First Lesson: Luke 22:47-62
Second Lesson Luke 23:1-6, 13-25
Children: Luke 19:28-38
So are you getting the picture here? We have three groups of people in our stories for today.
One group had followed Jesus up and down the countryside for three whole years, listening to every word he had to say and watching all the truly amazing things he had done. They had seen him heal people who were very sick and disabled and they had watched how he had even brought people back to life again who had died. They had participated while he fed thousands of people with a few scraps of bread and fish. They had heard him speak passionately about the Kingdom of God and what it was like. They had had long conversations with him over those three years. They had slept in open fields at night with him and accepted hospitality from strangers. They had given up literally everything to follow him.
We would have thought that they would have loved and supported Jesus, and in fact one of them even proclaimed that he would die for him.
That’s one group of people. People like Judas and Peter whom we have read about this morning. His twelve male disciples.
Then we have another group of people. They were the religious leaders – the elders and the priests and the chief priests. They were the guys who read the scriptures every day and who knew God well, and loved God devotedly and knew all of the laws of God very well, and kept them faithfully. It was their job to answer any questions about God and faith and religion that anybody had. These are the guys who are the experts on God. These are the guys who talked with Jesus in the temple for three days when he was twelve years old and who were amazed at his deep religious knowledge. Maybe they were there that day at the Jordan River when Jesus was baptized and maybe they heard that voice from heaven saying “this is my beloved Son.” Or if they hadn’t seen it in person, they had certainly heard all about it. We would surely think that they would honor and respect and support the very son of God. Who talked all the time about the kingdom of God and went around doing amazing things in God’s name.
That’s the second group of folks in our stories for today – the elders and priests and chief priests.
And then we have the Roman governor and Roman judge. It was their job to keep the peace in the country they were occupying. It was their job to make sure that there were no threats to the Roman government. It was their job to squash any kind of uprising and to keep people in their places, by intimidation if that worked, and by other methods when that wouldn’t work. They were the ones who had soldiers stationed all over the country, and who were charging high taxes on the most basic things that everybody needed to survive and were forcing people into bankruptcy and foreclosure and poverty. Those guys. Those Romans. Everybody knew very well that they had no love in their hearts for these Jewish peasants whom they were controlling. They didn’t even pretend to care about them. Those very poor Jewish peasants. Herod was the man who had brutally executed Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist – on a silly whim at a party - as you may recall. He was probably drunk. And Pilate was the Roman official who was responsible for making sure that people paid their taxes and when they didn’t he tried and judged and sentenced them.
So we would think that the Roman Governor Herod and the Roman Judge Pilate would have been happy to try Jesus and find him guilty and sentence him. It was their job. It was what they did every day. And Herod had well proved himself as somebody who could kill folks without a good reason.
That’s the third group of people: The Roman Governor and Roman Judge.
But here’s what happened. One of Jesus’ disciples (who should have loved and supported him) went behind his back and contacted the elders and the priests and told them where to find him and even led them to him. And got well paid for betraying him. That was Judas. Another one of his disciples sat around a fire in a group of people and denied three times that he had even known Jesus. That was Peter. And Jesus looked at him with very sad eyes and Peter went away and cried bitterly.
And these elders and priests (who should have honored and respected and supported Jesus) They pounced on him while he was in prayer and dragged him away in the middle of the night to another priest. They beat him and blindfolded him and mocked him. In the morning they brought him to an entire assembly of elders and priests and high priests and questioned him and dragged him on to the Judge, Pilate. Who was in charge of making sure that people paid their taxes and submitted to the authority of the Romans. These elders and priests and high priests told Pilate that Jesus was telling people not to pay their taxes (which of course wasn’t true) and setting himself up as king to overthrow the Roman government.
So we would have expected that Pilate would jump right on that, and ask a few questions, maybe, and find him guilty immediately, and happily sentence him to a terrible punishment. Which those Romans were very good at doing.
BUT. Pilate asks a few questions and then throws his hands up in the air and says he can’t find anything wrong with Jesus. And to get them all out of his hair, he sends them all off to Governor Herod who happened to be in Jerusalem at the moment. Herod, who has no love for any Jews, you recall and who has already executed Jesus’ cousin John. So the elders and the priests brought Jesus to Herod. They repeated their accusations: that Jesus was telling people not to pay their taxes and was trying to set himself up as a king to overthrow the Roman government. Maybe Herod had even heard what had happened a few days earlier. How a noisy band of children and homeless people and beggars and women and sick people and formerly sick people had borrowed a donkey. They had waved their tree branches and sang to him. They had put him on that donkey and had cheered him into the capital city of Jerusalem on the day of his coronation. Maybe Herod had even heard about that.
Herod questioned Jesus a bit, mocked him a bit, and put a stupid purple robe on him and sent him back to Pilate. Who once again protested that he couldn’t find anything wrong in Jesus, and set about to release him.
But the Jewish elders and the priests (who should have respected and honored and supported of Jesus) refused to hear it. The whole mob of them insisted, again and again, in very loud voices, that Jesus should be crucified. Which finally, and under great protest, Pilate did.
So you are getting the picture here? Judas and Peter, who should have been loving Jesus and protecting him and cherishing him have actually turned on him, and denied that they ever knew him.
The elders and the priests who should have been encouraging Jesus and supporting him and learning from him have turned him in to the governor and the judge and are insisting that he be executed.
And the people who should have been on the lookout for tax evaders and people planning to overthrow the government and who should have sentenced him – if the charges against him had been true - they are actually curious about Jesus and want to talk to him and learn from him and don’t see any reason to punish him for anything.
We are tempted to be critical of Judas and Peter. We remember Judas to this day as the man who betrayed Jesus and we don’t remember much of anything else about him. We remember how Peter denied three times that he ever knew Jesus. And we are often critical of those religious leaders who refused to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, and refused to hear him and learn from him.
But here’s the truth, my beloved. We are like those disciples and those priests. Most of us have spent a good deal of time in this church or some other church. We have heard about God from the time we were children. We have heard Bible stories about Jesus for most of our lives. We know all about God. And we have promised to be followers of Jesus.
We are pretty good people. We get along well with our friends and are kind and respectful to them. These days we in this church are searching our closets for good used clothing to give to others who are looking for work. And pretty soon we are going to be receiving the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering and I am very sure that once again you will be very generous. And Jesus looks at us with love and gratitude in his eyes.
AND we are part of a society where the rich are getting richer and richer and the poor are getting poorer and poorer and Jesus would be appalled. But most of us say nothing and do nothing. And Jesus looks at us with very sad eyes, just the way he looked at Peter. Who denied him.
AND women and boys and girls are being very silently sold into sex slavery all around us (at least in Grand Rapids) and Jesus would be appalled. But most of us say nothing and do nothing. And Jesus looks at us with very sad eyes, the way he looked at Peter, who denied him.
AND we are nice enough most of the time to people we know. BUT when we see people who are different from us or speak a different language or who obviously have great needs, most of us say nothing and do nothing, and Jesus would be appalled. He looks at us with very sad eyes, the way he looked at Peter who denied him.
And you can add in your own examples here.
So you see, my beloved. We are not all that different from those elders and priests who demanded Jesus’ death.
And in this week when we will remembering his last days and hours, we place ourselves in their company. Sadly. Sorrowfully. With deep regret. We go out and cry bitterly like Peter. And we ask forgiveness. For abandoning God’s other children. And for failing to protect them and for failing to be followers of Jesus in the ways he would have honored.
Let’s have a time of silence to reflect.
FIRST LESSON Mark 14:1-11
SECOND LESSON Romans 5:6-11
TIME FOR CHILDREN Exodus 20:1-17 and 32:1-14
Sunday, February 28, 2016
There are two basic questions which the Christian Church has been wrestling with ever since the days of Adam and Eve. The first is the question of good and evil – why do bad things happen to good people? Or, how can a kind, loving God let so many bad things happen to good people? We’ve struggled with that question for thousands of years. Sometimes we have reasonably good answers and sometimes we have bad answers, and we never really have answers that satisfy completely.
The second question is also a question of good and evil: how can sinful people live with a perfect God? For all the years of human history, people have faced that very tough question, too. We don’t always have words for that, or at least very good words, so over the years we’ve developed all kinds of pictures and stories to help us understand the relationship between a perfect God and very imperfect people. And the Bible is full of these pictures and stories.
