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March 3, 2016, 8:30 AM

Repent


Luke 13:1-9, Common English Bible
Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans?  No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.  What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none.  He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’  The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer.  Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”
 
Repent!
 
What do we make of the suffering and tragedy in the world? How do we think about God’s activity in instances of tragedy and pain? What do we do with so many headlines? Five dead in Washington State. Three dead and fourteen wounded in Kansas. Six dead and two wounded in Michigan, and these all in just the past seven days. There were others that didn’t make the headlines. Syrian cities and villages in rubble; her people dead or fleeing. Anxious mothers in Brazil delivering babies with serious birth defects. Storm damage across the south. Citizens of South Sudan and Flint, Michigan without clean water. Would we attribute this suffering to divine punishment? Do we think these people in Kansas or Brazil or Sudan or Michigan are somehow worse offenders than all other people, and somehow deserve this punishment? As your pastor it is my hope and prayer that you would answer a resounding ‘no.’
 
But we have heard people say such things. We have heard televangelists blame disaster and tragedy on groups of people and certain behaviors. And if we are really honest and discerning, we must admit that once in a while such language slips into our thoughts, and sometimes through our lips. “What did he do to deserve such a thing?” “What did I do to deserve this?” There is this little seed of thought that somehow has made its way into our brains and it slips forward every once in a while to torment us. So perhaps we can understand the crowd gathered around Jesus in today’s reading from Luke as they bring up to Jesus a horrible tragedy in their city that is gnawing at them.
 
As is the case most anytime we read just a snippet of scripture, today’s reading has us stepping almost literally into the middle of a teaching and conversation. Jesus has turned his eyes and travels toward Jerusalem and it teaching, healing, and preaching on the way as the crowds swell around him. In this particular teaching that we have wandered into the middle of Jesus is confronting and challenging the crowd about how they think of God, and God’s activity in their lives and in the world. First he compliments them in their ability to interpret the signs in nature around them, to anticipate the weather. When the wind is blowing in from the desert, you know it is going to be a hot one. But if the wind shifts and blows down from the mountain, you know it is going to pull in moist and cooler air. The people are so good about noting and understanding the basics of the weather, why can’t they do so in interpreting God’s activity in their lives and in the world around them. “Think for yourselves!” Jesus implores, “Use your head! Make up your own mind! Don’t just swallow everything the religious leaders have taught you.”
 
It is at this moment in the teaching that we walk in. Jesus has issued the challenge, so the crowd brings up one of those popular teachings they had just swallowed in the past—when bad things happen to people, it is punishment for their sins, the things they have done wrong, divine retribution. But this recent tragedy is gnawing at them. Pilate ordered the slaughter of a group of Jewish Galileans while they were at worship. At worship! This doesn’t seem to sit well with that popular teaching. How could they deserve punishment while at worship? So, Jesus meets them where they are. “Do you really believe that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans traveling to Jerusalem for worship? No! It doesn’t work that way! And what about that tragedy the other day where the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed 18 people? Do you honestly believe those people were worse sinners than everyone else in the city? No! It doesn’t work that way.” And then, if you are reading the most common translations of New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or New International Version (NIV), Jesus seems to say a strange thing, “But I say to you REPENT! or you will perish!”
 
What? Doesn’t that seem to contradict what Jesus was just saying? Repent or perish! The problem comes with the word ‘repent,’ and the meanings that have been placed upon it over the years. Repent is another capital letter word, as Wilderness on Lent 1 was a capital “W,” and Covenant last week was a capital “C.” Repent this week is with a capital “R.” For those of us who have experienced fiery evangelical preaching, when we hear that word, ‘repent,’ we have visions of fire and brimstone preachers holding their bible high, clutched tightly in their hand, shouting, “Repent….or you will burn!” We have images of tearful confessions, kneeling before the altar, giving our lives to Jesus, and engaging in acts of penance. For those of us who haven’t encountered such images, the word ‘repent’ means acknowledging something you have done wrong, saying you are sorry, and making some amends; seeing the error of our ways and turning over a new leaf. However, this is barely scratching the surface of the meaning of the word used in scripture.
 
