Message for June 21, 2020
My name is Pastor Bill Knobles and I serve at First United Methodist in Luling, Texas.
Welcome to worship. We continue our little series on “Coming out of the Corona Crisis” and this morning’s message is “Wanted”. We are wanted alive in Christ and dead to our sin. That is what Paul said in his letter to the church in Rome.
And, when the chips were down, when Mary and Martha were lost in their grief over their brother Lazarus, here is what Jesus said,
John 11: 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
So yes, we are wanted by our Lord.
Lord, it seems that we are still wrapped in the chains of this virus and our country is still, after so many years, still trying to find its identity as a land of equality, freedom and justice.
And in response to the virus and to the racial tension, we are getting too many things wrong.
Lord, forgive us, we pray.
Take our sin from us and replace it with life in your mercy and grace. Amen.
Back in 1958, 1959, I would have been a little kid trying to sneak in and watch nighttime television with my parents. That meant episodes of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, the Rifleman and others. There was also a show titled “Wanted: Dead or Alive”. Steve McQueen starred in the show as the bounty hunter Josh Randall. Guest stars included actors like Charles Bronson, Michael Landon, Mary Tyler Moore and Cloris Leachman. No, I don’t remember much about the show from when I was 6 or 7, but as you know, those shows live on as repeats for a long, long time. Now, Josh Randall was a bounty hunter with a soft heart and a sense of justice. So, not only would he gather outlaws for the bounty, he also cleared innocent people of crimes, found missing husbands and wives, sons and daughters. He settled feuds and made peace as he went about his work. He donated most of his bounties to help the needy. But one thing about ole Josh. He always got his man.
Now, the story of the kindhearted and justice minded bounty hunter is still alive and well. Disney has a new Star Wars series called the Mandelorian, which so far is following just about the same plotline as the Steve McQueen classic. A space faring itinerant bounty hunter in one adventure after another, doing justice and helping those in need. Why all this background?
Well, I started reading Romans 6:1-11 and that is where my head went. Paul was writing about sin. About our being dead to sin and alive in Christ. Dead and alive. Paul had already written in Chapter 5:20
……but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.
And so Paul might have thought, maybe I need to walk this back a little. I don’t want that church in Rome to be getting any crazy ideas. Parchment and ink did not have an eraser, and so Paul would write:
Romans 6:1 What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?
How can somebody washed in the baptismal waters go out and wallow in the mud? That is what baptism and then confirmation, is all about. When we confess Jesus Christ as our savior, put our whole trust in him, emerge from the waters, we have died to sin.
So, Paul would continue:
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
Paul is writing about our solidarity with Christ. Christ is for us and we are for him. This is not about death, it is about being alive. Dead to sin and alive in Christ.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
I have talked to many folks about how they are doing right now. And too many folks have been worn out by this pandemic. The numbers of sick people in our community keeps going up. The meanness and violence and bad news we see on the cable news never ends. Racial issues have once again been all over the news. Folks can feel defeated. They hurt and can’t put a finger on just one reason. Every day is a struggle. We have become enslaved to our fear, our anxiety, our vision has been clouded and our sense of justice offended. And we might just lose sight of what Jesus did for us on the cross.
Folks, the number one thing that drags us down is sin. Might be our sin. Might be someone else’s sin. Someone else’s sin against us, which remains unforgiven, can be just as hard on us as our own sin. But if we die to sin, our sin or through forgiveness, another’s sin; we are set free from the power of sin over us. Sin will not dominate our thoughts. It won’t dictate our actions. It won’t lure us into even deeper sin. Sin will not be our habit or our default. Its effects will not linger and taint our lives. We will battle against sin and we will win many more times than we lose.
And that is a measure of freedom.
And that sense of dying to sin and being alive in Christ will get us out of this Corona crises as our whole self, not just some tattered caricature of who we are.
Yes, we still will sin, and others will sin against us, but if we return to Christ often, seek forgiveness often, forgive others often, then we are free. And we are alive.
So, Paul continues:
7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
For Paul, Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection are one salvific event. Most likely, Paul did not witness the crucifixion. He did not see the empty tomb. He did not experience the forty days before the Ascension. For Paul, when Christ died, he died into resurrection. His death and life blurring into our salvation. Our becoming alive to G-d in Christ Jesus in one galaxy shaking event. Paul would write extensively about our resurrection in his first letter to the church in Corinth and in that letter he would write,
54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
That is the truth that conquers sin.
This course I am taking with Dr. Snyder is about how we understand the writings and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in what Dr. Snyder calls a “post truth” world. A world where people don’t much share a common notion or understanding of the facts. Where politicians and the media and advertisers play loose and easy with the facts and folks like us don’t really know what to believe or who to believe anymore. I think that if we are living in a post truth world, then no wonder this pandemic has affected us as it has.
No wonder folks are depressed and at odds with one another. No wonder we go from channel to channel searching for truth and finding little we can rely on. No wonder, some folks feel defeated. Because the truth has buried in an avalanche of images and reports, each noisier and glossier and more dire than the one before.
Bonhoeffer also experienced this. Nazi Germany had a very efficient propaganda machine. Germany would host the 1936 Olympics and the world would just fawn over Hitler’s bright and shiny Berlin. Meanwhile, the Christian crosses were coming down in the churches and were replaced by Swastika banners. Truth was hard to find in 1936 Germany. And by that time, Bonhoeffer was persona non grata in Berlin.
He had lost his privileges to teach at the university in Berlin. And the serious theology students did not want to go to those universities anyway, because they were just part of the propaganda machine. So, Bonhoeffer agreed to conduct an illegal seminary in an old hunting lodge near Finkenwald. He had about 25 students and they lived a monastic life, working, learning, praying, serving together. It was here that truth was to be found for the professor and the students. Bonhoeffer’s book “The Cost of Discipleship” was a compilation of lecture notes from this illegal seminary. And so, Bonhoeffer gave a lecture on baptism, followed by a lecture on the Body of Christ. And in this lecture on the Body of Christ, Paul’s Chapter 6 of Romans was front and center.
It was not just an academic exercise. Every one of those students were subject to being conscripted and sent to the front. So was Bonhoeffer. There was no such thing in WWII Germany as being a conscientious objector. The Body of Christ was under siege, and their response was to turn to Christ. To teach discipleship. To follow the way of the cross. To live the way of the cross.
And so, in this world that struggles with the truth, we know this. The church and its people are the Body of Christ. Through our baptism, we are joined in the truth that is Jesus Christ. And though our baptism G-d is for us and Christ is with us. Through his death and resurrection, we live in Christ and we die to sin.
And, my friends, nothing…nothing…, not a virus, not a riot, not injustice, not all the lies and deception, will change this truth.
And it grounds us in our faith so that we can have confidence as we emerge into this messed up world and do justice and resist evil. We have life. We have truth. And Lord G-d has given us purpose.
We are wanted. Brought in, not to justice, but to mercy. Not to judgment, but to grace. Our chains are gone. We have been set free. We know the truth. No longer bound by sin, but free to love and to serve and to live. And the bounty for our soul has been paid in full. The wanted poster has been torn down. And the truth that is Jesus Christ stands before us. Stands before the church. And as the Body of Christ, we are free to live and to serve, victorious over sin and over death.
In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
June 14, 2020
2nd Sunday After Pentecost
“Coming Out of the Corona Crises” series.
Message: “A Doer of the Word”
Scripture: James 1:22-25 and Matthew 9:35-10:8.
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
(Quote is from Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship”. Picture is Dietrich with some of his confirmation class)
By the time Dietrich Bonhoeffer arrived at Union Seminary in New York as a guest lecturer, he had two doctorates under his belt. He was 24 years old and the year was 1930. I fear that in a few weeks we are going read both his dissertations for the class I am taking. I am not looking forward to that. These are deep theological inquiries, steeped in Lutheran Reformation dogma and I don’t think there is enough coffee in the whole world to get me through them.
Bonhoeffer’s family had money back in Germany. He had certainly lived the good life among the German aristocracy. Well educated. And when he got to the American seminary, he looked down his nose at the students and faculty. He did not think much of the theology at Union Seminary and would write to friends back home, “there is no theology here”.
But things changed after about 6 months. Bonhoeffer’s transformation, or maturation, from a lofty, ivory tower theologian, spending his dad’s money to one who sought out the “real Christ” is pretty amazing.
He was changed from being a Hearer of the word to a Doer of the word.
Or as he put it, from the phraseological to the real. From words into action.
What happened? First, he started listening to some of those hayseed theologians at Union. They were teaching and preaching a social gospel of justice, care and action. Of being like Christ. Of getting out and getting their hands dirty in the daily work of the parish. He started listening to Reinhold Niebuhr, who told him that living our faith was essential to our discipleship.
Forget about dogma. Forget about the niceties of church doctrine for the sake of doctrine.
Look around and see the people. Feel their hurts. See their faith.
Eventually, Dietrich accepted an invitation to visit a black church in Harlem. In many ways, the scales fell away from his eyes, and he saw authentic worship. Kind of Scared him when someone in the crowd shouted “Preach on, brother!” So, he witnessed the genuine participation of people in worship, singing, responding to the preaching and making church an integral part of their daily life. Bonhoeffer became a doer of the Word. Now, theology became real for him and he was energized.
Why was Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian, so removed from the real work of the church?
This is my thinking. The book of James in the Bible was never a favorite of the Lutherans.
Martin Luther sure did not like it and did not want it taught. He did not think it expressed the Gospel. He thought it contradicted what Paul wrote about salvation by faith. It never mentioned Christ. Luther would write:
“Therefore St James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”
So, this is what James said:
James 1:22-25. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
As we emerge from the Corona Crises, Lord G-d needs doers of the Word. He needs a people, a church, in action. He needs a people whose faith is strong, and that faith is alive in what we do each day. And it is the church in action that will help us fight off the Corona blues. It is the church in action that will lift us from looking inward to looking outward once again.
Friends, in my life, I have not seen the like of turmoil we have experienced the past few months. Now, many of you will say, well Pastor, you should have been around for the Great Depression. You want to know worldwide fear and violence and a nation rising up in strength? You should have seen WWII.
But for my generation of the Baby Boomers, this year has been one of a challenge. Pandemic, followed by rioting maybe followed by more sickness. It is hurricane season and I would not be surprised if Godzilla showed up tomorrow.
We are a people in need of a plan. In need of going to work.
So, what is our plan? What is our work? For that, we can consider the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew 9:35-10:8. Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus went. He offered grace. This was not time to sit in the Synagogue and wait for the folks to come. It was time to do the Word. To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom and cure the people from their sickness. Show them compassion.
As we look around, do we see folks who are harassed and helpless? Are there people like a sheep without a shepherd? Some hiding. Some running in mobs.
Folks, if the church does not speak up and get to work, I wonder who will do so. Because, this is what Jesus said then and you know he is saying now:
37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;
38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
Jesus gave the disciples authority. I wonder. What authority has he given us? What power do we have? When we are sent out into the harvest, what are we to do?
Well, Jesus told us, in Matthew the 25th Chapter.
Feed the hungry. Provide water to the thirsty. Tend the sick. Cloth those who need clothing. Visit the prisoner.
And with our health fair, our winter clothing ministry, our work with the food bank, our children’s ministry, our work at Nolan Terrace, the work of the Ministerial Alliance as supported by the church, we actually do this kind of work.
We are doers of the Word.
The trouble is, lately, our ability to do has been hampered by the virus. Programs have been canceled. And we are challenged to find new ways to be the church in our community. I find it powerful that in the next verse, 10:2, there is a list of the disciples.
2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
They have names. They have identities. We have names. We have identities. And so when we think about it, Jesus is saying “Bill, be a doer of my word.” And each of us can put in our own name, as Jesus says “feed my sheep; tend my flock”.
Then Jesus gave some instructions:
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
I have struggled with this verse in the past. Why would Jesus place the Gentiles off limits? But reading Barclay’s commentary was helpful. The Gentiles were not ready and the Disciples were not equipped to go to them with the message. Later, that would be Paul’s role. So, the Disciples were given some boundaries so that they could be successful. Go to the Jews. Go to the lost sheep of Israel. The Jews at least understood there is but one G-d. They understood a G-d who had rescued them from captivity. They knew a G-d who gave the law at Sinai and led them to a land of milk and honey. They knew of a G-d with whom they were to be in a covenant relationship.
And so, the disciples went to be doers of the Word. And proclaimers of the Word. To announce that that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
I have talked a little about my own struggles to see G-d’s Kingdom coming near. I look for the Kingdom, and I see chaos. I look for G-d’s will being done, and I see something else entirely. We should be getting better, not worse. People should be more loving, not less. It seems hard right now to find Jesus in the news.
But then I remember what Jesus said, John 14:11-12
11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
And so, Jesus fed 5000. UMCOR helps feed millions. Jesus healed hundreds of people. Methodist Healthcare Systems helps heal thousands each year. For so long people with mental illnesses were shut away. Now they are helped by Christian counseling groups all over the nation. Prison ministries help bring Christ to thousands each year. The cast out and isolated receive a message, a call, a visit. It is hard to see any of this over the cable news headlines. And that difficulty can be numbing for the church.
How do we hear G-d’s word over the shrill voices? Over crashes and the bangs of the mob? Over the despair and the violence? Well, we are empowered by the Word. We must hear the word to do the word. So, Paul would offer this from Romans 5:1-8:
Romans 5:1-8. 1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
See, if we examine all that Jesus did with his works and his Good News, he offered hope. He offered purpose and work for his disciples.
What about us? What does Christ call for us to do?
We called around to the nursing and care facilities here in town. We asked, what do you need? As you know, it is hard right now for families to check on folks. Hard to see to their needs. So, they asked for sodas. Cokes. Dr. Peppers. Root Beer. They asked for snacks. Those sealed up Little Debbie kind of snacks. They asked for crossword puzzles, or picture puzzles, or adult coloring books. Little games. Probably some crayons to go with them.
Many of you also know what the residents like and need. What encouragement we can offer them?
Can we gather these things up here at the church? Is so, we will get them where they are needed.
What else? Friends, the best ideas will come from you. If you are listening by video, let us know what you think.
For Bonhoeffer, action took on a whole new level after New York. On June 20, 1931, he went back to Germany. Hitler was gaining power. He told the Nazi party that nothing can be accomplished without fanaticism. The world economy was still in a depression. Farmers were getting the lowest price for wheat since 1895, and yet people were still going hungry.
Bonhoeffer decided that he had rather be known as a Christian than a theologian. He took an appointment to a church in Berlin in the poorest part of town, wracked by unemployment, hunger and struggle. He was assigned 50 wild teenage boys to go through confirmation. He tamed them down by telling them stories from the Bible.
Dietrich found himself praying more. His teaching and lecturing became richer. And his theology began moving to be centered around Christology. Around Jesus. The cross. And what discipleship really meant. He folded his life around the costly grace that G-d through Jesus pours out for us.
Friends, that is what happens when we become Doers of the Word. Most of you know this because this has become your life. A life that is richer and more complete. A faith that is deeper and more satisfying.
A joy that sustains us, even in these times. To G-d be all the glory. In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
June 8, 2020
“Emerging from the Corona Crises” series
Sermon Title: “Resurrection Faith”
Scriptures: Matthew 28:16-20 and 2 Corinthians 13:11-13.
It is Trinity Sunday and we might wonder how the Holy Trinity can help us shake off the Corona Blues. How do we emerge from the Corona Crises with Spirit and purpose?
As we have seen, some folks are coming out frustrated and hungry to make up for lost social time. There is pent up longing from being away from friends. So, they crowd the beaches and bars. They gather in risky ways. And they may prolong the effects of the disease.
Other folks seem to be coming out of the Corona crises with anger, selfishness, meanness and disregard for others. And that has escalated around the country to unspeakable acts of violence and loss of self control. Those people did not use their time in isolation wisely.
Others have tried to use this time for self-reflection. A time to figure out next steps in life. A time to really cherish family. I believe that will bear fruit for them.
But for me, whenever I become less active, I get a bit lazy. Physically and spiritually. I have good intentions. I really do. I mean, I work hard at what I am doing, but that work makes me more tired than it should. Seems like a stupor comes over me and I need a kickstart of hope and energy. And I pray, Lord, I need all holy hands on deck. I need your fullness presented to me and in me in every way possible. Every way that my limited mental capacity can grasp. Each way that my inadequate and little faith can muster. Lord, I need you.
Lord, I need a Resurrection Faith.
That is what the theologian, Eugene Boring, calls a powerful faith. A Resurrection Faith. He writes that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is an ultimate G-d event, relating to death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. The resurrection is a decisive event for human history.
Not just something that happened TO Jesus.
Not just the empty tomb of Easter morning.
Not just the post resurrection proofs of Jesus’ appearing.
Not just his ascension to heaven.
But Resurrection Faith is our response to these events. What happened for us and in us. How we are called to seek deeper truth and meaning. We are not just affirming the historical facts of the resurrection story.
Resurrection is not just a happy ending to a near tragic situation. We are not just celebrating the winds of the Holy Spirit. All these events are to become part of who we are and they call forth faith and joy and wonder and amazement. They bring us out of the Corona crises with a purpose and a mission.
I think it was Karl Barth who wrote that when Jesus appeared to the disciples, they did not greet him with a creed. They did not sit down and make notes and write theology. No, they simply had joy and they worshiped him. And then they began to tell others to repent and be baptized.
So, we don’t come out of the Corona Crises just reciting a Bible verse. We come out with Resurrection Faith. With a desire to understand how G-d’s Kingdom has come and is coming upon the earth. With a need to tell others. With a yearning to serve this Jesus who has done so much for us. And with an attitude of wonder and amazement as we seek the holy things and ask the holy questions.
And I think that is why Lord G-d presents himself in a Trinitarian way.
To give us the tools to speak of him and relate to him. So that we can perceive our G-d in a way that lifts us up and restores and increases our faith.
We infer the trinity from Scriptures like Matthew 28:16-20.
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
And so, Jesus said he had the authority. He had the power to commission us to do his work. To go and make disciples. Not just say a few words and leave. Not just to drop off a pamphlet for someone to read. But to offer our witness. To tell our faith story. To teach what Jesus has commanded. To baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And to know that Jesus is with us always.
But these words of Commission might leave us with unanswered questions about the Trinity.
How can the three be one? The Great Shema, “Hear O Israel, The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one” rings in our ears.
So, we have to dig deeper. The Trinity is never set forth in the Bible as a finished bit of theology. In fact, trinitarian theology of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as equal and co-existent aspects of G-d was not developed until the 4th century.
Because the church was too busy in those early times just trying to survive persecution. Trying to avoid prison or martyrdom. Dodging Nero, Valerian, Domitian, Trajan and other monsters from Rome. And so, these folks had a very practical theology.
A Resurrection faith.
A personal quest for G-d.
Knowing G-d as the law giver, the friend the comforter. The Creator, the savior, the advocate. The G-d who would be with them as they were persecuted and killed. God was revealed to them in their need and in a way that gave them help. Today, as we emerge from the Corona Crises, G-d will be revealed to us so that our Resurrection Faith can be our strength and our power.
In 1933, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in prison, he wrote to a friend, and asked the question, “Who is Christ for us today?” The world was at war, the German church was completely compromised by the Nazis, and many of its pastors were in jail or had been conscripted as soldiers and sent to the front lines. And so, Bonhoeffer could cry out, “Who is Christ for us today?”
And he would answer his own question now and again.
We can’t tell G-d who he is. G-d is not what we simply want or need for him to be. Instead, we know G-d as he is revealed to us. Unchangeable and unchanging. He is the one who is for us. He is the one who is present to us. Bonhoeffer wrote that we must always ask this “Who is Christ” question, so that our seeking and searching never ends.
And as we emerge from the Corona Crises, we ask that question, and even more boldly, we ask “who is this Trinitarian G-d for us today?”
And we find the answer revealed in many ways. Paul ended his second letter to the church in Corinth, with the benediction of:
13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
So, for Paul, Jesus’ grace, G-d’s love and the communion of the Holy Spirit are revelations of who Christ, who G-d and who the Holy Spirit are. And maybe we find an answer to our own “who” questions here.
The Apostle John would write that we have received grace upon grace… We are saved by this grace. Justified by this grace. Paul would write that it is by this grace, within us by faith, that alone we are saved.
