The Four Last Things: Death

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Sermon for Sunday, November 29th, 2020

Advent I

Readings:

The really scary thing about this plague that has been running rampant through our world this year is that this virus has a strain of unpredictability about it. 

On the one hand, doctors and scientists have identified clear high-risk activities and high-risk groups. There are some patterns to how the virus is transmitted and who is likely to suffer the most from it. 

On the other hand, we all know stories of extremely high-risk individuals that contracted covid and defeated it, some barely suffering any symptoms, and we all know stories of healthy, young individuals that this virus has killed quickly. There is this degree of uncertainty to our lives right now. Granted, it is not a huge degree of uncertainty, compared to our ancestors and compared to much of the world even now we live in relative comfort and safety, but still the grim specter of death has invaded our lives this year in ways that we would not have even imagined on the first Sunday in Advent last year. We have less certainty. The reality of death and the possibility of our own deaths is probably a little bit more real to us this year, than it was last year. Let’s face it, we have gotten very used to shying away from death in the modern, western world. We’ll show it on TV, and in video games, and in movies, but we don’t want to talk about it or think about it in real life. It makes us uncomfortable. It has gotten to the point where we won’t even talk about death at a funeral anymore. We have gotten so good at blocking the reality of death out of our daily lives, that we can no longer process it when it actually happens. We were not always this timid.

When I was a child, which really wasn’t all that long ago, I can remember that the first prayer my grandmother ever taught me, was the “now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. You know:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Think about that for a second. In my first prayer as a child, I was taught about the reality of death. And you know, I didn’t find it unusual or upsetting. It didn’t give me horrible nightmares. I didn’t envision snakes encircling my bed like in that Metallica video enter sandman, which that prayer makes a cameo in. You know what I find interesting about that prayer now? It is that it isn’t a prayer to be spared from death. Death is not presented as something that is scary or to be feared. Death is just a given in this prayer. The request is that if death should happen that we would be gathered unto God. The main fear here is not death, but separation from God. That is what we should be concerned about. Maybe death will come like a thief in the night, and maybe it won’t; our concern as Christians is not whether we live or die; it is whether in life or in death we are connected to Christ. That is what that prayer is all about.

Several years ago, I discovered this little prayer bear, where if you pressed his paw he would say a little prayer. And the prayer was “Now I lay me down to sleep,” only some of the words had been changed. Now it was:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

Angels watch me through the night,

And wake me with the morning light.

That is a very different prayer. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to you, but it is really a huge change. In the first prayer death is not something to be feared, it is a given; the second prayer is so afraid of death it can’t even say its name. The second prayer is just about God using his power or his angels to keep us alive for another day. Death is what is to be feared or avoided in this second prayer. In the first prayer, it is separation from God.

Maybe some well-meaning person thought that kids aren’t capable of understand or dealing with death, so they re-wrote the prayer. I don’t really know the origin of the new prayer. But what does it say about our own fears if we cannot discuss death with our children? What does it say about our faith as Christians if we treat death like it is the worst thing imaginable? What kind of power does death have over us if we are so afraid of it that we can’t even talk about it? We need to learn how to talk about it again, and this year is as good a time as any to start.

You know, there is an old preaching tradition in the church of using the four Sundays of Advent to talk about the four last things. You may think of Advent like an Advent calendar, a chocolate filled countdown to Christmas, but as our scripture readings make clear this morning, Advent is first and foremost about the second coming of Christ. Christians believe that the world as we know it will some day come to an end and that in that moment Christ will once again break into our reality, in powerful and glorious ways, and that that end will also represent a new beginning. There will be a new creation: a new heaven and a new earth. Things that seemed everlasting, like the sun and the moon and the stars will fade into insignificance in the light of the eternal creative Word of God. Things that we thought were important will no longer be so. Advent is about longing for God to be present in our lives and in our world. When Jesus talked about the coming of the son of man he used the image of a fig tree getting ready to sprout new leaves. In other words, this is something that will represent new life and new fruit. It isn’t just an end, it is an ending that is also a new beginning. So what are these four last things? What are these things that represent the end of one world and the beginning of another?

The four last things are death, judgement, heaven and hell. It used to be quite common for Advent sermons to be focused on these four last things, but it has largely fallen out of favor in recent years. But I’m in a festive mood, so I figured, what the heck? I’ll do a sermon series on the four last things, which is why we began by discussing death. Lucky you. And lest some of the more protestant minded among you think that this is some bit of old popery that I have dug up, there is an extended poem about the four last things written by the Puritan John Bunyan. What is the Christian response to the first of these four last things, death, according to Bunyan? Here is what he writes:

45. Among those glittering Stars of light

That Christ still holdeth fast

In his right hand with all his might,

Until that danger’s past,

46. That shakes the world, and most hath dropt

Into grief and distress,

O blessed then is he that’s wrapt

In Christ his righteousness.

47. This is the man Death cannot kill;

For he hath put on arms;

Him Sin nor Satan hath not skill

To hurt with all their charms,

48. An Helmet on his head doth stand,

A Breast-plate on his Heart:

A Shield also is in his Hand,

That blunteth every Dart.

49. Truth girds him round the Reins, also

His Sword is on his Thigh;

His Feet in Shooes of Peace do go

The ways of Purity.

50. His Heart it groaneth to the Lord,

Who hears him at his call,

And doth him help and strength afford,

Wherewith he conquers all.

51. Thus fortify’d he keeps the field

While Death is gone and fled;

And then lies down upon his Shield

Till Christ doth raise the dead.

Our greatest fear, as Christians, cannot be death, because death only has ultimate power over us when we are separated from God. That should always be our chief concern: in times of plague and in times of health, in good times and in bad times, in sleeping and in waking, in starting a new year and in ending an old one: are we being united to Christ? If we live, we live unto the Lord; and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live therefor, or die, we are the Lord’s. Our greatest fear is not death, it is separation from God. 

Advent is a celebration of our union with God. It is a union that we await and look to be completed in our Lord’s second coming; and it is a union that we have been given glimpses of in our Lord’s first coming. We stand and live our lives in between the two. For this next month I will be discussing the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. My hope in doing so, is not to bring down fire and brimstone on the month of December, but rather to encourage us as Christians to live and die as people who are longing to see Jesus. That is what Advent, and the entire Christian life is really all about: longing to see Jesus.

Shibboleth

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Sermon for Sunday, November 22nd, 2020

The Feast of Christ the King

Readings:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Shibboleth

No, that is not a swear word, though maybe it should be. 

Shibboleth is a Hebrew word and if you know what it means or what it refers to, then that means you are quite possibly a biblical scholar, a linguistic scholar, or more likely a fan of the TV show “the West Wing.” 

