to be a “place of prayer,” which might otherwise be called a synagogue, except that the worshipers are all women – in the ancient tradition, and even today for some, a synagogue requires the presence of men – it is odd to me that in a significant Roman colony such as Philippi there are not enough Jewish men to constitute a synagogue – there may be a synagogue in the city, and yet, for whatever reason, this appears to be essentially a synagogue of independent, working women, meeting outside the city, by the riverside
  • The author of Acts further tells us that Lydia is a “worshiper of God” (16.14), which means that she worships at the synagogue, but has not converted to become a Jew – and maybe she cannot convert, since there seems to be no man present – seeing as she is the apparent head of the household, she may be a primary benefactor of this gathering of women as well
  • The author also says that God opens her heart to the message that Paul brings to the community – as a traveling rabbi, Paul has the right to address anyone who engages in the study of Torah, so his attendance at the community’s place of prayer would provide him the opportunity to do just that, albeit with the decisively Christian interpretation
  • The message that Paul brings to that community of women changes them – not only Lydia, but her entire household are baptized that day – this may also include the women who gathered with her beside the river – then Lydia asks Paul and his fellow travelers to stay with her in her house
  • In a very few words, the author of Acts tells us a significant story about the spread of the gospel – it begins with the Holy Spirit who brings to Paul a vision of where he needs to be – Paul responds to the persuasion of the Spirit and goes to Philippi – Lydia, who we might think of as a seeker, also follows the leading of the Spirit to this gathering of women – the Lord opens her heart, which she must also allow, and she hears the message that Paul brings, and it changes her life and the lives of many around her
  • Everyone in the story has a part to play – Paul, Lydia, and the Holy Spirit all have to be present, willing, and open, which they are, and God uses what we might call their partnership to spread the good news of Jesus

II. It All Comes Together

  • We should not be surprised at this – throughout the Bible, from the ancient stories and through the Gospels, God calls people to action – whether prophets, kings, shepherds, or dealers in purple, God works to persuade people to join in the Vision and to participate in the work of sharing the Vision in the world, of living into the Vision of God
  • God calls and God persuades, and people have to choose to become participants, partners, if you will, with God in the Vision – Paul hears the call, but Paul also has to respond to the call – Lydia is seeking God, and when God opens her heart, she has to allow it – then she has to accept the message that she hears – it all comes together to spread the good news
  • That is a significant aspect of discipleship – it goes beyond attendance in formal services of a church – it goes beyond singing hymns and praying prayers and reading the Bible – it goes beyond reciting creeds – discipleship is a daily walk with God –
  • As it does with Paul and Lydia, it requires that we be attentive to the persuasions of the Holy Spirit and will to act on those persuasions with trust in the one who persuades us
  • Discipleship is not an occasional way of life – it is a commitment, a total commitment, to the way of Jesus – it requires much of us if we are going to follow Jesus truly
  • Discipleship is working to make it all come together for us and for others – discipleship is being a partner with other followers of the way of Jesus and all of us being partners with God to bring the fullness of God’s Vision into the world
  • This story of the partnership of Paul, Lydia, and the Holy Spirit leads into the story of Paul and his company being arrested in Philippi for casting a spirit of divination out of a slave girl – that night in jail, an earthquake opens the jail doors and sets the prisoners free – eventually, the jailer and his household to join the partnership of mission
  • That is how it works for us, too – the story did not begin with us and, if we are willing to work to help it all come together, it will not end with us – as we live lives of trusting relationship with God, as we work as partners with others and with God, we keep the story going
  • Our stories become parts of the great story of love and life with God, stories of partnership with God

III. Conclusion

  • As we give ourselves fully to following Jesus Messiah, our partnership can change the world – it does not require large events or large efforts – it only requires openness to the Spirit and willingness to work
  • It all comes together by the grace of God

