The Power of Sacrifice

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Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2018

Readings:

1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

The high priest enters the holy place year after year, with blood that is not his own.

 

That is how the author of Hebrews described the sacrificial system in the temple in Jerusalem. In front of the holy place, the holy of holies, the high priest would offer regular sacrifices to God. The worship of God in the temple wasn’t just about prayer and song, it was a bloody affair. Because blood was sacred to the Jews. That is why Jewish dietary laws were very strict about consuming anything with blood in it. An animal’s blood, represents its life. Blood is life. I think that’s pretty easy for us to understand. But the blood that was being poured out before the holy place, was the blood of bulls, and sheep and goats. The high priest was sacrificing animals. And while the death of these animals would certainly have represented an economic loss to those who offered them, it was really the creature lying on the altar that was paying the highest price.

 

That, according to the author of Hebrews, is what makes Christ’s sacrifice so unique. Christ, as our great high priest, offers God his own blood. Christ sheds his ownblood for the protection and purification of his people. It is his ownlife, not the life of another, that is laid down on the cross. That is why Christ’s sacrifice, that is why his priesthood, is so powerful: because it reveals a love that is self-sacrificial; a love that defies reason. It demonstrates that love is more powerful than the instinct of survival. And that is something indeed.

 

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

 

It is one thing to be willing to kill for someone; but it is another thing entirely to be willing to die for them. There are all sorts of things that can motivate us to kill, but being willing to give up your own life in order to save the life of another, that comes from a place very deep within us. It comes from a love that I think comes very close to the love of God. Especially the God of Jesus Christ.

 

Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The armistice ended active fighting on the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month, 100 years ago today. That may seem like a long time, but is it really? In the grand scheme of things it’s not that long at all. We have a parishioner that was born just a few days later. One of the bloodiest wars the world had ever seen had come to an end, and what was left? Fields soaked with blood, the life-blood of a generation, and nations reeling and wondering: what just happened? How did this happen? Who is to blame? How do we stop this from happening again?

 

We think that we live in dark times now, but the truth is we can’t fathom the loss of life that those living during the First World War encountered. We can’t even confidently count the casualties. Estimates range as high as 15 to 17 million. Staggering losses. How do you begin to process that? How do you honor the sacrifice of a generation of young men killed in the prime of their lives?

 

It would be easy to get caught up in a political or military debate about the war. It would be easy to have intellectual arguments about who is to blame and how it might have been different; how it might have been prevented. And there is a time for those debates. Our respect for life and our longing for peace should lead us to have powerful and important discussions on preserving life and peace, but days like today are not the time for such arguments. We need to take a moment and put our questions and our judgments of leadership aside, and we need to honor the sacrifice that was made by so many, in good faith, so that others might live, so that we might be safe, and free.

 

In our readings today we are reminded of the power of sacrifice. We are reminded that our God is not the God of self-preservation, but is the god of self-sacrifice. Our God is a God that would willingly give his own life, shed his own blood, so that his beloved children might live. I find that God inspiring. That is the God that I worship. We worship a giving and forgiving God, that personally knows the power of sacrifice. We worship a God that doesn’t just take the blood and the lives of others, but offers his own blood and his own life for us. That my friends, is NOT the way of the world, but it is the way of our God. And this God of ours has been inspiring his children to risk everything for a very long time.

 

Today we honor all those who have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the love and welfare of another. We remember soldiers and veterans, naturally, but we also need to remember, as our readings would suggest, the sacrifices of those at home. The widows, that not only lost a beloved spouse, but also proved themselves capable of sacrificing everything they have to live on, even their own lives, for the sake of a greater good; for the sake of something they love more than life itself. We have so much to learn from their examples. Yes, our ancestors certainly made some mistakes, but they also got some things right too. They were willing to sacrifice their food, their money, their power, their comfort and even their lives for the sake of something greater. I wonder if we could do the same?

Putting God First

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Sermon for November 4th, 2018

Stewardship Sunday

Readings:

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Psalm 119:1-8
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

 

It is so hard to pay attention to any one thing for very long anymore. I used to think that I just had an attention span problem, or that I was easily distracted, like a dog seeing a squirrel, but I am beginning to realize that being constantly distracted has become a way of life for the society we live in, it’s not just me.

 

There is so much competing for my attention every moment of every day. I get regular messages from my body telling me: it’s time to eat; it’s time to go to bed; you’re getting older; the weather is getting colder; rain is on the way.

