Sermon for Pentecost 5 Narrative

Hebrews 1:1-4

Today we start our sermon series on the book of Hebrews. This is an interesting book of the Bible that we don’t talk about very often, and so we need to first go through some background of this book: what little of it we know, that is. In some older Bibles, you may see the book of Hebrews attributed to the Apostle Paul. But, when we compare this book with the letters that we know that Paul wrote, we find that Paul very obviously did not write this. Everyone has a style of writing, and Hebrews doesn’t look like anything that Paul previously wrote. The use of language is also very obviously not Paul’s; while Paul’s Greek was good, Hebrews has the most sophisticated Greek of any of the writings of the New Testament. The concerns addressed in this letter are not the concerns of any of Paul’s previous letters. And finally, we have no name on this New Testament work, whereas with Paul’s letters, he always put his name at the beginning of the letter. Hebrews is, therefore, not one of Paul’s creations. But, whose is it? That we don’t know. There have been many guesses made; for example, one guess is a man named Apollos who appears in the book of Acts, because Acts says that Apollos was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the Scriptures” and this would definitely fit the book of Hebrews. But we just don’t know for sure.

We also don’t know who Hebrews was written to. There is a clue at the end of the book, which contains greetings from “those from Italy,” which would suggest that the author’s companions may be saluting their friends back home. So, it’s very possible that this book was addressed to Christians in the city of Rome. What we can gather from this book is that the audience that it was addressed to was a congregation who had experienced persecution for their faith and that was getting discouraged because God’s promised kingdom had not yet come. The best guess on the date of this work, based on the writing and the theological concepts developed here, is sometime between 60 and 95 C.E. These were not the very first Christians who followed Jesus in person; they were second and third generation Christians. And so, because God’s kingdom had not come as soon as was expected, some were slipping away from the group and the congregation was declining in numbers. And those that remained were getting tired, wanting to remain faithful, but perhaps being tempted to also drop away from the congregation. Does that sound at all familiar to you? The author of Hebrews is writing to remind them of who this Jesus is in whom they have placed their faith and is encouraging them to persevere even when the going is tough. And so, one final note about Hebrews: this isn’t so much a letter as it is a sermon. Yes, that’s right: your pastor is going to preach several sermons on different parts of a very long sermon that has become part of our Holy Scriptures.

So, let’s begin at the beginning, which someone has told me is a very good place to start: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” I mentioned before how this book uses very sophisticated Greek, and the Greek here is no exception: it reads polymeros kai polytropos palai,” which literally means “In many fragments and in many fashions in former times. . .”. And I like that image of God speaking in fragments. How many times in our lives does it seem like God speaks to us in fragments? When we are wrestling with a decision and we pray to God for guidance, we don’t always get a clear answer. We get a glimpse here of what might happen if we decide one way, or a flash there of what were to happen if we were to decide the other way. We struggle as we listen for God’s voice. Here the author of Hebrews is telling his congregation that, long ago, God spoke in this way to their ancestors through the prophets: through fragments and glimpses of who God was, but that now God has spoken more clearly through the Son, Jesus Christ. And how, exactly, did God speak to us through God’s Son that was so much clearer than what God said through the prophets?

Well, let’s think of it this way: the various Old Testament prophets had different specific details in what they spoke to the people, depending on the time they lived and the situation that was going on. But no matter the different contexts that the prophets had, their messages all came down to the same thing, as spoken in Micah 6:8: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. You would think those words would be clear enough. But evidently not, because we still struggle with what those directives from God look like in our present-day context. And we still struggle to see the face of God. So, God the Father sent the Son, Jesus Christ, and it is in him that we clearly see the face of God. And it is through Jesus and his teachings that we most clearly hear what God wants.

The writer of Hebrews continues, saying that Jesus “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”. To better understand what that means, I would like each one of you to find a coin and look at who is on it. If you pulled out a penny, you have an image of Abraham Lincoln; if you pulled out a dime, you have an image of FDR; if you pulled out a nickel, you have an image of Thomas Jefferson; and if you pulled out a quarter, you have an image of George Washington. The way that these presidents are accurately stamped on our coins is the same way that God stamped God’s image on the Son, Jesus Christ. When we look at Jesus, we see God.

And how do we see God in Jesus Christ? The writer says this, “When he [Jesus] had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” We see God in Jesus Christ not because Jesus waved his hand and everyone believed in him—we know that’s not true. Rather, we see God in the face of Jesus Christ who went to the cross to die for our sins; that’s what the writer is talking about when he says that Jesus “made purification for sins”. We see God in the face of the suffering of God’s Son on the cross; we have a God who understands what it means to be human and to suffer pain with us. But that is not the only place that we see God in Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews also tells us we see God in the Jesus who was resurrected from the dead and now sits at God’s right hand. This is who we worship, and this is the person in whom we have faith.

I find it interesting that the person who wrote this work named Hebrews, when faced with a struggling, declining, congregation, started out not by urging the people to feed more of the hungry or to go out and talk to more people, but rather, began with reminding the people of who this Jesus was in whom they believed. The writer of this letter, or rather, this sermon, started with teaching the people theology, the very basic stuff of their faith. When I switched us over from the Revised Common Lectionary to the Narrative Lectionary, the series of readings that we are hearing on Sundays now, this is what I was hoping to do: to take you all through the arc of how God spoke by the prophets through many and various ways, to the coming of God’s Son, Jesus, the one in whom we have placed our faith. Now that we’ve been doing this for a couple of years, I can see a difference, but we still have a lot of work to do. As someone else has pointed out, we are good at meeting needs in the community, but we are not so good at telling other people about Jesus. And perhaps part of the reason for us not being so good at sharing Jesus with other people is that we have lost the wonder and the awe of this Son of God whom we worship. We have become so distracted by what’s going on around us—our congregations declining—that we have focused too much on that and what we can do to stop it rather than keeping our eyes on Jesus.

So, what is the solution? What are some ways we can keep our eyes on Jesus? Well, every one of us should be in a regular Bible study of some sort. Our combined Salem and St. John’s study meets Thursday mornings at 10. There is an adult Sunday school class after worship at Salem and before worship at St. John’s that you can be a part of. Trinity has an evening adult Bible study on Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. There are ample opportunities among our four Lutheran churches to learn more about God and discover the great, wonderful, awesome love that sent Jesus to us. Another thing we can do is be more regular attenders at Sunday morning worship. I know that sometimes life gets in the way and we can’t make it to worship. But if you are traveling, try to go to worship with a congregation in the area where you are. And in our personal lives, let’s make time for devotion and prayer. These are just some examples of how God can strengthen us in our faith and give us a renewed energy to go out and tell others how wonderful this Jesus is whom we worship.