Jesus Calls Us to Action

Monday, 27 April 2020

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

26 April 2020

I. Breakfast Beside the Sea

  • The Gospel of John seems to come to a conclusion at the end of chapter 20 – Jesus has risen from the tomb – Mary Magdalene and the rest of the disciples have seen the empty tomb – Jesus has twice appeared to them in the locked room – Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe” – the Evangelist ends the chapter with the statement of purpose, that there could have been many more things that could have been in the Gospel, but these are there so that, like Thomas, readers could believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah and could have life in his name –  the end – full stop – except that it is not the end
  • Surprisingly, the story goes on – there is one more scene for us to witness – the setting changes completely – no longer are we in a locked room in Jerusalem – we are on the shore of the sea of Tiberias, the Roman name for Galilee – not all the disciples are there, but several are, including Thomas – after all that they had been through in Jerusalem, I wonder if they simply wanted their lives to get back to normal, to do normal things, to return to the familiar – maybe they need to take a step back, to regroup, to rest, to recreate – who can say?
  • Peter decides to go fishing one evening, and the others go with him – they fish all night and catch nothing – as they return to shore, they see a man standing on the beach – he tells them that he knows they have no fish and then says they should cast their net on the right side of the boat – and suddenly the net is full of fish – so many fish that they cannot haul the net out of the water
  • At this point, the disciple whom Jesus loved, the so-called Beloved Disciple, recognizes that the man on the beach is Jesus – remember that I see the Beloved Disciple as the representative of the ideal disciple, which could be any one of us – not giving a name to the Beloved Disciple allows us to put ourselves in the story and we become the ones who bear witness to who Jesus was and is
  • Once the Beloved Disciple has recognized Jesus, Peter also recognizes him, puts on his clothes and jumps into the water to swim to shore, leaving the others to struggle with the net – on shore they all find that Jesus has laid a fire, made some bread, and cooked some fish – he tells Peter to bring some more fish and invites them to have some breakfast – his words when he serves them echo the language of the last supper he had shared with them
  • The second story here seems almost to be a private conversation between Jesus and Peter, in which Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him – in part this has to look back at Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus – as Peter had denied Jesus, so Jesus asks Peter to affirm his love for Jesus
  • For us, I believe that just as important as Peter’s replies to Jesus, however, is Jesus’ response to Peter each time he asks the question – “Peter, do you love me?” – “Yes, Lord, I love you” – “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep” – “Peter, do you love me?” – “Yes, Lord, I love you” – “Then it has to be in more than words – put that love into action”

II. Jesus Calls Us to Action

  • At the very core of our lives as followers of Jesus Messiah is that same question – Perhaps you can hear along with me Jesus asking us, “My beloved disciple, do you love me? – the question is Jesus’ call to Peter and to all of us to follow him – and we have to answer that question every day – answering Jesus’ question is no small part of being a follower of Jesus
  • Some Christians seem to think that we answer the question once for all time, when we commit our lives to Christ, as the usual phrase states it, or at our confirmation – the rest of our lives as disciples is too often simply an expression of an individual relationship with Jesus, solely a private matter between an individual and God
  • When Jesus asks the question, however, there is more to it than that – every time we respond to Jesus’ question in the affirmative, we hear the same response Jesus gave to Peter – feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep – I believe that Jesus is saying to Peter and to us that simply saying the words is not enough – as is so often the case in our lives, words and actions either complement one another or they contradict one another – actions may or may not speak louder than words, but when it is a matter of discipleship, they certainly speak as loud
  • Our love for God, our love for Jesus Messiah, demands expression if it is going to be real in the world – loving Jesus means treating people the way that he treated them, with love, compassion, mercy, and grace – loving Jesus means feeding the hungry – loving Jesus means caring for the poor and oppressed – loving Jesus means clothing the naked – loving Jesus means healing the sick – loving Jesus means welcoming the ones who are on the margins of society – loving Jesus means standing with the ones the world despises – loving Jesus means being the embodiment of Jesus’ teachings and actions
  • Loving Jesus is not coercive – it does not demand that people be a certain way or believe a certain thing before we will or can love them – it does not say that others have to earn our love by joining our church – Jesus freely loves us – Jesus shows us what loving is about – and Jesus calls us to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, to feed his sheep
  • When Jesus asks if we love him our response is never only in our words – it is also in our actions, in our lives – and if our words and actions do not match, people will believe what we do before what we say
  • Jesus’ call to follow him is a call to action – and Jesus’ disciples act as he has shown us, we do what he has said we should do

III. Conclusion

  • Such outward expressions of discipleship are more difficult in a time of social distancing, but we still interact with the wider world in many ways, most obviously through social media
  • Let our words, our actions, our posts, our tweets, our shares, our likes, fulfill Jesus’ call to discipleship, his call to love one another

Jesus’ Persistent Fellowship

Monday, 20 April 2020

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

19 April 2020

I. Introduction

  • The last time I preached on this text was three years ago – it was a Confirmation Sunday, when we confirmed five young people – that day, I challenged us all to think of Thomas the Twin in a new way – instead of thinking of him as “Doubting Thomas,” a term that we use derisively these days, I said that we should think of him as “Brave Thomas,” because he spoke his mind – building on that perhaps new idea about Thomas, I encouraged our confirmands to follow Jesus bravely, as Thomas did by his confession of Jesus as his Lord and his God
  • That still seems to me to be a valid way to approach this story, especially since today was the day we were to have confirmed Brooke Harris – I know Brooke to be a brave young woman, and I hope she takes the story of Thomas to heart – and Brooke’s confirmation will still happen, just not today
  • But on this day, I want to shift the focus just a bit – today, I want us to focus on what Jesus does in the story