The word in Greek is “metanoia.” Some commentaries also try to give this word a simple definition, “turn and go in an new direction.” This is too simple, it just walks us up to the edge of the definition so we can peer in. It falls short of the truly transformative nature of this word, metanoia. Metanoia means to completely change; heart, mind, body and soul. It means to change your perspective, your heart, your mind, your life. And when that call to repentance comes for scripture, and especially from Jesus, it is a call to shift your entire orientation so that you are in line with God. That is why I chose the Common English Bible translation above—it is more nuanced than the NRSV or NIV. Here this scripture again.
 
“Jesus, what about the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate while they were at worship? That they were bad people?” the crowd asks. “Do you truly believe that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans journeying to Jerusalem on pilgrimage? That they were bad people? No! It doesn’t work that way! Change your perspective, your hearts, your minds, align yourself with God or you will be lost! And what about those people killed, 18 of them, when the tower in Siloam collapsed? Do you honestly think those people were worse sinners than everyone else in the city? No! It doesn’t work that way! Change your perspective, your hearts, your minds, align yourself with God and see how God is really working in the world, or you will be lost!”
 
“Let me tell you a story: There was this person who had a fig tree planted in their vineyard. I don’t know why it was planted in the vineyard, you would think it would interfere with the ripening of the grapes, but never mind that. This person goes out to the tree at harvest time to collect the figs and finds nothing, not one fig. The tree has not completed its purpose and produced fruit. So the tree owner calls over the gardener. ‘Look, for three years I have been coming to this tree at harvest time and every year, nothing! This is a bad tree! Cut it down! We can’t be wasting the soil’s nutrients that way!’ But the gardener responded, ‘Let’s wait a minute. Let’s look at this from a different perspective. Maybe the tree doesn’t have everything it needs to produce fruit. Give me another year. Let me nurture this tree. Let me aerate the soil to release more nutrients. Let me pack in some fertilizer to give it a boost. If I do these things, perhaps the tree will be able to fulfill its purpose, to bear fruit.’”
 
Repent—changing perspective, aligning ourselves with God. Galileans were lost in a horrendous act of violence. Eighteen people were crushed under a falling tower. If we take these facts and hold them alongside Jesus’ story we begin to see where God IS involved in the world—the gardener. God surrounds these tragedies with comfort and care, offering healing for bereft families, love for hurting communities. And the call of this story is for us to do the same, to embrace the call to follow Jesus, to model our lives after his, and take up the mantel of gardener. We become a people that are not about punishment, but are about nurture. Not about retribution, but about restoration. Not about vengeance, but about love—tough love sometimes (as Jesus today in our reading) but always about love.
 
The call to repent becomes now for us a call to shift our orientation to be aligned with God, to change our perspective, our hearts, our minds, our lives. It is a call to see the world and God’s activity in it in new ways. It is a call to be gardeners in the fields of the world where tragedy and suffering strike.
 
Let us Repent! …and trust in God’s good news. Amen. 



March 3, 2016, 8:28 AM

Covenant


Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
After these events, the Lord’s word came to Abram in a vision, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great.”
But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.” He continued, “Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.”
The Lord’s word came immediately to him, “This man will not be your heir. Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.” Then God brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.” God continued, “This is how many children you will have.”Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character.
God said to Abram, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.”
But Abram said, “Lord God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?”
God said, “Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.” 10 Abram took all of these animals, split them in half, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn’t split the birds. 11 When vultures swooped down on the carcasses, Abram waved them off. 12 After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him.
17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from Egypt’s river to the great Euphrates.” 
 
Luke 13:31-35
31 At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”
32 Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. 33 However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’
34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. 35 Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”
 
“Covenant”
First world problems. It is one of the new catch phrases that I like and use occasionally. First world problems. It is a phrase used in response to someone who is whining and complaining about something that only a person in a privileged culture or nation could complain about. “My smart phone is so slow, so old. Look, its battery is running out already.” “The guy at the coffee shop got my coffee wrong, I said no cream or sugar. Grrrr!” “Oh no! The battery on my lap top is dying! Now I have to go plug it in!” First world problems. The phrase points out to the complainer that in the scheme of things their problem is small and they should keep things in perspective. We could also use the phrase, however, on ourselves, reminding ourselves that it is easy to only see the world from that privileged perspective and discount or ignore the viewpoints and plights of others.
 
