Teach Us To Pray

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There was once a minister who was traveling in the country side, and found himself talking to an illiterate farmer. He asked the farmer if he ever prayed. “Of course I do,” said the farmer. “Every morning I wake up and I say to God, ‘Lord, if this were your land I would farm it for free because I love you. If you had cows I would look after your cows for free every day because I love you.’”

The minister just shook his head, and said, “That is not how you are supposed to pray.” And he took out his prayer book and taught the farmer the prayers that were in the book.

After he left the farmer forgot the prayers, and stopped praying because he did not want to do it wrong. The minister had a dream where God came to him and told him, “My servant the farmer prayed fervently every day. I enjoyed his prayers. And you stopped him from praying because he is afraid to do it wrong. You have stolen something precious from me.”

The minister immediately went to find the farmer, and asked him how his prayers were going. The farmer told him that he had stopped praying, because he had forgotten the prayers in the book.  The minister explained to the farmer that his previous prayers were precious to God, and he should just go back to praying what was on his heart. When he left, both the farmer and God were happy, but the minister was upset, because he was wondering if his prayers were pleasing to God.

Last week I talked about the Bible and its role in our faith journey. This week I want to talk about another important element in our journey—prayer. I quoted Jesus last week when he told the Pharisees that they were in error because they knew neither the scriptures, nor the power of God. Last week we looked at the Scriptures—this week we will look at the power of God as experienced in prayer.

Two men go to pray, says Jesus. One was full of himself. “Look at me, God,” he says. “Aren’t I wonderful! You are lucky to have me as one of your followers. Look at all I do! I am not like that guy over there.”

And they guy over there? He is a bad man. A very bad man. He is a tax collector. You think tax collectors are not popular today? They were especially hated back in Jesus’ day, because they had the authority to set whatever tax rates they wanted. They just had to give the Romans a pre-set amount. And many tax collectors got very rich off the backs of some very poor people. He was a bad man, and he knew it.

Instead of justifying himself before God, he just emptied himself. ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ He was not trying to impress God. He was not trying to justify himself. He came with an empty heart, and an empty soul. But it was his prayer that God heard. Perhaps he knew the verse from Joel that we read this morning: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

I want to walk you through what prayer can look like this morning. So to get a handle on that I want to walk us through one of the most famous prayers, a prayer we say every week—the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father—we start the prayer with a relationship. The prayer is not addressed “To Whom it may Concern.” It is a conversation with a god we have a relationship with. God is our father. God is related to us. This is not about whether or not God is male. What this tells us is that God has a relationship with us—a close and intimate relationship with us.

Who art in heaven….In spite of the relationship, there is distance between us and God. That is why prayer is important. When I worked for the legislature, I had to spend four months every year in Juneau. That meant I was separated from most of the people I really cared about—family and friends. If I wanted to communicate with them, I had to call them. While we have a relationship with God, we are also separated from God. When I was in Juneau I would get caught up in work, and could go hours, and sometimes a whole day without thinking of the people I loved. We can go a whole day and not think of God. This reminds us of our distance from God.

But I can address God over the distance. So while this reminds us that we are in many ways far from God, it also reminds us that at any time we can talk to God. God reaches across eternity to take our hands. We can reach across eternity to take God’s hand.

Hallowed by thy name…Not only are we distant from God, we are very unlike God. God is holy, the very essence of holiness. And we are not. God is different from every other person or thing we know. The theologian Karl Barth said that God was “wholly other,” meaning that God is totally different from us. When we pray, we are talking with someone who has a close and intimate relationship with us, but also with someone who is very different from us.

Now sometimes talking with someone who is different requires a different way of speaking. I love it when people are talking to someone who does not speak their language, and so they just talk slower and louder, thinking somehow that will help. Prayer itself is part of learning the language of God. The more we pray, the more we learn about who God is, and how much God loves us.

Thy Kingdom come…Just like we affirm that God is different from us, so we also affirm that where and how we live is different from how God would have us to live. This world is NOT the kingdom of God. And it is not OUR job to turn it into the Kingdom of God. Instead we pray for God to do the work of the Kingdom in our midst. No earthly politician or political system is God’s representative on earth. There is no Christian economic system. There is no Christian legal system. We pray for it; we do not campaign for it.

 

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven …Even though we do not have a heavenly kingdom here on earth, we can still pray for God’s will to be done here on earth. Now here is the rub….we are praying for GOD’S will, not ours, and too often we confuse what we want with what we think God wants. When we pray this we are reminded first, that God’s will is often NOT done here on earth, and second that we need to be active in praying for God’s will to be done. Of course when we pray this we must remember that WE become a part of the will of God. God’s will is done when we ourselves do the will of God.

One of the things I do when I pray is to pray through Psalms. The Psalms are a collection of prayers. By praying them I get a good glimpse into the will of God.

Give us this day our daily bread…In the first part of the prayer we are focusing on God; God’s holiness, God’s kingdom, God’s will. Here we ask for ourselves. Give us our daily bread. Well, actually we are to pray, “give us this day, our daily bread. This day is a very important part of this prayer. If we pray, “Lord, may I never have another problem again in my life,” we are not praying as Jesus taught us to pray. I am reminded of the Children of God when they were in the desert. They were fed with manna each day, but the peculiar thing about the manna was that you could not gather tomorrow’s manna. You could only gather manna for today. Today, God has provided for you. But remember to have faith that God will provide for you tomorrow.

When he was a child, Ben Franklin was helping his father put away a barrel of smoked meat for the winter. As he looked at the barrel of meat before him, he said to his father, “You know, we could save a lot of time if we just said a blessing over this barrel, instead of having to say it at every meal.”

But the point is to remind ourselves that THIS DAY God has provided for us. And it gives us a chance to have faith that God will provide for us tomorrow as well.

And forgive us our debts…I am reminded of the minister who prayed, “Lord, it has been a good day so far. I have been angry with anyone. I have not coveted for anything other than what you have provided for me. I have not forgotten your presence in my life. I have not quarreled with anyone. But I am going to have to get out of bed in the next five minutes, so I will need help for the rest of the day!”

Forgive us our debts…prayer should carry with it a process of self-examination. Have I been the sort of person God is calling me to be? Have I treated people well? Have I loved as well I could love?

We do this for two reasons. First, because if we have sinned against God or neighbor (and sinning against our neighbor is the same as sinning against God!) we need to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness is always offered, and we do not have to carry our sins around with us. We do not have to be weighed down by the things we have done which we regret, nor do have to exert the tremendous amount of energy it takes to hide from our own sins, to pretend they don’t exist, to justify ourselves before God and other people. We can take our sins to God, and we can be forgiven!

But also when we do this, we are becoming better disciples. We find out where we have room to grow. I have been a follower of Jesus for more than 41 years now, and I am still growing, and still learning how I can be a better follower of Jesus.

But there is a catch in this part of the prayer.

As we forgive our debtors…Our ability to receive forgiveness is linked to our ability to forgive others. In same way our ability to forgive others is linked to our ability to receive forgiveness. People who believe that they cannot be forgiven have a hard time forgiving others, and people who are unwilling to forgive others have a hard time receiving it for themselves. In other words, in this part of the prayer we are asking God to make us gracious people, people who forgive and who can be forgiven.

Lead us not into temptation…Ok, this is a strange one. I wonder sometimes what you are thinking as you pray this every week! Does God tempt us? Another way of saying this is to say, “Do not put us to the test.”

