1-13-19 Where the Dove Descends

Thomas J Parlette

“When the Dove Descends”

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

1/13/19

 

          Every once in awhile, friends send me things that are circulating on Facebook or other social media – usually jokes, sometimes the latest Harry Potter quiz and occasionally funny videos. They know I’m not on social media, so they don’t want me to miss anything.

          So awhile back I was forwarded a joke, maybe you got I too. It began: “We are all familiar with a herd of cows, a flock of chickens, a school of fish and a gaggle of geese. However less widely known is a pride of lions, a murder of crows, a bouquet of pheasants, an exaltation of doves, and presumably because they look so wise, a parliament of owls. Now consider a group of baboons. They are the loudest, most dangerous, most obnoxious, most viciously aggressive and least intelligent of all primates. And what is the proper collective noun for a group of baboons? Believe it or not… a Congress.”(1)

          The problem is Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize winning fact checking service, ran the post through its data base and found that there were some problems with the joke. A group of baboons is not called a Congress. The proper term for a group of baboons is a troop. The other problem is that a group of doves is not an exaltation – that applies to a group of larks. A group of doves is actually called a “bevy” or a “dole”, or even a “flight” of doves. So don’t trust everything you read on social media – sometimes it’s not quite accurate.

          In today’s Gospel, we don’t have a bevy of doves, we’ve just got the one, descending on Jesus at his baptism.

          All four of our Gospels refer to Jesus’ baptism and all four take note of a dove descending. Mark and Luke are almost identical in how they relate the story – the dove descends and a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” A very personal moment between God and Jesus.

          Matthew is very similar, but in his version the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”. More of an introduction for the crowd to hear rather than a private exchange between Father and Son.

          John, of course, does his own thing, and never actually describes the moment of baptism itself, but does say he saw the Spirit of God, like a dove, descend upon Jesus and remain with him – that’s how he knew that Jesus was the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

          These baptism stories are very important because these are the rare passages that depict the three Persons of the Trinity together at the same time. The person of Jesus, the Holy Spirit as a dove and the voice of God all converging at Jesus’ baptism.

          This scene ought to remind us how important baptism is. United Methodist bishop Will Willimon tells a wonderful story about a baptism he once conducted. It was at a small, rural church. A twelve-year-old boy wanted to baptized by immersion. The boy’s pastor conveyed the request to Willimon. Methodists rarely baptize by immersion, but Willimon was willing to do if it that was what the boy wanted.

          The bishop arrived at the church early Sunday morning to find the pastor and the boy standing on the front steps. “Jeremy, this is the bishop. It’s quite an honor for you to be baptized by the bishop.”

         Jeremy looked Bishop Willimon over and said, “They tell me you don’t do many of these. I’d feel better if we did a run-through beforehand.”

          “Good idea,” said Willimon. “I was going to suggest the same thing.” They went into the church’s fellowship hall where the pastor showed them their newly purchased baptism font, which looked a lot like a small Jacuzzi.

          Young Jeremy took the lead. “After you say the words, then you take my hand and lead me up these steps, and do you want me to take off my socks?”

          “I don’t know, I guess you can leave them on if you want,” said Willimon. He obviously wasn’t an expert at these kinds of baptisms, and the young man had clearly thought this through pretty thoroughly. The service went well, the bishop preached a wonderful sermon, the choir sang a special baptism anthem and the whole congregation recessed into the fellowship hall and gathered around the baptismal font. Willimon went through the liturgy and then asked Jeremy if he had anything to say to the congregation before his baptism.

          “Yes, I do,” said Jeremy. Then, addressing the congregation of that little church, Jeremy said, “I just want to say to all of you that I’m here today because of you. When my parents split up, I thought my world was over. But you stood by me. You told me the stories about Jesus. And I just want to say thanks for what you did for me. I intend to make you proud as I’m going to try to live my life the way Jesus wants.”

          By this time Willimon had tears streaming down his face, and as he led Jeremy up the steps into the pool, Jeremy looked at him and said – “Are you going to be OK?”

          “I baptized Jeremy, concludes Willimon, “and the church sang a great Hallelujah!”(2)

          And so they should. They were acknowledging and accepting a fine young man into the family of God. It’s an important event, and Jeremy certainly understood that, more so than most. Baptism matters.

          It matters for several reasons. For one thing it says something about the person being baptized. The person being baptized now belongs to God. We sometime hear people say things like, “It’s my life, I can do what I want.” And I suppose that’s true to an extent. We Americans certainly value our independence and personal liberties. But for those who have been baptized, we must acknowledge that we now belong to God. You may not be everything that God wants you to be yet – but you still belong to God.

          Ben Helmer, an Episcopal priest in Arkansas, tells about a baptism of a 55-year-old man who had just started coming to his church. One day the man asked, “What do I need to do to be baptized?” As is the custom in the Episcopal church, a bishop was asked to be officiate the man’s baptism. On the day of his baptism, he stood at the small font, and bowed his head as the priest poured water on him. The bishop sealed his baptism by using consecrated oil to make the sign of the cross on his forehead – repeating the words “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

          Afterward, this man shared how moving the experience had been for him. He told how something had always been missing in his life. He had been a counselor until his retirement, and in that role he had often worked with people to help them find meaning and purpose in life. But in retirement, he had found that he now needed that sense of purpose. And in his baptism he had found it.

          This man is now a servant of Christ, volunteering at a food pantry, and on Christmas day, offering to help cook and serve Christmas dinner for others at a local health clinic. He spent Christmas weekend with his family, but Christmas day itself, he was at the clinic serving others. Did it matter to this 55-year-old man whether he had been baptized? Yes, it did! It marked a new chapter in his life. He now belonged to God. Baptism matters.

          Baptism also matters because of what it says about the church. Christian baptism is a rite of the church. When you are baptized, you are baptized into a family. That family is the Christian family. There are far too many people who are under the delusion that they can live a Christian life apart from the church. It’s true that you may live a moral life, you may live a constructive and happy life, but the Christian life can only be properly lived as part of the body of Christ.

          Now churches vary greatly. Not every church is a place where you can find God. But church is where you are most likely to find God. It may be our church or another one. It may be a large church or it might be a small one. But we were baptized into the body of Christ, and only within the body of Christ will our commitment to Christ be complete.

          Stephen Montgomery tells about a young woman he once knew who was looking for a church in which to get married. She nearly drove her fiancé and her mother crazy, scouting out just about every sanctuary in the city, looking for just the right one – the one with the prettiest stain glass windows, the one with just the right length of center aisle, the one with the best access to hotel accommodations and interstate highways.

          Finally, she made a decision. She ended up getting married in an old cinder block rectangular building with fluorescent lights and an old Wurlitzer electric organ. A few handmade felt banners that the youth group had made in the 60’s and 70’s were still up on the walls.

          Why the change of heart? She finally realized something important – this was the church where she had been baptized, where she had been confirmed and met her husband to be. This was the church where her grandparents’ memorial services had been held. This was where she had come to know something of the love and grace of God. She realized that this building was a sacred center, but its importance was in being a means to an end and not an end in itself.(4)

          We sometimes chuckle about people who simply use the church to be hatched, matched and dispatched. That is to say – to be baptized, married and then buried. The other side of that is that the church envelopes all the important events of our life. Baptism is an initiation into a special group, the church of Jesus Christ, of whatever denomination. We may baptize in different ways, but all churches are united in this one way – baptism is a requirement of acceptance into the body of Christ. Baptism is important because of what it says about the person being baptized and what it says about the church. Every baptized person is part of the church.

          Even more important is what baptism says about the grace of God. God’s grace is available to all. We are not baptized because we are perfect. None of us is perfect. The use of water symbolizes that our sins have been washed away.

          A lady tells about a baptism service that took place in her evangelical church. One hundred and two people were scheduled to be baptized during one special service. The men wore black robes and the women wore white.

          During the baptism, the dye from the black robes began to make the water look dark and dirty, and this lady overheard two young boys behind her discussing the matter.

          “How come the water is getting so dirty?”

          “That’s their sins getting all washed away”

          “Ohhhh…”(5)

          Maybe not really – but he certainly got the point.

          Sam Houston was the first president of the Republic of Texas. It’s said that he was a rather nasty fellow with a checkered past. Later in life he made a commitment to Christ and was baptized in a river. The preacher said, “Sam, your sins are washed away.”

          And Houston replied, “God help the fish.”(6)

          God accepts us as we are. God would prefer that we be like Jeremy, the 12-year-old boy who vowed his intent to make his church family proud by the life he would lead. God would prefer that we would be like the 55-year-old who found his purpose through his baptism and become a servant of Christ. But God accepts us as we are. Baptism is important because of what it says about the person being baptized and what it says about the church. But most important is what it says about the grace of God.

          When the dove descends and the Holy Spirit rests upon us in our baptism, God is pleased to welcome us into the fold.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, p9.

2.    Ibid… p10-11.

3.    Ibid… p11.

4.    Ibid… p12.

5.    Ibid… p13.

6.    Ibid… p13.

 

         

1-6-19 The Light Has Come

Thomas J Parlette

“The Light has Come”

Matthew 2: 1-12, Isaiah 60: 1-6

1/6/19

 

          Once upon a time, there was a man who found himself in a small southern town while passing through on his way to business meeting. It was the Christmas season and this little town had the charm of a Hallmark movie – decorations, lights, festive holiday displays all over town.

          One of the downtown churches had a lovely Nativity display out in front of the church. This business man was admiring it, when he noticed that the wise men in the display all had firemen helmets on. He thought that was rather odd – why firemen helmets? He thought maybe it was a special tribute to local firefighters, or maybe it was a theological statement of some kind. He puzzled about this as he stopped in to a local convenience store.

          As he paid for his bottle of water and a snickers bar, he asked the lady behind the counter, “Do you know why the wise men in the nativity display next door are wearing firemen’s helmets/”

          The lady behind the counters took a moment to size the man up, and with a look of mild annoyance and a roll of her eyes, she said, “Boy, you Yankees never read your Bibles do you?”

          The man was a little offended. “I read my Bible, in fact I’m a regular church goer, I think I know my Bible pretty well.”

          With that, the lady reached under the counter and pulled out her tattered copy of the Bible. She flipped open to Matthew, chapter 2 and jabbed her finger at a verse. “See, it says right here, “The three wise men came from afar.”(1)

          On this Sunday of Epiphany, we welcome the wise men – not from a fire, but from a far-away land, somewhere in the East. The Bible doesn’t actually say there were three of them, in fact, ancient sources outside the biblical texts set the number of visitors at 2, 4 or even 12. But ever since 1857, when the hymn “We Three Kings of Orient Are” was composed, that number 3 has been set in our minds. There were 3 gifts, so it made sense to have 3 separate gift givers.

          The wise men were actually “magi”, something akin to astronomers, fortune-tellers or a magician of sorts. They were probably from Persia and practiced the dualistic religion of Zoroastrianism and their specialty was interpreting dreams. In their studies of astrological events, they believed that God was up to something – they had seen evidence of new King being born, but they had no idea where to look for him. They are given a sign in the form of a new star in the sky. The magi follow the star and it brings them to Bethlehem.

