Believe It or Not, God Answers Prayer

1 Samuel 1:9-11 New Revised Standard Version

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

1 Samuel 1:19-20 New Revised Standard Version

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

1 Samuel 2:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

2 Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

2  “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.

3  Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

4  The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

5  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

6  The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

7  The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

8  He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

9  “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.

10  The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king,     and exalt the power of his anointed.” 

+++

Have you ever played Monopoly?  We did, my brother and sister and I.  I don’t know how old we were when we received the game, probably for Christmas.  We choose playing pieces, threw dice and tried to accumulate properties.  The best part of the game was passing “Go” and collecting $200.  I was seldom able to buy property, let alone put on a house or a hotel.  

The original game was invented by Lizzie Magie in 1903 as a way to demonstrate that an economy which rewards wealth creation is better than one where monopolists work under few constraints. It makes me wonder what Mrs. Magie would think of our government’s current sweetheart deals with corporations.  

The system that the board game illustrates is a closed system.  Once the money is gone, it’s gone. There is not enough for everyone; some players end up with piles of pastel-colored money and some end up bankrupt. 

Hannah lived in a closed system.  The only way to be a real woman, to be a good wife, to have someone to take care of you when you lost your marbles was to have children. Hannah sadly had a closed womb in a closed system.  

In some ways she was blessed; her husband loved her and he had been able to have children through his other wife, so he had, metaphorically, passed Go, and collected the $200, that is, he had children who would care for him in his old age and who would carry on his name. But Hannah was not part of that.  She was without property and sentenced to the jail of barrenness and abandonment.

Have you ever been closed off from a system, from people, from happiness, through no fault of your own?  Have you ever been prevented from reaching your goals, from using your talents to the best of your ability? 

That prompts three more questions

Did you turn to God in prayer?

How has God saved you, helped you, encouraged you?

And—how have you thanked God?

Hannah turned to God in prayer.  She gave birth to Samuel. And, in thanksgiving, she turned Samuel back to God, so that Samuel could grow up to serve God in full devotion. Samuel did, in fact, serve God his whole life, as one of the prophets who led the Israelites into the greatest years of their nation. Samuel anointed the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.  David became the ancestor, the great, great ad infinitum grandfather of our own Savior, Jesus.

God answers prayer. The answer is not always apparent to us. Hannah probably died before Israel became a monarchy. She did not know that a Messiah would someday arrive, directly descended from her womb.  

God answers prayer by making us the bearers of Good News.  

We do not always know how God uses us. Sometimes we can reflect on our lives and see where we touched someone with kindness, when we inspired someone, how we changed someone through what we thought was simply doing the right thing. Give God some credit. Just as God opened Hannah’s womb, God opens our hearts to make  God’s Kingdom present in the lives of our communities. Sometimes we serve within our own communities, with a helping hand, with a friendly conversation.  We never know how much good we do. A helping hand can allow the good deed to be paid forward. A friendly conversation can lift a person out of despair and banish their loneliness. Sometimes we serve beyond our communities, by our personal choices, such as choosing leaders who build God’s kingdom rather than their own, by making decisions that protect God’s creation or God’s people. 

As the recipients of God’s greatest gift, God’s Son, Jesus Christ, we are freed from the bonds of sin to stretch our abilities and talents and even our timid inclinations to bring others into the Kingdom. 

Let me reiterate: Hannah turned to God in prayer.  I don’t know how prayer works.  I don’t know why God doesn’t answer every prayer the way we thing it should be answered. But I know that God answers prayer in such a way that God’s Kingdom is established here and now, where it is most needed. The Kingdom isn’t needed in heaven—-everything is perfect there already. The Kingdom is needed here and now, the blessings of the Kingdom, the gifts of the Kingdom are needed in our own time, in our own place. The hungry need to be fed NOW.  The oppressed need to be freed NOW. The homeless need to be sheltered NOW. The hopeless need to be inspired NOW. The ugly, the disgusting, the losers need to be loved NOW.  That is what the Kingdom looks like.  Our forefathers wrote the Declaration of Independence with a kind of kingdom in mind. The second sentence reads : 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness can not be pursued like a goal. Happiness is established not by the individual, but by the community. That is how we Christians operate: in community. We call that community the Kingdom. 

Hannah had only one earthly resource to help her achieve happiness, her husband, Elkanah.  He did not have the ability to give her the much wanted child, Samuel. God did.  Hannah turned to God in prayer. God answered not only Hannah’s prayer, but the prayer of salvation for all God’s people. 

Let us turn to God in prayer, not to ask for what we think we need but for what God needs. Let us ask God to make us instruments of peace and plenty.

I learned this lesson from my father.  Everyday he would rise early, get dressed, go out the back door and face east.  Everyday, he prayed, “God, what do you have for me to do today?”

That is how the Kingdom is established, by each of us praying, daily, in our own way to be the workers in the Kingdom that God is building. That Kingdom is possible because sin and death have been vanquished by the greatest answer to prayer ever, the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation of God on earth, we have the privilege and the power to establish God’s Kingdom on earth. How? Take it to the Lord in prayer. Amen.  

Kindness Acts 27: 21-44; Acts 28: 1-10

Acts 27: 21-44; Acts 28: 1-10

21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul then stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. 22 I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we will have to run aground on some island.”

27 When the fourteenth night had come, as we were drifting across the sea of Adria, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. 28 So they took soundings and found twenty fathoms; a little farther on they took soundings again and found fifteen fathoms. 29 Fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. 30 But when the sailors tried to escape from the ship and had lowered the boat into the sea, on the pretext of putting out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the boat and set it adrift.

33 Just before daybreak, Paul urged all of them to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food, having eaten nothing. 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” 35 After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves. 37 (We were in all two hundred seventy-six persons in the ship.) 38 After they had satisfied their hunger, they lightened the ship by throwing the wheat into the sea.

39 In the morning they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned to run the ship ashore, if they could. 40 So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea. At the same time they loosened the ropes that tied the steering-oars; then hoisting the foresail to the wind, they made for the beach. 41 But striking a reef, they ran the ship aground; the bow stuck and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the force of the waves. 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none might swim away and escape; 43 but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, 44 and the rest to follow, some on planks and others on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

28 After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.

Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 They bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.

+++

When Henry James, American author, was saying goodbye once to his young nephew Billy, his brother William’s son, he said something that the boy never forgot. And of all the labyrinthine and impenetrably subtle things that that most labyrinthine and impenetrable old romancer could have said, what he did say was this: “There are three things that are important in human life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

What is remarkable about those simple statements to me is that Henry James did not usually write short sentences or repeat himself.  As I recall from the reading I was required to do, his sentences were usually about a page long, riddled with punctuation marks and required constant rereading to remember what the sentence was saying.

Be kind.  It’s easy enough. 

It’s our normal modus operandi, isn’t it?  We automatically do nice things for those we love; we respond to others with kindness.  

Kindness is especially easy to reciprocate.  You do something nice for me and I feel like doing something nice for you.

This story of Paul being shipwrecked shows kindness in times of stress. 

First, God is kind to Paul and the people on the ship by sending an angel with a plan: 23 For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 

Then Paul shared the plan with the 276 passengers and crew:

34 Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” 35 After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves.

 Paul was being transported as a prisoner, so his life was not so precious to the crew. They thought that they would just do away with any prisoners, but the centurion’s kindness and concern prevented that:

 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none might swim away and escape; 43 but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan

Once they were safely on land, they experienced the kindness and hospitality of strangers:

28 After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. 

Paul and the others received kindness from a prominent citizen of the island. Paul returned the kindness.

7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8 It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him.

We are given opportunities to be kind every day. I posted a question on Facebook: “What is the kindest thing anyone ever did for you?”

Some people found the question overwhelming and could not name a single instance, but several people shared cherished experiences.

From M: Gave me their kidney.

From B: Someone I have great respect for made a complementary comment about me when I wasn’t there, there was probably no way I should have ever heard about it but it was relayed to me months later by someone that was there.

From J: Told me if I truly wanted a better life and better relationships I had to own my responsibility in my own pain.

From C: Friends of ours took our daughter in last minute when her housing for the summer in another town fell through. They aren’t letting her pay rent and are including her in their family life.

From L: Kept me as family.

From D: Lent us the use of their second home when we had a medical emergency in another state. They would not take a cent for anything, such good kind people, God bless them.

From K: A kind note and a $50 bill to treat us to dinner out when our kids were all 10 and under. Found between our doors on Christmas morning.

