God is always playing the long game

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Sermon for March 17, 2019

Readings:

If you are going to play with God then you need to know the game that God is playing.

 

If you are going to pray to God, listen to God, follow God, serve God, and ultimately be blessed by God, then you need to understand how God works.

 

There is one simple clue I can give you. It’s there in all of scripture. If you really want to understand scripture and the stories of our faith, this clue will help you. If you want to deepen and strengthen your walk with God, and if you want to see how God is working in your life, this clue will help you. It is a clue that God showed Abram towards the beginning of his walk with God. It is a clue that the prophets understood, and it is a clue that, of course, Jesus knew and taught and lived.

 

The clue is this:

 

God is always playing the long game.

 

God is always playing the long game. What does that mean, you may be asking. What is the long game? Well it’s this: there are two basic games we play in life, the long game and the short game. The short game is the path of immediate results: instant gratification, swift resolutions. If you are playing the short game, you want to visibly win and win now. The short game wants to sell you on the idea of living your best life now…oh wait, that sounds like a good book title. Sometimes the short game is the path of least resistance; it could be, for instance, paying to get into an elite college or university rather than doing your homework every day. Sometimes the short game seems perfectly sensible: selling off your stocks before there is a dip in the market. Sometimes the short game uses strength and power to achieve immediate goals without really considering long-term consequences. And here the short game can quickly move from being benign to being very destructive. Forcing yourself upon someone, rather than spending the time to build a relationship with them. Using power rather than persuasion. That’s the short game.

 

The other game is the long game. The long game is not a game you are going to sit back and watch on TV, because the long game is incredibly boring. It is just what it says it is: long. It is the opposite of the short game. It isn’t looking for immediate results. It is always focused on long-term goals. The long game isn’t so much worried about every bend in the road; the long game is worried about the final destination. And the long game takes work; daily work. The short game might ask you to exert a massive amount of force or power once to achieve something immediate, but the long game asks you to exert a little strength and will-power over, and over, and over again, with no immediate gratification. The long game is saving money. The long game is exercise. The long game is diplomacy. The long game is relationship. You can’t always see the effects of the long game, at least not quickly, so the long game takes patience.

Sometimes we humans manage to find the grace, the will-power or the wisdom to play the long game, but let’s face it, what we really like, and the game we are best at playing is the short game. We don’t necessarily need to be ashamed of that; sometimes we willfully make bad choices, but sometimes we are playing the short game because we simply can’t see into the future. We are after all humans.

 

But God is always playing the long game. God always sees things from the perspective of eternity. Hours and days and years, those things do not mean the same thing to the eternal God as they do to us little humans that lives our lives on a little ball that spins around everyday. God can always see the future. So God is always playing the long game. You can see it throughout our scriptures:

 

“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “you have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him,”this man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” The he said to him, “so shall your descendants be.”

 

Today, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look to Abraham as our father in the faith. Yes, we Christians worship Jesus as the son of God, but he was very clear that his God was the God of Abraham. So Abraham is our father in faith too. So every Jew, Christian or Muslim is a child of Abraham. That is almost 5 billion people living today that are in some way descendants of Abraham. 61% of the world’s population, and that’s just the people that are living now, not counting all the generations that have come between us and Abraham. I would say God made good on his promise to Abraham, but it didn’t happen quickly. It wasn’t instant. God was playing the long game.

 

And God wanted to make clear to Abram just what game he was playing. So after Abram (or Abraham) makes this sort of bizarre (to us) sacrifice to God, he falls into a deep sleep, and in that sleep the Lord comes to him again and says to him: “know this for certain, your offspring will someday inherit this land I am giving you, but there is a long road ahead of them. There will be slavery, there will be suffering; oppression is not over.” In other words God made it clear to Abram: “I am making a covenant with you and will bless you and your descendants, but make no mistake, I am playing the long game.”

 

“O Tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”

 

So said the Psalmist. Tarry and await. Wait patiently for the Lord. Why? Because the Lord is always playing the long game.

 

“For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is their destruction; their God is the belly…their minds are set on earthly things.”

 

Brother and sisters, people in the world want instant gratification. They let their hungers and their desires rule their lives. They can’t be bothered to endure suffering. They don’t want to hear Jesus’s word ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ They are only playing the short game. That is what Paul is saying to the Church in Phillipi. And he goes on to tell them that our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. Our Lord lives there, he is returning from there, and ultimately all things will be put in subjection to him, so brothers and sisters…”whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way.” Play the long game brothers and sisters, because that is the game that God is ultimately playing. Don’t be afraid of this day’s struggles because we are here to play the long game.

