Sermon for Pentecost 4 Narrative Lectionary

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

Exodus 20:17

Today we have arrived at the last of the Ten Commandments. In the first sermon, we talked about the background for which God gives these commandments: how God established a relationship with the Israelites by freeing them from slavery in Egypt. God doesn’t give these commandments so that the Israelites can make God love them by following them; God gives these commandments because God loves the Israelites, and the Israelites are to follow them so that their relationships with God and with one another will run more smoothly. We then talked about the first three commandments, which deal primarily with our relationship with God: putting God above everything else, not misusing God’s name, and remembering the Sabbath day. Last week, we covered commandments four through eight: honor your father and mother; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness against another person. Even though these five commandments have to do primarily with our relationships with other people, they all flow out of the first commandment. If you look at Luther’s explanations to these commandments, they all start with, “We should fear and love God, so that. . .” We cannot have a right relationship with God unless we are willing to work on our relationships with one another. And so, this brings us to the last two commandments, or, in some traditions, it’s one commandment: the commandment against coveting other people’s things.

Covet is one of those old-fashioned words that we generally don’t use in everyday conversation. It simply means to desire or to wish for, and it generally has a negative connotation. When we use this word, we are using it to signify that we want something that someone else has. So, for example, at the Blessing of the Animals last year, a family from St. Peter’s in Highspire brought their prize, show dog malamute to be blessed. And when I saw this big, beautiful, fluffy, cuddly, friendly dog, in that instant I wanted that dog. It didn’t matter that I already have a handsome, friendly, sweet-tempered, big black dog who I love to pieces. It didn’t matter that even if I could have taken that dog, I wouldn’t have had room for it in my apartment and I would have had to pay more in rent. None of that mattered. In the face of this beautiful dog, my desire to have this dog—who wasn’t mine—flared up in me. And I think I even confessed my sin to the couple and told them that I was coveting their dog.

In this case, we laugh it off as a joke. We trust one another enough to know who we are—children of God—and we trust that the laws against stealing, as well as other laws, will prevent us, most of the time, from following through on our desires. But the reason that we have commandments against coveting is this: from our desire to have something that belongs to someone else springs violations of all of the other commandments. In fact, I’m rather surprised that the commandments against coveting don’t come before the commandments against murdering and stealing. For example, if you remember the story of David and Bathsheba in 1 Samuel, this is a prime example of how coveting can lead to other sins. King David looked down from a rooftop and saw Bathsheba bathing. He noted that she was very beautiful, and he coveted her, so he sent someone to find out who she was. When the messenger told King David who the woman was, and that she was married, that didn’t matter to him at all. His desire for her overrode everything else, and he sent for her and slept with her, violating the commandments against stealing and adultery. When David then finds out that Bathsheba is pregnant, he brings her husband home and first tries to deceive him, so that they can pass the baby off as his. When that doesn’t work, David sends Bathsheba’s husband back to the front lines and has him killed, violating the commandment against murder. And then he takes Bathsheba as his own wife. David violated all of these other commandments because he had violated this commandment first: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.

In many ways, we live in a society that is based on coveting. This is how our advertising industry exists, for example. Commercials continually tell us that we are not complete unless we have the next big car, the newest model of iPhone, or the most perfect house in the neighborhood. They tell us that we are not beautiful unless we lose weight, eat right, wear the right clothes and the right makeup. In short, they create in us desires that lead us to covet what the other person has. Studies even are starting to indicate that too much time on Facebook and other social media platforms can lead to depression, because we covet the seemingly perfect lives our friends have. We don’t always realize that our friends have problems, too, because who posts stuff online that doesn’t make them look good?

Remember that these commandments that God gives us are based on the fact that God has freed God’s people from slavery in Egypt. If we covet things that do not belong to us, we become a slave to our desires, and God does not want to see us return to slavery when God has freed us from sin. Again, this commandment, this law, acts as a mirror and shows us our sin, and shows us our need for Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to free us from that sin, just as God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And here is the good news: We have already been given enough. God has given us enough so that we should have no need to covet what we don’t have.

And so I think the remedy for coveting, besides confessing the sin, is to remember what God has already given us and to be thankful for it. In my earlier story, coveting the other person’s big, fluffy malamute dog led me to forget what a beautiful dog I have already been given in Otis, who is a wonderful dog that I can actually bring to church with me during the week because he’s so calm, and who loves me very much. And I thank God for every day that I get to spend with him (and my cat, too!). When confronted with advertising gimmicks that incite us to get the latest iPhone, car, house, or whatever it is, we can look around and be thankful for the things that we already have, and realize that God has given us enough to live. And all those commercials for clothes, beauty products, and weight loss programs? This is perhaps the best news of all: no matter what you look like or what you wear, God has created you and you are beautiful in God’s sight. You are children of God, and it doesn’t matter how you look or what you wear: God loves you, all of you, for who you are.

And when I say that God loves you and that you are children of God, I don’t just mean us here in this congregation, I mean everyone in the whole world. This includes those immigrant families who are coming through our southern border and whose children are being taken away from them. This week, our attorney general cited Romans 13 as justification for this: a line where Paul talks about government being put in place by God and how we are to submit to governmental authorities. The Holy Spirit has put it upon my heart to say something about this, because, with all due respect, the line has been taken out of context. If you read the chapter immediately preceding this line, and if you read further afterwards, you will see how Paul talks about the fulfillment of the law being love. And he specifically names the commandments that we have been studying the past several weeks as being summed up by the statement that Jesus also gives us in the Gospel that we’ve been hearing for the past several weeks: Love your neighbor as yourself. And folks, what is happening at the border cannot be justified by anything. I understand that we have immigration laws. I understand that the government has to enforce those laws. But what the government does not have to do is to abandon all human decency and forcibly take a baby away who was nursing at its mother’s breast. God loves these people just as much as God loves you and me. Jesus died for that mother and baby, just as Jesus died for you and me. Jesus is weeping over what is happening at our border.

The fulfillment of these commandments is to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And our neighbor is not just the person sitting next to you today. Our neighbors are every single person on this earth. So go and love your neighbor this week. Call our senators and our representative and tell them to stop separating children from their parents. Write letters and emails. And donate money to groups who are working to help these families and advocate for them, like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. These are just a few ways that you can love your neighbor as yourself.

St. Paul writes in Romans 13, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” All of the commandments that God has given us have to do with love: love for God and love for the neighbor. As we conclude this sermon series on the commandments, I am hopeful that we have a better understanding of what it means to love God and to love neighbor. But I also know that the Law will continue to reflect our sin back on us as a mirror shows us our appearance. What I hope we see in that mirror, distorted as it is by sin, is still a glimmer of the reflection of God’s child. For we are all God’s children, wholly loved by God as a complete person. Nothing that we do or fail to do can cause God to stop loving us, and we are freed by that knowledge. So, let us use that freedom wisely. We are God’s children. It’s time that we act like it. Amen.

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Sermon for 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

Exodus 20:12-16

Last week, we talked about the first three commandments, which had to do with loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind: You shall have no other gods before me; You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; and Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. We talked about some of the ways that we specifically mess up these commandments, and we talked about how God loves us even when we break these commandments and sin against God. Again, as we move through these Ten Commandments, I want to emphasize that these are not rules that we follow in order to get God to love us, because God already loves us. St. Paul writes in Romans that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. These are commandments that help our relationships run smoothly; both our relationships with God and our relationships with one another. And today, as we move into the commandments that deal more directly with our relationships with one another, I want to add this to the mix. Again, borrowing from St. Paul, this time in his letter to the Galatians, when we are freed from the yoke of the Law, we don’t use that freedom as a license to do whatever we want. Rather, we use that freedom to submit to our neighbor in love. This is how we should look at the commandments that we have before us today.

And we begin with the commandment that every person, at some point in his or her life, has difficulty with: Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. I know all of you parents out there are looking at your children smugly, or if your children are not here, thinking of them, and saying to yourselves, “See—God says it! You have to do it!” But I want you to think back to when you were a child, most especially your teenage years, and try to remember how you felt when your parents embarrassed you, or asked you to do something that you didn’t want to do, or seemed to favor your brother or sister over and above you. And that’s not even to talk about parents who are abusive or otherwise don’t know how to parent their children properly—that could take a whole sermon by itself! And then what happens when you get older, and your mother or father clearly can’t live alone any longer because they’re getting older, but they don’t want to go to assisted living or a nursing home? How best do you honor your mother and father then?