From F: I was a single parent. My daughter was not quite two, I lost my job, a kid hit my car and totaled it. I had an opportunity to go to college, but needed a car. A wonderful person sold me an orange Ford Pinto for $800 and let me pay $40 a month. Getting my degree changed my life, and it wouldn’t have happened without that person’s kindness!

I will say that it is not easy to be kind if we are ill or distressed. I remember in 8th grade, I had one of my spells of depression. I was standing by the water cooler crying.  Our teacher sent in the two nicest students to try to comfort me.  I threw water on them.  My personal experience is that depression distorts all perceptions and makes me strike out like a rattlesnake when help is offered.   

I share this with you as a warning to be conscious about choosing kindness over selfishness, over meanness, over anger.

It is easy enough to be kind when we are in neutral situations where there is not threat.But sometimes, kindness is not our first impulse. We want to punish or get even with someone who hurt us or someone whom we don’t like. 

One of my daughter’s classmates died at the age of 32. The funeral was packed with her classmates, both from high school and college.  One of the attendees seemed out of place.  This young man, John, had not been in Jessica’s circle of friends or in any activities with her.  Jessica’s mom thanked John for coming and he revealed that his presence was prompted by Jessica’s kindness to him when he was a student.  John was the kind of student others either bullied or ignored.  Jessica went the other direction and showed him kindness.

I want to try a little exercise with you. I received this in a daily devotional from a priest, Richard Rohr.

Begin by finding the place of loving kindness inside your heart (Christians might call this the indwelling Spirit).

Drawing upon this source of love, bring to mind someone you deeply care about, and send loving kindness toward them.

Now direct this love toward a casual friend or colleague, someone just beyond your inner circle.

Continue drawing from your inner source of loving kindness and let it flow toward someone about whom you feel neutral or indifferent, a stranger.

Remember someone who has hurt you or someone you struggle to like. Bless them. Send them your love.

Gather all these people and yourself into the stream of love and hold them here for a few moments.

Finally, let the flow of loving kindness widen to encompass all beings in the universe.

Fr. Rohr says that “The quality of loving kindness is already within you, but if you don’t practice daily and deliberately, it is unlikely that a year from now you will be any more loving.”  He suggests that “As you move into the world, find ways of extending loving kindness to yourself and others in practical ways. Remember that love is the very foundation of the universe. You are simply a conduit for the inflow and outflow of love.”

In other words, don’t let kindness happen as an afterthought. Seek out ways to be kind. Be alert to opportunities.

Let me share one other response to my Facebook question.

From D: Forgiveness of my sins.

Is that not the kindest thing anyone has every done for you, for me?  Jesus experienced life as a human, with all its joys and sorrows, with all its pleasures and discomforts. His kindness was surely one of the reasons he was so popular. But the ultimate act of kindness was doing something for us that we cannot do ourselves. He forgave, he forgives our sins. 

We can easily snap at someone, scold someone, or accuse someone. Let us practice kindness, even when we are challenged, in the name of our kindest Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

JOY Philemon 1: 1-7; 1-Matthew 28:1-10

Philemon Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.  I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

Matthew 28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

+++

Galatians 5: 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.

As we contemplate the fruit of the Spirit, it is interesting to note what didn’t make the list: thriftiness, cleanliness, independence, seriousness, success, wealth, work ethic. Yet these are values by which we are judged by the world. 

The fruit of the Spirit hold us to a different standard.

Joy is rooted in our being human and in our being created in God’s image. Joy is not the same as happiness. Frederick Buechner says that happiness is man-made, that it is something we try to make. 

How often have you tried to make someone happy? Have you ever tried to cheer up a friend? Have you ever given a friend a gift that you knew would delight them?  Have you ever denied your own happiness to make someone else happy? Happiness is something we can conjure with some extra thought and effort. Perhaps it is easier to make someone else happy than to make ourselves happy.  But we try.  How many people have found ways that provide a temporary fix?  Shopping for the fun of it. Eating because it feels good.  Running because it energizes us. Playing cards or hanging out with friends.  Going to ball games and concerts.  All of these can provide happiness, when we make the effort.  

Joy, on the other hand, appears without warning. Joy is not the result of trying or doing, but of knowing, of recognizing. Joy is deeper and can appear even in times of hardship and sorrow.

As you listen to me, I want you to multitask.  Let memories of your own moments of joy come to you as I share mine.

We feel joy when a child is born, even in the midst of worry and pain.  We feel joy when a child accomplishes something for the first time.  Let me give you an example:

My grandchildren visited me, along with their parents, for a couple days this past week.  One of the traditional activities is to spend the night in a tent in our backyard.  Aunt Mo had bought a new tent and she left it by the front door.  Charlie unpacked the tent, carried it down the stairs to the backyard and put the entire tent up all by himself. I felt such great joy in my heart watching this not-so-little-anymore kid do something so complicated.  He only paused to ask for a hammer and a glass of water. He methodically pounded all the anchors into the ground and did whatever else made it possible for him, his brother and his aunt to sleep under shelter for one night That brought me joy.

A year ago, we were in the midst of a pandemic that we didn’t understand and that frightened us in so many ways. I put together a mask-making “business” simply by asking for donations and volunteers.  I ended up with 240 “business partners.” Some donated fabric, some donated time, some donated prayers, some cut or sewed—we found a dozen ways to volunteer to make sure that the people who most needed masks would be able to have them.  My front porch became a workshop, my dining room became a warehouse and our Facebook page became a community. The joy that project brought to me still resonates every day. When I think back to last summer, it’s with joy that strangers came together as a community to help people they would never meet. I feel joy that I have new friends who have added so much to my life, who are still my friends today.  Truly, the joy from the project that was born out of panic and fear will never leave me or, I hope, those who participated.

I am telling you these personal stories because joy is personal. 

That’s one of the amazing things about God—God is not remote.  God is within us. 

Psalm 139 expresses this beautifully: 

7  Where can I go from your spirit?

    Or where can I flee from your presence?

8  If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9  If I take the wings of the morning

    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10  even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If God is within us, if the Spirit is within us, then the fruit of the Spirit are within us, waiting to be recognized at the right moments.

Joy might seem contradictory to the stereotype of a Christian: serious, always concentrating on the Ten Commandments—You shall not this, you shall not that.  It might seem that worship is a time to be serious, solemn. No smiling, no laughing, just concentrating.  Yet think of the joy we feel when we gather together. Think of the depth of that feeling when we could see each other, even if it was only on ZOOM. And the joy of being together in person—it is electric. There is something in the air that lifts us out of the ordinary and into another realm.  That is joy.

The texts I chose today, from Philemon and from Matthew, give us two different settings of joy.

In Matthew, we experience with the two Marys the joy brought about by great love and knowing that the object of that love is alive. How often have we experienced a similar joy when a loved one recovers from an illness or returns after a long absence, when we can once again embrace without fear of losing that person.  

In the letter to Philemon, we would not expect to find joy.  Paul is writing from prison. Roman prisons in the first century were underground, hot, and dark. The prisoners were chained together. Prisoners depended on family and friends to bring them food. Yet Paul writes: I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love.

Paul writes about the joy he feels, even in these horrid conditions.  That is the thing about joy—it supersedes pain, hardship, and injustice. 

Have you ever participated in a Black worship service or watched a video of one? Most evident to me, as I watch Black people worship, is the joy expressed in the music, in the praying.  Frankly, I haven’t seen that kind of joy in the worship services of my experience.  How is it that Black people, who leave that church to go back into a world that shows them more hate than love, how is it that they can so openly express joy?  Is it the Spirit? Is it the fruit of the Spirit, embraced openly and eagerly?  

We white folk do find joy in worship. I think music and singing brings us the most joy. The prelude, the hymns heighten our sense of the presence of God and the community of saints.  

Jesus encourages us to see the rules of the world as secondary to the rule of God,  the rule of Creation.  It’s not that we are encouraged to break laws. We follow manmade laws to protect ourselves and others. Ultimately, however, we are subject to and beneficiaries of the laws of Love: Love God. Love everybody. When we love, we receive joy.

Now, let us sit quietly and dwell on our joy. When, like Mary and Mary, have you been surprised by joy? When, like Paul, have you found joy in the midst of misery? Amen.  

Nicodemus John 3: 1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 

He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 

10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

+++

Today is Trinity Sunday.  It’s an awkward “holiday,” as it isn’t based on a  Biblical event. It is based on a concept and is the result of many men over many years trying to define God.     