          These wise men are outsiders to the promises and stories of Israel, but God found a way to include them as well. Without dropping his usual footnote, “this was to fulfill…”, Matthew is reminding us of a prophetic text from Isaiah, our Old Testament text for today: “Arise, shine, for your light has come… the young camels from Midian and Ephah, all those from Sheba will come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

          And here they are. As Isaiah announced, “The nations shall come to you light.” The glory of the Lord, depicted as a Light, attracts people of other races beyond Israel. This Light of God will shine for all the world, Jew and Gentile alike. This symbol of light is what we celebrate during the season of Epiphany. The light of Christ has dawned for the world. Christ is our guide, our strength, the One who fills our life with meaning.

          Professor Harold DeWolf, in his book The Religious Revolt Against Reason, tells of an experience he had as a young man. He went swimming at midnight one night with a friend in the Atlantic Ocean at Massachusetts Bay. He said the water was full of phosphorescent light. Every dip of his hand in the water produced something like a “circle of flashing gems and every breaker looked like a cascade of fireworks.” To ride the waves, they went out some distance from the shore. Then turning toward land DeWolf was gripped by a strange fear. The lights from the shore were no longer visible. So he looked up to the sky to get his bearings. But the sky was like the water – full of the spectacular confusion of the northern lights. “No star was visible. Then panic overtook me, for in all that glittering display there was no fixed reality. I could not tell the way to shore. I started back with a helpless terror engulfing me.” Professor DeWolf learned that, with no fixed star to guide him, it was almost impossible to chart out a course.(2)

          But thank God we have a star to follow. It is the same star that guided the magi long ago. It is the light of Christ. Christ, who is a dependable guide, whose love never fails.

          Scott Coltrain notes that “if you look in the dictionary, the first definition for “light” is something that makes vision possible.”(3) In other words, light makes it possible for us to see. Without light, we are hopelessly blind – blind to our surroundings, blind to our situations and circumstances, blind even to ourselves. Light makes it possible for us to see clearly – to see things as they really are. Before Christ, most of the world was blind. Christ, the Light of the world we celebrate during Epiphany, made it possible for us to have a glimpse of the Glory of God.

          In the early 1960’s, the Christian author and apologist C.S. Lewis was lecturing to the Oxford Socratic Club – more of a philosophy club than a religious club. Lewis defended Christianity by saying, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”(4)

          Christ helps us to see the world in a new light, one that reveals that the people around us are not enemies or opponents. They are human beings made in the image and likeness of God. The light of Christ gives us strategies for navigating challenges, such as forgiving instead of punishing, and working for the common good instead of our narrow self-interest. Jesus invites us to see ourselves not as members of a particular family or community or nation, but as citizens of the glorious kingdom of God.

          During Epiphany we celebrate the light that comes into the world to guide us and let us see the glory of God, just as it did for the magi from the East as Matthew tells us. We then turn to Isaiah, and in his words we get the “now what.” Now that the Light has come, what do we do – now what? As Isaiah put it, now is the time to rise, and shine, for your light has come, the glory of God has risen upon you.”

          Hope is restored – the Light has come.

          In 1998, Harvard’s senior class gathered in Memorial Church to hear the minister offer words of solace and encouragement as they left “Harvard Yard” to take their places in the world. The unvarnished truth that morning came from the late Rev Dr. Peter Gomes, longtime Professor of Christian Morals and minister of the Memorial Church and author of several popular book on the Bible.

          Gomes took no prisoners that day. He began: “You are going to be sent out of here for good, and most of you aren’t ready to go. The President is about to bid you into the fellowship of educated men and women and, (here he paused and spoke each word slowly for emphasis) you know just- how-dumb-you-really-are.” The senior class cheered in agreement.

          “And worse than that,” he continued, “the world – and your parents in particular – are going to expect that you will be among the brightest and best. But you know that you can no longer fool all the people even some of the time. By noontime today, you will be out of here. By tomorrow you will be history. By Saturday, you will be toast. That’s a fact – no exceptions, no extensions.”

          “Nevertheless, there is reason to hope,” Gomes promised. “The future is God’s gift to you. God will not let you stumble or fall. God has not brought you this far to this place to abandon you or leave you alone and afraid. The God of Israel never stumbles, never sleeps, never goes on sabbatical. Thus, my beloved and bewildered young friends, do not be afraid.”(5)

          I think we could add Isaiah words here… “Arise, Shine, for your light has come.”

          As we gather around the table at the start of a new calendar year, let us rejoice that the light has come. There is reason to hope. Let us arise and Shine.

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    HomileticsOnline, retrieved 12/12/18.

2.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, p7.

3.    Ibid… p7.

4.    HomileticsOnline, retrieved 12/12/18.

5.    Ibid…

12-30-18 Praise the Lord Anyway

Jay P Rowland

“Praise the Lord Anyway”

Psalm 148 & Luke 2:21-38

12/30/18

 

Though in some ways it feels like more than just a few days ago, it was only a few days ago now that Jesus was born.  

Thanks to the kindness of strangers, Joseph and Mary were at least off the street and out of the way when the baby arrived.  And so because of this, Jesus and his beleaguered parents could stretch out and sleep upon something other than the cold, hard ground, albeit scratchy, lumpy hay. Beggars can’t be choosers as the saying goes. 

It was just another day--or night perhaps--to the world at the time when God quietly slipped into this world of trees and sand and oceans and stars and weather and people. The world noticed or cared not at all.  Except for some shepherds, a few foreign star-gazers, and a bunch of animals, Joseph and Mary were the only earthly creatures to notice that something unprecedented happened. 

And that’s how that day and year ended and something new began for Mary, Joseph, God, Jesus … and the world. Fast forward a couple thousand years and here we are just a couple of days from ending another year and beginning another.  Here we are, assembled in God’s house, like Simeon and Anna, a good place from which to look back upon all that happened in 2018; a good place to anchor ourselves before the year 2019 begins.  

As happens every year, this past year we experienced moments of great joy and meaning. Moments of transcendence and beauty. Moments we might have, if only we could, somehow bottle and preserve.  To which I say, with Psalm 148, “Praise the Lord”. 

As happens every year, this past year we also witnessed and experienced moments of great difficulty, even anguish. Moments we wish hadn’t happened.  Moments for which we could not possibly have prepared. As I say that it occurs to me that Mary and Joseph certainly did. To which I say, slightly amending Psalm 138: “Praise the Lord, anyway.” 

I say “Praise the Lord anyway” not to ignore or dismiss or deny those moments, but only because I’ve come to believe it’s not merely important, it’s downright critical to persevere, to fight when necessary to hold onto hope and faith and trust in God.  In order to remind myself no matter what happens on any given day or year, that God who came into this world in the person Jesus in such a way that there could be no mistake about God’s intentions with us.   

Into this world of violence and corruption and trouble and abuse and power-over, God came. God came not declaring war … God came not as a warrior steeling for battle.  Rather God came into this world vulnerable to all of it, as vulnerable as any and all of us are.  And Jesus remained vulnerable to the evils of this world all the way to the end. And though he might have been tempted to do otherwise, in the end Jesus became another casualty of this world’s corruption, violence, abuse, trouble and power-plays just as all of us become one way or another.  

Jesus did so because he was determined to love his way through this world, so that we might be convinced that his love for us is indeed everlasting, unbreakable, unshakable.   

In the bleak midwinter of the world, Jesus was born; his birth and his love changing the world one person at a time. In the springtime of the world, Jesus was executed, crucified. Jesus’ death and Jesus’ love-stained resurrection continuing to change the world one person at a time.   

And so when we experience moments of joy and beauty in this life: Praise the Lord!  And when we too experience the depths of human agony in this life: Praise the Lord anyway! 

***

 

So much happens in the span of 365 days.   

So much happens in our world, nation, state, city, etc.  

The relentless pace of life and news cycles makes it inevitable that we’ll forget the details sometimes. Media outlets always roll out their year in review but it all eventually recedes into the background of our memory, abstract, detached.  And yet we manage to retain the fear, anxiety and alarm.  

Praise the Lord anyway.  

Soon, the year 2018 and everything it brought to us and everything it took from us will come to an end--whether we want it to or not, whether we’re “ready” for it or not.  Time marches forward. 

Soon, the year 2019 will begin and with it another run of 365 days in which much will happen in our world, our nation, our state, our city, our schools, our families.  Some of it will be wonderful and blessed. Some of it will not.  All of it will happen whether or not we’re “ready” and whether we want it to or not. 

Praise the Lord anyway. 

Because God is with us.  Emmanuel!   

If God were not with us, we would never have made it this far—well, I know I certainly would not have made it this far. 

And because God is with us, we’ll make it through whatever comes our way in the year ahead.  Whatever the coming year shall bring to us or take from us, we will make it through somehow. Because: Emmanuel!  God is with us!  

And so with Simeon, who after a lifetime of joy and pain was still moved to praise the Lord, let us also praise the Lord for our eyes too have “seen” salvation in the life of Jesus Christ (Luke 21:29ff).  

With Anna, who after a lifetime of joy and also pain chose to remain steadfast in her faith and trust in God’s promises, and who steadfastly planted herself in the Temple to worship and praise the living God, let us, as she did, come also to praise the Lord and to speak about the child to all who look for redemption … (Luke 21:38). 

Let us learn to say, come what may:

Praise the Lord.  

Praise the Lord. 

Praise the Lord.  

Praise the Lord anyway. 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow …

Praise God, all creatures here below …

Praise God above, ye Heavenly Host …

Praise God, Christ and Holy Ghost.   

Amen.

 

 

 

12-23-18 Twists and Turns

Thomas J Parlette

“Twists and Turns”

Luke 1: 39-55

12/23/18

 

          Pastor Melvin Newland tells about a man in Salt Lake City who decided to send out 600 Christmas cards to total strangers. He got telephone books from several cities, addressed 600 cards to people he had never met, put his return address on the envelopes and mailed them out.

          Amazingly, he received 117 responses from these total strangers. One lady wrote, “It was so good to hear from you. Your card arrived the day I got home from the hospital, and I can’t tell you what an encouragement it was to hear from an old friend.”

          Another person wrote, “I have to admit that when we received your card we couldn’t really picture you. We had to think hard for a long time before we remembered. By the way, please give our regards to your father. He is such a wonderful man!”

          But I think this response takes the cake. One guy wrote, “It was so good to hear from you after all these years. By the way, we’re going to be in Salt Lake City next summer. Would it be alright if we came and spent a few days with you?”(1)

          Maybe it’s not such a great idea to send Christmas cards to people you don’t know – they might stop by for a visit.

          I wonder how Mary, the mother of Jesus, notified her cousin Elizabeth that she was stopping by for a visit. After all, Mary lived in Nazareth, a town west of the Sea of Galilee. Elizabeth lived in the hill country of Judah, somewhere between 80-100 miles away. How did she send word that she was on her way?