II. In a Locked Room

  • The story for today begins on the day of the resurrection, Easter Sunday – this is not a story that we find in the other gospels – in John’s story, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone – when she arrives, she finds the stone rolled from the opening of the tomb – she runs to find Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, to tell them what she has seen
  • Let me take a moment here to talk briefly about this unnamed disciple – when I began preaching, published scholars almost all identified this person as John the author of the gospel – they said that he did not use his own name due to modesty, but several years ago, I came to another possibility – I have told you before that I think the unnamed disciple, the one whom Jesus loves, is us – the unnamed disciple is our placeholder in the story – to me, it is as if the author has said, “This could be you…after all, you, too, are one whom Jesus loves”
  • Let us say, then, that Mary runs to find Simon Peter and us, and we run to the tomb with her – we find the tomb empty – Peter runs ahead of us into the tomb, but when we look inside, we see and we believe, we trust in Jesus – and then we return to our homes
  • Mary stays near the tomb and actually has a moment with the risen Jesus, who tells her that he is ascending to God – she goes to the disciples and tells them, as the first apostle, the first missionary of her resurrected Lord, that she has seen him
  • Notice what happens when Mary tells Jesus’ friends what she has seen and what Jesus has said – they lock the doors and hide in fear for their lives – Mary gives them wonderful news – it is unexpected news, in some ways maybe even shocking new, but wonderful news all the same – and their response is to hide
  • While they are hiding, Jesus appears and shows them his hands and his side – this seems to convince them that Jesus is risen indeed
  • But Thomas is not there – and, when the others tell Thomas what has happened, he says just what most of us might say, that he has to see Jesus for himself – and what does he ask for that the others have not already received? – nothing – they were afraid until Jesus appeared to them – Thomas wants only what the others have already gotten
  • Jump ahead one more week – Jesus’ friends are gathered once again, and Thomas is with them this time – once again, the door is shut, if not locked, and Jesus arrives and shows himself especially to Thomas
  • Jesus does not chide Thomas for his incredulity – instead, it is as if Jesus seeks out Thomas first of all – and nothing will stop Jesus from doing it – not a shut door – not a locked door – not Thomas’s skepticism – nothing – in this story, Jesus passes through a door to get to Thomas – and, as the saying has it, seeing is believing and Thomas makes his confession of Jesus as his Lord and his God

III. Jesus’ Persistent Fellowship

  • In Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking, this story tells us as Jesus’ disciples about the uprising of fellowship – as I take it, his point is that Jesus people are not just the ones who are sure and confident, but also those who are confused and afraid but willing to work toward living into a trusting relationship with Jesus, which finds expression in relationships to others in the community and in the wider world – this is what McLaren calls fellowship – an intentional identification with Jesus and with those whom Jesus loves, which includes everyone
  • I want to add that the initiative in this fellowship begins with Jesus – Jesus lets nothing stand in the way of building the community from his side of it – by seeking Thomas, Jesus breaks down any barrier that might have separated Thomas from the others in the fellowship of Jesus’ followers – Thomas makes his confession and thereby affirms his place in the fellowship
  • In the same way, Jesus diligently, compellingly, and completely seeks each one of us – Jesus invites us into the fellowship and lets nothing stand in the way of including us – Jesus walks through the locked doors of our hearts and shows himself to us – Look at me, he says – see who I am and trust in me
  • We are the ones who try to keep the doors locked – we are the ones who build walls around our lives to keep out people we do not like, people who are not like us, people who politics are different from our own, people whose sexuality or gender identity are not the same as ours, people who worship God by other names, people whose birth places are not ours – you know what I mean – Jesus includes Thomas, and we cannot justify excluding others
  • Jesus comes into our world, changing everything, destroying death, calling all of us to trust in him and in each other – this is the uprising of fellowship that marks us as disciples of Jesus – none of us can follow Jesus, none of us can grow as a disciple, without the company of others – our fellowship is a demonstration to the world of the inclusiveness of the followers of Jesus