In his explanation of the fourth commandment in his Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes, “It must therefore be impressed on young people that they revere their parents as God’s representatives, and to remember that, however lowly, poor, feeble, and eccentric they may be, they are still their mother and father, given by God. They are not to be deprived of their honor because of their ways or failings.” It seems as though this struggle to honor father and mother that we have is not a new one, since Luther was writing about it. When tough questions arise regarding how we are to relate to our parents, there is no one right answer. The guiding principle in this should be how best we are to love and honor our parents. And each of us will have to decide how we are to do that in our individual situations. There are times when we will get it right, and there are times when we will get it wrong. God knows our hearts, and God still loves us even when we get it wrong.

From honoring our parents, we move to the next commandment: You shall not murder. On the surface, this seems like an easy one. Most of us have not murdered anybody else, although the dark desire to may creep in when we are especially angry at someone. But both Jesus and Martin Luther do not let us off the hook with this one. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that we are guilty of violating this commandment whenever we are angry with someone, whenever we insult someone, or whenever we call someone a fool. Martin Luther explains it this way: We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs. Anytime that we are angry with someone; any time that we insult someone; any time we call someone an idiot or a fool; any time that we fail to help and support someone in their need, then we are guilty of violating the commandment against murder. We may not have physically harmed the other person, but we have damaged their spirit.

From honoring your parents, to honoring the other person by not murdering them spiritually or physically, we move to the commandment against adultery. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus again tightens this up: you may not have been physically unfaithful to your spouse, but if you even look at another person with lust, then you have committed adultery with that person in your heart. Martin Luther is a little gentler in his explanation: We are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse. Again, this commandment comes down to truly loving and respecting the other person: first your own spouse, and then the spouse of the other person. Truly loving one another means being faithful to the vows that you have made, even when things are tough in your relationship.

Next, we move to the commandment against stealing. Luther writes, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.” If this explanation isn’t still relevant today, I don’t know what is. We may not have actually physically stolen something from someone. But cheating someone out of something they need to live by a shady deal is the same as stealing. So is refusing to take responsibility for something that is your responsibility. Here in Harrisburg we have the place where the hill crumbled by the apartment complex and destroyed a tire shop down below. The owners of the apartment complex refused to admit that the landslide was their responsibility for many years, forcing the tire shop to close and the man who owned it to struggle for money to survive. Not too long ago, the owners of the apartments above did finally admit responsibility. But the mess still isn’t cleaned up, and the owner of the tire shop is still dealing with financial problems due to the fact that his livelihood was stolen from him. We are to help our neighbors improve and protect their property and income, and in this case, it clearly has not happened. If we think hard enough in our own lives, we will probably come across something that we did or that we failed to do to help out our neighbors with their property, and the law shows us that we stand condemned of stealing.

So, we have gone from honoring father and mother, not murdering, not committing adultery, and not stealing, to the last commandment that we will talk about today: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. And Luther’s explanation here is so helpful as we seek to understand what this commandment is about: We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light. Gossip has happened since biblical times, but in this age of social media, it seems like this has intensified. And it’s not only gossip, but it is also bullying. And it’s not only bullying, but it’s also the 24/7 news media and politicians who rabidly go after the opposing side, refusing to see anything good about the other person, painting everyone who thinks the way the other person does with the same sweeping generalization, and not even trying to listen to the other point of view. All of this falls under the eighth commandment.

As Christians, though, we are called to a different way. We are called to come to our neighbor’s defense, even and especially if that neighbor is Muslim. We are called to speak well of them, even if I am a Democrat and my neighbor is a Republican. We are called to interpret everything our neighbor does in the best possible light, even when our neighbor does something that, on the surface, appears to be the dumbest possible thing we have ever seen in our lives. None of these commandments that God has given us is easy to follow, but I think this one is probably the hardest one of the bunch. It’s so easy to think that we are right, and our neighbor is wrong, and that our neighbor is just the dumbest, most deplorable person that we have seen. But you know what? Our neighbor probably thinks the same thing about us. So, as Christians, we are called to be humble, to realize we are not always right, and to speak well of our neighbors, not to slander them.

On Facebook, I follow the Bangor, Maine police department page. I have been to Maine before but never to Bangor. I follow the page because someone else clued me in to it; the police officer who administers it is a fantastic writer and gives snapshots of life in small town Maine. At the end of each post, he writes, “Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people’s things alone, and be kind to one another.” I think that’s a great summary of the commandments that we have before us today. It’s all part of Jesus’ command in the gospel of Matthew to “love your neighbor as yourself”. For when we do that, not only do you feel safe and free to live out the calling that God has given you, but I also feel safe and free to live out the calling that God has given me. Furthermore, we cannot have a right relationship with the Divine if we are not willing to work on our relationship with our neighbors. As I’ve said before, we’re not going to get this completely perfect. We will fail, and that failure will drive us to Jesus as our Lord and Savior, who loves us and forgives us our failings, and then sends us back out to love our neighbor again. But because of Jesus, we are free to love one another. So let’s get out there and do it. Amen.

 

Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

Exodus 20:3-11

Welcome to the second Sunday of the first of our summer sermon series, where we are speaking about the Ten Commandments. Last week, we set the scene for God giving these commandments to the Israelite people through Moses: the Israelites are gathered at Mount Sinai after God has brought them through the Red Sea, given them food and water, and protected them from people who wanted to kill them. Last week, we heard how God established God’s relationship with the people of Israel. These laws that God gives are not arbitrary laws that God made up to take all the fun out of life. And these laws are not something that the people have to do in order for God to love them. If God didn’t love them, God wouldn’t have saved them from slavery in Egypt. The Ten Commandments are to be understood in this way: because God has done this, therefore the people do that. Striving to follow the laws that God gives are a way to make the people’s relationships with God and with one another work more smoothly. With this understanding in mind, we turn today to the first three commandments that God lays out before us.

The first commandment that God gives us is this: you shall have no other gods before me. Different faith traditions number the commandments slightly differently; in Lutheranism, we lump the command, “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” in with “you shall have no other gods before me.” In some ways, this is unfortunate, because we tend to think, “Well, of course I don’t bow down before statues of other gods.” When I was in Turkey, when we visited the ruins of the city of Ephesus, I bought a replica of a statue of the goddess Artemis of the Ephesians, which is a reminder to me of a story in the book of Acts where Paul encounters the worship of Artemis. But I certainly do not bow down to Artemis when no one is looking; it is just a statue; a souvenir. So, we think we’re good with this commandment because we don’t bow down to idols and maybe because we come to worship on a regular basis and bow down to the one true God. But our good teacher, Martin Luther, is not going to let us get away with that. Martin Luther wrote, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”

OK, so that makes us think. We are not free of guilt just because we don’t bow down to a physical idol, like this little statue of Artemis. What is it that our heart relies and depends on, then? Is it truly God? Or, is it something else? Probably the most common culprit is money. We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who worshiped money even above being decent to his fellow human beings. It took three visits from three different ghosts to show him that there were more important things in life, like relationships with his family and giving generously to those in need, before he gave up depending on money as his god. But we don’t have to be as tight-fisted with money as Scrooge was to trust in money above God. If we love money more than God, then we are constantly worried about making ends meet, rather than trusting in God to provide generously what we need. And money has then become our god, and we now love, worship, and trust in money before we love, worship, and trust in God. And we are officially in violation of the first commandment.

The second commandment, according to the Lutheran tradition is, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” My mother taught me, growing up, that I was in violation of this commandment any time I said, “Oh, my God.” Perhaps many of you learned this was the way to interpret this commandment as well. Or, for those of you who went through confirmation class, you may have learned Luther’s explanation of it: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God’s name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.” Now, that explanation does cover the, “Oh, my God,” part of it, or, as I saw painted once on the back of a semi-truck, “Jesus Christ is Lord, not a swear word.” And I think most of us would say that we don’t use God’s name in order to practice magic. But what about this: saying that God would approve of things that are clearly not God-like? For example, if you are saying that God hates LGBT people, or if you are saying that God hates Muslim people, or that God hates some other group of people, are you not misusing God’s name? Don’t we believe and teach that God loves everyone? Because if God does not love everyone, then maybe God does not love you, either. Be careful what you say God hates, because you may be misusing God’s name.

But all of this is looking at the negative side of things. Do we understand what an incredible gift God has given us in enabling us to use God’s name? We can come to our God in prayer any time we want to. We can talk to God as we would talk to our father, mother, or best friend. We can use God’s name when we want to praise and give thanks to God for the many blessings that God has given us. And yet, we so often fail to do this. We fail to recognize the gift that God has given us, and we get too busy to pray. Or we only come to God when we are in need, and we forget to speak to God when things are going well. So, we are officially in violation of this second commandment as well.