When Paul thinks about how a perfect God relates to imperfect people, the answer is always Jesus. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome to people who lived about twenty or thirty years after Jesus had died. And when Paul wanted to write to these Romans about Jesus and what his death meant, he used language that the Romans in those years would have easily understood. The Romans were great law makers. They had carefully constructed, complex, detailed laws about this and that and everything else and their legal system stretched all over the Mediterranean world. They understood all about penalties for crimes. They knew very well that when people do something wrong, they have to pay for it. They all had slaves and they understood that when slaves disobey, there are strong consequences for that. They knew all about people being crucified when they committed offenses against the Roman government. So when Paul wants to talk with them about how it is that sinful people live with a holy and perfect God, he calls on those images. He talks about God’s anger, and he talks about laws and disobedience and penalties and slavery and death. Those are Paul’s pictures.
Just a minute ago we read from the Confession of 1967. In a part of that confession which we didn’t read, the writers mention some of those pictures and stories about a perfect God and imperfect people: They say that Jesus is like a good shepherd who dies protecting his sheep. They say that Jesus is like that lamb in the Old Testament stories who was sent off far into the wilderness to disappear forever, carrying all the peoples’ sins on his back. They say that Jesus pays a debt for sinful people. They say that Jesus is victorious over the powers of evil in his death and resurrection. We’ll read those parts of the confession in a couple of weeks. Sometimes we say that Jesus is the bridge between God and people. Because of Jesus, we can walk on a bridge over the deep chasm between ourselves and God. And of course there are other images as well.
The central theme of the Confession of 1967 is reconciliation. In 1967, if you remember the Viet Nam war was at its height. There was a real threat of worldwide nuclear disaster. There was tension between the races, and those were the years of what we called the “race riots.” Men and women were fighting it out and women were battling for equality. (Those were actually the words we used.) It was a painful, distressing time – full of tensions. And to our great credit, the Presbyterian Church in those years said, “There needs to be a word from God in the middle of all this. And,” they said, “the word is ‘reconciliation.’ People are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, and it is now the task of the church to be reconcilers and peacemakers in the world.” Those were the pictures in the Confession of 1967.
So let me give you one picture of what this reconciliation looks like, drawn from the entire story of God’s relationship with people.
Starting with Adam and Eve. God put Adam and Eve into a gorgeous garden. And before they could even begin to dig up any carrots or and smell all the roses, God said to them, “I’m your God. I love you. I have made you and named you and you belong to me. And here’s how it’s going to be between us: I’m going to care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of and you’re going to follow my instructions.” And before you know it, Adam and Eve had done precisely what God had told them not to do. God had said, “Don’t eat that. If you eat it you’ll die.” And they ate it. So God said “I am deeply disappointed. I am hurt to my very core. I am furious with you. But I can’t let you die. You’re mine and I love you. I made you and I named you and I can’t let you die.” So instead, God had another punishment for Adam and Eve.
And all through human history it’s been that way. God comes to almost every Biblical character and says pretty much the same thing. “I am your God. I love you. I have made you and named you and you belong to me. I will care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of. And in return, you’re going to follow my instructions.” But before very long at all, the whole world had disobeyed and God would have been justified in killing them all. And then came Noah. And God said, “I’m deeply disappointed. I’m hurt to my very core, I’m furious with the whole lot of you. But I can’t let you all die.” So Noah and his family were saved.
Pretty soon, God gave the Ten Commandments, and it was the same story. (the story I told the children just now) God said to that motley band of former slaves, “I am your God. I love you. I have named you and claimed you and rescued you and I have made you my very own people. I will care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of and here are my instructions for you.” And God gave them the ten commandments. And the very first thing they did was make a gold cow to worship instead of God - which God had made a point of telling them precisely not to do. And for centuries, they disobeyed God’s very explicit instructions, and they didn’t care a bean that God loved them and had named them and claimed them and cared for them exquisitely.
So God said, “Maybe you’re a little hard of hearing. Maybe you can’t hear me. I’ll send prophets. They’ll get right into your face and talk loudly at you and they’ll speak the words I tell them to say.” And the prophets did. They stormed into palaces and shouted on the street corners for centuries and threatened horrible things, and still people didn’t respond. The prophets said, “You’re not doing what God asks you to do, and the consequences are going to be drastic.” And they were. The best and the brightest of them were marched off to Babylon for years and years. But they didn’t all die. And some of them came back to their homeland. And after centuries and centuries of that, and after centuries and centuries of chances upon chances and prophets upon prophets upon prophets, God finally said, “I love you. I made you and I named you and I claimed you and I care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of. And I can see that you can’t follow my instructions. You simply don’t have it in you. You didn’t hear me when I spoke. And you didn’t listen to the prophets when they spoke. You turned your backs on me time and time again over centuries and centuries and you ignored my love and you didn’t care that I had named you and claimed you, and you didn’t do as I asked you to. So now my son and I are going to do this. He’s going to follow my instructions and it won’t matter that you can’t and you don’t have to do anything at all. He’ll show you what I have in mind for the world. He’ll do as I want you all to do. And when I look at your sorry little selves, all I’ll see is my perfect son Jesus.”
And that’s how it happened, my beloved. And that’s why I say to you all the time that has God has made us and named us and claimed us and that God loves us exquisitely. And I say it to you so often because I want so much for you to hear it and know it in the time I am with you.
First Lesson: Mark 11:20-25
Second Lesson: Romans 5:1-5
Children’s story: Romans 1:8-13
Sunday, February 21, 2016
A few years ago now, my Uncle John passed away. Our families were always very close and I still have a close relationship with his children, my cousins. At his funeral, the pastor spoke about this passage that we have just read from the book of Romans. He went on and on for about forty-five minutes, and the gist of it all was to say how very happy God was that my uncle had suffered in his last days. My uncle was a good man. A sincere, deeply committed Christian man. He was an elder in his church forever and ever. He was kind to his very core and had a gentle little sense of humor. He was a very astute, very successful business man. He had three children – one of them is a judge in Grand Haven, another is a nurse in Grand Rapids, and another is a musician in Italy. He loved his wife dearly and he had an open heart toward everybody he ever met. There would have been a great plenty for any pastor to thank God about in Uncle John’s life. But this pastor had to go on and on and on about how happy God was and how good it was that he had suffered in his last years. I squirmed and fidgeted and got very antsy and angry in my seat and if I hadn’t been sitting way in the very front next to my mother I would have walked out. I do not believe that God is happy when we suffer. I do not believe that for a moment. I believe that God cries right along with us when we cry and that God anguishes with us when we anguish. And there is no way in the world that I could ever be happy that that dear man had suffered.
And yet. Paul is writing these words. And if anybody can talk about suffering, it’s Pastor Paul. Several weeks ago now we read that passage in the second letter to the church in Corinth. He goes on and on for several lines about how he has suffered. The Romans had this policy you know, that they would not whip a prisoner forty times with their whips because they believed that forty lashes would kill a person. So they restrained themselves and they only whipped people 39 times. And that’s what happened to Paul, five times. Five times over his career as a pastor he was beaten with 39 lashes, almost to the point of death. And there was more – three times he was beaten with sticks. Once he was stoned, three times he was shipwrecked and spent a night and a day floundering around in the ocean. He faced danger from bandits and danger on the high seas and danger from his enemies. And he had been in prison more times than anybody else he knew. Among other things. And that’s the man who says that he rejoiced in his sufferings. That’s the very word he used. He was glad about his suffering.
And yet. I have spoken with many people who have had cancer. And some of them have said to me things like this: “I never wanted cancer and it was very hard experience, but I am grateful for what I learned through it.” I know a man who struggles with severe disabilities and a host of other serious health issues. And he says to me almost every time I talk with him, “I am so grateful for the good things in my life. God is so good to me.” Or people have said to me, with tears in their eyes at a funeral, “My faith is bringing me through this hard time.” My friend Don had some very tricky, very serious surgery recently and the night before the surgery he posted on his Caring Page, “This experience is bringing me closer to God.” And recently somebody said to me, “I went through a very hard time back there. And it was the prayers of other people that made all the difference.”
I cannot say that I have ever really suffered the way some have. I have not lost a child or spouse to death. I am a very healthy cancer survivor. I have never been shipwrecked or beaten or put in prison. I live very nicely in my lovely home.
And yet. I have moved a lot in my life. My dad was a pastor and I’m a pastor, and that just simply means that we move. And from about the age of nine, every single one of those moves has been heart-wrenching and very, very hard. I would have given anything to have stayed happily in my childhood village of Whitinsville, Massachusetts or in most of the other places I have lived. And now that I am adult it just keeps on. Every time I have left dear congregations and dear people whom I have loved it has been very, very painful.