IV. Conclusion

  • As we continue through this difficult time, let me suggest that we keep in mind that Jesus continuously seeks us out and welcomes us into his fellowship – nothing can prevent his coming to us and to all people
  • We may be keeping our distance from others, but our fellowship does not depend solely on face-to-face gatherings – wherever we are and with whomever, we are followers of Jesus and we welcome all to join us in his uprising of fellowship

Everything Has Changed

Monday, 13 April 2020

A Sermon Preached Online for Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

12 April 2020

Easter Sunday

I. The First Easter

  • Our text for today includes two stories that we usually read on consecutive weeks – for the lectionary and for preaching, this makes a good deal of sense – the first story tells us of the women who go to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday to anoint Jesus’ body, which they could not do earlier due to the Sabbath – the second story tells us of two of Jesus’ disciples on their way to Emmaus – one of those disciples is Cleopas and the other is unknown
  • An unfortunate result of reading and preaching these two texts on consecutive Sundays is that it obscures the fact that in Luke’s gospel these two stories happen on the same day, the first Easter – both of the stories are familiar to us, but we still might forget that they are set one on Easter morning and one Easter evening
  • In the first story, several women come to the tomb to complete the burial ritual by anointing Jesus’ body with oil and spices – the group includes Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and others – they are all surprised to find the tomb open and empty – suddenly, while the women are perplexed about this, two men in dazzling clothes stand beside them, frightening the women – the men speak those familiar and encouraging words, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” – the men remind the women that Jesus had said that he would rise again
  • The women remember Jesus’ words and return to where the other disciples are to give them the news – we probably should not be surprised that the male disciples simply dismiss the news as an idle tale – the ones telling the story are just women, after all, and the men to do not believe them – Peter does go to check it out and finds the tomb empty except for the linen cloths that had covered Jesus’ body, and he goes home amazed
  • The second story happens later in the same day – two disciples, who are not from Galilee, are on the way home – they seem to be confused and discouraged – we might assume that they among the ones who have not believed the idle tale that the women have told
  • A stranger meets the two disciples on the road and asks them what they are talking about – they tell him the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and of the astounding news from the women
  • Surprisingly, the stranger tells the disciples about the Messiah and all that he must experience – from Moses through all the prophets, the stranger interprets what the ancients have said about the Messiah
  • As the travelers come near to Emmaus, the disciples invite the stranger to stay with them, as the customs of hospitality dictate they should do – the stranger joins them for a meal – and it is during the meal, as the stranger blessed the bread and broke it, that the disciples realize who the stranger is – in the moment of their realization, Jesus is gone
  • The two disciples also realize how dramatically Jesus’ words on the road had affected them, that their hearts burned because of what he said
  • As we read these stories, I wonder, do our hearts burn within us? – I wonder, do we take this as an idle tale? – I wonder, do we realize along with the women, with Cleopas, and with the other disciple that everything has changed?

II. Everything Has Changed

  • Jesus knew that his message and ministry were upsetting to the powers of the world, to the religious and political authorities, and that his constant challenge to them would cause them to react – the way that the powers react, the way they always have reacted, is with violence – when the religious and political authorities perceive the threat that Jesus poses by refusing to play the game of nations and empires, the threat that others might hear his message and also refuse, they quickly decide that it is better that one man should die than a whole nation be destroyed (John 11.50)
  • So Jesus died at the hands of the powers – he died because human beings demanded it – he died to maintain the authority of the empire – and once Jesus was dead, the religious and political leaders thought they were safe, that their control over the threat was secure
  • What they did not count on, what not even the disciples counted on, was that God would change everything by raising Jesus – when God does that then the whole world can see imperial power for the sham that it is – empires and nations control by the use of threat and fear – God does not so much control as persuade and encourage people, nations, and empires, by the use of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness
  • When the women see the empty tomb and remember Jesus’ words, when the disciples on the Emmaus road feel their hearts burning, they all know that everything has changed, that God has done an absolutely new thing, that nothing can ever be the same again
  • In our celebration of the beauty of Easter, in our taming of the stories of the resurrection, we may have forgotten that what we celebrate on this day is the end of the old ways of the world – we celebrate the end of the ways of death and destruction, of violence and threat – we celebrate that in the resurrection God has said and shown that there is a more excellent way – it is the way of hope rather than despair – it is the way of peace rather than violence – it is the way of reconciliation rather than division – it is the way of unity of spirit and heart rather than the disunity of the many ways we separate ourselves from one another
  • By demonstrating that the end is not death but life, God has changed everything – as we say in our funeral liturgy, by raising Jesus from death, God has ended the power of death, has taken away our fear of death – and if we are not afraid of death, then the powers of this world have no means by which they can control us