And all this grace and salvation is given to us by G-d through Jesus Christ. No merit of our own is involved. Just an obedient Christ and his Cross and our faith.
And so, as we consider the Trinity and what it means to us this day and in these times, we might think of Lord Jesus Christ as grace personified. Grace in our being. Grace for our lapses in this time of isolation. Grace for our fears. Grace for our anxiety.
For this Trinity, this time of emergence, our name for Jesus is grace.
Who is this Jesus for us today?
He is grace.
If we can come out of our isolation with a sense of grace, then we can be at peace with G-d and each other and with ourselves.
What about G-d? Who is this G-d for us today? John would write about God’s love. In our desire, our need to give a name to G-d, we call him Creator, Law Giver, Adoni, Jehovah, Abba or simply Father. When Moses asked G-d what name he should be called by, G-d said “I Am”. Tell Pharaoh that the “I Am” says, Let my people go!
But for this day, we remember what John wrote in his 1st letter.
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
As we begin seeking the confidence to come out from our isolation. To come forth and see our neighbors. It helps to know that our G-d is pure love. A G-d who loves will look after us. A G-d who is love will look after our neighbors. Of course, we are to be smart and careful. And that is another aspect of our love. Lord Jesus said that we love neighbor as ourselves. So, our love of self is not a narcissistic love, it is simply a respectful love for what G-d has created in us. And it is a respectful love for neighbor as we wash and mask, clean and distance.
So again, who is this G-d for us today? He is love.
And this mysterious Holy Spirit. This power of Pentecost blowing through us. Our Advocate. Our Comforter. The essence of an indwelling Christ in us.
Who is this Holy Spirit for us today?
As we emerge from a pandemic and into an angry world, our Advocate, our Comforter, our “G-d is with us” is in our communion. Our communion with one another. Our communion with our church. Our communion at the Lord’s table. Our spiritual and deep sharing in this holy mystery by which Jesus is remembered and proclaimed.
Friends, we muster our Resurrection Faith powered by the Holy Trinity, with G-d revealed to us in so many ways, being completely sufficient for our redemption and for our salvation. Wholly available to us as we emerge into a world that is deeply troubled.
Many of us might think that the turtle has a good idea. When it sticks it’s head out of its shell, and if it perceives a threat, just pulls that head back in. To wait for the trouble to pass. Close out that noisy and crazy and dangerous world. Go back and seek the peace of solitude.
But, God did not send his Son to us, the Holy Spirit to us, just so that we could hide away. We are not given the gift of Resurrection Faith just so that we can withdraw from the world.
And you might ask, well Pastor, all these riots and violence are far from us. What can we do? We still have a lingering sickness in our community. What should we do?
G-d’s Kingdom is built in each of us. Day by day. Prayer by prayer. One act of kindness laid on top of another.
A bridge built to our neighbors, one after another. This world. This community must have our Christian witness.
The grace of our Lord Jesus.
The Love of our G-d.
Right now, the Beast rages across this country. But the time is coming when our Resurrection Faith must give voice to the truth of our Savior.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in prison, the world was burning. Bombs were falling. The Jewish people were being slaughtered. His friends on the front lines of the war were perishing.
But Dietrich was not crushed.
His faith in Christ was unwavering.
Because he found the answer to the question, “Who is Christ for me this day?”
He is my Savior. He is my Redeemer. And he has given me Resurrection Faith that is sufficient for me this day.
And my friends, we have that same Resurrection Faith in us. To emerge from the Corona Crises confident in our G-d and his Kingdom. Ready to step in and offer our witness. To help build the bridges in our own communities that will heal our broken land.
And so, we do what we can and we do what we must. The power of our Trinitarian G-d in full display in us. Unfolding and revealing in grace, love and communion.
In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Lord G-d, set our souls on fire for you.
Reignite our passion and love for you.
And then let the flame spread throughout this land.
Your prophet Joel once wrote,
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
In our hearts Lord, we know this is true.
We long for your ways.
We run for your heart.
Not because of any compulsion from you, but because we know that is the place of love, strength and redemption and even glory.
Call us to yourself, O Lord, this very day.
It was probably nice weather. The Jewish festival of Shavout, or the Feast of Weeks, falls 50 days after Passover, in late spring or early summer. Great weather to travel and visit with friends. The festival commemorates the giving of Law at Sinai but is also it is a harvest festival of first fruits. The barley would be coming in and so there would be plenty to eat. There were probably more people in Jerusalem for Shavout than there was at Passover. Coming from all over to the great city to visit and give praise to G-d for the Law and for the harvest.
But, for many, it was not the festival they had planned. It was not the merry time of fellowship and having wine and food with friends.
It was a time when hearts were kindled and souls set on fire. It was the time when the Body of Christ, your church, began the journey that continues to this very day.
Lord G-d, how we long for that Pentecost feeling once more. As the scriptures are opened to us this morning, let us burn for you again. Amen.
I was pretty bummed out when Third Day called it a day in 2018. Of all the praise music I like to blast in my shop, Third Day is right at the top. And their song, Soul on Fire from 2015 is certainly one of my favorites. Mac Powell said that this song invited them and us to remember the excitement of our first love of G-d. The day we first believed. It felt like we were on fire, and how we wanted that fire to spread to those around us. And so, the song has action words describing those feelings.
“God, I’m running for Your heart, I am longing for your ways, I am waiting for the day, when I am a soul on fire.”
And that word “waiting” means an active waiting. Not just sitting and dreaming, but searching and even rushing to the heart of G-d. Filled with anticipation and energy.
It is good music to work to in my shop. Good music to sand to. With my woodworking hobby, sanding is really what brings my work to life. Yes, I saw and I carve and I shape and I join, but sanding is what reveals the grain. It softens the lines. It removes the rough places and sharp corners, and turns my work from something to see into something you want to hold.
I prefer to hand sand rather than machine sand. It gives you more control and allows you to enjoy the wood.
Sanding is a rhythm thing. The right grit, the right motion, the right sound. You can always tell how you are doing by the sound the paper makes on the wood.
So, you play a song like “Soul on Fire”, I can make the sawdust fly. I can sand in time with the music.
And one thing for sure, the sawdust would have flying on that first Pentecost. In rhythm with the Holy Spirit. The sounds of Pentecost, the rushing of the wind, the motion, the rhythm would have overcome the festival, and people would have known something unexpected was happening.
Something was being shaped.
Something was coming to life.
Something beautiful was being revealed.
Our writer Luke probably was not there. But, in developing his Gospel, he wrote that he had undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.
He wrote that he had investigated everything carefully so that he could write down what had happened. And so, based on those accounts, he used metaphors, “a sound like the rush of a violent wind.”
“Divided tongues, as of fire.”
Auditory and visual manifestations of our G-d coming among us.
Then Luke described the reactions of those who were present, as bewildered, amazed and astonished, amazed and perplexed, as they heard the message in their own language.
The Good News was delivered to them in a way they could understand, but also in a way that bothered them a little.
It convicted and convinced.
It dug in and made them think and wonder.
It was tailor fitted just for them.
Individualized and made personal, just as they needed to set their souls on fire.
Have you ever studied the artwork of Pentecost? Just check Google Images as artists from various centuries have tried to paint tongues of flame resting on people’s heads. As they attempt to capture an image of this Holy Spirit, roaring into the room like the Lion of Judah. The images do not work very well because it is hard to depict God’s working of fire and wind. But still, they try because they must try to capture that which cannot be captured.
Back in 2011, I guess it was, I was in the early part of my schooling at SMU Course of Study. Right down the street from the classrooms is the Meadows Museum. Back then, it had quite a catalogue of Spanish religious artwork.
Huge altar pieces.
All pretty dark and gloomy, if you ask me. But that year the Museum had arranged an exchange with the Prado Museum in Madrid and El Greco’s masterpiece, “the Pentecost”, was on display. It is a huge painting.
El Greco trained early in the Greek Orthodox Byzantine tradition of icon painting, and that discipline shows in this work. The colors are vibrant. The disciples are all looking up at the depiction of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.
Not just the 11 plus Matthias, but central to the painting is Mary, mother of Jesus and two other women.
And there are those tongues of flame hovering above each head. I liked that painting. Bought a postcard copy for a buck fifty at the gift shop. But what I like most is the very individual faces of each disciple. Many painters of religious art give everyone just about the same face. In fact, Greek Orthodox icons usually depict every face in a predictable and uniform way.
But not El Greco. Not this time. Not in this painting
Instead, each disciple is painted with different expressions on their faces. Expressions of wonder and amazement as the Holy Spirit is poured out on them.
Not some little trickle.
Not just a little sparkle.
But a Holy Spirit poured out for a purpose, affecting each person in a way that is particular to them. Finding our needs. Searching out our gifts and graces. Stifling our fears. Setting our souls on fire. And enabling us to speak the language of the evangelist to those we come into contact with.
In his painting, experts claim that the disciple 2nd from the end on the top right is a self-portrait of El Greco. He wanted to be counted as one on fire. One with a message of salvation painted on canvas.
And I think that if we closely examine that painting, look at the faces of the men and women who are dedicated to Christ, we might just see some familiar faces among the images.
Our senior, Madison, is in there.
Our missionary, Anna Troy is in there,
Pretty sure I saw Rhonda, our Wesley nurse painted in.
And so many of our folks numbered as disciples of Jesus. And I pray that my face and your face is in there somewhere, receiving that Holy Spirit, setting our souls on fire. Empowered by the Holy Spirit to go and tell our stories of faith to a world desperate for a Savior.
And when we do so with conviction, there are portents in heaven and signs on the earth below as lives are changed and people call on the name of the Lord and are saved.
You see, we can’t forget what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit. Why God was sending him to the disciples. The Holy Spirit is our advocate. On our side. Taking up our cause. Supporting us and giving us strength and conviction.
This Advocate, this Spirit is one of Truth. There are no lies, there is no deceit in what the Spirit tells us. So we can trust it. We can be obedient to it. We can know that what it teaches us is true.
And that truth then abides in us and counsels us and informs our decisions. And that truth will give us peace with our decisions. Not the peace of the world.
The “go along to get along” lies the world tells us.
The “its ok, everybody is doing it” deceit the world tosses at our young people like candies at a parade.
No, this is an abiding truth before which all lies and half-truths fail and fade. Truth that will set us free and energize us.
Most assuredly, followers of Christ will not have complacency in their lives. If that was the case, God just might as well have sent his Holy Spirit by UPS. Backordered it to arrive at an uncertain time. Left on the doorstep while no one sees.
But no, this Holy Spirit, this truth, comes roaring into our lives. Stirring us and empowering us to go out and tell the world about the God that we serve. Marking us with the undeniable sign of an inward grace. And giving us courage so that we can conquer our fears.
In Luke 12:49, Jesus said “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled”.
And so when we read the letter from Christ to the church in Laodicea in the 3rd Chapter of Revelation, and Christ says, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot.
16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
God does not want a lukewarm faith in us. Not a tepid expression of our love for him and for his people. No, He wants some fire in our bellies.
And so, we see that the Holy Spirit, this Pentecostal fire that God has filled us with, serves many purposes. It refines us and purifies us, so that our love for God can remain hot. So that keeping God’s commandments and not giving into sin is easier for us. So that our love for G-d can grow and flourish. So that our testimony and our witness can be compelling.
And you might say, “Pastor, how can we keep that fire burning?” With all that is going on, how can we guard against the cold, frigid world and its lies?
Friends, the Holy Spirit does not just come to us once, and then go hide. Jesus said, “I am not going to leave you orphaned”. Jesus is not going to just shove us out into the world by ourselves.
The Holy Spirit abides in us, available day and night and every day as we pray and we call on the name of the Lord. And so when that little voice is saying, “Don’t do that”, “Don’t go there”, “Don’t say that”, probably that is the Holy Spirit.
But that is not the fun part. That is not the holy and sacred part.
When we feel that tug to be a friend to someone who needs a friend, that is the Holy Spirit. When we feel the need to offer comfort and kindness to someone, that is God in us at work. When we know, we just know, what someone needs at a particular point in their life, that is the Spirit teaching us and advising us.
That is the fun part because it is joyful to know that God thinks enough of us to use us as his witness. To empower us to step out of our comfort zone and engage in a conversation that could change someone’s life.
And we might be a little uncomfortable, but Jesus said not to be afraid. Because the Spirit that came to us, abides in us and is available for us, is not a sick feeling of fear. It is a feeling of excitement for which we thank God each and every day.
And so, we take the gospel message and speak it to people in a language they can understand. Not the high prose of the church or Elizabethan English. Not a condemning or judgmental language. Not a “do it our way or hit the highway” kind of language.
No, we speak the language of love and acceptance.
We speak the language of caring and concern.
We speak the grace and compassion of Jesus.
We speak the inclusion of all people, all children of G-d.
We offer ourselves as a festival of first fruits as we live the Gospel.
And the effect? Well, we hope and we pray that we have even a fraction of the results the disciples had at that Pentecost. The people asked, they responded to the preaching, “Brothers, what should we do?”
And Peter said, “Repent and be baptized, everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
See, Peter was specific in his message, clear in his preaching, and people were reached. 3,000 were baptized that day. And the promise was made for them, their children, for you and for me, for the people of Luling and for all generations. Everyone whose soul is on fire for the Lord.
And if we do our work, if we spread the Gospel message, El Greco is going to need a bigger canvas.
He is going to need a bunch more paint.
More and more faces added to the disciples, all with their souls on fire.
All living joyfully and witnessing their faith to everyone.
In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
May 24, 2020
“Things Are Looking Up”
Scripture: Acts 1:1-11
In the movie, “O Brother Where Art Thou”, there are some good songs incorporated into the script. “Man of Constant Sorrows” was probably the biggest hit, with Michael Clooney lip syncing the lead with the Soggy Bottom Boys. Then, there is one of my favorites, “Down in the River to Pray”. Love that one. But that song, “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life”, sung by the Whites for the movie, is also very special.
Now that movie, “O Brother Where Art Thou”, is a rambling odyssey of prison escapes, lost treasure, lost love, folk music, racial tension and a bunch of other topics. The movie certainly was entertaining, so long as you didn’t try to follow its logic. But the story behind “Keep on the Sunny Side” is even more interesting. It was written by Ada Blenkhorn back in the mid 1800s. Ada was No. 10 out of 11 children. She was a Methodist and loved writing hymns. She took care of her nephew for a while. He was disabled and in a wheelchair. And as she wheeled him outside each day, he would constantly remind her to keep on the sunny side of the street. He loved that sunshine. “Keep on the sunny side” was what he always said. And so that phrase became a song.
There’s a dark and a troubled side of life;
There’s a bright and a sunny side, too;
Tho’ we meet with the darkness and strife,
The sunny side we also may view.
Doc Carter traveled all over Appalachia searching for folk songs. He heard about Ada’s song and the Carter Family recorded it in 1901. It became the group’s signature song. It should be the theme song for our Corona recovery.
Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life;
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
If we keep on the sunny side of life.
Now, the disciples surely had seen a dark and troubled side of life. But things were looking up in the final chapter of Luke. The tomb was empty on Easter morning. The angels reminded the women that Jesus said that he would be raised on the third day. Then Jesus appeared to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, and opened the scriptures to them like never before.
And their hearts burned.
They ran back to Jerusalem, and before they even settled in, Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples. He brought his peace. He made his proofs. And he opened the scriptures to them, just as he had done on the Road to Emmaus. And in the last verses of Luke, Jesus ascended and the disciples were filled with joy. Yes, things were looking up for the disciples. And Lord, how they needed some hope. Some reassurance. How they needed the scriptures opened to them so that they could understand what was going to happen next. And that ends Luke’s Gospel.
Then, in the first chapter of Acts, we again read what happened from the time of the Resurrection until the Ascension. We know that Luke wrote his Gospel and we know that Luke also wrote Acts. And as one ends and the other begins, what we find is that the Ascension of Jesus into heaven is the hinge event between the Resurrection and Pentecost. Between the cross and the inauguration of God’s Kingdom on earth. The ascension brings closure to the time Jesus had on earth and made way for a new chapter in our lives of faith. A leaving to make way for the coming of power to the disciples.
So, we read:
Acts 1:1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
I wonder. What did Jesus tell them about the Kingdom? Did he speak plain or in parables?
The treasure hidden in the field? The pearl of Great value? Did he pray with them, “the Kingdom, the power and glory, forever?” The scripture often tells that Jesus spoke of the Good News of the Kingdom. The good news of salvation and forgiveness and eternal life.
The good news of God’s eternal love.
And word by word, blessing by blessing, Jesus would build their confidence that something else was going to happen to them. Something that would bring G-d’s Kingdom closer.
Friends, through our Bible and prayer, Jesus is still telling us about the Kingdom. Making his proofs. And giving us his power.
Acts 1:4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
Folks, we are no good at waiting. Impatience seems to nip at us in everything. We want this pandemic to be over now. We want to be able to go out now and visit friends and family.
I want things to get back to a life of service and fellowship in the church, freely and passionately singing and eating and worshiping together. I am impatient for that. And yet, waiting is a discipline. It is a building of strength and character.
Psalm 27:13-14 says, I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
And so, we wait. We trust that we are building spiritual discipline. We believe that something good is going to happen as we come out of this time. Not just what we thought of as a “normal life”, but something richer.
Something deeper. Something more meaningful.
That the inward searching of this time will call us further along in our relationship with G-d and each other.
I don’t know how patient the disciples were, but what they were asked to wait for was huge.
John called it a baptism of Holy Spirit and fire. That was certainly worth waiting for and anticipating. Those disciples knew what the baptism by water had done for them.
It had called them into new life.
Changed their life completely.
I have often wondered about who baptized the disciples. We don’t really know. The Orthodox tradition is that Jesus baptized the disciples, but other scholars believe that John the Baptist baptized most of them. But as powerful as that baptism was, whoever had done it, what was coming was to be more.
Things were looking up.
And so, they would ask Jesus, 6 “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The disciples had just witnessed the worst of the Roman abuses of power. An innocent man was brutalized and put to death. And so, they were wondering if the time had come when that abuse would end, and Israel be restored.
But they missed the point.
The Spirit was to come not just for the benefit of a nation, not for a small region to regain its status, but so that the witnesses of the Kingdom could be empowered to go forth with the Good News. Go forth to all the earth. Not just Judea. And that was the last thing Jesus said to them.
And then, 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Things were looking up and they were looking up. The angels fussed at them a little and then sent them on their way. Don’t waste your time looking up, they said. There are places to go and things to do! And they went back to Jerusalem filled with joy. With a spring in their step. A lightness of heart they had not felt in a while. The darkness that had settled over Jerusalem was giving way to the hope and light and sunshine of a new time.
Friends, as consider what the Ascension means to us, the proofs that Jesus made to us, The scriptures he has opened for us, maybe we start emerging from our isolation with a lighter heart. As we come from what might have been a pretty dark place into the light and the sunshine, maybe our waiting has more purpose for us.
Paul said it like this in Ephesians 1:15-19
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.
My Homiletics commentary on the Ascension mentioned the work of Steven Hawking. He was that brilliant theoretical physicist, cosmologist and scientific thinker. He died in 2018. Hawking was an atheist. He had a dismal outlook for the future of humankind on earth. He figured that we were just going to mess it up. He thought we needed to abandon earth or face extinction.
He said, “It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.”
For Hawking, there was no sunny side of the street. Things were not looking up and never would. So his solution, perfectly consistent with his atheism, was for humankind to take off. Abandon earth. Find another home and start over.
And that is what happens when we think we are powerless. When events are going to spin out of control and we will have no hope. Just pack our bags, give up and get out of town.
But for those who believe, we have hope. We are not going to abandon our home and blast off looking for something else. Why? Because we are given power by the G-d who created the universe. The ascension means something to us.
There is no place humankind can go where G-d is not already there.
But there is no place humankind can go where the Good News of the Gospel is not needed.
Where our witness is not necessary. Abandoning folks and running away is not an option.
Instead, we go to the ends of the earth to help people.
“O Brother, Where art Thou?”.
Our brothers and sisters are here in Luling, and they need a word of hope.
Our brothers and sisters are all over Texas and they need encouragement.
Our brothers and sisters are everywhere in the world, and we must ask, how do we take Jesus to them?