 

“Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

 

Watch out Jesus, they said in the gospel, or your game may be over. Herod may kill you and then what? You will lose. They thought Jesus could lose. They thought Jesus was playing a short game, but he wasn’t. Jesus was playing the game of the prophets. The prophets play the long game, because that’s the game that God is playing, and they usually suffer greatly for it. Some people think pain and suffering are signs of being a loser, but Jesus knows better. He’s not about to lose, he’s just winning at a different game…the long game. Because that is the game that God always plays.

 

Remember that friends. Remember that God, the God of all our history and all our future, the God of eternity, remember that God is always playing the long game. When it feels like you are failing or losing in life, when it feels like God isn’t answering or listening to your prayers, when you can’t see the results of any of your labor, remember that God is playing the long game. And be careful of the call of that short game, because it is seductive. You may think you can play it well, but you can lose.

 

Playing the long game takes patience, it takes work, and most of all it takes faith. Maybe that is why God is so determined to play it, because it takes faith. For whatever reason, it is the game God is playing, so if you want a deeper walk with God, I recommend you learn how to play it too. It isn’t easy, but when you are playing the long game with God, you can’t lose.

Verses

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Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 10th 2019.

Readings:

I want you to hear again the words of Psalm 91:

 

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

 

Now, having heard all those words, how many of you feel confident that you could jump off of a building and not hit the ground?

But clearly the bible says that he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways, on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone…so we should be good right?

Of course, I am jesting. If you read all of Psalm 91, what you will find is God’s promise of protection. You will hear comforting words of God’s presence with you during difficult and frightful times. You will hear that God is a refuge and a fortress. You will hear God’s promise that those who love him do not need to live in fear.

What you will not hear is encouragement and permission to do something stupid. At least, that’s not what I hear. But if I only looked at verses 11 and 12, if I didn’t read them in the context of the rest of the Psalm, or in the light of the rest of the scriptures, I might really struggle to know what those words really meant. I might be tempted to misuse them. That’s what happens when you only look at one verse.

The Psalms are some powerful prayers and songs and expressions of the struggle of having faith in a world of good and evil. There are 150 of them, and they touch on just about every mood and emotion that you can imagine; everything from the greatest joy, to the depths of despair, to even anger and hatred. Consider this verse:

“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”

That is scripture. It’s Psalm 137. Now those words could cause you to recoil. You could say let’s just cut those words out. You could try to convince yourself that those words represent a primitive and brutal God that we enlightened folks have had the good sense to do away with; that we no longer believe in. Or you can step back look at the entire Psalm, look at all the Psalms actually and realize that the psalms are taking all our emotions, our joy, our pain, our fear, our anger, our hope, the psalms are taking the great big mess that is human life and throwing it down in front of God’s altar and saying: here, Lord. This life of mine, with all it’s beauty and all its ugliness…this life belongs to you.

It is so tempting to want to pare scripture down to just those parts that we agree with, or that make us feel good; it is so tempting to use verses to justify ourselves and our opinions, but we have to remember that we are not justified, we are not made right with God, by verses of scripture. We are made right with God by the cross of Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection are our justification, not this verse or that verse of scripture.

 

In our Gospel today we are told the story of Jesus’s temptation in the desert. And one of the ways that the devil tempts Jesus, is by trying to use a verse of scripture to mislead him. In fact he uses verses 11 and 12 of Psalm 91. The verses we just heard. The devil tried to use the words of scripture to tempt the Word of God, the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. But it didn’t work. Jesus knows that scripture is not about using this verse or that verse to support doing or believing what you already want to do or believe. Scripture is a gateway into a living relationship with God. Scripture is a story that we are invited to see ourselves as a part of. Scripture is about so much more than just the words of the page, it is about having a relationship with the power behind those words. We read and study scripture, not to memorize the verses (although many of them are quite memorable and meaningful), but rather to continually see ourselves as a part of God’s story.

 

You know, it is important to remember that there were faithful people in the world, long before there was a bible in every hotel nightstand. There were people that knew the story of God, even if they hadn’t memorized all the words, and even if they couldn’t read them. When the Children of Israel entered into the promised land, they may have had some writings of Moses, but they certainly didn’t have all the scriptures as we know them. What they did have though was a story and a ritual, and they were instructed to keep them together: make your sacrifice, make your offering to the Lord and when you do, repeat this story. And this is the story they were instructed to memorize:

 

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”

 

Go back and take a look at that passage in Deuteronomy again and when you read that little story, pay attention to the pronouns. The story moves from he to we to me. The story moves from talking about God’s relationship to an ancient ancestor, to God’s relationship to his faithful people, to God’s relationship with me. That is what scripture, when used properly does, it makes the connection between us and our ancestors, and between us and God.