 

I have family and friends that need my attention: who is sick or in the hospital? who is having a baby? when is supper going to be ready?

 

And then there is work: who am I meeting with today? did the contractor for this project show up? when was that report due?

 

And there are so many things in the world that I should be paying attention to: who is on the ballot on Tuesday? How long is this coffee pod going to sit in a landfill? what countries are at war with each other? how many people were killed this week in another act of hatred and violence?

 

As I bounce from one issue to another, there are all these voices I must contend with: buy this and your problems will be solved! take this drug and your pain and troubles will be over! vote for me and I will fix the world!

 

Technology, which can be great, only makes this problem 1000 times worse. I don’t know what’s more frustrating anymore: not having internet access, or having it. I’m constantly having to check what is true and what is not. Is this supposed news article true, or is it all twisted and taken out of context? Should I share this meme? Should I be outraged over some nonsense issue that everyone else seems to be outraged over? This Facebook post says that if I don’t repost it, then I just don’t care and am a horrible human being, am I obliged to repost it?

 

So many things, so many people, so many issues and they all want my attention. They all want to be first in my life. What do I do? What really needs to come first? It is a question I have to ask myself countless times a day. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. In fact, I know I’m not alone.

 

In our gospel today, a scribe walks up to Jesus and asks him: which commandment is first? Jesus, with so many issues and causes and rules and laws and traditions, all vying for my attention at any one moment, how am I to choose between them? How do I know what comes first?

And Jesus answered him with a verse from scripture: Deuteronomy 6: 4-9. If there was ever any one verse of scripture that is the bedrock of faith for both Jews and Christians, it’s this verse. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” or “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” That is the first and great commandment that Jesus is referring to in the Summary of the Law that I say at the beginning of almost every mass here. Jews recite it in their prayer services twice a day. If you enter a Jewish home, or even my home, you may see a little thing attached to the doorpost with some Hebrew letters on it. It’s called a mezuzah, and inside is a little scroll with that scripture verse written on it. “…write them on your doorposts and on your gates.” It is a physical reminder that as we go and come in this world, this world with all of its distractions and anxieties, one thing and only one thing should come first: God.

 

The God of Jesus and the God of Moses (they are the same God I assure you), that God has given us this commandment that nothing else in our lives should come before our relationship with him. Loving God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength, that must always come first. Even before loving our neighbors as ourselves. That second command is like the first; it flows from it, but it still comes second. Hear this Episcopalians, because we have a bad habit of thinking that we can teach people to love their neighbors without first teaching them to love God. We love talking about virtues and values and justice and love, but we get real uncomfortable sometimes when we have to talk about the source of all those things. But God must come first. The love of God must always come first. It doesn’t work the other way around, at least not for very long.

 

There was a 20thcentury philosopher named Will Durant who wrote that: “conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death.”

 

If our society is to survive, it must have people who know and understand and are committed to putting first the source of all that is good. We need people in this world that can boldly say no to all the other voices and concerns trying to distract them. We need people that are willing to sacrifice power, and money, and maybe even some of the respect of their peers, because they recognize that nothing is more powerful than God, nothing is more valuable, and no one’s respect is worth more than his respect. It is a tough call, but thanks be to God, in every generation there have been people who have risen to the task.

 

People like the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, urging their people not to put their trust in anything other than the power of their God. People like John the Baptist who understood that there is no greater danger than being separated from God. People like a little Jewish girl named Mary, whose life was so focused and centered on and open to God that he would find a home not just in her thoughts, but also in her womb.

 

Our tradition is filled with the stories of people who have had the guts to put God first. We are here today because countless ancestors heard and responded to God’s word to Moses. In a world filled with individuals and causes and philosophies and stuff, all pretending to be God, all vying for our attention, all trying to be first in our lives, there have been people that have been bold enough to say NO, I only have one God in this world, and that is the Lord. Everything else comes second to him. Everything.

 

Where would we be today without those people? If Paul had decided to just focus on his tentmaking and building his business, would we have heard about the resurrection? If Augustine of Canterbury had decided that Britain was just too dangerous or too scary, would we have heard about the God of Israel? What if Saint Cuthbert said that Scotland was too cold? What if Charles Wesley had decided that there was more money in writing secular songs and who would know what a Herald Angel was anyways? What if Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham had both decided that television was too expensive a medium to tell people about the love of God? or what if Sylvester Gildersleve and Francis Wilson had decided that other things in their lives were more important than trying to start a church in some country village outside of New York called Rockville Centre?