For much of our belief system, we have to use figures of speech. Metaphors: Lamb of God. Similes:  God is like a mothering hen.  Adjectives: God is omnipotent. We define God using the same language system we use to define ourselves.  It’s all we have.  Truth be told, I’ve played with the idea of a Quadrinity, adding Sophia—Wisdom.   And we could keep adding “inities” because God is multidimensional. 

The passage about Nicodemus is chosen for this Sunday because in it, Jesus references all three manifestations of God.

16 “For God so loved the world —God the Father—that he gave his only Son, —God the Son. .

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.—God the Spirit.

Have you ever wondered how the writer of this Gospel knew the content of this conversation?  After all, Nicodemus came at night, after everyone else had retired for the day, all safe inside their homes. There is no mention of anyone else being in the room with Jesus.  So, from where did this information come?

The only source I can think of is Nicodemus himself.  

Nicodemus was a scholar, a Pharisee, who knew the Scriptures as well as anyone. What had the Scriptures promised the Jewish people for centuries? A Messiah.  Nicodemus came to Jesus with hope and with questions. Instead of answering his questions, Jesus forced Nicodemus to ask more questions. In fact, Jesus and Nicodemus used a popular form of discussion, the Socratic method.  The Socratic method is a cooperative way of discussing a topic. The participants, instead of lecturing each other, ask and answer questions about the topic. Two of the advantages of the Socratic method are that it inspires new ways of seeing a subject while revealing assumptions that may or may not be accurate. 

Nicodemus had to see being reborn in a new light.  Jesus pointed out that we are not just flesh and bones; we are spiritual people.   One of my favorite quotations is from French Priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: 

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.

That is, we are more spiritual than human. Our bodies simply provide a space for the “real us” to reside. 

Yet, our real bodies often lead us into temptation and sin. And for that reason, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Notice that God loved the world, the whole of creation—not just humans. We are a part of what God created.  If there was ever a call to protect the earth, that is it. But that digresses from Nicodemus’s story.  

This conversation was so important to Nicodemus that he shared it with other disciples. Jesus had already made a great impression on Nicodemus; otherwise he would not have risked meeting Jesus in person. He took the precaution of leaving his home after dark, making his way to where he thought Jesus was staying, risking being seen even in the dark. But he had to know. Perhaps he had prepared questions in his mind: Are you the Messiah? Can you prove to me who you are? 

He didn’t even get a chance to ask his questions before Jesus presents him with new questions.   “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus takes the conversation in an unexpected direction, not with the purpose of defeating Nicodemus in argument, but with the purpose of helping him to understand this totally different concept of the purpose of the Messiah.

We know that Nicodemus continued to follow Jesus. In John 7, at the time the temple police were being instructed to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up:  50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, 51 “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  and he was brave enough to assist in Jesus’s burial: Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. (John 19:39)

Nicodemus walked a risky line between his position as a prominent temple authority and as a follower of Jesus. He was challenged to rethink his entire religious education and practice. His conversion was as drastic as Paul’s, as fraught with conflict as Peter’s. And he had to learn to think in terms that ignored the obvious, everyday state of his existence: that he was flesh and blood, merely a body and a mind, working against the odds of common knowledge to accept a Messiah. 

We know that he accepted this Messiah, who defied all the expectations of a Jewish nation hoping for a political revolution. Instead, the revolution was one of the spirit, one unseen, like the wind.The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

As humans, we depend on our senses.  Nicodemus was using his senses to understand Jesus: no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus dismisses the signs: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  He dismisses the miracles, the acts that have made him famous, as unimportant.

How can we apply this to our lives?  It’s a matter knowing whether to put the horse before the cart or the cart before the horse.

One of my father’s favorite quotes was from Martin Luther. ““Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.” 

James says in his epistle: 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

We must first have faith.The Spirit inspires us, strengthens us, gives us courage. The Father creates us. The Son redeems us. We cannot walk in faith without acknowledging that our God is complicated, multi-faceted, and always available in ways that we don’t even know exist.  

The creeds and much of our language uses a chronological order to describe the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. First, Second, Third. But in fact, there is no order, no numbering, no quantity, no quality that distinguishes Father from Son from Holy Spirit. 

Like Nicodemus, we must examine our assumptions and continue to refresh our knowledge of God. Perhaps it is safe to take God for granted—until we forget God and let the sinful ways of the world dictate our thoughts and actions.  Unlike Nicodemus, we do not have to seek God when no one is looking. We do not have to worship in secret. May God protect those who do have to worship in secret.  

How can we emulate Nicodemus?  I think his greatest example to us is his curiosity. May we also continually ask questions, not because we doubt, but because we want to learn more.  May we have dialogues that teach us what we know and what we can learn. May we see God’s words as still living, not only in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but in our own lives.  Amen.  

Fruit of the Spirit Galatians 5: 13-26

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

+++

Today, Pentecost, is considered to be the birthday of the Christian Church. After Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, his disciples—the twelve and all the rest who followed him—were in limbo.  They could not go back to their former lives—their lives had been forever changed by Jesus.   As Jesus had ascended into heaven, two angels had appeared and instructed the discioples to wait for Jesus to return.   11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

So, they stayed together, waiting for Jesus. Imagine the anticipation, the hope that bound them together, waiting for Jesus. But ten days later, the return of Jesus was in a very different form. God appeared again, but not in the form of God’s son. This time, God appeared in the form of the Holy Spirit. That changed everything.  

If I had been one of the disciples, I would have expected Jesus to return in person, and I would have expected that we would all get back to listening to Jesus preach and teach.  Back to what was familiar. Back to what we had enjoyed and valued so much—the physical presence of Jesus. That’s what I would have expected.

In fact, the return of Jesus was not a return to the good ol’ days.  Instead, the return of God in the form of the Holy Spirit turned the world of the disciples upside down. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, they became the preachers and teachers. They became the leaders. The Holy Spirit blew through that room, lifted them beyond their own limitations and carried them out into the world.  And here we are, still being blown by that same Holy Spirit.

Where has the Holy Spirit blown you? What flames have appeared on your head that changed your life? How have you been transformed and inspired to leave the safety of your surroundings to be a disciple, a leader who leads others to Jesus?   

Pentecost is a good time for us to consider what the Holy Spirit calls us to do.  I have been fortunate enough to be called to serve as your pastor. I cannot emphasize enough how marvelous this calling is. But we cannot all be pastors. How does the Holy Spirit push you out into the world? How has the Holy Spirit empowered you?

Today’s text tells us what we have to enable us to be witness to the world. 

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.

Love.

Joy.

Peace. 

Patience.

Kindness.

Generosity.

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self-control.

This is a nice list, isn’t it. And how often we give ourselves credit for loving, for being patient, for being kind or generous. How often we pride ourselves on our self-control. But Paul lists them after he lists their opposites, which, when faced with adversity or contradiction, we often revert to:

19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

Fornication—that is sexual sins

Impurity 

disregard for the law

love of money, love of power

trusting in good luck or our own judgement

holding on to feelings of hate or jealousy

unresolved anger

holding on to grudges and quarrels and biases

wanting more than we need

partying to escape

Paul holds up the fruits as the opposite of these tendencies, these temptations.  Because of our sinful nature, because it is often so much easier to sin than to resist, accepting the fruits of the Spirit takes effort. 

To seek love over desire takes effort. 

To seek the deepness of joy over whatever amuses us takes effort.

To seek peace over convenience takes effort.

To offer kindness instead of judgement takes effort.

To offer generosity over jealousy takes effort.

To remain faithful takes continuous practice and attention.

To be gentle requires seeing each person as a child of God.

To have self-control—to think about the consequences of our actions—takes effort. 

Wouldn’t it be nice to automatically feel love for each Child of God?

Wouldn’t it be nice to automatically experience deep joy, the contentment that comes from recognizing God’s gifts to us?

Would’t it be nice to feel peace instead of anxiety every time we are challenged with change?

But we are not robots.  We have feelings and emotions. We are able to, we are wired to make decisions. The fruit of the Holy Spirit are the tools we have to be the people God created. God loves us. God finds joy in us.  God brings peace. God is kind and generous and gentle. Why else would God send the Son he loved as much as any parent loves a child to save us—each of us a mere blip in the population of humanity. God makes manifest in us those fruit, if we are willing to use them.

My father chose, in the last years of his life, to focus on one fruit each year. He practiced, in consecutive years, love, generosity, patience. He was at a time in his life when he could devote himself more intentionally to his faith and to Scripture. The last year of his life was marked by patience and he taught us how to be patient, too.