          Luke doesn’t mention whether Mary made any preparations for the trip or how she traveled – she may have gone on foot or as part of a caravan. In Mary’s day, a person traveling by foot could cover about 20 miles a day. If Mary walked to Elizabeth’s house, it would have taken her four or five days. If she went with a caravan, she could have done it in about three days. Still, it was quite a journey. And the circumstances were quite unique.

          Listen closely as Luke begins his story: “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.”

          Those first three words are significant. We’re not certain what “at that time” refers to, but a casual reading of the chapter would suggest that she made this journey immediately after Gabriel’s announcement to her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her and that the child whom she would bear would be called the Son of God. This would have been quite a revelation for a 13 or 14 year- old girl to receive. The fact that she hurried to make this journey indicates that she probably didn’t confide in her fiancé Joseph about the angels visit before she headed out to Elizabeth’s. Perhaps Mary wanted to consult with her older and wiser cousin about how to handle this delicate situation.

          Of course, Elizabeth had her own interesting situation, married to a priest named Zechariah, way past the normal child-bearing age, and yet, she too was carrying a very special child – a child who would also become known throughout the region. He would be named John, better known as John the Baptizer.

          It was quite a distance from Mary’s home to that of Elizabeth and Zechariah. There was a lot of time for Mary to ponder the wonder of what was happening to her. Surely she knew that angels don’t appear to every girl – particularly to tell them that they will become with child by the Holy Spirit. What was happening to her… and what did it all mean? Finally, she arrived at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. It was a wondrous and joyful scene as these two cousins, so different in age, greeted one another.

          When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, Luke tells us, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

          Mary answered with a song: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name…”

          What were some of the thoughts that went through Mary’s head as she made her way to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home in the hill country? For that matter, what were her thoughts when the shepherds left to go back to their flocks after that holy night in Bethlehem? After all, we read in Luke that “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Still later, what were thoughts as she watched her miracle boy grow? Luke tells us again in verse 51 of chapter 2, “She treasured these things in her heart.” Even more important, what were her thoughts when she saw her boy suffer and die for the sins of the world? What were the thoughts that ran through her head as the mother of the Christ child?

          Perhaps she thought, first of all, that life has some strange twists and turns. The announcement by the angel that she would bear God’s son was literally right out of the blue. It’s just as well. How could you ever prepare yourself for such an event? Never again would her life be the same. Of course, that’s true of all new parents. A child has a way of changing life forever.

          Mary’s life was certainly changed. Right from the very beginning of her life as a new mother, her life had twists and turns. The story of the pilgrimage to Bethlehem is an enchanting one. We pass over it so quickly as we tell the Christmas story.

          We read in Luke 2: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to their own town to register.”

          “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

          Mary should have known right then that her life would be no picnic. There would be many twists and turns along the way, for this would not be her last journey under adverse circumstances.

          In Matthew’s account of the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph and the new baby are forced to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. So once again, Mary and Joseph were on the move – fleeing to protect the life of their son.

          Martin Luther, in commenting on the flight to Egypt remarks, “The artists give her a donkey. The gospels do not.”(2) It is most likely that Mary trudged over the hills in winter on foot, nursing her child and leaning on Joseph for support. It was not until after Herod’s death that the young family was able to return to their home in Nazareth. In a world filled with refugees, it is important to remember that our Lord was once a refugee himself.

          The next dozen or so years in Mary’s life were probably good ones. We don’t know much about them, but we do know there were several other children after Jesus. She and Joseph were never wealthy, but he was an able provider and her oldest son, Jesus, was turning into a fine young man.

          But then something happened to Joseph. We don’t know what. In another twist to the story, Joseph disappears from Scripture. He is never mentioned again. In a harsh turn of events that happens to many people, Mary found herself a young widow. As the oldest son, Jesus would take Joseph’s place in the carpenter’s shop – a role he would fill until about his 30th birthday, when he was baptized by his cousin John and began his ministry.

          The loss of Joseph would not be the last one for Mary. She endured the harshest blow that can be dealt to a parent - she watched her oldest son die as a common criminal on a cross at Calvary.

          Life took some strange twists and turns for the mother of our Lord. Just like it does in many people’s lives. Many people have a difficult time coping with life because we often think that life ought to be smooth and predictable. When it’s not, sometimes we are unable to cope. Yet, in the providence of God, sometimes we discover that we have our most reliable times of growth when life is the most challenging. People who cope successfully with life are those who understand the importance of discipline and self-denial, who realize that life is a training school, that happiness is not a permanent state but an elusive quality best achieved in the search for something higher.

          Life has some strange twists and turns. But even in the harshest conditions, God will redeem pain and suffering and out of the struggles, God will bring something good. Mary may have wondered about her life’s twists and turns, but she was also confident about God’s faithfulness and how God always keeps promises. Note how Mary responds to her situation in this passage from Luke. First of all, she is overwhelmed that the God of Creation could have chosen her for the high honor of bearing his son. In her words, “He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant…” In Mary’s mind only a kind and gracious God would bypass the wealthy and powerful of this world to have a peasant girl bear his Messiah. Mary was confident that God was indeed good.

          God is good. Not only because God chose the lowly maiden of Nazareth, not only because God is aware of our needs, but because God keeps promises. That is a major part of this great miracle in Mary’s eyes. The coming of the Messiah was the fulfillment of a long awaited promise. Throughout all life’s twists and turns, God keeps promises.

          Bruce Larson tells a beautiful and true Christmas story that appeared years ago in the Denver Post. A week or so before Christmas, a pastor told his congregation about a needy family who was facing a very bleak Christmas. One young father decided to do something about that. He and his son set out in the family pick-up truck to cut down a fresh evergreen tree and deliver it to this needy family. On the way, they ran into a rock slide and a boulder hit their truck. It was totally destroyed. The windshield was smashed, and while the father was not hurt, his son was cut pretty badly was losing a lot of blood. They tried to wave down a passing motorist, but to no avail. Finally, after dozens of cars had zoomed past, a car stopped to help. The couple bandaged up the boy, gave them a ride to the hospital and went on their way. The father and son never even got their names.

          About a week later, the truck had been replaced and the boys injuries were healing nicely. On Christmas Eve, the pastor asked this same man if he would deliver a basket of food and toys to the needy family that they had intended to supply with a tree. The father said he would be glad to. They loaded up the truck and drove to the address they were given and rang the doorbell. And who should answer the door but the same couple who had stopped to help them on the highway just a week ago.(3) Life is full of strange twists and turns.

          It sure was that way for Mary. But from the beginning of her journey, she could sing God’s praises. For God is faithful. God keeps promises. God loves us. And God will never forget about us through all life’s twists and turns.

          And for that, May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol XXXIV, No. 4, p. 68.

2.    Ibid… p. 70.

3.    Ibid… p. 71-72.

12-9-18 Completion

Thomas J Parlette

“Completion”

Phil. 1: 3-11

12/9/18

 

          Although its official name is the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, some people refer to it as the “Cathedral of Saint John the Unfinished.”

          Even in its incomplete condition, at 601 feet long and 124 feet high, this Episcopal cathedral is one of the impressive landmarks in New York City, featuring at 230 feet the longest Gothic nave in the United States and the largest rose window in the country – constructed out of 10,000 pieces of glass. Besides the main sanctuary, there are seven chapels. The whole thing is an architectural beauty, with many more unique elements that we could cover in one worship service.

          Construction of this colossal building began in 1892, with worship and other ministries taking place there since 1899, when only a portion of the edifice was usable. The church wasn’t opened end-to-end until 1941, but even then, there was much work waiting to be completed.

          Over the years, the structure has been plagued by financial woes, changes in architectural plans, wartime delays, engineering problems and, in 2001, a destructive fire. Thus, today, 126 years later, this massive church is still sometimes dubbed “Saint John the Unfinished.”(1)

          That word “unfinished” can be hard to swallow – especially if it applies to those Do-it-Yourself projects around the house that seem like a good idea when you’re wandering around Home Depot on a Saturday morning – but turn into way more than you bargained for by Saturday afternoon. Many of us have unfinished DIY projects around the house.

          But there’s good news! If you’ve reached the point where something needs to be done, you can always call the DIY Network – they have a show called Disaster DIY that specializes in completing those unfinished projects around the house. On recent episodes the show has stepped in to fix a bathroom remodel run amuck; re-do a gutter replacement gone horribly wrong; and fix a deck that had become more of a death trap than a home improvement.

          We all have good intentions, lots of ideas and ambition, but sometimes we’re not so good with the follow-through.

          Of course, it’s one thing to have unfinished jobs around the house; it’s quite another thing to realize how unfinished we are as individuals – how far short we fall of the goal of being the people God calls us to be. We are in a very real sense “Christians under construction”, for the Christian life is not an arrival point, but a journey.

          When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, commissioned preachers for the work of spreading the gospel, one of the questions he asked was “Are you going on to perfection.”

          It might be tempting to answer, “Well, no, nobody’s perfect” – but the candidates were expected to answer, “I am, by the grace of God.”

          Wesley’s next question was, “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?”

          The expected answer was “God willing, I do.”

          Even today, two centuries later, when Methodist preachers are standing for admission into the ministry of the church, they are still asked those two questions, along with several others first posed by John Wesley.(2)

          The phrase about going on to perfection wasn’t something that Wesley just invented, it comes right from Scripture. The preacher of Hebrews said “Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God…”

          The preacher of Hebrews wasn’t suggesting that we abandon the basic teachings about Christ in the sense of rejecting them for something different. Rather, he was saying that if we’re spending all our time talking about the basics of the faith – repentance and faith toward God – then we aren’t moving on toward perfection. And, of course, that connects to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, where after commanding his followers to love their enemies, Jesus added, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

          Scott Hamley, who serves a United Methodist Church in Seward., Pennsylvania, explains going on to perfection this way: “When Wesley was talking about Christian perfection, he didn’t mean absolute perfection. He meant more of a practical perfection, being perfect in love. He meant people could come to the place where they were so in love with God that they would not sin knowingly. He didn’t mean that a person could ever be without sin in this life, but rather without intentional sin. Sins of ignorance are always going to happen. We’re always going to do the wrong thing from time to time because we don’t know what the right thing is. We don’t have perfect knowledge. But Wesley believed it was possible that by God’s grace, a believer could mature to the point where they would never sin on purpose.”

          Hamley also says, “By the way, Wesley was always suspicious of anyone who claimed to have reached Christian perfection. He denied that he himself had reached it. And perhaps that’s part of going on to perfection, to recognize that you aren’t there yet.”(3)

          He’s right; we’re not there yet. We are unfinished. With that in mind, hear Paul’s assertion in our reading from Philippians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

          “The day of Jesus Christ” in that verse refers to the time of Jesus’ second coming and is no doubt the reason the lectionary committee selected this passage as the epistle reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, a season of the church year that both celebrates Jesus’ first coming, in the Incarnation and anticipates his second coming at the close of this age.

          But Paul’s point is, the completion point of the spiritual life is not until the end, and even then, it only comes with God’s help, In other words, our spiritual lives are not a Do-it-Yourself project. It is rather a God project. God will bring our spiritual lives to completion. In the meantime, however, we should not let the spiritual shortcomings in our lives derail us from going on toward perfection in love, from growing in Christ, from gaining spiritual maturity.

