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11.25.18 Isaiah 25.6-8, 2 Peter 3.9, 11-15 God’s Thanksgiving Sermon Summary

Like most people, I don’t like waiting. Still Advent is my favorite season—especially after what I discovered this week.

Waiting is something all of us must do, and we do it our entire lives. As a child I could hardly wait for Christmas, or to drive, or to move out, or to make real money. As adults we may wait for partnership, or maybe having children, or going on vacation. As parents, it’s waiting for kids to drive, or graduation from college, or to have grandchildren, or come for a visit. Later, we’re waiting for retirement, and I know some people who are waiting for death.

A short wait can be exciting as anticipation builds. But a long wait can be just the opposite as we lose hope and experience despair. Most of us are tired of waiting for the end of our war with Afghanistan or a meaningful response to gun violence.

Maybe that’s why we fill up Advent—which means “waiting”—with shopping, parties, activities, and visits—all to avoid facing the reality of waiting. Waiting is part of our human nature. From the very beginning we’ve considered it a curse. Our story of origins presents Adam and Eve, after eating the forbidden fruit, hiding from God. I imagine them waiting for God to come, as was God’s custom “in the cool of the day,” except not in anticipation but in dread. In this sense, waiting is to the future what regret is to the past. Paul says all Creation waits for our redemption. (Romans 8:19) No wonder we avoid it.

But here’s what I learned this week. Waiting is not just human nature, it’s God’s nature as well. Second Peter was written to encourage long-suffering Christians who were tired of waiting and were at risk of abandoning the faith.

Despite some defensive parts including lists of dos and don’ts, and good guys and bad guys, which makes contemporary application a challenge, there is also this insight: God is patient, which means God is waiting. Waiting isn’t just part of being human, it’s part of being divine. And this means that when we wait, we participate in God.

It’s like when we serve others, or when we forgive others, or when we love others. When we are waiting, we are participating in God. So 2 Peter calls us to keep waiting, and to “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” This is how Paul could say that patience is a fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22)

This is why this Advent, this time of waiting, we call you to “come to the mountain of the Lord, to receive instruction and to walk in God’s way.” (Isaiah 2:3) Moses went to the mountain. So did Elijah. Abraham went to the mountain. So did Noah. All went to the mountain and all had to wait there for instruction and guidance.

Jesus, too, went to the mountain. Like the others, he met God there but he also had to wait. Like the others, waiting led to questions, but he regarded the patience of the Lord as salvation. And after a day of darkness and three days of death, he saw God’s salvation. He saw God’s dream described by Isaiah of all people celebrating a thanksgiving feast on the mountain of the Lord. And this is why Jesus gave us the Communion liturgy, as a reminder of that dream. Here Jesus took bread and blessed it. He broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body, given for you, given for the life of the world.”

“As often as we eat this bread,” Paul taught, “we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.” In communion with Christ, let us pray for patience. And in communion with God, let us await salvation.

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11.11.18 Serving God in Love 1 John 4:7-12, Ephesians 4:25-5:2 Sermon Summary

In a letter that moves between invitations to love and particular religious requirements, we find a gem that balances the two with service.

This is the final installment of our fall sermon series on the Practices of Faith. There are five practices and it doesn’t matter where you start. Each one leads to the others. All are a matter of practice because contrary to what we were told as children, practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes better. We never arrive at perfection.

In the past ten weeks we’ve looked at the five practices (see the earlier entries in this blog):

On the practice of meaningful Worship:

  • being centered on loving God and loving neighbor
  • Christians are guided not by what is lawful, but what is loving
  • in Jesus walls are broken down between God and us and between people groups
  • and instead arches joining the groups are constructed

On the practice of Prayer:

  • the Lord’s Prayer is a guide for worship at home
  • God delights in the diversity of prayer and the personalization of prayer
  • prayer impacts our vertical and horizontal relationships
  • prayer is rest in the presence of God through stormy seas and dark nights, for God is always present

On the practice of knowing and applying the Bible:

  • it guides to a godly life and perseverance through trials
  • it deepens our relationship with Christ and experience of salvation
  • it helps us to situate our stories into God’s story

On the practice of making Spiritual Friends

  • we grow as disciples together
  • we’re created for community as in God’s triune image
  • Paul had three ways of pursuing spiritual friendships
  • Jesus had one way
  • God even uses annoying people to help us grow

Now on the Practice of Service . . .