I have always admired that practice of his.  There are many ways for us to practice our faith. Some choose to read the Bible straight through from beginning to end. Some choose to worship at church every Sunday. Some choose to pray before every meal.  Some choose to witness to their friends and neighbors.  I would like us, as a congregation to choose a focus for a period of time.  I thought about each of us choosing our own fruit, but I think the power of the Holy Spirit would be more evident if we share the same goal, the same fruit, the same practice.  For seven years—or even seven weeks—we could put our energy into love or joy or patience, as a group. This will take some planning on my part and some engagement on your part.

We are not helpless; we have the strength of the Holy Spirit to carry us forward. We don’t have to invent love or joy or patience. God has provided these fruits, these tools, these realities to us. 

On this day a couple thousand years ago, God appeared in a form that has carried the church forward and has made the love of God the strongest force in the world. We see much evidence of sin in the world and we sometimes wonder why God doesn’t step in and abolish sin.  God has defeated sin in its most ugly and terrifying manifestation. God has defeated death. In the meantime, we, individually and together, defeat sin one person, one thought, one word, one act at a time, when we share the love of God with those who are missing God’s love. Sometimes it is we ourselves, the people in the pews, who lose sight of God. That is why God gives us community—to always be strengthening each other. 

In this space, we know that we can find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and, yes, even self-control. Let us each be carried away by the power of the Holy Spirit to bear fruit in the world, ugly and frightening as it may be. May we be the ones to bring beauty to the earth. Amen. 

What About the Law? Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

 Galatians 3:1-10  The Message

You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a spell on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set before you clearly enough.

2-4 Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!

5-6 Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you? Don’t these things happen among you just as they happened with Abraham? He believed God, and that act of belief was turned into a life that was right with God.

7-8 Is it not obvious to you that persons who put their trust in Christ (not persons who put their trust in the law!) are like Abraham: children of faith? It was all laid out beforehand in Scripture that God would set things right with non-Jews by faith. Scripture anticipated this in the promise to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed in you.”

9-10 So those now who live by faith are blessed along with Abraham, who lived by faith—this is no new doctrine! And that means that anyone who tries to live by his own effort, independent of God, is doomed to failure. Scripture backs this up: “Utterly cursed is every person who fails to carry out every detail written in the Book of the law.”

23-24 Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

25-27 But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.

28-29 In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.

 +++

Surely we understand God’s grace better than the first Gentile Christians. Surely we know the difference between being good people and being Christians.  And yet, I think we, like the Galatians, have to have it spelled out for us from time to time.

The Gentile converts were put in the position of having to follow all Jewish traditions, which included following all the laws. Like so many people, the Jewish people put great store in the law.  If one followed all the commandments, that pleased God and God would have mercy on them. (FYI, that is bad or wrong theology, but it is human nature to think like that).

From Cradle Roll on, we learn the ten commandments.  We hear Bible stories that glorify people doing good things—feeding people, healing people, helping people. It’s no wonder that we think we have to do good things to please God, to earn God’s love and grace.

In fact, we cannot ever do enough to earn God’s grace. We can never be perfect enough to warrant God’s mercy. We are, sad to say, sinners.  Even though we are created in the image of a sinless God, we sin. Every day.  Thoughts.  Words.  Deeds.

 It’s funny how following the Law becomes an obsession with us. The thing is, we often worry more about how other people follow the law. We’re more aware of the sins of others than we are of our own.  How often do you watch the news or exchange local gossip and automatically convert all the wrongs in the world into all the sins of the people in the news or the neighborhood? 

Am I the only one who does that?  Some of my friends, for instance, think that police brutality would end if everybody would just obey the law.  Some of my friends think that if everybody would get a job, the economy would right itself. Some of my friends believe that government is the answer; some of my friends believe that government is the problem. Some of my friends believe that unemployment benefits provide financial stability; some of my fiends believe that unemployment benefits make people lazy.  

Where do the Ten Commandments come in? Love God. Love your neighbor.  What does love look like? How does God know that I love God?  Think about the Ten Commandments as a mirror. If I look into that mirror, what do I see? If this mirror is made honestly, I see myself as worshipping God, as paying attention to God, as keeping God at the forefront of my efforts and desires.  I see myself honoring parents and children and the unique relationship among families.  I see myself being satisfied with what I have. I see myself treating people kindly and seeing the good in everyone, from the screaming baby to the angry politician. At least that’s what I want to see. Sometimes I see myself trying to get along without God, trying to use my own human logic to solve problems.  Sometimes I see myself judging others, looking for their faults, criticizing their decisions. Sometimes I want more than I need. Sometimes I am afraid to share, for fear that I will have to do without.  Sometimes I find family and marriage to be too confining, too demanding.  Sometimes I daydream about what could be instead of being thankful for what is.

And what does God see when God sees Dianne looking in the mirror of God’s laws?

God sees someone lovable, someone with potential, someone made in God’s image. God sees the person God created to love and be loved.  

God sees someone who has no hope of being perfect, no hope of keeping every commandment. So what did God do? God sent the perfect Son to be not only God, but also to be human.  That Son, Jesus, walked the same paths we walk, felt the same “feels” we feel, and, because he did not sin, was able to conquer sin. He did not conquer sin for himself or for God. He conquered sin for us, so that we could, despite our obvious guilt, could be united with God forever. 

Do we need the Law, the Ten Commandments?  Yes.  We need to review everyday what it means to be freed from sin.  When we are freed from sin, we are freed to love God and love our neighbor.  The commandments show us how. We don’t have to depend on our own judgment, we don’t have to depend on the laws that society or the government has written, to show our love for God and for all of God’s children.

If God, who is perfect beyond imagination can love us, surely it is worth the effort to acknowledge God’s great mercy and love to our fullest capacity. 

It is easy to think that “being good” is all it takes to please God.  We don’t have to please God. God loves us unconditionally.  You may have had to please your teacher, your parents, your spouse, your boss. God doesn’t want to be pleased. God wants to be worshipped. God wants to be honored.  God wants to be adored.  And God gives it right back to us in grace and mercy and unconditional love.  Amen.

Adiaphora Acts 15:1-18

15 Some people came from Judea and started teaching the Lord’s followers that they could not be saved, unless they were circumcised as Moses had taught. This caused trouble, and Paul and Barnabas argued with them about this teaching. So it was decided to send Paul and Barnabas and a few others to Jerusalem to discuss this problem with the apostles and the church leaders.

The men who were sent by the church went through Phoenicia and Samaria, telling how the Gentiles had turned to God. This news made the Lord’s followers very happy. When the men arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, including the apostles and the leaders. They told them everything God had helped them do. But some Pharisees had become followers of the Lord. They stood up and said, “Gentiles who have faith in the Lord must be circumcised and told to obey the Law of Moses.”

The apostles and church leaders met to discuss this problem about Gentiles. They had talked it over for a long time, when Peter got up and said:

My friends, you know that God decided long ago to let me be the one from your group to preach the good news to the Gentiles. God did this so that they would hear and obey him. He knows what is in everyone’s heart. And he showed that he had chosen the Gentiles, when he gave them the Holy Spirit, just as he had given his Spirit to us. God treated them in the same way that he treated us. They put their faith in him, and he made their hearts pure.

10 Now why are you trying to make God angry by placing a heavy burden on these followers? This burden was too heavy for us or our ancestors. 11 But our Lord Jesus was kind to us, and we are saved by faith in him, just as the Gentiles are.

12 Everyone kept quiet and listened as Barnabas and Paul told how God had given them the power to work a lot of miracles and wonders for the Gentiles.

13 After they had finished speaking, James said:

My friends, listen to me! 14 Simon Peter has told how God first came to the Gentiles and made some of them his own people. 15 This agrees with what the prophets wrote,

16  “I, the Lord, will return and rebuild David’s fallen house.
I will build it from its ruins and set it up again.

17  Then other nations will turn to me and be my chosen ones.
I, the Lord, say this. 18 I promised it long ago.”

+++

I learned a new word in seminary: adiaphora. Adiaphora means simply those things which are neither commanded by Scripture nor forbidden by Scripture.

What things are commanded by Scripture?  Love God.  Love your neighbor. 

But church as we know it is a lot more than commandments.

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “church?”

A building with a steeple?  Sunday morning worship? A congregation?

Stained glass windows?  Organ music? 

The first churches met in homes.  No steeples, no stained glass windows, no organs. Worship was on Sunday morning because that was the day Jesus rose from the dead. That practice has remained with us. Many of us believe we can’t start a new week without worship.  