We have a job to do and Lord G-d has given us the power to do it.
And so we sing:
Let us greet with a song of hope each day,
Tho’ the moments be cloudy or fair;
Let us trust in our Savior always,
Who keepeth everyone in His care.
Folks, Pentecost is coming, but don’t forget, Pentecost has already come.
We have the power to come out of this Corona Crisis and into a world more fully attuned to God’s Kingdom, as it settles in on this earth.
Things are truly starting to look up.
And for that, we say thanks be to G-d.
May 17, 2020
The Price of Oil
The price of oil has wildly varied over the past 40 years, most of the time simply because of supply and demand. We have seen oil as high as $130 a barrel and in April the price went lower than $0. But when is an abundance of oil a good thing? And at what price? We will talk about these things in our May 17 message, both in church and by the video (fumcluling.org). Our focus scripture is John 14:15-21.
Please, hear these beloved words from the Psalmist:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Just imagine sitting in the presence of the Lord.
The table before you is full of good things.
You feel loved and honored.
You feel safe and comforted.
And Lord G-d opens his flask of Holy Oil and anoints you, just like you are royalty.
And his Holy Spirit comes over you, and you long for his presence to abide with you forever.
But in the back of your mind, maybe you are thinking.
This cost something.
Somebody paid a price for all this.
And that is our conversation for this day.
Our focus scripture today will be John 14:15-21, so have those Bible handy.
As many of you know, I have a passing acquaintance with the price of oil. For 40 plus years, I made a living representing producers, drillers, landowners, mineral owners and banks in oil and gas transactions. I got started at a pretty good time, back in the early 70s and I saw oil go from around $10 a barrel to about $40 in 1984. At $40 dollars, we thought we were smart. But then oil went back down to $10 in 1986 and that was a lean year and we were not so smart. And it went on back up but crashed again in 1998. 10 years later, oil was at $130 dollars a barrel and we thought we were geniuses. But by 2016, as all the shale oil came online we hit the $30’s and we were not as smart as we thought we were.
Then came April 20, 2020 and a day I will never forget. For the first time ever, the price of oil traded at negative numbers. Too much supply. Too little demand in a world economy hit by a pandemic. Saudi Arabia and Russia were fighting over market share. Both wanted to punish the US shale producers. The May contracts were clicking in. The commodity traders were caught with their garments in disarray. Hedgers were called to take oil they had no storage for. And so, they had to pay someone to take the oil off their hands. And the price of oil went negative.
Our poor producers. Shutting in production and laying workers off. Suddenly, the H & P Drilling yard in Seguin was filled with stacked rigs. The folks relying on royalty checks to live on were hit hard. The banks with production loans were getting visits from the bank examiners. Too much abundance, too little demand, and the price of oil hit the bottom and kept on going.
So, oversupply of oil on the world stage is a bad thing. Basic economic theory of supply and demand kicks in. Folks get hurt. And we might wonder. Is an oversupply of oil ever a good thing? And if so, what can that abundance mean for the price of oil?
Well, time and time again, our scripture writers talk about oil in abundance. Now, I know that the oil in the Bible, the oil that represents the HS, is not crude oil. Samuel did not walk over to the gunbarrel and fill his flask. I know that the oil of the Bible is olive oil. But did you know that even crude oil is used for healing? About 3% of the oil that is produced is used to make pharmaceuticals. Used to make the medicines we need. So, maybe I am not completely nuts as I talk about the spiritual value of oil. About an abundance of oil and what it costs and what it can do.
Because when you put oil in the hands of the G-d of the universe, things get interesting.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Some of the most beautiful words in the Bible are found in the 23rd Psalm. The image of Lord G-d anointing us with oil. Not just a dab. Not just a little dash. This is a G-d of abundance. Food, drink, shelter and protection and then pouring oil on our heads as if we are a king. Anointing with oil in the Bible is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. More than 200 times oil is mentioned in the Bible. And many times there is a connection with the Holy Spirit in anointing prophets, priests, and kings.
And so, we read in 1 Samuel 16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.
In Acts 10:38, Dr. Luke wrote about the ministry of Jesus and how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
Then in Luke 4:18, Jesus said “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,…”
And so, if the Holy Spirit is symbolized by the anointing with oil. If that oil, if that anointing, is part of the Lord’s powerhouse of proclamation. If that proclamation of the Good News is what we are sent out to do. How might we receive that Spirit, that anointing, that blessing, that helper that we need? Not just need, but we covet because it is such a rich part of our Biblical heritage connected with the Good Shepherd, who is precious to us. So, Jesus tells us exactly what we are to do.
John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
That Advocate that Jesus promised, that Spirit of Truth, was and is the Holy Spirit. To be poured out on us in abundance at Pentecost. But there is a price for this oil.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments”.
Obedience is the test of love. We can’t purposely cause someone pain and then claim that we love them. And we make no mistake, disobedience to Jesus’ commandments causes pain to others and to ourselves. And so, let’s quickly review the commandments Jesus is asking us to keep. The commandments which are bound up in love.
In Mark 10:17, with a similar record in Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells the rich man.
“You know the commandments, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and your mother.”
In short, Jesus is telling us to obey the 10 commandments, not out of fear of judgment, but out of love. This obedience tells how we are to treat each other with honor and respect, with truth and with justice.
Which leads us to Mark 12:28-31, noting there are similar records in Matthew and Luke:
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
And here, Jesus makes clear that the commandment to love G-d and neighbor is of the highest priority. There is no disputing the issue. There is no wiggle room in what Jesus said for us to do.
And then finally, we turn to John 13:34-35: [Jesus said]
4 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And so, Jesus gave us a new commandment of how we relate to those with whom we serve. We love them. We know that Jesus loves with a mighty love. A “laying down your life” kind of love. He loves like that and we are to love each other like that. Jesus gave us many, many things we need to do, so many examples of what his Kingdom is like; so many ways to honor him. But it seems to me that if we abide the 10 commandments in truth and in spirit, if we love the Lord with all that we have; if we love neighbor as ourselves and if we love one another with a mighty love, then we are getting down to the essence of what Jesus meant when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”.
And in this keeping, in this obedience, we are given the Holy Spirit to abide in us.
Don’t you feel the Spirit working in you? Keeping you straight. Causing us to notice what needs to be done. Pulling us towards those who need help? Filling us with love and compassion. This advocate for us, this helper, this indwelling personification of Christ, this Spirit of Truth, will be in us forever. Living forever. Anointing us constantly with the oil of salvation and comfort.
And we can imagine, if all the faithful are so anointed, we are talking about a lot of oil. A super abundance of the Spirit in this world. An oversupply of Biblical proportions. So much so, we might take it for granted.
Not seek it often and every day. Not look inward constantly for that truth and that Spirit that helps us keep those Commandments. And if we get so lax about the measure of the worth of the gift of the Spirit in us, we might think that this oil was bought cheap.
And it was not. The price of this oil is dear. It costs everything. Its value is unsurpassed.
The indwelling of the Spirit makes us rich, even as it makes us whole.
And here is the thing. That price was paid by someone else. Jesus paid it all. Paid for it in full. And all that he asks of us is love and obedience.
Over the years, I got to meet so many pioneers in the oil and gas business. Local and state and Oklahoma. Wildcatters like Michael Halbouty, Les Hutt and Bo Joiner.
Modern producers like Ben Rollert, Jerry Nixon, those Killam brothers from Laredo, Donnie Seay and Richard Azar, and so very many more.
My life is richer because I got to talk with these folks. And I like to read about the oil patch.
Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America is a book by Darren Dochuk. Darren writes about the Oil patch as being a sacroscape. A place that has called forth faith. A faith that sees the ups and downs, the blowouts and mishaps, as a cataclysmic expression of the Creator and one which calls for a Messiah.
One of the people in the book is Pattillo Higgins. The old wildcatter who predicted that the Spindletop salt dome near Beaumont was a place of riches. I got to know his son, Pat, Jr., who lived over at Sutherland Springs. His dad, Pattillo Higgins was a man of deep faith. He was convicted by his sin at a revival. Sin that included an early life of carousing and fighting.
At that revival, Pattillo put his trust in G-d and thereafter, Jesus walked with him as he went about his work. It was a faith that walked with him all his days, especially through some hard, hard times. The oil people I have known have all seen their shares of ups and downs.
Wayne Hudgens once told me that you are not a real oil man until you have been busted a few times. By and large, the oil people I have gotten to know are good folks. Many knew their way to church and kept their Bible close at hand.
And yes, I have met my share of rascals in the oil business. I won’t name any names.
But good or not so good, faithful or scandalous, the one thing they all had in common was this.
You talk about oil, they would get this gleam in their eye. There was excitement in their voice. For them it wasn’t so much about the price of the oil, it was the finding of the oil. It was about the discovery. Sleeping in the doghouse next to the rig. Catching the drill cuttings. Smelling them. Feeling the oil in their hands. That was what got them excited.
When you look at old pictures as a well is coming in, that oil is blowing over the crown of the derrick. And sometimes there are people standing by the rig. Getting covered with that oil.
That is what it feels like as faithful sons and daughters anointed by the Holy Spirit. The oil of gladness covering us over. Dripping from our faces. Soaking our clothes. Sitting at the table prepared for us in the presence of mine enemies.
Knowing that the G-d of all Creation, Jesus his Son, and the wild Spirit that comes to us because of their love, is in us.
And notice what Jesus said; he said that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Because of the price that was paid by Lord Jesus, the price of that oil, the price of the anointing, we are in Jesus. We have a part in the salvation story. We are joined together in Jesus and his work.
And if that does not call us to obedience; if that does not bring us to our knees, if that does not fill our hearts with love and wonder, if that does not remake us in the image of our G-d, then we don’t know the price of oil.
Not the West Texas Intermediate price of crude, not the European Brent crude price.
But the Calvary price. Posted on the cross.
That is the price we need to know, and that knowing is all that matters because it opens the way for the Holy Spirit to come into us.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Friends, Pentecost is coming. A day to remember when the Holy Spirit came to humankind in power and abundance. A day when we are soaked in the oil of gladness. And G-d’s very Spirit comes to dwell in us. Making us whole and complete.
Till next time, be good to one another. Take care of yourselves. Encourage others. Pray often and pray deeply.
May 10, 2020
Sermon Title: “Reviving The Faithful (and not so faithful)”
Scriptures: John 10:1-18 and 1 Peter 2:19-25.
Hear these words from 1 Peter 2:21-25.
21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
“Revive Us Again!” is our preaching series, and we will finish up today. Our first message was, O Lord, Revive the Doubters! Our second message was “Revive the Broken Hearted!” Our Third message was “Revive the Seekers!” Today, we pray, Oh Lord, “Revive the Faithful (and the not so faithful”)
Our focus scripture today will be John 10:1-18, so have those Bible handy. In the revivals of old, people were drawn to the brush arbors, to the tents, to the church, because 1.) maybe someone (maybe a mom) dragged them there, 2.) they figured there would be food, 3.) they were curious, 4.) they wanted to hear the Gospel Music, 5.) they wanted to hear the preaching, or 6.) Lord G-d called to them and they listened.
As a result, people came to faith at revivals. Hearts that had been cold were stirred with faith.
And people celebrated that new faith with singing and baptisms.
What about now? What does it mean to have a revival in this day and time?
Well, with the use of electronic ministry, we don’t know who is watching. But we know this. Lord G-d has you watching for a reason. And if this is your day to come to faith, we celebrate that.
So, Let’s pray:
Lord, if anyone is seeking you at this very moment, touch them in a profound way.
Turn their eyes to you. Hear their confession. Save their souls.
Lord, in your mercy, hear this prayer.
Lord, we thank you for the women who are mothers, grandmothers, those special aunts, teachers, friends…those who have been like mothers to us.
Thank you, Lord, for their witness. Father, we know that being a mom right now is extra hard.
Now …moms have to be teachers, entertainers, all day disciplinarians, cooks, house keepers, mediators, referees and who knows what else. Lord, give them strength and patience.
One of the most hurtful things today is that we have not been able to be physically present with some of these precious ladies. We just have to faithfully protect them, even if that means we can’t visit with them and hug them like we want to.
So, we pray, Lord, please cure us. Find a treatment. A vaccination. A way for us to once again hold the hands that once held ours.
And Lord, as we ponder what revival might mean in our lives, please reach out for the doubters, the broken hearted, the seekers and surely the faithful. Stir our hearts with your goodness. Revive our longing for you. Gather us into your presence and your pasture.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
In our opening Scripture from 1st Peter, we hear the essence of the Resurrection story. The resurrection of our Lord and our share in that resurrection. That by his wounds we are healed. That by his calling we are saved. That by his love we have been returned to the shepherd who guards our soul. I have thought and prayed about this day for the past several weeks.
How do a people of faith come together after being separated for so long? How do we enter into a time of revival this Mother’s Day, especially knowing that we are still socially distancing ourselves. Still living cautiously and carefully. Still wondering how and when this mess will end and we can come out of our homes without fear. Still knowing that many cannot join us in the sanctuary because they are especially vulnerable to this disease.
And as Christian people, we might be wondering what our role is in these unique circumstances. Circumstances we hope and pray will never be repeated.
But also knowing that for the church, for this we have been called. We have been called to witness to the empty tomb. Called to testify to the Resurrection of our Lord. A resurrection into glory. A resurrection with a divine purpose. And that purpose is to forever make a way for us to life eternal. And to a life of joy even now.
Our first day, our first step towards eternity was that Resurrection Sunday. When heaven and everlasting life was opened for us by our Lord.
For those who believe, for those who follow “the Way”, for the faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, our eternal life began the day, the moment, we accepted the truth of the Resurrection and we confessed that Jesus is our Savior. A Savior in whom we place all trust and all hope. The entire Biblical history is that of a G-d who time and time again rewards that trust and hope.
A revival, by its nature, in its very essence, is a time when that trust and hope stirs in the faithful again. And it is a time when that trust and hope stirs in the hearts of those who are not so faithful. Those who have strayed from the tender care of the Good Shepherd. Those who have sought other pastures. Those who have become lost in their wanderings. And so, Jesus would tell of the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the one. The G-d who risks and loves and seeks and searches for the person who has strayed. That person who cannot find their way, so the G-d of the universe goes out, finds them and brings them home. Revives them and makes them whole.
Friends, if you are that one who is lost today. If you have suffered in your sin long enough. If you are wondering, is there a better way to live? Lord G-d hears that prayer and he is on the way. Those 99 will be fine for a while. But you have the attention of the Good Shepherd and he is coming to tell you that he cares. That you are loved beyond measure. And that by your confession and G-d’s grace you are redeemed.
There is a good reason that the Old and New testament is full of allusions to the shepherd. Judea was mostly a high plateau country, suitable for raising sheep. Whether you were living in a rural area or in one of the towns or small cities, everyone knew the difference between a good and a bad shepherd. And they were quick to use the comparison to rate their leadership.
For the church today, the most beloved image we have of Jesus is that of the Good Shepherd. Now, we have romanticized that image and separated it from the hard daily work that was required of the Biblical shepherds.
Their need to be constantly on guard. Their need to be proficient with the sling to fight off wild animals and robbers. To know how to swing the rod. How to use the staff to catch and keep a sheep from heading the wrong way. So, it helps us better understand what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel if we are mindful of that tough, self-sufficient shepherd of old.
Because Jesus was talking to the Pharisees. Talking to some folks who had lost their way. Some folks who really needed to hear what he was saying.
John 10:1-5. 1 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
There are two kinds of gates Jesus would allude to in this story. In the towns and villages, there would be a walled area with an actual gate. That is the gate in the first part of the story. The shepherd would lead the sheep in and out that gate, calling them. I was reading about how each shepherd had a unique way he would call his sheep. The call involved a series of words and sounds he used to talk to his flock.
If you have a beloved pet you baby talk, you know what I am saying.
In Palestine, sheep were mostly raised for their wool, and so the sheep would be with the same shepherd for a long time. And so, they would come to know his voice.
So, if Jesus is our shepherd, how do we learn his voice?
Is it through our study of the Scriptures? Reading devotionals? Prayer and Holy conversations?
Does the Holy Spirit in us give voice to Jesus so that we can follow him?
I think that probably the answer is “all of the above.” All these bring a constant revival of our relationship with Jesus.
But here is the flip side.
If we don’t read our Bible. If we don’t pray. If we don’t seek out that inner voice G-d uses to talk with us, then we may not easily recognize the voice of our Jesus. May not seek that voice until life runs over us and we are in trouble.
Jesus wants us to listen and understand. To know that he is the Good Shepherd who will care for us.
So, 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Jesus knew he was losing his listeners. The Pharisees were not getting it. So, he changed direction a bit and alluded to a second kind of gate. In the countryside, there were no walls or gated enclosures for the sheep at night. Just a rough circle of brush, maybe a hillside or other natural barrier, but the only gate would be that of the shepherd himself.
Notice that Jesus switched into the voice of the Great “I Am”. The Voice G-d used with Moses.
The rumbling, “you need to pay attention” voice. Maybe the voice of a mother when she expects her kids to listen.
He said, “I am the Gate”.
Those insurrectionists and rabble rousers who came before only cared about a violent revolution that would cause loss of life; Jesus said,I care about you and your life now and to come.
And it is to be an abundant life. A blessed life where we are safe to come and to go without fear.
Then Jesus said,
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
To be a good shepherd is a lifelong occupation. A good shepherd was born into that job. Learned the trade at his father’s knee. The Biblical shepherd would be called to fight for his flock. Fight the predators. Fight the rustlers and robbers. Fight the elements. And sometimes, even give his life.
A Good shepherd is born into his life.
A Good Savior is born into our lives.
And so Jesus tells us more:
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Now it was clear. The message was delivered that day and for all time. For those Pharisees. For this flock in this fold. It was not just some ivory tower message. Not some parable. This was the truth of the Good Shepherd.
See, in the Greek, there are two words used for good. There is Agathos which is simply the moral quality of being good. Synonyms for agathos are upright, honorable, distinguished, pleasant, agreeable, joyful or happy.
But that is not the word used here for the Good Shepherd. That word is kalos. Kalos is a step above just “good”. It means beautiful, excellent, eminent, choice, surpassing, commendable, admirable. Genuine. Precious. Praiseworthy.
That kind of shepherd.
Followed not because the shepherd is just proficient at his job, but because the shepherd is loved and is loving.
So, if we were describing the goodness of our mothers, we would use the word kalos. Kalos is the kind of love that a mother has for her children. It is a searching love. A risking love. The love that sticks around when others have run away. A love that spans the ages. A love that survives even when the person has passed on.
If there was ever a person who learned this lesson, it was Dr. William P. MacKay.
Our hymn writer of “Revive us again”.
Here is his story. William MacKay was born on May 13, 1839. He was raised by a Godly mother in Scotland and she did her best to raise her son with Jesus in his heart and the Bible in his head. He went off to Edinburgh to attend the university and his mom’s parting gift was a bible. She had written his name on the inside cover, followed by John 3, verse 16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
But William was headstrong and rebellious and quickly fell into a rough crowd. They were aggressive unbelievers. They called themselves the “infidel’s club.” And William started drinking. And he got so broke that one day he sold that bible his mother had given him to buy more whiskey. But, eventually he graduated and trained to become a medical doctor. He was working in a city hospital and one of his patients was a dying man. And the man knew his mortal days were drawing to a close, and he asked the nurse to contact his landlady to come to him and bring him “his book”. You see, the man owed a little rent that he wanted to pay, he wanted to tell that lady goodbye, but he really wanted her to bring him his book. So, now I will read from Dr. MacKay’s diary:
I went to see him on my regular visits at least once a day. What struck me most was the quiet, almost happy expression constantly on his face…After the man died, some things about his affairs were to be done in my presence.
“What shall we do with this?” the nurse asked holding a book in her hand.
“What kind of book is it?” I asked.
“The Bible of the poor man…As long as he was able to read it, he did so, and when he was unable to do so anymore, he kept it under his bed cover.”