And what about the third commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” And when God says “you” here, God means “y’all”—no one is to do any work at all. Many of us will remember “blue laws”: those laws that forbade businesses from being open on Sundays. Those laws have been eroded over the years. This economy that we have created values money over people. Everyone must work and work and work in order to have enough money to survive. But, as someone once said, God created us to be human beings, not human doings. If we just keep doing and doing and doing with no rest in sight, we will kill ourselves. What would it look like if we started to reinstitute those blue laws? Yes, it was annoying when you ran out of something on a Sunday and couldn’t go to the store to pick it up. But what would happen if we trusted in God to get us through one day—just one day!—without whatever it is we think we need? Not only would we be able to rest, but the people who work in the store would be able to rest, and perhaps then we might be able to appreciate other people for who they are rather than put the ultimate value on the things that they can produce for us.

Of course, there’s another part to observing the Sabbath besides resting, and that is this: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s Word, but instead keep that Word holy and gladly hear and learn it,” as Luther says in his explanation. If you’re here, then you’ve already got part of this down, and so I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. But, on the other hand, not all of you are in worship every Sunday, so maybe you have some work to do on that. And besides that, every one of you should be in a Bible study. I know that many of you have scheduling conflicts and can’t make it on a Thursday morning. I’ve been wanting to get an evening Bible study started for that very reason. Those of you who would be better able to come to an evening study, please come and talk to me, and let’s get something going. Because if we truly love God, then we should want to make time to hear and learn God’s Word.

The law is a mirror that, when we hold it up to ourselves, shows us our sin and our need for Jesus. The first section of the commandments tells us how we are to love God, and as we have seen, we fail miserably at this. We love and trust other things in life, such as money, before God. We misuse God’s name: using it to curse, speaking wrong things in God’s name, and not calling upon God’s name when we should be. We do not observe the Sabbath rightly: we do not take time to rest and to let other people rest, and we are not in worship and in Bible study as we should be. Jesus tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our strength, but even though we strive to do this, we fail miserably.

But here is the good news: through Jesus Christ, God has set us free from our slavery to sin. God has given us grace and mercy, and through Jesus, God has forgiven us and has set us free. God loves us. You are each loved by God, and nothing you can do will change that. In his sermon on Friday night at Synod Assembly, Bishop Dunlop said that sociologists note that children will grow in the image that friends and family have of them. If your close family and friends say that you’re smart, for example, you will work harder at studying and you will become smart. So if God says that you are loved—and you are—how will you work to show that you are loved? God gives us these commandments, knowing that we are not going to be perfect at fulfilling them, but loving us anyway and urging us to keep on trying at loving God. So, love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, and mind. Trust God more than anything else in life. Pray, praise, and give thanks to God in every circumstance. Rest in God’s love on the Sabbath. Trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness when you mess up. And show the world that this is what it means for you to be loved by God. Amen.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2018

Narrative Lectionary, Year 4

Summer Sermon Series: Ten Commandments

Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-2

This Sunday, we leave behind the Roman Empire of the 1st century AD. We leave behind the pagan streets of Greece, where Christianity was just beginning to gain a foothold, and we leave behind the dusty streets of Jerusalem, where the Holy Spirit fell upon all of Jesus’ disciples. We are now going centuries back in time, where a group of Hebrew people have just been led out of slavery in Egypt by God, through his servants, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and have arrived at a mountain in the wilderness named Sinai. Here Moses will receive what would come to be known as the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone: those laws that would become foundational for not only the Jewish people, but for Christians—whose faith sprang out of the Jewish faith—and the foundation of laws for much of Western civilization. We wrestle with different aspects of these commandments all of the time; the most public dispute is whether or not they should be on display at government facilities like courthouses. As we begin this first of our summer series on the Ten Commandments, we’re going to go back to the basics and try to understand the context in which these commandments arose. And today, we begin with the storyteller of Exodus setting the scene in which Moses begins to speak with God and will receive the Ten Commandments. This setting of the scene begins with the reason why God is giving this covenant to the people, and that can be summarized with one word: relationship.

The Israelites have just come out of Egypt and into the wilderness, and God has protected them the entire way. God has split the waters of the Red Sea, and the Israelites have passed through on dry ground, and when the Egyptians try to pursue them, the waters come back and drown them. Now these people, who do not know life outside of Egypt, begin to flounder in the wilderness. They encounter water that is not drinkable because it is bitter, and through Moses, God makes the water sweet. When they realize that they have nothing to eat, God rains down bread from heaven, which the Israelites call “manna,” meaning literally, “What is it?” Again, they have no water to drink, and through Moses, God provides water from a rock. The Amalekites come to battle against the Israelites, and God protects them and enables them to win against their enemies. God has done all of this and more for God’s people, the Israelites. Based on this relationship, God tells the Israelites that it is time to make a covenant, and that, if they obey the covenant, they will be God’s treasured people, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

But one thing that the text is clear about, and the one thing that I want to make certain that we understand is this: these commandments that God gives the Israelites are not some arbitrary set of rules that God made up to take all of the fun out of life. Rather, I want to have us try and approach these commandments as things that make our life with God and our life with one another run more smoothly. I once heard Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish professor of the New Testament at Vanderbilt University, say that the Jewish people look at the Law as a married couple would look at household rules. A married couple would have rules to make living together easier, such as this: When one spouse comes home from work, she needs time to herself to decompress and read a portion of a book for fun before she is able to talk about her day with her husband. When that rule isn’t followed, there could be the potential for more friction between the couple, and so the husband, out of love for his wife, finds it joyful and not burdensome to follow that rule and to make life for his wife a little easier. Just so, as we look at the Ten Commandments, we should see these laws not as a burden for us to carry, but as a joy for us to follow, so that our relationship with God and our relationships with one another can be easier and more joyful.

Therefore, the first thing that God does before God even utters the actual laws is to establish that God does have a relationship with the Israelites. God states that God brought the Israelites out of the house of slavery in Egypt, and because God has freed them from slavery, therefore this is how the Israelites should behave. I want you to notice how God frames this: because I have done this, therefore you do this. It is the language, first of all, of ancient covenant treaties. But second, and more importantly, these laws are not to be obeyed so that God will love the Israelites. God already loves the people; if God didn’t love them, then God wouldn’t have freed them from slavery. The Israelite people, and today the Jewish people, rest securely in God’s love. But because they are God’s people, and because they want this relationship with God to work well, and because they love God, therefore they strive to honor God by following the commandments that God gives them. It’s all about relationship.

And this means that the Law is actually good news for us. God loves you so much that God tells me not to murder you, because God loves you. And God loves me so much that God tells you not to steal something from me, because that would hurt me and God does not want to see me hurting. Once again, these commandments are not to be burdensome obligations for us, but they are, rather, to be a testament to how much God loves us, a testament to how much God wants to be in a good relationship with us, and how much God wants us to be in a good relationship with one another and with everything that God has created.

Now that you’ve heard the ideal, though, here is the reality. We are sinful human beings. We make mistakes. We miss the mark. That’s what sin is. The sin that keeps us turned in on ourselves rears its ugly head and breaks relationships: both with God and with one another. We may not actually be worshiping other gods, but, for example, if every decision we make in life thinks about money and about our survival before anything else, then we are putting money above God. We may find it difficult to honor our father and our mother if they suffer from dementia and don’t recognize us anymore. I may not actually murder someone, but if I call that person an idiot, then I am destroying a piece of their soul. The law shows us our sins, as a mirror shows us what we truly look like, and it shows us our need for Jesus.

And just as God showed his love for the Israelites in freeing them from slavery, God shows God’s love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (to quote St. Paul in Romans 5). Just as God established his relationship with the Israelites before giving them the Law on Mount Sinai, reminding them that God had freed them from slavery, God shows God’s love for us by sending God’s Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins. All of those times that we miss the mark, that we sin—Jesus has died for those sins, and he sets us free from our slavery to those sins. So now, just as the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, we are freed from slavery to sin, and we are now set free to love God and to love our neighbor, as Jesus summarizes the law for us.

But here’s the problem: the word “love” in English too often means “to have warm, fuzzy feelings for someone”. But in the Greek, love means more than that. Love is an action word. In English we have the phrase, “to put your money where your mouth is”. To love as Jesus commands us to do is not simply to have that warm, fuzzy feeling for someone. It means putting our money where our mouth is. It means that, when there is yet another school shooting, we do more than simply say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” True love for these children would mean working for sensible gun control laws and working to improve both the ways we talk about mental health, as well as improving access to mental health care. True love for our neighbors would mean standing up to our government and saying, “We know that these immigrants came here illegally, but it is not acceptable to separate mothers from their children, no matter who they are.” True love for our neighbor means doing things that put our neighbor’s interests above our own, advocating for them even when whatever the issue is does not seem to affect us. Because if our neighbor is hurting, then it means that we are hurting, too.