What it means to be church, to do church has changed over the centuries.  For those of us who were born into the church, the practices and traditions seem necessary. For those who came to church for the first time as adults, the practices may seem strange and superfluous. For those who worshipped for the first time as children, worship can seem boring. 

Let’s look at some of our practices.

Let’s look first at our building.  What makes this building different from other buildings in town?

The stained glass windows. The altar.  The table. The pulpit. The organ. The balcony. Do you know of many buildings with an inside balcony? How about the pews? Where else would pews be considered proper seating?  Imagine a movie theater with pews instead of cushioned seats.  Why did our ancestors in the faith put out the big bucks for stained glass windows and pews and an organ?  

And what about worship?  Why do we sing?  Why do we always have an invocation, a confession and absolution? Why do we always not only collect money, but dedicate it?  We read scripture—that makes sense—but why do we need a sermon?  Why do we say the same prayer every Sunday?   

And what about holidays? Why do we have a Christmas Eve service and not a Pentecost Eve service?  Why do we have Lenten services? 

What about committees and councils? What about Sunday School? What about funerals and weddings? 

What are we talking about here?  Let’s call all these practices traditions.

Why do we cling to traditions?  Because we know them. They are familiar, comforting—stress-free, really.  No surprises. No having to learn something new. No upsetting routines.

So, this idea of adiaphora—-can we sort out what is commended and what is not commended? Our guidebook is Scripture, of course.   Where in the Bible does it say that our churches must have stained glass windows?  Nowhere, of course. So why do we need stained glass windows?  Short answer: we don’t. Long answer: they serve a purpose. 

Starting in the 11th century stained glass windows became a part of church architecture.  The first church to have such windows was the cathedral in Augsburg, Germany. Windows could be made larger because of the gothic architecture; the light they let in was considered to be the manifestation of God.   The subject matter of the windows was Bible stories, which served as Scripture for the people who could not read and who did not have access to printed Scripture. Most church windows still tell stories, still teach us lessons, still remind of us of who and Whose we are. 

What about the pews?  Up through the 13th Century, churches were SRO—standing room only—-nowhere and no way to sit. However, after the Reformation, the sermon became the most prominent feature of the worship service and pews were added so that people could sit during that long feature.  Can you imagine having to stand during the sermon? or during the entire service? 

In our Scripture today, the leaders of the church had to make a decision that was much more controversial than what kind of seating to provide.  

God had instructed Abraham centuries before that, as a sign of belonging to God’s people, all males should be circumcised. This became a physical mark of Jewishness and still is. In the days of Peter and Paul, Gentiles—non-Jewish persons—were not circumcised.  Because Christianity was the manifestation of Jewish prophecy, because Jesus and his followers were Jewish, and because Gentile Christians followed the Ten Commandments and read Jewish Scripture, maybe they should also have to follow other Jewish rules, like not eating pork or shrimp, and, of course, circumcision.  Underlying this concern was how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could interact with each other. What if someone brought pork chops to the potluck?  Would that be disgusting to any Jewish Christians? Do you have a food you don’t like that makes you lose your appetite? For some of us, the smell of liver and onions can make us ill. It’s not a matter of nutrition; it’s a matter of courtesy. To serve something that is knowingly distasteful to someone else is rude. 

That was the task set before the Jerusalem council. What is necessary and what is not necessary? By the way, this meeting is the perfect example of how to conduct any church meetings when there is controversy.  We’ll save that for another sermon. How many church meetings should have used Acts 15 alongside Roberts Rules of Order!  

Adiaphora—that which doesn’t make any difference—-theologically.  But in practice, some adiaphora—some of our traditions—must be kept.  

I had an hour-long interview with some very knowledgeable church people last Wednesday.  One of the things we discussed was that I don’t use the liturgy in our hymnal. In our Lutheran tradition, liturgy is a very important part of worship. Every song, every sung and spoken phrase is lifted straight from Scripture. They are not the words of a poet of the most recent century; they are Bible verses.  In most Lutheran churches, the same liturgy is sung every Sunday.  In our congregation, I have made a different choice.  I build a different liturgy every Sunday. We seldom have two worship services exactly alike.  I do that for two reasons: first, the liturgy is challenging to sing and, second, singing the same thing every Sunday can become rote, that is we lose the meaning and just sing out of habit.  However, there is an advantage to those words becoming embedded in our brains: they are instantly accessible whenever we need the Word of God int times of trouble or joy. 

When I was a child, we sang words from Psalm 51 every Sunday as the offering was carried to the altar: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence.” How often those words pop into my mind and I’m so thankful that I still know them.  I wouldn’t know them if I had’t sung them fifty-two times a year for twenty years.  So, perhaps I’m doing you a disservice by giving you prayers every week that are new to you.  Why do I give you new prayers, new words? Because you have to really look at them to be able to say them, to be able to understand them. 

Which brings up another topic: why do we need music?  We don’t, but what it adds to our worship!  And hymns! I truly think most Christians learn their theology not from Scripture and sermon, but from the hymns.  Because of the way hymns are structured—with rhythm and rhyme, they do stick in our minds.  And, more importantly, they are the word of God. Hymns reflect the Scripture.  Not everybody knows this, but the pastor always chooses hymns to reflect, repeat and emphasize the Scripture for the day.  Every hymn has as its basis words from Scripture. In some hymnals, the Scripture reference is listed next to the author and composer.  It’s that important. 

So, all these parts of our service—could we worship without stained glass windows?  Yes.Could we worship without music?   Could we worship by sitting in some other kind of seating? I have a friend whose church is a storefront and he has rocking chairs, folding chairs, upholstered chairs, recliners.  How often I have wished we had recliners instead of pews for people whose backs hurt during the whole service.

What we have to remember is that though something may seem unnecessary, it is helpful: helpful for the instruction of scripture. Helpful in directing us to worship God. Helpful for us to center our minds away from the world, away from everyday life, and toward God. John Wesley had a good rule of thumb. He said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Granted, our fancy buildings have become a financial burden. But they help us to worship.  One other thing that is absolutely necessary to Christianity is community. We cannot be Christians without being together. Even if we cannot be together in a building, we have learned to accept electronic community via applications like ZOOM. 

We have learned that from the pandemic. In fact, the pandemic has helped us to sort out what is necessary and what is not necessary. We have learned that community is what we miss most when we are forced to remain apart. We have had access to Scripture and song and prayer. We have been able to love our neighbor through phone calls and donations to charities and rides to the doctor. But to worship in person, to be praying together, to someday return to singing together, to be able to hear the Word of God together—we have reached a new level of thankfulness.  

Phyllis Tickle wrote a great book about the state of the church in the late 20th-early 21st Century.  She titled it The Great Emergence. It’s not about cicadas emerging from their beds after seventeen years of sleep. It’s about the church emerging from 500 years of tradition.  She says the church has a “rummage sale” every 500 years—sorting through what we are and have and do, discarding what is no longer purposeful and keeping only what enables us to faithfully be Christians.

What do we keep?  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism.  The forgiveness of sins.  Life everlasting.

How do we keep our faith? Through the sharing of our faith in Community with Scripture and Worship and through the Sacraments.

Our traditions do not bring us salvation. Martin Luther gave us good reason to embrace our traditions: “We cheerfully maintain the old traditions made in the Church for the sake of usefulness and peace.” Our traditions give us structure and order and peace of mind so that distractions and obstacles are removed and we can worship as the whole People of God. Thanks be to God for what we have, adiaphora or not.  Amen.

“How Can I Understand Unless Someone Guides Me?” Acts 8:26-39

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 

27 So he got up and went. 

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. 

He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 

29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 

30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. 

He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 3

1 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” 

And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 

32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.

33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. 

Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The Ethiopian asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 

35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 

36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the Ethiopian said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the Ethiopian, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 

39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the Ethiopian saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  

 +++

Some one asked me, “Do you have a personal credo that guides you?”  Yes, I do. Tattooed across the inside of my head is the mantra, “Bloom where you are planted.”  In other words, don’t look for greener grass.  Don’t wait for a better opportunity.  Just do the best you can with what you have and where you are.  

So here I am in a pulpit in a small town that is just twenty miles from a larger town where two children were deliberately shot in the back alley behind Larry and Wilma’s house.  Bloom where you are planted.  How am I supposed to bloom, and more importantly, how do I help you to bloom through this tragedy?