What is a shibboleth? Well, to put it quite simply a shibboleth is a tool that we use to sort ourselves into insiders and outsiders. A shibboleth is a test, only you may not know that you are being tested. A shibboleth can be something cultural, it can be a food, it can be a word or phrase, it can be a WAY of pronouncing something, that is a signal, usually a secret signal, that I am a part of a special group. It is like a secret handshake. We use shibboleths all the time and don’t even know it. 

When I hear someone uses the pronoun “y’all” correctly, I immediately start to think “hey, I bet this person eats grits; I bet they know how to cook okra.” The word is a signal of something greater. It is a signal that you might be a part of the in-crowd. You might be like me. We might have something in common. That is what I start to think when I hear “y’all”

What “ya’ll” start to think may be a different story. You may think Goober and Gomer Pyle. Yokel. Unsophisticated, uneducated. You may make assumptions about my family background or my politics, all just because of one word. The word is a symbol of something greater.

In the Book of Judges there were two warring tribes the Ephraimites and the Gileadites. And the Gileadites controlled a river crossing and they would ask everyone that crossed the river to pronounce the word “Shibboleth.” Well, if you were a Gileadite you said “shibboleth” with an -sh, but the Ephraimites pronounced it “sibboleth” with an -s. Well whenever the Gileadites head someone mispronounce their word, they killed them. It wasn’t about the word at all though, it was about what it signified. This shibboleth was a signifier of which group you belonged to. It was a tool to sort ourselves, and boy do we like to sort ourselves. 

We use shibboleths all the time, sometimes they are very secret and subtle, sometimes they are obvious and overt. And it’s not just words that we use; it can be anything: food, clothing, what kind of car you drive, what kind of church you go to, whether you go to the 8 o’clock service or the 10:30 service. This week your Thanksgiving table will probably be covered with shibboleths and you didn’t even know it. Did you roast that turkey or did you deep fry it? Are you serving white bread stuffing or cornbread dressing? Does your cranberry sauce still have the rings on it from the can it came out of, or is it made from whole, fresh berries that you have boiled with lemon zest and Gran Marnier? And don’t think that the shibboleths end when you step away from the dining room table either…oh no, because then there is the issue of which football team you are going to root for. Oh, you see, the problem with shibboleths is that they don’t know when to stop sorting people. Are you from the Western world or the Eastern world? Are you from Europe or the United States? Are you a Northerner or a Southerner? Are you a wealthy, coastal southerner that drops the ‘r’s from your words, or are you a poor, in-land southerner that adds ‘r’s to words? Are you a white southerner or a black southerner? Which state are you from? Do you put white gravy or brown gravy on your country fried steak? Is your cornbread sweet or savory? Are you rooting for Auburn or Alabama? That is like asking someone up here if they are a Yankees fan or a Mets fan. Get it wrong and you are cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

We are constantly looking for ways to sort ourselves. I do it. You do it. We all do it, and sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are doing it. It may seem like fun and games, and it is…until it’s not. Shibboleths don’t know when to stop. Healthy rivalries turn into vicious divisions. In the Bible, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites weren’t playing a football game, they were killing each other. This desire we have to sort ourselves has a dark side: it becomes an addiction. We won’t stop until we are deciding who is worthy of life and who isn’t, or who is entitled to sit on God’s right hand and who should be on the left.

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judgebetween sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Jesus talks about the great day when he will come in glory and separate the sheep from the goats. When those who are the righteous will be separated from those that are accursed. God tells Ezekiel that some day he will come and judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. We hear these prophecies and it confirms for us what we already know and believe: that the world is filled with sheep and goats, or fat sheep and lean sheep. The world is filled with bad guys and good guys. The world is filled with those who are blessed and those who are accursed, so why can’t we get a head start on all this sorting? 

Ah but, you see that’s not our job. The sheep are not qualified to sort themselves out; whenever they try, it is just sheep pushing flank and shoulder against other sheep; the strong butting against the weak until all are scattered. We want to decide who the sheep are and who the goats are, but Jesus makes it clear that that is his job, not ours. We love to judge and sort ourselves, but God makes it very clear that the only sorting and judging that is every going to matter is the sorting that he does. The more inclined we are to sort people according to who we think is blessed and accursed, or who we think is a sheep and who we think is a goat, the more likely we are to find ourselves on the wrong side of Jesus when the real sorting happens. 

If we really believe that Christ is our king, which is what we proclaim today. If we really trust that Christ is the Lord, King, and judge of the universe, then we have to learn to put our own little shibboleths aside. We need to stop trying to sort the world out for Jesus and trust that he will know his own sheep when he comes looking for them. None of us are qualified to judge, not even the best among us, we are all gonna get it wrong.

In Jesus’s little story this morning, did you notice that the sheep and the goats have something in common? The righteous people on Jesus’s right hand and the accursed people on Jesus’s left hand have one important in common: they are all surprised at which side they wound up on. 

Our God has power AND expectations

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Sermon for November 15th, 2020

Readings:

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and I will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

“The Lord will not do good,

nor will he do harm.”

The prophet Zephaniah makes a startling claim in the scriptures this morning. Zephaniah is talking about “The Day of the Lord.” The day of the Lord is the day when we see God’s power. The day of the Lord is the day when God is victorious. It is a day to be longed for, and it is a day to be feared, because the day of the Lord will bring with it truth and consequences. When Christians talk about the day of the Lord, we are usually talking about Jesus’s second coming or judgement day, the last day, the final battle,  or as Paul says: “the day of the Lord which will come as the thief in the night,” but the prophets were talking about that future day of the Lord before Jesus came. 

The prophet Zephaniah is talking about that future day of judgement when we see God face to face, when God reveals who he really is and when God reveals who we really are, and Zephaniah says something really shocking:

He says: At that time God will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and He will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

“The Lord will not do good,

nor will he do harm.”

God is going to search out his Holy City, and who is God looking for? Is God looking for the people that sincerely tried and failed? No. Is God looking for people that made honest mistakes about what was right and wrong? No. Who is God looking for? God is looking for the people that just don’t care. The complacent. Those who are satisfied with the dregs. 

Do you know what the dregs are? The dregs are the bit that is left over when all the good stuff is gone. The dregs are that last bit of coffee that sits there cold in the cup; the dregs are that last bit of wine in the bottle that is all sediment. That is what the dregs are. Some people think that we should eat the best and give to God the rest. Because what difference does it make? Does God really care what we do? Think about what it means to say that “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” What does it mean to say that? What is so offensive about that that would make God want to turn Jerusalem upside down just to set some people straight?