III. Conclusion

  • God has changed everything through Jesus – this does not give Jesus’ followers power over others – it gives us the power, the ability, and the desire to love others and to work diligently for their well-being, for the healing of the world
  • It is Easter again, and everything has changed

Lamplighter Article, April 2020

Monday, 13 April 2020

Dear Friends,

For the last several months, I have used my space in the monthly Lamplighter to highlight the theme of the month that our 150th Anniversary had set. If I were to continue that practice, I would address the themes of Holy Week, Easter, and the long and illustrious history of leadership, both clergy and lay, at Salem Church. But I cannot do that, can I? In the last month our world has changed dramatically.

For the time being, Salem Church is following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and our elected officials, and we are not having any face-to-face gatherings. I do not think that any of us have experienced this sort of thing in our lifetime, but it is here now and, with the help of God, we will get through it together.

Let me be clear, however, about one thing concerning Covid-19, the global pandemic caused by one of many coronaviruses that exist. There are some who are saying that the pandemic is God’s judgment on the world or on the United States because of some supposed sinfulness that has become evident. The sin causing this judgment varies according to the ones offering up their opinions, but the concept of judgment is present in all of them.

I believe that this is bad theology. It posits a God who is vindictive, cruel, and capricious. It says that God’s main way of dealing with people is through punishment. This is not the image of God that we get from Jesus. As Jesus demonstrates, God is merciful, kind, and loving, not harsh and judgmental.

The pandemic comes from nature, and it does present us with a test, or, better, with a series of choices. In the midst of a worldwide crisis, we get to choose how we will respond. Some are responding by blaming people of Asian ancestry, which is a sign of racism and ignorance. Some people want to blame politicians for a perceived lack of any adequate response. Some people want to ignore the crisis altogether and proceed with their lives as if nothing is happening. None of these responses is helpful in the least.

We are all in this situation together and we will endure it, and even grow through it, together. We do not need to blame anyone, but love everyone. We cannot ignore the crisis, so we need to follow the recommendations of health officials. We need to limit our contact with one another in the short terms for the benefit of all in the long term. We need to practice good hygiene, with frequent hand washing, avoiding touching our faces (which is difficult, I know, believe me). It seems harsh, but it is effective.

Above all, let us love one another. We can still communicate with telephone calls, emails, text messages, and through social media. Refrain from trying to blame anyone for the crisis. Pray without ceasing for everyone all around the globe. Pray for a quick resolution of the crisis. Pray for healing for all who are infected and affected by the pandemic. Pray for the Vision of God to become apparent in the ways we treat one another.

I said in my Facebook Live message on 22 March, that if we ever thought we could live as if we were not all connected around the world that time has passed. We are all of us together. And God is with us all. We will get through this pandemic. I pray that when we come out at the other end, we will long remember how interdependent we all are. May God bless us with peace and healing for all people.

Grace and Peace

Tommy

Peaceable King

Monday, 6 April 2020

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

5 April 2020

Zechariah 9.9-10

9Rejoice greatly, Fair Zion;
Raise a shout, Fair Jerusalem!
Lo, your king is coming to you.
He is victorious, triumphant,
Yet humble, riding on an ass,
On a donkey foaled by a she-ass.
10He shall banish chariots from Ephraim
And horses from Jerusalem;
The warrior’s bow shall be banished.
He shall call on the nations to surrender,
And his rule shall extend from sea to sea
And from ocean to land’s end. (Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society, 1985)