 

In every generation we need people that can say to their children and anyone else that will listen: we have only one God, and he always comes first. That is what you are being invited to do right now. You are being invited to put God first. To give God the first fruits of your labors, not your leftovers. You are being invited to recognize that God is the true source of everything good in your life and everything good in the world. We fill out our pledge cards in church today, in mass, because doing so is an act of faith. Giving to God here will mean that we will have to say no to some other things in our lives. The amount we give, well that is between each of us and God. God knows our hearts and God also knows our finances and circumstances. We give to God based on what he asks of us, not on what someone else is giving, or what we think our fair share of the electric bill here should be. We must always remember the widow whose one coin, was worth more than all the large sums given by those with great wealth.

 

Regardless of what numbers you write on this slip of paper this morning, know this: the most powerful thing that any of us can do to transform this world we live in or to shape the lives of our children or our children’s children, is to learn how to say no to all those other voices and distractions in the world and to say yes to putting God first.

 

Keeping Up Appearances

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Sermon 10-21-18

Readings:

Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

 

One of my favorite characters from all of British Television is Hyacinth Bucket. That’s spelled B-U-C-K-E-T, Bucket. Hyacinth is the star of a show called Keeping Up Appearances, and that title tells you almost everything you need to know about Hyacinth: her life is about appearances.

 

Hyacinth comes from a very humble background; she grew up poor and rather unsophisticated and her singular mission in life is to get as far away from her humble beginnings as she can get. Hyacinth wants to mingle and rub elbows with the aristocracy. She wants people to think that she is cultured and erudite and well bred. Most importantly Hyacinth wants people to think that she has money. Hyacinth has three sisters, but the only one she will speak of publicly is her sister Violet, the one with the swimming pool, sauna and room for a pony.

 

I was just watching an episode recently, where Hyacinth was excited that her husband gave her a home security system for their anniversary. She wasn’t excited because she was worried about her stuff being stolen; she was excited because now the neighbors might think she had stuff worth stealing. As the title implies, with Hyacinth, it’s all about appearances. If she can’t be rich, at least she wants to appear rich.

 

I love Hyacinth Bucket, but like the rest of the characters in the show, I wouldn’t want to live next to her. I love her, because I think I understand her, at least I understand the temptation to be her. I think it is great for people to want to improve themselves: to improve their education, their situation, their skills, their habits, their morals even. I share those desires. But the problem with Hyacinth is that appearances mean more to her than reality. She doesn’t understand that appearing great and actually being great are two very different things; and her obsession with appearing rich, sophisticated, well-connected, influential, virtuous and otherwise perfect is always drawing attention to just how far away from those ideals she really is.

 

Appearing great and being great are not the same thing. It’s a lesson that Hyacinth never learns.

It’s a lesson a lot of people never learn.

 

Two of Jesus’s followers, James and John, two brothers from a humble background, they have a special request for Jesus. You may remember that when Jesus first met James and John they were in the boat with their father Zebedee mending their nets. When Jesus called they quickly got up and followed him, leaving their father behind. Well now James and John they have a special request for Jesus. When Jesus finally comes into his kingdom, they want to be seen on either side of him, one on his left and one on his right. They want to be seen at the head table. They want people to see that they are close to Jesus. To be on either side of Jesus, that is the most visible place in the room. If they are seen there, then people will think that they are great, just like Jesus. There’s just one problem with their request: appearing great and being great are not the same thing.

 

In fact, in Jesus’s kingdom, appearances don’t count for much at all. Jesus didn’t come into this world to appear holy. He didn’t appear to pray; he didn’t appear to care for the sick or the poor; he didn’t appear to forgive sins; he didn’t appear to serve others. He didn’t appear to suffer and die; he didn’t appear to rise again. He didn’t appear to do any of those things, he did them. Jesus didn’t appear great, he was great.

Appearing great, and being great are not the same thing. Jesus was great.

We are not great. We can and should try to improve ourselves; we should seek to grow in wisdom and virtue; we should try to serve others as Jesus instructed us to do, but we must accept that we are not truly good or great, not like he was. Pretending to be otherwise only highlights how far we are from Jesus, not our closeness to him. Our lives are tainted with sin. All of our lives, even the most noble among us. We are not great. That is what makes Jesus’s willingness to bear our sins and burdens such an astounding thing: We are not great, we are ignorant and wayward, and yet our great high priest still deals gently with us. In the end, when Jesus is lifted up on the cross in his moment of ultimate sacrifice, the two individuals closest to him, the one on his right hand and the one on his left, were two sinners; criminals that Jesus died to save. And to the one that admits that he is not great and in need of Jesus’s mercy, that is the one that Jesus invites into paradise.

