A Covenant, Written on our Hearts

A Covenant, Written on our Hearts

Sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33 for March 18, 2018, Lent 5B

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

I have been reading the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He explains that there are two theories about how our species, Homo Sapiens became preeminent, over Neanderthals (and other species). 

One theory is that Homo Sapiens, being better tool-makers and hunters, out-competed the Neanderthals for resources, so that the Neanderthal populations gradually dwindled into extinction. 

The other theory is that Neanderthals were eliminated violently in, what today we would call, a campaign of ethnic cleansing. 

I would much rather believe the first explanation than the second; I want to be able to tell a story of having descended from peace-loving ancestors who were smart, but gentle.  But I know enough about what it means today to be Homo Sapiens that the story of brutal violence cannot be eliminated.  We will let the scholars sort out the answer as to which theory is correct.

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Getting Saved

Getting Saved

Sermon on John 3:14-21 for March 11, 2018, Lent +4 B

John 3:14-21

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

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I have two sons who are millennials.  One of the new terms their generational cohort popularized is the word “meme”.  A meme is an idea, or a phrase, that spreads from person to person in a culture. Like genes are replicated in living organisms, memes spread on social media of all kinds until they are nearly universally recognized. 

Anyway, the phrase “in my opinion” became a meme at the congregation I served in Gulf Shores.  We had several forums in which we wanted to have open discussions, including diverse viewpoints.  We wanted people to feel free to share their thoughts without fear of judgment, so we asked people to begin their comments with the preamble, “In my opinion.”  We even suggested that if a person forgot to say “in my opinion” that the rest of the group had permission to hear whatever they said as, “In your opinion.”  So, “In my opinion” became a meme, almost an inside joke. 

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The Kind of People We Are (Aspirationally)

The Kind of People We Are (Aspirationally)

Sermon on Psalm 19 and John 2:13-16 for March 4, 2018, Lent 3B

Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims  God’s handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a beloved from a wedding canopy,
and like a strong athlete runs its course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of God is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of God are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of God is clear, enlightening the eyes;

the fear of God is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of God are true and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.

Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.

John 2:13-16

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 

I want to confess something – a bad characteristic of mine that I seem, at the moment, powerless to overcome.  I buy more books than I read.  I do a good bit of reading, but not nearly as much as I want to.  So if I have unread books, why do I buy more? 

Here is another confession – because I hear an author being interviewed or I read something that refers to another book, and I often find myself thinking, “O my gosh!  I don’t know much at all about that.  I have to read that!  I’m ignorant in that area.”  I often feel inadequately informed. 

But that problem is backed into the cake of what I do: I am a pastor.  I have to stand up here every week and say something about God, and life, and how the two intersect.  But God is unfathomable, and life is mysterious, so when do you ever know enough to say something? 

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The Beautiful Freedom of the Ugly Truth

The Beautiful Freedom of the Ugly Truth

Sermon on Mark 8:31-38 for February 25, 2018, Lent +2 B

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

The Russian author Dostoevsky wrote a novel entitled “Notes from the Underground.” That title has to go down as one of the best novel titles of all time – in my opinion.   I thought of that title as I was reflecting on this text from Mark’s gospel.   In many ways, Mark’s gospel is written from the underground.

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Rainbows, Beasts, and Angels

Rainbows, Beasts, and Angels

Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15 for February 18, 2017, Lent 1 B

Genesis 9:8-17

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

When you think about your life, several things are evident even before you try to get down to a deep level.  Right away you know that your life is limited.  For many of us here (most of us) there is far more of it that lies behind than ahead.  We are mortal.  One of the beautiful and powerfully liberating parts of our faith is that we are not in fear of death, nor are we in denial of death. We do not believe that death is the end of existence, only the end of one kind of existence. 

Continue reading “Rainbows, Beasts, and Angels”

What Jesus Is To Us?

What Jesus Is To Us?

Sermon on Mark 9:2-9 for Transfiguration B, February 11, 2018

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

I have never been to Scotland, but off the West coast is a small island called Iona.  Christianity spread to Iona as early as the first or second century.  Today it is the home of the Iona Community of Christians who are re-discovering and celebrating the ancient Celtic Christian perspectives in their prayers and worship. 