I found myself thinking of that phrase a lot this past week as I prepared for this Sunday and spent some time with our scriptures, especially the Genesis piece. Let’s face it, our first reaction oftentimes to this passage of cutting animals in half and laying them out, of driving away the carrion eaters, is to want to turn away, perhaps even muttering, “Ewww! Gross!” We have the privilege of living in a time and in a place where making life commitments is a lot less messy. We can talk another time if that is actually a good thing. Today we need to push past our reaction to the animal sacrifice and see this ancient, critically important story an what it says to us thousands of years later. This story is part of the beginning stories that demonstrate just how much God wants a deep relationship with us. It is evidence of just how far God is willing to go for a true partnership with humanity, a true communion. This is a pastoral care moment in which God takes time to hear Abram’s worry and anxiety, his pain and fear about the future. God offers reassurances, even if God can’t hand over the baby right now, using the night sky as a sign of promise. God engages in a vivid ritual that will linger in Abram’s mind for years to come, all to assure Abram that God keeps God’s promises.
 
This story is part of the Covenant chapters of Genesis (12-17) in which God establishes the everlasting covenant with Abraham and his descendants. In chapter 12, God promises Abram that God will make a great nation of him, and through him all the nations of the world will be blest. The Covenant promises that God will be their God and they will be God’s people. “We are in this together.” God says, “We are creating a community together, a relationship, a partnership. It will be a community that blesses all others and it will shine as a model of this partnership life for all others to see and embody.” God will forever be our God, and will forever be seeking that partnership. God literally cuts a covenant with Abram to stress this absolute importance of this moment, this promise.
 
Covenant. There really isn’t a metaphor or synonym that captures its depth in our language and culture. Sometimes we use words like ‘promise,’ or ‘contract,’ or ‘agreement,’ but these words are too small and too finite. Covenant, like last week’s Wilderness, is a capital “C” word. Covenant is forever-binding, world-transforming, intimate. It is a partnership between God and God’s people that is unending. Promises can be broken. Contracts and Agreements can be dissolved. Covenant is forever. It is true that at times God’s people didn’t uphold their end of the Covenant. They didn’t live as God’s people, didn’t living as if God’s realm, God’s kingdom, was their reality. So God sent prophets, to call people back to God living, to the Covenant. When God’s people continued to neglect the Covenant, God comes in the flesh, Jesus Christ, to walk among the people and show the way.
 
Today’s gospel from Luke is another phenomenal glimpse into the extravagant love of God. It is more evidence of how far God is willing to go to bring us back to Covenant living, to partnership and relationship with God, to communion. The Pharisees have come to Jesus to protect him and warn him. “Herod is after you now! You saw what he did to your cousin, John, beheading him! Herod is after you now! Run! Get out of here! Save yourself!” What they fail to realize is that Jesus isn’t about saving himself, he is about saving us. He faced that temptation in our gospel reading last week, the temptation to put himself first by turning a rock into bread and feeding himself. He made his decision. Jesus knows where this journey ends, how this journey ends. In an intimate moment we have the privilege of eavesdropping on Jesus’ yearning, God’s yearning. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How I have yearned to gather you in my arms like a mother hens gathers her chicks. How I have yearned to gather you back into Covenant, into communion, into partnership, but you would have none of it.” Jesus says this about the city that will end his life, call for his death, crucify him on the hill outside the city walls. Here is God seeking still to pull us back into Covenant living.
 
Covenant living, a significant part of our Lenten journey, a recommitment to Covenant living. We renew our promise to live God’s commonwealth, God’s kingdom, God’s way here and now. We commit to living out God’s way as an example and a model of that community, partnership. relationship cut with Abram so many millennia ago. A community where the widow and orphan are protected and cared for. A community where strangers are welcomed, the hungry are fed, all people are loved and named beloved. A community where forgiveness and restoration are lived out daily. God will always and forever be our God—Covenant. The question is are we willing to acknowledge of first world mindset. Will we be God’s people? 



February 19, 2016, 10:08 AM

Wilderness


Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Once you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you take possession of it and are settled there, take some of the early produce of the fertile ground that you have harvested from the land the Lord your God is giving you, and put it in a basket. Then go to the location the Lord your God selects for God’s name to reside. Go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him: “I am declaring right now before the Lord my God that I have indeed arrived in the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”
The priest will then take the basket from you and place it before the Lord your God’s altar. Then you should solemnly state before the Lord your God: “My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous. The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. So we cried out for help to the Lord, our ancestors’ God. The Lord heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. The Lord brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey.10 So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, Lord, have given me.”
Set the produce before the Lord your God, bowing down before the Lord your God. 11 Then celebrate all the good things the Lord your God has done for you and your family—each one of you along with the Levites and the immigrants who are among you.
 
