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03.24.19 Luke 13.1-9 Repenting of Repentance Sermon Summary

Jesus’ preaching had taken an edge and was making people uncomfortable. Their responses were rather typical (see Luke 11-12). After one dinner, the religious leaders began to “cross-examine” Jesus, looking for a loophole in the rules. They forgot that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right.

Later someone in the ever-increasing crowd interrupted Jesus to settle a dispute with a family member. When Jesus’ teaching puts in the spotlight, we shift attention to someone else. But Jesus tries to get his disciples back on track. He tells them to be watchful, as if you knew a burglar was coming tonight to rob your house. Then one of the disciples expressed their discomfort. Peter asked, “Are you saying this to us or to others? Because the rules don’t apply to us insiders, do they?”

We can argue with Jesus like the Pharisees, lawyers, and teachers. We can try to distract him like the guy in the crowd. We can think his teachings don’t apply to us like Peter. But Jesus keeps pushing, keeps making us uncomfortable, keeps calling us to repent.

Do you know anyone who likes being told to repent? It implies there’s something wrong with us, that we’ve been making bad decisions, that we need to change. “Who are you to tell me to repent?!” is the typical response.

So still trying to justify themselves, to get themselves off the hook, some hometown buddies ask Jesus, “Did you hear about our fellow Galileans, and what happened to them in Jerusalem?” Apparently the Roman governor Pilate had slaughtered some Galileans as they worshiped in Jerusalem—not unlike what we saw in Christchurch, NZ last week.

Jesus saw the question for what it was. “Oh, we may have some work to do in our lives,” they were saying, “but those other Galileans must have been really bad!”

“Really . . .” Jesus muses. “Well don’t forget the eighteen who died in that freak accident when the tower fell on them.”

“Yeah, those guys must have done something really bad, too.”

“Well,” Jesus closes, “all those unfortunate people were no worse than any of you. And if you don’t repent, you’ll perish the same way.”

Wait, what is going on here?!  Is Jesus threatening us with an angry God? Is God just waiting to condemn us? We’d better repent before our luck runs out? Just thirty-one verses earlier Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

What is Jesus’ ultimate message? Is it God is a loving parent eager to provide for our needs? Or is it God is a condemning judge barely restraining himself from annihilating us? Can it be both?

In his letter to the 1 Corinthians, Paul also reminds us that the whole clan of ancient Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they were led out by the cloud, they ate heavenly food, they drank spiritual water. All of them were under the grace of deliverance. But their desires turned evil and they committed idolatry. So most of them died in the wilderness.

Paul’s reason for this reminder? “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Judgment is real. There are consequences to our decisions and actions. Jesus is right to call us to repentance. Paul is right to use the fallen to encourage us to remain standing. But is this the best way to think about repentance? Is Lent really about fearing God for our lives? When Jesus calls us to repent is he calling us to fear God?

“Repentance” comes from the Hebrew word to turn around, and the Greek word to change your thinking. When you think differently, you act differently. Are Jesus and Paul calling us to think about God as an angry judge and then to act accordingly?

Before Jesus and Paul, there were David and Isaiah. It is said David wrote Psalm 63, the first verse of which is, “My soul thirsts for you as in a dry and weary land where there is not water.” And Isaiah replies on behalf of God, “Everyone who thirsts, come the waters. You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

We tend to think that our repentance changes God’s thinking and turns God’s attitude around from one of angry judge to loving father. But repentance is about changing our thinking and turning us around from fleeing a God of wrath to returning to a God of grace.

Jesus speaks of judgment only because he is convinced of grace. Paul speaks of trials only because he is convinced of deliverance. If repentance means to change one’s thinking and then one’s actions, then let me suggest that we need to repent of repentance. We need to think differently about repentance.

We have learned to think that repentance changes God from wrathful to benevolent. In reality it changes you from being fearful to being grateful. When we think about repentance, that “others need it, not me,” Jesus teaches that others need it, but so do you. When we respond that, “there are worse sinners than I who need it more,” Jesus responds that we need it as much as anyone does.