 Well, If you say “the Lord will do no good, nor will he do harm” you are essentially saying that you think God is neutral. To say that, is to say that God is just this impersonal force that shows no partiality to right or wrong; that right and wrong don’t really exist. And if you say that, then you are basically saying that it doesn’t matter matter what we do in this world, because God doesn’t care and isn’t going to do anything about it. Those are the people, Zephaniah says, that God is looking for. Even if they don’t say it out loud, but in their hearts believe that God doesn’t care, well, they are going to be in for a rude awakening. God is going to show the world that he is NOT neutral.

You know, historically, throughout time, there have been two very popular ways that humans have thought about God or the Gods or the higher power in the universe: 

Some people have talked about the Gods as if they were just like human beings. Think about the Greeks or the Romans or the Hindu gods or pagan Gods. These Gods behave just like human beings; maybe they have more power, but their emotions and passions and behaviors are largely the same. The Greek gods were petty and vain and abusive and manipulative. Their actions do not reflect any greater morality or ideas about right and wrong. These Gods were just about appeasing desires. 

Other people have talked about God as if God was just this neutral, disinterested force. This is often the God of the philosophers. This God is an impersonal higher power that creates, but doesn’t really care. This God is immovable and unknowable. This God is a force without a face. There have always been people in the world that thought about God this way; it isn’t a modern innovation.

But these two ways of looking at God, despite their historic popularity, are not the way that the Jews looked at God. For the Jewish people, God is neither of these things. God isn’t just a more powerful human being, nor is God some impersonal, immovable force. The God of the Jews is an all-powerful God of righteousness. For the Jews, the creator of the universe is also the author of the moral law. Their God is not just a force, but a judge. Right and wrong fundamentally exist in this God’s world. So does truth. This God has more than power, this God has expectations. 

Do you want to know what kind of God you worship…ask yourself this question: does God expect something of me? Does God expect something of me? Does it matter what I do with what God has given me? Because if you don’t think it matters, if you think God is indifferent, then I’m not sure we are worshipping the same God. Because the God of the Hebrews and the God of Jesus is anything but indifferent. Think about Jesus’s story today. The master entrusts each of his slaves with some of his property, some of them try to make something of it, to varying degrees of success, and one does nothing. The master isn’t mad that the slave with one talent didn’t do as well as the slave with five; that’s not an issue he did what he could with what he had…but the slave that didn’t even try…that’s another story. Now this slave tries to make excuses saying that he thought the master was harsh and unforgiving. Nonsense! That is a lie and the master knows it, and the master calls him out for it. If he really thought that he would have tried even harder. No, that’s not what that slave really thought at all. He thought that it didn’t really matter what he did with what the master gave him, so he just couldn’t be bothered. The problem is not that he tried and failed…he didn’t try at all.

Certainly, as Christians, we believe that our God is forgiving and merciful, but being forgiving is NOT the same thing as being neutral. Mercy is not the same thing as indifference. The prophets and our Lord remind us that our God has power AND expectations.

A memory will never comfort you as much as a hope.

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Sermon for Sunday, November 8th, 2020.

Remembrance Sunday

Readings:
Amos 5:18-24
Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Remembrance Sunday 2020

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

Paul wrote those words to the Church in Thessalonica. It was one of his first letters. One of the first things that Paul wanted to make sure Christians got right, was how they looked at death. How Christians approach death should be something that distinguishes us from the rest of the world. Paul wants to make sure that the Christians under his care understand what Christ’s death and resurrection means to them as baptized followers of Christ. He wants to make sure that their approach to death doesn’t look like every other person on the street, because it shouldn’t. 

People who claim to believe in a man that died and rose from the grave; people who believe in Christ’s promises to his followers; people who believe that a new kingdom and a new king are breaking into this world and overthrowing the forces of evil; people who have that hope have no business treating death like everyone else in the world. We need to talk about death differently. Our rituals need to approach death differently. We need to be informed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that we may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

Because we have hope. 

And Paul explains to that church in Thessalonica that their hopes about their loved ones are intimately connected to their hopes about Jesus. Do we simply gather as a church to remember what Jesus did and what Jesus said? I know that some people really do think that that is what church is about: to remember the teachings of a dead prophet, but is that really what the church is meant to be about, just remembering the past? Well, that doesn’t seem to be enough for Paul, because Christians can do better than just remember the dead, Christians can hope to see them again. 

Christians don’t just remember a dead prophet, they worship a living son of God, that they believe is not only alive and living in a realm that cannot be seen, but is actually coming back into this realm in ways that can and will be seen. Jesus is not just a memory; he is a hope. He’s not just our past; he’s our future. And our hope for Christ should also be reflected in our hope for those who have died in christ: we aren’t just hoping to remember them, we are hoping to see them again. we can do more than just remember.

Yesterday, I preached at a funeral here. It wasn’t for a member of our parish, but it was for a Christian nonetheless. And I said to the family yesterday that memories can be a great comfort. It is good that we should share memories and talk about someone’s accomplishments and struggles. It is good for us to talk about our loved ones. God has given us the capacity to remember, God has commanded us to remember, so we should remember. But a memory will never comfort you as much, as a hope. 

And our faith, is about hope.

We are Christians. We can do better than just remember the dead; we can hope to see them again. We can and must grieve differently than others that don’t have that hope. 

Today we commemorate Remembrance Sunday. It is the second Sunday in November, the Sunday closest to November 11th or Armistice Day, which is now Veterans Day in the United States. Anglican churches throughout the world will remember those who fought and lost their lives in the First World War, and in every conflict afterwards. It is very common to hear in many civil and national, as well as religious, ceremonies on this day passages read from the Laurence Binyon poem “for the fallen.” 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them. 

Well I do think that it is good and noble and honorable to remember those who sacrificed everything so that we can have the freedoms we have and enjoy the lives we do. It is good for us to remember, but as Christians, in church, we can do more than just remember, we can hope. There is nothing particularly special about memory. Anyone on the street can remember. People of no faith can remember, and those memories may provide some comfort. But a memory will never comfort you as much as a hope. And we are called to be people of hope. 

My hope, as a Christian, is that when that last trumpet sounds, whether I am dead or alive, I will be gathered together with all those that have died: the millions of soldiers that died fighting for what they believed was right, family members and friends, and yes, even enemies; my hope is that we will be gathered together and we will all go out to greet the very thing that we were hoping and dying for: Jesus. That is far more encouraging to me, than just having my name engraved on a plaque on the wall.

We should not be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died. We should not grieve as others do who don’t have this hope. 

Our funerals cannot be simple “celebrations of life” that only talk about someone’s past and don’t proclaim that they have a future in Christ. Our Sunday worship cannot simply be a weekly recitation of Jesus’s wise words for living, without remembering that the man who commanded us to love one another, also informed and promised us that he would come again. 