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the mystery of three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in one God. Many people have tried to explain the Trinity over thousands of years and have fallen short. And I think that’s natural: God is much bigger than the human mind can comprehend, and no one explanation of God is going to get everything right. But one explanation that helps me, and makes sense to me at this point in my spiritual journey, is that God is a God of relationships. There is no hierarchy in the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are, as the Athanasian Creed says, “equal in glory, coequal in majesty”. That’s hard for us humans to understand, because in every society, even a democracy, there are still hierarchies. But whatever else this Three-in-One God is, it is a God who is in relationship with God-self, and it is a loving relationship. And God gives us the Ten Commandments to help us to understand how to live in loving relationship with God and with one another. So, come, let us joyfully live into all of these relationships that God invites us into. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21

Besides being a fan of superhero movies, I am also a fan of other sci-fi movies, including Star Wars. When I went to see the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, after Christmas with my parents, this is the conversation that we had after the movie was over. My mother said that, despite the fact that Kylo Ren tells Rey that her parents were nobody special, she still believes that Kylo Ren and Rey are related somehow. I responded that this was Star Wars and not a soap opera. My parents’ response was that Star Wars was in fact very much like a soap opera, and the Skywalker family was like the royal family, specially gifted by the Force, so that everyone who can use the Force must be related to the Skywalkers somehow. For a while after this conversation, I was a bit disillusioned. But then I started thinking about this, and realized that this is not entirely true. Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, after all, were not related to the Skywalker family and could use the Force. Before the Empire took over, if you watched the Star Wars prequels, there were other people, unrelated to the Skywalker family, who could use the Force, and finally, in The Last Jedi, the very last scene of the movie shows a small boy sweeping a floor and using the Force to grab his broom. It would seem the Force is more democratic than we have made it out to be.

So, why am I telling you this? As we hear the story of the Holy Spirit coming down upon the disciples today, I think it’s important that we remember that this is not the first time in Luke’s story that the Holy Spirit has appeared. Remember that Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and in the first book, Luke tells us of a number of times that the Holy Spirit has come upon people. When Mary asks the angel Gabriel how she will conceive a child, since she is a virgin, the angel answers that, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” When Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks of how the child in her womb leapt when she heard the sound of Mary’s greeting. When John the Baptist is born, the Holy Spirit fills his father Zechariah, who prophesies about his son’s ministry. When Jesus is born, and Mary and Joseph take him to the temple, the Holy Spirit fills Simeon, who prophesies about what Jesus will do. And when Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on him. So we see that the Holy Spirit has come upon a select few people before the day of Pentecost, according to the story that Luke tells. But what makes the day of Pentecost different is this: the Holy Spirit falls not just on a few people, but rather, on all of Jesus’ disciples who are gathered together and praying. The Holy Spirit is not just for the “royalty,” the Biblical heroes, but rather, it is for everyone: all of Jesus’ disciples.

And that means that the Holy Spirit is for us, too. The Holy Spirit has come upon each one of us and is with us from the moment we are baptized. We may not be empowered to speak in different languages like the first disciples were—as fun as that might be!—but we are empowered to speak about Jesus in words that people around us will understand. When we are divided from other people by barriers of race, class, citizenship vs. immigrant status, sexuality, religion, and so on and so forth: the Holy Spirit is with each one of us and has empowered and will empower each one of us to break down whatever the barrier is in order to speak in words that the other person will understand, so that the good news of Jesus can continue to be proclaimed.

But even more than that: Peter connects this pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all people so that they can tell the good news of Jesus in many different languages to an Old Testament prophecy from the book of Joel. He says that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Because we have been given the Holy Spirit, we are now given the ability to prophesy: in other words, to proclaim to the world the love that God has for us; we are given the ability to see the visions and the dreams that God has for this world that God has created. Each one of you has that ability, because each one of you has the Holy Spirit within you. But before you go off and start telling people that, “the Lord has come to me in a vision and this is what he says,” we need to take a step back for a moment. Because the truth is that we are still sinful people, and sometimes our ability to hear and see what God wants is marred by our sin, and sometimes what we think God wants turns out to be really what we want.

And so, I think the best way to test any visions or dreams that we have is this: First, test it against Scripture. There are two Scripture verses that are easy for us to remember when we are thinking about what God wants from us, one from the Old Testament, and one from the New. The one from the Old Testament is Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And the one from the New Testament comes from Matthew 22:34-40. When the Pharisees tested Jesus and asked him which commandment was the greatest, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second was this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If the vision or dream that you have does not fall in line with these two parts of Scripture, then it’s probably your own agenda, and not God’s.

But let’s say that your vision or dream does fall in line with these two sections of Scripture. The second thing you should do, then, is to test it within the community of Christians of which you are a part. For example, and I hope that he doesn’t mind me using him as an example, Jeff will often come into choir practice on Wednesday night and announce, “Hey, guys, I had a dream.” The choir will groan, but once Jeff tells us what his dream is, we usually try it out, and I think the stats will say that 9 times out of 10, we go along with whatever his musical dream or vision was. And it turns out fine. The same thing applies when you think that God has given you a dream or a vision of what God wants from you: talk to the Christian community around you and see what they have to say about it. If you have a dream, for example, that God wants you to go and proclaim the good news by going to Guatemala and living among the people there and serving them, then talk to your sisters and brothers in Christ and see if they think that God is calling you to do this. God often makes God’s voice heard in the voices of the community around you.

So, this is what I think God’s dream is for the communities that surround our churches. God wants to see God’s people leading the way in these communities in doing justice. That means that we need to roll up our sleeves and find out what’s going on out there—what are the concerns that the community has. One issue that I see is that both Oberlin and Steelton lie in what is called “food deserts”. That means that the only places within walking distance for people to get food are Turkey Hill, Rite Aid, and other convenience stores. This means this food is more expensive and not as healthy. I know that the city has plans to bring in a grocery store, but that could still take a while. In the meantime, we churches could increase the number of community meals that we offer, or we could participate in caring for the community gardens that are being planned in Steelton, or we could organize transportation for people who need to get to grocery stores outside of the area. In these small ways, we would be working to do justice in our neighborhoods: by helping to fill the gap created by a lack of healthy food.

Besides doing justice in our communities, God’s dream is for us to love kindness. Loving kindness can take many different forms. It can mean listening to people in our communities and hearing their stories. It can mean that when someone makes a racist remark or an off-color joke, kindly explaining to that person why such speech is not okay and is not God-pleasing. It can mean helping a stranger haul their groceries or other load into their home. Most of all, it means just being gentle with one another, knowing that we all have problems in our lives, and it means helping one another to carry our burdens.

Finally, after doing justice and loving kindness, God’s dream is for us to walk humbly with our God. For me, this means realizing that we don’t have all the answers, and we never will, because we are not God. Do you know that one of the top 10 reasons that people outside the church don’t come to church is that they believe that religious people are too judgmental? When did we Christians forget Jesus’ teaching, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged?” As we strive to walk humbly with our God, I believe that the Holy Spirit is calling us to repent of being judgmental. I believe that God dreams of a time when Christians are truly known for their love, rather than for sitting in judgment of other people and the decisions that they make.

The Holy Spirit is for all of us, and is in all of us. The Holy Spirit calls each of us to different tasks, but unifies us as Christians and points to Jesus as the leader in everything we do. The Holy Spirit helps to break down barriers between different groups of people. The Holy Spirit reminds us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God, we show our love for both God and for our neighbors. Don’t be afraid of visions and dreams—these are often how the Holy Spirit nudges us to love God and neighbor. Test the visions and dreams, and when you are satisfied that God is the one calling you, don’t be afraid to take that leap of faith that God is calling you towards. God will be there beside you the whole way, and the community of faith in Jesus will be with you to support you. So don’t be afraid to let the Holy Spirit have its say, and don’t be afraid to have your world turned upside down. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 7 Narrative Lectionary

Philippians 2:1-13

In the first Avengers movie, there is a scene where our heroes have captured the villain, Loki, who is from Asgard, and are flying him on a plane to a secure location. All of a sudden, there is a thunderstorm, and Thor, the god of thunder, lands on the airplane, grabs Loki, and jumps out. As our heroes Iron Man and Captain America follow them out of the plane, Black Widow says to Captain America that he might want to sit this fight out, because Loki and Thor both come out of legend and are basically gods. And Captain America’s response is this: “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t look like that.” This movie conversation came to mind as I was thinking about today’s text from Philippians. In this text, Paul writes to the Philippians that they should have the same mind in them as that mind found in Christ Jesus. And his description of Christ Jesus, whom they—and we—worship as the Lord, is completely different from any gods that this group might have worshiped before hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. As Captain America might have said, Jesus certainly doesn’t look like any other god that they might see around them.