          In this passage to the congregation that meant the most to Paul, Paul goes on to say that his prayer for the believers in Phillipi is that their “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help them to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ they may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” In other words, by the end of their journey, they will be completed in the full sense, with God’s help.

          C.S. Lewis once wrote about this matter of God bringing us to completion. He said that when we seek Christ’s help in being the person God wants us to be, Christ doesn’t settle for giving us just a little bit.

          As an illustration, Lewis explained that as a child, he often had toothaches and knew that if he told his mother, she would give him an aspirin to deaden the point. But he wouldn’t tell her until the pain got really bad because he also knew she would take him to the dentist the next day, and he didn’t want that.

          “I wanted immediate relief from pain,” wrote Lewis, “but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie; if you gave them an inch they took it all.”

          Lewis went on to say that Christ is like the dentist. If we ask for help to deal with something about which we are ashamed or which is spoiling our life, he will give it, but he will not stop there, for he wants to make us perfect. Lewis pictures Jesus saying, “Make no mistake, if you let me, I will make you perfect… I will never rest, until you are literally perfect – until my Father can say without reservation that he is well pleased with you, as he is well pleased with me.” As Lewis says, “If you give Christ an inch, he’ll take it all.

          It is true that we are not perfect yet. Recognizing the unfinished nature of our practice of faith is a good thing. It should help us to live with humility, recognizing that we aren’t all that God intends for us to be.

          It should encourage us to beware of certainty. The unfinished nature of our knowledge means that our opinions aren’t the last word on the topics of life. God will have that last word.

          It should encourage us to work on being perfect in love, to do the work of God now. Remember that although the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is far from finished, ministry has been taking place there and from there almost since it beginning. Something similar can be true in our lives. Even though we are unfinished, we can be God’s person in good works, in acts of generosity and in faithfulness to the will of God as we understand it at this point.

          And most importantly, remember that going on to perfection is not a DIY project. We don’t do it on our own. God helps us. For as Paul says:

          “The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ…”

          May that be true for all of us gathered here in the name of Christ.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    HomileticsOnline, “The God Who Completes”, retrieved November 2018.

2.    Ibid…

3.    Ibid…

4.    Ibid…

12-2-19 As Long as it Takes

Thomas J Parlette

“As long as it takes”

1st Thessalonians 3: 9-13

12/2/18, First Advent

 

          Words come and go in our modern vocabulary. Certain words and phrases have their day in the sun for awhile and then they fall out of use and out of style. For instance, nobody says “groovy” anymore, unless they’re being ironic or maybe a little sarcastic. “Hey Man” and “Dude” have fallen by the wayside as well. And thankfully, nobody refers to pizza as “Za” anymore, something that always made me cringe. I’m not sorry to hear any of those words go out of style.

          But there are other words on the decline that I’m very concerned about. In the October 24th issue of The Christian Science Monitor, it was noted that words like “love” and “kindness” and “patience” are being used less and less in American life. That is very troubling situation – whether you are religious or not. The Executive Director of the American Humanist Association was quoted as saying, “Seeing the numbers go down for words live love, gentleness and kindness… is equally concerning to humanists as it is for religious folks.”(1)

          I thought about that this week as I sat with this passage from Thessalonians for today. Paul, and his ministry team of Silvanus and Timothy are very concerned about this little church in Thessalonica. Part of the fear was that some faithful words were in danger of falling out of the community’s vocabulary – words like “thanks”, and “love” and “holiness” – all words that feature prominently in this, the oldest piece of scripture in our New Testament.

          According to Abraham Malherde’s commentary on Thessalonians, in the year 49 – 16 years after the resurrection of Christ, Paul travelled to Thessalonica to proclaim the Gospel. A group of day laborers heard and received his message, and from those humble beginnings a church was formed.(2)

          Paul and his team were worried about this fledgling church – especially given that they were located in a very cosmopolitan city with many other options for worship and sacrifice, and they were under persecution from other groups in town. Paul wondered, was the leadership in Thessalonica strong enough? Were the practices of faith deeply embedded enough? Would the center hold? Finally, Timothy is sent to check on them, and Timothy returns with the good news that the faith community in Thessalonica is thriving. Hence Paul’s words of thanksgiving, “How can we thank God enough for you…”

          After offering a prayer that God would “direct our way back to you,” Paul offers a prayer that goes right to the heart of Christian identity and community, and right to the heart of Advent itself. “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all. May God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before God at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

          On this first Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of hope. Here, Paul expresses what we hope for – we hope to grow in love, for one another and for all, and we hope and long for the day when Christ will return.

          Advent is a time for re-focusing our priorities around this idea of increasing and abounding in love, thus reaffirming H. Richard Niebuhr’s assertion that “the purpose of the church is the increase of the love of God and neighbor.”(3) As we noted last week, Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year, a new church year. IU was reading this week about how the Jewish community celebrates the beginning of a new religious year, usually in September, with Rosh Hashanah. The Rosh Hashanah greeting is translated as “May you be inscribed for a good year.” The emphasis is on having a good, rather than a happy year. Purposeful, sober reflection is required. Rosh Hashanah, like our season of Advent, is not about “don’t worry, be happy.” Advent is rather a recommitment, as a new year unfolds, to live toward the good, the just, and the true(4) – “to abound in love for one another and for all,” as Paul says.

          Advent is also a time for preparation – preparing ourselves for the coming of God’s Kingdom. This was a big concern for the Thessalonians because they thought that Jesus was coming back soon. And now, some of their community had died, and they were beginning to wonder – when is Jesus coming back? How long are we supposed to keep preparing?

          Many of us wonder about that still. That’s why it’s so tempting to skip all the waiting and preparing and go right to celebrating the birth of Jesus. But as Abraham Smith points out in The Interpreter’s Bible, “Paul preached with certainty about the second coming’s power to unite the people of God”.(5) Waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ, while challenging at times, has the power to unite the Church. It’s a spiritual discipline that strengthens our hearts in holiness, as Paul says. Paul urges us to consider who we are at our best – people who are forever turning the world upside down – and to attend to what is yet lacking in our faith. Churches at their best are joyful, faithful, generous, and profound announcements, even embodiments, of what the realm of God looks like up close. And yet, sometimes it’s difficult to live in a state of expectancy, always waiting, preparing and anticipating. With the Thessalonians, we ask “How long?” “How long are we supposed to wait?” Paul and his team answer – as long as it takes.

          A number of years ago, Marj Carpenter, a beloved moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, went on a somewhat controversial visit to sister churches in eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall, the defining symbol of the cold war, had recently come down, and she and her entourage made plans to visit a particular parish in a remote mountainous area and worship with them.

          Weather conditions were icy and harsh. Diplomatic relations were just as icy and strained – there was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this visit.

          The Moderator’s plane arrived much later than scheduled, getting through customs took longer than expected, and then there was the weather. At best, her arrival in this mountain community would be delayed far later than envisioned. But Marj, with her strong missional heart, was not deterred. The group soldiered on, braving the treacherous drive up into the mountains, as the snow fell all around them.

          When the group arrived in the town, far later than scheduled, there was no certainty that anyone would still be at the church. Someone in town gave them directions to the church and they drove around in the dark and the snow. As they neared the area of the church, they noticed up ahead a long line of lights; and as they drew nearer, they beheld, one after another, the members of that church – each of them bundled up against the cold and holding a candle. One light pointed them to another – hundreds of lights – and they followed the light for the rest of the journey right to the front door of the church.

          When the moderator met the host pastor, she asked him through an interpreter: “How long were you planning to wait out here in the dark and the cold?”

          And he replied, “Until you came.”(6)

          They were prepared to wait as long as it takes.

          Paul’s prayers for the Thessalonians remind us that we live in the in-between time. Christ has indeed come and brought us the gift of transformed life – abundant life now and the promise of life eternal – yet the transformation is not complete. Both we and the whole creation long to see God’s promises fulfilled.

 We yearn for justice that rolls down like mighty waters.

 We hope that one day the wolf will lie down with the lamb and swords will become plowshares.

 We long for the day when mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

We already know what God’s future looks like, and in beloved community with one another, we experience the firstfruits.(7) Because all that will be is not quite yet, we need to be strengthened so that we may walk in the light of God’s hope, for as long as it takes.

          Come – let us nourish ourselves for the journey at the table this morning.

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Christian Century, November 21st, 2018, p.8.

2.    James H. Evans Jr., Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, p.14.

3.    Philip E. Campbell, Ibid… p.16.

4.    Ibid… p.16.

5.    Ibid… p.16.

6.    Theodore J. Wardlaw, Connections, Westminster John Knox Press, 2018, p.11.

7.    Cynthia Campbell, Ibid… p. 9.

11-18-18 Once and for All

Thomas J Parlette

“Once and for All”

Hebrews 10: 11-25

11/18/18

 

          Maybe you remember a TV show from a couple years back called My Name is Earl. If you’ve never heard of it – you might want to look for it on Hulu or Netflix, it’s worth a look. The show followed the story of Earl J. Hickey, a scruffy, petty criminal with occasional run-ins with the law, whose newly won $100,000 lottery ticket gets lost when he is hit by a car. As he is laying in a hospital bed recuperating, Earl hears about a concept called “karma” on a late night talk show, and suddenly his life starts to make sense. All of his bad deeds have finally caught up with him, and now he needs to start putting some good karma in the bank.

          So Earl decides to turn his life around. After a few good deeds, his $100,000 ticket finds its way back to him, and with his new, lucky money, he proceeds to make a list of all the bad things he has done in the past, and with some help from his brother Randy, he begins atoning for all his sins, one by one – and when he does, he crosses them off his list.(1)

          “Karma is a funny thing,” says Earl, in almost every episode. I’ve always thought it was a worthwhile show because it deals with some very important theological concepts – like forgiveness, atonement and ultimately redemption. Earl believes that he can earn forgiveness and win his redemption by doing good deeds to make up for his past sins. Quite a weighty theological issue to tackle in a prime-time, network comedy.

          Keep in mind Earl Hickey’s approach to life as we consider this biblical passage from Hebrews, which begins: “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins…” and goes on to compare Jesus to a  great, high priest.

As we’ve heard before, this image of a priest is perhaps the dominant image in the Book of Hebrews. Well, it’s actually not a book, like the Gospels, nor is it a letter as we are accustomed to seeing from Paul. No – Hebrews is actually more of a sermon than anything else. In fact, in his commentary on Hebrews, Tom Long refers to the author of Hebrews as “the preacher” instead of the writer. Hebrews is a sermon that presents Jesus as the Ultimate Priest, the perfect priest. The priest who is able to offer one sacrifice, once and for all, for the forgiveness of our sins, and now sits at the right hand of God.

That’s a very different idea from the normal image of a priest at the time. In those days, when you thought of a priest, you thought of someone who was allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, and would offer a sacrifice of animal blood for the forgiveness of the people’s sin. The priest was an intermediary, a go-between, between God and the people. As Hebrews points out – the priests performed this function on a regular basis, day after day, they took turns doing their duty. As more sins were committed, more sacrifices had to be made.