Small communities can often teach us about love, but they can also be quite closed. On one hand, people in small communities know each other well, look over one another’s faults, and choose to stay together. They are loving communities. But small communities also sometimes have particular characteristics and can become exclusivist.

The community that produced the Newer Testament books bearing the name “John” appears to have been a small community. First John toggles back and forth between encouragement to love and precise doctrinal standards. It appears there may have been some dissent within the community, or the fear of dissent.

It’s somewhat satisfying that embedded in the passage for today is this theological and psychological gem: “This is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

First John knows that love isn’t something we can determine. We all know this is true of romantic love. We were sure we were in love . . . But it’s true of a higher love as well. Part of reason is our persistent self-interest. This is the “altruism question” of psychologists: Can we ever not be self-interested? Is love possible only in the absence of self-interest?

Counter to this assumption, First John 4:10 establishes an external reference point—God, not us; and a concrete example—Christ’s sending to save us. High, true, divine love is not affection only, and not affinity only. This love is action in the interest of the other. More precisely, it is sacrificial action in the interest of the other.

Since God has loved us this way, 1 John argues, so we also ought to love one another—with action, even sacrifice, in the interest of the other. Christian love is actually both: Free of self-interest but also serving self-interest. This is because Ephesians reminds us that “we are members of one another.” Caring for others is also caring for self. This is one of the implications of the metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ.

So for example the thief who steals from others is redirected to work for wages in order to give to others. (An added point here—there are actually two ways to be a thief: Steal from others, or withhold generosity towards others.)

For John, this active, sacrificial love reveals God in two ways. First it reveals God TO us who receive the benefits of Christ’s action: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way, God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”

Then it reveals God THROUGH us who love in this same way: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” What does John mean by God’s love is “perfected in us”? God’s love isn’t perfect in itself? Divine love within the Trinity is incomplete? Heavenly love shared among celestial beings isn’t enough?

Apparently not. Divine love acts in the interest of the other, so as long as there is a need divine love still acts. That is good news for us. We are always in need. And it’s also good news for others for we are called not only to receive love but to channel it, to act in the interest of the other. We’re called to perfect God’s love.

The point is this. We may know God in our heads. We may have affection for God in our hearts. But loving with our hands is true knowledge and affection. This is the biblical understanding of knowledge and love.

Perfect love doesn’t choose WHOM to love. It chooses HOW to love. Perfect love chooses to serve the interest of others—all others, regardless of race, religion, nationality, sex, gender, ability, socio-economic status, even our enemies.

And this kind of love takes practice, life-long practice. So don’t be discouraged. Start with a close situation and grow a little bit in love. Eventually God’s love will be perfected in us, and we will be perfected in God. And like the God depicted in Jesus’ parable of the great banquet, eventually we will love the whole world.

 

11.04.18 Praying in God’s Presence Psalm 139.1-18 Sermon Summary

To the ancients, human physiology was a big mystery, but the spiritual life was more robust. It’s the opposite today for us moderns. If we moderns were to listen to the ancients on the spiritual life, we might hear something like Psalm 139.

Psalm 139 reads like the reflections of tribal elder who is looking back on his or her life and writing for posterity. It makes extensive use of allegory, the symbolic representation of abstract concepts. In this case, that abstract concept is the presence of God.