When I was in my second church, I was the associate pastor. The senior pastor ran into some problems with the people of the church. It turned out he was not the best fit for that particular church. But some people got really angry with him, and a group of people came to me and said, “We want you to help us overthrow the pastor, and we will make you the new Senior Pastor.” Now I have to admit that was a tempting offer. Wrong. Very Wrong. But tempting.

What really helped me was that in the Presbyterian system the associate pastor cannot become the senior pastor. Now I would like to think that in that situation, I would have done the right thing. I would have said, “No, that is not right. That is not the proper way to become a senior pastor.” I think I would have, but I have to admit it was a lot easier saying, “It just cannot happen.” I was not put to the test.

As we pray this, we are asking God to lead us in ways where we are not tempted. Now as we pray this, we do well to ask ourselves, “Am I leading the kind of life where I am not putting myself in harm’s way? In my relationships, in my dealings with people, am I protecting myself from being tempted to do something I know is wrong. The best way to avoid temptation is to stay away from the things that will tempt you! As we pray this we look at ourselves, and as ourselves that.

But deliver us from evil… The only way we can rid the world of evil is to rid our own hearts of evil. But we cannot do that alone. We need God’s help. We pray this so that as we search our own hearts, we look for things in our lives and in our hearts that make the world a worse place, and we replace with the things of God that make this world a better place.

For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the Glory, Forever and forever.

At the end we give it all back to God. The kingdom that really counts is yours, O God. It is your power that I rely on, the power of the world. And if I have any glory in this life, may I glory who I am before you.

Last week I talked about the Bible, and I wanted to help make it real for you. Now maybe you are fine with your prayer life, but I know that I am always tweaking mine, trying to be better and better at prayer. There is so much I could say, but I will end here.  I hope this is helpful for you as you pray.

The Pharisee in the parable told God what kind of person he was. He was full of himself. The Tax collector emptied himself before God. Because he did that, he found that he could be filled with the grace, and the love of God. In order to really pray before God we come with empty hearts, empty thoughts, empty desires. But we also come full of hope, full of grace, and full of love.

Text:

Luke 18:9-14

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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We are the Middle

 

I have been watching the events of the last two days with increasing horror. First the shootings of two men by policemen and then the assassination of five officers in Dallas. But to be perfectly honest, as one cartoon recently said, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”

It’s not just the last few days—it is the last few years. It’s ISIS, it’s Black Lives Matter, it’s congressional gridlock, it’s watching the middle class disappear before my very eyes, it’s dealing daily with the hundreds of homeless and impoverished people in our community. It’s one mass shooting after another. It’s a polarization of the social and political process that has led to a demonization of anyone who disagrees with you. It’s religion being used by hateful people.

It’s watching helplessly as my country seems to be held hostage by lunatics, crass opportunists, and idiots.

But at heart I know that the craziness is not who we are. We are better than that, at least many of us. We are just silent. We are going about our own business, doing good where we can, shaking our heads in displeasure and disapproval, but not sure how to make a positive difference.

I am writing this because I am one of millions of people who see what is going on in our country, but we don’t know what to do about it. We see the extreme polarization, but we don’t fall neatly onto either side of the spectrum. We see that there are very serious problems in our country, but we also see the fantastic potential we have as a nation.

I am one of the millions of people who wonder why it is some policemen end up shooting black suspects in what should be routine, harmless encounters, but who also believe that the overwhelming majority of policemen are decent people who are willing to put their lives on the line to serve and protect the public.

I am one of the millions of Americans who believes we can have rational gun laws without either gutting the second amendment or kowtowing the political agenda of the NRA and the economic agenda of the gun industry.

I am one of the millions of Americans who believes we have a racial divide in our country, and that we cannot advance as a nation as long as that holds us back. We understand that increasing the divide will not make it go away. Nor will ignoring it. We have to deal with it.

I am one of millions of people who believe that religion is not designed to oppress people, or to lord our self-righteousness over others. Religion is designed to make individuals better people, more like the creator God we worship, and less like the demons who rebel against God.

Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

We need more stars. We need more light. We need more people to speak up, to voice that not all of us are lunatics on the left or raving radicals on the right. We need to stop letting the crazies speak for us, and speak up for ourselves.

And that is what I am doing.

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The Legion of Demons that Plague Us

 

Do demons exist? If so, what form do they take in our modern world? After the shooting Orlando, this is my meditation on the demons that plague our society. (The scripture lessons are at the end of the sermon)

After last Sunday’s shooting in Orlando, pastors all over the country will be somehow referring to it in this week’s sermon. I can imagine how the sermons will go.

Some, probably most, will be of the sort that asks you to see hope in the midst of tragedy. Many of these will refer to some of the people who were killed, and there will be touching stories of how people came together in the face of this terrible tragedy.

There will be angry sermons, from both the left and the right side of the theological and political spectrum. Some congregations will hear about the need for greater gun control while others will hear of the need to limit immigration. Some pastors will talk about how we need less guns, and some pastors will tell us we need more guns. And the worst of the bunch are those who have said the people who were killed deserved it because they were gay.  That, by the way, is not a response; it is a pathology.

There will be hand wringing sermons? What kind of people are we? How could this happen? What can we do to stop this from ever happening again? There be sermons about the breakdown of American culture, and how divided we are. There will be sermons calling for a jihad against Muslims, and sermons calling for more tolerance for Muslims.

I think today’s text calls for a different response, so I’m not going to preach any of those sermons.

I’m probably to touch on some things, but I want to say something a little different.

Monday morning, the Mail Tribune’s headline concerning the shooting in Orlando was “Unimaginable.” I beg to differ. The shooting in Orlando was not unimaginable. Is there really anyone here who thought we would never have another mass shooting in this country? Is there really anyone here who thought the one before this was going to be the last one? We knew there would be another. We just did not know when, or where, or how bad it would be. But after Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, and Roseburg, it is all too easy to imagine another.

It is like these are demons haunting our country. Each new shooting reminds us how helpless we have chosen to be. And this is not the only demon we face. This election season more people than not are saying that the system is broken beyond repair. I heard one person say he was voting with his middle finger this year.

We say we value veterans. When I was flying to Alaska last week, as I was boarding I heard the gate attendant say, “All first class passengers and active military personnel may board at this time.” On the other hand, on any given night there are 50,000 homeless veterans sleeping on American streets. Men and women who have given time and blood to serve our country are sleeping on the streets because we cannot afford the resources to take care of them. On average, one veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan a day commits suicide. One a day. This is a demon that is plaguing our society.

When I first came to this church we gave one or two bag lunches a month. Week before last we gave out almost 100. When I first got here, if we had more than 25 people at the food bank that was a big day. Now that is small potatoes, and we can have between 35 and 55 families a week. In 2014: 48.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households. That includes15.3 million children live in a household where there is often not enough food.

That is a demon that plagues us.

In Jackson County, 21 percent of all males, and 10 percent of all females binge drink on a regular basis. Binge drinking is more than four drinks in two hour period. Law enforcement officials tell us that the major problem in Jackson County is illegal drug use. While it has dropped slightly in the last few years, it is still number one on the list.

That is a demon that plagues us.

And we might not want to admit it, but racism is alive and well in America today, in many different forms, and given recent rhetoric against Hispanics and Muslims, it is a growing problem. If you are black male in an urban area, the chances of you going to jail are greater than the chances of you ever going to college.

One more demon.

In Flint, Michigan, they had some major problems when the auto companies left. The basis for their economy disappeared. So some decisions were made to cut costs, which led to a very bad decision to get the cheapest water possible. They wanted cheap water in the worst way, and that is exactly what they got—water, in the worst way. And the water became undrinkable. The people of Flint tried to tell their government there was something wrong with the water, but the government would not listen. In Flint, between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead and they may experience a range of serious health problems.