As I was saying to the Thursday morning Bible study group this week, when we compare 1st century Greco-Roman society to 21st century North American society, we may find some general similarities, but there are still a lot of differences. From our vantage point of a society where Christianity is generally regarded as an acceptable faith to have, we can’t understand how radical and how dangerous a faith it was to have in the Roman Empire. And as we look at Paul’s description of who Jesus Christ was in this chapter, we have to try to hear it first with the ears of the 1st century Greco-Roman Empire before we try to understand what it means to us in this American Empire that we live in.

So, first, let’s look at what theologians call the idea of the incarnation in this hymn. Incarnation is a big, fancy word that means Jesus, as God, became human and lived among us. Now in the Greco-Roman world, this was not anything new. There were stories about gods, especially Zeus, the king of the gods, putting on human form and coming down to live among humans for a time. But the difference between the Greek gods and what Paul is describing here in Philippians is this: the reason that the divine became human. For example, when Zeus became human, according to the legends, it was mostly to play tricks on humanity, including sleeping with human women and getting them pregnant. Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, empties himself. He takes the form of a slave. He serves humanity by showing us how to love and to serve one another. And he becomes obedient to the point of death. He chooses to die on a cross, which was the most humiliating and lowly way that anyone in the Roman Empire could be executed. Zeus and the other Greek gods would never, ever have done that. So this idea of the divine loving humankind so much that he would come to earth to serve us and die for us instead of playing tricks on us was so new, radical, and different, that it would have caught the attention of people who were very concerned about their status in society.

So, now we come to the next part of the description of Jesus. Because Jesus did this, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. You all are probably going to get tired of hearing me say this, but this is the learning that heavily impressed itself in my brain when I was traveling in Greece and Turkey to all of these sites where Paul had been. Every person in the Roman Empire was supposed to acknowledge that the Emperor was a god. That means going to one of the many temples dedicated to the Emperor, burning some incense, and saying, “Caesar is Lord”. For most people in the Empire, this was not a big deal: they just added the emperor to the list of the many gods that they already had. For the Jewish people, who worshiped only one God, the Empire said that as long as prayers were said for the emperor in the temple, they did not have to acknowledge the emperor as divine. But consider now how it would sound for Christians to be going around denying that Caesar is Lord, but saying instead that Jesus is Lord: someone whom the Romans had shamefully crucified is higher than the Emperor. That’s treason, and the punishment for treason is death.

Jesus is Lord. Such a simple statement for us to make today. No one thinks twice about it, because all those of us who believe this statement have no problem saying it, and those who don’t: well, they may want to discuss it with us, but they’re not able to throw us in prison for treason because of it. Jesus is Lord. What was treason once upon a time is something that is easy for us to say in the American Empire in which we live. But do we understand what it means for us to say that Jesus is Lord?

Scholars think that these verses describing who Jesus is and what he did are not original to Paul, but rather that Paul quoted a hymn that the Philippian church would have been familiar with. Why does he do that? Well, like any church, there were disagreements among the people about how ministry should happen. Later on in this letter, Paul calls out two of the women who were arguing, Euodia and Syntyche, to stop their disagreement and be of one mind in the Lord. Being of one mind in the Lord does not mean that we in the church will always agree with one another. It does mean, however, that disagreements with one another should not divide the congregation. When we have disagreements, we should come together and discuss them, remembering that even though we have different opinions about something, the statement that Jesus Christ is Lord is what unifies us above all other things.

And because Jesus Christ is Lord, and we know that at his name every knee should bend, it means that the things we disagree about are not of ultimate importance in the long run. Therefore, when we look to resolve our disagreements about which direction the church should go in its ministry, we need to do so with the humility that Jesus modeled for us. We should consciously be seeking the welfare of others, and not ourselves. And that consciously seeking the welfare of others means not just those of us inside these church walls, but also those outside of our church walls as well. Just as God emptied God-self into human form in the person of Jesus in order to serve humankind and to become obedient to death in the most humiliating way possible—for us, and not for his own glory—we too are called to empty ourselves and to love and serve one another, sometimes in ways we cannot possibly imagine.

What does this emptying of ourselves to love and serve one another look like? Well, here are some examples. It looks like a woman caring for her husband who has dementia and does not remember who she is any longer. It looks like the man in Australia, who, when doctors discovered that he had antibodies in his blood that could save the lives of many children, donated blood every week until he was too old to do so any longer, so that those children could live. It looks like offering comfort to a complete stranger in the vet’s office because she’s just had to have her dog put down and she has no one there with her to hug her and give her a shoulder to cry on. And it looks like not separating immigrant mothers from their children at the border even when they have violated the law in crossing our borders illegally. And when that does happen, self-emptying looks like church communities, clothed in compassion, who go to these families who are being detained to offer comfort, material support, and advocacy so that parents may be reunited with their children.

“There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t look like that.” Our God does not look flashy and handsome like Thor, and he doesn’t play tricks on us like Zeus. Our God is Jesus, the one who had nothing in his appearance to attract anyone to him. Our God emptied himself and became human for us. He served us and he loved us and he showed us what it means to love and serve one another, to empty ourselves and put the interests of others before ourselves. And ultimately, Jesus, our God, died the most humiliating death possible—for us. Therefore, how can we not follow the model of our God as we interact with one another? We’re human, and we’re not going to get it right all of the time—far from it. And God gives us forgiveness and grace when we stumble and fall. But let us strive to model Jesus in our dealings with one another, being of one mind in Christ Jesus, and confessing with our tongue that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 6 Narrative Lectionary

Philippians 1:1-18a

This week, we move from the book of Acts to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And I want to take a step back for a moment, and have us remember why people used to write letters. In the days before email, Facebook, Twitter, and all of the other social media platforms, it wasn’t as easy to communicate with friends and family who lived at a distance from where you were. Many of us here today, including myself, remember hand-written letters, and it’s a reminder to us that these instant forms of communication that we have today haven’t always been around, and are, in fact, relatively new in the history of people communicating with one another. For example, when I was growing up, my parents told me that, whenever my grandparents or my aunts or uncles sent me birthday or Christmas gifts, I was required to sit down and hand write a note saying thank you. It didn’t have to be a long letter, maybe I could write a couple of sentences about what I was doing or, if the gift was money, how I was planning to spend it, but my parents impressed on me the importance of letting people know that I was thankful for whatever they had done for me. And of course, people wrote letters for other purposes as well, from legal notices to just saying hello to someone they hadn’t seen for a long time.

Today, though, I want to focus on the thank-you letter, for this is part of what Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is about. In the first chapter that we have before us today, we read that Paul is currently in prison. He does not say, in this letter, where he is in prison, and so scholars try to guess where he is from other clues that he left both in this letter and in some of his other letters, as well as Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary journeys in the book of Acts. When Paul wrote this letter, he might have been in prison in Ephesus, in which case the letter to the Philippians would have been one of his earlier letters. Or, Paul could have been in prison in Rome, in which case Philippians would have been one of his last letters. Scholars have fun arguing about this, and if you are interested in the case for each side, I can tell you more about that after worship. It really doesn’t matter for our purposes today. What we do see is Paul thanking God for the Christian community at Philippi, because they have shared in spreading the good news of Jesus from the very first day of the community up until this point, when Paul is writing to them. Paul is thankful for many things that the Philippian community has done, but one thing in particular he is thankful for is this: in the first century, when you were in prison, your family and friends were responsible for coming to the prison and providing you with food and other care, not the prison guards. The Philippians have provided Paul with that material support, and for that, among other reasons, he is giving thanks for this Christian community.

So, let’s take a quick look at the people to whom Paul is writing. We were in Philippi two weeks ago, when we heard the story of Paul and Silas in prison, so some of what I’m going to say may sound familiar to those of you who were here on that Sunday. Philippi was a small town in northern Greece, nestled in a valley with high mountains all around it. If there were a way to project pictures in here, I would show you some of the pictures I took so you would be able to have a better idea of what the surroundings looked like. Philippi was a stop on a major Roman road called the Via Egnatia, which ran from the Bosporus Strait, near Istanbul, through Greece, all the way to the Adriatic Sea. Philippi was named after King Philip II, who had conquered this area of Greece for himself and who was the father of Alexander the Great. It was a sleepy town until the year 42 BC, when Marc Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, on this site. As a reward to the veterans of the victorious armies, these former soldiers were allowed to retire here and enjoy a good standard of living, including Roman citizenship and exemption from all taxes. This was a town steeped in the Greco-Roman lifestyle, and one whose people probably understood well the concepts of duty, loyalty, and honor.