The heart of Psalm 139 is verses 7-8. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” After a long life of trying to escape, the author realizes we cannot. If we rise to the realm of the divine—heaven—or descend to the destiny of the human—death—God is equally in both places. We humans are incapable of imagining a place where God is not fully present.

Realizing this, the author begins to describe the extent of God’s presence, and uses one of main symbols of anxiety in the ancient world: The Sea. “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” If we start traveling as fast a bird, we would substitute air-travel, beginning at dawn and go all day and land on some remote island, even there we would not be out of God’s hands.

Then the Psalm turns to another ancient symbol of anxiety: The Darkness. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” God isn’t just present in human darkness; God sees in it and through it. When we are utterly lost, disoriented, “blind,” God sees us and the way forward. Or as Jesus said in another context, “What is impossible with humans is possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

Since God is everywhere, the author continues, God is also part of one’s entire life. “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” Here we gain an insight on how God views our lives. Our lives consist of our bodies, our “unformed substance,” and God has beheld our lives through our bodies.

But our lives also consist of our choices, our reactions to what life presents us. Like reading a book, as we turn the page from childhood to adolescence, to adulthood, to vocation, perhaps to marriage and parenthood, to loss of health, to the final chapters—whatever life presents to us, “the days formed for me when none of them as yet existed”—and how we respond: God is already there.

And God is not only present throughout our lives, but also throughout our prayers. “Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.” Paul says the Spirit prays God’s will for us even when our words fail (see Romans 8).

The prayer of Psalm 139 teaches us these things about God’s Spirit and the spiritual life of God’s children. It invites us to practice prayer in a way perhaps different than we’ve been taught before. Here are three ways to practice prayer in the spirit of Psalm 139.

  1. Start every day remembering and anticipating God’s presence. Last week we looked at the faithful practice of knowing and applying the Bible by remembering the history of God’s people. Starting every day remembering that God has been present justifies our anticipating and looking for God’s presence throughout the day. The letter to the Colossians urges us to “look up” to find our lives hidden in Christ. Psalm 139 says we need only look around and look within to find God’s life hidden in us. Taking time in the morning previewing the day with God’s presence in it is one way to practice prayer in the spirit of Psalm 139.
  2. End every day with an examination of your experiences. This is a traditional practice of St. Ignatius of Loyola. As yourself, “When did I feel close to God today?” Offer thanks for these times. Then ask yourself, “When did I not feel close to God?” Turn these situations into intercessions. After a while, begin to look for patterns. This is how God guides us, as we pay attention to the movement of the Spirit day by day.
  3. Let sleep symbolize your utter dependence upon God. When we’re sleeping we are unproductive. We’re not worrying about anything. We’re not regretting anything. We’re not feeling guilty about anything. We’re not succeeding or failing at anything. We’re not solving any problems. And yet God is sustaining us. This is true throughout the night of sleep, but it is also true throughout your waking moments. That’s the message of Psalm 139.

So every night is an opportunity to remember God’s sustaining Spirit. And every day is an opportunity to enter God’s presence again. And the same is true at the Lord’s Table. Here we remember that God provides everything for us: We bring nothing. And here is an opportunity to experience God’s presence. For our host is the one who calls us to remember. He is the one who feeds us. He is the one who calls us to follow. Here at the Lord’s Table, we pray in God’s presence, and remember we may do so anywhere and anytime. For, “where can we go from God’s Spirit?” God is there. Amen.

Those nights when I am available to put my children to bed, I offer them a blessing which is based largely on the theology of Psalm 139. It goes like this:

“You are precious and perfect, a gift from God and from your mom and from yourself, and I say thank you. May God grant you a restful night and peace at the last.”

What’s true of my children is true of all children of God, including you. You are precious and perfect, and a gift from God and from yourself. And so is everyone you meet. Let us live in the faith of Psalm 139.

On Grace: Late Night Thoughts

What does it mean to engage a situation with grace?

Grace recognizes that there are more perspectives on a given situation than the one we have.