In a way, it is similar to the idea of karma in My Name is Earl – as Earl commits sin, he feels he has to make up for each bad deed, and when he has, he can cross it off his list – he is absolved.

Hebrews makes the radical point that Jesus is another kind of priest – the Ultimate, Perfect High Priest, in that he is able to offer one perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus offers his own blood, once and for all, to save us all.

In 1927, a West African man named Asibi was stricken with yellow fever. In that day, very few people survived yellow fever, there was no vaccine, there was no medicine that would help. You just had to get through it and hope for the best. Very few people survived – but miraculously, Asibi did. Somehow, his body conquered this deadly disease. Asibi’s blood contained what scientists needed to cure yellow fever – antibodies with the power to fight off the disease.

So they drew some of Asibi’s blood, and scientists were able to formulate a successful vaccine. Millions of people since have benefitted. When it came to yellow fever, one man’s blood saved the lives of countless others.(2) So too, on the cross, one man’s blood saved the lives of countless people. Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, offered his own blood to save us – once and for all.

In Jesus’ sacrifice, we now have an alternative to karma. In light of Jesus, we now live by grace. The sacrifice has been made. We don’t need to keep sacrificing at the altar day in and day out. Jesus has done the work, once and for all. We live by grace, and grace is a funny thing, a funny and most amazing thing.

When a person works an 8 hour day and receives a fair day’s pay for the time spent – that is a wage.

When a person competes with an opponent and receives a trophy for the performance – that is a prize.

When a person receives appropriate recognition for long service or high achievements – that is an award.

But when a person is not capable of earning a wage, can win no prize and deserves no reward – yet receives a gift anyway – that is a good picture of God’s unmerited favor. That is what a Christian means when we talk about the grace of God(3) – it’s funny thing sometimes, but always amazing.

In the recent book Bono: In Conversation…” the lead singer for the rock group U2 shares some thoughts on the difference between karma and grace: “It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people. But the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between grace and karma.”

“Karma is that idea that what you put out comes back to you – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Or in physics- in physical laws- that every action is met by an equal and opposite reaction. That’s karma. It’s clear to me that karma is at the heart of the universe. I’m absolutely convinced of it,” says Bono.

And he goes on to say, “And yet, along comes this idea called grace to upend all that as you sow, so shall you reap” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of our actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of bad stuff… it doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”(4)

The Good News is that we don’t have to depend on our own religiosity. We don’t have to depend on any sacrifices we make. We don’t have to depend on accruing good deeds in order to receive forgiveness and achieve redemption. We don’t have to win it or earn it or do anything to deserve it. It’s been done, once and for all, by the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. We need only accept it as a gift, and be grateful. We live by grace my friends.

And in light of that grace, we are made perfect through Christ. That is, as a result of grace, we have the ability to be better people. By grace, we are given the ability to grow into Christ’s likeness, to change for the better, little by little, every day.

I like the way Max Lucado puts it in his book “In the Grip of Grace.” He writes that one time in his life he was a closet slob. He just couldn’t comprehend the logic of neatness. Why make a bed if you’re going to sleep in it again that night? Why put the lid on the toothpaste when you’re just going to brush your teeth again the next day? Max says that he was compulsive about being messy.

Then he got married. His wife was patient. She said she didn’t mind his habits… if he didn’t mind sleeping outside. Well, since he did mind sleeping outside, he began to change. He says he enrolled in a12 step program for slobs… “Hi, my name is Max and I am a slob…” A physical therapist helped him rediscover the muscles used for hanging up shirts and placing toilet paper on the holder. His nose was reintroduced to the smell of Pine-Sol. And by the time his in-laws arrived for a visit, he was a new man.

But then came the moment of truth. The big test. His wife went out of town for a week. At first, Max reverted to his old habits. He figured he could be a slob again for 6 days, and clean up on the 7th. But something strange happened, a curious sense of discomfort came over him. Max found that he couldn’t relax with dirty dishes in the sink. And he actually felt an uncontrollable urge to put his towel back on the rack. What happened? He had been exposed to a higher standard – his wife’s standard. And through the grace of God, he had been able to become better than he was. Little by little, habit by habit – Max changed.(5) Grace is a funny thing – a funny and amazing thing.

In the words of the Preacher of Hebrews: “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus… and since we have a great high priest… let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

“And let us consider how to provoke one another with love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 18, No. 6, p24.

2.    Emphasis, Vol. 36, No.4, p32.

3.    Homiletics, Vol. 18, No. 6, p25.

4.    Ibid…p24.

5.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXI, No. 4, p53.

11-11-18 More than meets the eye

Thomas J Parlette

“More than meets the eye”

Mark 12: 38-44

11/11/18

 

          A few years back, the world was treated to a rather amazing announcement. 168 billionaires – yes, that’s billionaires – lined up with Bill Gates, the richest man in the world at that time, Warren Buffet, who was number 2 on that list, to announce that they intended to give away at least half of their wealth by the time they die to help fund a wide variety of worthwhile causes. And it wasn’t just the billionaires getting in on the charitable giving. Even the King of Chinese martial arts movies himself, Jackie Chan, got on Board. I understand that Jackie Chan has announced that he will give away half of his net worth.(1) His giving would amount to just 175 million instead of 500 million or more from the billionaires – but still, it’s a start. I wouldn’t worry too much about these wealthy folks – they’ll still have plenty left over to live on and pass down to their families.

          One day Jesus saw a group of wealthy men lining up to give a portion of their wealth at the Temple. They were making a big show of presenting their offerings. They wanted people to be aware of their charity. They used large coins so that when the pieces of money fell into the collection box it made an impressive clanging sound that could be heard by all.

          Then along comes this poor widow with only two small coins to drop in the box, an offering with the value of about a penny. That is all she could possibly offer God, that was everything she had.

          Probably no one else in the crowd even noticed her giving her offering, it didn’t make a clanging sound, just a little clink. But Jesus noticed her. He called together his disciples and asked them to notice her too. “That widow put more money in the treasury than anybody else, because they shared out of their abundance, but she gave all she had.” So, according to Jesus, the widow’s offering was more significant that Bill Gate’s or Warren Buffet’s billions, because God measures not how much you give, but how much you have left over. If your giving is not sacrificial, apparently, God is not impressed.

          Every couple of years we get a visit from this widow, and usually we read this story as Jesus commending her for her generosity, applauding her self-sacrifice and inviting us to do the same. I should know, I’ve preached that message in one way or another on numerous occasions.

          But as I read this story again, I wonder, is there more going on here than meets the eye. When you read the story carefully, Jesus never actually commends the widow, he never really applauds her sacrifice or tells us we should emulate her – not in so many words. Preachers like me do that – but Jesus did not What the text says is Jesus noticed her, and tells his disciples to notice her, too.

          So what else might be going on here? What might we learn from this widow in addition to self-sacrifice and generosity?

          Well, first of all, her act of giving could show that she had forgiven God. Now that might seem like a weird thing to say, but keep in mind, the only way we know this woman is as a widow. She had lost her husband. Some of you have experienced the loss of a spouse or a loved one and you know the hurt and loneliness that loss can bring. You also know about the temptation to bitterness and anger – especially resentment toward God, in many cases.

          In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the ground-breaking book On Death and Dying, in which she described the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some people move through these stages relatively smoothly, while others get bogged down along the way and never really come out on the other side. Most people I know, even when they get to a point of acceptance, or least to a point where they can go on with life, still have moments when they drift back into the stages of grief – particularly anger and depression, or at least a time of deep sadness. And for many people, the anger gets directed at God.

          I don’t believe you ever really stop grieving the loss of a loved one – but I do think that over time you spend less time in those stages of anger and depression and more and more time in the stage of acceptance where you remember what you loved most about your loved one.

          That’s why I think when this widow, one who had experienced a deep loss, and had probably harbored some resentment and anger toward God somewhere along the way, dropped her two coins in the box, she was in some was saying – “I forgive you God. I’ve come to grips with my grief. I’m over my resentment. I am at peace with God.”

          Another thing the widow might be saying is: I trust God. As you know, there was no Social Security, no pension plan, no monthly check she would be receiving now that her husband was gone. Widows were quite vulnerable. Unless her husband was a wealthy man, or her children could take care of her or perhaps other family members would take her in, she was at the mercy of a sometimes heartless society. But by giving her two little coins, this widow was saying: I trust God.

          That kind of trust, that kind of confidence, that kind of hope is pleasing to God. The late United Methodist Bishop, Charles Golden, once told of visiting a mission school in India where the students sang an African-American spiritual. They sang it to him as a courtesy, he said, because he was a black man. They sang I Got Shoes – “I got shoes. You got shoes. All God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven, I’m going to put on my shoes and walk all over God’s heaven.”.

          Golden said he suddenly realized that these children singing that old spiritual about having shoes were all barefoot. It reminded him that when his ancestors had composed and sung that song, they too were barefoot. They were singing a song of hope and trust for they knew there were shoes laid up in heaven for them. I may be barefoot right now – these may be my last two coins that I’m dropping in the temple treasury – but God will provide. I trust God. All God’s children got shoes.(2)

          And here’s the final thing her offering may have said that day: She believed in the work of God. The work of the Temple was important to her and she wanted to support it, even though some of the leadership was corrupt. She wanted to put God first in her life. She wanted to be a part of something bigger than herself.

          Once there was a certain woman who lost her husband, and this woman was having a very difficult time working through the stages of grief. For weeks, she went each day to the cemetery to put flowers on his grave. She simply could not let go. No matter what she did it seemed that her grief would not dissipate. In her despair, she went to her doctor to see if there was any medication he could prescribe. When she told him about taking the flowers each day to the cemetery, her doctor made a suggestion.

          He said, “Instead of taking flowers to the cemetery, let me suggest that you take them to the hospital. I have two patients there who are alone. They have no family in town and they would really enjoy receiving some fresh flowers. Just for a day, why not take the flowers to the hospital instead of the cemetery? Ask them about their progress and give them some encouragement. See if there is anything you can do for them.”

          The lady took the doctor’s suggestion. She took the flowers to the hospital rather than the cemetery. Then she did it the next day, and the next. And soon she was able to work through her grief.(3) She had discovered that she could be part of something bigger than herself and the grief that was swallowing her whole world.

          Those coins, dropped in the Temple treasury that day, may have been an important part of this widow’s recovery from her grief experience. By dropping in those coins she realized she was part of something bigger than herself. She was participating in God’s work on earth. No wonder Jesus was pleased to see her make her offering. No wonder he pointed her out to his disciples. She had been victorious over her grief. She trusted God for her daily bread and she was involved in the ongoing work of the Kingdom. In fact, in God’s eyes this more poor window gave more that all the billionaires in the world put together. She gave all of herself.

 

          May that be true for all of us.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p33.