I could go on. Like the Gerasene demoniac in our Gospel story today, who had a legion of demons in him, we, as a culture, also contend with a legion of demons. And these demons bind us and keep us in chains. They keep us from becoming who we were meant to be in God’s eyes. The Geresene Demoniac was hardly a human being. He was kept in chains like an animal.

So what do we do? Is there hope? The story gives us hope. The man was healed. Jesus casts the demons out. He frees the man of the devils that plague him. How does he do it? All we are told is that he asks the man his name. “Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

Who are you? Who are we?

The man answers honestly. “My name is Legion,” he says for he had a legion of demons plaguing him.

The man had his problems, but at least he could be honest. He could name his demons. We tend to ignore ours, at least we do until the rise up and bite us. That is why the Newspaper could say that the shooting was unimaginable. We have already forgotten the last one. That is why we are suddenly surprised to find that working people often end up with a choice between rent or food. And we find it out because they end up on our doorstep.

Who are we? We are Legion, and it seems we cannot cast these demons out.

Why can’t we cast these demons out?

I think we start by asking ourselves some hard questions. Jesus asked the man who he was. That was a hard question, because the answer was, “I am a man plagued by demons.”

We have to ask ourselves some hard questions, like “What do we value in our society?” What is at the root of our problems?  Why do we have these shootings? Why do we have so many other problems?

Why do we have veterans sleeping on the streets even though we as a society say we value veterans? Why are so many veterans committing suicide, and not getting the kind of help they need to cope with the problems they have? Because somewhere along the line we have decided they are not worth the money it would take to help them. Nor are the mentally ill. Nor are urban kids in urban schools.

We say that we as a culture value human life. Jesus sells that your treasure will end up invested in what you value. Given that, do we really value human life? Is that where we invest our treasure?

Time and time again we see corporations putting profit ahead of the needs of people. We see politicians making decisions based, not on what is best for people, but on how they have been lobbied by people who have more money than you can imagine. WE make health care decisions based, not on what is best for sick people, but on how cheaply we can provide medical care. We treat our elderly as if they don’t matter, because we say we don’t have the resources as a society to care for them. We see lives affected in numerous ways by the fact that we don’t value human life. From Flint, Michigan to vets on the streets, from children in poverty to drug addicts who have no place to turn for help, from the elderly who end up with nowhere to go at the end of life to average working joe or jane who stopped voting because it doesn’t matter to him or her who gets elected, we have formed a society that does not value human life.

That is the major demon that plagues us.

The people who lived near the Geresene demoniac had one solution to help him—chain him up. Make sure that whatever problems he has is not passed onto us. But Jesus took a different tack. This was a man. He had a name. Jesus treats him with dignity. Jesus shows us what he values—he values people. He knows this man has a name, and he asks him what his name is.

I don’t know how to fully get rid of all the demons that plague us, but I do know that it starts with us putting value on people. It starts when we REALLY start to value human life. Just like Jesus did.

I know that the first part of this sermon has been kind of a downer. It is not easy talking realistically about problems, but I have yet to have a problem that just goes away because I ignored it.

We ignore the problem because we don’t know what do to about them. We ignore the demons, even treat them like guests, because we don’t know how to get rid of them. We get too used to the problems, and we assume that is just the way things are.

St. Telemachus was monk in Asia minor, who felt compelled by God to go to Rome. He made his way to the glorious city. He was from the sticks and had never seen anything like it. He sees a crowd heading into a building, and he follows them. It is a colosseum and when he gets inside he is shocked to see two men, gladiators, fighting to the death in the center of the ring. He jumps between them, and cries out, “In the name of God, stop this!” The crowd is so angry that he has interrupted their entertainment, that they rush him, and stone him to death on the spot.

They were used to death and no hick from the sticks was going to spoil their pleasure. But the Emperor Honorius, who was a Christian, heard of the death of Telemachus. And suddenly this “sport” of watching people kill other people did not seem so civilized any more. In fact, Emperor Honorius realized, with the death of Telemachus, just how brutal this was.

Do we need a Telemachus to tell us that we should treat people better? Do we need a Telemachus to tell us that those who are sick should get health care? That the mentally ill should be given humane treatment? That impoverished children should be given a chance to thrive? That making money selling weapons of mass destruction to known terrorist suspects is not a good idea?

Maybe we need more St. Telemachuses in the world. But Telemachus was only doing the work of Christ.

And we are the body of Christ. We forget that times. We are the body of Christ.

The disciples were trying to cast out a demon in another Gospel story, and they couldn’t do it. They asked Jesus why. And he said to them, “This type of demon can only be cast out by prayer.” Why prayer? Because when we prayer, we become more like Jesus. We become, in a much stronger way, the Body of Christ.

We name the demons that plague us and then we become the body of Christ, to show a different way. Jesus came, partially to show us how important we are to God. And if I am important to God, then YOU are just as important, and if YOU are important, then so is everyone who walks in this door, and who walks on the sidewalk around this building.

You see, we are the Body of Christ to the culture around us. We do not just talk about hope. We ARE hope. We embody hope. We don’t talk about peace. We wage peace. We don’t talk about human dignity. We bestow it on others.

Now you may be thinking, what can I do? I am just one person. I am not a Telemachus. I don’t want to get political. I can’t change the world. I am just one person.

Let’s end today by looking at the Elijah story. You heard it. Elijah was scared. He hid out on the Mountain. He encountered the silence of God. But then, after the silence, God spoke. Elijah, he said, you think you are alone? You think you are the only one who is now worshiping me?  I have 7,000 people who have not left the faith, Elijah. Wake up!”

Look around you. You are not alone. You are not just one person. You are not all by yourself. You, all of you, are the body of Christ. And no demon can withstand the power of Christ.

 

 

1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a

1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Luke 8:26-39

26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”-29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

 

 

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The Judgment of God

The texts for this sermon (I Kings 21:1-21 and Luke 7:36-8:3)  are found at the end of the sermon.

manufacture-of-homemade-face-masks-for-acne_1One thing I have always wanted to do, but have never done is to serve on a jury. I have been called for jury duty, but for various reasons I was never selected to actually sit on a jury. I wonder, sometimes, if I was always rejected for jury duty because I was a pastor. Did the defense attorney think that I would be too judgmental? Did the prosecuting attorney think I would not be judgmental enough?

The idea of judging whether someone is guilty or innocent of a crime is a daunting task, and honestly I wonder how I do at it.

No one wants to be thought of as judgmental. If you were to ask me about a person, and I said, “Oh, they are very judgmental” you’re not going to take that as a compliment. If someone described First Presbyterian as very judgmental church, I would not be happy to hear it.

 

On the other hand…

On the other hand, I hear the story of Ahab and Naboth and I have to admit, I feel a bit judgmental there. I want to be able to say that Ahab has done a terrible thing. He had Naboth killed so he could take over his vineyard. And when the prophet says, “Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood,” I kind of like hearing that. I don’t want to think that Ahab will get away with it. Imagine if the story ended like this: Elijah confronts Ahab by saying, “Ahab, you have done a horrible thing. But, who am I to judge? God be with you!” I, for one, would find that to be a very unsatisfactory ending! I want Ahab to get his just desserts.

Angelee and I recently watched a wonderful TV series produced by the same fellow who did Downton Abbey. It is based on an Anthony Trollope novel, Dr. Thorne. The plot is pretty simple. Frank loves Mary. Mary loves Frank. But Frank comes from an aristocratic family that is going broke, and they need Frank to marry money. And Mary, who Frank loves, is just a poor girl, with no resources.