And Yet. Moving so many times has had its blessings. I’ve learned to be hospitable to others who may be lonely. I’ve learned to welcome newcomers into my life for what I may give them and for what they may give me. Most of all, I’ve learned that God is with me wherever I am, and it doesn’t really matter what my address happens to be.
We talk all the time in this church about becoming the sons and daughters of God. Becoming the people God intends for us to be. About becoming more and more like Jesus every day, for the rest of our lives. We say that it’s a lifelong process. We Presbyterians have a long theological name for that. We call that the process of sanctification, which happens to us as the Holy Spirit works in our lives. We talk about getting up every day and saying good morning to God and then living through the day with God. Whatever that day will bring. And every single Sunday morning I lift my hands over you with the love of God flowing through me, and I give you God’s blessing for the week ahead. Whatever the week will bring. Whatever surprises or happiness or deep sadness will come to you.
And Presbyterians say that God works through the experiences of our lives to bring us closer to God. Through the words of dear friends when we don’t know where to turn next. Through the words of Scripture when we’re grieving – maybe a Psalm written by somebody long ago who was also grieving. Through nature when our bodies cannot contain the joy of a perfect summer day. In prayer, when we blurt it all out and blubber in front of God and hardly know what to say. AND we say that the very hard experiences of life bring us closer to God. We don’t say that lightly. We don’t say that loudly. We don’t say empty pious words to each other in times of illness or death or grief or trouble. But we acknowledge what we experience to be true. That suffering brings us to the arms of God.
We learn from the saints in our lives who have been through the death of dear ones, and through surgeries and through large losses. We sit with them every chance we have. We listen to their stories. We see their patience, and grace and kindness and hope and gentleness. We witness the strength that comes to those who trust God. We see the love of God in their lives in ways that astonish us. We hear that there can be a beautiful side to suffering. We learn to experience what Paul says, “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”
Maybe you have experienced that?
Sunday, February 14, 2016
First Lesson: Mark 11:12-19
Children’s story: Matthew 22:15-22
We’re not sure who had started the church in Rome, or exactly when it was formed, but it was certainly before the year 50 – about twenty years after Jesus died. Which means that it was one of the very earliest Christian Churches outside of Jerusalem. It actually may have been started at Pentecost – when all those people from all over the world were in Jerusalem for the holiday. They all heard the sound of a loud howling wind and came from everywhere all over the city, running to see what had happened. They came to the house where Jesus’ friends were sitting and they saw the flames of fire on their heads. And among many others, people from Rome came running to see what was happening – merchants and business people or Roman military personnel who were in Jerusalem at the time. And you may remember that Peter preached a very eloquent sermon on Pentecost Day and that three thousand people were added to the church in one day. So it may be that some of those folks from Rome came to believe in Jesus that day and carried their new faith back home to Rome with them. But whoever was the first pastor of that church and however it was, we’re pretty sure that it wasn’t Paul. And we’re pretty sure that he’d never been to Rome before and didn’t actually know the people he was writing to. Even though, as usual in his letters, he’s full of love for them.
We think that there were wealthy people in that church in Rome, people who belonged to the aristocracy, people connected to the Roman government – high ranking soldiers, people who were politically powerful. And Paul had heard reports about that church in Rome – very good reports. And he was hoping to go to Rome.
Paul wrote this letter at the height of his career – maybe in about 54, or 55 or 56, and really his dream was to go to Spain, and to stop off in Rome and maybe stay there a while. So he sent them this letter of introduction.
He introduced himself in the very first sentence and then he gives a short summary of the entire letter he’s about to write to them: about Jesus our Lord, the Son of God.
And in his very first sentence, he makes the very strong point that Jesus the Son of God. And that Jesus is our Lord.
So think about that with me for a minute. We could easily miss this. Paul is writing to the church at Rome. Where the Emperor Caesar Augustus had had his ornate palaces and his courts and his military headquarters from which he had ruled the entire western world. People all over the world had called him the son of god. Caesar was actually known as the savior of the world. He was considered to be the god who had brought peace over the whole world. On the front of the coins that I showed the children was the picture of Caesar and on the back were the words, in Latin – “son of God.” That was in Jesus’ time.
And a few years later, in the year 54, about when Paul was writing this letter, the great Emperor Nero was the Emperor in Rome. And he was called by the whole world – the divine Nero. Nero was actually called the “very god who rules the nations.”
And in that environment, to people who believed that Caesar was god and that Nero was the son of god, Paul writes in his very first sentence, “Jesus Christ is the son of God. Jesus Christ is our Lord. God is the one who gives us peace.” It was a very bold statement, and eventually it cost him his life, along with other things he said and did. He never made it to Spain, and some of the very smart people that we consult think that both Paul and Peter were executed in 64 or 65 – when Emperor Nero slaughtered masses of Christians in Rome.
Jesus Christ is our Lord. Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
A few minutes ago we read a very short excerpt from the Theological Declaration of Barmen, which is one of the creeds of the Presbyterian Church. Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, and at first a great many Christians there supported him. But then he began to do things like this: He abolished all civil rights. All the military and government officials were required to take a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler. He tried to get rid of portions of the Old Testament with all those stories about Jews and huge portions of the New Testament. There was to be no talk of Jesus and his crucifixion. Next, he proclaimed himself to be head of the church and took upon himself the name “Der Fuehrer,” the supreme leader.
But as you have just heard, in May, 1934 in Barmen, in Germany 139 Lutheran and Reformed pastors and lay people met to ask this question: “Who is the Lord? - God or the government? God or Hitler?” Who is the supreme leader? Jesus or Adolph Hitler? In answer to those questions they wrote the document we have just read, and they said, emphatically and very boldly, that there is only one Lord, and that Lord is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Lord in every area of life and the church obeys him and him alone. He is the supreme leader and no other. All 139 people present signed it and for that bold statement some of them were repeatedly imprisoned and put in concentration camps.
Jesus Christ is Lord. Only Jesus Christ is Lord.
Why does Paul make such a point to say that in such dangerous times? Why were he and the Germans pastors and elders so determined to make that statement when they knew it would cost them dearly?
What does it mean to us when we say that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior? We say that all the time. We say that when we join the church and when we are ordained to be elders and deacons and when we baptize children. But what does that mean?
Here’s what that looks like for us. It means that we spend a lifetime getting to know Jesus and his priorities. We watch how he made decisions, and what and whom he favored. We notice what made him furious. How he spent his time. Whom he spent his time with. And over a lifetime, we learn to be like him. To think like him. To act like him. To value what he valued and give our time to what and whom he gave his time to. Over a lifetime, we become followers of Jesus.
We read scripture with others and we learn what it means for us. We hear him say, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” So we give food and clothing to those who are hungry and cold and we welcome refugees. We read the stories about Jesus healing people with hideous diseases and talking with women whom everybody else avoided. And we ask ourselves which unlovable people have we loved lately – maybe even members of our own families. Or people whom we work with.
We spend our money with Jesus in mind. Jesus, who said he had nowhere to lay his head at night and who continually accepted the hospitality of strangers. We vote with Jesus in mind. We learn to think like Jesus and act like Jesus. Adolph Hitler doesn’t tell us how to live our lives. Barack Obama or Rick Snyder don’t tell us how to live our lives. Jesus tells us how to live our lives. Jesus Christ is Lord. We live as though we are the hands and feet and arms and legs and minds of voices of Jesus in this world – which we are.
Which means that we go against the grain a great deal of the time. Because a great many others we know are not consciously trying to follow Jesus. Our politicians are not trying to follow Jesus. I can tell you that. Maybe the people we work with are living under a different set of assumptions too. Maybe our friends don’t know or care much about Jesus and his priorities. Or don’t take him very seriously. So sometimes it’s a lonely business – having Jesus as our Lord – the supreme authority in our lives. He wasn’t very popular when he was here and sometimes we know how that feels.
This is hard stuff. And we could become exhausted and discouraged from thinking like Jesus and doing like Jesus every day. He was often exhausted himself. So we do what he did - we spend time away from it all – with God, in prayer. We bring our lives and our days and our minutes to God and we talk them over with God.
We spend time with God. Actually, consciously, spend time with God, regularly. We collapse in prayer in front of God when it all becomes too difficult. And God’s Spirit guides us and we make decisions. We ask for the wisdom to be angry about what Jesus angry about and gentle when Jesus was gentle – which may mean a great turnaround in our thinking. And we have conversations with friends who support us.