 

Jesus knew that James and John were a mess when he called them. Jesus knows what a mess all of us are when he calls us to follow him. He knows that we’re not that great. And yet he calls us, and is willing to die for us anyways. We are always going to be tempted with appearing great though. There will always be this voice in our heads saying: “If people see you sitting next to Jesus, maybe they won’t notice what a sinner you are. Maybe they will think you are great too.” We tell ourselves: as long as people think I’m great, they won’t realize what a mess I truly am. Maybe I’ll forget too.

 

It’s a dangerous temptation. Anytime the church as an institution, or we as individuals opt for keeping up appearances, rather than being real, and getting dirty with Jesus in the messy world of real service and sacrifice, we risk doing great damage. We have done great damage. Hyacinth is loveable and benign, but make no mistake, caring more about appearances than truth is a dangerous game. Wanting to be seen next to Jesus, without actually wanting to serve him, is the devil’s playground.

 

Jesus called two humble fishermen to follow him, he knew who James and John were when he called them. Getting prime seating at the banquet, or getting a good selfie with Jesus, is not going to change who they are. Their request to be seen next to Jesus, only highlights how far away from him they actually are. Jesus did not come into the world to create a phony public relations campaign; he came to offer himself as a true servant and a real sacrifice for real sinners. Appearances don’t count much for Jesus.

 

Hyacinth proves it over and over again: the more you try to keep up appearances, the more you prove how far you truly are from being the real thing.

Not a teacher, but a savior

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Sermon for October 14th, 2018

Readings:

Amos 5:6-7,10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

You lack one thing.

 

That is what Jesus said to the man with many possessions: You lack one thing.

 

We don’t know much about this man. We know that he was a good man by most standards; he kept the commandments, or at least he says that he did. I suspect that he probably has broken some here and there. I am inclined to think that anyone who says they’ve never done anything wrong is either Jesus or delusional. But still, this man, he’s probably a decent human being. He’s very respectful to Jesus as a good teacher; he’s humble and kneels before him. We know that he has been somewhat successful in life, because he has many possessions. And we know that Jesus loves him. The bible tells us so.

 

But despite all of that we also know that something is missing in his life. This man lacks one thing. Deep down I suspect that he knows it. Why else would he go running up to Jesus asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life? If he had been confident that he had it all and had it all worked out, he wouldn’t have gone chasing after this Jesus. But he does. Something inside him keeps telling him that there is more. There is more to be had; there is more to be done. There is something missing in his life and his soul is restless until he can find it. There is a hole in his life that he is looking to fill.

 

Now I suspect that this man has been trying to find this one thing that he lacks for a very long time. Fortunately for him, he has been somewhat successful in life. He has had the luxury of seeking fulfillment in things. He has the money and the means to acquire possessions. Other, less fortunate, souls might have had to try to fill the hole with food, or wine, or drugs, or sex, or violence; but not this man, he has the great fortune of having wealth. And with that wealth he has tried to fill the void in his life; he’s gotten pretty good at it, but deep down, something is still missing. There is one thing he lacks: a living relationship with God.

 

Now make no mistake, this man has a relationship with the law; he has a relationship with the teachings of God; with the commandments. And by his account it is a good relationship; he says he’s never broken them, but I can’t help wondering: what if he’s not quite right about that? What if his relationship with God’s law isn’t as pristine as he makes it out to be? It seems to me that this man has two options: either he can try to convince himself that he has the power, the skill, the resources and the righteousness to achieve eternal life on his own (he can try to convince himself that he is good), or he can admit that forgiveness, salvation and eternal life are things that he cannot attain by himself; they are things that he can only receive as a gift. He can admit that only God can fill that empty space in his soul through an act of mercy.

 

This man wants a teacher, but what he needs is a savior. He wants a God that he can own just like all of his other possessions, not a God that owns him. He wants eternal life, but he is so used to being in control of his earthly life that he thinks the Kingdom of God is something that he will attain by his good choices. He says: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do? He thinks that eternal life is something that he is going to win for himself. He can’t imagine that it is something that is going to be given to him as a gift, because of something that God did in Jesus Christ. He still thinks that he can save himself.