I’m assuming none of us knew those boys who were riding their bikes through the alley, just like hundreds of kids before them for as long as that alley has been there; Kevin and Michael Johannsen rode their bikes through that alley when they were kids.  There is nothing remarkable about that particular alley, except that it runs behind Wilma and Larry’s house. 

There was nothing remarkable until bullets went flying and children were frightened and hurt and killed. It became a crime scene. Police cars and firetrucks and ambulances and frightened and angry people appeared out of nowhere and Larry couldn’t even put the van in the garage. And a mother couldn’t tuck her child into bed that night.  

This is personal.

This is a test.

Who is my neighbor?  

Jesus asked that one day, a long time ago. The question still haunts us.  My neighbor lives next door.  My neighbor lives down the street.  My neighbor lives around the corner.  My neighbor lives across the road.  My neighbor lives across the field.  My neighbor lives across town.  

Where do we stop?  

What does Jesus mean by neighbor?  According to the parable of the Good Samaritan, a neighbor is defined by need. The one who needs me is my neighbor.  That is a very different definition from our conventional use of the word. For us, neighbor is connected to location.

Jesus erases those boundaries and leaves us wide open to exposure to all kinds of “neighbors.”

Who is my neighbor? The sins of our culture, of our society, have built boundaries and alienated us from our neighbors.  The boundaries have been created from skin color, from economic status, from language, from faith practices. Skin color in itself is not a boundary.  Economic status is not a boundary.  How we speak our native tongue is not a boundary. Our choice of religious practice is not a boundary.  But like a tree or a stone, someone else has taken those elements and made them into walls that seem impenetrable. 

This is a test.  God does not test us.  Sin tests us.  Never think that God is holding you up against some standard that you can never meet.  It is sin that tests us; God has the answer sheet.

This is a test.  Sin, evil, tempts us to give in, to see only suffering and injustice, to see only guns and bullets, to see only anger and danger. Sin is not the answer. Sin is not the standard. Sin is the mischief maker, the culprit, the tempter, the villain, the abuser. 

We do not face sin alone.  God stands right beside us, unbeaten, unwavering, unalterable.

This is a test.  The most important question in the world is “Who is my neighbor?”

Was the boy killed behind Larry and Wilma’s house their neighbor?

Was he your neighbor?  Was he my neighbor?

In today’s scripture, Phillip and the Ethiopian are definitely not neighbors.  They are strangers separated by physical differences, by calling, by geography, by status.  And yet, they are, for a short time neighbors, sharing the word of God.

An important Ethiopian official happened to be going along that road in his chariot. He was the chief treasurer for Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. The official had gone to Jerusalem to worship 28and was now on his way home. He was sitting in his chariot, reading the book of the prophet Isaiah.

[Phillip} asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 3

1 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

“How can I, unless someone guides me?”

 God sent Phillip to guide the Ethiopian, to help him to understand the prophecy of Isaiah, to learn about the fulfilment of the prophecy, to be moved by the Spirit to accept Jesus as the Messiah.  

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian. 

The story doesn’t end with baptism.  The death and resurrection of Jesus does more than free us from sin. We are freed from sin to love our neighbor. 

How did that baptism change the Ethiopian’s life?  We’ll never know.

We do know that baptism can change our lives, that we have been changed and charged to be witnesses and workers in this place and time. 

As we watch horrific events take place far away and close to home, how can we witness to the salvific grace of God?  

Wilma walked down to the group of grieving friends and family yesterday to offer her condolences. Wilma saw what we do not see on the evening news: the faces of those who are mourning, the faces of those who are hurt and angry and frustrated because another child, a child from their family, from their neighborhood, has died.  It doesn’t matter now how or why he died.  He’s dead. He leaves behind parents, cousins, classmates, teachers.

How do we witness in such a world?

Who will cross our path like the Ethiopian crossed Phillip’s path?

We, in this congregation, are far removed from the news we see on television. The big news this week has been the conviction of a person who killed another person.  Is that man my neighbor? 

When Jesus told us that we should love our neighbor, did he have a certain radius in mind, like everyone within ten miles, a hundred miles?

My gut feeling is that Jesus was not talking about boundaries.  Knowing how all-encompassing Jesus’s love is for all of humanity, I’m thinking we are asked to love all of humanity.

How can we love people we’ll never meet? 

What if we start with our thoughts?  

We live in a time of sharp divisions.  It used to be that the most serious rivalries we experienced were the Bears versus the Packers or the ‘Clones versus the Hawks. Now mention “guns” or “vaccine” and suddenly you’re labeled and shoved in one box or another, without an opportunity to be neutral or undecided. And the people in the other box become anything but your neighbor.

What if we change our thinking about our neighbor who collects guns or gets a vaccine? What if we think about our neighbor as a person who lives and loves and struggles and laughs and prays just like we do?  

What if I think of the people I lump together as growing and blooming where they are planted?

What if I think of them as individuals, each created in the image of God?

What if I lay aside my well-earned biases and see a reflection of myself in each individual?  

What do people who see me for the first time, up close or from a distance, really see?  An old lady, with messy hair, who has had too many desserts and would come in last in a foot race. That’s not the way you see me, because you know me, but to anyone else, “nothing to see here; move along.”

What if we were able to look into the face of the one who is the Ethiopian or Norwegian, the one who is a foreigner or the neighbor who never waves as he drives by, the one who is richer or poorer, the one who is ugly or drop-dead gorgeous and see that person, not through our own eyes, hardened and narrowed by the world, but through the eyes of Jesus?  

What does Jesus see when he runs through an alley with boys riding their bikes? Who does Jesus see when he looks into the eyes and heart of a man with a gun who must pull a trigger? Who does Jesus see when he watches an official sign a piece of paper that removes or delivers the rights of others?

Who does Jesus see when he looks into the face of a man or woman sentenced to prison?  Who does Jesus see when he listens to angry profanities shouted from mouth of a man or woman?  Who does Jesus see when he looks into the heart of a man who abuses his wife, when he looks into the sou of a woman who neglects her children?  Who does Jesus see when he walks with the policeman or the person who walks constantly in fear? 

Jesus sees the image of God.  Jesus sees the goodness in that person. 

What if I, the greatest of sinners, remember that I am created in the same image as the person who frustrates me, as the person who angers me, as the person who threatens me?  What if I remember that my thoughts are as prone to sin as my words and actions?  What if I clean up my thoughts….then what?

Thoughts lead to words, do they not? What if my conversation reflects the intention of the Eighth Commandment? 

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.16 What does this mean? — Answer.
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

What if we give our neighbor—the one we have’t ever met, the one we’ll never approach, the neighbor whose life is so different from ours that we can’t understand it—that neighbor—what if we only defend him, think and speak well of him, and give him the benefit of the doubt.  

We don’t have to judge, although our sinful nature always butts in and compares “those people” to our own standards. We don’t have to condemn—someone else will take care of that.  We only—only—  have to see them as a sibling in Christ.  

Don’t tell me you’re only human, that, of course, you can’t help thinking of “those people” —the billionaires, the politicians, the people who live west of Brady,  the people who live in “government housing,”  the tree huggers, the refugees, as losers and cheaters, as lazy and stupid.  You are human which means you  are made in the image of God.  You can control your thoughts and your words and your actions.

Each of us is a marvelous creation of God.  And here’s something to remember: God didn’t abandon us after he created us.  We’re not like some Barbie doll that’s lying at the back of the closet with tangled hair and one leg. We are still very much cared for, always very much loved, and understood by God better than we understand ourselves.  

God cares about us and loves us and respects us.  Love is something that is meant to be returned. How do we return our love to God? By loving God’s creation, God’s people.  How do we show that love? Thought. Word.  Deed.  

How? When?  Phillip didn’t wake up that morning planning to ride in a chariot with a man who was not from his neighborhood, not from his community.  But when that stranger needed help, Phillip said, “OK!”  

Phillip did not say, “He’s rich and stuck up, his skin is black, he’s a foreigner.” Phillip didn’t say, “Not my problem.” Phillip said “OK!” Phillip said, “Let me help you.” And a mile down the road, Phillip and the Ethiopian hopped out of the chariot and another child of God was baptized.

Sin tests us. God gives us the answer. Love your neighbors, even if you don’t know them. Amen.

Never Absent; Always Present Luke 24:1-12

24 Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, carrying the spices that they had prepared. 

2 When they found the stone rolled away from the entrance, 3 they went in. 

But they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus, 4 and they did not know what to think.

Suddenly two men in shining white clothes stood beside them. 