So Frank’s Mother and Aunt proceed to make sure that Frank does not wed Mary. They ban Frank from seeing Mary, they do everything they can to make sure that Frank meets a rich girl, and falls in love with her. But Frank refuses, and proposes to Mary. Aunt and mother go to Mary and convince her to break off the engagement. Frank will never be happy if he loses the estate and ends up a poor man. Mary breaks off the engagement.

And right after she does, she learns she is the heiress of a great fortune. One of the most satisfying moments of the novel and the movie is when Franks’ mother brags that she has convinced Mary to break off the engagement, and then immediately learns that Mary is the heir to this great fortune. It is a satisfying moment because the mother gets her just desserts. She is a money seeking snob, and ends up hoisted on her own petard.

It is satisfying because we like to see people reap the consequences of the evil they sow.

So I have to admit that when I say that people should not be judgmental, I have more than a few exemptions. I am in fact very judgmental over Ahab, and over Frank’s mother in Dr. Thorne, and in fact if I am honest I believe there is a special place in hell for people who are racists, bigots, evil, unfeeling, greedy, snobbish, for people who take advantage over the less fortunate, for people who parade their ignorance as a badge of pride, for people who think disco is an acceptable musical form, and for people who think the designated hitter rule and lights at Wrigley Field were a good idea.

Now I say this tongue in cheek, but in fact as much as I don’t want to think of myself as judgmental, in many ways I am.

In the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera The Mikado, Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner sings about a list he has. It is a list of people he thinks are worthy of execution. Every since this opera has been performed, these lyrics change to reflect the fashions and prejudices of the day.

The original lyrics go something like this:

There’s the banjo serenader, and the others of his race,
And the piano-organist — I’ve got him on the list!
And the people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,
They never would be missed — they never would be missed!
Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;

 

That’s the original, but there are plenty of updated versions:

There’s the driver with the Happy Meal who’s talking on the phone,
The careless motorist, I’ve got him on the list!
The telephone solicitors who won’t leave you alone,
They never would be missed, they never would be missed!
There’s the waiter with the piercings, who can put you off the food,
Debaters on the radio who specialize in rude,
The patriot who waves the flag, then flies it in the rain,
American’s who never vote but know how to complain,

 

The fact is, we all have our lists. Yours is probably different from mine, but we all have lists. Some of the things on the list are pretty legitimate, and others are just based on personal prejudices.

 

But just because everyone has one does not make it right. Let’s look at the Gospel story to help us get a better handle on this topic. Jesus is at a dinner party at a Pharisee’s house. The party was probably thrown for Jesus, and the finest of people are there to meet this bright, up and coming preacher. But before the party even starts, this woman comes barging in, uninvited. She takes an expensive bottle of perfume, and pours it on Jesus’ feet, then washes his feet with the perfume and her tears, and she starts to dry his feet with her hair.

Now if just anyone did that, it would be slightly embarrassing, but to make matters worse, this woman appears to be a prostitute.  By everyone’s judgment, this woman has no right to be at this party, and certainly should not be monopolizing the time of the guest of honor. This is positively a scandal to everyone there—everyone but Jesus.

He’s not embarrassed at all. He does not judge her; in fact, he judges Simon, his host. To Simon Jesus is an interesting dinner guest, maybe even someone he can show off to his friends—“Guess who I have over to dinner at my house this week?” Simon feels no debt to Jesus; he has no real connection to Jesus and he treats him accordingly. But this woman…Jesus has saved her soul, perhaps saved her life. He has rescued her from a life as a pariah and unlike all the other men in her life, he does not seek to use and abuse her, but to show her the value of her own life. Is it any wonder then that she reacts with such passion?

Simon sees her and judges her as a prostitute. His main concern is for Jesus’ dignity. “If he knew what kind of woman this was, he would not let her even come close to him.” In fact she is exactly the type of person Jesus wants close to him. She, and other lost souls, she and other damaged people, she and other sinners are the type of people Jesus came to save.

Now the irony here is that Simon does not see himself as a sinner. He thinks he is justified in judging this woman. He thinks he is above her, and this is exactly what puts him in the need of forgiveness.

It is easy, it is too easy to judge other people. When I moved into a house in Durham, North Carolina, I had two next door neighbors. On the south side was an African-American family and on the north side there was an older, single woman. I met the family first, and they were very nice and ended up being very good neighbors. About a week after than I met my other neighbor. We talked for a bit, and then she said, “You know what lives next to you, don’t you.” Not who, mind you, but what. I said I had met them, and they seemed very nice. But I was very put off by the racist remark she made. To me she was just an old, racist, southern white bigot.

And I wrote her off. I basically ignored her. That went on for a few years. Until one day I came home, and heard a strange noise at the back of her house. I almost ignored it, like I ignored everything else that went on over there, but this time I overcame my feelings and went over to check on what was going on.

She had fallen walking up the step of on her back stoop, and had hurt herself pretty badly. Nothing was broken, but she needed some medical attention so I spend the next few hours helping her. I got her inside, offered to call her son. “He won’t come,” she said. “He only comes when he needs money.” I got to know her, and her life a little more. I got to see her as a human being—hurt, bitter, rejected by her children, angry, and yes, racist. But a human being. Was I any better than she was, all those years I ignored her? She was a person, and I lost sight of that.

This is not to say I should just blindly accept her racism. But it means I see that she was more than just a racist. She was a lonely woman, ignored by her children, and left to fend for herself in a world that was not always very kind to her. She was every bit as complex a human being as I am.

The judgment of God…that is the topic of this sermon. What is the judgment of God? The judgment of God is love.

Jesus said, in Matthew 7 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

 

The judgment you make will be the judgment with which you will be judged. If I am going to be judged, I want to be judged by someone who loves me. Which means when it comes to me judging, I need to judge with love.

Every week, when we say the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In other words we ask to be forgiven to the extent we are able to forgive.

I want Ahab to get his just desserts, but is that my responsibility? I like to see it when the right people get their comeuppance, but the fact is there are times when I probably deserve a comeuppance. If I want to be judged by love, then I must act with love.

1 Kings 21:1-21a

1Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” 3But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” 4Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

5His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” 6He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.'” 7His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

8So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. 9She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” 11The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”

15As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” 16As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

17Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19You shall say to him, “Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”

20Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, 21I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel;

Luke 7:36-8:3

36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-that she is a sinner.” 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

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The Everflowing Stream of God: The Trinity as a Useful Theological Tool

2000px-Trinity-Parish-Jersey-Coat-of-Arms.svg

First let me say that this sermon will be a bit more overtly theological than most sermons I give here. We are talking about heady matters, and they are important to the church. I hope to show why they are important this morning.

That leads to my second point. Everything I say this morning will come from another source. I want you to know that I am not making any of this up. I will be trying to reflect what people who are a lot smarter than me are saying about the Trinity. These books here are just the ones in my library that focus specifically on the Trinity.

Third, I cannot explain what the Trinity is. I cannot explain how God is three-in-one. What I want to do is tell three stories. One is the story of how we came up with this incredibly confusing, but also incredibly sublime doctrine. The other is a parable about what this doctrine means for us.

Everything I say, and everything the theologians say, is at best an analogy. We do not have the words to actually describe God. We can only say, God is like…a father. God is like, a good shepherd. God is like a mother hen who cares for her young. God is clearly not male, even though we use the word Father. By the way we use that word because Jesus did.