In a way, it’s comforting to know that congregations in the second and third centuries were already having problems holding together, and that a preacher heard their calls for help and responded by reminding them that the one whom they worshiped knew what it was like to be human, gave himself up to death for us, and then rose from the dead. And it still rings true for us two thousand plus years later. If we run around doing good things for the community but do not remember why we do these things and who we worship, then we are no better than the Lions Club or the Kiwanis Club and then perhaps our congregation deserves to die. But if we are firmly rooted in the one who created the worlds, the one who is the reflection of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s very being, then everything that we do will flow from that love and we will reflect that love to those around us. Therefore, let us not forget who we are and whose we are as we seek to do God’s will in the community around us. Amen.

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Sermon for Creation 4A

Revelation 22:1-5

I’ve been with you here in Harrisburg for a little over two years now, and one thing I’ve learned is that the Susquehanna River plays a large part in the lives of the people here. I’ve heard many stories about the flood of 1972 and how that affected people living in different parts of the city. I’ve heard stories from Jeff Myers about the cottage they used to have on the island and how upset he and his family were when the township made the people living there leave. I’ve walked along the banks of the Susquehanna in downtown Harrisburg when the Arts Festival comes on Memorial Day weekend and Kipona comes on Labor Day weekend. I’ve been to City Island to play miniature golf and looked at both the East Shore and the West Shore from that island. I’ve learned about the dangerous Dock Street Dam with its hidden currents that have taken the lives of people boating in the area. But the most interesting thing to me about the Susquehanna River is how it seems to divide the people who live on the east side from those who live on the west. People who live on the West Shore don’t want to cross over to downtown Harrisburg because they’re afraid they’re going to get mugged. And people who live on this side of the river don’t like going over to the West Shore because “it’s so far,” or “it’s so confusing”. I’ve even heard one person derogatorily refer to the West Shore as “the white shore,” making reference not only to the fact that those suburbs are mostly white, but also that they are wealthier than those on the east side and have no idea what poverty really looks like. In our world, rivers can bring life, but it also seems like they can bring division and destruction.

Today’s reading from Revelation gives us a different vision of what a river can be like. The book of Revelation as a whole seems to us to be frightening, with its images of horsemen and beasts that we don’t understand or that we try to make into a literal prediction of the future. That is not what Revelation is supposed to be about, and if you want more details, come to our Thursday morning Bible study, because we are talking about Revelation now. Revelation is a message of hope for those first-century Christians who were suffering under the persecution of the Roman Empire, and it is a message of hope for us Christians in the 21st century who are struggling with a corrupt human government. It is a message that, in the end, God will come and will rule God’s people with compassion and justice. It is a message that there will no longer be a need for any kind of temple or house of worship, because God will be with God’s people and will wipe every tear from their eyes. And the reading that we have before us today is an image of what that will look like.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” Let’s stay with this image for a moment. Have any of you gone into the mountains and drunk directly from a river or a creek that was not polluted? What did that taste like? To drink water from its source, non-filtered and perfectly clean? When I was living out West, I had the opportunity to go on a servant event to Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in Montana. In a very beautiful ceremony, one of the elders gave those of us who wanted one a name in the Chippewa-Cree language. And afterwards, he invited us to come and fill our water bottles with water from a pure creek. To this day I remember the taste of that pure, clean, cold, refreshing water: water as God intended it to be to give us life. And yet, I know that even this will pale in comparison to that river of the water of life that John saw in Revelation.

The next part of John’s description is just as beautiful as the first. “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” This description has always puzzled me a bit, because I can’t figure out if the tree is somehow bridging the river, or if there is a tree on each side of the river. When I did some investigating into the original Greek, I found that these two verses could also be translated like this: “In the middle of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, is the tree of life.” Well, that still doesn’t help. But I want us to think of it like this: the tree of life serves as a bridge, crossing the sides of the river and joining the two sides together. So, in order for there to be life, any divisions that the river may cause are done away with by the tree of life somehow growing on both sides. And the fruit that this tree, this connector, bears, heals the nations. Because bridges heal divisions and bring life.

So, I can hear you saying to me now that this is all very nice, but it’s a vision for when Jesus returns, and it’s never going to happen now, so what is the real-world application of all of this?  I’d like to start with a definition of hope that Paul gives us in Romans 8: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” The vision of the river of the water of life and the tree of life are what we hope for; we do not see them now, but we wait for the vision with patience. But waiting in the Bible is never the kind of waiting where we sit around and twiddle our thumbs. Waiting in the Bible is an active waiting: while we wait for Jesus to return, we are called to live as he taught us to live and to work towards that vision that we hope for. Theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “Hope in God’s promises is not passive but demandingly active; it is a resolve to live in God’s future as though it were already here” (Sojourners, Vol. 48, No. 7, July 2019, p. 36).

Let us then live in God’s future as though it were already here. What would that look like for us? Let’s start locally, with our Susquehanna River, since this river plays such a large part in our lives. Barbara Rossing, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, writes in her book, The Rapture Exposed, about seeing an inscription of Revelation 22:2 on a pillar over the Charles River in Boston. And her first reaction to that was to think that the inscription was idolatrous: how could the Bostonians think that their river was at all related to God’s river of the water of life? But, on further reflection, she says, “When we can glimpse in every river the river of life flowing from God’s throne in the holy city, then we see ourselves as citizens, as stewards of earth’s rivers and trees. … By whatever name … the biblical river of God flows through the middle of every city of the world. All our rivers are all connected to God’s watershed of the river of life” (168). That includes the Susquehanna River. And if that is the case, while we wait and hope for that vision of the river of the water of life, we can live as if the future is already here, and we can care for our Susquehanna River.

In the research that I did on the Susquehanna River, I found that in 2016, three years ago, it was listed as one of the ten most endangered rivers in the country. For 2019, it has dropped off of the top ten, so obviously progress has been made in getting our river cleaned up. But the work is not done yet. The biggest problem that I found relative to the condition of our river, the Susquehanna, is stormwater runoff. Here’s why this is a problem: The Susquehanna is not an isolated river. It empties into the Chesapeake Bay, and I’m sure that we all know about the problems that the Chesapeake Bay has. Here’s the connection between what we do along our river and the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay: population increase and stormwater runoff. As population along the river increases, so too do housing developments, which decreases our forests and our farmland. On the farmland that remains, farmers are using fertilizers with a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus in them. We also use these chemicals when we treat our lawns, our golf courses, and our parks. When the rains come—and they’ve been coming a lot in recent years—these chemicals have been washed off into the river. The nitrogen and the phosphorus runoff from the Susquehanna make up 21% and 40% of all that is found in the Chesapeake Bay. These chemicals contribute to algae blooms in the Chesapeake, which consumes oxygen needed by fish and other wildlife that live in the bay. Excess algae also blocks sunlight to water plants needed by the fish and wildlife as they struggle to survive. Eventually, as the fish die off, this will mean less of a livelihood for fishermen and less food for us humans and other animals who feed on the fish. Everything in this world, you see, is intimately interconnected.