So, Paul came to this town, started a church, and then continued on his way. He winds up in prison in another city, and the church that he started in Philippi sends him things that he needs to survive in prison, as well as probably sending a letter along with the person taking the supplies to let Paul know how they are and what is happening. And Paul is thankful for what they have done for him, but even more so, he is thankful for the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel with him. That partnership is not simply sending money and goods to Paul when he is in need, although it does include that. The Greek word that is translated as “sharing” here is koinonia, which can mean fellowship, association, communion, or close relationship. This word goes far beyond the idea of sharing things. It is a deep and close relationship of love that Paul has with the Philippian community. They have all experienced Jesus together, and they are unified in purpose with Jesus as their head.

And so, with this idea of koinonia, a deep, loving, abiding relationship with one another, unified in purpose with Jesus as our head, I would like for us to ask ourselves if we are experiencing this koinonia in our congregations. I think we are good at some aspects of this idea. For example, we understand the idea of material support for one another. We have collections for our local food banks. St. John’s has taken on hosting responsibilities for Family Promise, and Salem has provided material support and volunteers for that program. St. John’s hosts a free community breakfast and clothes bank once a month. We have various combined dinners where we come together and get to know one another better, and we have fellowship with one another. We are now working more closely with Trinity in Steelton and St. Peter’s in Highspire on various projects, presenting a more unified Lutheran front to the community around us, including a joint Vacation Bible School. These things, and probably others that I have not named, are some of the joys that I have seen in the last year that I have been here working and living among all of you. These are the joys of koinonia that I give thanks for.

But along with the joys that we experience, there are also challenges. And here is one major challenge that I see for us: most of these things that we do are able to be duplicated by non-religious groups around us. So, what makes us different from groups like the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, or Kiwanis? Well, it should be Jesus, but I don’t really hear a lot of us speaking about our faith when we have these events. I know that many of us hope, every time we have a meal or another event that we open to the community, that people who come may be interested enough to join us again for worship. But again, people who come to these meals and other events need to hear about Jesus’ love for them a little more explicitly than what we are currently doing. They could go, and they do go, to dozens of other places for free meals. What makes us different? We need to learn how to speak more freely about our faith—not with the hope of converting people, because that’s the Holy Spirit’s job—but with that deep joy that we have experienced because Jesus loved us enough to die on the cross for us, and then, three days later, be resurrected and give us, too, that promise of resurrection.

In the passage that we have from Philippians today, Paul writes this: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” This is my prayer for you, too. I want all of you to grow and to deepen in the faith that I know you already have, so that you not only can determine what is best, but also so that the harvest that Jesus produces through you may be even greater than it already is, and may be for the witness to the community around us and the glory and praise of God. So, this week, I am giving all of you an assignment. Find someone you trust and start to practice speaking about your faith with that person. This is practice, so this person can be either inside the church or outside of it. I’m thinking that if you start with someone you trust, then it will become easier for you to speak about your faith with a person you don’t know as well who needs to hear the good news. You can tell them about your faith in Jesus, and that this is why you come to church on Sundays, so that you can see Jesus. But please, try to make Jesus your starting point when you invite someone to church, and not the people in the church. Yes, we have a good community, but people can find friends anywhere. If we are not about Jesus and about seeing Jesus, then we really don’t have anything to offer people that they cannot find elsewhere.

Just as Paul was thankful for the Philippians, I am thankful for all of you at both Salem and St. John’s. I am thankful for the many ways I have seen Jesus at work in you and through you in this past year. And my prayer for this next year is that you would all keep growing and deepening in your faith, and that our koinonia, our fellowship, our relationships with one another, would become more loving and unified in purpose, with Jesus as our head. So, please don’t forget about this assignment: speak about your faith to one person this week, and why it matters to you. I believe that we do have something still to offer this community, and I believe that Jesus is working through our koinonia to make his presence known to Steelton and Oberlin. Jesus has made a difference in my life, and I know that he has made a difference in your lives, too. Go out now from this place, and find ways to share this good news with others. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 5 Narrative Lectionary

Acts 17:16-31

How many of you remember reading stories from Greek mythology in high school or maybe even in college? Stories of Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Hermes, Artemis? If you’re like me, you probably thought they were fun stories, but could not believe that anyone ever took them seriously. But after my recent travels to Greece and to Turkey, where I saw all sorts of ruins of temples to all sorts of gods, I can tell you this: all of those fun stories that we had to learn in school were, once upon a time, deadly serious. I think I finally started to understand this when I was climbing up the steep hill at Delphi, where the most important temple of Apollo was, and heard stories about how people would make this climb in order to hear a prediction about their future that was very hard to decipher. For example, one Greek general wanted to know if he should go to war against the Persians. When he came to the oracle, he was told that if he crossed the river, it would mean the fall of a great empire. Assuming that to mean that it was the Persian Empire that would fall, he took it as a sign to attack. However, when he did, he fell in battle, and it was the Greek Empire that fell that day, and the Persians who were victorious. And yet, people still climbed that hill to seek out any hint of the future that the oracle might give to them.

Today we find Paul in the city of Athens, a city which not only worshiped all of those Greek gods that we had to learn about in school, but that also had schools of philosophers, some of which we also may have read or at least learned about in school. Names like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle should sound familiar to all of you. When we visited Athens, we were told about the mythological origins of the city: the god Poseidon, who was the god of the ocean, argued with Athena, the goddess of wisdom and of war, over who would be the patron of Athens. It was decided that the one with the best gift for the people would be the patron. Poseidon gave water, but it was salty, and the people couldn’t drink it or use it. Athena, however, gave the gift of the olive tree, and so she became the patron of the city of Athens, which was named after her. Because she was the goddess of wisdom, the people of Athens valued wisdom, and that’s why you had all these people in the city who, as Luke writes, “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Think of walking around Athens as being similar to walking around a university campus, but not just any university—think more like an Ivy League school, such as Harvard or Yale.

So, Paul arrives in this cultured and educated city after being kicked out of Thessalonica and Berea, because, the people in those places said, he was acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus. There was probably some truth to this accusation: in my sermon last week, when we saw Paul and Silas imprisoned at Philippi, I mentioned that every good member of the Roman Empire was supposed to acknowledge the emperor as divine, make an offering in his temple, and say, “Caesar is Lord.” For the Christians to run around saying, “Jesus is Lord,” was treason to the Empire. So, Paul flees to Athens and is cooling his heels there waiting for Silas and Timothy.

And Luke tells us that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols”. Now, I’m a little confused by this statement, because Paul lived in this Greco-Roman culture where every city had at least one temple, and more often than not, more than one temple, to some god or other. My guess would be that Athens probably had more than the usual number of temples and idols in it, and that is what disturbed Paul so much. If you travel to Athens and go to the top of the Acropolis, where the Parthenon (the temple to Athena) is located, you will also see a temple there that is dedicated to Nike, the goddess of victory, another one that is dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, and the remains of a smaller one to the Roman emperor that was plopped right in front of the Parthenon. Furthermore, there are also remains of other temples to other gods in that area. So, perhaps Paul was thinking, “OK, I’ve seen idols before, but the sheer volume of idols here in one place is ridiculous. God is calling me to witness that there is only one true God in this place.”

And so he does. He argues first in the synagogues with the Jewish people and the God-fearers, those non-Jewish people who were intrigued by the Jewish faith, and he debates with the philosophers who have no interest in the Jewish faith and no knowledge of it. And apparently he makes enough of an impression that they bring him to the Areopagus—which translated means “the hill of Ares”, who was the Greek god of war—to make his case for what he is witnessing to. When I was in Athens, I got to stand on top of this hill of Ares—which is basically a huge rock—and read today’s story. And from where I stood as I read Paul’s speech, I had a perfect view of the Acropolis with the ruins of all of those temples standing on top of it. And I got chills—because now I better understand what Paul was talking about with all of those idols, and the case he was making for one God who created all of us and for Jesus, whom God raised from the dead.

And, when we read Paul’s speech, we see that it is indeed a good example of how to witness to people who have not heard the good news. Remember, Paul is standing in a group of Athenians who, as educated as they are, have never read or heard of the Hebrew Scriptures. They don’t know the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or their wives and children; they don’t know of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Micah or any of the other prophets, and they don’t even know about David or Moses. So how does this Jewish man witness to these people about his God and about what God has done through Jesus? He finds the lowest common denominator. He does not condemn all of the idols that he is so distressed by. Rather, he acknowledges that the Athenians are indeed religious; they want to appease the gods, and they even have an altar “to an unknown god” just to cover all of their bases. And he takes that “unknown god” and tells them that what they do not know is now being revealed to them: the one God who created heaven and earth, and he makes the case, using some of the Athenians’ own poets, that all of us are God’s children. Only from there does he begin to talk about the resurrection of the dead, and that’s where he loses most of the Athenians.