 

Friends, the Bible is such a treasure trove of stories and insights and wisdom. You will find here words that will comfort you and words that will challenge you. Some verses will make you feel righteous; other verses will call out your sins. Listen to all of them. Hear the whole story.

 

As Jesus proved in the desert: the power of scripture lies not in knowing one verse, but in knowing the God that inspired all of them.

If you aren’t careful, Jesus may transfigure you!

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Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 3rd, 2019

Readings:

We have come to the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, a Sunday wherein each year we get a gospel reading about the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, that moment in the life of Jesus when three of his disciples got a glimpse of the true glory and power that was within him. Now I should add that this is not the Feast of the Transfiguration, that is in August, but each year right before Lent we hear this story of a few disciples on their way to Jerusalem, on their way to what we already know is going to be Jesus’s death and resurrection, these few disciples get a glimpse of who this man really is, and it’s scary. They are powerless and dumbfounded and they don’t know what to say. That is what we hear on this Sunday right before Lent begins. And I think that this story might just serve as a warning to us, to be careful about how we spend this next forty days and to be careful about how close we get to God.

 

So as your priest and pastor, I am hear this morning to tell you to be careful how you decide to spend this Lenten season. Be careful what disciplines you take on, and what forms of piety you explore, because this Jesus that we follow has some real power and if you are not careful he might actually change you.

 

Be careful with planning your Lent this year.

Be careful with disciplines like fasting or abstaining from something. If you are going to give something up, stick to things you don’t really like, or things you don’t really eat that much to begin with. Stick to abstaining from or giving up things that you already have control over, because if you pick something that is really hard, if you pick something that you really love, or something that has control over you, you might actually struggle with it. And if you struggle with it, you are liable to realize that you can’t do it on your own, and then you might be tempted to ask God to help you with it. This is dangerous territory, because if you lose control and ask God to help you with something, he might actually do it. And then you will be stuck with this dual realization that you need God and that God can actually help you with things. And you are going to have to keep carrying that around, probably even past Easter, so be careful what you try to give up.

 

And then, if you choose to give something up that you pay for on a daily basis, like lunch or donuts and coffee, be sure to keep the money. Because if you just give alms or give money away you don’t know what that charity or that church is going to do with it. You could be throwing your money away, and then what are you going to do when you realize that your life went on anyways? That you actually had enough to get by without it? If you aren’t careful and if you give God the chance to take care of your needs, what are you going to do if he actually does it? What if you discover that there really is something spiritual about sacrifice? You are risking changing the way you look at your stuff, and the material world…that’s very dangerous.

 

Now some people don’t want to give up things in Lent they want to take on things, but you have to be careful with that too. You want to be sure to pick things that have definite steps and goals where youcan see the progress youare making, like finishing the chapters in a book, or cleaning out the garage, or working on a project. Make sure that you are accomplishing something that will make you feel proud of yourself. Again, stick to things that you have control over. Be careful with prayer and just being in the presence of God. Learn a lesson from Moses here. You have to be careful when you are spending time with God. Spending time with God can be dangerous, because you might be changing and not even know it. You can’t see your progress. You can’t take credit for it. You don’t have something to point to to feel proud of. If all you do is pray, when Lent is over, what are you going to have to feel proud of? And then, if you spend all that time with God, and he does change you, and people do notice, you’re going to have to figure out how to put on a mask and hide it. You don’t want people to start thinking that it was God that changed you; you want them to think it was your good choices and your hard work. Because if God changes me in ways that I didn’t intend or even want, then how am I going to get to take the credit for being virtuous? I mean, if I’m going to put all this effort into observing a holy lent, I want to be able to walk out the other side confident in my ability to change myself; I don’t want to have to recognize that just being in the presence of God changed me and I had very little to do with it. So if you insist on malking prayer a discipline, at least make sure that you are the one doing all the talking.