So, what can we do to help with cleaning up our river? There is an article in the latest edition of the Swatara Township newsletter about making rain gardens to help slow the flow of stormwater. They also list other suggestions, including bioswales (landscape elements designed to concentrate or remove debris and pollution out of surface runoff water), rain barrels, pervious pavement (pavement that absorbs the water rather than letting it run off), and green roofs. If you own your home, you can research these options and see which one would be best for you. Also, check with your lawn treatment company to see if they are using fertilizers that are safe for the environment. If you don’t own your own home, talk to your landlord or apartment complex manager and see what they are doing to alleviate stormwater runoff. Finally, something we all can do if we have pets is to clean up after them, because yes, that also is part of what the rainwater is washing into the river.

The Susquehanna River, the Mississippi, the Nile, the Amazon, and all the other rivers in this world are all linked to the river of the water of life that John saw in God’s Revelation to him. These rivers divide and bring destruction, but they also can bring people together and bring healing. I believe that God is calling us to be a foretaste of that tree of life that brings healing to the nations, bridging the rivers that divide us and working together to bring healing to the rivers of this world while we hope for the river of the water of life that God has promised to us. We are not called to sit passively and wait for that vision, but rather, we are called to work towards that hope while we wait. Therefore, let us go from here, secure in the vision of what has been promised to us, and share that vision with others while we work to steward the rivers of this world. Amen.

Sermon for Creation 3A

Note: This is a reworking of a sermon that I preached in 2014. 

Note: Last Sunday we had a joint service with two other area congregations, and I did not preach. So yes, there is no Creation 2A sermon.

Mark 1:9-13

Fourteen years ago, in July, my mother and I made the journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to Wasilla, Alaska, for my deaconess internship.  We prepared for the journey:  I had bought the latest edition of “The Milepost,” which detailed what could be found at each mile marker of the Alaska Highway.  Since we are not campers, with my father’s help, we had planned out how far we would go each day and made reservations at hotels along the way.  We heeded the advice of people who had driven the Alaska Highway before and made sure we had plenty of music CDs to play in the car for when there would be no radio stations, which we understood would be the situation for much of the trip.  We made sure we had a cooler for storing food on the days where people had told us we would most likely not find a place to eat for lunch.  My mother and I knew—in our minds—that this would be a journey unlike any either of us had made before.  But knowing in your head what something is going to be like is not the same as actually experiencing it.  I don’t think either one of us had traveled for so long before without seeing any signs of civilization other than the road upon which we were driving.  After a few days of driving, we got excited when we saw a bridge, because it meant that human beings had actually been there and built a way across.  Believe me, there were times when we couldn’t see where the road was going and, panicked, thought it had ended and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere.  But then we crested the rise or turned the corner and were relieved to find the road continued on.  Between our stops in small towns for the night, we often saw nothing but the road and many animals on either side.  And the mountainous landscape was beautiful, but it was unsettling as well, for we knew that if something bad happened, we were solely dependent on whoever would drive next down that road, because cell phone reception was very spotty, too.  For us, this was our first experience with true wilderness:  beautiful and frightening at the same time.

Mark’s Gospel today says that as soon as Jesus was baptized, the Spirit drove him immediately into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan and surrounded by the wild beasts.  I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Jesus.  In Hebrew, the word for wilderness is midbar, which also suggests a place without words.  The wilderness was seen as a place where God was not; a place where God did not speak; a place where demons dwelled.  It was also seen as a place of un-creation, a place of chaos where life could not flourish, and, as in our Gospel lesson today, a place of temptation and testing.  I imagine Jesus going into this wilderness full of fear and trembling.  But then again, there are experiences where God’s voice is indeed heard in the wordless wilderness:  the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament, for example, went into the wilderness after Queen Jezebel threatened his life, and heard the voice of God in the sound of sheer silence.  In this wordless wilderness, therefore, God is not completely absent.  And many Christians throughout the years since Jesus lived on earth have also sought to hear the voice of God in the sound of silence which can only be found in the wordless wilderness where no other humans dwell.

Being humans, though, and being creatures of community, there is something about the wilderness that frightens us.  And, being made in the image of God, we too have an urge to create, to fill the void of “un-creation” with the creature comforts of civilization.  We don’t always see the value of having a space where there is a residual element of un-creation, of chaos; a place where we can get away from civilization, to test who we are as human beings, and to listen for God’s voice claiming us as God’s own and giving us some direction in the questions that we have.  That’s probably one reason why, 55 years ago, the Wilderness Act was created and signed by then-President Lyndon Johnson.  There were people in this country who recognized the value of having different places that were not civilized; places where we could go to get away from civilization and technology; places where we could remind ourselves of our relationship with nature and where we could listen for the sound of God’s voice speaking to us.  They sought, with the Wilderness Act, to protect those spaces.  And 55 years later, we are thankful that there are still people working to protect those spaces.

In the time that I lived in Wyoming, the least populated state in the nation, I encountered more wilderness areas as I drove around both Wyoming and Montana. And I also encountered a concept that was new to me as an Easterner: that is the concept of public lands. Here in the East we’re familiar with national parks and state parks that belong to the federal and state governments. But in the West, there is even more land that is owned by the federal government that is not included in any national parks, but instead is under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. These lands are used for different purposes, either recreational or leased out to farmers to graze or to oil companies for drilling, for example. But, as citizens of the United States, we each have a say in what happens on these lands, even when we don’t live near them, because they are public and belong to the whole country.

The problem with this is that we can’t always agree on how best these public wilderness lands should be used. You may recall a few years ago the Bundy family getting into an argument with the federal government over grazing rights, and people who supported the Bundy family taking over a wildlife refuge in Oregon in retaliation. When we heard about this out here on the East coast, it was something completely foreign to most of us, and we wondered if there really were parts of the Old, Wild West still in existence. But this is part and parcel of our disagreements on how public land should be used or preserved, and it does affect the livelihoods of some people.

And there is yet another perspective that we need to hear when we discuss the use—or non-use—of public lands: that of Native Americans, the people whose ancestors were driven off of their homelands by many of our ancestors. When I was living in Wyoming, I got the opportunity to meet some Native Americans, to learn a little of what it was like for those living on reservations, and to hear their voices about their relationship to the land. In reference to the Red Desert, a wilderness area in Wyoming that is home to many different kinds of plant and animal life, but yet is threatened by oil and gas development, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe said this: “As Native Americans, we have a unique perspective toward this land that ecologists and conservationists do not have. Because we have lived here for so long, we have bonded with the land. In a way that is often overlooked by others, we have special ties to the plants and animals. All this is sacred to us, because we are spiritually connected to it. We cannot be spiritual beings, without preserving the very environment that made us spiritual in the first place.” This idea connects very well with Biblical figures who had encounters with God in the wilderness, such as the Israelites who wandered in the desert for 40 years; Elijah, who fled to the wilderness to escape Queen Jezebel, and Jesus, who spent 40 days in the wilderness in the Gospel reading we have before us today.