We behave like Jesus not because we are such noble, or generous or kind people. We behave like Jesus because he is the Lord (ultimately authority) in our lives. When Jesus Christ is our Lord we give our allegiance to him – our entire allegiance. We hear him only. We listen for his voice only. We acknowledge that he is the center of our lives. We spend a lifetime of lively richly with God and a lifetime of patterning ourselves after Jesus.
And we call ourselves by his name: Christian.
I Corinthians 1:18-31
First Lesson: Mark 9:2-10
Children’s story: Matthew 14:22-33
February 7, 2016 – Communion Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, Scout Sunday
If you want to start an organization or a movement, you better do it right. You better not send out twelve unemployed men with no income and without a penny in their pockets and no credit cards or ATM cards. And not a decent pair of pants or a sports jacket between them. You better not start up a brand new business or a brand new movement when your main clients are poor people and sick people and homeless people panhandling in the streets.
And yet, that’s what Jesus did.
It seems foolish to let three people witness an absolutely breath taking event, the most stunning achievement of your career, and then tell them not to talk about it. If you want to accomplish anything remarkable in a new venture you’d think you’d want all the PR you could get. And all the first person witnesses to the highpoint in your life.
And yet, that’s what Jesus did.
It was an indescribable moment of brilliant light and dark clouds and important people from the past suddenly appearing on a mountain and a voice saying, “This is my beloved son.” Peter, James and John heard and saw it all, and Jesus told them not to say a word to anybody.
Smart people do not get out of a boat in the middle of a storm on a lake. And think they can walk on the waves, even if they are experienced fishermen, and even if they know the secrets of that lake very well. It’s very foolish to think that a person could walk on water. In fact, we all know it can’t be done. But somehow Peter did that, at the invitation of Jesus and in the power of God.
It seems foolish, in fact dangerous, to let people who love you cheer and call you a king and dance beside your donkey in a procession. And make a whole lot of racket in the streets just when you’re expecting trouble. Just when the authorities are out to get you. When you knew all along that was the thing that would get you killed. It seems very foolish indeed to knowingly make enemies of the people who have the power of life and death over you.
And yet that was the wisdom of Jesus on his Coronation Day. Palm Sunday. And it was the power of God.
It seems very weak to allow yourself to be beaten and all your clothes taken off you without a word of protest. It seems weak to stand in front of a judge, wearing a silly purple robe that doesn’t fit you. With your hands tied in front of you and your head and ears bleeding from the beatings you have received and maybe some of your teeth knocked out. It seems very weak to have nothing to say when the judge asks you to defend yourself, or even answer a simple question. It seems puny to allow yourself to be convicted when you know you’re completely innocent and that the charges against you are ludicrous. It seems the height of weakness and utter loneliness when all your friends dessert you just when you need them desperately and when even your most loyal companion swears he never even heard of you. It’s the depth of loneliness and the depth of powerlessness to cry out that God has abandoned you.
Yet that was the strength of Jesus and the power of God.
It doesn’t make any sense at all that one very simple man who lived 2,000 years ago would take on all the evil in the world and win. And that his death would make a difference to the whole world from then to now and counting.
Except that Jesus did that in the power of God.
We wouldn’t believe that a man would be dead –certifiably dead in his grave for three days, and then come back to life again.
Except that Jesus did that in the power of God.
It seems absolutely crazy that a very well educated man from a prominent family would go wandering from one city to the next, getting himself in serious trouble wherever he went, and being thrown into jail and being run out of town after town. It seems pointless that he would spend his very precious time with a few small churches and a handful or so of people, some of them slaves and many of them women. It seems a crying shame that he would give up a stable home and a family and a reliable income or any security in his life at all.
But Paul did that – in the power of God.
It really doesn’t make sense that a small congregation in Michigan would collect warm clothing and sheets and pillow cases for people they have never met. Except that warm socks and sweaters given in God’s name are very powerful tokens of God’s love, which is why they do that. .
It really seems pointless, maybe, to bring a jar of peanut butter or a box of cereal or a can of beans every week and put them in a barrel in Fellowship Hall. When you think of the great need in our community and the number of people out of work and struggling and the number of families and seniors who have empty cupboards. Not to mention huge medical bills and utility bills. It might seem like much too little, against far too much need. But that’s what Jesus asks of us, and God blesses every jar of peanut butter and every box of cereal given in Jesus’ name.
It might seem a waste of time for adults to spend an evening with a group of boys every week, guiding them through badges and activities and requirements especially when sometimes it seems like they don’t really want to be guided. But that’s what our Scout leaders do, and look at the results! Thirty-seven of our scouts have become Eagle Scouts!
And come to think of it, why in the world would a small group of very busy people with very busy families give an hour and more every weekend to sit in one place singing and praying and hearing somebody read something out of a book and then talk about it? Or why would intelligent people take a little hunk of ordinary bread and a little sip of ordinary juice and sit in sacred silence with it? And why would they bother to shake hands or hug people they aren’t related to, and why in the world, in these days, would anybody give away any of their hard earned money? It all seems very foolish indeed.
But if you look closely at that little bunch of people in that little church you would see that the Spirt of God is churning up a storm in that little church and that they are accomplishing miracles. And you would be surprised – or maybe you wouldn’t be – at what one small church can do in the power of God.
First Lesson: I Corinthians 13:1-13
Children’s story: Exodus 3:1-4:20
A few years ago a church I was serving was doing some serious thinking. They were looking around at churches that were larger than ours and seemed to have more younger people than we did, and seemed to be more “active” whatever “active” means. So the session sent me off to one of those newer, larger, younger, more active churches to see what I could learn.
I went and my experience was a good one. The church building was large, and built within the last twenty years, and very well maintained. The congregation was large and seemed pretty affluent. As I came into the building, people at a welcome area smiled at me, and greeted me and shook my hand. A very kind woman took me on a tour of the church building and showed me the rooms where the children had Sunday School – very impressive, brightly painted, with murals on the walls – and a well-stocked baby nursery. Once the service started there were many things that I appreciated. The singing was good. I didn’t know the songs, but most of the words were taken directly from scripture which I was glad about. People raised their hands in the air as they sang, which I had never done before, but I realized that was the way people in Old Testament times sometimes sang and prayed. The pastor spoke well and seemed very sincere. The pastor’s wife also spoke and she seemed very sincere as well. But all of a sudden, in the middle of that worship service, I had the terrible feeling that I didn’t fit. That I wasn’t really welcome – even though all those people had smiled at me and shaken my hand and said hello to me and taken me on a tour. I had the feeling that if I had a real conversation with that pastor and he really heard what I thought, he might not like me so well, and maybe the members wouldn’t either.
I looked around me in the congregation and most of the women and certainly all the women in leadership were cute blonds in their thirties or so, wearing tight black pants and very high heels. And I’m not any of those things. I’m not a cute blond. I’m not in my thirties. I don’t wear tight black pants and if I tried to wear those high spiky shoes, you can’t begin to imagine what would happen. I suddenly realized that I didn’t belong there, and neither did a whole lot of other people whom I love.
So I’m very glad to be here, with you, whom I love. We genuinely welcome people of all ages and all abilities. We have attractive blond women in their thirties in our church and I suppose they sometimes wear high heels. There are also gray haired women in their seventies and eighties who wear low heels. And there are men of all ages. There’s no particular dress code in this church and we don’t pay much attention to what people wear.
There are people in this church who go to work every day in positions of responsibility and there are people who are retired. There are people who can speak very eloquently of their faith in Jesus and who inspire the rest of us. There are people who know all about the plumbing and electrical systems in our building and they make sure we are comfortable when we come to worship. There are people who bring food every week and one of us brings it to North Kent Community Services. There are people who teach Sunday School and people who make prayer shawls. There are people who sing in the choir and lead us all in praising God. There are people who mark the prices on the items at our garage sale. There are people who keep our financial records and others who give generously. There is one person who provides the bread for our communion services every month and one who prints our worship bulletin. Some speak in worship. Some provide good food for the rest of us to eat happily. Some visit in nursing homes. There are some who care for our children in our nursery and a few people who encourage the rest of us in the mission we want to do but we wouldn’t know where to start. Some have strong administrative skills. Some have warm, generous hearts. Some have developed the art of forgiveness. Others are peace makers. There are some in this congregation who have lived through a great deal of pain and sadness and who are gentle, genuine people of great faith. Silent examples for the rest of us. Some of you are very wise. Some of you are long time students of the scripture and teach it passionately. Others are just learning. Some pray eloquently and simply. Others are learning that, too. Some of you are called to be deacons and you are the back bone of this church. Some of you are called to be elders and to make decisions and to lead this church wisely as God leads you. I am looking at people who are genuinely kind and creative in their caring. Many of you have known each other well for a whole lot of years and you have learned to accept each other’s foibles and oddities and it’s obvious that you love each other. You listen to each other respectfully and you complement each other, and I have witnessed that you have learned to look past a lot of differences and you work and worship well together. And do mission, and learn and laugh together. You love children and you hear the voices of those who are younger and accept them into leadership positions. You welcome newcomers warmly and you are moving into the future together in harmony.