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We sometimes use one of the Iona Community Affirmations of faith in our worship service.  I love its fresh and vibrant language.  It begins, “We believe that God is present, in the darkness before the dawn; in the waiting and uncertainty where fear and courage join hands, conflict and caring link arms, and the sun rises over barbed wire.”

Many people make a spiritual pilgrimage to the Iona Community.  I hope I get a chance to do that someday.  Often people report that Iona is a “thin place.”  A thin place is where the border between the material world and the spiritual world feels especially thin.  In other words, it is a place in which people encounter the Divine, or the Spirit, or, simply put, they encounter God there. 

The Story of the Thin Place Experience

The gospel text we read is the story of a thin place experience. 

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There is no way now to get back behind the text and determine how much of this experience was simply remembered and described, and how much of the story is symbolic – probably it is a mixture. 

People do that today.  Sometimes people will say, “God told me to do something” – for example, to apply for that job, or to buy that house, or whatever.  They do not usually mean that they heard a voice, but they felt an impression that they took to be from God, and use the figure of speech “God told me” to describe how real it felt.  So, we cannot see behind this text, so let us just notice the details and try to understand what Mark is trying to convey through it. 

The story begins with Jesus taking his core group, his inner-circle of disciples up to “a high mountain.  When?  It says, “six days later.  Why mention the timing?  Probably because it makes us all think of something else that famously happened on the sixth day on a high mountain that involves God’s voice and a cloud:

“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.  The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.” Exodus 24:15

So this story is meant to echo one of the most significant moments in the life of Israel: the moment God spoke the words of Torah, or literally guidance, or instruction, to Moses.  We call it “the Law of Moses” but it is more than just a legal document.  It is the stipulations of the covenant between God and the people of Israel whom God has just liberated from slavery in Egypt. 

They have come to Mt. Sinai, and after six days, God speaks to Moses from a cloud.  Clouds are often symbols of the Divine presence because you can see the cloud, but you cannot see what is inside the cloud – God’s presence is known, but yet still mysterious and invisible. 

Daniel’s Vision

So, the six days and the cloud reminds us of Moses on Mt. Sinai, hearing God’s voice giving him the Torah.  So what about the other elements of the story?  Mark tells us that Jesus’ clothing was turned to white, in fact,

“dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

  That is an echo of the prophet Daniel who had a vision, in which he says,

“I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, …his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.” (Dan. 10)

Which of course terrified Daniel.  He said,

“and when I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a trance, face to the ground.  But then a hand touched me and roused me to my hands and knees.  He said to me, “Daniel, greatly beloved, pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you.”

We see the parallels – the prophet hears the Divine messenger; he is terrified, falls the ground, and is then called “greatly beloved.”  In Mark, the disciples see the metamorphosis of Jesus’ clothing becoming dazzling, and they hear the Divine voice calling Jesus God’s “beloved Son”.  Mark says the disciples, like Daniel,  were terrified, but does not add that that they fell to the ground; that detail was supplied by Luke alone. 

Moses and Elijah

Besides seeing Jesus “transfigured” the disciples also see Elijah and Moses. 

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How they know what they look like is not explained, but there they are.  This whole experience is called a “vision” by Jesus in Matthew’s version.  In a vision, when you see Moses and Elijah, you know who they are. 

Why would Moses and Elijah make an appearance?  This brings us close to the point of this whole story.   Moses received God’s message on that high mountain.  But Moses was not the only one through whom God spoke his message to the people; he had also spoken through the prophets.  Elijah was considered Israel’s greatest prophet.

So Moses, who represented the law, the Torah, and Elijah who represents the prophets, are both there as Jesus is seen in an entirely new way by the inner circle of disciples.   

What should happen in response to this thin place vision?  Peter makes the most logical, normal suggestion:

Lord…let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 

His conclusion is that the Israelite tradition has now experienced phase three of God’s messengers.   Phase one, Peter imagines,  was the law, from Moses, phase two was the prophetic tradition represented by Elijah, and now Jesus is phase three.  That would certainly be a new way of seeing Jesus, this carpenter-turned-prophet from Nazareth – to take his place among the great messengers of God.

More Than Phase III

But there is a correction coming.  Peter is on the right track, but he does not go far enough.  The Divine voice from the cloud then speaks. 