When Jesus came out of the wilderness, I imagine that he came out with a sense of accomplishment.  I imagine that Jesus came out of the wilderness a bit thinner, a bit hungrier, and a bit thirstier, but confident that God’s word to him at his baptism, that he was God’s Son and that God was well pleased with him, was indeed a true word.  I imagine that he came out of the wilderness knowing that if, with God’s help, he could survive that, then with God’s help, he could go forward with the task that God had set before him: teaching the people and making disciples, suffering misunderstanding and scorn, and finally, suffering and dying on the cross for our sins.  It is not that Jesus conquered the wilderness or that he waved his hand and transformed the wilderness into a beautiful garden.  No, Jesus came out of this piece of “un-creation” as a person transformed by the wilderness and newly empowered for his mission here on earth.

Many times, new Christians believe that, once they are baptized and claimed as God’s children, everything in their life will be wonderful.  But that is not the case.  As Christians, we are often thrust into a wilderness where we experience temptations and we wonder if God is really there, still present with us.  But we can learn from the experiences of Jesus and many others that God will still speak in the sound of sheer silence.  We can learn from the experiences of Native Americans who have that deep, spiritual relationship with the land and learn how to reclaim our spiritual relationship with the land as well.  And, like Jesus, with God’s help, we can come out from the wilderness with a renewed sense of who we are—God’s children—and with a renewed sense of the task which God has given us during our time on earth.

It’s not too late to undo the damage we have done.  It’s not too late to listen to those who love the wilderness and who want to protect places like the Red Desert.  We have hope that one day in the future, Jesus will come again, bringing justice and restoring all things.  That hope speaks to us here in the present, compelling us to work for what restoration we can now while waiting for the greater fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to return to this Earth.  May God give us the wisdom to know where the boundaries are and to show us the best way to steward the gifts of this land that he has entrusted us with.  Amen.

 

Sermon 1 in Creation Series (Trinity Sunday)

Note: This is a reworking of a sermon I preached in 2014.

Note 2: We had two baptisms at St. John’s this morning.

Genesis 2:4b-22 & John 3:1-16

When I was a little girl, we lived for about 4 years in a town in New Hampshire called Keene.  It’s a town of about 25,000 people, and it’s a town where nothing really ever changes.  I remember returning there to visit after the events of September 11 and feeling comforted that this town remained almost exactly as I had remembered it, even as the outside world was in uproar.  In this town is a public park which has a small pond which is surrounded by a forest.  And in the forest, there are trails where you can walk around the pond and then deeper into the forest.  In my mind, I can still smell the scent of the leaves, and feel the quietness of the place as I walk further away from the noise of children playing on the playground.  I used to imagine that the trails through the forest would lead me to a different world, or perhaps a portal that would take me to a different period of time.  There was something special and magical about that forest, as well as something peaceful.  When my family moved back to Keene when I was a student in college, I would return to those forest trails when I needed to gain some quiet and to think about things.

Trees are some of the first things that God created, according to today’s account in Genesis.  “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  Before animals were created, trees were there.  God made human beings to be creatures who need relationships, even relationships with trees.  Science tells us that the trees take in the carbon dioxide we breathe out, and in return, the trees produce oxygen that we need to take in.  Since we know that carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, we know that having more trees is good, since they will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and thus keep the earth from becoming too warm.  Psychologically, we need trees as well.  Just think:  each year, in the depths of winter, we bring in a pine tree from outside or put up a replica of a pine tree and decorate it with ornaments.  Did you ever think about why we do that, aside from the fact that it’s a tradition to do at Christmas time?  I believe that it feeds a need we have to continue to see something growing even when snow is blowing deep and nothing much seems to be alive.

Today marks the first of four Sundays where we as a congregation will focus on God the Creator and God’s creation, the gifts that God gives us through creation and the challenge that God gives us to care for the creation.  The first commission that God gives human beings when he puts Adam in the garden is to till and keep the earth.  The Hebrew word translated “till” here can also mean “to serve”.  So, what would it look like for human beings to “serve” the earth as we keep it?  Let’s look at this in relationship to the two trees specifically mentioned in this chapter, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Noted theologian Brian McLaren suggests that each of these trees represents different things.  The Tree of Life, he says, suggests, “health, strength, thriving, fruitfulness, growth, vigor, and all we mean by aliveness.”  In contrast, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil “could represent the desire to play God and judge parts of God’s creation—all of which God considers good—as evil.”  The danger, McLaren says, is that, while “God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative,” our judging is “frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory and devaluing.”  McLaren asks what gives us the right, as part of creation itself, to judge what parts of creation are good and worthy of preservation, and what parts are bad and worthy of destruction?  Even though I and many other people question God’s creation of the mosquito, for example, and would be very happy to wipe it off of the face of the earth, the mosquito does serve a purpose in God’s good creation: it serves as food for birds and for reptiles, for example.  If we were to take away the mosquito, other species that we judge to be good might go extinct.

So, the questions we ask are:  How do we choose the Tree of Life, choose health, strength, and aliveness, rather than choose the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, judging parts of creation to be good and parts to be evil, despite the fact that we ourselves are a part of creation?  How do we properly till and keep the earth, especially as regards forests and trees, in an age where our need for tree products is growing, but also in an age that is seeing an increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants that having more fully-grown, mature trees would help to alleviate?

Let’s first start in our own yards.  I don’t know about you, but most of the time I generally don’t notice the trees until they either cause a problem or there is some change about them.  Since I rent an apartment, it is the landlord’s responsibility to care for the trees, so I don’t have too much say over what happens with them, unless they cause a problem for me.  But for those of you who own your homes, what are the trees in your yard?  Do you notice some more than others?  How do you care for them?  If you have to remove a tree because it is growing in the wrong place and getting into your plumbing, do you plant a new one to replace it?  If you don’t plant a new tree in your yard to replace the one you removed, or are not able to plant a new tree in your yard, do you make the effort to plant a tree somewhere else?