I am very proud to be your part time temporary pastor, and I wouldn’t trade you for all the larger churches or all the tight black pants or high spikey shoes anywhere.
Pastor Paul would have been proud of you too.
He wrote this letter to the church he founded in Corinth, in Greece. We’ve been talking about that church and this letter for a couple of weeks now. There were these quarrels going on in that little church that Paul loved. There were wealthy business men and wealthy independent business women and there were an assortment of slaves and free servants and they were motley bunch. And if we read between the lines here we get the feeling that some of them felt that their contributions to the church were more important than others. That maybe the ones who made the most money or gave the most money, or owned the largest businesses should have more authority in that church than their slaves who worked in their homes. Or be more honored than their slaves. And that somehow the deacons were more honored, or the elders were more respected, or those who spoke in tongues in worship. And Paul goes to great lengths, for many paragraphs in his letter, to set them straight. He compares a healthy church to a healthy body where all the parts of the body are necessary and honored and important and we can’t do without any of us.
I remember who you were when I first met you a little over a year ago. I sat with almost all of you in those early months in small groups- mostly in the pastor’s office. I asked you to tell me anything you’d like me to know about North Kent Church, and I heard a great many painful stories of past years. There was a lot of hurt. And a lot of anger. Some of you were not talking much with each other – either because you were so angry with each other, or because you were intentionally avoiding any conflict. Or because you were weary of it all. The session was dispirited and pretty much inactive. The committees had pretty much given up. A few stalwart souls had taken over doing what was essential to be done, or pushing through a wall of discouragement. A number of you thought the church would not survive, and I heard you use the word “hospice.” Others of you were desperate. A whole lot of you said, “We’ve got to get some new younger folks here or we’re going to die.” Or: “We’ve got to get a new very young pastor in here or there’s no hope for us.” It was all painful to see, and I grieved for you. But maybe the most painful conversations I had were with the younger folks in the church who told me that they were repeatedly ignored and their ideas were beaten down by the older folks. I honored them and thanked them, wholeheartedly, for staying in a place where they felt so unwelcome.
But have you looked at each other lately? Now you’re functioning like the healthy body that Pastor Paul was talking about. Everybody offering their skills and talents. Respecting each other, appreciating each other’s gifts. Talking with each other. Forgiving each other. Practicing kindness. Working together. There’s a holy hubbub in the narthex before worship and I can’t get you into the sanctuary on time. There was a whole lot of happy hugging last week as we welcomed new members. Coffee hour is lasting longer and longer because you can’t stop talking with each other. There’s a strong little Sunday school, with good curriculum and good teachers and good planning. There’s a new vibrant Bible study group, and two other strong continuing study groups for adults. Hunger Fast for youth is coming up and next Sunday is Scout Sunday. Financial giving is strong. We continue the very strong mission support that this church is well known for, and we’ve added Mel Trotter Ministries to our very long mission list. I’m thrilled to see that younger folks are being asked to serve and their ideas are being heard. The PNC is up and running and working very hard. They’re a cohesive group of really good people with a common spirit. You’ve learned well from the guests we’ve invited to speak to us. Every once in while Dr. Jack Stewart and Dr. Laird Stuart check in with me and ask me how you are and I’m very pleased to give them this very good news.
See what can happen in a church when the Spirit of God gets ahold of it?
So now maybe it’s time for another set of questions to be circulating about the church. Maybe this is the time to focus on the future instead of the past and to ask, “What’s the next almost impossible thing this church will do for God?”
Or maybe you’d like to pray and ponder another thought: You have heard me say more than once that “Churches grow when the members know who they are and like who they are and offer themselves as a gift to others.” Take a look at the insert in your bulletin. Pray and ponder that for a bit, why don’t you?
Maybe we could talk about those questions in small groups in the next months.
I Corinthians 15:1-10
First Lesson: I Corinthians 1:1-9
Children’s story: Acts 9:1-22
Sunday, January 24, 2016
You might remember that little church in Corinth. We talked about them a couple of weeks ago. They were a very diverse mixture of wealthy business men and wealthy business women, and their families AND the slaves and free servants who lived with them.
They were a small church. They were a few people who met for worship every week in the home of Titius Justis. They were the only Christians for miles and miles around. Paul had been their pastor in the years 52 and 53 for about eighteen months, but after that they hadn’t had any kind of a regular pastor. They had nobody to ask their questions of: about who Jesus was and what he had done and how a Christian Church was supposed to believe and behave. There was a Jewish synagogue very nearby but they had Rabbis and they kept all the Jewish holidays and all the Jewish laws and of course they didn’t know Jesus, so they were no help when it came to knowing how Christians should behave and in fact they made trouble for that small Christian Church.
So you remember that about five years after Pastor Paul left, in about 57, the folks in that little church in Corinth wrote a letter to him, asking him a lot of their questions, and three trusted men of the church hand-carried it to him in over in Ephesus. And apparently brought the answer back - the letter we have in front of us.
It’s a beautiful letter. It’s warm and loving from beginning to end. Paul’s love for them shines out of every word. It’s a very personal letter. He talks about coming to them soon and what his itinerary will be on the way to them, and how he doesn’t want his visit to be painful to them. He writes in the first person and calls them “my beloved.” He calls them, “My brothers,” and I’m sure he also means the sisters as well. He talks about what he said and did when he was with them. He apparently has their letter in front of them as he writes and he answers their questions point by point in order. And he signs his letter, “My love be with you in Christ Jesus.”
He gives them the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Which certainly they weren’t hearing from any of the Jews in the synagogue. He lays out for them again the heart of our Christian faith – that Jesus died, that he was buried, but that he was raised on the third day after his death – which apparently some of them were having trouble believing. So he lists for them all the people who saw Jesus alive after his death: Peter, and the other twelve disciples, and James, the brother of Jesus, and then five hundred people, most of whom were still living and could be called as witnesses to that event.
And then Paul says, Jesus appeared to me, also. I met Jesus also. Which is the story that we told the children a few minutes ago. And he reminds them how he hated Jesus and how he had hated all those who loved Jesus. He would write letters to the Jewish priests and Rabbis in places like Damascus, for instance, and they would report to him if any of the members of their synagogue were beginning to believe in Jesus. And he would go and find them in their hiding places and round them up and handcuff them and haul them off to jail. And he reminds them of how very energetic he was about all that. He gave his days and his nights and in fact his whole life to terrorizing people who loved Jesus.
Now you remember who Paul was. He was a model Jew if there ever was one. He was from an upper class family – an elite family, in fact. He had the equivalent of a Harvard Law degree and a PhD in Theology and had studied under maybe the most brilliant Jewish theologian of the time – Gamaliel. He came from a highly religious family and he could trace his religious background in Judaism back to the very best.
So here’s the picture: one day we have Paul traveling all up and down two countries, searching out people who believed in Jesus and hauling them away to jail to be tortured. Collaborating with the leaders in the Jewish Synagogues. And the next thing we hear about Paul is that he is hauled into court himself, and forced to testify. He’s in prison himself, in chains, and being beaten and whipped and left for dead. Because he was now preaching and teaching about Jesus himself in so many places. Mostly put there in prison by the leaders in the Jewish Synagogues. And he gave his days and his nights and his whole life to telling others about Jesus.
And what brought about this drastic turnaround in his life? He had met Jesus. One day on his way to torture and terrorize people who loved Jesus, he had met Jesus himself. Jesus spoke to him, clearly, in words he could not misunderstand. And once Paul had met Jesus, he took Jesus with him everywhere he went – to small and large cities all over Greece and Turkey and Syria. Wherever he went through that Mediterranean region, he told people about Jesus for the very first time in their lives. He built relationships, and started up brand new churches and wrote letters and made tents and testified in court about Jesus, and sat in cold, damp prison cells and healed people who were disabled and rescued little girls from slavery and preached sermons and had conversations with the most unlikely people. All because he had met Jesus. And he brought Jesus with him wherever he went.