Memories are great, but a memory will never comfort you as much as a hope, and we have hope. Our faith is about hope. A lot of people don’t have that hope. If those civil, secular ceremonies can feel dry and dead to you, that’s because that’s exactly what they are. The world doesn’t believe in resurrection, but we do. Others grieve without hope, but not us. We have reason to hope. We have been informed about those who have died, and while much of life and death is still this wonderful, glorious mystery, while there is so much we still don’t know about what happens when we die, this much we have been told:

The Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

That is our hope, To be with the Lord, with our loved ones, forever. That is our hope, but it’s not the world’s hope. Others do not grieve the way that we grieve. So when you meet those others as you go about your daily lives; when you meet individuals that are utterly convinced that it all ends in death, why don’t you do something truly radical and share the hope that you have with them?

We aren’t hoping for enough; We aren’t dreaming big enough.

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Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, November 1st, 2020

Readings:

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

The Book of Revelation gets a bad rap sometimes. Unfortunately because of its vivid and at times bizarre imagery and symbolism, it has been misused and abused by preachers through the ages. Some preachers have chosen to dwell on its images of earthly destruction with sadistic glee, and as a result other preachers have reacted by avoided the book altogether. But we need to hear and understand the Book of Revelation. Yes, it can be a difficult read, and yes it is filled with symbols that you will probably need help understanding and appreciating, but its core message is one of hope, and hope is right at the heart of the gospel. 

If you don’t have hope, then you don’t really understand what Jesus did for you. That may sound severe, but I do think it’s that simple. If you are sitting here hopeless today, then you need to rehear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I am not just talking about Jesus’s teachings in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, although that is a great place to start, I am talking about the good news of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, and what that means for us. And in today’s passage from the Book of Revelation we are given a vision of what Jesus’s life really means to us. 

The Book of Revelation is what its name implies. It is a revelation; it is an image or a vision that we believe was given to John by God. It is mystical and fantastic, but I think it gives us a glimpse of something that we really need to see. We need to hear and imagine this sacred vision of John, because what God shows John is a vast multitude of people: every nation, every race, every little tribe that we like to sort ourselves into, random people that have two very important things in common: they have all been through the great ordeal, and they have all been saved by God and the lamb. 

That vision is a revelation that the world needs to hear and see again right now, because in this divided time that we live in, the one thing that I think we can all agree upon, is that 2020 has been a great ordeal. 2020 has been a great ordeal for just about everyone in this world, but it’s not the first time the world has felt dark and unforgiving; it’s not the first-time people have struggled to hold on to hope when despair was knocking at the door. Imagine living in Europe in 1939, or 1915, or 1348. Dark times are nothing new. John, who wrote the Book of Revelation knew about dark times. If it seems like there is a lot of death and destruction in the Book of Revelation, it’s because John knows very well what death and destruction look like. He’s seen it.

But what God shows John; what God reveals to him, is a place where there is no more death and destruction. No more pain, no more tears, no more division, no more petty bickering, just feasting and singing. And what are they singing? What do the people gathered around the throne have to say about how they got there?

Salvation belongs to our God and to the lamb!

It is God that has done this. It is God that has saved us and brought us here. The great ordeal didn’t last forever, but the worship of God does. This is the message of hope in revelation: ordeals don’t last forever, but God does. And because this God that sits on the throne is a God of love and forgiveness; because this is a God of salvation, we can be a part of forever too. That is the revelation, we can be a part of this heavenly vision; we don’t have to be a casualty of the great ordeal. Our God is bigger than the great ordeal, whatever that ordeal happens to be this year or this moment. That is a powerful hope. Too often we don’t appreciate the power of it.

 Now even the strongest, most faithful, Christians may have moments of despair from time to time. It’s natural. Despair is deceptive, sometimes it sneaks up on us, and sometimes it seems like no matter how hard we try to hold on, hope can slip out of our hands. But you know why I think that despair happens most of the time? I think it is because the devil, or society, or the media, or the world, or whatever you want to call it, has tricked us into placing our hope in the wrong things or convinced us that we should only hope for little things and have little, tame dreams. 

We aren’t hoping for enough.

We aren’t dreaming big enough.

We have been taught to place our faith and our trust in lesser things.

We have been told that miracles don’t happen, mistakes last forever, and that sin is unforgivable and people can’t change.

Worst of all, we are taught to either ignore death and treat it like it’s never going to happen, or we are taught to fear it like it is the ultimate end.

We aren’t hoping for the heavenly vision anymore. We aren’t dreaming of eternity. We aren’t talking about death and resurrection as being real parts of our future. We have been taught to settle for less; and we have settled for less. We have settled for material comforts and earthly power. We have settled for the empty promises of politicians. We have settled for trying to save ourselves and not looking to God for salvation. 

We aren’t hoping for enough.

We aren’t dreaming big enough.

Sure, it is ok to have little hopes along the way. I hope for my cakes to rise in the oven. I hope for the traffic to be moving on the Southern State Parkway. I even have hopes about what happens in my country on November the 3rd. But let me say this, if you think that the fate of the world rests on one election; if that is where your hope ends, then you need to dream bigger and you need to hope for more. If the name of one of those two individuals on the top of the ballot this week has been on your lips this year more than the name of Jesus, then maybe you want to take a minute and think about what and who you are really hoping for. If you have given more money to a political campaign than you have given to your church, then whose kingdom are you really working for? If you care more about changing someone’s vote than you do changing their heart, then what are you really hoping for? Maybe you aren’t hoping for enough. Maybe you aren’t dreaming big enough. 

We all do it. We all fall into the trap of dreaming for and hoping for lesser things. That is why it is so important that the church continues to talk about this crazy hope of eternity and this amazing dream of God saving his people from the great ordeal. The world will always need to be reminded that ordeals come and go, just like kings and queens and plagues and presidents, but God lasts forever. 

So let’s place our faith and our hope, first and foremost in God. Let’s make sure that we spend more time thinking about God’s laws than we do the laws of this world. Let’s spend more time thinking about the vision or the revelation of hope that God has given us, and less time worrying about every little ordeal that comes into our lives along the way. Let’s dream bigger. Let’s hope for more. And yes, let’s make sure that we are working to share this amazing hope we have with the world. 

In a minute, I am going to bless these pledge cards that are going to be sent out this week. If you don’t get one, call me or email me, I will make sure you get one. I am blessing them, because when you decide that your hope really is in God, and when you give and I mean really give, to make sure that that hope is shared with others, well that’s like spitting in the devil’s face. That is telling 2020 and every other great ordeal where it can go, because you have a hope, and a belief and a dream and a vision and a revelation that is bigger than your tears and bigger than any temporary pain or disappointment. You have a hope that is eternal.