2.    Ibid… p35.

3.    Ibid… p36.

11-4-18 Quotable Lines

Thomas J Parlette

“Quotable Lines”

Ruth 1: 1-18

11/4/18

 

          In our entertainment-saturated world, we hear a lot of lines from movies. Most are quickly forgotten, but some make us laugh, some make us think and others give us a lump in our throat. But among the countless lines that have been captured on film, a few have actually changed the way we talk.

          In The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, Dorothy says to her dog, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” People quote that line whenever they feel like the world around them is changing fast.

          In 1948, the movie Casablanca gave us one of the most romantic phrases of all time, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” I won’t hurt your ears by trying to do Humphrey Bogart.

          Cool Hand Luke, released in 1967, gave us the words, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” uttered by teachers everywhere.

          From 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, we get the line “These go to 11.” Christopher Guest’s character, an empty headed rock star, was referring to custom guitar amps that don’t max out at a measly 10 on the volume knob – no, his went to 11. Now, turning something up to 11 can mean any type of excessiveness.(1)

          Three of my personal favorite quotable lines come from The Princess Bride. “Have fun storming the castle”, “Inconceivable” and “As you wish.”

          The world of movies, of course, is not the only source of quotable lines that shape our lives. The Bible is also full of great phrases that are remembered and quoted in a variety of situations.

          Psalm 23 gives us the comforting verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

          From Jeremiah we get the assurance, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

          1st Corinthians offers the insight that “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

          Paul has some classic quotable lines, such as “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”, from Philippians.

          And from Romans, we are promised, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…”

          And of course, there is the verse that Martin Luther called “the Gospel in miniature,” John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

          Another classic quotable line comes from our text for today from Ruth – “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my god.”

          What makes these lines from the Bible so special and so quotable? For starters, they are true – they capture an important insight about the nature of God and human beings. The Lord is as caring and protective toward us as a shepherd is toward his sheep. God really does watch over us, making plans for our welfare. Christ truly does strengthen us to face the challenges of our lives, and all things do tend to work together for good when we love and serve our Lord.

          These biblical verses are concise summaries of bigger truth, in the same way that movie lines reveal something essential about their characters. Humphrey Bogart was a tough guy with a tender heart. Christopher Guest was the empty-headed rock star. And Dorothy was a naïve young girl who had never been away from home before. These movie lines are memorable because they are so true to their characters.

          But great movie lines also shape us because they capture an entire story. When Dorothy says, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” you know that she has entered the strange new world of Oz. When Chief Brody says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” when he sees the giant great white shark for the first time, he captures the movie Jaws in a nutshell.

          In the book of Ruth, we hear Ruth saying the line, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This quotable line shapes our lives because it captures the entire story of the book of Ruth, bringing to mind the faithfulness of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi which, in turn, is a picture of God’s faithfulness to us. Her comment mirrors God’s faithfulness or “hesed” as it is called in the book of Ruth.

          Ruth’s story is set back in the days when judges ruled over the people of Judah, and there was a famine in the land. A man of Bethlehem fled the famine, became an immigrant, and went to live in the land of Moab, along with his wife Naomi and their two sons. The man died in Moab, and his two sons married a couple of Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. But then the two sons died, leaving Naomi without a husband or sons. She was living at a time in which life was – in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes – “nasty, brutish and short.”

          So what was poor Naomi supposed to do? She continued her journey as an immigrant, as a refugee, and she returned to Judah, where the famine was now over. But she knew that she had nothing to offer her daughter’s in law. So she encourages them to go back to their mother’s house.

          All three weep, and then Orpah kisses Naomi and heads back to Moab – reluctantly, but she goes. Ruth however, clings to Naomi. Naomi encourages her to go as well, but Ruth says, “Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” When Naomi sees that Ruth is faithful to her and determined to stay with both her and her God, Naomi allows her to come along.

          This memorable verse captures the story of Ruth’s faithfulness. The line is repeated in a variety of settings today, with the citation “Ruth 1: 16” appearing inside wedding rings and on tabletop photo frames. These words of Ruth, expressing her determination to be faithful to Naomi and to God, have actually shaped our lives and changed the way we talk and feel.

          We remember these words because they reveal something essential about Ruth – she was a woman of deep love and faithfulness.

          But we also remember these words because they summarize the entire story, and remind us that God used this loving and faithful immigrant woman in a powerful way. Ruth went to Bethlehem with Naomi, and there she met a man named Boaz. She married him and had a son who became the grandfather of David. Because Ruth remained faithful to Naomi and to God, she was able to become the ancestor of the greatest of Israel’s kings – and an ancestor of Jesus himself. God used Ruth and Naomi, both of whom were immigrants and refugees, to bring about the Divine Kingdom on earth.

          Let’s not assume, however, that love and faithfulness always lead to a perfect Hollywood ending. When Ruth promises to stay with Naomi, she does not know that she will end up with a husband and a child. Jessica Tate, the director of the organization called NEXT Church, reminds us that when the two women arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi is bitter and anger. “At this point in the story,” she says, “we do not know that Ruth will become Naomi’s savior.” We don’t know that there will be a new family or plentiful food. All we are left with is Naomi’s emptiness.(2)

          “This is where we so often find ourselves,” says Tate, “with a scary diagnosis, a relationship crumbling, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one. We find ourselves in these empty places, uncertain of the end of the story. We do not know how, or if, our fortunes, our security, our confidence, our hope will be restored.”(3)

          So what do we do? In the movie A Beautiful Mind, a brilliant mathematician named John Nash suffers from terrible hallucinations. After a particularly threatening episode, his wife Alicia comes to him and asks, “You want to know what’s real?” Putting his hand on her heart, she says, “This is real.” She remains faithful to him in the face of an uncertain future, and near the end of his life, he wins the Nobel Prize.(4)

          “This is real,” says Alicia Nash – you are not alone.

          “This is real,” says Ruth to Naomi – I will be with you.

          “We are left with simply a promise,” writes Jessica Tate, “a promise that we are not alone.”

          This is God’s promise to us as well – nothing in all creation will separate us from our Lord.

          “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge.” This promise from Ruth to Naomi is also God’s promise to each of us. You want to know what’s real? This is real – the love and faithfulness of the one true God - in every place and time, in the face of any hardship, loss or failure, is made real around this communion table.

          That’s a quotable line that can shape our lives.

          May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    HomileticsOnline for Nov 4th, 2018.

2.    Ibid…

3.    Ibid…

4.    Ibid…

10-28-18 How to ask for help

Thomas J Parlette

“How to ask for help”

Mark 10: 46-52

10/28/18

 

          I wonder how many of you have heard of a man named Charley Boswell? Charley Boswell was blinded in World War II while rescuing a buddy from a burning tank. Charley had always been a great athlete so, after the war, he took up golf. And he was astoundingly good at it. In short, Charley Boswell won the National Blind Golf Championship 16 times, once shooting a score of 81.

          In 1958 Charley went to Ft. Worth, Texas to receive the coveted Ben Hogan Award, named in honor of one the greatest professional golfers in history. Mr. Hogan agreed to play a round of golf with Charley. Charley said, “Would you like to play for money?”

          But Hogan said, “That wouldn’t be fair.”

          Charley was persistent – “C’mon, Mr. Hogan, are you afraid to play a blind golfer?”

          Now Hogan was really competitive, so he said, “Okay, I’ll play for money. How much?”

          “1,000 dollars a hole.”

          “That’s a lot of money Charley. How many strokes do you want me to give you?”

          “No strokes. I’ll play you straight up.”

          “Charley, I can’t do it. What would people think of me taking advantage of a blind man?”

          Boswell smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Hogan, our tee time is tonight at midnight!”(1)

          Charlie Boswell might have lacked the ability to see – but he certainly lacked nothing when it came to confidence.

          Today in the Gospel of Mark, we meet another blind man who was brimming with confidence – Bartimaeus. Actually, that wasn’t really his name, it was more of a description of him as a person. Bartimaeus means “Son of Timaeus”- so this blind man doesn’t even warrant a proper name, he is known only as the Son of Timaeus. That gives you a clue to his status in society – he is a nobody, not even worthy of a name. Such was the case for the blind, or really anyone with a physical or mental challenge in Jesus’ name.

          These middle chapters of Mark really hinge on blindness. It begins with the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. From that story, to this one about Bartimaeus, Peter makes the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection 3 separate times, and he is transfigured on the mountaintop to the amazement of Peter, James and John. But the disciples are caught up arguing about who is the greatest and who should get to sit on either side of Jesus in the coming kingdom.

          Over the course of these two chapters, the disciples prove that they are spiritually blind just as Jesus is healing people of physical blindness. In Mark, this is the last story of Jesus ministry until he enters Jerusalem for the beginning of his final days – when he will cure his own disciples of their spiritual blindness.

          In both blind man stories, the man in Bethsaida and Bartimaeus in Jericho – it is confidence and persistence that carry the day. For the man in Bethsaida, it is the confidence that his friends had in Jesus – that he would be able to cure their friend. For Bartimaeus, it was his own confidence in Jesus’ abilities and his persistence to keep asking for help, even though those around him were telling him to quiet down, to “hush up” as The Message puts it. As Jesus says at the end of the healing, “your faith – your confidence in me, your persistence in asking for help – your faith has made you well.”

          Bartimaeus really embodies those verses we heard from Psalm 34 – “This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble… Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.”

          We can learn some things from Bartimaeus, not the least of which is how to ask for help. Asking for help is not something that we are especially good at, especially Americans. In her anti-self help book Mayday: Asking for Help in Times of Need, M. Nora Klaver writes that “Asking for help is a universally dreaded endeavor. Whether we’re struggling with getting that heavy bag into the overhead bin on an airplane, or fixing a flat tire by the side of the road, Americans in particular are much more likely to say, “I’m good, I got it” rather than “can you help?” – unless it’s an emergency that involves calling professionals like the police or the fire department or an ambulance.”(2)

          In her research, Klaver suggests a number of reasons that we Americans don’t ask for help.

          Number 1 – she suggests that we were never taught how to ask for help. The ethic of self-sufficiency is woven into the fabric of our country. With hard work anything is possible – that is a very American mantra.

          Another reason we don’t like to ask for help is that we love our independence. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam reports that Americans are becoming more isolated from one another as attendance has decreased in clubs and community service organizations, including the church. With the advent of the Internet, we can pretty much take care of all our needs without ever leaving the house. We don’t need to go to the store, or sit in a classroom or have contact with anyone at all if we don’t want to.

          And for some of us, we don’t ask for help because we just don’t think of it. We are so conditioned to be independent and self-sufficient that it doesn’t occur to us to seek out help even when we really need it.

          Another reason we don’t ask for help is that it’s just easier to do it ourselves. Who hasn’t said or thought something like, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

          And finally we may simply be afraid to ask for help. What will people think if we appear vulnerable and admit we don’t know everything or have the skills to meet every challenge. So we soldier on the best we can, even when we really need help. We’re just afraid to ask.

          In short, we’re very good at trying to do it ourselves, and achieving modest results, instead of getting real help and making real progress. And in so doing, we miss out on the gifts that someone else can give us.

          Bartimaeus had no such qualms about asking for help, and the results for him were nothing less than miraculous. Through his story we can learn some things that can help us when we need to ask for help.