And if we think about repentance that, “I’ll suffer less if I do it,” the Bible teaches that suffering is part of life, but we don’t suffer alone. We’re not in solitary confinement as punishment for our sins. We suffer, just like everyone else, but God suffers with us.

Isaiah assures us, “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

Jesus ends his warnings with a parable about a man who owns a fig tree. After three years of barrenness he wants to cut it down. But the gardener pleads to work with the tree one more year. Jesus’ point? Return to being a fig tree. Let the gardener come to you. Let him dig around your life. Then see what fruit you can bear.

This Lent, let us repent of repentance. Let us return to God. For the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.

Hear in the words of Isaiah an invitation to the Lord’s Table: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

Hear David invite us: My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips.

So let us delight in God’s gift of real bread and rich food. May our souls be satisfied and let us praise God with joyful lips. Then as beloved children of God, let’s change our thinking about repentance. Let’s repent of repentance. Let’s turn from our ways of sin and fear, and turn towards the God of holiness and love. And by the light that shines through us, may others be drawn to the light of Christ. Amen.

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Prayer of St. Columba

St. Columba lived from 521–597. He was responsible for bringing Christianity to Scotland from Ireland. This prayer is found in the Book of Common Worship (2018), p. 1106. I created the hand motions to help children of all ages memorize the prayer.

With you, O God, to guide me, (facing forward, hand gesturing to God in front of us)

I journey on my way. (both hands extend forward to the path ahead)

I know you are beside me (arms to the side, one at a time)

all through the night and day. (hand move together in arc, making circle with fingers)

Within your hand you hold me; (hands rotate to make cup)

what do I have to fear? (hands uplifted to sides)

Your loving arms enfold me, (arms cross and embrace self)

your grace is always near. Amen. (hands cover heart)

03.17.19 Waiting Without Boredom Philippians 3.17-4.1, Psalm 27 Sermon Summary

Between Psalm 27 and Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we receive some help in observing a faithful Lent. It’s the second Sunday in Lent, and it is appropriate for us to hear Psalm 27. In the Jewish lectionary, this psalm is read during the High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). It’s a time of rededication and repentance, just like Lent is for Christians.

Psalm 27 offers help for Lent in two ways. First is related to language. Rededication and repentance create challenges. As New Year’s Resolutions remind us each year, change is hard. If our attitude is set too low, we will fail. But language can help us set our attitude aright.

Psalm 27’s attitude is urgent. There’s a battle for the author’s life, and the language is fitting: “evildoers assail me to devour my flesh;” “an army encamps against me;” “war rises up against us.” There are probably actual events in the author’s mind, but these are behind the text and beyond our experience.

However, the difficulty of change, of rededication and repentance, IS within our experience. Psalm 27 invites us to address our spiritual challenges as “adversaries and foes” and “false witnesses breathing out violence.” Doing so can motivate us appropriately. It can give us “courage” and help us “wait” for the Lord. “Waiting” in the Bible is often active, not waiting around, and that’s the idea here at the end of Psalm 27. This language is active.

Second, Psalm 27 helps us in Lent by giving us images for prayer. This is helpful when our words fall short, and is especially helpful for people with vivid imaginations. So God is our “light” and our “stronghold.” God “lifts our heads over our challenges,” “camouflages us under his tent,” and “sets us high upon a rock.”

Psalm 27 envisions us living “in the house of the LORD,” and “seeking God’s face.” And God, the psalmist depicts, turns the divine face toward us. These are vivid images for use in prayer. Images and imagination have traditionally been undervalued, especially in Presbyterianism. But Psalm 27 gives us license to use them.

In the Philippians passage Paul also gives us perspective during Lent. He is writing from prison yet full of joy and determination. For Paul, Jesus Christ is our Savior with power to subject all things to himself. That power was on display in his resurrection. When the Savior’s work is complete, Paul says, our body of humiliation will be transformed to conform to Christ’s body of glory.