The saints that we celebrate today, they are people that held on to that vision and held on to that hope, more than anything else. Our ancestors needed that hope and our children will need it too. So by all means, go and vote, and do whatever you feel called to do to make the world a better place, but don’t forget to send me your pledge cards too, because we Christians have been given a revelation of hope and we have been charged to share it with the world. And the revelation is this:

When the dust has settled, when the tears have been dried and the robes have been washed clean, the people gathered before the throne are only going to have one thing to say:

Salvation belongs to our God!

Division is nothing new

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Sermon for October 25th, 2020

Readings:

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Division is nothing new. 

People have been divided from one another almost since they first walked the earth. We love to separate ourselves into factions, into parties, or clans, or races, or cultures, or nations; we divide ourselves up into groups and then we look for and find easy ways to sort people into one group or another. Are you using the right words or the right language? Do you look like someone that I might like? Are you hanging out with the right people? Are you supporting all of the same causes that I support? Very often we will find out one thing about someone and we think that that tells us everything we need to know about that person. Humans have always been prone to doing this; it seems like division is a terrible problem right now, and it is, but it’s not new. 

There is real division going on in the background in today’s gospel passage. You may not immediately recognize it, the names of the parties may be unfamiliar, but Jesus is preaching to people that are divided. And I’m not talking about division between the Jews and the Romans, I’m talking about division within the Jewish people. Jesus’s own people, people of the same race and the same religion are divided amongst themselves. There were different parties of Jews in Jesus’s time and the two main parties were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. 

Now we aren’t a church where people generally take notes or write things down during the sermon, but please at least make a mental note of this distinction, because the conflict or the division between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is going on in the background throughout the gospels, and Jesus and his followers are often getting caught in the middle of it. You need to understand who these people are.

The Sadducees are Jews that take a very strict narrow reading of scripture and they are really only concerned with the Five Books of Moses. The prophets, the histories, the wisdom literature, the Sadducees don’t care much about those scriptures. The Sadducees are in charge of the worship in the temple. The rituals and the sacrifices, these are the things that are the primary concerns of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were also the elite. They had the political power and influence at the time of Jesus. There is also one other curious thing about the Sadducees: they didn’t believe in an afterlife. The idea that someday the dead would come back to life, the idea of resurrection which eventually becomes a central tenet of the Christian faith, the Sadducees didn’t believe that. Once you were dead, you were dead, that’s what the Sadducees believed.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were very concerned with the study of scripture and with tradition. And the Pharisees didn’t just study the law (the five books of Moses), like the Sadducees, they also studied the prophets. And while the Sadducees ran the temple in Jerusalem, it was the Pharisees that ran the synagogues throughout the land. The Pharisees cared about ethics and right conduct, because the Pharisees believed in a future judgement. The Pharisees had a bit more of the common touch about them; they were more popular and perhaps a little less elitist than those Sadducees that ran the temple. And most distinctively, the Pharisees believed in an immortal soul. The idea that someday the dead will rise again, it is the Pharisees that believe that and that belief is forevermore causing friction with the Sadducees. 

So you have these two Jewish parties that don’t agree and don’t really like each other. And then you have Jesus, who comes along preaching to both groups. Now you will recall that the Sadducees don’t believe in a resurrection, but Jesus does believe in a resurrection. Jesus says he IS the resurrection. Jesus has more in common with the Pharisees than he does with the Sadducees. Jesus studies the prophets; Jesus worships in the synagogues as well as in the temple. Jesus has a lot in common with the Pharisees, and maybe that is why he is so critical of them. 

But one time the Sadducees tried to make fun of Jesus’s belief in the resurrection. They asked him if a woman marries seven times and then dies, when she is resurrected who will she belong to? And Jesus answered  them and said: she will belong to God. Well that shut the Sadducees up for a while. And when the Pharisees heard about it they said to themselves “aha! This guy is on our side!” So the Pharisees wanted to trick Jesus into making an overt statement that would condemn the Sadducees. They wanted to force Jesus to pick a side. Maybe they wanted to use Jesus to further their division with the Sadducees. 

So they ask him “what is the greatest commandment?” 

Well Jesus was never afraid of being controversial, but this time his answer was completely uncontroversial: Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind. This was straight from Deuteronomy. This was something that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees would have agreed upon. They had different ideas about how to go about it, but even the Sadducees who didn’t believe in a resurrection from the dead, even they loved God. The Pharisee that asked this question probably hoped that Jesus would pick something that the Sadducees disagreed with, but he didn’t. He picked what united them.

And then he adds, and the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law…and the prophets…I imagine Jesus added, glaring down at the Pharisees. You want to use your tradition to separate yourselves from one another…and all the while your own tradition and your own God, is telling you that you need to love one another. 

People have been trying to use Jesus as a tool and as a wedge in their own divisions since he walked this earth. But Jesus wouldn’t play that game then, so I can’t imagine he’s going to play it now. The Pharisees were looking for another reason to be separated from their neighbors the Sadducees, and instead Jesus gave them a reason to come together.

When we ask Jesus what is right, are we doing so because we actually want to be closer to God, or are we asking so that we can separate ourselves a little more from our neighbors? Are we looking for reasons to be divided, or are we looking for reasons to love? 

I think that human behaviour has been much the same throughout history, but so too has been God’s response. We want to tear ourselves apart; God wants to call us back together.

Why did Paul write this letter?

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Sermon for Sunday, October 4th, 2020

Readings:

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-14
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

In our second reading today, we hear Paul addressing the Philippians. We’ve gotten little snippets of this letter for the past couple weeks, but sometimes it’s hard when you’re only looking at a little portion of a scripture to get the bigger picture. It’s not enough to just sit and hear a few verses of scripture and then go home and think you’ve got it. You need to be prepared to ask the scripture some questions. You need to dig a little deeper.

Now the questions that I usually start with, whenever I approach a scripture are the 5 W’s that most of us were probably taught in high school or junior high: Who, What, When, Where, Why

Who is writing this? What are they saying? When was this written? Where was this written? Why was this written?

Now if you get a good study bible, and I highly recommend that you do get a good study bible, you may find the answers to some of these questions in an introduction in front of each book. Answers to questions like “who do we think wrote this?” “When do we think it was written?” “Where do we think it was written?” I say “we think” because to be honest we don’t always know for sure, but sometimes we have a good idea because the text gives us clues. 

So for instance, this is the Letter to the Philippians, it was written by the Apostle Paul, probably late in his career in the early 60s AD, Paul was writing it in prison, but we’re not 100% sure where. So that answers The Who, the when, and the where. So what about the what? What is Paul saying in this passage we heard this morning?