          First of all – name your need and remain open to other possibilities. Notice that Bartimaeus doesn’t cry out “Jesus, Son of David, let me see again.” Not at first. No, first he cries out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Bartimaeus knows he needs forgiveness, spiritual healing. It’s not just his eyes that need to be healed, but his soul. He starts there, asking for the forgiveness and spiritual healing that we all need. Jesus asks him “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus names his need – let me see again.

          Which brings us to the second thing we can learn here. Name your need – and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Take a leap of faith – ask. There is an old Chinese proverb that says “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who dos not ask remains a fool forever.”(3) Name your need, and ask for the help you seek, just as persistently as Bartimaeus does.

          So Jesus restores Bartimaeus’ sight and we see the third thing we can learn from this story. Be grateful. When Bartimaeus receives his sight, his first action was to follow Jesus up the road toward Jerusalem. He was grateful for what Jesus had done for him.

          James Kraft, in his book, Adventure in Jade, tells about a great turning point in his life. He was fourteen years old at the time, one of a  family of eleven children living on a farm in Canada. Because of a serious problem with his eyes, James could not distinguish objects clearly. He compared his vision to a blurry image of a boat seen under water. Just as discouraging, his nearsightedness was so acute and so distressing that he also suffered from furious headaches.

          But by divine providence, there happened to be an eye doctor vacationing in the vicinity of James’ home. Young James began taking care of the eye doctor’s horse and buggy. Noting James extreme nearsightedness, the eye doctor insisted that the boy go to the city with him to be fitted with a pair of glasses as his gift. James did so. Here is how he described what the gift of improved vision meant to him. He said of the eye doctor, “He gave me the earth and all that was in it, completely in focus and beautiful beyond anything I could have dreamed… I cannot think of another act of human kindness in my lifetime which can compare with his.”(4)

          Bartimaeus received the same gift from Jesus – and was so grateful that he followed Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

          There is a lot we can earn from this little story of Bartimaeus – not the least of which is how to ask for help. Name your need, ask and be grateful. Yes, you can do it by yourself – but you don’t have to.

          And for that – May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p19.

2.    Homiletics Online for October 28th, 2018.

3.    Ibid.

4.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p22.

10-21-18 Standing in the Footsteps of Melchizedek

Thomas J Parlette

“Standing in the Footsteps of Melchizedek”

Hebrews 5: 1-10, Mark 10: 35-45

10/21/18

           In a recent issue of the Christian Century, Episcopal priest Heidi Havercamp writes about an old-fashioned image of Christ that can still be found in many Episcopal churches. It is the image of Christ on the cross – not nailed, naked and suffering – but rather tranquil, triumphant and vested in stole, chausable, and even a maniple, a High Church vestment resembling a fancy dish towel. “This image,” she writes, “the resurrected Jesus as Episcopal priest always strikes me as both presumptuous and odd. But I can’t help think that this Sunday’s reading from Hebrews might provide the perfect caption: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”(1)

          It’s quite possible that you may be unfamiliar with this priest named Melchizedek. He was King of Salem, possibly an early forerunner of the place that would become Jeru-Salem, and a priest – which is peculiar because no one else in scripture was ever both. You were either a King or a Priest – but never both at the same time. And Melchizedek’s story occurred many years before the Levitical priesthood was even established. Very odd indeed.

          Melchizedek’s story is entirely contained within a few verses near the end of Genesis 14, where he meets Abram, before he became Abraham, after a battle and offers him bread and wine, blesses him, and vanishes – although not before Abram gifts him one tenth of his family’s possessions.

          We remember Melchizedek because his name means “King of Righteousness.” And the place he rules, Salem, has the same spelling in Hebrew as “shalom” – meaning peace. So many people make comparisons between Melchizedek and Jesus. You can see why. Here is a priest, the King of Righteousness and Peace, who appears in the wilderness, offers bread and wine and blessings and is deserving of tithes and offerings. You can see the parallels, the foreshadowing of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.

          Melchizedek appears in Hebrews, in Genesis 14 and in Psalm 110, where we find the first use of the “priest forever” line. This image of the Great High Priest, who sacrifices himself is very important to the writer of Hebrews, as it is referred to 7 times in the book.

          A priest is one who is authorized to perform the sacred rituals and teach the traditions and beliefs of an organization – whether it is religious or secular. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a priest was one chosen by God to be a mediatory agent between God and humanity. Before Christ, the thought was that individuals did not have direct access to God – you needed a go between, a middleman between God and humanity. This was done by a priest. And as time went by and communities grew and Temples came into existence – especially the Temple at Jerusalem – there was an office called the High Priest. This was the priest designated to enter the Holy of Holies and make offerings, prayers and supplications directly to God.

          The writer of Hebrews makes the theological case that Jesus in the Great High Priest. Jesus is the one chosen by God, with direct access to God, to make the sacrifice of himself to bring reconciliation between God and humanity. This text makes clear that being a priest is not a status symbol with rewards and perks, but rather a priest is set aside as a matter of function. It is a position of service, not privilege.

          This is where James and John go off track in our Gospel lesson from Mark. The brothers approach Jesus with their request to sit on either side of him basking in Jesus’ glory, because they think they deserve it. But they don’t understand yet what that means. To drink from the same cup as Jesus is live with humility, in obedience to God, as a servant to others. They will learn this lesson as Jesus completes his work on the cross and defeats the power of death by rising from death – but for now, they don’t quite get it. Their hearts are in the right place, their intentions are good, but they don’t quite know what they’re getting into yet.

          There is a wonderful story about the British author Graham Greene. Greene once waited two and half years for a 15 minute appointment with the Roman Catholic mystic Padre Pio, who lived in an Italian monastery. Padre Pio was reputed to be a “living saint” and bore on his body the stigmata, or the wounds of Christ.

          On the day Greene was due to meet with this revered mystic, Greene first attended a mass where Padre Pio officiated. Their appointment was to begin immediately after the mass. However, when the mass was over, instead of keeping this much awaited appointment, Greene left the church, headed for the airport and flew right back to London.

          When asked why he broke the appointment he had waited on for two and a half years, Greene said, “I was not ready for the manner in which that man could change my life.”(2)

          James and John didn’t know it yet – but they weren’t ready to be changed as Jesus would change them.

          The writer of Hebrews places Jesus squarely in the footsteps of the ancient, mysterious priest Melchizedek – and Jesus redefines what it means to be a priest. For Jesus, a priest is one who lives with humility, in obedience to God, to serve others. As the Great High Priest, Jesus sacrificed himself for humanity.

          But Jesus is not the only one who stands in the footsteps of Melchizedek. We do too. During the Reformation, Protestant theologians described all of us as priests, referring to the church as “the priesthood of all believers.” As disciples of Christ, we are called to live in humble obedience to God in order to make known in our service. That’s a tall order – the footsteps of Melchizedek are big footprints to fill. But that is our call.

          God calls us to be priests that bridge the gap between God’s dreams for the world and humanity’s needs in this world. As Jesus, the Great High Priest, is called to be the reconciliation of God – so too are those who bear Christ’s name are called to show this reconciliation to the world. As Susan Andrews has written: “As baptized “priests” we are given all the power, vision, and grace to be who we are called to be – not because we are perfect, but because God’s grace is made perfect in us. We can be “bridge people”: standing in the middle of red state/blue state politics, standing in the middle of violent conflicts, standing in the middle of broken relationships, standing in the middle of theological skirmishes, standing in the middle of the enormous gaps between rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and citizen - standing in the middle, between God’s vision of shalom and the disharmony of contemporary life. Yet, as “priest,” each of us is called to stretch out our arms to embrace all that is dissident, becoming a dwelling place of reconciliation where all of creation finds a harmonious home in God’s heart.”(3)

          Sounds a little crazy, I know – but it’s true.

          Michael B. Curry, Presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, tells about an old Apple computer commercial from the 1990’s that went viral on Youtube on the day in 2011 when Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, died. The tag line of the commercial was “Think different.”

          In the commercial, they showed a collage of photographs and film footage of people who have invented and inspired, created and sacrificed to improve the world, to make a difference. They showed Bob Dylan, Amelia Earhart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Maria Callas, Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Henson, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Mahatma Gandhi and on and on and on. As the images rolled by, a voice reads this poem:

          “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.

          They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward.

          While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”(4)

          Anthropologist Margaret Mead once made the well-known statement that we should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.(5)

          As disciples of Jesus Christ, we stand in the footsteps of Melchizedek – to live as priests, as bridge people, to be an example of God’s vision of peace and reconciliation for this broken and dysfunctional world. It’s a bit of a crazy thing to do. But here’s to the crazy ones.

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Heidi Havercamp, Christian Century, September 26th, 2018, p21.

2.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No.4, p17.

3.    Susan Andrews, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p184, 186.

4.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p16.

5.    Ibid… p17.

10-14-18 Losing God

A sermon preached by Rev. Jay Rowland, Sunday October 14, 2018 at First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN. 

Texts: Psalm 22:1-15,19

            Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Losing God 

I feel like I should apologize for the scriptures today. The lectionary provides at least four scriptures every Sunday. Our custom here is to select two of the four. Usually, at least one contains a message of hope, or encouragement, or something positive.  

Not today!   

Sorry. 

Not sorry.   

Psalm 22 and Job 23 may lack optimism, but they don’t lack for meaning.  There’s something powerful about the raw emotion and the sharp edges of human suffering on display. When it comes to suffering, it seems to me there’s just no good that comes from pretending or putting on a brave face.   

And Job is suffering.  

Psalm 22 is often noted for being spoken/prayed by Jesus on the cross, “Oh God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  Paired with Job today, one can easily imagine Job speaking/praying these words.  If you’re not familiar with Job, all you need to know about him is that he’s a good, honest man. He worked hard. He obeyed the law.  He was by all accounts a good husband, good father, a good neighbor and member of his community.  He was regarded as a man of integrity and conscience.  Job was also wealthy and accumulated material wealth and property.  In Hebrew culture, prosperity like Job’s was presumed to be indicative of God’s favor.   

But then Job lost everything: his wealth, his property, his health, and worst of all calamity came upon his family and they all died.   

To say that Job was despondent is an understatement.  In his agony, Job cries, Oh, that I knew where I might find [God], that I might come even to his dwelling.”  Job gives voice to the most basic question of faith and life: “where are you God?”!   

For many, Job represents the reality that bad things happen to good people.  Leaving aside some of the various theological questions Job often provokes, I prefer today to focus upon on Job.  How he deals with the bottom dropping out from under him. 

In his Introduction to Job in The Message, Eugene Peterson writes  

It is not only because Job suffered that he is important to us [but] because he suffered in the same ways we do, in the vital areas of family, personal health, and material things. Job searchingly questioned and boldly protested his suffering.…  [he] says boldly what some of us are too timid to say (out loud). … He shouts out to God what a lot of us (keep locked away in silent thought).  Job … refuses to take silence for an answer. He refuses to take cliches for an answer. He refuses to let God off the hook. [1] 

Job struggles to make sense out of the senseless loss he’s experienced.  We can identify with his struggle.  He searches desperately for anything or anyone who might comfort him in the midst of his agony.  Wendell Berry says that "the distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence.”[2]  A memorable scene from Job is when Job’s friends first visit him. They sit in silence with Job for seven days (2:13). This speaks volumes about the sacredness of presence, and silence.  