Luke 4:1-13
Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”
Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only God.”
The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: God will command the angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.[c]
12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[d] 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.
 
“Wilderness”
 
The Holy Spirit led Jesus from the Jordan River out into the wilderness. Lent begins with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We have so few details from Jesus’ life prior to his baptism at the Jordan and his testing in the wilderness. Luke gives us the most details. Luke shares the birth stories of John and Jesus, and Jesus’ dedication at the Temple. Then there is silence for years until Jesus pops up at the Temple once again, this time 12 years old for his bar mitzvah. Jesus teaches the teachers who the real teacher is (say that three times fast). Then there is even more silence until Jesus arrives on the banks of the Jordan River where John is busy in his ministry; washing the people of Israel who have come and calling them to turn in a new direction, to turn toward God. Jesus is washed by John, and as he is praying God’s Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove and God proclaims, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” Jesus, anointed by the Spirit, becomes the ‘Anointed One;’ messiac in Hebrew—Messiah, christos in Greek—Christ. This anointing Spirit then leads Jesus further into the wilderness for a time of testing and commissioning; to answer the question, “what kind of Messiah will Jesus be?”
 
Wilderness. Every time that word shows up in scripture it should be with a capital ‘W.’ Wilderness. It is loaded with meaning and history. Wilderness…Exodus. The Exodus story is the defining story for the people Israel. It is the foundation of their life and worship.  All worship at one point or another recounts the story of God’s deliverance from Egypt, God’s journey with the people in the wilderness, God’s guidance to the Promised Land. This story, this wilderness story, is Israel’s identity. They were formed into God’s nation in that wilderness school. They are called in all their calendar events of worship to remember this story, remember who they were, who they are.
 
Look at the identities they proclaim in this rich and powerful story. They acknowledge that they were slaves, prisoners, oppressed, persecuted. They proclaim that they were refugees, homeless, wanderers. They proclaim they were immigrants, strangers, foreigners. And in all these realities, God never abandoned them. God freed them. God journeyed with them, guided them. God set up God’s tent among them, lived with them. God partnered with Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to care for them when they were slaves, refugees, and immigrants. Now, as God’s people secure in the Land, they were to partner with God to do the same for others; to be a blessing to the nations.
 
But we know the stories. Israel forgot, again and again. In their security, they forgot their history and their identity. God sent prophets with calls to turn around and return to God, to remind them of who they were and who they are. But this was met with limited and short-lived success. Finally, God sends Jesus, God’s Word in the flesh—Messiah, Christ. And it begins once again in the wilderness, to reclaim their identity, to lift up the choice between God’s way and the world’s way. Jesus enters the wilderness to face the test and the tester. Jesus faces critical choices. Will he choose to take care only of himself? “Since you are God’s Son, turn this rock into a loaf of bread.” Feed yourself. Will Jesus choose to listen to the world’s stories and heed the world’s ways? Will he choose power and might and glory and hierarchy? Will Jesus choose extravagant religiosity, showy religion? Will Jesus choose to test God’s providence and care for him?
 
Or, will Jesus choose to truly be God with us? Will he choose to come alongside us, to embody true fellowship, partnership, relationship? Will Jesus choose to walk alongside us, to be incarnate? Will he submerge his life into our lives and be among us, not apart from us? We know what Jesus chose. Now the choice is ours.
 
Here we are, at the start of Lent, and the journey begins in the wilderness. The testing and commissioning stands before us if we plan to partner with Christ. Will our lives be only lived for ourselves? Will we listen to the world’s story of power and wealth, fear and distrust? Will we wrap ourselves in our own religiosity, a blanket wrapped around us making us blind to the world? Will we choose our own safety over the ministry Jesus’ calls us to? At our first stop on the Lenten journey, as we stand on the edge of the wilderness, who will we choose to be?
 