Our first story starts in the Old Testament. People worshiped many different gods, almost all of whom were idols. By idols I mean that they had a physical representation on earth. They were a statue, or figurine, or natural structure. In other words, these were God who could be seen and touched. Then Abraham comes along saying that he worships a God who is invisible. His god is not an idol. You cannot put his god on the mantel in your home. And then Moses comes along and says he had an encounter with the same God, except that he learned that you cannot even use the name of this God. When asked for a name, the god merely says, “I am who I am.”

And so things roll along this way for many, many years. Eventually the people come to believe that this god is not just one among many gods, but is in fact the One True God. All the other gods are fakes—just pieces of rock or wood. But this god is still a relatively simple god in spite of the being invisible thing going on.

But then an itinerant preacher from Galilee comes on the scene. He talks about this god. He talks about him a lot. And much of what he says is radical, but understandable. There is one thing he says about this god however that people had a real hard time with—he calls this god his father. No one had ever done that before. That was different. He also talked about having a very special relationship with this god. He says things like what we heard in the Gospel passage this morning. Jesus is talking about how the Spirit of God will come down and will give to the disciples all that Jesus has. Oh, and by the way, Jesus says, what I have is everything that God has. In other words, he kind of makes himself equal to God. Oh, not kind of, he does it. He says that he and his Heavenly Father are one. Oh and by the way, there is this other part of God, not the Father, but the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit will come down and will dwell in you.

Jesus gets killed for saying this.

But then he goes rises from the dead. That got him a little attention. And then, after he rises from the dead, he ascends into heaven. And after that, all of sudden Jesus’ disciples are running around saying this Holy Spirit has come upon them, and it turns out that the Holy Spirit is pretty contagious, because other people start reporting the same thing is happening to them! These people all worship that Jewish God of the Old Testament, but it seems they have enlarged the cast of characters in the story.

And things are a mess for a while. There are people running around saying that Jesus was just a man, there are people running around saying he was a god, there are people running around saying he is both god and man and there are people running around saying he was created by god to be a bridge between god and man. People split into factions, they got into fights about this, they developed all sorts of elaborate theories to try to explain the relationship between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Now here is where it gets interesting. In 325, at the Council of Nicaea, a group of bishops meet to proclaim that Jesus is both God and Man, and that God is both three, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, but…there is only one God. They didn’t try to explain that—they just said that’s the way it is.

Of course people being people, a lot of people jumped in and did try to explain things. Some of the explanations made sense; some of them didn’t. But for the last 1700 years or so, this has been a core belief of the Christian Church.

So why keep it? I mean, if it is something that people don’t understand, why not get rid of it. Why talk about the Trinity if it only confuses people?

Two reasons. First, the people who developed this idea did it because they thought it was true—at least truer than any other idea floating around at the time. Second, it helps them understand some other things about God. The Trinity does make God more complex, and while we may not understand that particular piece of theology, it does help us understand other things about God.

And that is what I want to talk about now.

I want to introduce you to man named Augustine. He was born 354 in Northern Africa. He was a bishop in a town called Hippo, which is in modern day Algeria. And he wrote a lot of books. One in particular was about the Trinity.

Now when I say the word “God,” when I talk about God in sermons, when I pray to God, what is in your mind? What do you think of when you think of God? My guess is that we tend to have an Old Testament view of the word. I would guess that for most of us, our conception of God is probably pretty similar to, say, King David’s idea of God. We think of a divine power, and celestial being, a cosmic force of some kind. Maybe we have a picture of God in our heads.

Now when Augustine said the “God” he meant something like this. There is the Father. And the Father is full of love. And there is the Son. And the Son is also full of love. They have a relationship with each other. This is a much more intense relationship than you or I could ever imagine. They are full of love for one another. But they are different. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father. Now put on your seatbelts because it gets a little weird here. The Father has always existed. And the Son has always existed. We tend to think that Jesus came into being when he was born in Nazareth. But according the Bible, Jesus the Son of God existed before the foundations of the world.

 

So when you say God you are talking about this intense love between the Father and the Son. Now this love generates an energy. That is not is exactly right. This love IS an energy. And according to Augustine, this energy of love is the Holy Spirit. Now remember, “Father” is a metaphor, but an important one. You see, you cannot have a father if there are no children. I can call myself a father, but if I have not had any children, if I am not taking care of any children, I don’t have a relationship with any children, then I am hardly a father. A father only exists if there are children. Now we are about to go into even stranger territory. We can only talk about God the Father, because Jesus told us he was the Son of God. God is not like our fathers. God is the Father of Jesus. And God the Son only exists because he springs from God the Father. He flows from God the Father. And the Holy Spirit only exists because of the great love between God the Father and God the Son.

In other words, God is really a series of interconnected relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Without those relationships, the God we worship would not exist.

Now the way the theologians describe it, and I have to admit it gets more than a little weird here, the Father begets, produces, is the source for the Son. The Father did not begat Jesus when Mary got pregnant. The Son of God existed long before man Jesus was born. I know that’s a mindbender, and I cannot explain it. I also cannot explain how Jesus has always existed, yet was begotten by the Father. But the important thing is this: the Father begets something else. The Father begets the creation of the world. The world exists because the love of the Father for Son whereby the Son is begotten, kind of overflows into the creation of the world. In other words, This world was created by an excess of love.

Ok, set that aside for a moment. Or you might just want to forget about all together!

 

Imagine a spring up in a mountain valley. It is big spring, and eventually it fills the valley with water and creates a lake. The lake overflows the mountain valley, and creates a river.  The river only exists because it flows out of the lake. And in a sense the lake exists so it can to create the river. The way the lake is set up, it will eventually create a river. It really has not choice, given what it is.

 

That is like the Father and the Son in the Trinity. The Father is the lake and the spring—let’s call that the Source. The Son is the River. Both are made of water, but the Source, the Spring is not the river and the river is not the spring. In the same way we say that the Father is God and the Son is God, but the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father.

Now, what does a river do? It flows. The flow is the Holy Spirit. The Flow only exists because the Spring and the river are connected. The flow is also made of water, but the flow is not the River, nor is it the spring. The flow exists in both the spring and the river, and it exists because of the Spring and the River.

Now also imagine that we live down below the Mountain, where the lake and the spring are located, and that we have no possible way of getting up to the lake where the spring is. There is no path, the walls around it are too steep, whatever, but we cannot make our own way there. We have heard there is a great body of water up there, but we have no way of getting to it. It is too high up, too inaccessible. It is beyond our reach. We have heard stories about it, but we are not even sure it exists.

And then, one day, a stream of water comes flowing past our village. The stream eventually turns into a river, and now we have an endless supply of water. It is in the midst of us. The river has made its home in our village. We can go to the river and get water whenever we want. We realize the river is a bit dangerous. If we fall in, we could drown. But it provides us with an endless stream of fresh water. There are some who do not believe in the river. They refuse to come out and see it. They think the story of the mountain lake is a myth, and since it is a myth the river is also a myth. There are others who believe in the river, but not in the lake that feeds it.

Then one day a very strange thing happens. A group of men, people who have spent a lot of time at the river, show up one way with a wooden shell. They call it a boat. And they tell us, “There is a flow in this river. It is powerful. It can do things we can hardly imagine.” We are not quite sure what they are talking about—we don’t know what a “flow” is, but we can see the water moving. And these men put the wooden shell into the river, and they climb into it.  And before our very eyes the they move down the river. “How are you moving?” we call out. “What is pushing you?”