But eventually their silence ends.  And when Job’s friends open their mouths, they manage to do the impossible: they found a way to make Job feel even worse.  They felt compelled to explain this awful turn in Job’s life.  There had to be an explanation. They quickly determined that Job must have done something terribly wrong.  They think they’re being helpful, but they’re only distancing themselves from Job.  One commentator observes that Job’s friends show their own anxiety and discomfort over Job’s suffering, “protecting themselves from the chaos that engulfed their friend.” (Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, see end notes) 

Job is the oldest, most ancient story in scripture. Job’s assertion that his sin did not bring down God’s wrath upon him is a crucial declaration that should reverberate through all of scripture and human experience.  And yet the opposite seems to be true:  Whenever life goes terribly wrong, we impulsively suspect that we did something “wrong” in God’s eyes, that adversity is the result of somehow running afoul of God’s love and mercy.   

Job refuses to believe that his situation is beyond God’s reach. He clearly feels abandoned by God and isolated from human community.  But he rejects the notion that he somehow deserves what has happened to him or that it’s merely his “fate”.  He protests his situation and on the contrary believes that God could and would make a difference, if only he could find God and appeal to God’s righteousness:

I would lay out my case

    and present my arguments.

Then I would listen to [God’s] reply

    and understand what [God] says to me.

Would [God] use his great power to argue with me?

    No, [God] would give me a fair hearing.

Honest people can reason with [God],

    and so I would be forever acquitted by my judge.

I go east, but [God] is not there.

    I go west, but I cannot find [God there].

I do not see [God] in the north, for [God] is hidden.

    I look to the south, but [God] is concealed.

Job 23:4-9 New Living Translation 

Even though Job laments God’s absence, at times Job speaks directly to God.  He refuses to believe or accept that God is unconcerned.  This would have been so comforting if at least one of his friends would have backed him up.  Instead, give Job advice about what he should do. They even claim to speak for God (Job 13:7-12). Not even one of them thought to speak to God on Job’s behalf or even join Job in appealing to God’s mercy.  

I suppose Job’s friends are indicative of how most people react.  We just don’t know what to say to someone we know is suffering terribly.  When people don’t know what to say it’s easy to do like Job’s friends, blurting out things that are more harmful than helpful.  Even though people mean well, it’s common to hear people say things like,

"God must have needed your [spouse, child, relative] in heaven."

"Everything happens for a reason."

"God must be testing you."[3] 

Job models a stout response to our own suffering.  Job speaks directly to God even though he also describes feeling like God “isn’t there”.  Job holds nothing back: he directs his anger, his pain, his grief, and his despair directly to God.  He knows that God is big enough to handle it.  Job’s lament is not mere complaint, it is ultimately an expression of hope.  Implicit in his lament (and lament in scripture) is conviction that what has happened is contrary to God’s covenant of love and community. Lament holds God to account whenever life spirals into despair.  Lament clings desperately to hope. 

In this way, Job has something valuable to teach us.  Job models the importance of lament: speaking our anger, pain, grief and despair directly to God, even when—perhaps especially when—we only feel God's absence.  In this unlikely way, Job teaches us how to cultivate hope in the midst of hopelessness.  Job reminds us that there are times and situations (in our own life and in events we witness) where what happens doesn’t make sense, defies reason, can’t be explained or excused or accepted.  

Sometimes life doesn’t make sense.  

When that happens, lament is the best we can do, and the best we must do to avoid losing God. 

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message, Introduction to Job, p.822-823  Note: I’ve altered his text; my words are in parentheses. 

[2] Wendell Berry, "A Poem of Difficult Hope," in What Are People For? (New York: North Point, 1990), 59 

[3] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1420.  She adds, “we do the same thing, of course, though more subtly. When we hear of a tragedy, our gut reaction is often to reason to ourselves why it won't happen to us: They built their house in a flood plain. He wasn't watching his child closely enough. She lives in the wrong neighborhood. This instinct begins early. When my 8-year-old daughter heard of a 9-year-old child who had been shot, her first reaction was "But the child was a boy, right?"

10-7-18 The Year of the Woman

Thomas J Parlette

“The Year of the Woman”

Gen. 2: 18-23

10/7/18

 

          Pastor Billy Strayhorn tells about a certain church which held a Sunday service patterned after those in colonial America. The pastor dressed in long coat and knickers, and the congregation was divided by gender: men on the left side of the aisle and women on the right. At collection time, the pastor announced that this, too, would be done in colonial fashion. He asked the “head of the household” to come forward and place their offering on the altar. All the men stood. To the amusement of the entire congregation, however, many of them crossed over the aisle to get money from their wives.(1)

          Way back in 1992, four women joined Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland as members of the US Senate. Head-line writers consequently dubbed 1992 as “The Year of the Woman” because the United States now had 5 women in the Senate. But Senator Mikulski was offended at this title. She said, “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus.” Then she added, “We’re not a fad, a fancy or a year.”(2)

          There are quite a few pundits who are predicting that we could see another Year of the Woman in 2018. More women than ever are running for office – at the state and federal level. And in the primaries, they are winning. It’s interesting to note that currently the Congress has 23 female Senators and 84 in the House of Representatives, an all-time high. And we will probably see that number rise after the mid-terms. The numbers aren’t equal yet, but they getting closer.

          Popular columnist Kathleen Parker, in an online article, adds her voice to those who think that 2018 might finally be the Year of the Woman. She notes that many of the original goals of the women’s movement have already been reached. Woman now outnumber men in college, graduate schools and medical and law schools; three of the nine Supreme Court justices are female; and, incrementally, women are reaching what Parker calls the dubious objective of serving alongside men in combat roles. Then in her humorous way she adds, “Nor would it be wise to underestimate women’s determination to clean House…” and then she adds in parenthesis (“and Senate.”)(3)

          That phrase “Cleaning House” has taken on a new connotation for some women. With Congress nearly equally unpopular with both Democrats and Republicans, many wonder if the situation cannot but be improved by the addition of a few more women in both houses.

          Clearly God thinks the world is a better place with women in it.

          Our passage for this morning from Genesis is one of the Creation narratives. The first chapter of Genesis is about what Gerhard Von Rad called “the Primordial History”(4) and what Walter Brueggemann called “the Pre-History.”(5) It was the story of how all creation came from God, and God considered all of it “good.”

          In this next part of the Pre-History, the writer focuses on human beings and their ultimate calling or destiny. This text focuses on humans as the glory of creation – made in the image of God, but also as the central problem of creation, as described in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden giving in to the temptation to be like God. But for now – we’re not quite to the story about the Garden. Today we are looking at the story of God creating human beings.

          Our passage begins with the Lord God saying, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.” So the first point to make about this story is that God doesn’t want us to be alone. We’ve just gone through the story of creation, and God called everything good. But now, God declares something not good for the first time. It is not good for humans to be alone.

          That’s true, isn’t it. It is not good for human beings to be alone. People are made for relationship. That is a practical statement of fact. That doesn’t necessarily refer to a spouse, it could also apply to family, friends, church, and of our social networks. Having family and friends, being connected to a community is good for our health.

          Lisa Berkmann of the Harvard School of Public Health has found that older people with more friends are much more likely to recover from a heart attack than people with few or no friends or social supports. Another study demonstrated that people with no friends were three times more likely to die than those with at least one or more sources of social support. These outcomes apparently have physiological underpinnings, since contact with friends and loved ones may also lower the levels of hormones like cortisol that are released in stressful situations. A friendly face, says one author, may be just as health giving as an aspirin or vitamin E. It is not good for our health for us to be alone. It is also not good for our emotional well-being. It is not good to be alone.(6)

          From the very beginning, God wants us to live in community.

          Author J. Allan Petersen tells about a flight he took on a 747 out of Brazil one time. Midway through the flight he was awakened by a strong voice announcing, “We have a serious emergency.” The emergency was that three engines had quit and the fourth was expected to go at any moment. The plane began to drop and turn in the night, preparing for an emergency landing.

          At first the situation seemed unreal to Petersen, but when the steward barked, “Prepare for impact,” he found himself – and everyone around him praying. He buried his head in his lap and prayed, God, thank you. Thank you for the privilege of knowing you. Life has been wonderful.”

          But as the plane approached the ground, Petersen’s last cry was, “Oh God, my wife! My kids!”

          Petersen survived the emergency landing. As he wandered around the airport in a daze after disembarking from the damaged plane, aching all over, he found he couldn’t speak, but his mind was racing. “What were my last words,” he thought. “What was the bottom line?” As his last thoughts came back to him, he had his answer – relationship. Reunited with his wife and children, he found that the only thing he could say was, “Thank God. Thank God.”(7)

          It is not good for us to be alone. We are made to be in relationship.

          So God goes about creating some more creatures. God creates all the animals and birds and lets the human name them. But none of them were suitable as a helper or a companion. So God took a piece from his human and fashioned an equal for the man. And the man recognizes this new creation as his equal – “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”

          Which brings us to the second thing we can say about this passage. It is not good for humans to be alone. We are called to live in community. And men and women – humanity – are created in God’s image. God created both from the same essence and in God’s image. One is not favored over the other. One is not superior over the other.

          Now we all know that men and women are different. Man are from Mars and Women are from Venus as the bestseller says. Comedienne Elaine Boosler notes this difference when she says “when women are depressed, they either eat and go shopping. Men invade another country.”(8)

          Yes, men and women are different – but they are created equal, in the image of God. And as such, women deserve to be taken seriously, just as men are. Women deserve to be heard, just as me are. Women deserve the right to be believed. Women deserve the right to take their place alongside men as leaders in our society – in business, education and government. From the beginning, God created males and females to be equals – both created in the image of God.

          From the start, God recognized that it was not good to be alone. So God called us to live in community and gave us the world as a garden filled with the riches of God’s creation – plants, animals, oceans, skies, birds, the sun, the moon and the stars of heaven. And God gave us each other, created as equals, to love and to serve.

          That’s what we celebrate on this world communion Sunday, as Christians all over the world gather at the Table – God’s call to live in community, as equals. Because it is not good to be alone.

          May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p4.

2.    Ibid… p4.

3.    Ibid… p4.

4.    Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, The Westminster Press, 1972, p5.

5.    Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, John Knox Press, 1982, p11.

6.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol XXXIV, No. 4, p5

7.    Ibid… p5.

8.    Ibid… p6.

9-30-18: One of Us

  There is a time-honored story about a Catholic Church that was hosting a community Thanksgiving service. This was to be a first for the church and for the community. Naturally everyone was quite excited. With great dignity the priest led his three Protestant colleagues toward the chancel area when he suddenly realized that he had forgotten to put out chairs for his guests to sit in during the service. The priest urgently whispered in the ear of one of elderly ushers, “Please get some chairs for the guest pastors.”