Well, this morning Paul gives us a tiny little glimpse of his background: he was a faithful Jew, he was raised to take God’s laws seriously, he was someone who strove to be righteous, he was an accomplished person,

 but he says none of that means more to me than knowing Jesus Christ. 

Paul wants to know Jesus. That is what Paul is saying here. Paul wants to know Jesus.

Now Paul knows that he’s not Jesus, he knows that he’s not following Christ perfectly, but that is his goal. Paul wants to know Jesus and to be like him as much as he possibly can, even if that means suffering and dying like Jesus did. 

So that is some of what Paul is saying in his letter, at least the part we heard today, but why is Paul saying it?

Why is Paul writing this letter to the Church in Philippi?

Well, they know he is in prison and likely suffering, so we can begin by saying he is writing to encourage them and to console them. Don’t worry about me. I’m ok. 

They slipped him a little money in their last letter, so he is also writing to thank them, even though he also wants to assure them that he really doesn’t need anything. 

So consolation and thanksgiving, those are a couple reasons why Paul is writing this letter, but they are very near the surface. There are some deeper why’s. 

 You see, I think that the word “why” is one of the most important, powerful and, sadly underused, words in the English language. The word “why” is like a shovel, the more you use it the deeper you go. The more we ask the question “why” the more we understand our own motivations and our own assumptions, and the more we are likely to understand what makes other people tick. But we don’t ask “why” enough. We get a surface answer and stop too soon. Sometimes, I think we stop asking “why” because we don’t want to go too deep, maybe we’re afraid of what we will uncover. Maybe we will find assumptions, and emotions and motivations that we don’t want to be there. But if we want to understand ourselves or anyone else, we need to go deeper. And with someone like Paul we need to go even deeper. We need to keep asking why.

Why is Paul writing this letter to the Church in Philippi?

Why is Paul writing letters at all?

Why is Paul in prison?

Why is Paul content whether he has a little or whether he has a lot?

Why is Paul prepared to suffer and die?

Why did this accomplished, educated man willingly give up his privilege, his money, his freedom and his life for the sake of others? 

Why was this gospel he was preaching so important?

Why is he constantly calling followers of Jesus Christ to live to a higher standard?

Why is Paul able to rejoice while sitting in chains?

Why is a man on death row more concerned about his future than he is about his past?

There are so many “why’s” that I want answered about the Apostle Paul, and the more I keep digging the bedrock that I keep hitting in my excavation is Jesus. 

You know, by my count there are 103 verses in the entire letter of Paul to the Philippians and in those 103 verses Paul uses the name “Jesus”, “Christ Jesus”, or “the Lord” 50 times. He only uses the word “gospel” about 9 times, but the name of Jesus, that is constantly on Paul’s lips. He says the name 7 times in today’s short passage alone: 

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.

 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 

The more that I keep digging into the “why” of Paul the more I keep finding Jesus. Paul believes that Christ Jesus has made him his own. Paul had an encounter with the risen Christ. Paul knows that this man Jesus has power over death. Paul believes that in Jesus, God has done something to forever change the world and human history, and Paul believes that because of that his life and his future belong to Christ. It is not his own anymore. Now he belongs to Christ, and not just Paul but also the Philippians, the Thessalonians, the Corinthians, the Romans, everyone that is a member of Christ’s body belong to Christ now and because they belong to Christ, Paul believes that should change how they live in this world. “Because God has done this, therefore we should do this”, that seems to be part of what Paul is saying here. When Christ makes us his own that should change everything for us. It certainly did for Paul. Jesus became the “why” for Paul. Jesus wasn’t afraid of prison. Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. Jesus wasn’t afraid to challenge people or call them on their own hypocrisy. Jesus suffered all things, including death, and showed the world that he had victory over death. That is who Paul belongs to. And although Paul may not be able to follow him perfectly, knowing Christ and allowing Christ to shape and change his life, well that means everything to Paul now. Knowing and following Christ has changed everything for Paul, so the question that I am left with, reading his letter to the Philippians a couple thousand years later on the other side of the world, is has knowing and following Christ changed much for me? Have I been transformed by belonging to Christ? Because I bear the name “Christian” does that change how I live in this world? Do I get the courage and the determination and the hope that Paul gets from knowing Jesus? 

You know, you can look at Paul and see all sorts of things on the surface. People really struggle with Paul because his letters and his words have been so misused and abused over the centuries. Paul’s words have been used to support slavery, his words have been used against women and against gay people, but if you can keep digging past that and keep searching for what is really motivating Paul…if you keep asking “why” well, I think what you will find is a man whose life has been turned upside down by Jesus. So I have learned to love Paul because I think he is a testimony to what Jesus can do when he gets his hands on you. Paul is someone who knows that his life belongs to Christ and that guides everything he does.

I wonder if we dug deep enough into our own lives and our own motivations and if we asked ourselves constantly “why we do this” or “why we do that,” well I wonder if we could say the same. 


Words or Ways?

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Sermon for September 27th, 2020

Readings:

Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32
Psalm 25:1-8
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Words.

Words are such important and powerful things. We use words to identify and make sense of the world around us. We use words to describe ourselves and shape our own identities. We use words to communicate with each other.

Everyday my life is filled with words. Sacred words, profane words, four-letter words, I use a healthy dose of each every day. There are the words of the Bible, words that may sound strange and unfamiliar or words that may echo with grace and dignity. There are the mundane words of everyday speech. There are the words that are spoken to us over the television or over the radio; there are the words we read on the internet and in the newspapers. There are the words we use to tell our children that we love them; there are the words we use when someone cuts us off in traffic; and there are the words we use to tell God our innermost wants, fears and regrets. Our lives are filled with words, and there is no sense in pretending that words don’t matter. Words do matter and they matter very much. 

Some preachers preach like they get paid by the word; I do hope I’m not one of them. When I write and when I speak, I do agonize over using the right word, but I don’t want to be one of those people that always uses a 50 cent word when a 25 cent word will do just fine. Words can be abused and misused. And words may not always mean what you think they mean. 

We use a lot of words in our worship here every week. There are the words of our prayers, thank you Thomas Cranmer, there are the words of the Creed, thank you early church councils, and there is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. As people of the book, we believe that one of the ways that our God communicates with us is through words: throughout the ages God inspires prophets and apostles to share his word with his people, and what does God’s word say on this fine Sunday morning?

I am going to judge according to your ways.

Ways not words. That is how God says that he is going to judge his people, according to their ways. That is the word or the message that God gave to Ezekiel: tell my people that I am going to judge them according to their ways. 