 

And here’s the saddest part of this story: this man walks away from Jesus. He only lacks one thing. It is the thing that he has been searching for his whole life. It is the hole that he has been trying to fill through good works and through material possessions. Here it is at last right in front of him, and he can’t have it, because it isn’t something he can buy, and it isn’t something he can do. It is someone that he must follow. It is a gift that he must be able to receive. It’s not a teacher; it’s a savior.

 

People hear this story and they get caught up on Jesus asking the man to give away his money and possessions, they get hung up on that, but I don’t think that is the hardest thing that Jesus asks this man to give up. Jesus is also asking this man to give up his sense of self-righteousness. He’s asking him to give up control over his life. He’s asking him to give up on the idea that he can save himself. Those things are even harder to let go of than money.

 

Even in church, I can’t tell you how often I hear Christians talking about what we doing in the world and how we are following God’s commandments and doing all this work to build God’s Kingdom, and not talking about what God has done for us. You think it’s hard to get people to let go of their money? Try getting them to let go of their self-righteousness. It is hard to get people to let go of money and possessions, but it is even harder to get them to let go of trying to save themselves.

 

But if you can, if you can let go of trying to save yourself, letting go of everything else gets a lot easier. When you realize that the god-shaped hole in your life can only be filled by a relationship with God, trying to fill it with more stuff becomes less tempting. When you realize that the size of your bank account doesn’t impress Jesus as much as how you live your life and how closely you follow him, then it becomes easier to invest in the things that really matter. When you realize that salvation comes from God alone, trying to hold on to anything but God seems really pointless. When you realize and accept that only God is truly good, then you will realize that all that self-righteous talk is just a bunch of hot air.

 

Our life as Christians is meant to be a response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. A response. We cannot buy eternal life, or buy our salvation, or buy goodness. We can only respond to what God has already done for us and to Jesus’s call to follow him. I expect that that response will mean that we will feel called to leave some things behind in this world. I expect that we will want to follow God’s commandments as best we can, not because we think we are all that good, but because he has shown such love to us that he will forgive us, even when we break them. I expect that we will feel called to let go of some of our stuff too, including yes, our money. I expect that we will willingly and gladly sacrifice from our own goods and possessions, because we will recognize the supreme and ultimate value of his sacrifice. We have seen the goodness of God. Now our life of faith is meant to be a response to that. We have found the one thing we lack and it isn’t a teacher, it’s a savior.

 

Is it hard to follow Jesus and let go of your self-righteousness, and your control, and even your possessions? You bet. But entering the Kingdom of God on your own…well, that’s impossible.

 

 

 

Are we working for union or division?

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Sermon for October 7th, 2018

Readings:

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

It is not good that man should be alone. That is what God declares after shaping Adam from the dust of the earth. It is not good that man should be alone. Our Bible begins with the book of Genesis and the book of Genesis begins with the story of how God created the heavens and the earth and all the animals on the earth. And after God created each thing he declares that: “it is good.” But here for the first time God declares that something is: “not good.” Everything that God created is good, but for this last creature, the creature formed in the image of God, there is something that is not good and that is to have a solitary existence, to be alone. Man needs a partner. None of the other animals that God has created are suitable as a partner for Adam; they are all too different. As much as Adam may love all the dogs and the cats and the monkeys, he can’t experience real companionship with them, not really, because he doesn’t see them as equals. Adam has not yet met his match.

 

So God causes a deep sleep to come over Adam and he takes a part of him, a piece from his side, and he crafts that into woman, Eve. And when Adam sees the woman he says: “at last! bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh. This is the missing piece of me.” This was not an inferior animal, but an equal partner and companion. They were not to be in competition with each other but were to come together and work as one. Two separate souls that recognize in each other a missing part of themselves. Two individuals that can stand before each other naked and unashamed.

 

That is Genesis chapter 2 and what a wonderful world it would be if the story of humanity just stopped there. But it doesn’t. We know that that is not the world that we live in now. Genesis has a chapter 3. And in chapter 3 the world we now know comes in like a bolt of lightening: Adam and Eve are tricked into trusting the serpent more than they trust God. They disobey God and their relationship with God, and with each other changes forever. Women and men start blaming each other and resenting each other; equality is gone, shame and domination enter in; competition and jealousy enter in, and not just between men and women. Brother will rise up against brother, tribes and nations will form and they will be set against each other. Women and children will become property; relationships will become transactions and business arrangements. In the beginning, God recognized our need for partnership and companionship and love, God recognized that we needed to be joined together, but our own sinful desires tore us apart. God wanted union, but what we decided to pursue instead was division.