 

And if our gospel lesson teaches you anything this morning, let it be this: be especially careful when spending time with this Jesus character. If you insist on listening to him, then make sure you pay really close attention to what you think he has to say to others. Make sure that you can identify the ways that Jesus can fix the other people in your life, but don’t let him start talking to you. You may sing “what a friend we have in Jesus,” you may think Jesus is your friend, until starts calling you out on your stuff. You got watch him. Be very careful when you stand with him when he starts calling out people for being sinners, because he is a slippery character. He’ll start talking about sin and calling out hypocrisy and you will be with him telling him to preach on and if you aren’t careful he’ll turn it right back around on you and calling out your sins, and you’ll be left wondering: “whose side am I on?” Be careful with Jesus and if you do happen to get a glimpse of his glory, be sure you keep it contained. Keep it on the mountain or in your private prayer space or in the church, don’t let it get out into the world, because if people become aware of how much power this man Jesus really has, they might be tempted to ask him to use it. As a matter of fact, he might even give you a little share of it, and ask you to do something with it. Other people may start asking you about where this power comes from, they may see a change in you that you don’t even see yourself, they may get a glimpse of God’s glory in you, and if you are honest, which at that point you may be inclined to be, you will be stuck pointing up to the mountain, up to the cross, or up to the heavens above and saying: there, that is where the power comes from. It’s not from me.

 

Friends, Lent is a dangerous time in the church; it’s dangerous, because if you don’t take control over it, God just might. Be very careful with practicing things like fasting and almsgiving and prayer. Be very careful spending time with this Jesus, because if you get too close, you just might see his glory, and others may see it in you, and then what are you going to do?

 

Hero or Villain?

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Sermon for February 17, 2019

Readings:

Hero or Villain?

 

A British politician was asked this week whether he considered Winston Churchill to be a hero or a villain. Now before I even mention or address the politician’s response to that question, let me just take a moment to point out that this is the Devil’s question. The question is a setup and the intention of the question is to be divisive. The question represents a world-view where everything is black or white: you are either good or evil, you are either for me or against me, you are either this party or that party and that’s it. It is an either/or choice or question and if you will allow me to be philosophical for a moment: be very careful when presented with either/or questions, because sometimes they are a trap. This question was a trap and boy did the politician jam his foot right in it.

 

He said that Winston Churchill was a villain, a judgment he came to based upon his evaluation of mistakes that Churchill made earlier in his career, before he became prime minister. Well predictably, that little comment created quite a kerfluffle, with people on both sides rushing to either defend Churchill’s legacy or to catalog his shortcomings. Now my personal feelings about Churchill are fairly well known here….after all, my dog is named Winston. I am, or course, a fan. But my respect and admiration for the man, doesn’t come from a whitewashed or sanitized view of him. My fandom has not blinded me to his shortcomings. Quite the contrary; my respect for Churchill comes from a recognition that he, like every human being was deeply flawed, and yet, despite his flaws he was still able to accomplish great things.

 

Human beings are complex creatures. They are rarely just heroes or villains; we have the capacity to be both, sometimes at the same time. We can do amazing and wonderful things, and then we can turn right around and be selfish and cruel. But we are always being challenged by the devil into categorizing people into just one column or the other. We celebrate people and build them up and cheer them, and then we find out that maybe they did something wrong once or made a mistake, then we proceed to tear them down and ridicule them. This plays out on a daily basis in social media. We want people to be either heroes or villains, because that makes life and relationships neat and tidy. We put ridiculous expectations on leaders and celebrities to be our heroes, and then when they make the inevitable misstep and disappoint us, we take a sadistic glee in tearing them apart publicly, even long after they are dead.

 

Why do we do this?

 

I think that the answer is misplaced hope. We like to put our faith, our hope, and our trust in human beings, in mortal men and women. I think deep down we want our leaders and our celebrities to save us. We want them to have the virtues we lack. We want them to be the source of all that is good in the world, and then, when they fail to live up to that impossible standard, we assume they must be villains. The devil has told us that people are either heroes or villains. If they are not a hero, then they must be a villain. But what has God revealed to us?

 

The prophet Jeremiah rarely minces words, he makes it very clear:

“cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.”

 

Human beings who put their ultimate faith and trust in other human beings, have set themselves up. They are bound to be disappointed sooner or later. And Jeremiah used terrific imagery, he says they are like shrubs in the desert. They have nothing to drink from, they have no source of real nourishment, vitality or life.

 

But humans who learn to put their trust in God before their trust in their fellow man, well those are like trees planted next to living waters, whose roots run deep into the soil and draw nourishment and vitality from a well that never runs dry. When hard times come, when the sun shines hot and the land is parched, those trees can still live, those trees can bear fruit, because they are connected to living water. People who look to God as the source of what is good in the world, people who look to God as the fountain of virtue and blessings, those people will not be disappointed.