“The flow,” they answer. “We are moving down the river by the power of the flow!”  And they disappear for a while. Some of them come back. They have learned much about this thing called a flow. They tell us the others have moved on down to other communities to explain to them about the river and how it is connected to the Great Lake on the Mountain. Some of them, they tell us, have been swept by the flow to a place they call the Sea, but we really do not know what they are talking about. The Sea, they tell us, is a place that is ALL water, but we have a hard time imagining what kind of place that could be.

Of course in this story the boat is the church, and the flow is the Holy Spirit. When the boat enters the river, it is connected to and controlled by the flow of the river and the source of the river. The sea is heaven, something we cannot imagine.

I want to tell one more story. One week, many years ago, my friend Dan Solie and I took a canoe trip down the middle fork of the Gulkana River. On the third day we got to a tricky part of the river, and Dan pulled the canoe over to the side, we took everything out of it, and did a portage past some really tricky rapids. It took several trips to get everything out of the canoe and down the river by land. Dan said the rapids here were too strong, and we would never make it through them in the canoe.

We went back for the canoe, and Dan stood there and looked down the river, and turned to me and said, “You walk, I’m going to see if I can run those rapids.” Dan is an excellent canoeist, so I took a place on a rock above the river, and watched to see if he could make it. A ranger joined me, and together we watched Dan run the rapids.

It was a thing of beauty to watch him. He deftly nosed the canoe into the worst of the rapids, and skillfully guided it around a series of rocks and eddies, until he was past the swirling water. The ranger said he was the only person to run the rapids all summer.

Going back to my past analogy, this church has a put its boat in the River of the God, and we are being carried by its flow. Without the flow, without the Holy Spirit, we would be dead in the water. Last week was Pentecost and we celebrated how the flow of the Holy Spirit empowered the church of Jesus Christ to do great things for God. Our church is like a little boat making its way down the river of Jesus Christ, propelled by the flow of the Holy Spirit, to the sea. The water we are in flows from the very source of God.

If you have ever been on a canoe trip, you know that there are times when the water is broad and calm. Of course those are the times when you have to the hardest. And there are times when the flow just takes on down the river and you just have to dip a paddle in every once in a while to keep your bearings. And there are times when the river is dangerous.

But we work our way down river, through the doldrums and the rapids. There are times when we are tempted to pull over the side, and just carry everything ourselves, without the power of the flow, and there are times when the flow is so strong, we are afraid we might capsize.

Today, I feel a bit like we are my friend Dan Solie, nosing our canoe through some dangerous rapids. This is not a peaceful part of the river, these times in which we are living. I am sure we all might feel like abandoning ship at times. We feel our boat is small, and the river is wild. It does not feel like there are enough people to paddle. We are all having to work hard to make sure our little boat does crash in to the rocks ahead. Most of us remember the times when the river was broad and peaceful, and it took a minimum of effort to keep our boat in the flow. The flow was strong, but slow and predictable.

That is not the case today. But we are in the River of God. And we are flowing to a divine destination. People have been floating this river for the last 5000 years, this river of God. It looked very different up stream, but we are not upstream. We are here, in the waters of God; fed by the Father, supported by the son and propelled the Holy Spirit.

This Trinity Sunday I pray that your view of God has gotten a bit bigger. I did hope that you would come to understand the Trinity, but that you would come to see your place within it. Created by God the Father, sustained and guided by the Son and propelled by the Holy Spirit, we make our way through this life.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

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Freedom and Bondage

freedom

Acts 16:16-34

Years ago Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” We talk a lot about freedom here in America, and it means different things to different people. What does freedom mean in a biblical sense though?

This morning we are going to look at three people from our passage in Acts. One is definitely NOT free, one is definitely free, and one learns what freedom really is.

The first person we are going to look at is the slave girl.

She is decidedly bound, by two different things. The first rope is the fact that she is a slave.

Now, we don’t have slaves in our society any more. We did away with institutional slavery years ago, during the Civil War. There are no slaves in America.

Or are there? It is possible to be a slave to alcohol or tobacco, or drugs, to pornography or junk food or TV or any number of things that end up controlling our lives. Any addiction is a form of slavery.

But let’s take it a little deeper. There are many people in the world, and in our community, who are a slave to poverty. What do I mean by that? Can’t they just get a job and then they won’t be poor anymore?

There is a cycle of poverty that exists. It could look something like this; You are doing fine, you have a decent job, make decent wages, you can pay your rent, buy enough food for your family, make your car payments, insurance, gas, and all the other incidentals. You are making it, but just barely. You are treading water, just barely keeping your head above.

And then you get sick. You go to the Doctor, even though you don’t have really good health insurance, and it costs you an arm and leg, but you need to do it. And you miss a few days of work. And then a few more. And your work calls you and tells you that you have missed too many days, and the next thing you know, you are out of job. You have a huge medical debt, and now you have no job.

And yourself in a hole that you cannot dig your way out of. And the thing is, the deeper you are in the hole, the deeper it gets for you.

This may sound really strange, but it costs more to be poor than it does to be rich. When you are poor you have to shop where you can, not where it is cheapest. And guess what, they don’t put discount food stores in poorer neighborhoods! You end up buying food, not because it is nutritious, but because it is cheap. And the less you have, the more likely you are to lose it.

How many people in our communities are slaves to poverty? They want to get a leg up, but there ain’t no step stool in sight. And they can jump as high as they can, but it is never enough to grab hold of even the first rung of the ladder of success. These people are trapped. And that is called slavery.

There is another type of bondage, a more subtle type, was described by the Belgian mystic and poet Hadewijch, who referred to the Bondage of a false self. We were created to love, to be in a relationship with each other and with God, she says, but often we find that we cannot do that. We have erected a false self, a projection of who we want to be, a false front that hides us, because we are afraid to love as God calls us to love. The problem is this false self keeps us from being our true self before God and the people we love. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with couples who really do love one another, but who for some reason, have a very hard time showing it. The love they have inside of them cannot get out. They want to reach out—to their spouses, to their children, to God, but find they are unable, because they have hidden their real selves behind a wall of fear. They are afraid to love. Most are afraid to love because they are afraid they will be hurt. Or they are afraid that if people see who they really are, then people will not like them, the people the love and respect the most may not like them, so they present a false front that is more likeable. And before long, this false front has taken advantage of their fears, and is running their lives.

In the movie Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins plays and English Butler who is so wedded to his role as a butler that he has to true self anymore. He watches his elderly father begin to decline physically, but cannot reach out to him, because that would out of character for a butler who can handle any situation that comes up with a stiff upper lip. He falls in love with one of the servants, but he never tells her, even though she is clearly in love with him, because he cannot let go of his role as a butler. The role of butler has taken over his life, and even after he retires, he cannot let go of it.

He is just as much a slave to his false self as the slave girl in today’s story is in bondage to the men who own her.

The second thing that binds this girl is the spirit within her. That is not a Holy Spirit, it is not the Spirit of God.  We know that because of how it affects her. The Spirit of God makes us free. This spirit just makes her a more desirable slave. It deepens her bondage. It has taken her over, and continually pushes her deeper and deeper into slavery.

There are spirits that can lead us deeper and deeper into bondage. For example, in the 1920s and the 1930s in Germany there was a spirit of anger about how Germans were treated after the First World War. There was a Spirit of Oppression that came with the extreme economic sanctions of the Versailles Treaty. There was a spirit of Shame that was thrust on them. Their government fell apart, their economy was in tatters, they were almost a vassal state to the countries that defeated them.

And those different spirits make the ripe for the bondage that came with Hitler and the Third Reich. That happened to a whole culture. The Spirits of fear, anger, shame, bigotry and hatred took over their country. We know the results.