Paul’s speech on the hill of Ares in Athens is a great model for us as we witness to Jesus in a world that, although it sees church as irrelevant, is still very spiritual and is still desperately in need of hearing the good news. When we encounter someone who doesn’t share our faith, do we condemn what that person believes without hearing them out? Or do we listen, as Paul did, and then find something that we have in common and use that to witness to our faith in Jesus? Several years ago, I went to a comic book convention with my brother and sister-in-law. It was fascinating to see all of the people dressed in colorful costumes and to wander around the booths and admire the art and to see different celebrities from the comic book world, TV shows, and movies. And the question that I came away with was, “How would I witness to my faith in Jesus with this particular group of people?” When I asked this question of a friend, he said, “Well, that’s easy. Characters in comic books are always being killed and then brought back to life. There’s your ‘in’.” So I could perhaps start a conversation like this: You know how they killed off Batman in this particular story line and then brought him back to life over here? Pretty cool, huh? Well, I believe in someone who actually was killed in real life and then was raised from the dead. And then see where the conversation would go from there.

This is a key point when we witness to people in our culture who have little or no contact with Christianity. There are so many people out there who have had bad experiences with the church, because the church has focused so much on being right that we have forgotten how to love one another. Witnessing to other people about Jesus is not about condemning them and telling them that their beliefs are wrong. Even though the Apostle Paul was distressed by all the idols in Athens, he knew that condemning them outright was not going to win them over to one God. Witnessing to other people about Jesus means listening to them, listening to their stories, and then finding something that our story has in common with theirs, linking our stories together, and then saying, “I have faith in Jesus, and I would like to tell you my story and what it has in common with yours.”

Even with this brilliant witnessing strategy, Paul did not win everyone in Athens to his faith on that day. Luke tells us that, “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” Paul then leaves them in peace, but some people followed him, and Luke tells us that some Athenians believed, including a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. Jesus worked through Paul on that day to win the hearts of a few people, and with those few people, the church in Athens was born. Not everyone was converted on that long ago day, and that’s okay. Sometimes we who are still in the church struggle when we see our congregations getting older and getting smaller, and we wonder if it makes a difference when we witness to Jesus. I’m here to tell you that yes, it does; but we may not see the harvest in our lifetime. But have faith that the seeds that you sow will one day bear fruit. So let’s get out there, listen to other people’s stories, and then share with them why our faith means so much to us. Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter 4 Narrative Lectionary

Acts 16:16-34

It’s good to be back after an extended time away traveling through Greece and Turkey. And it’s especially exciting for me to be preaching on today’s text from Acts, because the setting for this story is the first archaeological site I got to visit in Greece: Philippi. Just prior to today’s story, Paul and his companions have traveled from present-day Turkey to Greece in response to a vision that Paul had from the Holy Spirit. There, Luke tells us, Paul met a woman named Lydia, a prosperous merchant who was a dealer in purple cloth, and her heart was open to the Word of God that Paul proclaimed, and she became a believer in Jesus. Philippi was a city nestled in a valley; Paul would have taken the Roman road from the port city of Neapolis over some high mountains to get there. Philippi was a Roman colony in the province of Macedonia, in the northern part of present-day Greece, and many retired veterans of the Roman army lived there as a reward for their service. This was a place steeped in Roman culture and where most of the people worshiped the Greek and the Roman gods.

When I’ve read this story before, I’ve never quite understood why Paul got so annoyed with the slave girl who was telling everyone that they—that is, Paul and his companions—were proclaiming a way of salvation to the people. After all, you would think that Paul would want all the help he could get. But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. The slave girl who had a spirit of divination was most likely a priestess of Apollo, one of those who received oracles from that god. And the girl’s reference to the Most High God very well could have been a reference not to the one God that Paul and his companions were speaking about, but rather a reference to the Greek father of the gods, Zeus. Paul knew that having that slave girl following them and crying out after them was really not going to help him at all, because then he would be seen as just another messenger of the Greek gods rather than the one God that he was proclaiming. He also probably wanted to free her from her enslavement: not necessarily to her human masters, but more so from her enslavement to the pagan gods. Furthermore, having a demonstration of the power of the one God over the pagan ones could not hurt at all.

And yet, this act of liberation for a slave girl results in physical imprisonment for Paul and Silas. Let’s take a look, first, at the accusation that the owners of the slave girl level at Paul and Silas: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” In the Roman Empire, the emperor was considered divine, and every good member of the Empire was supposed to periodically offer up incense to the emperor and acknowledge that the emperor was lord. The only people that got a pass on this were the Jewish people, because of their belief in one God. But that didn’t mean that non-Jewish people could adopt Jewish customs and stop acknowledging that the emperor was divine. Furthermore, for this new sect of Christianity to say that Jesus is Lord, not the emperor, was downright treason. So we can see that, even though the owners of the slave girl were upset because they had lost their means of making money when Paul drove the spirit out of her, they knew that they had to charge Paul and Silas with political treason in order to get them imprisoned.

So, Paul and Silas are thrown in jail. When you visit Philippi, the tour guides will show you a room underneath the ruins of a church that was supposedly the place where Paul and Silas were imprisoned; that is, however, not true; the archaeologists have determined that the prison was likely in another place and the underground room used for something else entirely. Wherever Paul and Silas were imprisoned, however, Luke tells us that they were witnessing to the other prisoners by praying and singing hymns, when suddenly there was an earthquake. On our trip, we discovered that earthquakes are very common in that area, and that an earthquake is probably what caused most of the buildings in the archaeological site of Philippi to now be in ruins and that settlement abandoned. But it sounds like, in this story, the jailer was not so much frightened by the earthquake itself. Rather, he saw that the doors to the cells were open and he thought that the prisoners had escaped. The honorable thing to do in this culture in this case was to kill yourself, because you had failed the responsibility given to you by your superiors. And suicide was more honorable than being executed for failing your duty. But when Paul and Silas call out to the jailer that they are all still there, the jailer’s response is to ask them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

When someone in a Bible story asks a question like that, this is the question I want to ask: Saved from what? What did the jailer want to be saved from? The obvious answer would be that he wanted to be saved from death by his own hand, but when he saw that the prisoners were all still there, he should have known that he was, indeed, saved from that fate. The Christian answer would be that the jailer wanted to be saved either from his own sins or from hell—but this was a man who, most likely, was steeped in the Greco-Roman culture and simply did not think in those terms. There was no heaven or hell in Greek belief like we think of heaven and hell; after death everyone ended up in the underworld called Hades, which was kind of a shadowy, twilight existence. So what, then, did the jailer want to be saved from?

I’m actually not sure, but why don’t we try this? In this story, there is a lot of playing going on with the idea of freedom and captivity. The slave girl in the story was very obviously captive: captive to her owners, and captive to the spirit of divination that caused her to cry out after Paul and Silas. Then, through the power of Christ, Paul sets her free from her bondage to the spirit of divination, only to have his physical freedom taken away by being thrown into prison. But in prison, Paul and Silas show that, while they are physically being held captive in a jail cell, they are free to sing hymns and pray to God. And when the doors are broken open by the earthquake, they could have walked out and had their physical freedom, but they chose to remain captive in order to save the jailer’s physical life, and then received the opportunity to set the jailer free. What if the jailer wanted to be saved from his captivity to the system that he was enslaved to: to be set free from that system that demanded he kill himself if he failed in his responsibility to keep the prisoners in jail? And what if Paul and Silas told him the good news that, among other things, Jesus had come “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”? That’s directly from Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth, in Luke 4, the Gospel that was written by the same person who wrote Acts. What if the salvation that Paul and Silas proclaimed was not about salvation from sins so that the jailer could go to heaven, but was instead about freedom from a sinful human system so that the jailer could live a full and abundant life in Jesus here on earth?

One of the things that became clear to me on this trip to Greece and Turkey, traipsing around ruin after ruin of old cities and learning about 1st century Greco-Roman society was this: society in the 21st century in the United States is very similar in many ways to society in the 1st century Roman Empire. As the Empire then was hostile towards the budding Christian movement, so too we are surrounded by a culture that has become disenchanted with the church, many times because the institutional church has been so caught up with being right that we have forgotten how to truly love one another and witness to that love of Jesus, causing many people to be hurt and to fall away. And in other cases, it is because the church has focused so much on where we are going in the next world that we have forgotten that the better part of the witness of the Scriptures is telling how Jesus has come as an inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven here on this earth and now in this time. Jesus’ call to us is that in loving one another and in doing what is best for one another, salvation has already come and has set us free from the systems that would oppress us here on this earth.