We have these words, these sacred words, words that are important and words that we believe are divinely inspired, and what do these words tell us? They tell us that there is something even more important than words: actions. Our actions, our ways, that is how God is going to judge us, by our actions. Words are important because they guide and influence our actions, but at the end it is the actions that really count. 

I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you, according to your ways.

You know we, I think rightly, make a big deal about the words of scripture, and even more so about the words of Jesus in the mass. So the gospels, which are our primary source for the words of Jesus, are given a special book, which is given special reverence, everyone stands to hear it read, we use different responses, etc. The words of Jesus and his teachings matter a lot to us. Those words should guide our thoughts and, more importantly, our actions. And We believe that they are more than the words of a clever teacher; we believe they are the words of God incarnate. But here is a little observation: the oldest books that we have in the New Testament are the letters of the Apostle Paul, but if you are looking for Jesus’s teachings, if you are looking for the words of Jesus, you won’t find them there. Paul almost never talks about what Jesus said; Paul talks about what he did. Paul talks about Jesus’s words when he talks about him taking the bread and the wine at his last supper and saying “this is my body” and “this is my blood,” but beyond that Paul is primarily concerned with telling the Churches what Jesus did. What did Jesus’s actions accomplish in this world? How should our actions be shaped by Jesus’s actions? That is the question that Paul is always asking…and answering. 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God 

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave, 

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself 

and became obedient to the point of death– 

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name 

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend, 

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord, 

to the glory of God the Father.

Actions, actions, actions…this is what Jesus did. This is what Jesus’s life was about: God acting in this world. God humbling himself; God emptying himself. These are God’s ways, these are the ways of Jesus Christ, and according to Paul, these should be our ways as well. And that, after all, is how God says he will judge us, according to our ways. Tongues should confess, yes, but knees should bend first. It’s not that our words don’t matter; it’s just that our actions matter more. And Jesus, when he did use words, usually used them to remind us of just how important our actions are.

Just look at the story Jesus tells this morning. Two brothers, one of them responds to his father with the right words, and the other responds with the right actions. Which one of the two did the will of the father? The one with the right actions. It’s not that the words aren’t important; it’s just that the actions matter more. Jesus says “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my father.” He who does the will.

Words are important. Words have power. Words have meaning and authority. But in the end, what does the Word say? That we shall be judged according to our ways, not our words. 

Jonah is a jerk.

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Sermon for September 20th, 2020

Readings:

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8 
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

At one point in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is teaching his disciples and he says to them:

Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 

Jesus was, of course, referring to his own death and resurrection. Jonah was three days in the fish and came back; Jesus will be three days in the grave and come back. So, in the early church, Jonah was often used as a symbol for Jesus. But Jesus also went on to say that: “something greater than Jonah is here,” and I think it is really important not to miss that, Jesus is far greater than Jonah, because although they were both gone for three days and came back, that is where the similarities end between Jesus and Jonah. 

Because Jonah, is a jerk. Jonah is a jerk. If you didn’t pick up on that from our Old Testament excerpt this morning, then let me fill in for you some of the back story.

God sent Jonah to Ninevah to tell them that if they didn’t change their ways their destruction would soon be upon them. But Jonah didn’t want to go. He didn’t care about the people in Ninevah. They were making their own beds, so let them lie in them. Jonah turned and headed off in the opposite direction. He got on a boat and headed out to see. But God sent mighty winds and waves, that rocked the ship and almost destroyed it and everyone in it, but did Jonah care? No.

Jonah didn’t care that his disobedience was threatening the lives of his shipmates. He didn’t even want to help them row or bail water. He just decided to crawl down inside the hull of the ship and take a nap. He went to sleep while his shipmates where scrambling to save their lives. Oh and when they did wake him up, he was really reluctant to own up to the fact that it was his fault that God was rocking the ship. His shipmates, they immediately prayed to God and repented, but did Jonah? No. 

Jonah didn’t start praying until he was tossed overboard and swallowed by a giant fish. When the fish spat Jonah up on shore a few days later, then he finally decided to go to Ninevah to do what God had told him to do in the first place. He goes there; he gives a very simple sermon about their coming destruction, and miraculously they all repent. They sit in sackcloth and ashes, they cry to God, they change their ways. 

Now as a preacher, I can tell you that that is the miracle in this story. Forget about the giant fish. The miracle in this story is that a bunch of sinners heard one sermon and decided to change. But I’m not even gonna go there right now, let’s get back to Jonah.

Jonah preaches his sermon and he finds himself a nice spot just outside of town where he can watch the action. He is ready for some Sodom and Gomorrah type destruction. He wants to see some explosions and some divine justice coming down hard on these sinners. But what happens? God decides to forgive Ninevah. God decides not to destroy the city and all the people in it, and it makes Jonah so mad he wants to die. He wants to die because he didn’t get to see God punish some people that he thought needed punishing. He didn’t get to be an agent of God’s justice.

Jonah is a jerk. He doesn’t care about the Ninevites, never did. He doesn’t want what’s best for them. He doesn’t want God to forgive them. He didn’t want to see them turn, we wanted to watch them burn. And oh is he mad at God, when God doesn’t treat the Ninevites the way he thinks God should treat them. He thinks sinners should be punished, not forgiven. But what Jonah can’t see, is that the most hardened sinner in this entire story is himself. Jonah was shown forgiveness, given a second chance to follow God, a second chance at life, but Jonah didn’t want anyone else to get a second chance. In the end, what we see is that Jonah never cares for anyone but himself. 

Jonah is a jerk and he is nothing like Jesus, because Jesus understands something that Jonah doesn’t: Jesus understands love. Jonah might love himself, but he certainly doesn’t love others. If you really love others, you want what is best for them. And if you really love someone else deeply, you will want what is best for them, even if it isn’t what is best for you. Probably the closest we get to that kind of love in this world is the way a parent usually loves a child. Good parents are often willing to suffer quite a lot to do what is best for their children. But there are other times when we see that kind of self-sacrificing love: between spouses, in the daily lives of soldiers and first-responders, even occasionally between complete strangers; we see love, love that isn’t concerned about what’s in it for me. That is the love that moves God to forgive, because God wants what is best for his children, he doesn’t have to destroy a village just to satisfy his pride, God would rather see them live. That is the love that caused God to be born among us as Jesus Christ. Was it best for him? No, he died on a cross. But it was best for us. 

How then should people who proclaim to worship and follow this God that died on a cross for the sins of others, how should those people live? Should we be concerned that everyone gets what is coming to them? Should we at all times do what is best for us? Should we be looking out for number 1? Should we act like God’s judgment is for everyone else, but God’s mercy is just for us? Do we really want what is best for others? That is the real test of love. Do we really want what is best for someone else, even if it means that we don’t get what we think is our fair share? 