5 The women were afraid and bowed to the ground. 

But the men said, “Why are you looking in the place of the dead for someone who is alive?

 6 Jesus isn’t here! 

He has been raised from death. 

Remember that while he was still in Galilee, he told you, 7 ’The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners who will nail him to a cross. But three days later he will rise to life.’ “ 

8 Then they remembered what Jesus had said.

9-10 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women were the ones who had gone to the tomb. 

When they returned, they told the eleven apostles and the others what had happened. 

11 The apostles thought it was all nonsense, and they would not believe.

12 But Peter ran to the tomb. 

And when he stooped down and looked in, he saw only the burial clothes. 

Then he returned, wondering what had happened.

+++

Nothing has changed since last Easter.

Oh, sure, we didn’t meet in person last Easter.

We have a different president.  The ice caps are melting faster.  Babies have been born. People have died.

ZOOM is now a household word.

We wear masks.

But nothing important has changed since last Easter Sunday. The tomb is still empty. Jesus is still the conquerer of death. 

The women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women, expected to perform one last act of love for their dead friend. 

They had had no opportunity to prepare Jesus’s body for his final resting place. They knew what to do; they would use perfumes and spices to anoint the body, wrap it in cloth and put a special cloth over the face.  At a normal death, the body would remain at the person’s home for a visitation, much like our visitations at funeral homes.  Jesus’s death was not normal; he was taken down from the cross and buried immediately. 

Matthew’s Gospel tells it this way: 

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The Gospel according to John tells us that Jesus had already been anointed: 

39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

Regardless of which report is 100% accurate, the women needed to do this one last caring thing for their friend. Perhaps they knew that usually women prepared the body, that men did not. Joseph and Nicodemus probably didn’t do it exactly right, so they needed to go in to make sure Jesus was properly buried. As it turned out, the perfumes and spices and clothes weren’t needed.  Jesus wasn’t dead.  There was no body.  

What was their first thought? That the body had been stolen?  That was the fear of chief priests and the Pharisees; they convinced Pilate to  have the stone at the entrance sealed and to have soldiers posted to guard the tomb. 

Imagine! All the efforts of men to make sure that Jesus would no longer be a threat to the establishments of the Roman Empire and the Jewish community were for naught.  The authorities, both secular and religious, did everything they could to silence Jesus. Jesus could not and cannot be silenced.  

What does this mean for us?  

It means that we are freed from sin, freed from death, freed from our mortality. Those are abstract ideas, but we Christians cherish our freedom.  We did not earn this freedom, we did not fight for this freedom.  This freedom is a gift, given without any conditions attached.  

To be freed from our sin frees us to love as Jesus loved. That is what it means for our earthly life.  Jesus not only showed us what love looks like, as he helped and healed and cheered the people of Galilee.  Jesus did more than free us to be the force of love in the world.  

Jesus freed us from death. That is hard for us to imagine. We still die; we still prepare bodies for burial, so what does it mean to be freed from death? We do try to imagine what life after death will be.  We hear stories of people who have died and been resuscitated.  Usually, the people describe meeting God or angels or the people from their family who have been dead for a few years.  

That glimpse of heaven—we call that place we go to after death, heaven—is comforting because it sounds familiar.  Dying is frightening because all we have ever known is life. Even when life is painful, it is preferable to death. Why else do we seek cures for every disease? Why else are we lining up to get vaccines?  Why else do we give money to the American Cancer Society and similar organizations?  We fear death. And yet, Jesus gives us a reason to ignore that fear and look forward to something better. 

We observed the four-year anniversary of my father’s death this past week.  I wrote a little tribute to him that included this:   

I have no doubt that the saints wander among us, seeing only the beauty in our lives.  Thanks be to God for this marvelous creation and for the miracle of human life, which continues even after death, without the sorrow.

I can say this because I know that my father and all the people I’ve loved have or will move from this life to a new life.  I know this because I believe what Jesus did and what Jesus said are meant for me as much as they were meant for the men who put him in the tomb, as much as they were meant for the women at the tomb.

I find great comfort in thinking that the saints walk among us, that heaven is wherever they are.  I cannot prove this; it is only my idea, but let me tell you a story about my cousin, Jane, her mother, Anna, and her daughter-in-law, Nancy.

 Anna’s mother was my great grandmother. Anna’s daughter Jane, is a good friend, as well as my cousin. Jane told me about a visit from Anna—after Anna died. Anna did not visit Jane.  She visited Jane’s daughter-in-law, Nancy.  Nancy had only met Anna once, so it was surprising that she would dream about Anna. But it seems that it was not so much Nancy dreaming as it was Anna visiting Nancy in her dream.  Here is the other part to the story.

When Anna died, Jane came back from Ohio to Muscatine to close up Anna’s house. She chose a few things to take with her, including a plate with roses on it. When she returned home, she hung the plate on the wall of her home.  In Jane’s words: 

Nancy seemed so unlikely.    But what do I know? I believe this was the last plate of the set that didn’t have a chip in it.  I brought it because I always liked how those dishes went so well in the kitchen. After I hung the plate, Ron was the only person who saw it, and neither of us told anyone.  (He wouldn’t anyway.  It is not a guy thing!) The plate still hangs there and makes me smile every day.   

What did Anna tell Nancy in the dream?  She told Nancy to tell Jane she liked where she hung the plate.  Anna was dead.  Nancy had only met Anna once.  Nancy lived in New Hampshire.  Anna is buried in Muscatine.  Jane lives in Ohio.  But Anna saw that Jane took the plate from the house on Cedar Street and took it to the house in Ohio.

So, in my mind, the saints, freed from death by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are with us.

Likewise, Jesus is with us.  We proclaim that when we celebrate Holy Communion.  Jesus said “Remember me,” but Jesus is more than a memory for us. 

Barb Hedges-Goettl, a Presbyterian pastor and liturgical scholar, expands on this idea.

Since the Ascension, while believing in the Resurrection, we too are witnesses to an “absent” Jesus with regard to his body.  In the Church, we live out the words about the Word through the preaching of the Word. In the Church, we participate in the absent, ascended, resurrected Jesus through sharing in the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  And, in the world, we live out our witness to the Word and to the resurrected Christ by speaking of God’s selfless love and by acting in selfless love as the body of Christ.

The first and last people to expereince something really, really new on this day were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women.  What those women saw was a change that would change the world.  

Since then, that empty tomb has remained empty and Jesus Christ has remained risen. 

Michal Beth Dinkler, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School says exactly what I believe, exactly what I want you to hear and believe: 

The women’s experience, and their response to it, remind us that when we love God, neighbor, and ourselves with our words and our actions, we render Christ visible in a world where the divine all too often seems absent. We draw community together, instead of being pulled apart by fear, confusion, grief, and distress. When we do that—draw attention to a deeper reality that is often hard to remember or believe—God is still present and working in the world. Death does not, and will not, have the last word. That good news—that gospel—is what Christians proclaim when we say that Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.

The resurrected Christ gives us so much that it is hard to realize it in the space of one sermon, in the space of one Holy Holiday, in the space of four Gospels.  

We are who we are, not because of where or when we were born, not because of what a few pieces of paper say about us or what a few people say about us.  We are who we are, because we believe in God the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who died for us, who conquered death for us, and in the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. We walk in the presence of the Triune God, and the Triune God walks in our presence.  What greater joy, what greater comfort, what greater strength can there be than to say to each other “He is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” Amen.

Destination Phillipians 2: 1-12; Luke 19:28-44

Phillipians 2 Christ encourages you, and his love comforts you. God’s Spirit unites you, and you are concerned for others. 2 Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other. Be united in what you think, as if you were only one person. 3 Don’t be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. 4 Care about them as much as you care about yourselves 5 and think the same way that Christ Jesus thought:

6  Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain
    equal with God.

7  Instead he gave up everything
    and became a slave,
when he became
    like one of us.

8  Christ was humble.
He obeyed God
and even died
    on a cross.

9  Then God gave Christ
    the highest place
and honored his name
    above all others.

10  So at the name of Jesus
    everyone will bow down,
those in heaven, on earth,
    and under the earth.

11  And to the glory
    of God the Father
everyone will openly agree,
    “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

12 My dear friends, you always obeyed when I was with you. Now that I am away, you should obey even more. So work with fear and trembling to discover what it really means to be saved. 13 God is working in you to make you willing and able to obey him.

Luke 19: 28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 

35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,

“Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

+++ 

What is the difference between a parade and a procession?  That is the first thing we need to figure out when we try to reconstruct Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

A parade is organized, planned, scheduled.  A procession can be planned and scheduled.   