I took the Bible and-could I trust my eyes? It was my own Bible! The Bible which my mother had given me when I left my parent’s home, and which later, when short of money, I sold for a small amount. My name was still in it, written in my mother’s hand…
I return to the story. The pages of that old bible were worn and weathered, but Dr. MacKay could still see the notes and the marks his mother had made pointing out verses for him to read. And he read. He sat down in his doctor’s office and he read all night. The next morning, his revival was complete. His life was changed. He would leave the medical profession, go to a theological college, and became Rev. William MacKay, preacher, pastor and hymn writer.
Friends, we sure can never underestimate the power of a mother’s love. Reaching out to us and finding us when we most need it. A precious love. A beautiful love.
And Friends, we can never underestimate the power of G-d’s love. Reaching across the ages and finding us when we most need it.
A shepherd searching us out.
Giving his life so that we may be saved.
Reviving us time and again, renewing our faith, and bringing us on home.
All glory be to Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Friends, we will gather again next Sunday, as best we can. Same abbreviated worship, but the same great Spirit here and for those watching at home. Till then, encourage a teenager. Tell them of other difficult times you have been through. Use your experience and tell them that this too, will pass.
May the peace and grace of G-d abide with you.
A PRAYER GUIDE FOR EASTERTIDE
May 3, 2020
Friends: Easter has come and gone, or so we think. We are called to always be an Easter people. Every Sunday is to be reminder of the Resurrection. We are to think about Jesus appearing to the disciples after the resurrection and then the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So, how are we doing?
May 3, 2020
Sermon Title: “Reviving The Seekers”
Scriptures: 1 Peter 2:2-10 and John 14:1-14
My name is Pastor Bill Knobles and I serve at First United Methodist in Luling, Texas.
Welcome to worship.
Hear these words from 1 Peter 2:2-6
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
“Revive Us Again!” is our preaching series. Our first message was our prayer, O Lord, Revive the Doubters! Our second message was “Revive the Broken Hearted!”
Today, the message is to “Revive the Seekers!”
To resurrect our desire to know Jesus better. Our focus scripture today is John 14:1-14.
Lord, Revive the Seekers! Those who think they have already found everything. Those who have become disillusioned and have stopped searching. Those who have become discouraged and have stopped looking for the way that leads to life.
Many of the great motion pictures and books are about people desperately seeking something. In the Lord of the Rings, everyone is searching for the One Ring to Rule them all. In the Star Wars adventures, the search is on for the Force, so that the Jedi can master and defeat the evil Empire. In other great stories, people search for treasure, for fame, for discoveries or for answers. My favorite story of searching might be the Incredible Journey, as the two dogs and a cat search for home. As you know, I am a sucker for any story that involves a dog or a cat. But the Incredible Journey is special. In the book, those animals cover 300 miles of the Canadian wilderness, surviving against all odds. They help each other and get help along the way from kind strangers, until that great ending scene where they finally make it home. And in that last scene, they are wrapped in love by their human family. Throughout the book and in the Disney movie, we have the sense that the animals are guided along the way by an invisible hand, protecting them and showing them the way home in this incredible journey.
Of course, there are some anxious moments in the book. Floods and wild animals and pose a danger to our little trio. There is Luath, the young Labrador retriever, old Bodger, the English bull terrier and Tao, the Siamese cat who does not like other cats. Each bravely defending the other. Taking care of one another. And the Incredible Journey has a great Disney ending that leaves me feeling good every time I see it.
Our Gospel today is about another incredible journey. Our disciples are also seeking and searching for some answers in a Jerusalem that had gone mad. In John chapter 14 we find Jesus ministering to his disciples, preparing them for what is to come. They were troubled and anxious as Jesus told them about the coming betrayal and denial.
Jesus had commanded them to love one another, even as he was about to leave them. Leave them and go where they could not immediately follow.
Of course, they were anxious. Jesus talked about a home, a final resting place, and they did not know the way. Jesus had led them all over Galilee and Samaria, but now he was talking about a new place. A beautiful place. A place they did not know. Let’s listen in on this conversation:
John 14:1-14 .”Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
And that is where the disciples started to panic. Jesus was talking about a place they had never been. And if he were not there to lead them, how in the world were they going to find their way? And no doubt, this was the most important set of instructions ever given to those disciples. So, Thomas spoke up. Practical Thomas. Forever known as the Doubter, but in reality, a faithful and honest disciple.
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Do you hear the desperation in his voice? The frustration. The anxiety? The need to know?
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Can we imagine what these words might have meant to the disciples? Not only did Jesus tell them where he was going. Not only did he give them a direction. In one of the great “I Am” statements, he offered them a true path. The path that leads to life. Not just a way. But THE way. Jesus was telling them that they knew G-d, and that Jesus would take them to G-d.
Their secret desire, the reason they started following Jesus so long ago, was because the disciples were searching. Looking for the Messiah. Wanting to find and know their Lord. In John the 1st chapter, as Jesus was calling his disciples, hear some of the words and phrases that were used:
John 1:38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”
Notice that Jesus turned to them. G-d comes out to meet us. St. Augustine said that we could not even begin to seek for G-d unless he had already found us. G-d does not hide from us. He does not keep us at a social distance. Instead he opens himself to our searching, asking each of us what we need.
[John and Andrew] said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” This was not going to be just some chance encounter with Jesus. No, they called him teacher because they wanted to be taught. And the lessons could continue if they knew where he was staying. Jesus said, “Come and see.” And they came and they saw.
Andrew found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah”. And then Andrew took his brother to find Jesus. “45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
So, the process of calling the disciples was that of searching and finding and seeking out where Jesus was staying. And then calling to others to “Come and see.” Places, identifications and directions. Knowing where Jesus was staying. That is how it all started for them. So, it is no wonder that these disciples desperately needed to know where Jesus was going, where he would be staying, and how to get there. To go to Jesus and to their G-d. To find that Kingdom that was like a treasure hidden in a field. That pearl of great value Jesus told about.
Now, hear what followed next in today’s gospel. This conversation with Philip.
14:8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
Remember Philip bringing Nathanael to Jesus. Telling Nathaniel that he had found the Messiah. Philip, saying “Come and See.” Now, Philip is the one who wants to see. To be shown proof positive.
We all pray from time to time, “Show us the Father”. We seek after G-d. We want to get through our doubts. We need to know where he is so that we can be with Him too. And Jesus invites us. Invites the seeker in us to have faith because he has made known to us that G-d is in Jesus and Jesus in in G-d. And we know that because now the Holy Spirit indwells us, and the Trinity, this mystical union between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is in us.
And besides that, Jesus tells Philip that his faith can also find a basis in the works that Jesus has done. His healing miracles. His bread of life and his living water. Raising Lazarus from the dead. Calming the storms. All these things Jesus did as he taught his parables and his gospel of love. These works are recorded for us in the Bible so that our searching can also bear fruit.
And it is in this time of our isolation, a time when our distractions are diminished, we just might come to find our Lord.
As I thought about this message, my eyes were drawn to my bookshelf. There are books in my library that I have not read.
“Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora” was one such book. It was written by Emily Raboteau, and the book chronicles her quest to find Zion. The Promised Land. Emily was biracial. Her father an African American and her mother an Anglo. Emily was brought up in New Jersey, a lapsed Catholic, and she found that she really did not fit in either world. Not white enough and not black enough.
One of her closest friends was Jewish, and when he friend Tamar came of age, Tamar went to Israel. Under the Law of Return, Tamar qualified for Israeli citizenship, and she went home to Zion. Now, Emily knew about Moses and liberation theology. She knew about the Jews and their promised land. And so, she thought that maybe in her search for her Zion, she just might find it in Jerusalem.
And so she went there.
She and Tamar went to St. Anne’s Church built at the Bethseda Pool where Jesus had asked the man , “Do You Want to be Healed?” and in that church, they sang “Amazing Grace” together.
But Tamar’s Zion was not Emily’s Zion. She found some African Jews from Ethiopia and their Reggae music, the music of Bob Marley. And the Rastafari of Jamaica, led her to Kingsland in her search for Zion. But in Jamaica, she only found another people longing for home. But in that longing, the Rastafari told her that her search for Zion required a search of the Scriptures. That there she would find truth and that truth would lead her to faith. And that faith would allow her to find her identity in this world.
Still, Emily searched for her Zion. Her place. And so, Emily would travel to Ethiopia. The place the Jamaicans thought of as home. He followed that Reggae beat to Africa, to a place called Shashemane, a sacred place of the Oromo people.
You might remember how we have facilitated the work of central Texas Lutherans as they have helped the Oromo Christian church in Houston.
But Emily did not find her Zion there. Nor in Ghana. She finally came back to the United States to settle down. She got married and had a child, but she was still searching for Zion. She could not find it in the prosperity gospel that was prevalent at the time. So, she wound up in Birmingham for Holy Week. She went to the places where the Civil Rights movement had begun. She listened again to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon, “I have a dream”.
And in that Holy Week, dreaming those dreams, she realized that the Zion she searched for was the Zion within herself. The Zion Jesus had built in her.
The Promised Land she was seeking was the promise Jesus has given to us. The promise that he is the way, the truth and the life. Friends, our incredible journey, our search for Zion, our seeking for the way that leads to truth and to life, is within us.
It was placed there by Jesus. All it needs from time to time is a little revival.
A question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
An answer, “My son, my daughter, I am staying in you”.
Come and see”.
In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
April 26, 2020
Sermon Title: “Revive The Broken Hearted!”
Scripture: Luke 24:13-35
My name is Pastor Bill Knobles and I serve at First United Methodist in Luling, Texas.
Welcome to worship.
Hear these words from Psalm 85:4-7
4 Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.
5 Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
6 Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
7 Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.
Last week, the message was “Revive the Doubters”.
Today, we will talk about reviving the broken hearted.
Folks who so much need to come to the water and receive G-d’s grace and Jesus’ love. It seems to me that in this time of social distancing, even from friends and family, there are some hearts that might be a little tender. Maybe even broken.
We have missed so much. Birthdays, anniversaries, proms, graduations and other milestones by which we mark our lives. Some folks have lost their jobs. Many have lost financial security. And all of us feel like we are losing touch with the world and what we care about most. Our hearts break and we need a revival of our Spirit.
Where can we go? What can we do?
Well, to find out, let’s walk a bit down a virtual road. An ancient road. Walk with each other awhile and walk with Jesus. I looked at some old maps of Jerusalem. Maps the archeologists developed from the time of Jesus. The road from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus goes about 7 miles west of Jerusalem. If a disciple started out from the Upper Room in the Essene quarter, the most direct way out of Jerusalem to Emmaus would take you right past Herod’s palace, out the Gennath Gate and right past Golgotha.
The only other gates that would take you to Emmaus would be the Fish Gate way to the north or the Essene Gate that would take you way around south.
So, it most likely Cleopas and the other disciple would have walked right by palace guards who watched them with suspicion. Right by the place where Jesus was just tortured and crucified. They were likely walking fast and scared. They were obviously getting out of Jerusalem. Getting out of Dodge so to speak. Hightailing it for a safer and friendlier place down that road and in the village called Emmaus.
We figure that Jerusalem was in a turmoil and that confusion reigned. Matthew’s gospel reports that the soldiers guarding the tomb had reported to the chief priests that the stone had been rolled away. That despite the guards, despite Pilate’s orders, the tomb was empty. That empty tomb must have upset a lot of folks.
So, let’s walk with these disciples:
Luke 24: 13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
He asked them, “What things?”
They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.
But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Once they started talking, the words just spilled from the disciples. They poured out all their grief, their hurt, their frustrations, their hopes, their dreams, their wonderment, to this stranger they met on the Road to Emmaus. They opened their broken hearts to him. And this is what Jesus did:
25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.
So, Jesus began teaching the theology of his life, death and resurrection to these disciples. He didn’t give them a pep talk. He didn’t have them read a self-help book from Walmart. Jesus is the Bible and he opened its words to them. He told the story to them in a way they could understand. He went back to the beginning with Moses, as G-d rescued his people, gave them the law, made covenant to be their G-d and that they would be his people.
I am quite sure he talked to them about the Passover, that Lamb that was sacrificed.
I am quite sure he mentioned the words of the Prophet Isaiah saying that this Lamb of G-d is the Messiah sent to redeem the people.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine”.
Jesus may have said those words from Isaiah.
Isaiah 53:3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
Jesus may have said those words from Isaiah.
He may have added these words,
Isaiah 61:1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
So, with words like these hanging in the air, this is what happened when they reached Emmaus:
29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Those scriptures and the way that Jesus told them turned broken hearts into burning hearts, and everything changed. Instead of isolating themselves in Emmaus, they got up and that very hour went back to Jerusalem to tell others what had happened. In that time when they were on the road, Jerusalem had not changed. In that time, the fear and turmoil and tension had not been relieved. In that time, the chief priests, Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers had not had a change of heart.
What changed was those disciples and their understanding of Jesus.
What changed was that Jesus had opened the Scriptures to them.
What changed was that fear had been replaced by G-d’s own peace, and they were able to feel G-d’s grace and strength in their lives once again.
That is the essence of a revival. That is work of revival in our lives. And like the disciples on that road, we pour out our hurts and disappointments to Jesus. We tell him about our grief, our loneliness and our needs.
We say to him, “Lord Jesus, Help me in my time of need!”
And Jesus hears us every time. His holiness walks with us. Again and again, the Scriptures are opened to us. Our hearts are set on fire. And we proclaim Christ has risen. He is risen indeed! And we say it with conviction and amazement, because it is the foremost miracle that will ever happen in our lives.
See, Lord G-d knows we go through tough times. One revival is not enough. Again and again we need the refreshing of the Holy Spirit. Again and again we need to turn back to G-d. And we need to walk that trip to Emmaus now and again, just as we have to walk that road to Jerusalem one day.
They say that walking is good for you. You carry your own body weight when you walk. For some of us, that is quite a load. Walking increases heart and lung fitness. It reduces our risk of heart disease and stroke. Helps us manage conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, joint problems, and even helps with diabetes. It gives us stronger bones and improved balance. It increases muscle strength and endurance and helps reduce body fat.
Walking is good for us.
Before the virus, I went to a gym to exercise. And I knew that I needed to walk. So, I would get on the treadmill and I just hated it. I couldn’t read as my head was bobbing this way and that. The TV on the machine didn’t have sound, so I would entertain myself by adding dialogue. Eventually, I gave up the treadmill and just started walking around the gym.
And Janice would say, “Let me get this straight, you drive over to the gym so you can walk around it?”
And I would get a little defensive.
But even walking around the gym, you notice some things. The yucca plants in the landscaping have very sharp thorns. I wonder how that fence got so many holes in it? Ah, here is where the kids from the apartments slip through the fence to get to the high school. Why is there a firehose out here?
But during this stay at home time, I have started walking the neighborhood a little. There are some interesting things to see. Wave at neighbors. See the flowers. Hear the birds. Watch the water on the lake.
Ask what G-d wants of me? From me? Talk with him about my troubles. My worries. Even my brokenness at times. I often pray simply that G-d will fill me once more with his Holy Spirit. I need a daily infusion of the Holy Spirit because I tend to leak. Negativity, worry, the unending bad news punches holes and so I need for my G-d to refill me.
And as I walk in the morning, I feel that freshness. I feel clarity.
And even without breaking the communion bread, I feel Jesus revealing himself to me and making me stronger.
Once more, that is the essence of revival. This infusion of the Holy Spirit.
The revelation of G-d’s daily purpose for me. For me. For those with a broken heart. For those who doubt and for those who hurt.
Friends, if you are able, take a walk. Pretend that Emmaus is just around the bend and that Jesus is walking with you. Listen to him open the Scripture promises to you.
And be at peace.
April 19, 2020
Second Sunday of Easter
“Revive the Doubters!”
Scriptures: 1 Peter 1:3-8 and John 20:19-31.
Good Morning Church:
I am Pastor Bill Knobles serving at First United Methodist in Luling, Texas.
It is April 19 and it is the second Sunday of Easter. We are still not able to gather, and I sorrow over that. One thing I miss is our prayer time for joys and concerns. And I really miss our children’s times. I miss blessing the offering and singing the doxology. Yet I give thanks that we have the technology to communicate this morning.
So, let’s pray:
Lord G-d, we pray your healing on our family and friends who are sick this morning. Many are on our prayer list, and others are held closely in our hearts. Lord, we have so many who are isolated right now. In the nursing homes. In recovery units. Even in our own homes.
Lord, let your presence be known to us. Abide with us and bring us comfort and peace.
Father, we have graduating seniors who may not walk the stage or have prom this year, and they are disappointed. They are wondering what college or life after the virus will bring them.
Lord G-d, minister to them. Bring them a joy or two so that their hurts are not so much. Offer them direction and vision for what is coming next. Give them determination to go on, in spite of the present circumstances.
Lord, our children probably are a little anxious. They miss their friends. Please be with them and be their comfort.
Father, our doctors and nurses are physically and emotionally worn out. Please give them strength.
And the rest of us, Lord, we need you so much. Help us as you know what our needs are.
And Lord, we are so thankful that the faithful people of the church are still making their offerings. Lord, bless this day’s offering, anoint it, multiply it and put it to work in your Kingdom.
And Lord, we seal this prayer with the one Jesus taught us to say,
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Our scriptures today are 1 Peter 1:3-8 and John 20:19-31. I know you have your Bibles with you and we will read these together in a little while.
So, today, we start our “Revive Us Again” series. It might seem like an odd time to preach a revival. You might be thinking that maybe we are jumping the gun a little.
We just had a strange Easter. We are still holed up and the news is hard to watch. The facts and numbers are hard to hear. And in some ways, fear has taken up residence in our hearts like an unwelcome houseguest. We are afraid to go out. Afraid to get close to friends and family. Every sneeze and cough causes a minor panic.
So, is it a good time for a revival of our spirits? A good time to sing that old song, “Revive us Again”?
I sure think so. Because the Holy Spirit is the antidote for fear. The Gospel Message is the cure for what is ailing us. Lord Jesus is the Great Physician and he makes house calls.
Now, when we think about revivals, the folks are packed into a tent sitting on folding chairs. Or maybe spread out a little on the grounds. That good Gospel music is going and folks are clapping time. The preacher is going and the Word is being proclaimed. And there is a promise of glad fellowship and good food when worship is over.
Now, I can’t offer that kind of singing and I can’t fry chicken. My preaching is not real loud and I don’t have a tent. But I know a little about doubt and fear, and we can talk about that. Because, I am thinking that we might have some doubters among us that could use a little revival. Some folks who are not quite sure and who need some encouragement. Some folks whose anxiety and fear has caused them to ask some questions.
Questions like, where is G-d when the world is suffering?
Doesn’t he care we are hurting?
Or as the disciples asked when they were caught up in a storm at sea, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
I was reading an article by Brandon Hatmaker. Brandon was one of the founders of Austin New Church, a growing UMC on South Lamar. Brandon is now doing some film and other projects, but he wrote this:
It’s uncanny how we allow fear to seep in. Fear of failure. Fear of change. Fear of being found out. Fear of being misunderstood. Fear of judgment.
Fear leads to shame. Shame causes us to doubt.
We begin to doubt God’s love and we begin to doubt God’s grace. Ultimately, we begin to doubt the ability of the gospel to work in our lives.
And that is exactly what happened to Thomas. Right after that first Easter, right in the midst of the fear and isolation, Thomas needed a revival.
So, let’s hear what happened. First, there was what we call the “little Pentecost”. Let’s read together:
John 20:19-31. When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
So, the disciples were hiding in fear. Isolated. Every step on the stairs, every knock on the door probably made them jump a little. Thinking it just might be a bunch of Roman soldiers and blood thirsty clerics from the Temple.
Instead, Jesus appeared among them, bringing his peace. When the disciples knew it was Jesus in the room, in his resurrection body, they rejoiced. And those disciples became the charter members of the church. The Believers were sent.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
There was no time for seminary. No time for a webinar. No time for fear.
The church was being deployed with a prayer. Deployed not with their own message. No, they were sent with Christ’s message of forgiveness and salvation; of peace and joy.
Jesus had breathed the Holy Spirit on them. The same breath of creation that was in the beginning. The same breath that would be like tongues of flame on Pentecost. That same Holy Spirit was breathed on them that day.
And Thomas missed the whole thing.
Friends, we miss a great deal when we willingly separate ourselves from others. Sorrow isolates us as effectively as that blasted bug.
Thomas wasn’t faking it. His doubts were from the heart. A broken heart. Did that make him a bad person? A corrupt follower of Jesus?