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In words that echo the only other time in Mark’s gospel when God’s words are heard directly – namely, at Jesus’ baptism, when Jesus alone heard him, the voice says,

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Jesus is more than phase three; an equal among equals.  He is unique. He is God’s son, the beloved.  So, listen to him.  Do not listen to him alongside others, but uniquely to him. 

The mandate to listen, in a unique way, to Jesus, echoes the ancient prophecy from the book of Deuteronomy.   Centuries before, Moses is described as predicting that in the future, God will raise up a person like him, a prophet, from among the people.  When he does, Moses says, “you shall heed such a prophet”.  So the Divine voice from the cloud says the same thing that Moses had said.  The point is: listen to him

Listen to Jesus

So this is the whole point.  What is Jesus to us?  More than phase three.  Jesus is the one who we listen to uniquely.   It is Jesus whose message we take to be final.

So, when the Hebrew Bible pictures God as a warrior, but Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers,” we listen to Jesus.   When the Hebrew Bible tells of a God who sends people to fight their enemies, but Jesus says, “love your enemies,”  we listen to Jesus.

When the Hebrew Bible says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” but Jesus says, “turn the other cheek,” we listen to Jesus. 

When the Hebrew Bible teaches that the obedient are blessed and the disobedient are cursed, but Jesus says that the man who was born blind was not being punished for either his sins nor experiencing punishment for his parent’s sins, and that the sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust, we listen to Jesus. 

When the Hebrew Bible says that God is a devouring fire, but Jesus calls God his Abba, meaning “Father” – or even “daddy” – we listen to Jesus. 

It is Jesus who gives us our understanding of God.  This is the most comforting, liberating and challenging message we could possibly hear. 

Is God for you or against you?  Listen to Jesus for the answer.  God numbers the very hairs of your head

Is God present to you or distant and far away?  Listen to Jesus as he says, the kingdom of God is at hand, is among you, is within you

Does God care about your concerns?  Jesus says, pray; ask, seek, knock; when a child asks her parent for bread does she receive a stone? 

Is God out to punish you when you wander off away from God’s way?  Listen to Jesus: God is the good shepherd who understands that sometimes sheep, like us, get lost, so he searches until he finds us.  And when he finds us, there is not a scold, but rejoicing in heaven. 

The Challenge

But Jesus’ message is not just comforting and liberating, it is also challenging.  To anyone who thinks that their money will save them, Jesus says, you cannot serve two masters, God and money.  A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions. 

Jesus teaches us that we are obligated to forgive people who sin against us even 77 times.  Jesus taught us that we are to see everyone as our neighbor, as the Good Samaritan did – even people who are ethnically or racially different from ourselves. 

Jesus said “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,” and told us to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice.  The demands of seeking justice may bring us into conflict with vested interests of the status quo that benefits from injustice, oppression, and discrimination, but Jesus says, “blessed are you when people persecute you on my account.

Jesus also challenges us to take his comforting, liberating, and challenging message to everyone, everywhere, and take up where his mission left off, making disciples.  He says,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (Matt. 28)

The Baptism Today

So we are going to listen to Jesus and baptize a person here today. 

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The man we will baptize has likewise heard the voice calling him to follow Jesus, and so he will become a baptized member of the body of Christ and of this congregation today. 

Scott will take the ancient vows of baptism “to be a faithful follower of Jesus, obeying his Word and showing his love.” 

And we all will take a vow, on behalf of the worldwide body of Christ, to “guide and nurture Scott, by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him to know and follow Christ, and to be a faithful member of his church.”

 It is our joy, our privilege, and our high calling to respond to the Divine voice, to understand Jesus as God’s Son, and to commit ourselves to hearing his voice as we come to understand ourselves as God’s beloved daughters and sons, the beloved community of the baptized.   

The Goal and How to Get There

The Goal and How to Get There

Sermon on Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39 for February 4, 2018, Epiphany +5 B

Isaiah 40:21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

The Goal and How to Get There

At the vegan dinner last Thursday we were in a conversation about the ways we had changed over the years. 

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We used to think things, and believe things, that we came to think and believe differently about.  We used to eat things we would never put in our mouths, now that we know how unhealthy they are for us. 

Continue reading “The Goal and How to Get There”