This Sunday we mark our passports and our map with those still lost in the wilderness—refugees around the world. According to Church World Service, every five seconds a person is displaced in this world. Some are cast out into the cold. Some flee in the midst of violence. Many with just the clothes on their backs. Jesus reclaimed our identity from the wilderness. Once we were slaves, once we were refugees, once we were immigrants, lost and afraid. God delivered us. God journeyed with us to a place of safety and abundance. Now God calls us to do the same, to partner with God, with Jesus, and enter the wilderness for others. Let us grab our passports and go.



February 3, 2016, 10:23 AM

I Will Show You a More Excellent Way


1 Corinthians 13:1-13, CEB
If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.
Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant,it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. We know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things. 12 Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. 13 Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.
 
I Will Show You a More Excellent Way
 
Churches and Christian communities should be required to gather together once every year and read through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, from chapter one through chapter sixteen. They should read it together as if they are the intended recipients of this letter, as if Paul were writing this letter to them. You see, this letter is Paul’s God-given vision of true, Spirit-filled, Jesus-following community—the essence of discipleship. The church in Corinth isn’t getting it. In fact, they have strayed so far back into the world’s way of seeing and doing things that they are fracturing their community, causing it to crumble under and around them. So Paul is on fire. He is pouring his passion for Jesus, his passion for the Christian community, his passion for the people of Corinth upon these pages.  And the chapters we have been spending time with last week and this week, chapters 12 and 13, are the pinnacle of Paul’s letter-sermon. If Paul were a fiery Baptist or Pentecostal preacher, this would be the crescendo of the sermon, where we are brought to the foot of the cross.
 
The chapters (remember, chapters are a translators’ addition to scripture, not original to the text) are part of Paul’s preaching on the all-important topic of worship, the heartbeat of the Christian community.  These Corinthian followers have twisted worship all out of shape. Paul begins to address these worship problems back in what we term chapter 11, speaking to the women preachers. It seems these women preachers have taken the idea of freedom in Christ too far. Since they are now free in Christ, they feel that means they can freely come to worship and preach dressed in ways that were scandalous to their culture and their community. They were free to let their hair hang free, literally. I’m sure Paul agreed that Jesus didn’t care so much about how the women wore their hair, but the community did. Paul reminds them that worship and preaching was for building up the community of Christ and giving glory to God. Their behavior, their long, flowing hair, was a stumbling block for the community, and was all about them, not about building up community and giving God the glory. “Put your hair back up!” Paul says, “And preach/prophesy God’s word.”
 
Then Paul moves on to the Lord’s Supper. “It is great,” he says, “that you celebrate the Lord’s Supper every time you gather, and that you celebrate it as a full meal.  It is great, even, that you do it potluck style, each person bring food to the table. But I have heard that the wealthier members can arrive early, bringing lots of rich food. They eat in excess, leaving no scraps. The poorer members arrive later, bringing meager items to share, and find nothing for them. This is not the Lord’s Supper.”
 
It is then that Paul moves to address spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit has poured wonderful gifts upon the people of God, gifts to be shared in worship. But the Corinthians have started comparing their gifts. They have determined that some gifts are ‘better’ than others and have started ranking the gifts, determining that some—speaking in tongues, the gift of knowledge—are better than others. Members with these preferred gifts were dominating worship, interrupting, taking over. Through the pages of this letter Paul declared, “ENOUGH!” Chapter 12 begins with Paul addressing those members who brag and extol their gifts of tongues and knowledge; “Now, sisters and brothers, about spiritual gifts, I don’t want you to be ignorant.” He goes on to proclaim that there are many different gifts and ministries and activities, but there is ONE Spirit, ONE Lord, ONE God who gifts them and activates them. There is ONE body of Christ. He paints that beautiful picture we spent time with last week of the Body as one entity but only functioning because of the diversity of the parts.
 
You are the body of Christ! And if you can truly get that, truly learn to value every part and to work in harmony as one body…I will show you a more excellent way (12:31). In the Greek it actually says, “and I will show you a way that is beyond comparison!” Love! Agape.
 
We have mentioned before that there were several words for love in the ancient Greek. Love was an important thing to that culture and people. There was ‘phileo,’ which we use today in the word ‘Philadelphia,’ depicting the love between siblings or close friends. There was ‘eros,’ passionate and physical love; and ‘storge,’ the love between parent and child. Finally, there was ‘agape;’ holy love, divine love, love that reflects the love of God. Chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to Corinth is all about agape.
 