Of course not. It just made him human.
And so, we continue with what happened:
25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Alfred Tennyson once wrote,
There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.
Thomas’ doubt was an honest doubt. Thomas doubted so that he could become sure and when he did, his surrender to certainty was complete. His fear was conquered. His fear that all of them were going to die in Jerusalem was pushed aside. Instead, they were all in Jerusalem so that they could live. So that we can live.
So, here is tricky part and Jesus knew it to be so. Those disciples had trouble believing, even when they were eyewitnesses to the miracle of the resurrection.
What about us? Jesus know we would have a tough time too. And so,
29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
So that we may come to believe. And through believing, have life in his name. Abundant life and blessings. With joy and not fear. We just need to know that when we get afraid. When these long days seem even longer. When the nights bring no rest. Our Savior has come and blessed us.
Peter, who was also in that upper room, wrote this:
1 Peter 1:3-9. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
And with that understanding, we find the answer to the question, “Doesn’t G-d care?”
He says “I care about you so much that I sent my Son to teach you, to reveal his Father G-d to you, and to abide with you always, so that you do not have to be afraid.”
He says “I sent my Son so that no pandemic, no illness, not even death itself will keep you from your own resurrection, your own redemption when your time comes.”
And if that is the revival message.
If that is what we are supposed to hear this Eastertide, what might be our response?
Here’s a few numbers you might consider. A few reports that maybe you have not heard. The sale of Bibles has increased dramatically during the stay at home virus. For instance, sales of the “Life Application Bible” published by Tyndale House Publishers is up 44% from last year. Alabaster Co, a publisher in California, said their bible sales were up 143%.
We’ve seen nurses gathered on rooftops and hospital corridors praying. One virus survivor reported that he felt G-d’s presence in the care of his nurses. I have seen pictures of truckers in prayer circles at rest stops. One trucker said he stopped for a rest and a stranger asked if he could pray for him. He said folks were waving at truckers. Offering to go to the drive throughs to get their food for them. Band width in most communities is insufficient for the churches to all live stream services on Sunday morning.
People are checking on neighbors and getting necessities to the shut-ins and elderly. Food stores are going the extra mile for folks.
Janice was telling me that her Nephew Lanie was headed to Miami to stay with his son for a few days. His son is serving in the Coast Guard and is stationed in Miami and Lanie’s work was taking his that direction. So, his son was telling him, “dad I am just about out of everything”.
So Lanie stopped at a Dollar General, and they were out of everything.
But when the store manager heard where Lanie was going and why, the employees dipped into their personal stores and loaded him up. Would not take a cent.
People helping people.
So, a revival seems to be brewing, whether we are ready or not. The words of that old hymn by Dr. William MacKay ring out strong:
We praise Thee, O God!
For the Son of Thy love,
For Jesus Who died,
And is now gone above.:
Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Revive us again.
So, revive the doubters, Lord.
Revive the broken hearted and those tired at heart.
Revive the seekers and the sinners and even Lord, G-d, revive your faithful followers.
Send us our own little Pentecost to bide us for a while.
And then, for a little while longer.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Friends, spend some time in meditation and prayer this week. Call on a friend or neighbor to see about them. Encourage a child. Inspire a teenager.
Seek the revival G-d is eager to send.
Until we come together once more, may the peace of G-d abide with you.
See you next week.
April 12, 2020
“The Alter Builder”
Scriptures: Romans 14-18; John 20:1-18
He is Risen!
He is Risen Indeed!
This is the good news which we proclaim to you.
Jesus Christ is raised from the dead!
Walk in the light of his love.
Live in the light of his teachings and healing mercies.
Come, let us worship the One who overcame death.
Let us celebrate the triumph of our Lord. Amen.
No matter our isolation, no matter our situation, no matter our inability to gather and see each other and hug each other, the tomb is empty this morning as we celebrate Easter and the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us pray:
God of glory, we gather to celebrate your victory over death and the power of sin. The empty cross and the promise of the resurrection are tangible signs of hope in our broken world. We pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who aren’t free to sing their alleluias out loud. We give thanks for those who glorify you this day where hope is in short supply — locked down nursing homes, prisons where all are in solitary confinement, homes where we are living in isolation, communities longing to return to work, teachers whose classrooms are empty, hospitals whose beds are full. Lord, there seems to be no place on earth where your message this morning is not needed. We pray for those who suffer in mind, body or spirit, who lack the strength to sing alleluia. We offer alleluias on their behalf, praying for healing so their voices can join in the joyful songs of praise. We give you thanks for the saints who have gone before us, singing in your heavenly choir, grateful for their lives of faith. Help us live as Easter people throughout the year; let our lives be signs of your unending love. We pray in the name of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Easter we thought could never happen, has happened. The traditions we cherish are put aside for a season. Our Easter baskets are empty, the eggs un-hunted, the cross is not flowered, and our old hymns remain largely unsung at our church this day. And so, we are given over to the very basics of our faith.
A cross and an empty grave. A construct of wood and a stone tomb. A place of violence and a place of rest. An end and a beginning. A death and a resurrection.
In a traditional Holy Week, we would have gathered for an intimate communion around a family table on Maundy Thursday. Washing each other’s hands; mindful of Jesus’ example of washing the feet of his disciples. We had in mind a Christian Seder, with the matzah and the cup laid before us. The bitter herbs a part of our meal.
And the historic question would be asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
But this year, the herbs have been bitter indeed and the question we ask is, “Why is this Easter different from all other Easters?”
And we answer, because this Easter, our cherished traditions of the church were taken away and replaced by the essential truth of our faith; Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.
A truth of which Good Friday is a part. The arrest, the trial, the denial, the sentencing, the whipping, the mocking, the crucifixion. We had planned a Tenebrae service. The choir was to give a musical narrative of the Passion of Christ as the church was darkened. A candle would be snuffed at each station of the cross. A tear shed as the hammer struck the nail.
Jesus’ words, “It is finished”, not uttered in defeat, but in victory, our salvation secured.
The stone the builders rejected has become the Chief Cornerstone.
The Lord’s doing. Marvelous in our eyes.
In this Altar Builder series, we have considered various altars built by the ancients. Stones set up to cause them to remember the presence of the Lord. Most importantly, altars built by us to commemorate and consecrate ourselves to the Lord this Lenten season.
That our gathering has been interrupted changes nothing.
That we can’t hunt eggs changes nothing.
That we can’t sing the traditional hymns together changes nothing.
Christ has risen! He is risen indeed.
The tomb is empty and we are full of life. And our pathway to eternity has been opened forever. The forgiveness of our sins has been made complete. Our relationship with our G-d has been restored.
G-d is the altar builder.
Jesus is the altar G-d has built.
Holy. Sacred. Consecrated to G-d’s work of salvation. That, dear friends, is truly our Easter celebration.
When I began considering the Altar Builder’s series, I read that the altar in most churches is in the western part of the sanctuary. This is a tradition that comes down to us from the Jerusalem Temple. I went and checked. And with the handy compass on my iPhone, indeed, as I walk in the door, our altar is perfectly due west. Right with tradition.
But I read that in the ancient tradition, an altar should be built of stone because the celebration of the Eucharist was a sacrificial mass. I read an old missive from an Episcopal Bishop saying that he would refuse to consecrate an altar that was not made of stone.
In our church, our beautiful altar is made of oak. And the table that we use to celebrate the Lord’s Supper is of oak. And the Altar Table I built for the church as a Lenten devotional is made of oak.
So, I got to wondering. When did things change? When did we stop making our altars of stone?
And so, I read that when Roman Catholic priests had to travel to perform a mass, a stone altar was too heavy to lug around. So, the bishop would consecrate an altar stone that the priest could carry with him, and when that stone was put on a table, the table became an altar. I read about the ritual and liturgy consecrating the altar stones. They were washed 7 times with Holy Water. Five times they are anointed with oil and in 5 places frankincense was burned on the stone.
And so, the remembrance of Jesus became detached from the church altar and taken to where the people needed the sacrament.
And because, in our faith tradition, we remember Christ and his passion and his forgiveness in our celebration of Holy Communion, we use a table that has been consecrated and the altar stone is Jesus Christ.
A perfect foundation.
A strong foundation.
The Cornerstone of our faith.
Open and available if we will only turn to Jesus.
Of the four Gospels and their account of Easter morning, I probably like John’s the best. There is a blessed interaction between Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and John. There are the angels in white, sitting in the tomb where Jesus’ body had been. And of course, there was Jesus. We will start with John 20:1-2.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Mary got up early to go to the tomb. It was first light. No later than 6:00 in the morning. She had been waiting all night to go see where the Lord was laid. William Barclay wrote that she came and all she had to offer was her love. But seeing that stone rolled away, sent her running to Simon Peter, and to John. Mary could not bear to look into that tomb by herself and see what might be seen. Because she had already seen too much. Been through too much. And yet, she still had faith that something was happening.
John 20: 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
So, there was another foot race as Peter and John ran to the tomb.
John got there first, but he could not go in. Simon Peter caught up, and he did go in.
Peter, the one who stepped out of the boat.
Peter, the one who confessed Jesus as Messiah.
Peter, the one who denied Christ 3 times.
And he found the tomb empty. Then came John and he was the first to see and believe. The tomb was empty, but full of promise. Faith arose. And yet his belief did not rise to understanding about the resurrection.
And then Peter and John left Mary alone.
Here is what happened next:
John 20:11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
As she wept, Mary looked into the tomb and heard the angels ask, “Why are you weeping?” Then she turned and saw Jesus, but through her tears she could not recognize him. He asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” and she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
And we wonder.
How did she plan to do that? How was she going to lift his body?
But in our heart of hearts, we know this. She would have tried. She would have used every ounce of her strength, every muscle, exhausted every physical resource she had, and she would have carried his body to a place where it could have been tended to.
But she must have turned back to the empty tomb. Turned away from the person she thought was the gardener, until Jesus spoke her name. He called her by name. And she turned back to him, she recognized him, and her world changed.
Friends, Jesus still calls our name today. Each one of us, he calls.
But if we just keep staring at the empty tomb of our isolation, if we just keep weeping the bitter tears of our regret, we won’t see him.
And so, we turn from these things, turn our eyes upon Jesus, as the song goes.
Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.
But there is more to the song than just the refrain.
His word shall not fail you, He promised
Believe Him and all will be well
Then go to a world that is dying
His perfect salvation to tell
And so, Jesus told Mary, “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my father and your father, to my G-d and your G-d.”
Today, in the midst of this strange Easter, in our time of troubles and weeping, in our isolation and hurt, Jesus has called our name. And he has sent us to our brothers and sisters to tell them of the Gospel promise. Jesus said to go to my brothers. He was saying too, go to my sisters. My father; your Father.
And then remember what Paul wrote in the 8th chapter of Romans, 14-18.
Romans, 14-18. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.
When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
In this conversation Mary had with Jesus, G-d revealed what the empty tomb means for us.
Resurrection, Salvation. Hope.
Every Easter, we think about the Resurrection of our Lord, but this Easter is different. The world is suffering. We are back to the basics of our faith.
Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.
So, we turn our eyes upon this Christ, our Jesus. And we see a brother. We know that we have a heavenly Father who has adopted us into his family of grace. And the Holy Spirit in us bears witness, it gives evidence, of this inheritance of the gift of Resurrection. And with this gift given to us, our suffering is less. Our joy is more. Our challenge is to figure new ways to help others. To offer encouragement.
Eastertide is a season of the church. A season of the heart. From Easter Day until May 31, 2020, when we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord.
During the time when Jesus arose, and until the time of the Ascension, Jesus appeared to many people.
To encourage them.
To dry their tears.
To ease their doubts.
To walk with them on the Road to Emmaus.
To reveal himself to them in the breaking of the bread.
To teach them and prepare them for what was to happen next.
Our response to Easter, our Eastertide, calls to us. It sings to us. It sends us to others to tell the story of the power of the Resurrection in our lives. We think and believe that during this Eastertide, our world will be made better. The sickness will burn itself out, and we will be able to get on with our lives.
But friends, I don’t think I can ever be the same. I have learned some things this Lent and this Easter. I think and I hope that I will appreciate my church even more. That worship will be even more precious to me. That the Word shared together will be more revealing and life changing for me. That I will sing louder and with more confidence. That Holy Communion will be such a blessed feast of our faith. That having you in my presence will be even more blessed than ever before. I will take less for granted. And I will count my time differently. And I will more often get on my knees and bow at the altar that is Jesus.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Folks, let’s pray together with the prayer Jesus taught us to say:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
When I was a kid, I remember the revivals preached in our little town. It didn’t matter much at what church. We all supported and went to each other’s churches.
No one said to the kids, “believe this way or that way or you won’t be saved.” They just loved us and made sure we were safe and encouraged in our faith.
Later in life, as I was called to be a pastor, and was working in the church, I longed for an old-fashioned revival. A brush arbor meeting. A tent on the grounds.
Folding chairs and some hand clapping music. Some preaching about Jesus and singing those old songs.
And I was told, “Well Bill, that sort of stuff doesn’t work anymore.”
“Folks don’t appreciate that kind of religion.”
“People are too sophisticated for that nowadays.
Maybe they are right. But, in this time and in this world, I sense a revival coming on. And so, the messages for the next few Sundays are going to be a series “Revive Us Again”.
Will you join us?
Until then, be well and stay safe.
Encourage our children, our young folks and our saints.
And remember this.
Christ has Risen. He has Risen indeed!
“The Horns of the Altar”
Scriptures: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Matthew 21:1-11
Friends, we continue the Altar Builder’s Series with the message, “The Horns of the Altar”. A place a refuge in these difficult times. There is a video taped version under the Pastor Bill’s Messages tab. Or, you can just read along.
We will have a Maundy Thursday and a Good Friday message recorded next week. But for now, hear the words of the Psalmist, Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29:
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! 2 Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. 20 This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. 21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. 22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. 25 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! 26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. 27 The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. 28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. 29 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
The Gospel Lesson for today is:
Matthew 21: 1-11. 1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately. ” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus left the Mount of Transfiguration, traveled with his disciples to Jericho, healed a blind man, taught parables and then entered Jerusalem. Jesus rode into Jerusalem triumphantly, a King coming into his city, cheered by the people. People lined the streets waving palm branches. Adults laid their cloaks along the path to mark the way of the king.
And someone observing what was happening might conclude that the celebration would continue. That the turmoil in Jerusalem would result in an overthrow of the Roman authorities and Jesus would take his rightful place as King of the Jews.
That observer might conclude that the answer to the question, “Who is this?” would be, “This is Jesus, our King, triumphant over all our enemies”
But a person standing next to him might have come to a different conclusion.
The Romans did not like turmoil. And the Jewish Leadership did not like Jesus.
And when Jesus came into Jerusalem riding a donkey followed by a rag tag bunch of disciples, a person might conclude that things would not end well.
That the answer to the question, “Who is this?” would be “Just another revolutionary put down by the Romans”.
To an observer on that Palm Sunday, the variables were just too great, the options were just too many, the forces at play were just too complex for the people to truly know what was going to happen next. The situation might have been described as chaotic. The question of “Who is this?” having no reasonable answer.
In science, chaos theory is a disciplinary approach to complex systems.
That what seems to be chaotic and unpredictable and random really contains underlying patterns, interconnectedness, repetition, self-similarity and self-organization.
To sort it all out requires careful observation. It requires analysis and evaluation of all the data. And to bring order from this chaos, we must go back to the initial events to see what set it all in motion in the first place.
And what set Palm Sunday into motion long, long ago was the determination by G-d that once and for all, he would redeem his people. He would save us from our sin and make a way for us to be in right relationship with our G-d. I have said before that what happened with the fall of humankind was cataclysmic. Humankind fell into sin and disorder. I think the Bible gives only a sanitized version. I believe that the fall was great, that our sin was so terrible, that our outright rebellion from G-d must have broken his heart. And so, after the 4th chapter of Genesis, the rest of the Biblical story all the way through the Revelation is about G-d working to redeem his creation. To bring order from chaos.
And so, G-d would work through Abraham and Moses. Through the Judges and the Kings. Through Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah and the prophets. And then, G-d would work through Joseph and Mary and John the Baptist, all moving in this great march of history to that day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday.
And with the turmoil in Jerusalem, it seemed that anything could happen. Back when King David was old and nearing his end, there was great turmoil in Jerusalem back then. There was the matter of succession and David had a few sons with different ideas on the matter. And he had a wife, Bathsheba, who had twisted David’s arm in favor of her son, Solomon. But Adonijah, David’s son by another wife, had not gotten the memo. He started acting like he was king. Performing the sacrifices that King David usually did. Hosting the meetings and get togethers that normally King David would host. And those folks were already treating Adonijah like he was king.
Bathsheba snitched him out and got David all stirred up. He called his priests and prophets together. He had Solomon anointed king and Jerusalem exploded with celebration. Meantime, Adonijah was feasting with his court when he heard the uproar. And then he got the news that Solomon had been named king, and Adonijah knew he was in trouble. Back then, a new king solved the issue of rivals with extreme prejudice.
So Adonijah went up to the temple of the Lord, went to the altar, and clung to the horns of the altar. Just hung on, in the age-old wisdom that that no one would dare kill a person at the same place where offerings were made to the Lord. From this secure location, Adonijah begged for his life.
Because the altar was a holy place. A consecrated place.
Back in the book of Exodus, it says, “Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar, and consecrate it, and the altar shall be most holy; whatever touches the altar shall become holy. “
The four horns of the altar were at the corners. They were protrusions of arcadia wood overlaid with brass. In the ritual sacrifice, the priests would put the blood of the sacrifice on the horns of the altar. In our reading from the Psalms today, we get the impression that the animals were hitched or tied to the horns as they were sacrificed.
But eventually, by tradition, the horns of the altar afforded sanctuary to a fugitive who would cling to them. Pleading for the holiness of the altar to protect them.
In the chaos theory of Palm Sunday, in the confusion and terror of Holy Week, in the turmoil that gripped the city, there is one possibility that existed that we don’t often consider. That altar could have figured into the story. As it became apparent that Jesus was being hunted, his disciples under scrutiny, might they have gone to the temple and sought refuge at the horns of the altar?
Clung to them and begged for their lives.
We know that the answer to that question, that possible course of action, that critical path in the salvation story, is “no”.
Because as we analyze the data; as we see the patterns of G-d’s redemptive story, the interconnections of the covenants, the feedback loops of the prophecies, the repetition of G-d’s work to save his people, Jesus’ seeking refuge at the altar was never an option.
Instead, his path had been laid to the cross. So that Jesus, holy unto himself, consecrated as the ultimate vessel of salvation, became the horn of salvation. So that in our flight from sin, our fugitive status from G-d, we have a place to go.
A place to run to. A place to cling to. A place that is holy and consecrated.
In Luke 1:68, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and he prophesied:
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
Friends, these are times of turmoil. These are complex times that are troubled and seem chaotic. This is a Holy Week that seems turned on its ear. And our Easter Sunday now seems so very far off, and we think that our Easter baskets will be empty.
Maybe we feel pierced by the horns of despair from time to time. Gored by the horn of failure. Upended by the horn of doubt.
And it does not take a virus for us to feel turmoil in our lives.
When relationships end, when our independence comes into question, sharp horns of fear seem to prick our skin. For our young folks, the bullies have horns and are aggressive in their use. Feelings of inadequacy and that the people they love don’t understand them are the horns of frustration.
On an even broader scale, in the Book of Revelation, the beast representing Rome, the new Babylon, is surrounded by 10 horns. They are the kings who have bowed to Satan and who were making war on the Lamb of G-d. And we might perceive today, nations set against the church and our faith, and we fear their lies and power and their intent to bring about our destruction.
And, the horns of insecurity poke at us as the world deals with sickness and economic downturn.
All are beasts which seem powerful to us. All have horns that are frightening to us.
Where do we turn? Who will help us?
Friends, the beasts that bears these horns cannot stand against the horn of salvation in Jesus Christ.
They cannot stand against the sure and certain proclamation of the Good News.
They cannot stand against the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding.
And they cannot stand against the love our G-d has for us.
Instead, there is victory in Jesus. There is triumph as he enters Jerusalem. And conquest over sin and death on the cross.
In Ephesians, Paul gave us the analogy of the armor of G-d.