I. Into Jerusalem

  • Because of our strange circumstances these days, we may find it hard to believe, but we are nearly at the end of Lent – I know many people give up something for Lent, usually some sort of food or drink that they like, but I do not think that any of us on Ash Wednesday, 26 February, would have thought we would have to give up quite this much – nevertheless, for everyone’s sake, for all our sakes, we have given up much – and this is likely to hold true well into the Easter season – it is what we must do
  • And yet, the seasons continue to pass – Spring seems well and truly here, and today we are at the beginning of Holy Week – Palm Sunday has come – and along with it, the familiar images of crowds waving palm branches, throwing their cloaks on the road, and shouting their Hosannas as Jesus passes on his way into the city of Jerusalem
  • It is an auspicious beginning to what would be a difficult week at its end – the crowds on the day of his arrival at Jerusalem, hailed Jesus as one who has come in the name of the Lord, quoting Psalm 118 (cf. Matthew 21.9, Mark 11.9, Luke 19.38) – by Friday, however, other crowds cry out for his crucifixion
  • As the gospels relate the story of the entry into Jerusalem, they differ on the details of the animal on which Jesus rides – it is either a colt that has never been ridden, or a donkey, or, according to Matthew, both, which begs the question of how Jesus accomplished that feat
  • So, let us look very briefly at the words of the prophet Zechariah, which seem to be the source of the image that Jesus employs for the ride into the city
  • The book of Zechariah is a difficult little book – it includes a good deal of anger and resentment in the visions it presents, and when it comes to the words of today’s text, it is a bit surprising hear the unknown writer tell the people of what may be a reunited kingdom to rejoice and shout for joy
  • The reason for rejoicing is the arrival of the Messiah, the great king whose model is David – this great king comes victorious, triumphant and humble (or righteous, delivered, and humble) riding on a donkey – the repeated reference to the animal as a colt, the foal of a donkey (NRSV) is typical of Jewish poetry – the image is not of two different animals, but one animal that the poem describes in two ways
  • The emphasis is not on the victories and the triumph of the Messiah, because the Messiah does not accomplish these things – they are the work of God – the Messiah is humble because he recognizes that he has not done anything – God has done it all
  • When we come to the second part of the image, God is the speaker, saying that God has taken away the tools of war from God’s people, and calls on all nations to live at peace – the messianic kingdom will be vast and it will be a kingdom of peace

II. Peaceable King

  • As Jesus rides into the city, he comes not as a conquering king on a war horse – whether he is on a donkey or a colt, he comes recognizing that he does not do what he does on his own – he is Messiah because God makes it so – his power is not in himself, but in God and through God
  • Using the image from Zechariah, we are not far off the mark to say that Jesus is a powerless king – that strikes us oddly, of course, but it fits with the words of the prophet – and it fits with Jesus’ message and ministry
  • Jesus comes into the world and into our lives not as a conquering hero but as a peaceable king – his victory over the brokenness of the world and over death is God’s work – he shares in the work, of course, as do all who follow Jesus – but the power resides in the hands and in the love of God for all of creation
  • Holy week begins with the image of a powerless king riding on a humble animal – the week ends with that powerless king crushed under the heel of an empire that rules by the power of a military machine – there is more to the story, of course, and we cannot pretend we do not know it
  • Because then comes Easter, when God raises the powerless king, thus showing the real powerlessness of the empire, of all empires and nations – but, again, that power does not reside in Jesus except by the will of God

III. Conclusion

  • For this day, however, the biblical story leaves us with the image of a humble, powerless, yet peaceable king, riding bravely into a center of political and religious power to confront the authorities, to challenge them, to call them to lay aside their machinery of power and to pick up instead the tools of peace
  • Jesus is our peaceable king – and he calls us to live as peacemakers, as healers, in a broken world

One Way or the Other

Monday, 30 March 2020

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

29 March 2020

Matthew 7.13-27 (Translation by Michael Harvey)

Enter through the narrow gate.
Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction.
Most people go that way.
Narrow is the gate and hard the road that leads to life.
Only a few find that way.
Watch out for false interpreters.
They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath they are ravenous wolves.
You will recognize them by what they produce in their lives.
Do you pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?
Every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit.
Every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
You will know them by their fruit.

Not everyone who says to me, “You’re the Boss” will enter the Vision of God.
Only those who do the will of my Parent God will enter the Vision of God.
Many will say to me on the Day, “Boss, did we not interpret in your name,
and do exorcisms in your name, and perform many miracles?”
Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you.
Get away from me, what you do is destructive.”

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice
is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
The rains came down, the floods came up, and the wind blew and beat against the house,
but it did not fall, because its foundation was on the rock.
But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice
is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.
The rain came down and the floods came up
and the wind blew and beat against the house, and it fell.
Great was its destruction.

I. The Choice Is Ours

  • The author of Matthew’s Gospel ends Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with a series of images that urge us to consider the choices we make and the ways we live in the world
  • These images come in pairs and ask us to choose which part of the pairs we are going to follow – there are two gates, one wide and one narrow, which lead to two roads, one that is easy and one that is hard – then there are two types of plants – one type produces good fruit and the other bad fruit – next are two groups of people, one that does not into the Vision of God and another that does – finally, there are two types of builders, one that does not build wisely and another that builds on a solid foundation
  • Each half of these pairs is mutually exclusive – just as Jesus has said earlier, we cannot serve two masters, so here we cannot live into both halves of any of these pairs
  • The pairs show us the contrast between the ways of the world, the ways of empires and nations, the ways of humankind throughout history on the one hand, and the ways of God’s Vision, the ways of Jesus on the other
  • Neither Jesus not the Evangelist goes into great detail about the differences between the two halves of any of these pairs, but we can infer from the rest of the Sermon what Jesus expects of his followers – and know this, my friends, it is not easy – as Jesus says it here, narrow is the gate and hard the road that leads to life
  • It is hard to be a disciple of Jesus, but it is not impossible – discipleship is a choice that we make – we choose to follow the narrow, hard way of Jesus or we do not – either way, the choice is ours