Paul begins this portion of his sermon about love by putting those spiritual gifts in their proper place. The gift of tongues is wonderful. The gift of prophecy, Paul’s favorite, is awesome. The gift of knowledge is so needed. Having faith that could even move mountains is fantastic. But, if those gifts are not rooted in love, they are nothing. Acts of sacrifice are wondrous to behold; giving all you have to the poor, giving your very self for God. But if these acts are not grounded in love, they accomplish absolutely nothing.
 
And then Paul gets to the meat of it. Love is patient with all parts of the body. Love is kind.  It isn’t jealous—of other’s gifts. It doesn’t brag—about its own gifts. it isn’t arrogant or puffed up in its knowledge, it isn’t rude to others. Love doesn’t seek its own advantage in its freedom in Christ. It isn’t grumpy with others. And here Paul goes from preachin’ to meddlin’…Love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs. No grudges. Wow, Paul! Love isn’t pleased about any injustice, but rejoices in the truth. Love puts up with all parts of the body. Love trusts, always. Love hopes, always. Love endures even in hard times. Love never falls, fails, ends.
 
Paul closes this section by placing all of this in perspective. All these things that you are fighting about, all these things that are dividing you, they are finite. Spiritual gifts, preaching, the Lord’s Supper, are tools to connect us with God and with one another in the here and now, but one day we won’t need them anymore. One day we will be fully present with God and one another. Hallelujah!
 
Three characteristics of discipleship and Christian community stand tall—faith, hope and love. One day we won’t need faith for we shall see God face-to-face! One day we won’t need hope for God’s justice will flow down with a mighty river and all will be as God intended! But love—agape—which is of God, that will always be with us. We will go from love into Love.
 
This is Paul’s way beyond comparison. This is the most excellent Way! The body of Christ embodying agape together with God, with one another, and with the world…not always agreeing…not always ‘feeling the love’… but always practicing patience and kindness. Always seeking to let go of jealousy and bragging, arrogance and rudeness. Putting down our grudges.
 
For faith, hope and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love—agape. Amen.



December 22, 2015, 8:09 AM

The Candle of Love


Luke 1:46-55
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for the Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is God’s name.
50 The Lord’s mercy is for those who fear God
    from generation to generation.
51 The Lord has shown strength with God’s arm;
    the Lord has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 The Lord has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 The Lord has helped God’s servant Israel,
    in remembrance of God’s mercy,
55 according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
 
Candle of Love
Mary…in Hebrew Miriam, which means ‘bitter.’ A harsh name but filled with such a rich history. Miriam, priestess of Israel, who helped her brother Moses lead the recently freed Israelites through the wilderness. Miriam, priestess of Israel, who led the women in dance and worship after the crossing of the Reed Sea. Miriam! Mary, a simple young girl from a tiny village in the rural regions of Galilee…a simple young woman recently engaged, marriage contract signed, just waiting the required year before the ceremony and her move to Joseph’s house. Mary, going about her daily tasks, the usual work of the household—cooking, cleaning, making clothing, mending clothing and such things.
 
Can we see her? Perhaps sitting in the shade outside her parents’ home, mending a cloak, humming to herself, and suddenly, she is not alone. An angel of the Lord stands before her, and not just any angel—Gabriel, the archangel, who dwells in the light of God. Is he like the seraphim from Isaiah’s vision, with many eyes, many wings, terrifying and dazzling? Or is he more human-like, yet so clearly something else, something other? Whatever he looks like, he is instantly recognizable as something other-worldly, as of God, as from God. Mary freezes, like a frightened rabbit sensing danger. Angels in her faith’s history were not known as positive visitors, usually decimating villages and turning people to pillars of salt.  Mary’s hands hover over her work as her brain tries to register Gabriel’s opening words, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
 
Gabriel, perhaps sensing her fear, or sensing her disbelief that an angel of God would be speaking to her, or sensing  her jumbled thoughts as she tries to wrap her head around what is happening right here, right now, offers assurance; “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.” Oh my word, this angel of God knows my name. This is really happening! God’s messenger is here to see…me. And as Gabriel’s message pours out her wonder and fear grow, her heart races, her thoughts tumble. A son! holy child! The throne of David? Ruling an unending, forever kingdom!? She is going to bear this child? She blurts out, “But I’ve never known a man. How can this happen?” How will I explain this to my parents, her mind continues. How will I explain this to Joseph? How can this be happening?
 