 

We still live in that fallen world. We live in the world of Genesis chapter 3. There is no denying that or getting around it. From almost the beginning of human history, our relationships have not been exactly as God designed and desired them to be. People talk about how marriage has been redefined lately, but I’ve got news for you, we have been redefining marriage for a very long time, all the way back to when Adam first blamed Eve for his bad choices. We live in a world of hardened hearts. We live in a world of abuse and inequality and pain and brokenness. We live in a world where it is easier to divide people than it is to join them together. We cannot pretend to be living in the Garden of Eden anymore, because we no longer live in that world.

 

None of our relationships are exactly as God intended and created them to be. Not one of them. Not our relationships with our spouses, not our relationships with our parents or our brothers and sisters, not our relationships with our neighbors. There is not one relationship in your life that is not in some way stained by human sinfulness. And sin is divisive. Sin likes to add division to division, always pushing people further and further away from each other. For thousands of years people have been divided over whether divorce is possible and on what grounds. People today have divided opinions about what does or does not constitute a marriage. We live in a divided world and we have for a very long time, and the divisions keep multiplying.

 

The questions for us, as people who worship a god that has declared partnership and companionship good, and division and separation not good, is: “what side are we actively working for?” Are we working for union or division? In word and thought and deed, are we working to draw people together, or are we working to further divide them? If someone has gone through a painful divorce do we remind them that Christ knows the pain of being broken and hurt? Do we tell them that his forgiveness is greater than our sinfulness? Or do we add division to division driving them further away from the community? Should we deny communion to the people who probably most need to be reminded of the unifying power of God’s love? Lord, I hope not.

 

We are called, as Christians, to bring people to Jesus, not to stop them. We don’t have to call divorce good to recognize that sometimes it might be the least worst option. It could be better than forcing people to live in toxic or abusive relationships that just lead to further division and worse pain. Since Genesis chapter 3, division exists in our world, we can’t get away from it, but we don’t have to work for it; we don’t have to be servants of it. I really don’t care what the issue is whether it is remarriage, or gay marriage, or who is called to leadership in the church, or whatever else, if we are trying to use God’s law to separate people from each other or to separate people from God, then we are misusing it, plain and simple. God’s law is there to draw us closer to him and to each other, not to drive us further away.

 

We no longer live in the world of Genesis chapter 2. We can’t go back; not on our own. Sin and divorce and division and disagreement are a part of our world, and no matter how many good decisions we make, or how many good or bad relationships we have, we are all going to need the grace and mercy of God to enter into his kingdom. But the good news of our faith is that we have it. Jesus Christ is God’s solution to the third chapter of Genesis. His life and death, his suffering and resurrection and ascension are how God is dealing with the brokenness, sin and division in our world. We would be wise to listen to his teachings and to pattern our lives after his behavior, but in the end his life is about so much more than just teaching us to make good decisions. Jesus reminds us that God desires to hold and bless his children. Jesus wants people to be drawn together, not torn apart. Living in a broken and divided world we must always ask ourselves: am I drawing people closer to Christ or pushing them further away? Our role as Jesus’s disciples is very simple and he is very clear about it: Let the children come to me, and DO NOT STOP THEM! We can leave the rest to Jesus.

There are some things the doctor just can’t do for you.

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Sermon for September 30th, 2018

Readings:

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

I don’t know about you, but when I go to the doctor I want him or her to fix my problem. Diagnose my problem, tell me what’s wrong or why I am sick, give me the proper medication or schedule the surgery or procedure and let me get on with my life. That is what I am paying you for, isn’t it? You’ve got the education, the credentials, the prescription pad and the scalpel, so please use them and make me feel better.

 

What I find irritating (and maybe some of you do too) is when I go to a doctor and they look at me and say “this is what YOU need to do to get healthy. You need to lay off the dairy, cut back on the salt, drink less, exercise more, take a multivitamin, take control of your desires and impulses, etc..” Or worse yet, the doctor will tell you that you just have to wait for this to pass or for your body to heal. No, I want a doctor that will fix my problems, not one that gives me homework. But doctors do it all the time, you go to them for their expert advice, and time and time again they send you away with a list of things that you need to do. It’s very irritating; I wish they’d quit doing that.