Moving from our own backyards, we need to look and see how trees and forests around the world are being treated, and how we can best advocate for people to care for them.  All around the world, forests are being harvested for various reasons: burning for fuel, use of wood in furniture, use of the trees for paper products, etc.  This is the point where you might expect me to say, “Save the rain forests!”  I’m not going to do that, although that is a very good thing to work towards and advocate for.  What I’m going to talk about is something a little closer to home, across the Canadian border:  Save the boreal forest!  The boreal forest is a large swath of forest in Canada that is being clear cut so that oil companies can access tar sands and extract oil from them. The timber is also being used to feed our demand for paper products, even toilet paper. The boreal forest supports a large variety of animal life, and it is a source of clean water for many people of Canada.  It is home to many of the people of the First Nations, who we would call Native Americans, and these peoples have been just as marginalized and ill-treated throughout history as our tribes have been.  The First Nations depend on the boreal forest for their lives and their livelihoods.  But, of greatest importance in preserving this forest is this:  it is a vast storehouse of carbon dioxide.  Cutting down these trees would release about 47 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air.  And the cutting has already begun.

In just a little while, we will have the great privilege of baptizing two people into the Christian faith. Our Gospel reading from John talks about how no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Being born from above, or born anew, which is another way to translate the Greek, is what happens in baptism. It is a new birth into the kingdom of God, and it is a new birth into eternal life. And for the author of this Gospel, eternal life is not something that starts when you die and go to heaven. Eternal life starts here on earth, from the moment that you are born anew into the kingdom of God. That is the promise that God makes to you in the moment of baptism. This entry into the new life that God promises starts with our baptism.

Jesus also tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. The Greek word used for world here is kosmos, which we have taken over in English to mean the whole universe, not just the world. And that is one of the meanings of this Greek word, yes. But to get a more complete idea of what the kosmos is, it means God loves the entire world—down to each blade of grass, each flower, each wolf, each bear, each human being, and yes, even each mosquito. We human beings are just one part of this beautiful and fragile creation that God loves, and yet, we are having an outsize effect on it. So what this means is that, when we are baptized and born anew into this wonderful, eternal life God gives us, we are called upon to live in harmony with the rest of God’s creation, and to serve that creation, not to use it for our own selfish gain.

A derogatory word that is often used in place of the word “environmentalist” is “tree-hugger”.  I propose that we, as stewards of God’s good creation baptized into eternal life, turn that word from a derogatory usage to one that we proudly own.  After all, our Genesis reading today speaks of trees as one of the first things that God created and commanded us to care for.  Without the trees, we and most other life on this earth could not exist.  So, why wouldn’t we want to “hug” the trees and care for them as the precious resources they are instead of as something we can dispose of at will?  Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “If I knew the world was ending tomorrow, I would plant a tree.”  Let us go, then, to plant trees, to care for them, to walk and to rest in their shade, to wonder at their awesomeness, beauty and mystery, and most of all, to thank God for providing them for us.  Let us choose the Tree of Life.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2019

Note: Today we had two youth who were being confirmed (affirming their faith) at one congregation; but there was no one being confirmed at the other. The main body of the sermon got preached at both congregations, but what you will see here is the sermon I preached at the congregation where the youth were confirmed.

Romans 8:14-39

If today’s passage from Romans sounds familiar to you, there’s a reason for that, as this passage is often used in funerals. But it’s even more important for us to read and hear in the daily life of the church. In some of his most beautiful language yet in Romans, Paul describes the actions of the Holy Spirit in the life of the baptized Christian. And today is Pentecost, the one day of the church year when we Lutherans actually talk about the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s action in our lives. And this is the day when we are confirming two of our young people in the Christian faith, but what that really means is that they are taking on the promises for themselves that were made by their parents and their sponsors when they were baptized as children. And so, since Paul talked about baptism in the passage that we heard from him last week, we are going to trace that line of thinking from baptism to the Holy Spirit today.

Last week, Paul said that, because we were baptized into the death of Christ Jesus, we now walk in newness of life, and in hope of the resurrection. And this newness of life means that sin is no longer master over us; rather, Jesus Christ is our master and it is he whom we follow. So that means there is no such thing as “cheap grace,” where we go out and sin on Saturday night so we can be forgiven on Sunday morning only to go out and sin again. Rather, because Christ is our master, we live according to his teachings. Paul then gives two analogies to help the Christians in Rome understand what he is saying. The first analogy uses the metaphor of slavery, which was common in the 1st century Roman Empire, and which his audience would have understood. The second analogy Paul uses is a little bit easier for us: he uses the concept of marriage. When a woman is married, he says, she is bound to her husband until her husband dies; then she is free. So also, when we were baptized, we died to sin and therefore we are no longer bound to it, and we are now bound to Christ in our baptism. Paul then goes on to talk about how we still struggle with sin in this life even though sin is no longer our master, and he gives thanks to God through Jesus Christ that God has saved him from his sins.

Then we arrive at chapter 8, where Paul continues talking about how we are no longer bound to the demands of our sinful flesh, but rather, we are bound to the Holy Spirit through our baptism. Because we have the Holy Spirit in us, the law no longer condemns us. We are free: free to walk in that newness of life given to us through Christ Jesus in our baptism. And, Paul says, we have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption. We are children of God, and the Holy Spirit bears witness to that. We are free to address God without fear; free to call God our Father. Such marvelous news!

Then Paul talks about some of the ways the Holy Spirit is active in our lives. He begins by talking about how the whole creation is groaning and waiting with eager longing to be set free from its bondage to decay. So, in other words, we human beings tend to focus exclusively on our suffering: the pain from illness, the pain from watching those whom we love suffer from illness, the pain of being separated from those we love, and so on and so forth. But we neglect the rest of creation. Every time a species of animal or plant goes extinct, the whole creation suffers. Every time water is polluted, and it is no longer safe to drink or to wash with, the whole creation groans in pain. We’ll talk more about this idea when we get to our sermon series on creation, starting next week. Paul’s point here is that, just as the creation groans as it suffers, we, who have the Holy Spirit within us, groan inwardly as we await the resurrection and the new creation, where there will be no more pain and suffering.

But, the Holy Spirit does more than make us long for the resurrection with hope of that which we cannot see. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we pray, because, Paul says, we do not know how to pray as we ought to. I want to tell a story to illustrate this. In 2004, my paternal grandfather was diagnosed with leukemia. He was 80 years old, and at the time the doctors said that the chemo was just as likely to kill him as it was to cure him. So, he opted for comfort care and to let nature take its course. When I got the news, I was very distressed. And I didn’t know how to pray for him; it didn’t seem right to pray for his death, but I also knew that the diagnosis would not result in my grandfather continuing to live, so it didn’t seem right to pray for him to live if he was going to continue living in pain. After talking with a counselor about this, I concluded that the best way to pray was for God to not allow him to suffer for too long. I don’t know if this was the right prayer—but I do know that the Holy Spirit was interceding for me with sighs too deep for words. And I know that God heard those prayers and knew what was in my heart, even though I couldn’t express it the right way. And I know this because of that promise of the Holy Spirit who was there with me, advocating for me before the throne of God.