 

In church circles I have what is called a “low anthropology.” Now that is a churchy phrase, but basically what it means is that deep down I believe and am convinced that people are sinners. Us human beings, men and women, we are broken. We are capable of doing good things, but we are not capable of being consistently good without fail. So few things are as boring to me as having someone’s sins placed on public display, as if the fact that human being’s are sinners is in some way newsworthy. It is not. Every week we come together here and read scriptures that are thousands of years old, and what I walk away with every week is further proof that human nature has not changed. Our technology has changed, our instincts have not.

 

One of the great things about the bible is that the characters we find there are not one dimensional. Even the greatest heroes are depicted with their sins and flaws. King David was an adulterer. He had huge sins, he made mistakes. If you think that just because someone is mentioned in the bible or that their image has been carved in marble or set in stained glass that they are somehow free of sin, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. What inspires me though when reading the scriptures is how over and over again, God manages to do amazing things with incredibly flawed people.

 

I would say the same thing is true of our modern day leaders, celebrities and heroes. If you think that someone must be free of sin in order for God to be using them in the world, or working through them, then you are missing the point. No human being is ever consistently good all the time. If we can accept that, then we won’t need to clutch our pearls, be overcome by the vapors or ask for the smelling salts every time we learn that someone famous might have at some point made a mistake. If we can accept that, then maybe we can stop putting ridiculous expectations on each other.

 

Life gets a lot easier when you learn to accept that people aren’t perfect. They never were and they never will be. Once you accept that, once you learn not to put all of your faith in the flesh, in mankind, in men and women, in other human beings, once you learn that God is the true source of goodness and salvation in the world, then you can really be amazed at what God is able to do with some sinful human beings.

 

The devil wants you to separate everyone in the world into heroes or villains. The devil wants you to see everyone as either perfect and lovable, or flawed and unloveable, but if having flaws makes you a villain then we are all in deep trouble. What my God has revealed to me and to countless others in the gospel that the church proclaims, is that we worship a God who loves and uses sinful, flawed people. Our God can make a hero out of a villain and ultimately only God and God alone can know which camp we really belong to.

 

I have lots of heroes; I do not expect them to be perfect. In fact, most of them are deeply flawed in some way. We don’t need to whitewash history and pretend our heroes never did anything wrong, nor do we need to catalog their faults and pretend that sin is news. I think the approach that is most reasonable is what God has revealed to us: accept that only God is the true source of goodness and salvation; place our faith and our hope in God, and then rejoice in how he uses and inspires and loves, sinful human beings.

What is the Good News?

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Sermon for February 10th, 2019

Readings:

When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Corinth, he was writing to a church that was in the midst of a lot of division. There was quarreling and fighting over a number of issues. There was disagreement about the leadership of the Church and which apostles were the greatest; there were (as there always are) arguments about sex; there were arguments about food; there were arguments about which spiritual gifts were the greatest. And one by one, Paul tries to address each one of these divisions and every time he does so he points the church back to Jesus. What does the Good News or the gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about this issue? How important is this issue in the light of the good news of Jesus? Is it worth beating each other up over? Is it worth killing over? Are these issues that you are so preoccupied with, are they more important than the central message that we have been called to proclaim? Paul has to constantly redirect them to the message.

 

And part of his message you heard last week, the most famous part, and that was Paul’s conclusion that the most important thing we can do or show as Christians is love. Love is our greatest gift, love is our strongest power. Pursue love, that is what Paul tells the church. Pursue love is his conclusion, and he argues that it is to be the Church’s overriding principle: love. Love for God and love for each other.  “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God” that is what Paul said to the church in Ephesus. Love is the conclusion that Paul comes to, it is where the gospel leads him, BUT it is not the gospel. Love is not the good news that Paul has been sent to proclaim. Love is where the good news should lead us; love is Paul’s conclusion; love should be our response to the good news, but it’s not the news. So what is the actual good news, or gospel that Paul proclaims?

 

Well fortunately Paul is not shy about reminding us:

 

I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which you are being saved….

 

are you ready for it, cause here it comes, and this is simultaneously the most simple and the most bizarre thing you will ever hear…

 

That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.

 

That, my friends, is the gospel. That is the good news. That simple, short little statement is the most important thing Paul ever has to say, because that statement is the power behind everything Paul does. It is the reason why. If love is the life-blood of Christians, then this little message is the beating heart that pushes that love out into the world. It is the force behind it. But this statement unsettles people, it can make us uncomfortable, because it is weird.