From Paul’s perspective, our true home is heaven. What is heaven? It is simply the presence of God without distraction. And Paul says a Savior from home is coming to release us from our spiritual prison. So Paul stands firm in faith, even in literal prison, and urges his followers to do the same. The Philippians are to imitate Paul.

When you read Philippians you can see Paul’s character, some of the traits he would commend us to imitate. Beyond rejoicing in imprisonment, Paul believes that dying exalts Christ (because of the shared resurrection we have with him in baptism). But he also realizes that living in this world can also exalt Christ. So to imitate Paul is to live fully in this world.

Paul also urges us to grow in our knowledge of Christ. From his own experience, he testifies that knowing Christ is greater than righteous living. You’ll find other inspiring traits to imitate throughout the letter to the Philippians.

The Second Helvetic Confession says: “We acknowledge the saints to be living members of Christ and friends of God who have gloriously overcome the flesh and the world. Hence we love them as brothers and sisters, and also honor them. We also imitate them.”

May these passages inspire a more faithful Lent, helping us to set our attitudes high enough, giving us language and images to enhance our prayers, and inviting us to imitate faithful examples.

03.10.19 Verifying Who We Are Luke 4.1-13 Sermon Summary

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that after his baptism, Jesus was driven by the Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Only Matthew and Luke give us a detailed description of the temptations, and they switch the second and third temptations.

No one was there with Jesus, so obviously Jesus must have told the disciples the details. Why? Was it to show how powerful he was? Do Matthew and Luke resort to the testimony of the Devil to identify Jesus as the Son of God? Or was there another reason?

Why did Jesus tell his disciples about his wilderness trial, about his “vision quest” as native religions call them? The story of Jesus’ temptations is an archetypal story. We’re given clues to read the story as more than history. For example, Jesus is driven to the “wilderness,” which makes us think immediately of the wilderness experience of the ancient Israelites being liberated from slavery in Egypt to the Land of Promise.

He is in the wilderness for “forty days”—another symbolic clue. In Noah’s story, the Flood lasted forty days. Moses was on Sinai for forty days. The spies were in Canaan forty days. It was forty days between the Resurrection of Jesus to his Ascension. These literary cues tell us we’re in the genre of archetypal story.

Jesus’ temptations are told to us by Matthew and Luke for our benefit. Just as Jesus expected us to fast—“When you fast,” he says; not “if you fast”—so he expects us to face temptation. Not these exact temptations, but these types of temptations. These three are basic and inclusive of any others.

The three temptations are to turn stones into bread, worship Devil to receive worship, and to throw oneself from Temple to be rescued. Jesus is teaching something general which we can apply to the specific situations in our lives. We are all are tempted, tried, tested, proven, and improved.

God’s calling upon us is to fulfilment of our destiny of who God created us to be. Temptations ask the question, “Will we rise to it?” That’s all temptation is. It’s a test of our identity. Will we behave as children of God or not? Temptations are opportunities to grow as children of God.

As we learn these three temptations, we can apply them to every temptation we face, every trial we experience. And we’ll have resources to navigate our own faithfulness. So remember these archetypal temptations. Jesus faced them, and so will we.

The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. It is the temptation to be practical. We do need to eat. We do need to do something useful. This is the temptation to provide for ourselves, to “look out for number one.” And not just now, but into the future. This is the temptation to be preoccupied with the material. It tells us that “what we see is all that matters.”

But Jesus teaches that there is value in what is NOT useful; for example, grace. Grace cannot be calculated or measured. There is no economy of grace. Grace is God’s continuous self-giving. It has no value in the way we calculate value, and without such value, it is useless. But it has a value in a different economy. Jesus is calling our attention to this truth.

Our work has value—we work and we get paid. But ultimately it is God who provides. Thus the proper attitude is not, “I deserve this; I’ve earned this.” Such an attitude leads either to pride or to resentment. Rather, the proper attitude to work and rewards is humility and gratitude.