II. One Way or the Other

  • To be honest, I am not entirely comfortable with this either/or stuff – my personality type is such that I would much rather look at things in terms of both/and – having to choose between either this or that, on way or the other does not come naturally or easily for me – I guess I would rather have may cake and eat it too, if I liked cake anyway
  • And yet Jesus, or the author of the gospel, presents it all exactly in that way – following Jesus, being a disciple of Jesus Messiah, comes down to making choices
  • We can choose to be loving or not – we can choose to live lives of grace or not – we can choose to strive for justice for all people or not – we can choose to place God and Jesus ahead of everything else in our lives or not – you get the idea
  • The hard thing for us is that choosing to follow the path of discipleship to Jesus means that we move in a direction that is different from the one in which we naturally want to move – discipleship moves us away from our selfish, self-centered, self-serving, broken selves and toward the selves that God calls us and empowers us to be – our self-giving, generous, forgiving, gracious, and healing selves
  • And it is one way or the other – we cannot have it both ways
  • What I believe that we discover, however, is that when we follow the path of discipleship, the way of God’s Vision, the Way of Jesus, is that we find our truer, deeper selves – we find joy and hope in living – we find more authentic connection with God, with other people, and even with ourselves

III. Conclusion

  • This is the message of the Sermon on the Mount – we follow Jesus as his disciples, or we do not – discipleship is therefore less about what happens after our earthly existence ends and more about how we make the Vision of God a reality on the earth today
  • Jesus has shown us the way – he shows us in his words and in his actions – he sets a difficult goal for us and then he gives us the power, the ability, and the desire to follow his path for making the world a better place, a more just place, a more loving place, for all people

Do Not Worry

Monday, 30 March 2020

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

22 March 2020

Matthew 6.19-7.12 (translation by Michael Harvey)

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.
Moths and rust destroy such treasures.
Thieves break in and steal them.
Store up treasures with God.
Moths and rust cannot destroy these treasures, and thieves cannot reach them.
You always want to be where your treasures are.

The eye gives light to the body.
If your eyes are good, your whole body will be well lit.
But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be dark.
If the light in you is darkness, that is indeed darkness.

It is impossible to have two bosses.
You will hate the one and love the other,
You will be loyal to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and Money.

If you choose to serve God, do not worry about your life.
Do not worry about food or drink.
Do not worry about your body image or your fashions.
Life is more important than food. The body is more important than clothes.
Look at the birds in the sky.
They do not sow or reap or gather into silos, but God provides for them.
Are you not more valuable to God than birds?
Can you add a single hour to your life by worrying?
Why do you worry about clothes?
Notice how the field lilies grow.
They do not work, they do not sew.
But even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of them.
If God so beautifully clothes the grass of the field,
which is here today and burned tomorrow,
will you not be clothed?
O what little trust you have.
Simply do not worry.
Do not wring your hands and say,
“What will we eat?” and “What will we drink?” and “What will we wear?”
Those who do not know about God run after these things.
Your Parent God knows that you need all these things.
You must run after the Vision of God, the vision of justice and mercy,
and all these other things will be taken care of.
Do not even worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself.
Each day has enough trouble to occupy you.

Do not judge and you will not be judged.
In the same way you judge others you will be judged.
What you measure out to others will be measured back to you.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye, but you do not pay attention to the board in your own eye?
How can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take that speck of sawdust out of your eye,” when you have a board in your own eye?
O Entertainer, first take the board out of your own eye, and then perhaps you will be able to remove the speck from your neighbor’s eye.

Do not give scavenger dogs what is sacred.
Do not hand over your pearls to pigs.
Pigs will trample your pearls under foot and scavenger dogs will turn on you.

Keep on asking and it will be given you.
Keep on seeking and you will find.
Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.
Everyone who keeps on asking receives.
Everyone who keeps on seeking finds.
To everyone who keeps on knocking, the door will be opened.
Which of you, if your child asks for bread will give her a stone?
If your child asks for a fish, would you give him a snake?
If you who do evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your Parent God give good gifts to you when you ask?