 

A man died for our sake, for our sins, because of our failures, someone died. He didn’t just get really tired or really sick. He was dead. Cold dead. They buried him. He was in the grave for days…and he came back to life again. Not in some mystical vision, not in a fantasy or hallucination, but in flesh and blood real life. And people saw him, not just a couple people, but hundreds. And when Paul was writing, some of those people were still alive. And weirder still, part of the message is that this was all in the scriptures before it happened. Meaning that this wasn’t just something that happened, but that it was a part of a divine plan.

 

That is a weird story. It makes people uncomfortable. We are twenty-first century people, we know that dead bodies don’t come back to life. You might be able to resuscitate someone with the right equipment, under the right circumstances, but once they are really dead, there is no bringing them back. It’s crazy. We don’t want people to think we are crazy, or foolish. So we try to focus on other things. Jesus was a great teacher, so we will talk about his lessons, or his ethics, or his morals and we will try and steer clear of this weird stuff.

 

And you get people that argue, that maybe we should cut some of this weird stuff in our scriptures out: Let’s cut out the bizarre miracle stories, and this stuff about a dead body coming back to life, and all these supernatural visions. Let’s just focus on the practical advice that Jesus gave and his role as a teacher, and not worry so much about what did or didn’t happen in the grave a couple thousand years ago. Well guess what, that is not a new argument. People have always found the story of Jesus being raised from the dead to be unsettling. People in the church in Corinth were making that exact same argument and Paul’s words to them was this:

 

If Christ has not been raised from the dead, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

 

Those are some tough words right there, but hear what Paul is saying: the message that Jesus died and rose again is THE message. That’s the good news, the gospel, the proclamation. That is the force behind everything we do, say or think. That is our power and without that this faith of ours is futile and we are to be pitied.

 

What does it mean when a dead man comes back to life in a world where that does not happen? That is the question that Christians are always forced to struggle with. If Jesus of Nazareth actually died and came back to life, as Paul and so many others say he did, if this story is true, then what does that mean for me, and how I live my life and the hope that I have for the future?

 

Well the conclusion that Paul came to, was that death, which seems to have the final say in this world, which seems to have the power to separate us from God and from each other, actually doesn’t. Paul’s conclusion is that God’s love for his creation is stronger than the power of death.

 

Death has been swallowed up in victory, he says. Where O death, is your victory? Where O death, is your sting?

 

If the son of God was crucified and died and rose again to give us victory over death, then what does that say about how we are to live as Christians and followers of this man Jesus? That I think is the question that Paul continually puts to the churches he is writing to and it is a question we must continually ask ourselves. It is a deep question. It is a difficult question. It is a question that pushes us to ponder the meaning of our existence. As followers of Jesus, we are called to view everything in this world in the light of the resurrection. If we can do that, then we might just see that the things we argue about and invest huge amounts of energy in, those divisions really don’t matter that much…in fact nothing matters more than the love that God has shown us by giving us a life that death can not conquer.

 

 

Make no mistake, Jesus can and will meet you where you are. God can burst into your life at any time and in any place. You may encounter him as you go about your daily business, and he has some important things to say about how you live in this world. Listen to him, but also know that when he calls you to follow him, he is likely to call you to places away from the shore where you feel safe and secure. Don’t be afraid to go there. If you really want to be a follower of Christ, you can’t be afraid of fishing in deep waters.

Know your story

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Sermon for January 27th, 2019

Readings:

My ancestors came from England, and Scotland, and Germany. I don’t know all their names. Somehow, something brought them to the shores of this country. Most of them made a new life for themselves in the colony of Georgia and in other parts of the South. Their lives and their culture was shaped by the land and the people around them. There were slaves from Africa, Native American tribes, different peoples from the Caribbean and various parts of Europe: England, Scotland, France, Germany, Spain. Each with their own language, customs, religion and food culture. Some of my people may have had slaves, most of them didn’t.

 

My grandparents grew up as poor sharecroppers in the red dirt of South Georgia. On both sides, both my mother and my father, my grandparents decided that they wanted a better, or different life for themselves and their children, so they moved further South to Florida. Florida has its own unique, and strange, blend of peoples and cultures: southern and northern, rich and poor, North American, Caribbean and South American. There my parents met, and there I was born and raised. But the story doesn’t end there…

 

I found my way down to Miami, a city with another intense blend of cultures. That was ultimately where I was called to join Christ’s church through baptism, and my love of food and food traditions and culture eventually led me into the ministry, a calling which itself has dragged me to Connecticut, New York, back to Florida, up to New Jersey, then to New York again. This is all a part of my story. It isn’t really important that you know it, and I don’t expect all that to be very interesting to you, but what is important is that I know it.