You know what, let’s be honest, a lot of times we don’t. We don’t. Those early laborers in Jesus’s story in the gospel, they didn’t want what was best for the workers that came later. They weren’t concerned that these folks needed work and got work and got paid. For some reason, they thought they deserved more. The landowner hadn’t promised them more, but they thought they deserved it. They had ideas about what they thought was fair, but the landowner didn’t seem to be too concerned about what was fair; the landowner wanted what was best for all of his workers. 

You will not often hear me use the terms “justice” or “social justice” in my preaching, and there is a specific reason for that. I think that questions of justice are something of a red herring. Because when we start talking about justice we inevitably start talking about fairness and deserving, and that usually ends up with people just being defensive about their right to be angry and what they think belongs to them, sort of like Jonah arguing with God. Questions of fairness and justice have been a part of human civilization since the beginning of time, right along with war and fighting. Maybe they are the wrong questions. Maybe the question we should be asking is how can we learn to want, simply want and truly desire, what is best for someone else. How can we appreciate the gifts and the grace that we have been given and truly desire to see others share in them? You see, if you truly want what is best for someone else, then questions of justice and fairness become completely irrelevant. If I truly love you and want what is best for you, then I don’t have to worry about what is fair or whether or not I am getting what I deserve. Maybe, not getting what we deserve is truly a sign of God’s forgiveness and grace. Jonah didn’t get what he deserved, he was given so much more than he deserved. He was forgiven. He was given a second chance.

But Jonah doesn’t really want to see others blessed and graced by God the way that he has been. Because Jonah is a jerk.

O Lord, you know…

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Sermon for August 30th, 2020

Readings:

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

O Lord, you know.

That is how the prophet Jeremiah begins his prayer.

O Lord, you know.

He could have ended right there. Part of me expects that he did for a while: in exhaustion, in exasperation, in anger, in fear, maybe even in hope, Jeremiah manages to squeeze out those few little words to his creator, and then pauses, takes a haggard breath, tries to take it all in and think of what to do or what to say next.

O Lord, you know.

Is there a more perfect prayer in times of trouble? I don’t know that there is. Sure, Jeremiah goes on to elaborate; he tells God what he wants, he tells God about his pain and his frustrations, but I suspect that those extra words are probably more for Jeremiah’s own benefit than they are for God’s. Everything Jeremiah really needed to say to God he said in those first few words:

O Lord, you know.

Because God does know. God does know the situation that Jeremiah is in. Jeremiah is living in the midst of a world that has gone crazy. The Babylonians are about to invade and destroy Jerusalem. And why wouldn’t they? Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah are ripe for the picking. There is wealth to be plundered; people to be exploited. New slaves, cheap labor, easy money. Why wouldn’t the Babylonians invade? It’s not like the Judeans could put up a united front to fight them off. They were too busy destroying themselves.

That was Jeremiah’s real burden and pain, it wasn’t the destructive power of the Babylonians that upset him, it was the self-destruction of his own people. Jeremiah’s own kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah, was destroying itself from within and it’s breaking his heart. In the beginning of his ministry as a prophet, God gave Jeremiah a message for his people and the message was this:

I brought you into a plentiful land, to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.

The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”

Those who handle the law did not know me;

The rulers transgressed against me;

The prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.

Wanton waste

Faithless religious leaders

Lawyers that neither know or care about the difference between right and wrong

Politicians that recognize no power above their own

And boundless prophets of lesser idols urging them to keep chasing after the wrong things.

If you try to read Jeremiah and wonder why he’s in such a bad mood all the time, well just imagine if your entire life was one long 2020, and maybe you’ll cut him some slack. I think exasperation is really the best word for Jeremiah’s state of mind, because he is really struggling with what it means to be faithful in a faithless world. He’s exasperated and he doesn’t know how long he can keep doing it.

At one point, Jeremiah shows up in the temple, and on God’s behalf he calls everyone out for their hypocrisy:

Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal and go after other Gods, and then come and stand before me in this house?

Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.

I am watching, says the Lord. That is the message that God gave Jeremiah to say. I am watching.

Needless to say, Jeremiah’s message was not popular and neither was he. He wanted to give up, at one point he regretted even being born, and that is when he slumps down before God and utters:

O Lord, you know.

I can barely imagine all of the thoughts and emotions that Jeremiah is packing into that simple prayer:

Lord, you know about the corruption in this world.

Lord, you know about people that have no respect for or belief in a higher power.

Lord, you know about people that only seek after their own good and care not for the needs of others.

Lord, you know about how careless and wasteful we are will all your gifts, especially with your creation.

Lord, you know that many of our religious leaders care more about secular power and influence than they do about faith.

Lord, you know about people that are suffering. You know about people that are sick and worried about their lives.

You know about people that are poor and hungry.

You know about the people that are trying to manipulate the system and you know about the people that the system has failed.

You know about injustice.

You know about cruelty.

You know about lying.

You know about incompetence.

I can imagine that Jeremiah is also looking for the faith to say: Lord, you also know about our hopes, and our dreams.

You know about our capacity to love and to forgive.

You know that despite how awful humans can be, that once in a while through that spark of love that you gave them, they can be pretty amazing too.

You know that only good can overcome evil.

You know, Lord, why you have called us.

And you, and only you, know the road that lies ahead.

Maybe it doesn’t look like much on paper, but when Jeremiah says “O Lord, you know,” he’s saying a mouthful. And despite the fact that Jeremiah goes on for about 37 more chapters, he really says right there all that needs to be said. Because recognizing that God knows, is really the battle isn’t it? That is the hardest truth for us to absorb sometimes, the fact that God does know what is going on in this world.

God knows when we are suffering and in need; God knows when we have a cross to bear,

AND God knows when we are following him and when we are not. God knows when we have turned away from him. God knows when I am chasing after false idols of my own creation. God knows when it is Satan’s words on my tongue and not his own. God knows when my mind is set on divine things and when my mind is set on human things. I may not always know, or I might know and hope that God doesn’t know, but God knows.

Jeremiah’s few little words they do so much, they give honor and recognition to God, and they remind us of something that we are liable to forget every minute of the day: that God knows.

Exasperation is an emotion that I know a thing or two about, and I am guessing that pretty much everyone these days could say the same. If you are struggling with how to pray, what to pray for, who to pray for, if you are frustrated with the way things are, if it seems like everyone has just gone crazy, if you are worried about the future and the road that lies ahead, maybe you could just take a moment and pray with me these words of Jeremiah’s, words that say everything when I don’t know what to say; words that I keep repeating more and more these days:

O Lord, you know.