Material things are wonderful, but they are not all that matters. We’re called to be more than consumers and more than producers.

Perhaps this Lent you can trace some of your spiritual sickness to this first temptation.

The second temptation is to worship others in order to receive worship. It is the temptation to believe that if you succeed, others will admire you. If you make the sacrifice, you’ll have others’ esteem. What kinds of sacrifices are we tempted to make?

Some of us are sacrificing our happiness to this temptation. Others sacrifice their health. Some sacrifice their relationships with their spouse or children. Many of us sacrifice the present to the future. We are sacrificing our very selves.

But Jesus teaches that we are to worship and serve God first, then prioritize accordingly. How did Jesus do this? Some examples. Remember he taught, “Consider the lilies of the field, how beautiful they are, here today and gone tomorrow; God provides better for you.” Remember he said, “Let the little children come to me, though they offer no value to your society, and I will bless them.” In summary, he taught, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where they last, not on earth where they do not.”

I suspect that your own meditation on the second type of temptation can help you find the idols in your life.

The third temptation is to prove your relationship with God. “Throw yourself from the Temple height,” the Devil said to Jesus, “let everyone see your favored status.” It is a test to place our trust in human testimony as opposed to God’s testimony. We ask, “What are people saying about me? How many FB friends or followers do I have? How many ‘likes’ did my post get?”

Before all these, God has already given his testimony about us. Through baptism we are God’s “beloved,” and “in us God is well pleased.” God will not ask about our popularity, but whether we believed we were a child of God, and whether we behaved like we believed it.

We can still try to prove it to others, to impress them so they say, “What a godly person! See how God has blessed them! See how God rescued them from the fall from the Temple!”

Or we can remember the promises God has made to us in Christ: “I have claimed you as my children. Now trust that I will provide: You need bread and more than bread, and I will provide it. I love you for who you are, not for what you can do or how many people admire you. All I want from you is your attention and your love. Don’t sacrifice yourself to get MY attention. I am obsessed with you already. You are my beloved child; now act as my child, regardless of what others may say. Be kind, be generous, be gracious, for that is my DNA, and you carry it as my child.”

We remember these promises at the Table of the Lord. Here we receive God’s Word reminding us we are one with Christ. Here we receive God’s Spirit accompanying us as she did Jesus into our own wilderness. Here we remember that when temptations and trials come, God is near to us, maybe even the closest he can be to us. Here with Jesus, we recognize trials as opportunities to grow more into our calling. Here we receive grace for the trials we face.

03.06.19 The Blessing of God’s Judgment, Ash Wednesday Lectionary

In Reformed worship it is customary to read and interpret scripture. But during such heavy lectionary days as Ash Wednesday, there are simply too many scriptures to interpret. The hope on these days is that the festival theme provides enough context to guide interpretation. Or we pray that the Spirit picks up something from all this scripture for everyone who listens. Or we trust the surrounding ritual helps interpret the passages.

Some things we’ve heard in the assigned lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday include: Our reconciliation with God through Christ; the nature of true and false fasting and the consequences of these for the nation; and Jesus’ instructions on giving alms, praying, and fasting. Tonight I want to share some thoughts on God’s judgment, and the blessing of it.

The Bible teaches that God is a judge and that judgment occurs all the time, and that there is a final judgment. But just because it’s in the Bible—and it’s in there a lot—doesn’t mean we understand it correctly. God’s judgment might be the second most misunderstood teaching in the Bible. God’s grace being the first.

Our propensity to self-justification and our popular imagination have combined to really confuse us on God’s judgment. We think it’s about punishing those who are sinful—and we look forward to it happening to someone else. We think it’s reserved for those who reject Christ, even though we reject Christ all the time.

We think it’s about God venting his anger, and there is some truth to this, because God is angry. God is angry about sin. Sin was never God’s intention for the world. Sin hurts the world God created. It hurts us who are created in God’s image. And it hurts the rest of God’s creation, created out of God’s artistic imagination.