 

I need to know my story. I need to know who I am, and where I come from. I need to know where I have been. I need to remember the places in my life where I encountered God. I need to know where I have experienced great joy and I need to remember the times and the places of great sorrow. I need to remember my victories and it probably won’t hurt for me to remember some of my failures as well. I need to know my story and you need to know yours. Knowing your story isn’t just about knowing your history, it’s about knowing who you are now.

 

Do not underestimate how important that knowledge is. Because if you don’t know who you are, there are plenty of forces in the world that are ready to tell you. If you don’t have an identity of your own, the world will give you one, but you may not like it.

 

The forces of the world are many and various and go by many different names, but I am going to simplify them for this sermon. Let’s just agree for this sermon to refer to the evil forces of the world by a proper name. We will call them Satan. The evil forces of the world, or Satan, have an identity for you if you don’t already have one of your own. Satan will tell you that you are a number. Satan will tell you that you are a victim of….whatever. Satan will tell you that you are a disease or a disability. Satan will tell you that you are just a consumer of goods and services. Satan will tell you that your life has value…if you are useful and if you have the right education, the right income, and the right opinions. Satan will tell you that your life and everything in it, is just a cosmic accident, with no meaning or purpose or direction; just one unrelated experience after another. Worst of all, Satan will tell you that you are on your own…disconnected from anyone and anything else in this world. I think that is the most dangerous lie that Satan tells us…that we are alone. Make no mistake…Satan has an identity ready and waiting for you, if you don’t already have one of your own.

 

Knowing your story is so important. But knowing your story is not just about knowing your individual history; it’s about knowing how your story connects to a larger story. It’s about knowing how the single strand of your life is woven into a much larger and more glorious tapestry. Part of our mission, as people of faith, is simply telling people the big story, showing them the glorious tapestry, and explaining to them how their little story is connected to that big story. We need to help God’s children know who they are; they need to know who they are in the world and in their families and most importantly who they are in Christ; who they are in God’s kingdom. Because if we don’t tell the children of God who they are….someone else will.

 

And who do you want telling your children their story? Who do you want shaping your identity? Do you want it to be the ad-man? A politician? A pharmaceutical salesman? Do you want the haters in the world to tell your child or even yourselves what your life means?

 

I suspect that you don’t. I suspect that you don’t, because week after week, day after day, I see so many of you here, in church listening to another story. Making the connection between your story and a much larger one. That is what we are doing here. Every week we gather, we open ancient scriptures, and tell ancient stories and in doing so we learn about our own stories. We learn about who we really are, not in the eyes of Satan and the forces of this world…those stories we reject when we come in those doors. No, here we learn who we are in the eyes of God.

 

Here we remember where we have been as a people. We remember the places where we have met God. We remember joy, and we remember pain. We remember victory and we remember failure. We come here every week to remind ourselves who we really are. We are children of God. We are sinners that have been redeemed. We are people with a past and a future. Our lives have meaning and we are not alone. That is a powerful story. Never underestimate the power of that story, and don’t take it for granted, because there have been times when God’s children have forgotten it.

 

In our Old Testament passage this morning, Nehemiah tells about a time when God’s children forgot who they were…didn’t know their story. It had been forgotten; swept away as if it were just meaningless history. But Ezra he finds this book laying in the dust of the temple, and he opens it and is amazed. He can’t keep the story to himself. He proclaims it in public and the people are just overcome. They had forgotten their story. They had forgotten who and what God had created them to be. They needed to hear their story again. Their story shouldn’t be rolled up, rotting and dusty on an unused shelf, forgotten…it should be celebrated, read publicly with song and spectacle. Their story should be celebrated and children should be raised to know it.

 

And so it was, and has been ever since. And one day a young Jewish man was worshipping in his local synagogue, and he read the scriptures aloud; he read the story of his people, and when he was finished, he set the scriptures down and said to those gathered there: this story…this story is about me.

 

That young man was Jesus of Nazareth. We come here every week to tell his story, and to remember that our stories, as Christians, are a part of his story. Each and every one of us…we are all different, we are all unique and have stories of our own, but through the waters of baptism, our stories will always be connected to his story. And that is a better story than anything the forces of the world will tell you.