Today is a beautiful day in the life of North Kent Presbyterian Church. We have participated with a dear man of this church in his baptism and we have welcomed Ron and Deb and Kathi, publically, into membership in this church. And maybe you are remembering the day when you stood, maybe in this church, or maybe in some other church someplace and you announced, also, that you loved Jesus and you promised to be his disciple and serve him. Some of you have even told me that you have heard Jesus speak to you, in your ear, in English. In words you could not misunderstand.
So here’s hat that looks like. Once we have made those promises. Once we understand that we are followers of Jesus in the most basic kind of way. Here’s what that looks like.
We wake up on the morning and while our head is still on the pillow, we think over the day ahead of us. We think over what we’ll be doing and the people we’ll be seeing and the tasks in front of us. We picture our classroom, or our cubicle or our office at work, or the bank, or grocery store we’ll be going to, or the restaurant where we’ll be having lunch with a friend, or the spot where we’ll be playing disc golf or the roads we’ll be driving and the rooms of our home. And we think about the people we’ll be seeing and what their circumstances are, as we know them, and what their needs might be. And we’ll plan what we can say and how we can behave to meet the needs of the people whom we will see that day. And how we will bring Jesus to them. Because we are the hands and feet and arms and legs and mind and voice of Jesus in this world. While our head is still on the pillow we think of all that.
And then we’ll step into the shower, and the water will wash us clean from the top of our heads to the bottoms of our feet and we’ll remember and relive our baptisms. As the water comes flowing down on us, we’ll remember our baptisms all over again. And we’ll be reminded how a few drops of water in our baptisms have washed us clean in God’s sight. And how God has named and claimed us in our baptisms. And we’ll step into the world clean - washed clean before God, and ready to take Jesus with us wherever we go that day.
So we’ll take care of our families. We’ll do mundane, loving, little chores for our families. And some of us will drop off food and at the North Kent Community Center. Or we’ll write generous checks to this church for the work we do for God here. Or some of us will plan the lesson that we’re going to teach our Sunday School children, or the lesson for the adult Bible studies we’ll be attending. Or some of us will be visiting some of our dear shut ins. Or helping people trouble-shoot their computers. Or teaching in a classroom. Or serving on a committee in this community. Or helping people learn to walk again. Or shoveling snow. Or having important and unimportant conversations with a neighbor. Or going to the hospital with a family member. Or taking out the recycling. And at least one of us will be spending the next several days writing a sermon in her head, and finally on paper. And she’ll also be doing the laundry and cleaning the toilet. And all through the day, and at night when our weary bodies are too tired for anything else – we will sit in front of God in silence and pray.
Many years ago my Uncle John and Aunt Sylvia were missionaries in what was then called Ceylon. (now Sri Lanka) Uncle John was a huge man – in every way, well over six feet tall, probably close to three hundred pounds, and I swear he never stopped talking and exuding positive energy. They would come back to Grand Rapids with their family for brief periods and when they did that they lived not far from us. One day I stopped in at their home and Uncle John was very quiet. We chatted for a short time about nothing much in particular and then I got up to leave. He said to me, “Paula, I was wondering who would bring Jesus to me today, and it was you. Thank you.”
So that in the end, everything we do, we do for God. Because we are followers of Jesus. Because we have met him on the road and he has changed our lives. Because we are learning every day, all over again, what it means that we have given our days and our nights and our whole lives to Jesus.
II Timothy 2:8-15
First Lesson: II Corinthians 11:21-29
Children’s story: Genesis 37:1-28
We are continuing our short series of letters written to small churches and today we have been reading from both II Timothy and II Corinthians.
So here’s the story before the story. If we had read the very first verses of the second letter to Timothy, as it’s called, we would have read very clearly that it was written by Paul, to the man whom he calls his “beloved child,” Timothy. So it does appear that the well-known apostle Paul wrote this letter to a dear colleague named Timothy. And that may be the case. But the very smart people whom I always consult about things like this give us another, more likely picture. They tell us that these words in II Timothy were probably written in the very first years of the second century, maybe about 100 or 110. But we know that Paul died in prison, about the year 68, in Rome, under the Emperor Nero whom you have heard so much about – that wicked Roman Emperor who hated Christians and did so much to torture and kill them. So in all likelihood this letter was written about forty or fifty years after his death, and Paul didn’t really write it. Instead, it was probably written by some leader in the Christian Church in the second century who had known Paul and wrote in his name. We’ve talked about that before – how common that was in those years for an unknown person to write in the name of a famous person. It is possible, even, that this unknown person took fragments of letters that Paul had written, maybe even letters he had written to his dear friend Timothy and cut and pasted pieces of those letters into the form that we have in our Bibles today. That seems the most likely possibility. That what we have read today was written many years after Paul’s death, by somebody who quoted from his other letters.
But the story of the book of II Corinthians which we also read this morning is quite different. Pretty much all the smart people we consult say that indeed, Paul did write that letter himself. So when we read about all the times he had been in prison, and all the times he had been beaten and shipwrecked and floating in the ocean for a day and night, and in danger from robbers and all the other dangers he tells us about – and often near death - that really is Paul, writing to us about his own experiences. And you remember that many of the people who were reading this letter in the first century and also the second – many of those people were also living through imprisonment and torture and facing death. Under Nero and Emperor Domitian and to some extent Emperor Trajan who followed him.
Now I have never been in prison as an inmate and I don’t think that any of you have, either. Though I have visited in jails more times that I ever wanted to. And I have sat in court to support dear parishioners more times than I want to remember. I have never been chained up in my own home, and I’ve never been in handcuffs, and I doubt that any of you have, either.
Our author for today does know about that, though. He talks about being chained like a criminal, though he was innocent. But, he says, “The word of God is not chained.” And then he goes on to talk about the mystery of how we can be chained but free. Or in prison but liberated. Or handcuffed but able to move freely. Or beaten down but not defeated.
So I have been spending some time these last couple of weeks thinking to myself how we are captive but free. Or how we are in prison, but can be liberated.
Some of us are held captive by what somebody told us many years ago. That we’re not good enough or smart enough or capable enough. Or not handsome enough. Or pretty enough. Or we do things poorly. Or we don’t speak well. Something somebody said to us a long time ago that wasn’t true then and certainly isn’t true now. But those words have followed us all our lives and caged us in. Kept us back from being our best. Surely kept us from being the free and beautiful and lively person whom God created us to be.
Or sometimes we are overcome by guilt. No matter how we try, no matter what good intentions we have, we cannot seem to do the good that we long to do. Every evening we play back the tape of the day and it’s full of the wrong things done and said and the right things not done and said. And the memories of all those failures pile up in our lives and immobilize us. And we are stuck. We might as well be in chains.
Or sadness overwhelms us. Deep, deep sadness. Too many people we know are ill – mentally or physically. Too many we love are dying. Too many people are poor, and too many people in our families are making bad choice and too many people are caught up in alcoholism or drugs or eating disorders. Or we’ve had a string of “bad luck” that we can’t get past. The downward spiral continues without a let up or any kind of change in the right direction and there seems to be no hope or happiness anywhere. The days are always cold and gray and it’s been a long time since we felt any joy. And it feels like we’re in a deep, dark prison.
Or sometimes we are simply too busy. We are frazzled and stressed because nobody could possibly do all we try to do in one day. We become really good time at time management and really good at multi-tasking, and we get up early and work well into the night sometimes. But we are still stressed and anxious and very tired. We don’t know how to say “no.” Or we don’t know how to do what is rightfully ours to do, and let the rest go. We’re in such a state that we can’t do much of anything. And what we do, we do poorly. We feel trapped.
And this afternoon or later today you can pray and ponder all this, and recall how you are chained. Or trapped. Or in prison. Or handcuffed.
And then our author – in chains, you remember, writes to people who have every likelihood of being in chains themselves and in handcuffs and in prison. And he quotes a hymn they probably sang in worship every Sunday, and he says, “If we die with Jesus we will live with him. If we persevere with him we will also reign with him. If we lose faith, he is faithful still.”