He said, 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
That shield of faith is also effective against the horns of this world. Those horns are not holy and those horns are not consecrated.
But we cling to the horn of salvation, the truth of the Good News, and that horn is holy, that horn is consecrated, that horn is sacred. And it this salvation that solves the chaos equations and makes sense of all that we go through in life as we journey to G-d’s Kingdom, and beyond.
Our lives may seem crazy.
It may be difficult.
But G-d has made a path for us. From the dawn of creation to the end of time, our G-d had steadfastly worked for our good. And with our faith in G-d and his son Jesus, we can answer the question of “who is this” with full knowledge that “He is my Savior”.
As David said when he was delivered from his enemies, 3 My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge; My savior, You save me from violence.
And friends, one way or another, Lord Jesus Christ has claimed us. When we confess Jesus Christ as our Savior and put our whole trust in him, he will see us through these times.
I finish with a story that my friend Rudy Herrera told one time.
Once a little boy made a boat. He lovingly and carefully carved it out of a block of wood. It was a good little boat. He attached a small sail and brought it down to a gentle stream to see it float. But a storm came. Winds blew. Suddenly, the boat was swept away in the current and carried out to the sea.
The little boy was very sorry to lose his boat. But he never gave up. He never stopped searching the shoreline. Then one day he was walking by a shop and saw his boat in the window, with an expensive price tag on it.
He had no money. So he took odd jobs and worked hard and saved. And he sacrificed. Finally came the day and he bought the boat back.
He said, “Little boat, you are twice mine.
I made you and now I have bought you.” “Twice mine and you are mine forever.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
March 29, 2020
Fifth and Last Sunday in Lent
Sermon: “The Consuming Altar”
Scripture: 1 Kings 18:30-39 and Hebrews 12: 25-29.
1 Kings 18:30-39. 30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; 32 with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 33 Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, 35 so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water. 36 At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
Hebrews 12: 25-29. See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! 26 At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; 29 for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
Note: Some have asked why I spell G-d in that way. This practice is not new; Jewish people have done so in their own way for years. It is a daily reminder to me that His name is most holy. That I am not worthy to speak it or even spell it out. I started this practice as a Lenten devotional last year and it has stuck. (But I do not redact the way that the Bible words the text.) I am not suggesting that others follow suit. It is just a reminder to me as I prepare that my Lord is most sacred.
The people of Israel had been in the land of Canaan for awhile now. As they entered the Promised Land they had set up 12 witness stones at Gilgal. Stones that would commemorate what G-d had done for them. Stones that would memorialize their faithfulness to their children, and the generations to follow.
Joshua had been their leader for years, but now he was getting old. And he noticed that way too many of his people had started toying with the local deities. Apparently, worshipping these little deities with their fertility rites was more fun than worshipping G-d. And so, the people were violating the first Commandment.
So Joshua told the people to make a choice that day:
14 “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14-15)
Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart be pleasing to you O G-d, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In response to Joshua’s challenge, the people declared that they would put away their idols and they would serve YWHW only. And when they said that, Joshua took a large stone, and set it up in the sanctuary and,
Joshua said to all the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” (Joshua 24: 27)
When it comes to who or what we worship, who or what we declare to be sovereign in our lives, we must make choices. Sometimes we choose well. And sometimes, we choose poorly. And sometimes we build those false altars to base and worldly things. Our Lenten journey is a time to refocus and rededicate and once again announce our choice to serve the Lord. Especially this hard Lent we are living through. I do not think that the Lord sent this pestilence among us. But I sure think G-d will use it to sharply refocus our priorities.
Because too often, we get off in a mess. We get sidetracked. And we look for a less consuming, a less demanding G-d to serve. We remember that while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, Aaron and the people stayed behind. And like children left alone too long, they began to misbehave. They began to look away from the smoking, scary mountain where G-d was sovereign. They looked for a more manageable god. A tamer god. And they pooled together their gold and Aaron, the priest who was supposed to be babysitting these wild Hebrew people, made an image of a calf. Not a bull, not a powerful ram, not some mythical looking creature to frighten the children.
But a calf.
A little god that could be led around on a rope.
And for this insignificant idol, Aaron built an altar and offered sacrifices. When Moses came back and confronted Aaron, Aaron said “Well Moses, the people wanted a god, so we got all of the gold together, melted it in the fire, and out came this calf”. Just popped out of the fire. That is what Aaron said. (You can’t make this stuff up).
And G-d punished the people. And it wasn’t the last time the people went after idols. Solomon’s son Rehoboam did the same thing in the Northern Kingdom after the split of Israel. He built a new capital at Shechem, built a new temple and he fashioned 2 golden calves, once again making livestock into gods.
Once again trying for a tamer and less demanding god. A god that would stay put. A god that asked nothing of us. A god that did not require changed hearts and changed lives. I doubt that it was by coincidence that Shechem, where Jeroboam crafted his little cow gods was the same place where Joshua, years and years before, had told the people that they had to make a choice.
It was the same place where Joshua had challenged the people to renew their covenant with G-d.
It was the same place where the people cried out, “We will serve the Lord”.
And it was the same place where Joshua had placed a stone to witness to the covenant they had with G-d. And in that place where the witness stone had stood, in that place of renewal, the Northern Kingdom chose to deny G-d and worship idols.
We are also called to choose who or what we worship. We are way past the golden farm animal thing, but the temptations are just as deadly. Jesus said this,
24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Let us not make a mistake here. Money is not the issue. Wealth is not the problem. The issue, the problem, is how we treat money. It is the same problem for those who seek celebrity, status and those other works of the flesh Paul wrote about in Galatians.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is about Elijah, one of my favorite characters of the Old Testament. And indeed, he was a character. The context of our reading today is that Elijah met up with King Ahab. Ahab of that Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahab who married evil Jezebel. Ahab who allowed and maybe even encouraged the worship of Baal. And in the 17th chapter of First Kings, the Prophet Elijah bursts onto the scene and Ahab’s life took a decided turn for the worse. So Elijah sets up this little challenge with the Baal priests.
He tells them, you build your altar to Baal. You set the wood. You put the sacrifice on it and then call for your god to light the fire. And Elijah would build an altar to G-d. Let’s see who serves a real G-d and who is just toying around with worthless idols. And the people of Israel assembled at Mt. Carmel for the face off.
“21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word.”
He is saying, as did Joshua so long ago, it is time to make a choice. And so the Baal priests built their altar, set the wood and the sacrifice and then called on Baal to light the fire. Nothing happened. 450 frenzied Baal priests marched around this altar, yelled for Baal, mutilated themselves with knives, and nothing happened. Of course, Elijah taunted them.
27 At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
29 As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
Then it was Elijah’s turn, and there would be no mistake about G-d’s presence or his power. Elijah repaired and built the altar to the Lord, using 12 stones for the 12 tribes of Israel, just as Joshua had done so many years before. 12 tribes from G-d’s covenant of blessing. 12 tribes which, in varying degrees, had forgotten the vows made when they crossed the Jordan River.
Then water was poured over the altar three times. With Christian eyes, we would see a Trinitarian baptism in the name of G-d the Father, his Son and the Holy Spirit.
And when Elijah called out, there was a voice, there was an answer and there was a response.
The sacrifice was completely consumed by fire, even the very stones themselves. Those stones that witnessed for the entirety of Israel became part of the sacrifice. And the Scripture says that the people who witnessed this sacrifice confessed that that the Lord is indeed G-d.
The G-d who can’t be tamed. The G-d we don’t lead around on a rope. The G-d who has expectations of us and the G-d who expects us to behave.
The G-d who is a consuming fire wanting to be part of every aspect of our lives, wanting our devotion and requiring our obedience.
Our scripture from the letter to the Hebrews tells us of a G-d who speaks to us from the prophets of earth and from the heights of Zion, shaking heaven and earth so that his kingdom will be established. And this kingdom we receive by G-d’s grace won’t be shaken, it will not be dismissed and it will not be replaced by the little idols laying around and causing mischief far beyond their importance. And the witness stone that has been set up in heaven for this Kingdom, the witness stone of G-d’s love for us, the witness stone of our salvation is the cross of Jesus Christ.
And so, with the people of the New Testament, the followers of the Way, we are called to choose.
And when we choose G-d.
When we choose to follow Christ, we set up our own witness stone.
Our baptism is our witness stone.
Our confirmation is our witness stone, our service to G-d and neighbor is our witness stone.
Our worship offered to a Triune G-d is the witness stone we set up to tell the world what choice we have made, who we are and whose we are.
Friends, we serve a consuming G-d who gives much and expects much.
G-d is not done with telling us it is time to make a choice.
And when we do make that choice, when we are born that second time, when our lives are sanctified and changed by G-d’s amazing grace, that is when the Kingdom of G-d draws near to us.
Like those witness stones in Elijah’s altar, we just might be consumed by G-d’s love.
His grace will overwhelm us.
Our joy will have no bounds.
And as we are consumed by G-d’s love at the altar he has built in us, our focus on the cross;
our focus is on serving others.
We are refined.
The chaff of our sin is burned away.
And we are purified and made right in the sight of our G-d.
To G-d be the glory. Amen.
March 22, 2020
Fourth Sunday of Lent
“The Restoring Altar”
Scriptures: Ezra 3:1-6 and 1 Peter 5:8-11
Introduction to “The Altar Builders” Lenten sermon series. In the ancient days, as our forefathers in faith encountered G-d, they would stop all they were doing, halt their journey, and build an altar to the Lord. In this Lenten series, we have explored the kinds of altars G-d is building in us as we journey through Lent. And so, Ash Wednesday was about “An Acceptable Altar”, responsive to 2 Corinthians 6:1 “As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” Then, on the first Sunday of Lent, March 1, was a warning about “False Altars” as we considered the false altars laid before us by the world. On March the 8th was “The Providential Altar” was about not worrying, that G-d provides what we need. On March 15, “The Costly Altar” was about how building our altar is not easy and the materials are not cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered us a word and costly grace. And now comes:
The Restoring Altar
Ezra 3:1-6. 1 When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. 2 Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the G-d of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of G-d. 3 Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. 4 Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. 5 After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred festivals of the Lord, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the Lord. 6 On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid.
1 Peter 5:8-11. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the G-d of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O G-d, our Rock, our Foundation, our Redeemer.
Last week, we left King David just as he had built an altar on a threshing floor. He built on land he had paid for. He had refused to accept the land for no price. He would not offer a sacrifice to G-d that had cost him nothing. So the place where oxen had tread the grain became holy ground. It was in the same area where Abraham had built his 4th altar that he named “G-d will provide”. It was where Solomon would later build the temple of Jerusalem.
The foundation stones of the temple were massive.
“1 Kings 5:17-18. At the king’s command they removed from the quarry large blocks of high-grade stone to provide a foundation of dressed stone for the temple. The craftsmen of Solomon and Hiram and workers from Byblos cut and prepared the timber and stone for the building of the temple.”
In my studies, I don’t find that Solomon ever rebuilt or even added to David’s altar when the temple was constructed. Apparently, the altar also had a good foundation, as did the temple. But in 586 BCE the armies of Babylon destroyed the city of Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the city and he burned the temple that Solomon had built. The army breached the walls, looted the city and captured its people. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, the temple of Solomon had stood for 476 years, 6 months and 10 days and then it was destroyed.
The altar David had built was knocked down. Josephus says that the city was destroyed right down to its very foundations. As the armies marched away, they left only rubble in their wake. The people who were not killed or carried off would live there among the wreckage. In my mind’s eye, I can see the people of this broken Jerusalem walking among the ruins of their city. They would go to what was left of the temple and weep. They would see the scattered stones that once were the altar where they worshiped, and they would feel defeated.
But would they see only what was broken and fail to notice that the mighty foundations of the altar were still there? That where there is a foundation, there could be a hope of rebuilding.
I believe that some of the most important altars we re-build, day by day; prayer by prayer are our own lives. We live, we love, we are showered with G-d’s grace; we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are born again, and we are walking that path of sanctification, and then sometimes things can go all wrong. In our lives, we sometimes get broken. Life works us over. Sometimes, we make bad decisions and suffer the consequences. Those whom we love pass away or sometimes they just leave. Our health can fail or we can wind up caring for someone who is sick. Economic setbacks and pandemics shake us. Jobs and careers can suffer and we can find ourselves suddenly insecure. The altar that is our life, that has been blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, that has been consecrated to G-d, gets knocked down and trampled on.
And we just don’t know if we can ever worship G-d again with this broken altar. But take heart. In our Old Testament lesson, the exiles finally returned to Jerusalem. It had been about 50 years, or around two generations before the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians who then ended the exile. King Cyrus issued his decree that the exiles could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. A priest named Joshua was one of the people who led the exiles home. So, they came back to Jerusalem and their towns and found devastation. Some of them probably wondered why they had even left Babylon in the 1st place. Some of them probably thought about just turning around and heading back.
But instead, they went to work.
You notice that Cyrus allowed the people to go home with the purpose of rebuilding the temple. But what the people did first was to rebuild their altar to G-d. Why was that? I can only guess. But the main purpose of the temple itself was to house the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It was the place where only the high priest could enter, and then only on certain days. This temple was not as much a place of worship as it was a place of refuge for the priests and storage for an Ark that was now lost. The grand temple was a symbol of the faith, but not the center of their faith.
The center of their faith was the altar. That’s where the people came to worship. Where they came to sacrifice. Where they came to sing praises. Where they came with their offerings to G-d. So, on that foundation, they rebuilt the altar and began to worship G-d.
That foundation had been waiting. That foundation that was still strong. That foundation that was more than sufficient for the people to build on.
Sometimes, we have to rebuild. We have to assess the foundations of our own faith and see if they will bear the weight of rebuilding. We have to see if those foundations are firm. We have to check and make sure that the rock stands solid.
And if our foundations of faith were built on prayer and devotion.
If our foundations were laid on the bedrock of Scripture.
If our foundations are anchored in service to Lord Jesus Christ,
Then they will hold.
No matter that our altar has been knocked down and its stones scattered. No matter if our temple was burned. If our foundation is intact, then we can rebuild.
Sometimes we need a little help. For the people of Israel, coming back and rebuilding on the old foundation was a community activity. It was the work of the people, helping each other. It wasn’t a job they hired out. It wasn’t some mail order, build to suit project. It was a work they did together. It was hands on, get your hands dirty, make your back ache, kind of work. It was a redemptive work in their lives, that frankly, as a people, as a church, as individuals, they all had to do it themselves.
Except one important thing. We trust G-d to do the heavy lifting. We know that G-d has a set of plans for us. We believe that G-d is with us every step of the way, picking us up when we fall, giving us rest and nourishment as we labor. And if we have this belief, if we gain this confidence, if we let go and let G-d, if we let our friends in the faith lend a hand, then this restoration of our altar will be a redemptive act in our lives too. Our faith will be stronger than ever before. Our confidence in the power of G-d and what he will do in our lives will restore our altar even better than it was before.
I know it isn’t easy to rebuild, even on a good foundation. But Jesus had a word for us.
“Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” (Luke 6:46-49)
For various reasons, not everyone will support our rebuilding projects. As the people of Israel rebuilt their temple after the exile, their neighbors schemed against them. Some, not so kindly, offered to do the project for them so they would be in control. Some out and out harassed them. Not just a few attacked them because they did not want to see a strong Israel again. And there might just be a few people who like us just as we are.
Broken, scattered and dependent.
Peter has some good advice in his letter today. He says that we should be alert. Watch out for those lions that want to devour us. Steer clear of the people who would drag us down. He says to keep our eyes on Christ, who will restore, support and strengthen and establish us.
And with these warnings. With this advice in mind, we build or re-build our altars to the Lord. Some are building their first altars. Some are working on their second or third or even more. Some are in the process of restoration and renovation in their faith. No matter which altar you are working on; it is still holy and living. Each might be different. But each is built on the same firm foundation. A good foundation built on the Rock.
When I built that first altar for the Seguin church, it was pretty rough. I did not have the right tools for that heavy stock. I didn’t draw a set of plans. I just dove into the work. Sweated through it. Burned up some blades and bits. It was a work of passion, much like our first love of G-d. Much like our time of salvation.
And so I wondered. If I built another altar, would it be the same? Would my faith and passion be rekindled? So, I set out to build a new altar table. But I knew from the start that it would be different this time. This time, I needed plans, so I scaled out the plans on drafting paper. I would use dimensional oak rather than rough stock. I would use mortise and tenon joinery instead of the lap joints I most often use. Because now I have better tools. I have much more experience. I have UTube. And I have learned a great deal from others.
And so, this altar table came together differently than the last one. But as I thought about the tabletop, I knew it could not be just a plain top. The cross in the first altar was small and silver. Embedded in a void. This cross would be large and bold. Inlayed into the top of the altar.
And as I crafted that inlay, the praise music filling the shop, the Lord touched my spirit. That inlay is of 9 pieces, and they came together just right. And so, I stopped everything, folded my hands, and I worshiped. That table was incomplete. It needed final sanding and finish. And yet, I was called to worship at an incomplete altar. And for that time, I stood on holy ground worshiping a most worthy G-d. I praised his Name. I gave thanks for the direction he had set in my life. I asked for more faith to serve him better.
Some of us might just be starting out in life; maybe we are early in our walk in faith. Or perhaps, for whatever reason, we think that our altar is too incomplete. We think it is unfinished or too rough. Maybe it is broken or even has been knocked down. Friends, still we can worship and our relationship with G-d can strengthened. Even restored.
Whether we are building a rough altar, or a more refined altar; whether our tools are sharp and adequate, or old and not the best; or we are building from our passion, or we are building from our experience, we serve a loving G-d who honors our work and then gives us more. Our altars might be rough and incomplete. Or maybe more sophisticated and better made.
Makes no difference.
We are called to worship and serve. And in that worship and in that serving we are restored. If our altars are broken, G-d will put them back on their foundations. G-d has a way of giving us what we need. He has a history of showing how we can make do with what gifts and graces we have. He has a propensity of giving us the plans to tackle the jobs that need to be done.
Whether it is literacy; health care; food insecurity; Christian education; community outreach or whatever needs doing, this church has never waited for the Bishop to point out what matters. You haven’t waited for the Superintendent to anoint your ministry. You just have seen a need, taken what was at hand and you went to work. Prayed G-d’s courage and help and got to it.
In every case, our work was begun at an incomplete altar that was made complete by the love and providence of our G-d. And we find that as we built our altars to G-d, G-d built up his people of faith.
Our altars may have been incomplete, but the cornerstone, the foundation was more than adequate to do G-d’s work. As Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Ephesus,
“Ephesians 2:19-22. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of G-d, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for G-d;”
So we check our foundations and see if the cornerstone is in place. If that cornerstone is Christ, we are in good shape. And with this cornerstone in place, we can worship at a broken altar and we can rebuild that altar. With this cornerstone in place, we can serve at an altar we think is incomplete and not yet ready. And with this cornerstone in place, we can prevail against all of the storms of life, we can survive all of the earthquakes that shake our world and we can trust that no matter what happens, our altars built to serve G-d will stand firm.
To G-d’s glory, Amen.
February 16. 2020
Spiritual Gifts Series- Mercy or Compassion
Sermon Title: “Spiritual Gifts- Compassion”
Scriptures: Colossians 3:12-17 and Matthew 9:35-38
Colossians 3:12-17. As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Matthew 9:35-38. Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Let’s Pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart be pleasing to you O G-d, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Now, this was a sermon that that went in an unexpected direction. A sermon about compassion and mercy should be easy for this church. Should be sweet and predicable because you are such a compassionate congregation. Always willing to help others. Going the extra steps to see about folks. Showing people kindness.
Should have been an easy sermon to write. But as I set into writing and researching, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just blown past. Almost unnoticed. Dr. King’s dreams for a better country, his message of peace and compassion; they all got lost in the mess coming out from Washington. And I got to wondering, when does compassion and mercy turn into action? When does compassion and mercy call us to be bold in our ministry?
I got to thinking about the movie, “Hidden Figures” and how just a few compassionate people could make a difference. It takes just a few people to speak up. Just a few people whose eyes are opened and then put words into action. The 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” is about the contribution of a team of African-American women to the NASA space program. For the United States to get a man into space. We were in head to head competition with the Russians. In 1957, I was too young to search the night skies to see Sputnik in orbit, but many did. And so began the space race. And we needed all the bright young minds we could find to get the job done. Trouble was, some of those bright young minds happened to be African American women who were so smart, they were human computers. So smart, they could do the complex computations it would take to get a spacecraft into orbit.