So God is angry like you would be angry if some force hurt your beloved or something you created to express yourself.

God is angry, but not with US. God is angry FOR us. Because before we participated in any wrongdoing, before we committed any sin, we were first victims of sin. God’s judgment is best understood not simply as judgment upon sin, and a rejection of sin. God’s judgment is best understood as God’s redemption of sin, as God’s triumph over sin.

This changes how we hear the first words of judgment. After sin entered the Paradise God created, the last thing God says to the human before expelling them from the Garden of Eden is, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It’s a reminder really, that all things NOT the Creator, all created things, have a beginning and an end. We were never anything more than dust, never anything more than creatures; creatures originally and ultimately dependent upon our Creator. We are absolutely dependent upon God.

Our existence depends on God . . . and so does the existence of sin. THIS is the good news of God’s judgment. Because even though God tolerates sin now, God’s judgment in the biblical sense is that God’s creatures will endure, but sin will not.

Sin has been atoned for in Christ. Everything lost will be found. Everyone enslaved to a debtor will be redeemed. Every injustice will be made right. Everything returns to dust. And whatever God raises FROM the dust will be restored and no longer subject to sin.

So I invite you to come and receive ashes on your forehead. On your way, touch the waters of baptism and remember your union with Christ in death and resurrection. After receiving the ashes, go to one of the posters on the back windows. There take the chalk and write the name of someone who has returned to dust. Their struggle with sin is over.

Or write the name of something we wait to return to dust—cancer, perhaps. Or injustice. For God has promised these too will come to an end. We can entrust all things to God’s care.

Then let us rejoin one another around the communion table where we will begin our Lenten journey with Christ in us, the hope of glory.

 

 

 

The Lines

2/15/18

Every week they form a line

to receive from me

“The Bread of Life”

and

“The Cup of Salvation”

My hands are squeaky clean

like a doctor’s in the examining room

as I dispense medicine for the soul.

Many receive as a matter of course.

Most respond

“Thanks be to God”

and that out of habit.

Such is the danger of weekly Communion.

But others receive with joyful tears

or reverence

or humble gratitude

and say

“God’s grace for me”

or

“The presence of God”

or

“Forgiveness for my sin”

or

nothing at all.

This week they formed a line

to receive words of judgment

“Remember you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.”

I have the thumb of a mechanic

black greasy ash fills the space between my flesh and nail

as I cross each forehead

with the fact of our mortality.

Some respond

“Thanks be to God”

probably out of habit

perhaps to expedite the anxious moment

or maybe because mortality is the good news to end their suffering.

I am startled by the response of one:

“God have mercy upon me.”

Such is the danger of speaking the truth.

02.24.19 Music Accompanies Salvation Psalm 98 Sermon Summary

Note: This homily was delivered on the occasion of dedicating our new organ. It is based on Psalm 98 and the hymn “When the Morning Stars Together” in the Glory to God Hymnal number 689.

In the Creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 there is speaking and fashioning but no songs, no singing. Later throughout the scriptures, however, music is heard. Take Psalm 104:12, for example. In a passage extolling God for creation, mention is made of the birds singing. Of course. It would be natural that when the birds were created there would be singing.

But what about the rest of creation? Was there singing throughout when God made the universe? In Job 38:7 God asks, “Where were you when the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Here the answer seems to agree with modern physicists: the whole universe sings and has from the beginning.

Likewise, Isaiah 55:12 says that when God’s word accomplishes its purpose (and remember, it was God’s Word that created everything in Genesis 1), mountains and hills burst into song and the trees of the field clap their hands.

Psalm 29 says that the voice of the Lord is over the waters and the God of glory thunders. It’s a description of a mighty rain storm. And in the Revelation of John we are told many times that God’s voice is like the roaring of many waters.

I think it’s safe to conclude that music has accompanied creation from the very beginning and does so to the very end. And if so, then music accompanies salvation also.