Now I do not say this lightly. Some people do say it lightly, I know, and don’t trust them. You know that I do not say this lightly. But there is this: That when we are at our very worst, we call out to Jesus. We invite Jesus into our insecurity and self-doubt. And guilt. Or our sadness, or our unhealthy attitudes or relationships. Or our endless stress. We invite Jesus into all that with us. We tell him, as well as we can, how overwhelmed we feel and how we can’t get those ugly words and thoughts out of our minds. And we give that sadness and that guilt to him. Sometimes we even physically pull the pain and the stress out of our own hearts and hand it him. Or we take the heavy pack off our backs and lay it at his feet. Or we open up our minds and let all those muddled, jumbled, frantic thoughts fly right into his hands.
And then we are free. Then we are no longer bogged down. Then we are no longer tired or frightened or sad. Nothing has magically changed about our circumstances, and our lives are still our lives. But Jesus has taken our load and we feel a deep relief. Our circumstances do not control us. Our stress cannot get the best of us. Our anger cannot have the last word in us. Even though we may be enmeshed in unhealthy relationships, there is a tiny corner of our hearts that is free. Even though we still have too much to do we have relaxed into the warmth and love of God. Even though there may be deep sadness in our lives, there is a flicker of relief. Because of the comforting power of Jesus with us.
Or maybe you will take the example of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We read his creed just a moment ago. He has lived through a lifetime of pain and evil and discrimination. He has struggled with brutality and the endless, senseless killings of the black citizens of South Africa. Through it all he has remained steadfastly non-violent and unbelievably forgiving of the murderers. And he writes for all of us “Goodness is stronger that evil, love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, victory is ours, through him who loved us.”
This morning we are here in Michigan in the twenty-first century. We have heard the story of a young teenager named Joseph who lived over 3,000 years ago and we are sitting in his company. His brothers hated him and meant to do him evil, but God turned the evil into good.
We have read the song of a young peasant girl named Mary who lived 2,000 years ago and we are sitting in her company. She sang about the power of God against those who threatened to crush her.
We are sitting in the company of a small Christian Church in some unnamed place in Turkey or Greece 1900 years ago. They are reading a letter from a man who’s in prison in chains, and they could have every expectation that the same thing would happen to them. They sit in their worship service in somebody’s home and sing of the faithfulness of God to them.
We are sitting in the company of the wounded, bruised church of South Africa and their Bishop Tutu in the twenty-first century. They have experienced about all the evil and brutality a human can suffer and they sing that goodness is stronger than evil and they sing of the victory they claim in Jesus.
So take Paul who lived in the first century. Take Desmond Tutu who is living in the 21st century. Sing their triumphant songs with them. I do not know how to say it better.
And I simply ask you to experience that freedom for yourself.
I Timothy 6:3-10 – Second Lesson
Children’s story: John 12:1-8
First Lesson Luke 12:13-31
So picture this. You are a Jew living in Greece, let’s say and you’re a member of a very small Christian church – so small that it meets in peoples’ homes. The church is made up of a few large extended families and all the people who are somehow connected to those families – including slaves and free servants. There might be about fifty people in all. Your church was started about twenty years ago, let’s say, by a visiting pastor who came through your city and stayed for about a month. He’s no longer with you, and since then you haven’t had a regular pastor, though there have been some who have come and stayed for a few weeks or so at a time. Your little church is the only Christian church in your city and the few of you who meet together are the only people in your city who believe in Jesus. You’ve never met Jesus, of course. But you’ve heard stories about him and you have come to believe in him because of what your pastor and others have said. The nearest Christian church, if you are very lucky, is about twenty-five miles away, walking, over very bad roads. Most are much farther away. So you’re pretty much isolated.
What you do have is letters from Christian pastors that have been circulating around to all the Christian churches, and these you treasure. When pastors would write a letter to your church, you would read it carefully and copy it and cherish it and pretty much memorize it. And when anybody from your little church was going on business to a city where there was another Christian church, you take that letter along and share it with them. So that they can read it and copy it and cherish it and pretty much memorize it. So in that way, copies of many letters from several Christian pastors are being accumulated in small churches all throughout Greece and Turkey. (And eventually they’ll end up in our Bible.) A few of them have actually been written by Paul, who was a much loved and much respected pastor. And others have been written by people who knew him well, writing in his name. Which was a very common practice in those days. So you have all these letters.
But. You still have a lot of questions. You have lots of questions about Jesus and what he did and what it meant that he died. The other people in your city worship the goddess Athena, or Hermes, or Dionysius. There are some other Jews in your city, but they have rabbis and they worship in the synagogue. So they’re no help when it comes to knowing anything at all about Jesus, or about how the church is supposed to function or what elders are supposed to do, or what deacons are supposed to do – or any number of questions like that. And one person in your group has one idea and another has another idea of how it should be. We talked about some of that last week.
So there’s a lot of fighting in your little group as you struggle to answer these questions about Jesus and about the Christian church with nobody much there in person much to guide you.
And besides that, people are coming from outside your church, mostly Jews from in the local synagogue. They are trying to stir up trouble for all of you. Because you remember how that was. When people immigrated to your city from their homes and countries all around the Mediterranean Sea, they naturally clustered with others from their home country. The Italians from Rome clustered with other Romans and kept their Roman customs and their Roman gods. The people from Turkey settled near other Turks and spoke Turkish and ate Turkish food and celebrated Turkish holidays and worshipped their gods with each other. And the same with the Syrians and the Egyptians. And the Jews settled near each other also and kept their Jewish laws and traditions and worshipped together in the synagogue. And you may remember that it was Paul’s custom that whenever he came to a new city, he would discover where the other Jews were meeting and would attend their synagogue. And out of courtesy to a guest, they would invite him to speak, and that’s when the trouble started. Because he would start talking about Jesus, whom they had never heard of, and didn’t want to hear of, and before very long at all, the leaders in the synagogue had run Paul of town – literally running for his life, sometimes even escaping from jail. But a few of you in that synagogue believed what Paul had to say, and you formed a small Christian Church in the one or two weeks that Paul was with you. And once Paul was out of town, safely, the leaders in the synagogue came to harass the members of your brand new church and sometimes they tortured you and put you in jail.
And then this letter comes to you. It’s in the name of Paul, written first to another pastor named Timothy. And it gives all sorts of instructions about how to be the church. Who should be elders and deacons and pastors and what they should do. How to take care of widows who have nobody to support them in the days before Social Security and pensions. How slaves should relate to their masters. How husbands and wives should relate to each other. This letter talks about prayer. And preaching. And who Jesus was. For several pages this letter goes on. The letter warns against all sorts of people out there who will try to cause trouble for the church with their false ideas, and their conniving, scheming ways. Which you have certainly experienced there in your little church.
And then the letter says, “Don’t be like those people. They are conceited and they don’t know what they’re talking about and they love to fight. They quibble about this and that picky little thing. They are envious and suspicious. They have dirty little minds and they have no idea what is true. Don’t be like them. Run for your life from all of that.”
Instead, says the letter writer, “be loyal to God. Be faithful to Jesus. Be truthful. Be kind. Be gentle and full of patience. Go after what is good and pure and loving. And be content with what you have.” The writer says, “We came into this world naked and we’ll leave this world naked. So if you have enough to eat and enough to drink, be happy with that. Don’t set your mind on wild dreams that you can’t achieve and don’t be tempted by schemes to get rich quick. He says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” He also said, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”
I’ve been thinking this past week what all that might mean for us. And let me be very clear about this: God does not want us to be stupid about our money. Or careless. Or make bad decisions about our money. Or fail to think ahead wisely.
But there does come a time when we say, “I have enough. I have enough food. I have enough clothing. I have enough put away for my retirement. I have enough in savings. I have a large enough house. I have a good enough car. I have enough toys in my garage or my den. I have given enough very expensive gifts.” There comes a time when we say, “I have enough. I don’t need any more and I don’t want any more, and I’m not going to go chasing after any more.”
About fifteen years ago now my parents moved into a retirement condo. My mother has always been an excellent financial planner, and they had a house full of stuff and a barn full of stuff and at least one farm sized tractor and two cars and whatever else they had collected over a life time. They downsized well. I know this. I helped them move. And over the years my mother has given away a great many other things that she treasured and that seemed important to her life. Most recently she has moved into one room in the nursing section of the Holland Home. Once again she has given way a great many clothes and a great many household items and a lot of furniture – some of it very beautiful - that she won’t need now. I know this. I’m the one who brought it all away to good places.
These days my mom is in a wheelchair all the time and dependent on others to help her for a great deal. She has far less stuff than she’s ever had in her life and she’s very hard of hearing and she’s not traveling any more. Her life seems very small. But on Thanksgiving Day we had a meal together, and my mother prayed the most beautiful most heart-felt, most honest, trusting prayer I have ever heard. It came bubbling up straight from her soul into God’s heart. I will always cherish that.