Those same spirits threaten us personally. If we are controlled by those spirits, or by others, call them the Seven Deadly sins if you will, or whatever, if we controlled by dangerous spirits that leave us open to being manipulated by others.

Paul, who delivered this woman of her evil spirit, talks about these spirits in his letters. In Colossians he warns against the spirits of, lust, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language and lies. These are spirits that will enslave us.

And when an evil spirit like that can control us, it sets us up to be manipulated by others. When the people of a nation have a spirit of fear, the politicians of that nation can manipulate the people by playing on their fear. If we are afraid of terrorism, even though the odds of being in a terrorist incident are very rare, people will use that fear to get our votes, and to get us to pass laws that are not really in our best interest. They will sell us thing we do not need, and make money off of us. You know, every time there is a mass shooting, gun sales go up dramatically, even though in reality you are more likely to be shot by your own gun than by a mass shooter.

We, as a nation, are afraid of getting sick, we are afraid of growing old and we are afraid of dying, and there is not end of people out there who want to take advantage of that by selling us things that will make us look and feel younger, and will keep us alive and healthy for a long time.  And almost all of it is worthless junk, that makes some people rich, and doesn’t help anyone else.

When there is a spirit of fear in a nation, there are a whole host of politicians, not all, but many, who will take advantage of that and use the people’s fear to their own advantage. Ed Dobson, who used to be a fundraiser for the Moral Majority said that whenever they were low on funds they would send out what they called “the gay letter.” “Homosexuals are taking over our country!” the letter would say. “You have to act now to stop this country from becoming another Sodom!” Of course by act now, they meant give money, and they said it was always a guaranteed fundraiser for them.

Churches can be taken over by spirits—today especially in the mainline church I see spirits of fear, or of despair. People look at the future and it looks bleak to them. Churches are getting older and they are getting smaller, and that causes people to lose faith. And some churches end up doing things that are not worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They buy into gimmicky programs, they dumb down, they cater to those who have the least interest in God, not the most interest. They lose sight of the fact that it is God’s church, not their church.

You see, the fact is, while freedom is a great thing, not everyone wants you to be free. Some people find it much more convenient if you are NOT free. You may want to be free from drugs or alcohol, but the people who sell you these things like it when you are in bondage. You may want to be free from gambling, the casinos see it a little differently. You may want to be economically free, but the people who make money off of your poverty like it when you remain poor. You may want to be free from fear or free from anger, but the people who make their living and get your votes because of your fear and anger just want you to be more afraid, and more angry.

 

Now I want to be clear here. When I talk about a spirit of anger or a spirit of shame, these are not spirits like Caspar the Unfriendly Ghost. I’m not really talking about ethereal beings that float through the air and then come to rest in us. I am using the word spirit metaphorically here, but does that really change how the spirits affect us? To the people who have to deal with a spirit of rage or lust or shame or fear it does not matter if it is a metaphorical or literal spirit. It is a Spirit that puts them further into bondage.

So there is this girl who is in bondage. Perhaps she is not so different from you and me and sometimes. Perhaps each of us is also in bondage in some small, or large way, whether it is an addiction, a social condition, a spirit in us—maybe we are not so different from her.

But then there is Paul—Paul who exhibits the power of Jesus Christ, who said, in his very first sermon:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

Paul sees this girl and in the power of Jesus, he sets her free. He can do that because he is free in Jesus Christ. Paul understand that Jesus came to free the captives and Paul is living his live as a free man. He is free in Jesus Christ. There are no spirits that bind Paul. In Christ is soul is free. What does it mean for Paul to be free? He is free to love.

Even when he is behind bars, he is a free man. After he frees the slave girl from the spirit that oppresses her, the girl’s owners are angry that their cash cow has dried up, and they manage to have Paul arrested. But even in jail Paul is free. Behind bars, with his feet in stocks, he and Silas sing hymns and praise God.

As Richard Lovelace wrote, Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” And Paul and Silas were not in prison—at least their souls were not in prison. Even when the earthquake shakes open the doors of their jail cell, they don’t leave. They stay put.

Their jailor sees that, and he is afraid. He is afraid for two reasons. First, if Paul and Silas were to escape, the jailor has to carry out their sentence himself. That is the way the Romans made sure prison guards never lost a prisoner. If the prisoner escapes, the guard has to carry out the sentence himself. So when this guard sees the open doors to their jail cell, he knows that he is not a prisoner himself.

But no, Paul and Silas have not escaped, because they don’t need to. Yes, they are stuck in this jail cell, but they are not prisoners. They are free—Free in Jesus Christ. And that also scares their jailor. Perhaps he has never met such a free man before.

He asks them, “What can I do to save my skin?” I don’t think, when he asks about being saved he meant in a religious sense. I think he realized who the real prisoner was—himself. How can I be free as you are free.

And Paul tells him, believe on Jesus. The more you trust in him, the freer you will be. The more your life conforms to his life, the more authentic your life will be. The more you give yourself to God, the more of your own life you find.

As Jesus said, in Matthew 16:25:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

 

Do you want to be free? Truly free? Give more of your life to God. Find your true self, your authentic self in Jesus Christ. Read his teachings. Talk to him in prayer and daily conversation. Take seriously his call for you to follow him. Invite the Holy Spirit of God into your life.

And be a part of helping to liberate others. Reach out to others in love. It is a risk, but one worth taking. Reach out to those who find themselves in bondage—to addictions, to poverty, to the false sense of self they put up. Reach out to those who are taken by a spirits of fear and shame, of anger and malice, of lust and greed. Reach out in love.

It is a risk. Look at Paul. He did up in Jail. But look at the girl in our story. No longer bound by the spirit that oppresses her, but we do not know if she is truly free. But the jailor is a free man. Like Paul and Silas in jail, he is now free to love God, to love others and in the process to find out what it truly means to love himself.   Believe, like the jailor in the story, and be free.

 

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Hindering God?

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Acts 11:1-18

John 13:31-35

          The Southern writer Flannery O’Conner once said, “God can do whatever he needs to do with what little we give him…but he shouldn’t need to.”

(Note: I heard this from a Duke graduate student in a Sunday school class at Blacknall Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina. I have not been able to track this quote down, so if anyone has the source, I would them to share it!)

In other words, God is able accomplish his will through even the fragile and fallible work of humans, but you would think the almighty could better than just depending on us frail human beings!

It is a scary thought when you think about it. Our Creator wills that the work of God be done through us. Every week we pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done,” but what we may not realize even as we pray it is that if “thy will” is to be done, it is to be done through us! Well, through us and God. I will get to that later.

Look at the lesson from Acts we read today. Peter has just come back from converting a bunch of Gentiles into Christians. Now up until Peter did that, all the followers of Jesus were Jewish, and some of the Jewish followers of Jesus, who did not anticipate that Jesus could change things all that much, were more than a little concerned about what Peter had just done.

So Peter gives them the rundown.

He was sitting on his roof praying, when he has a vision. In his vision, a sheet, like a table cloth comes down, and you would not believe what was on it. Shrimp. Lobster. Good ole, North Carolina Barbecue. Clams. Caviar. Pepperoni pizza!

And a voice says to Peter, “Eat up!”

But Peter, who is a good Jew as well as a follower of Jesus, knows that he is not allowed to eat anything on that tablecloth. This might be a fine picnic for pagans, but he will have nothing to do with it. At first he must think this is a test of some kind, and he may be a little proud of himself, because he passed with flying colors, even if it was a little hard to turn down the BBQ!