 

But of course, we know they can’t. Doctors can do things for us in moments of great crisis, but when it comes to our day to day health, we are the ones that have to do the heavy lifting. Doctors can give us advice and direction and expertise and wisdom, but they can’t exercise for us and they can’t eat our vegetables for us. We know that. We may get a little frustrated that our problems don’t have easy fixes, but deep down I think we understand that there are necessary limits on what a doctor can do for us. If we really want to be healthy, at some point we must take responsibility. A good doctor will help us take responsibility for our own health. There are some things the doctor just can’t do for you.

 

We understand that when it comes to our physical health; but I don’t think we always understand that when it comes to our spiritual health.

 

In our passage from Numbers today, Moses is at the end of his rope. He is ready to quit. He has heard one complaint too many and it is a complaint that he has already heard: “We’re hungry! We want meat! We used to have meat when we lived in Egypt! There is nothing here to eat!” And on and on and on. Moses has heard all this before. They complained about not having food before and Moses prayed and God gave them Manna. They complained about not having water and Moses struck the rock and there was water. Each time there was a crisis, the people complained, Moses prayed, God sent a miracle and the problem was solved.

 

But this time is different.

 

This time is different, because unlike those other times when the people complained, this time there is no crisis. The people aren’t starving. There is no mention of a lack of water. They don’t have Pharaoh’s army on their heals. They have plenty of food; they have the manna from God, which they don’t even have to work for, they just have to pick it up. And the Bible says that they made it into cakes that tasted like rich cream. I have to tell you, I don’t have a huge sweet tooth, but if I had to survive by eating cake every day, I would persevere.

 

There is no real crisis here, the people just do not want to control their own desires. They don’t want to endure or adapt. They don’t want what God has given them. They want to make it to the promised land, but they want Moses to carry them there crying all the way. Moses can’t do it. It’s not that he doesn’t want to. He simply can’t. Just like a doctor can’t force us to eat right, Moses can’t force people to eat the food that God has given them. He can intercede on behalf for the food, which is what he did before, but now that the food is all around, he can’t make them eat it. These are God’s children, and God’s children have free will. As long as God’s children have free will neither God nor any of his prophets and servants can force them to do anything. They can only lead. It’s like the only saying you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. Moses has lead the Israelites to food, but he can’t force them to eat it.

 

God shows Moses that a different type of leadership is called for now. Moses isn’t just called to intervene anymore, now he is called to empower. He is charged to raise up leaders within the community. He learns that he need to help others to take responsibility for the spiritual health of the community, and ultimately he realizes that each and every individual has to take some ownership over their own walk with God. He can still provide direction, but getting to the Promised Land will require them to put one foot in front of the other themselves.

 

In James’s epistle this morning he says: “are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” In the gospel this morning Jesus says if you find something in your life that is a stumbling block to your walk with God, then you need to remove it. A priest or pastor can pray for you, but no priest or pastor can do YOUR praying for you. We all must take some responsibility for our community life and for our own walk with God. Yes we still need leaders, just like we still need doctors, for wisdom, guidance, expertise, direction and even for intervention in times of crisis. James also said, that if you are sick (that is, in times of crisis), you need to call the elders of the church, but when it comes to our day to day spiritual health and our walk with God, there comes a point where we have to take responsibility for receiving what God has given us.

 

When it comes to our spiritual health, just like our physical health, there are some things the doctor just can’t do for you.

Gehenna: The Opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven

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Sermon for Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

Readings:

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

On the Southwest side of the old city of Jerusalem, just down from Mount Zion is a little valley with a very dark past.

 

While the entire city of Jerusalem has seen more death and destruction than any of us could possibly imagine; even in Jesus’s time, this one particular valley just outside the city walls was synonymous with death; its very name had become a euphemism for a place of death. Not just death though; this was a place where the wicked dead would be punished.

 

It’s called the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. Now that name may not be very familiar to you, but you have heard Jesus talk about this place quite a few times. Whenever Jesus uses this name though, our bible translators substitute a name that you are more familiar with: Hell. When Jesus talks about Hell, he uses the word Gehenna. That little valley had been for so long associated with death and suffering and wickedness, that in Jesus’s time it’s very name was used to symbolize the place that is the exact opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

Now why? Why was this place considered so cursed?