It’s little wonder that God’s people make music, in synagogue and church as the Bible testifies, but also in every other religious tradition. The Bible testifies to music making by humans through singing, of course (the Psalms and other canticles), through stringed instruments like the lyre, lute, and harp, through percussion instruments like cymbals, timbrels, and drums, through horns like trumpets and animal horns, and through wind instruments like pipes from which we get the organ.

Most people today envision the church when they think of organs. The organ was invented in Alexandria 300 years before Christ. There blowing air through pipes was first automated. The organ accompanied games and circuses. Think about silent movies from 1910s being accompanied by organs.

The organ didn’t move into church until around 900, and it was well-established by 1400. In 1515 or so the modern organ as we know it emerged. In England in 1649 the Puritans destroyed organs. Nonetheless, organs reached their height in late 1800s to late 1900s. The industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was responsible for the installation of 8,812 organs in churches, concert venues, and civic halls by 1873. “I give money for church organs” he said, “in the hope the organ music will distract the congregation’s attention from the rest of the service.”

Today, the organ is a distraction for reasons other than Carnegie hoped. It’s not a pleasant diversion from the sermon. Some people refuse to worship unless there is an organ. Others refuse to worship because there is organ. This leads me to make a cautionary observation.

Music is highly personal. We fall in love by it, it accompanies our grief, it expresses our anger. In recent decades, music has become hyper personal. Today you can listen to countless selections of music that conform exactly to your preference. Individual tastes reign supreme. This is a very recent development.

Our ego plus endless choice has produced cranky consumers, and you see it in the church. It can keep us from worshiping together. I hate the organ, says one person. Well, I hate guitars. I don’t understand chant. I can’t stand drums. Some people hate singing. Others can’t tolerate silence.

How can we worship together with this cultural dynamic at work? I think we can if we remember two things. First is the reason we make music. We humans make music to worship God. Music-making is an expression of our divine image to create. Even though some music may obscure this original impulse, it still necessarily reflects it.

Second we do not have the luxury of worshiping alone. All creation worships its Creator. All cultures worship God. Even the most individualistic passages of scripture (and they are rare) expand eventually to envision and include all creation and all nations.

We can worship together with whatever instrument we bring—voice, organ, tambourine, hands, or just ears. We can worship together because we’re all part of God’s creation. Let us remember that we are each an instrument of God, no less than King David or Mary the Mother of Jesus, no less than the bread and the wine of Communion, no less than the organ we dedicate this day. And let us worship God together and with all creation, singing praise to the one who gives us life.

Dedicatory Prayer

Lord, as part of our worship each week we offer ourselves and our world to you through prayer. In baptism we thank you for your claim upon our lives and pledge to follow your guidance. With song we lift before you our joys and our heartaches. In all these ways, we make dedication to you each week in worship.

But this week we offer special prayers of thanksgiving and dedication. We thank you for the gift of music, and the opportunity we have to join together, not only with brothers and sisters in Christ in this place, but with those around the world, throughout time, and even with all creation, praising you in song.

We thank you for all who in the past many years have contributed to our desire to have organ music empower us for a new generation. We thank you for those who discerned and designed this organ and its installation for us. We thank you for everyone who donated to our new organ fund, for their love for music and the church is combined this day in the dedication of our new organ.

Make us all to be good stewards of these gifts—the contributions, the prayers, the skillfulness, and the music this organ represents. May all who listen and sing do so with joy and thanksgiving. May we follow the example of faithful servants like our organists, whose hands and feet harmonize the sounds of this instrument, adding our ears and our voices to their offered gift.

Let this organ, and the worship it accompanies, ever call us to faith and generosity, that in life and in death, with all that we are and all that we have, we may offer ourselves to your praise. We dedicate this organ to you. We dedicate all who hear it, in worship and weddings and funerals, to you. We dedicate all who sing with it to you. And we dedicate this church, served by this organ, to you. In Christ’s name do we pray. Amen.