Grace acknowledges further that no one perspective absolutely determines or governs the others.

Grace allows for a more gracious explanation than we ourselves can offer.

Grace calls us to trust a situation to a larger frame, call it “God” if you will.

Grace calls us to fulfill more than just our role in a situation.

10.28.18 Remembering the Future Luke 24.13-27 Sermon Summary

Do we need all the help that is available in order to know and apply the Bible to our lives? Yes and no.

Of all the five practices of faith, the one with the most support is knowing and applying the Bible. There are new Bibles published every year for every occasion. There are Bibles just for men, women, teens, those in recovery, military personnel, athletes, and environmentalists. And there is an even greater variety of segmented devotionals. Why do we need so much help?

On one hand, we need help because the Bible is complex. It’s a library containing books of poetry, history, myth, legend, hagiography, and propaganda. It was written in different languages, within different cultures, by numerous authors with varying theologies.

It is overwhelming to know the Bible, much less apply it. And as author Doe Zantamata notes, “Knowledge is like paint—it does no good until it is applied.”

On the other hand, there are some major themes in the Bible. One major theme stated right at the beginning is that creation is good and yet we struggle against sin. Another major theme is that of Exodus, the story of God liberating his people from their various slaveries. Exile is a third theme, the plotline that we find ourselves lost and in need of being found. The Law and the Prophets offer yet another major theme: How do we live together.

The Bible reveals the cycle of promise, hope, disappointment, and redemption. It is filled with stories of reality and re-orientation. Our realities change throughout our lives, and we have to re-orient around those changes, personally, relationally, and societally.

The Bible reminds us of the Long View, that life certainly includes us, but not just us. We have our struggles, but the world also suffers. Our time is challenging, but there have been other challenging times.

And this is the central point of the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The tell their unknown travel companion about the promise: “We had hoped Jesus was the one to redeem Israel.” And about their disappointment: “But our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.”

And it is a story of reorientation: “Some women in our group astounded us. Not finding his body, they had a vision of angels who said he was alive.” And finally, Jesus himself reorients their lives: “Beginning with Moses and the prophets, he interpreted to them what was written about himself in all the scriptures.”

Jesus does for these disciples what Psalm 136 had done for the people of Israel. The psalmist calls the worshiping assembly to remember the past, in order to reorient the present, so that they could remember the future in God’s steadfast love which endures forever.

Here we are given a depiction of what it means to be a Christian. It is someone who lets Jesus reorient their lives. Christians let Jesus interpret the Bible. They let Jesus inspire their prayers (which means they listen in silence before they speak). Christians let Jesus guide their lives.

A Christian, according to Luke, is someone who listens to Jesus. They don’t listen to our culture of consumerism. Or let their finances dictate their lives. They don’t listen to partisan politicians. And they don’t listen to their personal past no matter how tragic. Christians don’t listen to their abilities, limitations, or characteristics.

Christians listen to Jesus, risen from the dead, walking alongside us, asking questions, leading us forward, and reminding us of the Bible’s story.

And this is what Jesus does every week here at the Table. If you read on in Luke 24, you’ll discover that The road to Emmaus leads here, where Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to the disciples who only then recognize that it has been him walking and talking with them the whole time.

At this Table, Jesus says, “Remember me. Remember Moses and the Prophets. Remember the Psalms. Remember that death yields to life, that good triumphs over evil, that light shines in the darkness, that hope does not disappoint, and that the divine yes overrides the human no.”

In Christ we remember the story of God’s people. It is God’s story. It is your story. In Christ we remember the future. Thanks be to God.

She Preaches Again

Once again I hear your word.

After inconsistent sounds,

despite consistent listening,

the word again sounds forth.

I waited in faith,

I waded through wash,

hoping the word would come.

At last. It has.

I can rejoice.

I can rest.

I can resume.

Thank you Holy Spirit.