 

We find the answer in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. In our passage today, Jeremiah is speaking to himself and to God and he is lamenting the evil deeds of his people, but what are those evil deeds? To find the answer you must look back a few chapters to chapter 7. Jeremiah famously storms into the Temple and excoriates the people gathered there for worshiping their God in word but not in deed. They break all of his commandments and then come to make offerings to God like nothing ever happened. Jeremiah asks the question: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” Words which Jesus himself would echo many years later when he entered the Temple and drove the money-changers out.

 

Jeremiah is angry at many things that he has witnessed, but one of the things that troubles him the most, is what he has seen going on down in the valley, within view of God’s temple. There, in Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, the Judeans had built another altar to a different God. Not the God of Israel that had saved them from slavery, but a foreign God, the God of Baal. And what was being offered on that altar? Children. Sons and daughters were literally being burned as an offering. They were being used to appease some foreign God. This was not what the God of Israel had commanded. This was the opposite of what God had commanded. That is why Jeremiah is so upset. And henceforth, the name Gehenna becomes synonymous with the opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven; it becomes the name and the image of Hell.

 

In the gospels Jesus uses the name Gehenna, Hell, repeatedly to indicate the place, or the state of being that is the opposite of being united to God. Last week we heard James use the word in his Epistle when he warns us about the dangers of our tongue; he says it is a world of iniquity that is itself set on fire by Gehenna, Hell. Next week, Jesus will use the word in the Gospel when he advises us that if our eye, or hand, or foot causes us to stumble, that we should remove them, rather than have two eyes, hands or feet and be thrown into Hell, Gehenna.

 

Hell is the opposite of Heaven. The Valley of Hinnom, where Baal is worshiped, is the opposite of Mount Zion, where the God of Israel is worshiped. Gehenna is the opposite of the Kingdom of God. But opposites can be useful sometimes when we want to see or understand something more clearly. Maybe it is by taking a close look at Hell, that we can really appreciate what Heaven is supposed to be. James tells us in his epistle to resist the devil and draw near to God, but first we must be able to tell them apart. What is Gehenna (or Hell) like?

 

In Gehenna, the weak are sacrificed to serve the needs of the strong. In Gehenna, a child is a sacrificed to serve the needs of the parent. In Gehenna, man’s life is sacrificed to serve the needs of God.

 

Well if that is Hell, then what must Heaven be like? Jesus helps us see the contrast in today’s gospel:

 

In Heaven, the greatest are willing to serve the needs of the least. In Heaven, children are so precious that to welcome a child is like welcoming God himself. In Heaven, God sacrifices his own life to serve the needs of man. The Kingdom of Heaven is the opposite of Gehenna, and we need to be able to recognize the difference.

 

There is a scene in the movie Schindler’s List, where some Jewish children are being pulled by a Nazi officer from the long lines headed into the work camps, and being forced onto a separate line and onto a separate train. A train that we know is headed directly to a death camp and to the gas chambers and the ovens. And in the midst of this disturbing scene, Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist, a munitions manufacturer and a member of the Nazi Party, steps forward and stops the officer from loading the children onto the train bound for certain death.

 

He grabs a little girl’s hand, holds it up in front of the officer’s face and says: “This is a skilled munitions worker. Do you see these fingers? How else am I supposed to polish the inside of a 45mm shell casing? These children are essential.” The Nazi officer relents, and Mr. Schindler is allowed to take the children back with him to his factory. Mr. Schindler pretends to be using these children as his slaves to further the war effort, but we know that what he is actually doing is saving their lives. He is actually serving them.

 

In that brief moment in the film I think you get a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven and Gehenna at the same time; side-by-side as polar opposites. The Nazi officer sees the girl as a sacrifice; someone whose life is to be offered and used to serve his needs. Schindler sees the girl as a child of God, someone whose life he must protect, even if it means risking his own.

 

A dramatic movie, yes, but so much more than that, because we know that the story is true. The little girl that Schindler saved is still alive. Her name is Eva Lavi and she still talks about that moment when Schindler confronted the officer and saved her life.

 

In later years, after the war when Schindler was struggling and bankrupt, it was some of these very children that would support and save him. The first become last and the last become first. When Schindler died he was buried in Jerusalem; in a cemetery that is just opposite the Valley of Hinnom, opposite from Gehenna, but Schindler’s body is planted on Mount Zion.

 

Only God knows what became of that Nazi officer.