Even more wonderful than these already wonderful words about the Holy Spirit is the last section of chapter 8. Paul summarizes all of his arguments up to this point by asking, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” No one condemns us, Paul says, because God loves us. And nothing can separate us from God’s love. Nothing, no one. It doesn’t matter what sin you have committed when you’ve lost your struggle to resist it. God still loves you. You are baptized in Christ Jesus and into his death; nothing will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. How amazing is that?

Emilee and Heather, in just a little while you will be affirming the promises that your parents and sponsors made for you when you were baptized. That means that you are taking the responsibility for fulfilling those promises on yourselves. Here are those promises: to live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. There are times when we will be great at fulfilling those promises, and there will be times when we will fail. Paul’s words about the struggle against sin still ring true over 2000 years later. But the good, wonderful, amazing news is this. When we fail, we are not alone: the whole creation groans with us, including the community of Christians that we find ourselves in. We have not received a spirit of slavery that makes us fall back into fear; rather, we have received the Holy Spirit, who frees us from all condemnation and gives us the promise of the resurrection, so that we are no longer afraid of anything the powers that be can do to us. When we don’t know how to pray, we can simply cry out to God and trust that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and that God hears our prayers and our heartfelt cries. And finally, and most importantly, we know that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. God made us, God saved us through Jesus Christ, and God has sent the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts to be with us always. God is always with us, no matter what.

Emilee and Heather, you are taking on these promises of the Christian faith for yourselves in a time when the world is changing rapidly in many ways, some of them for the better and some of them for the worse. You are here to show us who are older how to live out our Christian faith in this new world. We are here to support you with the wisdom we have gleaned in our years of living. It’s going to be challenging for you, and it’s going to be frustrating when we older folks get stubborn and don’t want to follow where the Holy Spirit is urging you to lead us. In fact, one of my colleagues, John Stevens, who is a pastor in Oregon City, Oregon, wrote this series of three haikus that I think you will identify with in the coming years:

Annoying Spirit,

My life was fine before You.

Or at least I thought.

Annoying Spirit,

No longer can I sit still.

Feeling Your call deep.

Annoying Spirit,

You give me new ears to hear

My neighbors in need.

My prayer for you is that you would not give up on us. We love you and we want to support you as you continue living your lives as the Holy Spirit has called you to live: free from fear and resting secure in the knowledge that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. No one. God loves you. Period. Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Easter 7 Narrative

Romans 6:1-14

Last week in Romans, we talked about how Paul says that everyone is equally sinful, no matter who they are, whether they are Jewish or Gentile. We talked about how it is not your nationality that makes you right with God, but rather, it is Jesus Christ who makes you right with God. And then we talked about God’s radical love for us: that Christ died for us while we were weak, while we were sinners, and while we were enemies of God. Do you remember the homework assignment I gave you last week? About how every time someone makes you angry or you find yourself hating someone because of something reported in the news, you were to stop and pray for that person? How’s that going? I want you to know that I don’t ask you all to do something like that without disciplining myself to do the same thing, and yes, I found it very difficult this week when I stopped to pray for someone in a news story that I discovered I was hating. So, I want you to know that I feel your pain, and I hope that we all can continue to discipline ourselves to do this.

This week, we need to trace Paul’s argument through the rest of chapter 5 before we start talking about today’s reading. At the end of last week’s reading, Paul tells us that if, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Moving on into the rest of chapter 5, Paul says that this idea makes sense, because sin and death came into the world through one man—Adam. Therefore, righteousness and life come through the one man, Jesus Christ. And here is where the argument for translating the Greek as “the faithfulness of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ” makes sense, for Paul is saying that just as by Adam’s disobedience many were made sinners, by Jesus’ obedience—that is, his submission to death on the cross, or in other words, Jesus’ faithfulness in following the will of God the Father—many will be made righteous. Finally, in verse 20 of chapter 5, Paul talks about grace and sin. He talks about how, when sin increases, grace increases right alongside of it. God’s love and grace for those who sin is greater than all the possible sins we could commit.

This then leads to Paul’s opening question in chapter 6: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” In other words, let’s go out and party and do bad things on Saturday night and then on Sunday morning we confess, and God forgives, so we have a clean slate and we can continue to do wrong things because God always forgives us. This idea is usually referred to as “cheap grace”. To the concept of cheap grace, Paul says, in a slightly more modern turn of phrase, “Oh, hell, no!” Because we have been baptized into Christ Jesus, he says, we were baptized into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Here I would like to use an image to help us understand what Paul is talking about in reference to baptism. I want to preface this by saying that I believe that baptism takes hold no matter the form: if you pour water over a person’s head, or if the person is fully immersed in water and comes back up. According to what Martin Luther taught, it is not the water itself or even the amount of water that is important. What is important for the Sacrament of Baptism is water combined with God’s saving Word; together, water and the word is what makes a baptism. Now, that being said, one of my goals for my pastoral career is to do a full immersion baptism, preferably in a river or a lake. Why? Because of Paul’s imagery here: we who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death. And when you do a full immersion baptism, you are certainly getting the image of death by drowning, even though the person would hold her nose when going under the water. And what dies in baptism? Our sinful self. That sinful self was crucified on the cross with Jesus and died with Jesus.

Now, here’s the thing, though: Paul does not say that we are resurrected with Jesus when we come up out of the water. Our physical resurrection does not come until Jesus returns in glory. But what does come up out of the water is a new life for us. Baptism transforms us, so that we no longer even want to sin, to do bad things. We have a new life where we walk with Jesus and live according to his teachings. So, no, we don’t deliberately sin and then walk into church on Sunday morning to get forgiven so we can do it again. Rather, our baptism has transformed us so that we want to live that new life in Jesus Christ, in harmony with everyone around us.

But even though our baptism has transformed us, we are living in a time period that we call “now and not yet”. We only have to look around to see that, while we may be transformed by baptism, the world around us is certainly not. And even we who are baptized and walking in that newness of life still fall into sin. Paul says a little bit later, in chapter 7 of Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” We are still sinful human beings, and even though we want to do good and walk in that newness of life given to us in baptism, we still fall into the power of sin. We get angry with one another and we tear one another down rather than build one another up. We live in a system that does not care for the world around us and we uphold that system because we do not see a way that we can break out of it. We look at people who are different from us and condemn them without trying to understand them first. So, what good does baptism do if this is the case?

In fact, baptism does much good. Paul writes: “For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” In other words, the resurrection of our body does not happen immediately upon being baptized. But, because we have been baptized into Christ’s death, we have hope: hope in the promise that, one day, like Jesus, we too will be resurrected and have a completely new life. And because we have that hope in the resurrection, we do not need to be afraid of the powers that are at work in the world. We know that death is not the end. And because we now have no fear of death, we are free to resist the power of sin and to resist the evil that is at work in the world. When we see evil happening in the world, we can call it out and not be afraid of what the powers that be can do to us, because we have that hope in the resurrection that Jesus has promised us through our baptism.