The time period was 1961 and it fell right in the middle of the national turmoil over desegregation. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to go stand in the back of a bus. The schools were desegregated by the SC in 1957, and the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 guaranteed the right to vote and was met with opposition in many parts of the nation. Against this backdrop, our country was emerging as a world leader in the space program and was on the way to the moon in 1969. There was this huge national and even world stage on which this was going on, but million upon million small stages on which lives were being played out. And upon which stage G-d was insisting that we show compassion and mercy to all his children.
It was only later that we were to hear the stories of the women in “Hidden Figures.” The story of Al Harrison as he was stunned by the fact that people had to walk a mile to use a bathroom because of their color. Now, did Al know about discrimination and segregation before then? Sure, he did. But until he was confronted by Kathrine Goble, segregation did not have a face. Segregation did not have a name. Segregation did not have a home. When Al saw that segregation had a face, had hopes and dreams, he became indignant and took one step to end it at NASA. He boldly took the step he could take. And with that step, one wrong was made right.
As I watched that movie clip, I wondered. Did Jesus look like that when he overturned the money lender’s tables in the temple? When he called them out and He said to them, “It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” did he have some fire in his eyes? Was his anger kindled because the witness of the temple as a house of prayer was being diminished to be just another place for the merchants?
Now, Paul wrote that As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. And I wonder, does compassion and mercy, this Spiritual Gift we consider today, always hold hands with humility, meekness and patience? Or is there a time when we must become courageous and even audacious in our compassion? Is there a time for us to speak up in our empathy for others, and as best as we can on our little stage, do what we can in the name of justice and right?
The prophet Micah wrote 6: 6 “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Micah is reminding us that there comes a time when we are called to action. To do justice and love kindness with our hands, and our feet and with our voice, walking with our G-d and seeking the good for others. When our walk turns into a march as we go to bat for folks who need an advocate. But to be an effective advocate, we first must seek to put a face to those who are suffering. Learn their names and circumstances. Recognize them as human beings. As beloved children of G-d.
When I first started practicing law in Seguin, I was appointed by the court to represent a juvenile offender. Now, I knew the law. I knew statutes. The kid was in detention for criminal trespass. Obviously guilty from the reports. So, I went to see my client. Back then, the juvenile detention was on the same floor of the jail with the adults. Just around the corner. They could hear everything. That little boy was scared to death. His crime was that he had broken into an abandoned warehouse. He was shooting pigeons with a pellet gun. Not for fun, but for food.
My heart was broken, my spirit was stirred and I was that boy’s advocate not just by appointment, but by conviction. You might be thinking, what kind of police officer would throw a kid in jail for shooting pigeons in an abandoned warehouse? The answer is a compassionate officer. I was pretty indignant when I first talked to the arresting officer. And he said, “counselor, I wanted to just take that kid home, but I found that it was not much of a home. The children had little in the way of care. The jail was the better alternative.” In our desire for justice, sometimes we run into complicated situations. Things are not as they seem to be. We must be smart as we act.
Last Sunday, we were invited to look around our towns and see what it is that breaks our hearts. And today, once our hearts are tender, we are invited to see the faces of suffering with compassion. One of the more compelling stories of the civil rights movements is that of C. P. Ellis and Ann Atwater. It was 1971 and it was North Carolina. The schools were in a mess. The old rundown school for the African American students burned down and the city leaders wanted; they needed the people to talk with each other and figure out how to desegregate the schools. Mr. Ellis owned and operated a small garage and filling station. Barely making ends meet. He had been raised in a prejudiced household and had risen through the ranks of the local KKK. His title was Exalted Cyclops of the Durham chapter. He was proud of that title. And he did not like black people. Ann Atwater was an African American woman in Durham and was active in the community. As G-d would have it they were both picked to co-chair the committee on school desegregation. And there was a ten-day community meeting to help resolve racial tensions in schools. Long story short, neither started out liking the other at all.
But as those 10 days went by and they were forced to talk with each other, and they found out that they were not so different. Ellis saw that Ann shared the same problems of poverty as his own and that their real enemies were the people who pitted people against one another and exploited the working poor.
Ellis recounted that as those 10 days went by, ‘Somethin’ was happening to me. It was almost like bein’ born again.’
Ellis, that is exactly what it was. On the final night of the community meeting, he stood at the microphone in front of a thousand people and tore up his Klan membership card. C.P. Ellis later became a famed civil rights campaigner and labor organizer for a union whose membership was seventy per cent black. He and Ann remained friends for the rest of their lives. A movie came out last year, “Best of Enemies” that chronicles this relationship and how G-d can break down our prejudices, our prejudging selves, and show us the value of our spiritual gifts of compassion and mercy.
As the civil rights movement proves, compassion does not come easy for us at times. We do good with our friends, families and neighbors, but not so good with those we don’t know. We tend to get defensive about this, maybe ashamed and had rather talk about something else. But G-d does not let us be. G-d is not satisfied with the status quo. G-d does not want his compassion to simply remain kind words and works of mercy. G-d wants more from us.
In the Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus had been healing folks right and left. He had brought Jairus’ daughter back from the dead. Had healed the woman with a hemorrhage for 12 years, restored the sight of two blind men and restored the voice to one who could not speak. And then Jesus set off teaching and healing and preaching the Good News because he had compassion for people. He saw that they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he told the disciples, ask the Lord of the Harvest to send out laborers. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. And so, Jesus gave them authority and sent them out. They went to places where they were received and a few places where they were rejected. And so, Jesus warned them. There are wolves out there. People who do harm. Jesus told them to be wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove. Don’t take money. Eat what you are given. Stay where you have been welcomed. Be the shepherd that the flock needs. Be bold but be wise. Don’t just go slinking into town but go proclaiming repentance, salvation and redemption. Preach the Good News and minister to my people. Make a difference.
Friends, Jesus is still sending us out to make a difference. Sending out his laborers into the harvest. Having us use our spiritual gifts for the benefit of others.
And so, this sermon, this message was cooking. This message was writing itself. My fingers were flying across the keyboard. And I thought, I need to call Herman Harris. Herman is an old friend, an African American and he knows a thing or two about boldness and compassion and the Gospel. Yes, I’ll call Herman and invite him to church that Sunday. Then came a phone call from Mom the next day. She asked, Had I heard that Herman Harris had passed away? She had gotten a call and wanted to be sure I had heard. And I was so sad that I had not talked with Herman for way too long.
Now, you might wonder how my mom knew Herman. See, Herman was in and out of my law office for years. And he met my Mom and they talked lots of times. Herman was always kind to Mom and she liked him very much. Herman was a very good oil and gas land man and helped my clients with many projects. He was a friend for many, many years. He was one of the people who would eventually encourage my going into ministry.
And Herman was a man who lived a life of bold compassion. He defied the stereotypes of what we expect of people of color. Herman was one of the people here in Luling that helped keep the community together when the high school was integrated. He was the kind of person who mentored younger men and was not shy about telling them that they were headed down the wrong path. At his funeral, person after person came forward and said what difference Herman made in their lives.
And friends, that is what compassionate boldness will do. It makes a difference. Helps folks not just for their needs this day, but gives them direction and purpose so that the challenges of this day will not continue to be the struggles for tomorrow. And that boldness might mean that a hurtful sign might sometimes need to be knocked off the wall. Might mean that we drink from the same coffee pot. Might mean a tough love lecture for a young person who is thinking about a trip to that far country. Might mean that we speak up and speak out for those who have no voice and no status. Might mean that we serve on boards and committees that advocate for the vulnerable.
And it does mean this.
That we don’t see color, identities, status, wealth; instead we just see people. That we pray to our G-d to develop in us the spiritual gifts of compassion and mercy. And that we pray to our G-d for the courage and strength to put those gifts to work. To be bold in our ministry, compassionate in our work and speak up for folks who need a voice.
In Jesus’ name and for his sake. And the people said, Amen.
And a footnote. If you are thinking about calling an old friend you have not talked to in a while, pick up the phone and call them today.
September 8, 2019
Scriptures: Jeremiah 18:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 and Matthew 11:28.
Jeremiah 18:1-11. The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
NIV 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength
Matthew 11:28. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing to you O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
The Prophet Jeremiah was issuing G-d’s warning to Israel. Just as a potter may choose to remake a spoiled vessel, so may G-d choose to remake a spoiled nation. A nation that has become unwise.
A nation chasing after its idols. But a nation that can avert a disaster if it repents and turns back to G-d.
September 11, 2001 seemed to be such a disaster for this country. Every one of our age remembers that time with great sadness. Two days after the terror attacks, Frank Silecchia was working to excavate the rubble at ground zero. He had been working around the clock. He was physically exhausted. He was emotionally drained. Then he saw it. It was standing upright, but at an angle. It was draped with the debris of the destruction, yet it was clearly identifiable.
There was a priest working in the wreckage. By that time Father Brian Jordan was blessing remains, offering comfort and prayer to the workers, and he was just barely hanging on. That is when Frank found him and asked him to come see. It took a minute, but then Father Brian exclaimed, “Oh my God, I see it”. Standing in the rubble was a 17 foot iron cross. It was a massive T-Beam that the explosions, the fire and the destruction had shaped into a cross.
A few days later, Father Brian enlisted the help of some volunteer union laborers, including a crane operator. Together, they lifted the cross out of the rubble and put it on a concrete stand.
Then Father Brian blessed it. And that cross became a center of worship for the people there.
For 10 months, Father Brian held Sunday services in its shadow. People would come to the cross to pray. Families of those who perished came to the cross to seek comfort. The workers often found their rest there. When people on the site were worn out with grief, they went to the cross.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
These are the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28. That is our Gospel lesson for this day. The power of God through the cross calls to us to come. To lay down our burdens. And to find God’s peace. To avert the disasters in our lives.
The World Trade Center cross was moved over to St. Peter’s church as the Memorial was built at Ground Zero. The plans for the Memorial included a central location for the cross and, of course, the atheists fought it tooth and nail.
They said it was an ugly piece of wreckage.
They said it was repugnant.
They said that it connoted horror and death.
And to some extent, what they said was true.
It was pretty much what people said 2,000 years ago when they saw a cross. It was an ugly instrument of capital punishment. It was repugnant to all but the cruelest sensibilities. Indeed the cross was associated with the horror of an ugly, prolonged death. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst of criminals, and the Romans had perfected the process. They didn’t crucify shoplifters or petty lawbreakers. But they did make a public spectacle of executing the worst criminals in order to deter others from committing crime. And so, death on a cross was a scandal for the entire family. It was a shameful way to die. It was also a symbol of the power of Rome to take a life. It was a sign of the powerlessness of a people to resist Roman law. To even consider that the crucifixion of a person could bring redemption or salvation to a people would be foolishness. It would be shocking.
And so Paul wrote that Jews demanded a sign. But not this sign.
Paul wrote that Greeks look for wisdom. But not this wisdom.
The world’s wisdom could not encompass God’s wisdom. The world’s wisdom could not explain such a sacrifice. And so, any association of redemption with the cross would be foolishness to those who look to the world for their own self-image.
To those who are perishing, the message of the cross is incomprehensible. But to those who are being saved, the message of the cross is central to our faith. It is the potter lovingly making a vessel, shaping it with his hands, bringing it to life. Reconciling the clay unto himself, just as sinners are reconciled to G-d through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. That instead of judgment and punishment for our sins, we could be forgiven and in God’s forgiveness, we can have hope and joy and comfort and peace. That we can be changed and remolded and made new.
That we could have salvation.
So Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” as the message of the cross.
And so, all of the theology, all of the preaching, all of our praying, all of our faith can condensed down into the simple image of the cross. The image that brings to mind all that God has done for us is the cross.
The cross stands as a challenge to those who hate.
The cross denies the power of violence.
The cross confronts evil and wickedness.
The cross defies injustice.
The cross pushes back against the idols and the idolaters and the evil that G-d so despises.
Even as the cross brings to mind God’s grace at work in our lives. In Paul’s letter, he wrote that the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. God’s power in Jesus to walk to Jerusalem knowing full well that the cross was waiting for him. God’s power in us to face the trials and hurts of this world. G-d’s power to save the world.
But even as we read Paul’s words separating the perishing from the saved, there is something in those words that offer hope. There is something in those words that offers redemption for those who are perishing. There is something in those words that pierces the barriers, that breaches the boundaries of our foolishness and points to the possibility of a new way of life. There is something that tells us that G-d just might not crush a spoiled pot and start over.
That “something” is G-d’s power to transform us.
It is G-d’s grace calling to us, giving us hope, pointing to Christ and marking the way to salvation. It is the invitation to all to join and sing the hymn of Philippians 2, “that Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore G-d also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of G-d the Father.”
When Father Brian, the priest who ministered at Ground Zero, was interviewed, he was asked about those who came to the cross. Father Brian said that all faiths came. Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, nonbelievers, all were drawn to the cross to seek out G-d’s peace and comfort. He said that the cross took the grief and took the loss and took the pain. The people were able to lay their burdens at the foot of the cross.
G-d’s peace and comfort that we find at the cross is not a talisman against tough times. The cross is not a good luck charm.
Rather, it symbolizes a way of life. Even of our own sacrifice.
Of our own service in the name of the crucified Savior, so that in the words of Christ, in Luke 9:23, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”
So, the way of the cross is not easy and was never meant to be. But the way of the cross is true.
And in following this way we find true joy and fulfillment.
Salvation is not just an end times alternative to judgment.
Salvation is not just our being saved from eternal death.
Salvation is a present hope and comfort in this life, offered daily.
Many of the workers at the World Trade Center were welders. Cutting apart the twisted iron.
Undoing what heat and gravity had done to the frame of those towers. I read that as they took rests, welders at the Ground Zero spent time cutting little replicas of the cross from other beams.
Hundreds were cut out and carried or set up as personal devotions, Reminders. Remembrances.
Something they could hold in their hand and seek G-d’s comfort and peace.
There is something special in holding a cross. There is something that helps us focus our prayers to our G-d.
A few years ago, my friend Ron was in my office and I had a hand cross on the table. He picked it up and held it. But it really did not fit his hand. The angles were too sharp. The size was all wrong.
So I told Ron, I would make him new one.
Some years ago, I received a hand cross on the Walk to Emmaus. It has curves that fit my hand.
It is smooth and seems warm. So I made a template and then I made a cross. Then another. And another.
Cutting, shaping, praying, sanding, staining, waxing and praying some more.
I could not stop. And I prayed, Lord G-d how many? How many crosses should I make?
The Lord’s answer was 100.
Start with 100.
So I made 100 hand crosses and started giving them to whoever asked for one. Some people got them who did not ask, but I was drawn to give one to them.
Then I started making more. We are over a 1,000 now and the inner voice that calls me is as urgent as ever. Lord G-d draws my eyes to planks of wood and I see crosses. I see the empty hands of people who are hurting and I want them to have a cross to hold. And the time I spend in my shop making the crosses has become sacred time to me.
When I wonder how many I need to make, I remember the words of my friend Andy Smith.
He said I should make them until no one needs one anymore.
So, if you want a cross, please come get one. If you know someone who needs a cross, give them one.
In 2nd Corinthians 1:3-4, Paul wrote:
“Praise be to the G-d and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the G-d of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from G-d.”
Sometimes we pray for ourselves and sometimes we pray for others. And that is good. That is right.
Paul wrote in Colossians 2:14.:
“G-d made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”
And James wrote in Chapter 5:15-16,
“15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. ”
We don’t need to hold a cross when we pray, but we must pray. For ourselves and for each other.
When the World Trade Center memorial was completed, the cross was moved back there. Despite the objections of the atheists.
Despite the lawsuit they had filed.
Despite it being an ugly piece of wreckage in some eyes.
The cross was moved back to where it needed to be at Ground Zero. Someone had put a rough plaque on the cross.
Blessed October 4, 2001.
Temporarily relocated October 5, 2006.
Will return to the WTC Museum
A sign of comfort for all.
And Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
“Because of Winn-Dixie”
July 21, 2019
Summer Reading Program Begins
Sermon Title: “Because of Winn-Dixie”
Scriptures: 1 Peter 5:5-7; Luke 11:9-10
1 Peter 5:5-7. 5 In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “G-d opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of G-d, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.
Luke 11:9-10. 9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
Because of Winn-Dixie is about a dog and a little girl, but really it is about life. It is about asking and receiving; searching and finding; knocking and having doors open for you.
Opal is a 10 year old girl living with her dad in a trailer park in Naomi, Florida. Her dad is the new preacher at Open Arms Baptist Church. Her mom left them when Opal was 3 years old and Opal misses her so much, even though she barely remembers her mom.
The story begins at the local grocery store on a summer day. Opal is there to get a few things, and there is a ruckus as a stray dog ransacks the store. The manager was going to call the pound, but Opal claimed that the dog was hers. That it got in the store by mistake. And so she called the dog by the first name she saw. The store name. Winn-Dixie.
So, Opal took Winn-Dixie home, and told the Preacher that as he is always telling folks to help the unfortunates, she has brought one home. That big, scruffy, smelly stray dog with a smile. A suffering unfortunate. He dad said that she really did not need a dog. But she said, “I don’t need a dog. But this dog needs me.” So, the Preacher saw something that only a dad could see, and the dog found a home. And little Opal said, “And I have to admit. He stunk. Bad. He was an ugly dog, but already, I loved him with all my heart.”
And so, the book is about unconditional love and acceptance. That deep, devoted unquestioning love that only a child can have. That only a parent can have for their children. In his first letter, the Apostle John wrote, Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from G-d; everyone who loves is born of G-d and knows G-d. Whoever does not love does not know G-d, for G-d is love.
And I believe that G-d gives us pets so that we can learn how to love and therefore know G-d. Now, the thing about Winn-Dixie is that he was terrified of thunder and stormy weather. Many dogs get scared from the thunder, but Winn-Dixie went nuts and Opal and the Preacher learned to just hold him tight when the weather hit. To give him that most comfort they could.
So, the book is about our need to be comforted in the rough times.
It is about loneliness and isolation.
It is about fear and abandonment.
The fears of a little girl, her dog and all the rest of the people in the story and their need for someone to offer them comfort and friendship. To hold them during the storms of life.
As children will do, Opal talked things out with Winn-Dixie. She told him how she missed her mom. How she missed her friends in the town they had come from. And the same was true for other characters in the book. They all seemed lonely. Opal said, “Sometimes it seems that everyone in the world is lonely.”
There was Fanny Block, the librarian in the little town. Surrounded by books, but there was no one to hear her stories. That is, until Winn-Dixie and Opal showed up one day, and then the next until finally Fanny told her the story of her great grandfather. Littmus W. Block. A civil war veteran who, after the war was over, decided that the world needed some something sweet. So, he built a candy factory and the Littmus Lozenge tasted a little like root beer, some strawberries and something else. Something a little sad. Fanny said that Littmus had a special ingredient that took all the sadness from the war, mixed it into the candy, so that people could taste the sweet and the sad of life, all blended together. And in that tasting, they could find peace.
And from scripture, Romans 8, We know that all things work together for good for those who love G-d, who are called according to his purpose.
The good and the bad, the sweet and the sad, all shape us and make our lives what they are.
And there was Gloria Dump. She lived alone in a spooky looking house with an overgrown yard. The Dewberry boys from down the street were about the same age as Opal, but they had no idea how to talk to a girl. So they teased her and taunted her a bit. Those Dewberry boys had declared that Gloria must be a witch and that Opal should not even go near her house. That Gloria would even eat her dog if she got a chance. But Winn-Dixie took off into her yard, and Opal followed. And deep in that grown over yard, she found Gloria feeding Winn-Dixie a peanut butter sandwich.
Gloria was full of wisdom. Full of patience. And full of love. And every day, Opal and Winn-Dixie visited with Gloria. And Gloria would teach her about getting along with others. Not judging others about what they had done but trying to appreciate who they are now. Trying to understand them.
And Gloria listened.