Gabriel explains—the Spirit of God will do this; a holy child, yes, but God’s Son! And then the angel offers her a gift for Mary to cling to—Elizabeth. The angel is talking about Elizabeth! Pregnant, at 6 months! Oh Elizabeth, how she has ached for a child, grieved for her barrenness. Elizabeth is having a miracle baby! I won’t be alone! Mary couldn’t believe how calm she sounded as she spoke, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” And Gabriel was gone. Mary blinked, gasped. Just like that Gabriel was gone. Her hands shook. Her chest ached with the pounding of her heart. Elizabeth. She must see Elizabeth. She must see Elizabeth immediately! She was on the road within the hour.
 
The almost 100 mile journey to Zechariah’s house gave Mary ample time to think. The act of placing one foot in front of the other freed her mind to race down one thought after another. She is going to have a baby. Will anyone believe her, that this is God’s child and not a result of infidelity? How will she face her parents? How will she explain this to Joseph? What will they do to her? She could be stoned according to the law! No, Joseph is a kind-hearted man, she has seen this in him. Her parents will protect her, won’t they? But she will be shunned, rejected, outcast—to have a child out of wedlock. Will Joseph break the marriage contract? Of course he will. Who wouldn’t? How could he be expected to raise a child that isn’t his? He would be ridiculed and shamed. He will be ridiculed and shamed as it is, to have his contracted wife pregnant with a child that isn’t his. Where will she go? How will she live? What is going to happen to her?
 
These thoughts and so many others plagued her as she walked. Already she felt alone and outcast. Already she felt the weight of her ‘yes’ to the angel weighing upon her. Each day her fear and worry grew. Will Elizabeth believe her? She is having a miracle baby, but it is Zechariah’s baby. Maybe even Elizabeth will reject her. Each mile made Mary more anxious, more nervous. Surely God will watch over her after choosing her for this impossible task. The angel had said that nothing is impossible for God. She whispered her prayers in the growing dusk. She was almost there, almost to Zechariah’s house.
 
As she crested the small hill she could see their home at the edge of the village. A small light flickered in the tiny window, a flame of welcome. Mary’s heart fluttered within her. She quickened her pace. As she reached the doorway, she pulled the door curtain aside and called into the house, “Elizabeth? Elizabeth? It’s your cousin, Mary.” Suddenly Elizabeth was right there, standing in front of her, appearing almost like the angel did. Her face glowed in the soft light, with surprise, with joy, with her expectancy, and with something more. Some other flamed kindled within her. She embraced Mary, pulling her tight against her and Mary could feel the swell of the baby—this miracle baby. And even as Elizabeth held her she exclaimed, “Oh Mary, God has blessed you above all women! God has blessed the child you carry!” How does Elizabeth know? It has only been about a week! But Elizabeth continued, “Why do I have this honor! The mother of my Lord has come to me! As soon as I heard your voice my baby leaped in my womb! He jumped for joy! Oh Mary, blessed—happy—is she who believed that the Lord would fulfil the promises God made to her.”
 
Mary’s heart soared. How great is her God to have given her this gift! Elizabeth turned prophet, filled with the Spirit’s fire, melted Mary’s fears, soothed her anxiety, allayed her worry. God will provide. God will never abandon her. God went ahead of her and prepared Elizabeth as this assurance, this grace. This baby Mary carries will have a cousin to walk ahead of him as well. As Mary relaxed into Elizabeth’s embrace her eyes fell on the flickering candle in the window, a welcoming light indeed. It is nothing less than the Candle of Love, a sign of her welcome and acceptance…a sign of everyone’s welcome and acceptance in the eyes of God. Mary stepped back from Elizabeth and lifted her face toward the stars that blazed in the early evening sky, and she sang…”with all my heart I glorify the Lord! My soul rejoices in God, my Savior…”
 
The candle of love burning in the small window as a sign of the love within, a love for all. May all the windows in our lives, literally and figuratively, flicker with that light as well, a love for all.
Advent Blessings! Merry Christmas! Thanks be to God! Amen!

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