10.21.18 Provocative Friendships Hebrews 10.19-25 Sermon Summary

Apparently preachers have shared the same question since the first century: Why do people drop out of church? In the sermon known as the book of Hebrews, the preacher urges, “Let us not stop meeting together, as is the habit of some.” Thank God for new church members! Otherwise our decreasing attendance trends would have caused our extinction long ago.

Why DO people drop out of church? In recent years pollsters have tracked the rise of the nones and dones—folks who indicate “none of the above” or who have abandoned a religious affiliation. Some of the explanations include:

  • increase in religious pluralism
  • more secularized society
  • Christian bigotry
  • the lack of practice.

We’re coming to the end of this sermon series on practices of Faith. You can begin to review the practices here. This week’s practices has to do with making spiritual friends, and I want to propose that this is one of the reasons the nones and dones are growing.

There’s a saying that goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” And there’s heat in the church. Some of the heat results from God’s Word calling us to change. It challenges our assumptions of self-sufficiency. Then we’re called to change the world, to think of the common good and not just ourselves. This is what Jesus means when he commands us to, “Love the Lord with our whole self and love our neighbors as ourself.”

These challenges produce enough heat to drive some people out of the church. But there’s another source of heat, and that’s the heat of challenging relationships.

The preacher in Hebrews calls us to, “Provoke one another to love and good deeds.” This word “provoke” doesn’t mean “nudge.” In the Greek, it refers more to an irritation that could even lead to angry dispute. Hebrews is talking about the person who gets under your skin. Instead of dealing with it healthfully, some people just find another church—or drop out entirely.

Our culture makes it easy to walk away. We’re conditioned by consumerism which teaches us that our preferences rule supreme. If I don’t like something, I keep shopping. I’ve seen this scores of times in the church. A visitor offers an enthusiastic response to our worship. They eagerly get involved but then experience something they don’t like in the music, preaching, prayers, or interactions with someone, and they’re gone.

Making spiritual friends is a practice and it takes work. It’s like physical exercise that causes some discomfort. To have a more healthy body you have to take the time to work through the pain. And doing this work is so important because the Church is one of the last bastions of social diversity.

Where else do you see social diversity? Here we have different experiences and theologies about God. Here we have differing political leanings. Here there are people of differing age, race, sexual identity, etc. Diversity is not guaranteed in the church, but it is possible. And it’s possible because we are the Body of Christ.

The human body has many diverse parts that must work together. The Body of Christ is designed the same way. In his famous metaphor, Paul reminds us that, “The hand can’t say to the foot, ‘I don’t need you.’” (1 Corinthians 12:21)

Not only did God create us WITH diversity, God created us FOR diversity. And this is why Hebrews exalts Christ as the one priest, the “new and living way” to enter God’s sanctuary. No matter who you are, or how you’re different, there is a place for you in God’s presence because Christ is our one common mediator. We aren’t responsible for monitoring who’s in and who’s out. We’re only responsible for welcoming and participating, for staying engaged when relationships get heated.

Based on this conviction of our essential union in Christ, we can be open to learning and growth. We can appreciate the differences represented by others. And we can maintain community. Yes, people irritate us, they “provoke” us. But if we stay together we learn something about God and about ourselves, and we grow to be more like Christ.

And this is why the Table is so important. At the Table we extend God’s welcoming invitation so that all can participate. We call this Table “Communion” which can be understood to mean Come and remember your Union with Christ; Come and remember your Union with one another.

For when Jesus offered the bread and the cup as his body and blood of the new covenant, he judged us all as subject to sin and beneficiaries of forgiveness. Communion is the seal upon this covenant, and since all of us are in the same boat, we may as well get along. “All the more,” Hebrews says, “as we see the Day approaching.” That Day we’ll all be together. Why not start now?

So let us provoke one another to love and good deeds. See that irritating person as your opportunity to love and to grow in love. For God’s new covenant is cultivated in communion with God, with Christ, and with one another in Spirit.