Mom celebrated her 95th birthday a week ago today and we brought cake and ice cream. She sat in her wheelchair among what little is left of a lifetime of her lovely possessions. And she looked at my brothers and me and she said, “I feel so rich, surrounded by all my children.”
And one of these days before long, my mother’s soul will go to God. She’ll leave behind a few clothes, and her bed and her chest of drawers and her plants and the pictures of all of us and her soul will go singing to God. Uncumbered by what she doesn’t need.
My mother has taught me a great deal in her life – in words and by example. And I’m still learning from her. I am seeing for myself what this letter tells us: that “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”
First Lesson: Luke 22:14-23
Second Lesson: I Corinthians 11:17-33
Children’s story: Luke 24:13-35
So here’s the story before the story. Here’s the story about the little Christian church in Corinth in Greece. Paul was there for about eighteen months in about the year 50. So in other words, that was about twenty years after Jesus’ death and very early in Paul’s ministry and all of his travels throughout the Mediterranean region. At the time Paul was in Corinth it was a city of about 100,000 people and among the largest and most important city in the Roman Empire. It was also a city of immigrants. Folks from all over the countries of the Mediterranean world had come to Corinth – from Italy, Syria, Egypt, and were doing business there. Paul had lived in Corinth with a married couple named Priscilla and Aquila. They had a tent making business and since Paul also had the skills of that trade, he joined them in the work and lived with them. Eventually he formed a very small church that met in the home of a man named Titius Justus.
Now let me tell you about this church. Titius Justus and his family were members, which would have included any of his extended family and also the slaves in his household and any former slaves and tradespeople whom the family may have employed who lived with them. Other men and their families were also a part of this small church in Titius Justus’ home: Stephanus, Fortunatus, Achaicus. And a man named Crispus and also Gaius. There were also some strong, very independent, successful business women: one of whom was named Chloe. Now we can’t be sure and we have to try to read between the lines here, but there was some sort of controversy swirling around Chloe in that church. And along with all these people whom I have named were their families and their slaves. So we presume that Titius Justus’ home was large, to be able to accommodate all those worshippers, but we also presume that the church was quite small – small enough so that all the members could fit into one house.
So you’re getting the picture here: that the congregation is a great mixture of wealthy people from the upper classes – influential Romans living in Corinth – and women of high status, and also trades people and slaves and former slaves.
And here’s the rest of the picture. Paul was with them as their pastor for only about eighteen months and then he moved on to start up other churches in other places, leaving these brand new Christians to fend for themselves. But remember: none of them had ever known Jesus, AND none of them had ever known anybody who had known Jesus, AND they had never seen another Christian Church before, and of course a Christian Church was quite different from the Jewish synagogue in Corinth, which they had seen. Because by the way, the synagogue was right next door to Titius Justus’ home and Crispus had been a leader in that synagogue. AND there weren’t any older people to tell them “This is how we’ve always done it.” Because they had never done it before. AND this was a group of strong minded, wealthy, successful people who were very used to managing their own businesses and doing things quite nicely exactly as they saw fit. They are not used to collaborating or sharing leadership or power. Now some of them wanted to stick with the old Jewish traditions: about what kinds of meat they could and could not eat. And others in that little church thought that only fools would pay attention to such restrictions. And some of them thought that women should wear head scarves in worship and others are refusing to do that. And so on. So they were making things up as they went along, and fighting and arguing among themselves as they did it. And even going so far as to sue each other in court.
And finally they sent a delegation of three men, the ones whose names I have just mentioned, and they went off to Paul to who was over in Ephesus at the time with Priscilla and Aquila. And in a letter to him they asked a bunch of questions about how to do things. And apparently the three messengers waited there in Ephesus for Paul’s reply and then carried it back with them. The first letter - at least the first letter that has been preserved for us - to the church in Corinth. We call it “First Corinthians.”
And in the verses we have just read, Paul scolds them for the way they are celebrating Holy Communion. Because here’s what they were doing. They were having large potluck meals in the dining room of Titius Justus’ house. Some people brought a lot, and some people brought very little food. Some came hungry because apparently there wasn’t much to eat at home and they stuffed themselves on their one good meal for the day. Some wandered down the buffet table checking out the various meats and fruits and breads and choosing their favorite dishes. Some got drunk. Some started to eat before the rest arrived. It was a regular free for all.
And Paul said, “This is the body and blood of Jesus we’re talking about. This is the remembrance of Jesus’ death. This is not a time to stuff your stomachs. This is not a social occasion. This is not a place to eat your fill of dainty delicacies, and the sacrament of Holy Communion is certainly not the place to get drunk. What we are talking about,” said Paul “is a communal remembrance of our Savior’s death. All of us together, in a holy, sacred moment of worship.” Paul says to Titius Justus and Fortunatus and the others, and also to us: Paul says, “I wasn’t there for Jesus’ last supper with his friends, and you weren’t there. But we are remembering it anyway, and the way we remember is to do what Jesus did. We take a piece of bread and a cup of juice and we eat and drink. We didn’t see Jesus in his last hours. We weren’t there to see his beaten, broken back and we didn’t see the blood dripping from his hands and feet. But we are remembering it anyway, and re-enacting it with a little piece of bread and a sip of juice. And maybe it’s better than we didn’t witness it all ourselves. Because we might have forgotten, over the years, and the memory might have faded. But now, we see it all over again, freshly, vividly, every time we eat this bread and drink this juice.”
But there was more to the story in Corinth. It pained Paul deeply that there was so much fighting and bickering and suing each other going on in the church he had founded in Corinth and that he loved so dearly. And it pained him even more that they should be fighting over Jesus’ Table. He’s already made the point that this remembering we do of Jesus is not a social event. It’s not a Sunday brunch with the bunch. Now he says to them: “You can’t come to Jesus’ Table if you are arguing and bickering with one another and harboring grudges against each other. That would be a great offense to Jesus. That would dishonor Jesus in the worst kind of way.
Then he adds another concept. Then he uses the word “body” when he talks about the church and he reminds those folks in Corinth and he also reminds us that the human body and the body of Jesus (that is the church) is made up of very distinct but very equal parts. No part is any more important or any more honored than another but each part of the body needs the other parts for its very life. The eye can’t say to the ear, “I don’t need you.” And the foot can’t say to the hand, “what good are you to me?” And some of our inner parts, which we may prefer not to think much about, are vital to our lives.
Maybe some of those wealthy business men and those independent business women thought they were more important in the church than their slaves and former slaves. Or the men were more important than some of the women. Or some who gave more money were more important to the church than those who gave less. So the picture of the body would have been a surprise to them. A startling surprise from the pastor they loved. That they were all equal and that they all needed each other to survive.
And now may I say this: There have been real hurts at North Kent Church. I have heard them. There have been very serious differences of opinion, and anger and frustrations. I have heard all of that and it has been very painful. And I have been so very, grateful, this past year to see the changes in you. I have seen real forgiveness happening here. Some of you have told me your stories about how you have been able to forgive and move on with each other, and my heart has been very glad. I have listened to the happy hubbub in the narthex before worship. I have seen how well the committees of this church are working together. Every Monday I notice your very generous giving. I have seen how everybody in this congregation lends a hand together for mission, some of you very silently. I have heard the deacons remarking about how they’re having to stay later and later on Sundays to clean up after coffee hour because nobody wants to leave. I sense a beautiful new spirit here and I am very, very grateful.
In moment we will be joining together in eating and drinking this bread and juice, and remembering Jesus. Every time we here in this sanctuary take a little hunk of bread and every time we sip juice from a little plastic cup we are telling and re-telling the story of Jesus’ death. With millions all over the world. From the very first two in Emmaus who ate with Jesus on Easter Sunday evening and all the way down through the centuries until the day he comes again.
In our minds it will be as if we were sitting there with Jesus and his friends over a meal and it will be as if we are hearing Jesus say, “This is my body. And this is my blood.” And: “Do this to remember me.” And we will be remembering. And in our hearts we will be full of gratitude.
And maybe there will be another picture in your mind as you eat and drink. Maybe you will picture this congregation – the people who know, sitting here with you – and some you don’t know so well yet - as the body of Christ. The hands honoring the feet and the feet working with the eyes and the eyes cooperating with the ears and the ears working in harmony with the heart and the heart sharing with the mind. All of us held together by our love of each other and of Jesus, and our commitment to him.
What a joyful, sacred, holy celebration that is.