So, how are we doing at witnessing to this Jesus who has come and liberated us from oppression? Are we acting as though we are free, or do we still labor under our bondage? If we were thrown into prison for setting another person free with the good news of Jesus, would we react by singing hymns and praying? Or would we loudly and obnoxiously assert our rights and demand to be let out? And if an earthquake came and knocked our chains off and opened the doors, would we immediately run out, or would we recognize that the welfare of another person might be at risk and stay physically imprisoned for that person? Because being a follower of Jesus does not mean being comfortable and just getting along with the systems that are in place. Being a follower of Jesus means that we believe that Jesus has brought freedom from oppression to us here and now, and we want to proclaim that freedom from oppression to everyone in our neighborhoods. And sometimes that means speaking up against oppressive laws, advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and being willing to give up our physical freedom for the well-being of another person.

The earthquake in Philippi on that long-ago night changed everything for the jailer. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has broken in on our sinful world like an earthquake, and that has changed everything for us—not only with the promise of resurrection in the future, but also for our life here on this earth. So let’s start acting like Jesus has made a difference in our lives. Let’s go out from here and be bold in our witness to others, proclaiming that Jesus’ salvation has come for all of us here and now, and that now is the day when freedom from oppression has come for us and for all humankind. Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter

John 20:1-18

It must have seemed like a very cruel April Fool’s joke, even though in 1st century Palestine there was no such thing as April Fool’s Day. Mary Magdalene had been there with Jesus through the horrible crucifixion. She had stood there with Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, and another woman named Mary; Mary, or rather, Miriam, was a pretty common name for women at that time. She had watched for hours as Jesus was slowly tortured to death by hanging on that cross; she had seen him give the care of his mother into the hands of the disciple whom he loved; she had seen him thirst; and finally, she had seen him die. And on top of all that, she had witnessed the Roman soldiers perform a final act of barbarity on her rabbi by driving a spear into his side, just to make sure he was dead. She came to the tomb early on that Sunday morning—not to anoint Jesus’ body, for, according to John, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had already done that—but to say goodbye to Jesus and to mourn for him at the tomb. So to arrive and to find the tomb open and the body gone must have sent Mary Magdalene into further shock. Resurrection was the last thing on her mind—even though Jesus had talked about resurrection in his ministry, Mary probably assumed that he was talking about resurrection on the last day. No, in Mary’s mind, a grave robber has come and taken Jesus’ body for some evil purpose, and she runs to tell Peter and the other disciple that the body is gone.

But before we get further into the story, I’d like to take a step back and talk about who Mary Magdalene was and who she wasn’t. Back when Jeff first announced to the choir that he wanted us to sing “Hey-sanna, Hosanna” from Jesus Christ Superstar on Palm Sunday, someone laughingly brought up the song that Mary Magdalene sings in that production, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. And I said that that song would never be sung in this congregation. Why? Because nowhere in Scripture does it ever say that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. So, why is she often portrayed as a prostitute? Well, in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 8, Mary Magdalene is mentioned as one of the women disciples who followed Jesus and cared for his needs, as well as those of the other disciples. Luke says that Jesus drove seven demons out of Mary. And right before that story is the story of a woman who led a sinful life anointing Jesus’ feet. Pope Gregory the Great, in a homily in the year 591, made the mistake of saying that the unnamed woman who led a sinful life was Mary Magdalene, and since then, she has been portrayed as a prostitute in the Western church. In the Eastern Church, however, Mary Magdalene has been known as the Apostle to the Apostles—she was the first to witness Jesus’ resurrection, and without her, the other disciples would not have heard the good news.

So let’s go back to the story that John tells, of Mary going to the tomb and encountering it empty, with no body of Jesus anywhere in sight. She runs and tells Peter and the other disciple, who come running to the tomb, and they confirm that well, yes, the tomb is empty. But they don’t do anything about it! They shrug their shoulders and go home. Yes, John tells us that the disciple whom Jesus loved believed, but what did he believe? The next line says that “they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” So perhaps this other disciple simply believed Mary’s story that the body was gone. We don’t quite know.

But now we see Mary standing outside the tomb, weeping. She had already come to the tomb to mourn Jesus’ death, but now she has even more to mourn: Jesus’ body is gone and she does not know what has become of it, and the other disciples seem like they have no will to try and discover what has happened. Mary’s whole world has come crashing down around her. But then she looks into the tomb and sees two angels there who ask her why she is weeping. Well, that seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? If you’re at a tomb, it means someone you love has died, and you know what? You might just be sad about that. But Mary answers as if it’s nothing unusual to be questioned by angels sitting in a tomb, and says that they have taken her Lord away and she does not know where the body is.

Well, then she turns around and sees Jesus. You know, we don’t always understand why Mary does not recognize Jesus, and why she thinks he is the gardener. Was Jesus carrying a hoe or a spade or wearing a hat to keep his face shaded from the sun? That’s the image that I have when it says that Mary mistakes him for the gardener, which is kind of funny. But we don’t know how resurrection changes the appearance of someone. And it may simply have been the fact that, when someone dies, they usually stay dead: Mary simply wasn’t expecting Jesus, the man she saw tortured to death, to be standing there in front of her speaking to her. Perhaps also blinded by her tears, she does not see Jesus clearly and does not recognize him.

But then, he says her name, “Mary.” In chapter 10 of John’s gospel, Jesus says that he “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” By simply calling Mary by her name, Jesus cuts through all of the grief and all of the doubt, and Mary instantly knows that this is her Lord and her Master, her great Good Shepherd, calling to her and telling her that he is, in fact, alive once more. And Jesus is not just a spirit, but is resurrected completely in the body. When he tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me,” the better translation of that would be “Stop holding on to me.” In her joy at seeing Jesus, I want us to picture Mary grabbing hold of Jesus in a big bear hug, and Jesus saying, “Okay, okay, it’s okay, you can let go of me now.” And then Jesus tells her to go and tell his disciples what she has seen, and Mary, joyfully named as one of his sheep and given the authority to do so, runs and tells the disciples that she knows now why there is no body in the tomb: she has, in fact, seen the Lord.

And so, my question for all of you is the same as the one that the angels and Jesus asked Mary Magdalene: Whom are you looking for? Why are you here today? Is it just something that you’re supposed to do, to go to church on Easter to make your family happy? Is it just something that you do out of a sense of duty? Or is it that you want to find hope? Have all of your dreams been shattered, and you don’t know where to turn next? Are you hoping against hope to hear some good news in your life? Or do you want to see Jesus: the Jesus who was crucified, who died for us, and who now lives again?

For those of you who are here to make your family happy or out of a sense of duty, I say to you: Rest easy, for you have now fulfilled all righteousness. But beyond that sense of fulfilling an obligation, I pray that you have also encountered the risen Christ and I pray that you would hear him calling your name and welcoming you into his community as a sheep of his fold. And if you would like to find out more about what it means to be part of this community that follows Jesus, please let me know after the worship service today and I would be happy to talk with you further.

For those of you who are here because your dreams have been shattered, you don’t know where to turn next, and who are hoping to hear some good news in your life, welcome. We are a people of hope, and it is our business to spread that hope to all of those whom we meet, both inside this church building and outside of it. The good news is that Jesus loves you: it doesn’t matter who you are now or who you were in your past. It doesn’t matter if you have enough to eat or are scraping to get by. And it most definitely does not matter what color your skin is or who you choose to love. Jesus loves you, and meets you with that abundant love and grace, calling you by name. We are a community who follows Jesus Christ, the one who is risen from the dead and who promises us resurrection as well. Please let us know how we can be as Christ to you and how we can walk beside you in whatever circumstances you find yourself in.

And for those of you who are here because you want to see Jesus: it is my prayer every week that somehow, during our time of worship, you do encounter the risen Christ. That encounter does not have to be in the sermon, although I am always very flattered and moved if that is where you see Jesus. But you can also encounter Jesus, and I certainly pray that you do, in the bread and the wine of Holy Communion; in the beautiful hymns that we sing and the music that we hear; in the laughter and the chatter of the children who worship in community with us; in the readings of Holy Scripture, and in the liturgy, which also has words taken from Holy Scripture in it. And I pray that you also see Jesus in the face of the person sitting next to you, and that you can lean on that person for material and spiritual support, and that they can lean on you for the same, in our journey together here on Earth.

On that first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene served as Apostle to the Apostles, and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord. The commission that Jesus gave to Mary on that long-ago day has been passed on to us. We have seen the risen Lord, and we are charged with telling everyone this great, joyful news. My prayer is that each one of us would take this commission seriously and tell others about our wonderful Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But we can do this joyfully, letting the love that Jesus has shown us spill over into our relationships with others, and we can do it with laughter. Today is April Fool’s Day in the secular world, but what is foolish to the world is wise to us. Jesus, who once was dead, has been raised from the dead, and that’s no foolin’. Amen.