You belong to God.

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Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

Readings:

Abraham and Sarah were not born Jewish you know. Abraham is considered the father of the Hebrews, the Jewish people, and from Abraham come the world’s three great mono-theistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So often in our scriptures, our God is referred to as the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. All Jews look to Abraham as the father of their nation and of their faith, but Abraham wasn’t born Jewish. Abraham did not inherit his relationship with God. Abraham converted. Abraham was called. Abraham was invited by God to live in a special relationship with his creator. Sure, God was responsible for giving life to all the peoples of the earth, but we know that not all of them chose to listen to him, honor him, or live in relationship with him. We don’t know how many people God may have called before Abraham. What we do know is that Abraham was willing to accept the invitation.

 

But accepting this invitation and following God’s call came at a price for Abraham. Conversion wasn’t necessarily easy. He had to leave behind his family. He had to leave behind the land he knew. His name and his wife Sarah’s name were changed; they used to be Abram and Sarai, but now they were Abraham and Sarah. Abraham had to make a sign of this covenant, this relationship he had with God; he had to sacrifice a bit of his flesh, in token acknowledgement that all of his flesh belonged to God now. And then Abraham was called to make the greatest sacrifice: he had to recognize that his child, his son Isaac, the creature he loved most in the world, he had to recognize that he belonged to God too. Living in relationship with God, belonging to God, and accepting the invitation to live as a member of a people set apart with a special calling to be a blessing to the world that God created…that came at a cost for Abraham and it has come at a cost for his descendants too.

 

Maybe it has to come at a cost.  Maybe Abraham had to die to everything else in his life to really know how much he belonged to God now. He was accepting a divine invitation to live in relationship with the creator of the entire universe. So nothing in that universe could mean more to him than the fact that he belonged to God. Not his family, not his nationality or race, not his political party, not even his own name. This was not some social club that Abraham was becoming a member of, he wasn’t committing himself to a portion of his income and a couple hours on the weekend. And hear this: Abraham did not worship God to give him thanks for his life; Abraham’s worship was giving his entire life to God. That is worth saying again: Abraham did not just give thanks to God for his life; Abraham gave God his life. His life belonged to God now. When your life belongs to God, it is not yours anymore. That changes your identity and that should change how you live. When you belong to God, nothing in this world should ever mean more to you than that relationship.

 

And that’s easier said than done. The world has a habit of creeping in and trying to take back what belongs to God. I won’t say it’s a habit…it is the mission of the forces of this world to draw your loyalty and your identity away from God. Just flip through some of the prophets in the Bible and you will see just how hard it has been for God’s children to remember whom they belong to. It is easy to say I belong to God, but it isn’t always easy to truly recognize that your life belongs to him. It’s not yours anymore.

Prophets are always calling God’s children to remember to whom they belong. Some of Abraham’s children went down to the river Jordan to hear a charismatic prophet preach a hard sermon. The preacher had some hard words for them indeed. He said to them: “don’t just say Abraham is our ancestor and then dust your hands and going on serving the powers of this world. If you want to belong to God the way that Abraham did, then you need to be giving your life to God the way that Abraham did. The things that belong to this world they are passing away, but God is collecting what belongs to him.”

 

Who do I belong to? That is the question those children of Abraham had to ask themselves as they waded into the water to meet this prophet. Do I belong to all the forces and powers of this world? Is my identity defined by my nationality or my last name? Was God only active in the lives of the patriarchs and prophets, or is it possible that he is calling me too? What does it mean to belong to God?

 

And as these people were being dipped beneath the waters, rededicating their lives to God, something strange happened. A man walked up to the preacher and for a moment it seemed like the preacher didn’t want to baptize him, but eventually the preacher did. And after he was baptized they saw this dove, the same sort of dove that the poorest person would sacrifice in the temple, this dove landed on him. And then a voice. This is my beloved son. When this man came out of the water, people knew who he belonged too.

 

Baptism is so many things: it is a thanksgiving for new and renewed life, it is a confession and repentance of sin, it is a rejection of the forces of this world, and it is an acceptance of God’s call to live in relationship with him and to follow him into the promised land, but more than anything else, baptism is about knowing whom you belong to.

 

We belong to God. We belong to Christ. We have been marked as Christ’s own forever. That is what we say when we anoint a newly baptized person with holy chrism, the sacred oil. You are marked as Christ’s own forever. Christ has a call on your life that comes before anything else in this world. You belong to God…now, don’t take it for granted.