At the end of today’s section of Romans, Paul calls on the Christians at Rome to “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Yes, sin is still in the world, and yes, we still fall into sin. But sin is no longer our master—Jesus Christ is our master, and it is him that we follow. What are some ways, then, that we can present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness?

On Friday, there was news of yet another mass shooting, this time in Virginia Beach, at a municipal building, by a disgruntled employee. We in this country cannot seem to stop the tide of mass shootings. Every time one happens, people rise up and demand better gun control laws on one side of the issue and better mental health care on the other side of the issue. There’s a lot of noise, but nothing gets done, and then things quiet down until the next mass shooting happens. How are we as Christians to respond to this? In this case, what does it look like for us to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness? Well, God desires that we live in peace, safety, and in harmony with one another. To my mind, this is what that looks like: we are called to work for better gun regulations. After all, those who use guns for valid purposes, like hunting, really have no need of semi-automatic weapons. On the other side, God desires that we strive for the mental and physical well-being of our neighbors. This includes better access to mental health care and removing the stigma from asking for help with mental issues. Just as we would go to the doctor to heal a broken bone, we should also be able to go to a mental health professional for a broken mind or spirit. So, as Christians, we are called to advocate for everyone’s mental health and well-being. Practical ways to do this are to contact our federal and state legislators and to volunteer with organizations who are advocating for changes in the way our systems work. Change will not come overnight, but that doesn’t mean we can give up and stop working for that change.

Baptism into the death of Christ Jesus doesn’t mean that since we are saved, we can sit back and do nothing until he comes again. Baptism into his death does mean that nothing we do can save us, because Jesus has done that already. But what our baptism calls us into is that walk in newness of life. We are now called to actively resist sin and not just to throw up our hands and say there is nothing we can do. Sin is no longer our master; Christ Jesus is. And since death could not hold Jesus down, death cannot hold us down either. We are called to get out in the world and speak for our neighbor, and not just in matters of mass shootings. We are called to speak for our neighbor wherever matters of injustice are found, be they things that happen in our ordinary lives or things that happen on a bigger scale. And since we no longer have death to fear, that means that we should fear nothing, for Christ Jesus is with us. So, go, resting secure in the knowledge that you are safe in Jesus’ arms, live out your baptismal calling, and resist sin by calling it out and working for change. Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter 6 Narrative

Romans 3:28-30; 5:1-11

Last week, we were introduced to Paul’s letter to the Romans and why he was writing to the Christian communities in Rome. And we also talked about how the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. We talked about what salvation looks like today to people who are inside the church and to those outside the church, and how it can look like different things to different people. And we talked about how we have that power of God for salvation to everyone, no matter what salvation looks like; that power that comes from faith in Jesus, or the faithfulness of Jesus, depending on how you translate the Greek.

Today we’re skipping over a few chapters of Romans to get to our main text, but we do need to trace Paul’s argument in the chapters we missed in order to understand more fully what Paul is telling us in today’s reading. And for that, I want to go back to a little section of last week’s reading that I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on. Paul says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. When we read through the stories about Paul in the book of Acts, and when we read through the rest of Paul’s letters as well as Romans, we find this concern about how this new movement that proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord will relate to those who are not Jewish. Something that we modern Christians tend to forget is that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, and that Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism. And so, the big discussion among first century Christians revolved around Gentiles, who Paul calls “Greeks” in this letter—those people who were not Jewish and who found that Jesus was calling them to follow him. The questions went something like this: Do Gentiles who believe in Jesus need to become Jewish first? If yes, then that means the men have to be circumcised and both men and women need to follow the dietary regulations laid out in the book of Leviticus. If Gentiles do not need to first become Jewish, how can a new Christian community form if Gentiles eat things that Jewish people are not allowed to eat? A lot of community, even today, forms around sharing a meal, so this was a really important question. And finally, what Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans, is that there was simply prejudice going on: Jewish people in the community looking down their noses at the Gentiles because they were not God’s chosen people, they did not follow the laws laid down by God through Moses, and the Jewish Christians were asking how in the world God’s grace could be poured out on the Gentiles when the Gentiles did not follow God’s laws.

And so, Paul makes the argument, beginning at the end of Romans 1, that everyone, both Jew and Gentile, is equally sinful. He starts out by naming behaviors that Jewish people condemn Gentiles for: specifically, idolatry and actions that result from worshiping idols. And just as the Jewish Christians in the group would be nodding their heads in righteous condemnation of those “wicked Gentiles,” Paul springs the trap: don’t condemn the Gentiles when you do the very same things. His argument here reminds me of when Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Look at your own behavior, Paul says, and see whether or not you, too, violate the law that God has decreed. In the end, Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Gentile: all means all. And this is where the first part of today’s reading comes in: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Now, Paul is not advocating that the Jewish Christians stop being Jewish and no longer follow the dietary laws and the law that the men should be circumcised. Rather, he is saying that you can keep your identity as Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians, but since all have sinned, keeping those laws is not what makes you right with God. Instead, Jesus Christ is who makes you right with God.

In chapter 4, Paul uses Abraham as an example of his proposition that we are made right with God through faith and not through following the law. Finally, then, we come to chapter 5, which is the major part of the reading that we have heard today. Paul says that because we are made right with God through Jesus Christ, we have access to God’s grace, and this is what we can boast about. We don’t boast about who we are, whether we are Jewish Christians who have kept all of the commandments since our youth or whether we are Gentiles who are brand new to this whole Christian thing. Our pedigrees and our family trees don’t matter. Rather, we boast in “our hope of sharing the glory of God”. God’s grace has fallen on each one of us equally through our Lord Jesus Christ. God loves you just as much as God loves me. And this is the love that we as Christians want to share with the world.

Then, Paul says something that many of us want to argue with: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” I don’t know about you, but when I was suffering from having my wisdom teeth taken out two years ago, I would have greatly preferred not having to suffer—I have enough character and hope already, God, thank you very much. How much more do those who are suffering more serious illnesses or more serious difficulties in their lives protest this idea! We want to believe that all God wants is for us to be happy and wealthy and all we have to do is follow these steps and trust in God to get there. And there are plenty of televangelists and others to tell us that. But as we can see from these verses in Romans, and in other places in the Bible, such thinking is not what the Bible teaches. We are not to seek out suffering, but in this world, suffering happens, whether it’s illness or poverty or persecution or something else. What Paul is saying here is that God is present with us and loves us even through all of that, and God can use that experience for good in our lives and the lives of others.

And then Paul gets to the heart of the matter, in some of his most beautiful verses in Romans: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” And again he says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” And a third time he says, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Think of that: while we were weak; while we were sinners; while we were enemies. We have been all of those things. And God loves us in spite of all of that. God loves us so much, that God goes to the length of sending Jesus, God’s Son, to earth to die for us. And we didn’t have to do anything. God wants a relationship with us so badly and God loves us so much that Jesus Christ died for us when there was nothing good to be found about us. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that worth praising God for? Isn’t that worth getting over our foolish fears and sharing with the people around us?