And one day Opal thought, “Because Winn-Dixie was looking up at her like she was the best thing he had ever seen, and because the peanut butter sandwich had been so good, and because I had been waiting so long to tell someone everything about me, I did”
And here is the part I like. Opal said “I could feel her listening with all her heart and it felt good.”
Friends, there is no better gift we can give than to listen to people with all our heart. To give them our undivided attention and hear their stories. St. Peter wrote in his first letter, 4th chapter, Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of G-d, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.
Listening to people tell their stories is an act of love.
Listening is a grace.
Listening is a gift.
We might mess up a lot of things. We might have a bit of sin in our lives. But love and G-d’s grace will cover over a multitude of the things we do wrong.
Sometimes listening is hard. Stories get repeated. Real or imagined grievances get aired again and again. Hurts are replayed. Anger can surface and then dissipate. And we are called to listen to all of that.
And so, Paul would write to the church in Ephesus, Chapter 4, to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,
And Paul also wrote to the church to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as G-d in Christ has forgiven you.
And Paul also wrote to the church in Corinth, 13th chapter, that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And Paul wrote to the church in Colossi in the 3rd chapter, Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
And so, we might discern a trend here as Paul writes to his churches to tell them to bear with each other. Because apparently, the churches were not doing a great job of that and were not listening to each other very well. And so, Paul had to fuss at each one of his churches to do a better job of listening with their whole heart; forgiving each other and bearing with each other in love. And across the centuries, the church today needs to sharpen up our listening skills so that folks will say, “I could feel her listening with all her heart and it felt good.”
And once it was clear between Gloria and Opal that theirs was a trusted conversation, a conversation of the heart, then Gloria shared a bit of her story. Gloria showed Opal her “Mistake tree”. A tree with bottles hung from the branches. They were not soda bottles. The tree reminded Gloria each day how she had to fight her battle and that story hit home with Opal. Because her mom had also struggled with alcohol and had made some mistakes in her life. At some point, Opal wondered who held and comforted Gloria when the ghosts of those bottles began to rattle in the wind. Opal could hold Winn-Dixie as the storms thundered, but who held Gloria?
But, let’s move on to Otis. Otis was the manager of the pet store where Opal went to get Winn-Dixie a collar and lease. So that he wouldn’t look like a stray. Opal did not have enough money, so she asked Otis if she could work it off at the store. Otis was worried about having a big dog in the store. In fact, there was a sign on the door. “No Dogs Allowed”. But Winn-Dixie won his heart with that smile, and Opal had a job. But there was a loneliness about Otis. A sort of caged look, and eventually he confided to Opal that he had been in jail. That was why he let the animals out of their cages and played his guitar for them in the mornings.
And the cast of characters includes little Amanda Wilkinson. She was described by Opal as “Pinch faced”. But later Opal would learn that her scowl was a mask for her pain from the death of her little brother. That she too needed a friend.
Finally, there was the Preacher. We never learn his real name. Opal just thinks of him as the Preacher. He is still missing his wife. Hoping that she would come back. But knowing that she likely would not. Opal described her dad as being like a turtle. His head drawn back into a shell. Afraid to come out and experience life.
And so, it was because of Winn-Dixie, who, in one way or another, brought these people together. Out of their loneliness and into fellowship. Out of their anxiety into peace and contentment. First with Opal and the dog, and then with each other. See, Winn-Dixie would not stay by himself. He would not let that little girl out of his sight. He howled and clamored and threw a fuss, and so that is how Winn-Dixie started going to church. And to the library. And to the pet store. Over to Gloria’s house. And everywhere in town, sharing his goofy dog smile and bringing people together. And so, Opal was to say to Winn-Dixie, “You are better at making friends than anybody I have ever known.”
And so, you might be wondering if the story of Winn-Dixie has a plot. Is there a mystery that has been solved? Is there an ending where Opal’s mom comes back and they lived happy ever after? And there is no such ending. Instead, Opal and Gloria planned a party at Gloria’s house. The guests are those Winn-Dixie who has brought together. Gloria made egg salad sandwiches and punch. Fanny brought a bowl of Littmus Lozenges. Otis brought his guitar and they found out that he could play any tune and sing any song. The preacher came to bless and be blessed. Amanda came and no longer looked pinch faced. The boys came and they were no longer teasing or taunting.
The only drama was that a sudden storm came up and Opal thought that Winn-Dixie had run off. So, she and the Preacher went searching all over town. And when the Preacher finally said that they had done all the searching and calling they could and it was time to go back, Opal’s little heart broke. She cried out to her dad, not to give up like he gave up on mom. “I bet you just let her run off too.” Opal said. Then the Preacher cried, and they shared such a tender moment. Opal asked her dad if he ever thought mom would come back and the Preacher confessed, finally admitted, that she likely would not. But that they had each other in this sweet/ sad thing called life, and that would be enough. That their love would get them through.
But this is a children’s book. Opal and the Preacher went back to Gloria’s house and Winn-Dixie had been hiding under a bed. So, the party continued inside. And they sang songs together. The Preacher offered some hymns they might sing and that Otis could play.
And after a while, little Opal slipped out back to that mistake tree. In her imagination, she talked to her mom. Shared what had happened. Vowed to learn more about her mom. To keep loving her. But she knew her mom was not coming back, and that she and the Preacher would continue to miss her. But she told her mom. “my heart does not feel empty anymore. It’s full all the way up.”
When we open ourselves to others and listen to their stories. Trust them enough to tell them our stories. When we stop judging and start accepting others and understand that they each have their own gifts and graces. When we learn how to take the sweet and the sad. When we learn how to love.
Our hearts get full all the way up.
Not because of Winn-Dixie, but because of Jesus Christ.
Who loves us without condition. Who turns our anxiety into peace. Who holds us and comforts us in the storms. Who listens with his whole heart. And who accepts us just as we are, but with a divine intent that we will become better.
I hope that you take a minute to read Because of Winn-Dixie. There is much more than I was able to share. More wisdom from Gloria. More love from that little girl. And more to read about that doggie, Winn-Dixie. Friends, wisdom comes from the strangest places. Even from the pages of a children’s book.
To G-d be the glory.
Sunrise Service at William Taylor UMC
“The Message of the Cross”
Pastor Bill Knobles as guest preacher
Scriptures: Luke 24:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
1 Corinthians 1:18-25. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not G-d made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of G-d, the world did not know G-d through wisdom, G-d decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of G-d and the wisdom of G-d. For G-d’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and G-d’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Luke 24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women were the early witnesses to the Resurrection according to Luke’s gospel. They came to the tomb early that morning with the spices and ointments they had prepared for Jesus’ body. As a final act of devotion, they would do for him what tradition required. Even though he had died a scandalous death by crucifixion, his body would be treated with respect and love. So, they had prepared the spices and had prepared themselves for what they would find.
But they were not prepared to find an empty tomb.
They were not prepared to find the stone rolled away.
And they were not prepared to find angels saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
And so, they went from being perplexed to being terrified. From being sure that Jesus was dead to trying to figure out what had happened.
Now Peter might have said that the tale was foolish; an idle tale. And he might have thought that the women were delirious, but he got up from his grief. He got up from his shame. He got up from his guilt and he ran to the tomb. And he was amazed at what he found.
And so, we add “amazement” to the list of what they were feeling early that morning.
Perplexed, puzzled, confused, confounded. Then frightened and terrified. And then amazed.
And friends, people receive the message of the cross the same way today. Puzzled, then frightened and then, by grace, amazed. Puzzled because the wisdom of the world says that the story of the cross is foolishness. Frightened because the reality of our sin is terrifying. Amazed because G-d would even consider saving his sinful creatures from judgment.
And so, they look for signs and seek after wisdom. They search after fulfillment and pursue the treasures of this world. And in the end, unless they understand the message of the cross, they will come away empty. Their pursuits wasted.
One thing we might wonder about that first Easter morning was whether the women had wasted the spices they had prepared. Did they waste their money and resources in purchasing the aloes and the myrrh or even the nard used to prepare a body for burial? These items were not cheap, and you opened the containers by breaking them. The contents could not be saved. So, was their preparation wasted? I think not. Because the preparation was a time of devotion. The preparation was a time to consider and think and to pray and to grieve and then to settle into the task that lay ahead.
And G-d honors such devotion. G-d values our intentions. And G-d uses such a task to focus us, orientate us and consecrate us to do his work. As those women prepared the spices, G-d prepared their hearts to receive a message that would otherwise have been foolishness to them.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d.
And so, it is good and right on this Easter morning to seek understanding of the message of the cross. To prepare ourselves to help others seek that understanding. And to reject the world’s definition of wisdom. But we start with a scandal. Crucifixion was a scandal. The cross was an ugly instrument of capital punishment. It was a symbol of the power of Rome to take a life. It was a sign of the powerlessness of a people to resist Roman law. And it was repugnant to all but the cruelest sensibilities. Indeed, the cross was associated with the horror of an ugly, prolonged death. And it was reserved only for the worst of the criminals and done in a way to humiliate the family and friends of the victim.
People of faith did not wind up on a cross. The religious leaders did not wind up on a cross. And it was foolishness to even suggest that G-d would use such a scandal to redeem his people from their sin.
Foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews.
And so, Paul would write that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d.
Paul presents us with these opposing positions between what the world accounts as wisdom and what G-d tells us is truth.
The power of G-d vs. the power of sin.
The power of reconciliation vs. the cancer of division.
The power of justification vs. the ugliness of condemnation.
The power of hope vs. the agony of despair.
The power of love vs. the sickness of hate.
Each of these dynamic, important and lifechanging alternatives wrapped up in the single most powerful proclamation we make.
That we proclaim Christ crucified. That we proclaim the cross is more powerful than our sin. That we proclaim our faith is more powerful that what the world tells us is important.
And which Paul says is the message of the cross. A message so powerful that it separates those of us who are being saved from those who are perishing.
So, what is the wisdom that the world offers? What is the wisdom of the wise? The discernment of the discerning? What are people running after in their fear and their puzzlement?
Some folks listen to the Hollywood celebrities and the New York power brokers to know what to seek and adore. And they tell us that it is ok to cheat on college admissions. That if you have money, it is justified to spread a little around so that your child is a step ahead of the kid who has worked and earned that slot in school.
They tell us that wealth is power. That might makes right. That status is all important. The world tells us that we should idolize celebrities, worship athletes and pay homage to the royally born. The world tells us that it is ok, even more than ok, to claw your way up and use people as your stepping stones.
That world of wisdom puts us in debt. It stretches us beyond our means.
It comes between us and our church. Even between us and our families as we sacrifice for a bunch of stuff that is just going to break anyway.
And, Oh the wisdom the world has for our children. That it is ok to bully.
It is ok to use mean words on social media. That to be popular, you have to dress a certain way, be with certain people or do certain things. And when it all goes bad, some wisdom that is offered by the world to our children is to just take their own lives.
And when we speak out, the world tells us that we ought to keep silent about our faith because we just might offend those with no faith. This is just a bit of the wisdom the world offers. This is what the world wants us to believe.
And when we say that idolatry, infanticide, pride, cheating, coveting, and hating and snarking and judging and mocking and hurting are wrong, we are called foolish. We are called out of touch and old fashioned. We don’t know how things are and how things are done.
Because the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d.
It is the power to redeem.
The power to save.
The power to heal.
The power to love
And it is the power to live.
Not just to exist and chase the worldly pursuits, but to have life and have it abundantly and joyfully.
The message of the cross, the heart of the Gospel, the meaning of the empty tomb, is that G-d loves us so much that he gave his one and only beloved son to die so that we might be saved. The message of the cross stands opposed to the message of the world. And the message of the cross is the only answer to our sin and our way to redemption.
When I read my Bible, I am mindful that it takes only 3 chapters before we get into the business of sin and rebellion against G-d. Actually just 2 chapters and then half of a paragraph. And we fall from G-d’s grace. Sin enters this world. And we are evicted from paradise.
And then in Chapter 4, actually it is only the 2nd paragraph of chapter 4, humankind gets into the murdering business as Cain kills his brother Able.
And so, we have our Bible, that from the very start until the final victory in Revelation, is the epic story of G-d trying to get his kids back. Trying to redeem his sinful, foolish children who had much rather look to the world’s wisdom and our own devices for salvation.
So first, G-d calls his people Israel as a sign of his grace in the fallen world and claims them as his people. He rescues them time and time again. He gives them his law and his love. He gives them land and prosperity. And eventually, they become just as foolish as ever. And so, Lord G-d announces through his prophets that he is coming down here to get his kids back. That he is going to make a way of redemption for them. And that he was going to do so in a way that would never be forgotten. A way that was so shocking that people would know of a love so big, grace so divine, that we would confess our sins, repent and submit to G-d’s will.
And so, the message of the Cross is that Christ died for our sin. Taking our stripes. Restoring our relationship with G-d.
The image of that Old Rugged Cross is a sign of what G-d has done to rescue us once and for all, at least those who are being saved because we have faith in our G-d. Some folks might say to us that the message of the cross is not as enticing as what the world offers. That the empty tomb is not as compelling as a full bank account. That faith is not as fulfilling, not as certain, as the material things the world gives. That we will never sell the message of the cross in today’s world.
And to that I say, “baloney”. I say that is truly foolishness. Because I have sat with those families who thought they had it all, only to find out that what they had was an illusion of prosperity. I have visited with rich folks who would give all their money for just one day of sobriety. We all have wept with people who found that money could never replace what they have lost. That in the end, it is only the message of the cross, the power of G-d, that offers comfort and peace, joy and life.
Friends, our job as faithful Christians is to be a witness to that message. In how we live, how we act, how we worship and how we love.
And just as that first Easter morning the women prepared to serve Jesus, prepared their devotion to their Christ, we prepare this Easter to go and tell the message of the cross. So that people might not perish, but have everlasting life.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d.
But friends, they might be perishing, but they are not gone yet. They might be sinking low, but they are not finished yet. As long as the unrepentant sinner has breath, there is a chance that what seems foolish to them is what will save them.
That what has been rejected will become their cornerstone.
And that they will be saved by the very power of G-d.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And the people said amen.
06 MAR 2019
Ash Wednesday Sermon, First United Methodist Church of Luling
Pastor Bill Knobles
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and Luke 18:9-14.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17. 2:1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near-2:2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. 2:12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 2:13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 2:14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
Luke 18:9-14. He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
By 70 A.D. Rome had had quite enough of the rebellious Jews of Israel. There had been battles and skirmishes throughout Judea. Entire Jewish cities had been destroyed and the people killed. And now, the Roman army had laid siege to Jerusalem. They had built ramps up to the walls and put their siege engines into position. Battering rams pounded the gates. Jerusalem did not stand a chance. It was a rout and the panic and killing seemed to be without end. The temple was plundered. All of this was chronicled by Josephus, the Jewish historian in his “Wars of the Jews”. And in the end, Caesar ordered the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem. That no trace of the temple be left. It was to be an object lesson for other provinces with a rebellious streak.
Then, years and years went by. The fighting continued periodically, even as the city was slowly rebuilt. The Romans, Persians, the Jews, the Christians, all loosely wrapped into the Byzantine Empire continued to fuss over the city. But in 636 a.d., the Muslim Caliphate laid siege to Jerusalem and captured the city. They laid claim to Temple Mount and built a mosque where the temple used to stand.
Then came the crusades and the world wars, the creation of the state of Israel and then 1967, the Six Day war when Israel took Jerusalem once again. And the Jews began the excavation of the Western Wall. It was all that was left of their beloved temple. Its probable location had been known for a long time, but years of garbage and junk piling up, haphazard building, had all but buried the wall. Now, it was unearthed and exposed once again.
The Western Wall of Temple Mount is not a wall to keep people in or out. It is simply a retaining wall to create a flat surface for Temple Mount. But it is a holy site to the Jewish people and they come to the wall to pray. In olden times, it was called the Wailing Wall, because the Jewish people came there with their desperate prayers, their cries, their lamentations over the destruction of their Temple. Now, people from all over go to the Western Wall to reverently seek God. To slip their written prayers between the stones. To open themselves to Lord God in a place where they feel that he is near.
Not too far from that wall, Jesus told a parable about two men praying in the temple. One man, a Pharisee, was congratulating himself at how good he was. How generous he was. How faithful he was. How pious he was. The man was self-satisfied, and his prayers were shallow. He asked nothing of God because he believed he had need of nothing from God. He was not convicted by his sin. He felt neither the wrath nor the love of God. He might as well have been standing around the coffee pot chatting with his friends.
But there was another man. A desperate man. A man who knew his sin and it was ever before him. He could not even look up to heaven as he prayed. He felt unworthy and so he prayed away from the others. Tax collectors in Jerusalem were compromised people. They were in league with the Roman tyrants. Their contract was to collect a set amount of taxes for Rome and they could keep any excess. It was a system fraught with abuse. The Romans suspected them, and the Jews hated them. And sometimes, the tax collectors hated themselves. And if they were people of any faith, all they could do was to pray to God for mercy. To repent and plead to God for forgiveness. To try to turn their lives around and extricate themselves from the web of deceit and excess and abuse that they had gotten themselves into.
Such a life was hard to get into and even harder to get out of. It still is. We find ourselves in messes and we wonder how we got in so deep. This season of Lent will be a good time to lay out our prayer life and examine what we find. To see what we have gotten ourselves into.
Among our prayers will be those of praise. Of thanking God and celebrating his goodness. That will probably be a large, orderly stack of prayers right in front.
Over here, we have our prayers, our vows, to serve our God. It is not a real large stack, but the prayers are well intended.
But over here are our prayers of supplication. Our prayers for others. For the neighbor who is fighting cancer. For the child who is wandering. For the friend who is lonely. For the world that is in chaos. For the church that is struggling. This stack is not orderly but is a little scattered. The prayers seem incomplete. Some are even dampened by our tears. Wrinkled by our heartache.
Then, over there is a crumpled mess of prayers for our self. Our hurts. Our shortcomings. Our sins. Our confessions. Our repentance. Our pleas for forgiveness. They are a sodden lump of prayers, anointed by our weeping; baptized by our fears. Some prayers have but a single word of “help!”. On others, there are no words at all. Just a sound of our groaning.
These are our desperate prayers. Prayed while we are under siege. Prayed while our temples are torn down. Prayed while our loved ones are scattered. I think that when God hears our prayers, these are the ones he turns his attention to first. These are the prayers which are like an emergency room. They need some attention now, and not later. We are not distracted when we pray these desperate prayers. No, these hurts have our full attention. These needs are urgent. Our sin is ever before us, accusing us and trying to curse us. These are not prayers for around the coffee pot. These prayers are not for show. These are prayers from the gut, offered to God with trembling hands and on the knees of our hearts.
Paul wrote about such prayers.
In the 8th chapter of Romans, verse 26, he wrote Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
What does God do with our desperate prayers? Jesus said that the tax collector went down to his home justified before God. Justified is a rather curious word here. In common English, it means that a person’s actions are proven right and reasonable and just. But that definition does not hold true here. The sinner is not declared right, but forgiven. In the Christian sense, justification is an act of God. It is an act of God not based on the work of the sinner, but on the work of Jesus on the cross. And it is that work, through our faith in Christ, which is imputed to us. Claimed by us. Grasped by us and held tightly by us. Received by us through faith. And by which God declares that we are no longer guilty of our sin. We are released from its penalty. And restored as righteous before God. In a right relationship with God.
Some might think, even believe, that it is too late for them. That they are too far gone for forgiveness and restoration. That their desperate prayers cannot be heard by God. And they would be wrong. Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart. These are the words of the prophet. Even now. After the sin. After the recriminations. After the heartbreak. Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing
Even now. That “now” has come in this time of Lent. And the now is the taking of the ashes. Ashes of repentance. I am asking folks, if you were in Jerusalem, at the Western Wall, what would be your prayer? There is a prayer wall in the Narthex. Fashioned after the Western Wall, with places to add your prayers. Slips of paper to write on. Cracks and niches to receive them. There is no need to sign your name. They will remain personal to you. I will read them and pray over them. We will do this throughout Lent. Paul said that we should pray without ceasing. So, we will all add prayers, joys, concerns, prayers of celebration, prayers of heartbreak, even desperate prayers all through Lent. But as we prepare for this time of deep prayer in the church, we first take on the ashes of our repentance. (and we continued worship with the litany of the imposition of the ashes.)