So what is the difference?  As the director of DeWitt’s Fourth of July parade, I can tell you that a parade is about showing off and celebrating. A procession is about getting from one place to another.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was not scheduled. It was not organized.  Jesus was not showing off.  If he had been, he’d have found something besides a donkey to ride into town.  A chariot would have been the choice of some of his contemporaries. In fact, there was a procession entering from the opposite side of town, at the same time, a procession of Roman soldiers and dignitaries.  People watching that were getting a bigger bang for their buck with all the imposing chariots and the beautiful horses draped in metal and leather.  And the soldiers themselves would have been dressed uniformly, much better than Jesus and his followers.  

So, if a procession has a beginning point and ending point, what were those points for Jesus.  Exactly when did this procession start?  On a morning a few days before Jesus execution? Or did it start earlier?

I propose that it started at Creation.  Jesus, as part of the Trinity, as God the Son, was present at Creation.  Jesus was present when sin came into the world.  The minute sin became an option for humans, Jesus was on a mission.  God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus.  So that procession began before time. It continued, through eons, through the years of God’s people turning to God, turning from God, returning, rejecting, forgetting, returning.  

And when the time was right, or when we humans were in so much hurt and chaos and misery, when we humans were so lost and careless and a danger to ourselves, Jesus arrived, not in a parade with angels riding on silver-white horses, but in the form of a tiny baby.  He did not arrive int the middle of a governmental body but in the middle of a family, just like you and I did. 

We are in a procession, not a parade. We do not show off.  We follow.

We are able to follow because our sins have been erased.  There is no barrier to our participation except our own sinful will. Jesus has lifted that barrier so that we can love like Jesus loves.

 2 Christ encourages you, and his love comforts you. God’s Spirit unites you, and you are concerned for others. Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other.  

Because we are freed from sin, we are freed to love each other. We are freed to be a part of the procession of Jesus Christ our Savior. 

Live in harmony!  What a beautiful concept!  Harmony does not just happen.  Living in harmony has to be intentional.  

Harmony is something we long for.  How do I know?  Because everyone I know complains about the lack of harmony.    

Our inability to reconcile is a symptom of our fear. It is a symptom of the very thing against which Paul warns us.  Don’t be jealous or proud. Jealousy makes us unstable; when we are unstable, we are afraid of losing our balance, our possessions, our safety.  Pride makes us a threat to the neighbor who is jealous.

But be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. True humility is measured, not by low self-evaluation, but by active concern for others.

This does not mean that you should think less of yourself.  Paul does not mean that you lower your self-esteem. You are encouraged, instead, to raise the esteem of your neighbor in your own eyes.

  Paul admonishes us to always see everyone as deserving of our esteem, not because of their talents or their social connections or their personalities, but because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

In our broken world, we often learn the hard way who is important and who is not.  In Jesus’ world, in the world God created, everyone is important. Is this pandemic teaching us the lesson Paul was trying to teach to the Phillipians?

Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain
    equal with God.
Instead he gave up everything
    and became a slave,
when he became
    like one of us.

He became like one of us.  So let us, as we continue this procession, become like Him. Through His death and resurrection, we are freed to follow Him with humility, with joy, with anticipation. We are released from jealousy and pride to care for each other, for all the others.

I still stumble into sin—I can wrap myself in the chains of disapproval and judgement at the mere mention of an event or a person. But Jesus takes care of that. Jesus forgives me.  Jesus pins a note to my back—”this one is forgiven”—and lets me join the procession once more.

So, dear friends, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as we process through Holy Week, as we look forward to a different way to celebrate Easter, let us walk in humility, not because we are ashamed, not because we want to show off our Jesus-side, not because we want to hide, but because we are walking with Jesus, not admiring Him from afar, but walking right next to him, emulating what he does.  

As you walk, invite the bystanders, the onlookers to join in the procession 

This is our destination on this Palm Sunday, during this Holy Week, on every Sunday, on every day God has given us. We are headed toward the day when we will all bow down, with all the saints, declaring “Jesus Christ is Lord!” Amen.

Scapegoats Luke 18:31-19:10

31 Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” 34 But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

35 As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

+++

Three miracles. #1 TBA  in another week or so

#2 a blind man can see  

#3 a selfish, unhappy man can find joy in sharing.

Three ways of seeing. #1  Not “getting it.”

#2 physically impaired 

#3 self-centered

Three ways of being  

#1 Carrying the Gospel to the known world—eventually

#2 Giving God the glory for the healing power of Jesus.

#3 Repenting, not just apologizing. 

Three roadblocks #1 intellectual understanding

#2 bindness

#3 reputation 

Or we could see this as the story of 3 scapegoats

#1 the disciples

#2 the blind man

#3 Zacchaeus 

We know the term scapegoat well enough—it’s the person who gets the blame when we don’t want to accept the blame for ourselves.  Do you know the origin?  

In the ancient days of the temple in Jerusalem, on the high holiday of Yom Kippur, the priest would symbolically lay the sins of all the people on the head of a goat and the goat would be chased into the wilderness, carrying, symbolically, the sins of the people away from them. In other words, whatever sins anyone had committed were now on the goat, not on them.

How are the disciples scapegoats in this story?  It doesn’t fit the context. 

Let’s define the blind man as scapegoat first. Let the blind man stand for all who have lost sight or strength or opportunity. Let the blind man stand for the people who need us, need our resources.  This is a stretch, but to fit my formula, let me stretch the metaphor this way: Do we ever complain about those who can’t care for themselves? Do we blame them for needing what is ours as a society—our property, our food, our healthcare?  Do we blame them instead of the people who legislate to make themselves wealthier?  

Zacchaeus falls into the same category. He represents all that is wrong about Roman oppression and< because he takes something that is very precious to everyone—their money, they blame him for the taking of their money, not the Roman government.  Scapegoating is often just intellectual laziness.  

Back to the disciples: how can they be scapegoats in this text? Remember, I used to teach Creative Writing, so anything can happen.  🙂

For the third time (in Luke’s gospel) Jesus predicted his arrest, trial, death and resurrection to the disciples.

 31 Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” 

The disciples didn’t understand, couldn’t believe that Jesus could be serious.  Why would Jesus, kind, gentle, healing, loving, perfect Jesus be handed over to the Gentiles, the Roman authorities?  Why would anyone mock Jesus? How could anyone insult Jesus? And spit on a person who hurt no one? Flogging?  Out of the question! That was for criminals. Kill him? Why? Rise again? But that wasn’t possible. Was Jesus losing his mind?  Hallucinating? 

How could they not question Jesus, ask him to explain, be more careful about protecting him?  The gospels sometimes make the disciples look clueless, ignorant, dumb, stupid. The writer of the Gospel of Mark is especially hard on the disciples.

14 Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” 16 They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.”

And Jesus said, “Duh!” 

Maybe this example applies only to me.  Maybe you’ve never struggled to understand the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Maybe you’ve never struggled to understand why God would send his only Son to redeem all of us from our sinfulness by such a torturous method.   Maybe you’ve never said, “Nobody’s perfect!” How are the disciples scapegoats, then?  For me, it is this: The disciples were with Jesus every day for three years.  They heard him teach and preach over and over and over. And they didn’t understand.  How am I, two millennia later, supposed to understand why my professors try to teach me? How am I supposed to be able to explain why God sent Jesus to live a mundane life among peasants?  How am I supposed to be able to explain why Jesus had to die, not a natural death, but an excruciating death?  And how am I supposed to understand how Jesus could defeat death? What does that even mean, to defeat death?

How do I use the disciples as scapegoats? If they couldn’t understand what Jesus was talking about, how could I possibly understand?

Here’s the funny thing: I don’t need to be a scholar to follow Jesus.  I don’t need to be a genius to understand what Jesus did for me. I don’t need to be any smarter than the next guy to be a Christian.  What do I need?

Faith. I only need to know that God loved me and every other person so much that God found a way to forgive my sins and welcome me into the Kingdom, today and forever.  My faith assures me that Jesus died so that, no matter how many times I fail and blame someone else, no matter how often or how badly or ignorantly I cause pain to someone else, I am saved, through His death and resurrection.  

Thanks be to God that Jesus walked that road to Jerusalem, plagued by dense disciples, harassed by the authorities of his own nation and faith tradition, and used as a scapegoat by Pontius Pilate.  Thanks be to God that we the beloved children of a God who loves us beyond comprehension.  Amen.