In everything, as you want people to do to you, do so to them.
This is the meaning of the Bible.

I. Worry

  • Jesus opens this portion of the Sermon by talking about treasures – when it comes to treasures, we might prefer to think that Jesus got it backwards – we might prefer to read this text as if it says, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also,” but that it not what it says – and Jesus’ statement is a harsh challenge to us – where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also – and that is one of the causes of our worry
  • When we have more things, more stuff that we treasure, then we worry about how we will get even more stuff and about how we will keep it all – the way to live without worry, or perhaps less worry, is to treasure people and relationships with God and other people, not things – God will never leave us or disappoint us – when we treasure our relationship with God, we understand where our hearts need to be
  • The treasure of God’s Vision is living in right relationships, unbroken relationships, with God and with others – there may be an aspect of this treasure that has to do with life after we die, but the main force of it is here and now
  • What do we gain by all our worry? – in what ways do we make our lives better by our worry? – the truth is that we gain nothing by it, and actually lose a good deal
  • Jesus points to the world around us to show us why we should not worry – look at the birds in the sky, he says – how much worrying do they do? – they do not even plan for the future – but God still provides for them
  • Look at the wildflowers growing in the fields – how much worrying do they do – they do not work or sew, but the finest fashions the world has ever know do not compare to their glory
  • And yet we continue to worry about the things that do not matter, just as those who see only this world do – Jesus tells us to focus instead on the things that matter, on the relationship that we have with God and with one another, on justice for all people regardless of who they are or from whence they come, on living lives of mercy and grace
  • Jesus says that if we focus on these things, on living the Vision of God every day, then the other things will take care of themselves – I think that what he means is that we will see how little those other things matter when we compare them to the things of God’s Vision
  • Do not worry about tomorrow, Jesus says, tomorrow will take care of itself – each day has enough trouble to occupy any of us – so, let it all go

II. Do Not Worry

  • These are difficult days – never in the lifetime of any of us or anyone we know have we had to deal with this sort of a situation – people around the world are being told by health officials to stay home, to avoid contact with others, even friends and family, to keep our distance from everyone – people in nearby cities and towns are getting sick and even dying – it is not just in Italy or anywhere else – it is here and it is no hoax or joke —
  • If we allow it to get to us, it can create in us fear, anxiety, and worry – when we are afraid, anxious, or worried, we tend to make poor choices – we cannot think clearly and we do silly things, such as buy up every available roll of toilet paper
  • In all seriousness, however, worry will not accomplish anything good for us – as Jesus says, we cannot add a single hour to our life through worry, and, in fact, we may take a few hours away from ourselves – so, while it is difficult for us, we must try not to worry
  • The antidote to worry may be remembering that God is always with us all – there is nowhere we can go where God will not be beside us and in us – there is nothing that can happen to us that God does not share with us – rather than worry, let us trust God to be with us through this difficult time and beyond
  • Let us also find strength in the knowledge that we are all in this situation together – and not just us – around the world, scientists and doctors, researchers and practitioners are working to deal with the illness – and so are regular people, people just like us – we are all connected – if we ever thought that we were not part of one human family with different religions, politics, skin colors, sexual identities, and nationalities, we can think that way no longer – we are one people and we are all together
  • Most of us have probably seen the now classic movie “The Green Mile” – the movie is a sort of a fairy tale in which one character, named John Coffey, has an ability to heal illnesses in others – through the course of the movie, we learn the story of John Coffey, including an experience that has change the course of the life of another character – near the end of the film, someone says to that affected character, “Do you mean that he infected you with…life?” – it sounds funny out of context, but it has come to my mind several times recently
  • This world does have an infection, and it can seem frightening – but the world has another infection of a sort – it is an infection of living in right relationships with God and others – it is an infection of goodness, justice, love, mercy, and grace – and as we live lives free of worry, lives trusting in God, we are carriers of God’s infection of life – we have the ability and the option of sharing that life with everyone we meet
  • While we live in this present reality, we also live in a new creation, which is the Vision of God – the Vision of God came in a new way when Jesus Messiah entered the world as the embodiment of the gospel message – and because we have heard and continue to respond to the message, we live in the already, that is, the Vision of God here and now

III. Conclusion

  • Do not worry, my beloved – trust in God and be smart – listen to the scientists and doctors who tell us how to be safe – keep your distance from others, but love them still – wash your hands and pray for everyone you know and do not know – avoid crowds and trust in God
  • Do not worry, for you are far more valuable to God than birds and wildflowers – you and everyone is this world is a beloved child of God