And Peter goes back to his prayers, but he has the same vision. This time, however, after the voice says, “Eat up,” and Peter refuses, the voice then says, “Peter, if I have made it ok, it is Ok indeed!” So Peter files that away in his noggin, and goes back to his prayers, until he is interrupted again, but this time it is not by a vision. It is by a knock on the door. There a servant out there who says he represents a man named Cornelius, a God-fearing man, who believes in the God of the Jews, but who is himself a Gentile. Cornelius was praying and in HIS prayers, he was told to fetch Peter.

So Peter shows up at Cornelius’s house, and starts to tell Cornelius about Jesus. While he is talking about Jesus, God’s Holy Spirit comes down, and Peter can see that the Spirit has rested on Cornelius, just like it rested on the heads of all those Jewish people at Pentecost. And Peter remembers his vision. “If I say it is holy, don’t you go around saying it is unclean!” So Peter prayer for Cornelius and his family, and welcomes them into the faith.

The very first Gentile followers of Jesus.

Well, word spread about what Peter had done, and it got back to some of the other bigwigs in Jerusalem, who called Peter in and wanted to know that the sam hill he thought he was doing, bringing Gentile into the faith. After all, we all know that the God of Jesus Christ was a Jewish God, and that Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, so why bring these pesky Gentiles in? I mean, it is ok to have Gentiles as friends, I guess, but would you want your daughter to marry one? And what if they decided to come to worship? Where would they sit? Would you want one sitting next to YOUR wife? And think of pot lucks, Peter! They are going to bring BBQ, and we are going to have smell it, but we won’t be able to eat it! What were you thinking?

So Peter tells them about the vision, and more importantly about how the Holy Spirit came down on these people, just like at Pentecost. And then Peter says a very interesting thing: Who am I to hinder the work of God? This was clearly a God thing, not a Peter thing. It’s not like I woke up this morning and said, “Hey, I know what I’ll do today! I’ll go convert a bunch of pagans and get them to join our church!”

No, he was told by God, and he realized that if he refused, he was hindering the work of God.

That leaves us with an uncomfortable question.  Can we be hindering the work of God?

The fact is we are able to participate in the work of God. We are an essential part of the work of God. God chose Peter to bring the Gospel to those Gentile and to change the face of what it meant to worship Jesus. Had Peter not done that, Christianity would be little more than a small Jewish sect, and most likely would have died out after Jerusalem fell to the Romans. But in fact God sent Peter to preach to Cornelius, and that changed everything.

What would have happened if Peter refused? I have no idea, and it is a theoretical question. Because Peter did listen to God and he did go to the house of Cornelius and he did accept Cornelius and his family into the faith.

But there is another question that is worth asking—what does it mean to participate in the work of God? The key word here is “participate.” On the one hand, all Peter did was to listen to God, go to Cornelius’s house, and preach to him. And then after the Holy Spirit came down on Cornelius, he accepted that God was at work here.

Peter was not told he had to turn Cornelius into a Christian. Peter was not told he make sure the Holy Spirit came down on Cornelius. God did not tell Peter, “I want some Gentiles to worship me. Go find me some, and make them worship me!”

That is not the way God works with us. That is not how we participate in the work of God. We work with God, alongside God, we participate in the work together. We have a part to play and God has a part to play.

Sometimes I think when we think about doing the work of God, we feel it is more like, say when I am going on a trip on a trip, and I tell Steven, “Make sure the yard is the house is clean and the yard is mown when I get back.” When that happens, I leave it all to him. I’m not there to work with him. I’m in Honolulu drinking Mai Tai’s and he is at home busy working.

Sometimes I get the impression we think that is what the work of God is like. Jesus has ascended up into heaven, and he expects us to keep the world in good spiritual shape until he gets back. I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming back soon…and boy is he angry!”

So in the Gospel Lesson we heard this morning, in John, Jesus tells us to love one another. Sometimes I am afraid we hear that and think, “The world has to be a loving place, and Jesus expects me to help make it happen. So, everybody, I am going to make you all love one another! It’s God’s will! Now Do it!”

No. That is not how we participate in the work of God. On the one hand, we are merely participating. It is our job to show up. Woody Allen once said that eighty percent of life was just showing up, and that kind of describes how we participate with God.

We are only responsible for so much. So, for example, Jesus told us to love one another. So maybe at some point you decided that for you, loving one another means helping out with food bank. Or Wednesday Night Live. So you show up, and you do your thing. You help some person get their food, or you teach a Bible lesson for to a kid. Now in your mind, you may be thinking, “I am doing the work of God here. I am going to change this person’s life. I am going to show them the love of God.” But what happens is the person you are helping seems to show little or no evidence of being totally changed by the good deed you are doing for them.

And you get a little frustrated. “Don’t they see I’m trying to do God’s work here?”

You see, God did not tell Peter he had to make sure Cornelius becomes a Christian. He just had to go to him, and preach to him. Jesus did not tell us we have to create a loving world. We just have to the people who are in front of us. And when we do that, we are participating in the love of God. Now granted, we have to do our best job at these things.  When I say that we just have to do our part, I don’t mean to imply that we can do it badly and God will take up the slack. It’s not like Peter when to see Cornelius and said, “So there’s this God, who is kind of in heaven, and he like, has this son, Jesus, you know. And uh, yeah, you should, like follow him.”

No, we give it our best. And the rest is up to God. We do the part we are called to do, and the rest is up to God.

Next week we will be taking communion, and I want to help you prepare for that by thinking about how we participates in Communion with God. We start with the elements. On the one hand, the wheat the grapes are a miracle of nature. We did not have to invent wheat, or invent grapes. They are a part of God’s creation. We cannot MAKE wheat or grapes grow. We can plant it, fertilize it, tend a grape vine, weed the fields, and like a miracle, grapes start to show up on the vine, or wheat appears at the top of stalks.

But now comes our part. We harvest the wheat; we harvest the grapes. We do our part. We grind the wheat. We crush the grapes. But then an amazing thing happens; the wheat rises. The grapes ferment. The wheat becomes bread. The grapes become wine. We cannot make that happen. That is another miracle of nature. (I know that we use grape juice here instead of wine, so I was more thinking about the historical elements of communion, bread and wine here, so bear with me.)

And then we come here. Someone puts the elements on the table. I stand up and say a few words. Those words are important. I remind us of God’s work in the past, how God created the world, and put us here to live in it, how God, working with Moses and Aaron, helped free the people from the slavery in Egypt, and ultimately how God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, fully human and fully God. Then I say a prayer that goes like this:

Gracious God,

pour out your Holy Spirit upon us

and upon these your gifts of bread and wine,

that the bread we break

and the cup we bless

may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.

By your Spirit unite us with the living Christ

 

And we believe that God does that. God joins us in the meal. We participate with God. The farmer plants, but God makes it grow. The miller grinds, but God makes it rise. The minister and the elders serve the elements, but God infused them with his spirit.

We go out to do the work of God, but God is the one who infuses that work with the Holy Spirit. God uses what we do in ways we cannot imagine. I don’t think Peter knew was he was getting himself into that day. He could not foresee how that one sermon would change the world. But it did, because God worked with him.

God is not “up there” somewhere, watching to see if we might mess up this world he left us in. God has not given us instruction, then taken off for a while, until he comes back and judges whether we did what he wanted or not.

God participates in the work we are called to do with us. Whether that work is pushing around a shopping cart for a person who needs food, teaching a kid, handing out a bag lunch, talking to someone about the love of God, caring for you neighbor, loving one another; God does these things with us.

So who are we to hinder the work of God?

Acts 11:1-18

1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

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