This is what Paul is implying by using this language: if God loved us while we were weak, sinners, and God’s enemies, then when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, this is not a pious ideal. This is something that we are to work very hard at doing, because this is the same thing that God did for us. This should cause us to examine ourselves and our lives and to ask, “Who are my enemies?” Now, most of us think that we are good, nice people, and that we don’t have enemies at all. But, what about that family member that we see sitting at the dinner table with us at Thanksgiving, the one that we go to great lengths to avoid talking to in order not to get into a big fight and ruin everyone’s holiday? What about that person who spread rumors about us that were untrue and nearly cost us a job? This did happen to me once, many years ago now. And when I told my pastor about it and how angry I was, the first thing that he said to me was, “Let’s pray for that person right now.” That’s what loving your enemies looks like, and no matter how good and nice a person we think we are, we all have enemies. And God’s love for us is so radical that God commands us to love those enemies and to pray for them, no matter how hard it might be. Because that is how God loves us.

As I was studying for this sermon, one podcast commented that this kind of enemy love is God’s “militant NO to the terms of hatred in this world”. I love that. This week, as we go about our daily lives, I want us to be mindful of our emotions. When we watch the news and we are stirred with hatred of someone because of a bad situation going on, let’s stop for a moment, mute the TV or turn off the radio, and pray for that person who we are in the midst of hating. Let’s remind ourselves that God could have hated us for what we had done, too, but that instead God chose to love us so much that God sent Jesus Christ to die for us: while we were weak, while we were sinners, and while we were enemies of God. And if you encounter yourself hating someone during a different activity this week—it doesn’t have to be listening to the news—do the same thing. Stop what you’re doing and pray for that person. It’s a good discipline, and it is very hard to do at first—trust me, it was very hard for me to pray for that person who spread rumors about me all those years ago! But I wonder if it might get easier for us as we practice it more. And just maybe, we might be able to lessen the tide of hatred in this world—just a drop. So, let’s give it a try, and trust that the Holy Spirit is with us, leading us and encouraging us as we go. Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter 5 Narrative

Romans 1:1-17

After only two stories from the book of Acts, we move into Paul’s letter to the Christian communities in Rome, and we will be spending the next few weeks on this letter. The good thing about exploring one of Paul’s letters is that, rather than hearing stories about Paul from a secondhand source, that is, the author of the book of Acts, we are now hearing from Paul himself: what his concerns are as he writes to the Roman Christians and even a few tantalizing details about who he is and what his life is like. The bad thing about going through one of Paul’s letters is that it is a letter, and it is not written directly to us. It was written to a community of Christians living in the first century of the Common Era, and so there are things that both Paul and this community would have understood that we have to struggle with, because we are not living in that time and in that culture. Furthermore, of all of Paul’s letters, Romans is probably the most densely packed with his theology, and it has been formative for the Christian faith, especially for Martin Luther and the other Reformers. So, during these weeks, we’ll try to move through this slowly and see what Paul still has to teach us about Jesus through this letter.

Let’s then start with the background of this letter. If you were to read the book of Acts from beginning to end, you would find that much of it is concerned with stories about Paul. However, Paul was not the only follower of Christ out there telling people about Jesus. Acts gives us stories of Peter, Stephen, and Philip, along with people like Priscilla and Aquila. And, there were many more Christians out there who traveled around spreading the good news. Some of those Christians ended up in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, and founded Christian communities there. At the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he had not yet been to Rome and he wanted to go, not only to visit the Christians there and impart some of his teaching, but also to ask for their financial help so he could make a journey to Spain to continue spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. So, if you were going to visit a community you had never before met and ask for their help, what would you do? Today we might send an email or make a phone call. In Paul’s day, they wrote letters. And this is what Romans is: a letter of introduction, telling the Roman Christians who he, Paul, is, what he is teaching about Jesus, giving them some direction based on what he has heard is going on in their communities, and then, at the end of the letter, making his plea for financial aid to go to Spain.

Just as our letters today have a certain form, or order, to them, so did letters that were written in the first century. Paul starts out by saying who he is and establishing his credentials: he tells the Romans what he preaches. Then he says who he is writing the letter to: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints,” and then he greets them. The next section of our reading today is what is technically called an exordium, in other words, Paul is thanking God for the Roman Christians and complimenting them, saying that their “faith is proclaimed throughout the world”. As we go through this letter, try and remember that, because not only is Paul complimenting them on their faith, he is also putting them on notice that people are watching them. The behavior that other Christians and the rest of the world see in them will reflect how they live out what it means to be followers of Christ. Later in Paul’s letter, he will address some of the behaviors that he has heard about that are happening there.

Here I want to pause and reflect for a moment on Paul’s statement that the faith of the Christians in Rome is proclaimed throughout the world. The word used in Greek could also be translated as “faithfulness”, which gives the word a little different flavor than faith. Faith is not just a head knowledge. That is, faith does not mean only confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord with your mouth. Rather, faith, or faithfulness, also includes how our behavior is transformed by the good news of the gospel. How do our words and actions reflect the power of the Gospel for salvation to everyone? Can those around us see in both our words and our actions that we are Christians? If the apostle Paul were writing to us today, here at Salem and at St. John’s, would he say that our faith is proclaimed throughout the world? While it may not be necessary for someone to commend us for our faithfulness to the Gospel, I think it’s a good question for us to ask ourselves as we take stock of what we have been doing to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to our neighbors and what we might be able to do better.

St. Paul writes to the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The fact is, we should not be ashamed of the gospel, for it is powerful. If you were here during our Lenten midweek series, you will know that I and the other pastors have been encouraging the four congregations to write out our faith statements. I have followed up on that by sharing my faith statement during a sermon several weeks ago and also by asking individual members of the council to share their faith statements in council meetings as a way of practicing it in a safe space. I have heard a few people share theirs now, and they have moved me as I hear in awesome wonder how God works among us. That is the power of God for salvation among us, here and now.

The idea of salvation is another thing that we church folks need to discuss as we share our faith with others. Salvation is one of those church speak words that doesn’t mean a whole lot to people outside of the church. Those of us inside the church will automatically say that salvation means Jesus has saved us from our sins so that we might go to heaven when we die and live with him forever. That is not wrong and that is a big part of our faith. But we also need to remember that some of the early Christians, Luke especially, believed that salvation happened here and now, in this life, just as much as it does in the next. And the Gospel can effect salvation in the real world, too. As I was studying this week in preparation for this sermon, I ran across a story in one of the commentaries about a woman who came into the office of her religion professor mystified about something. At a low point in her life, she determined that she was going to commit suicide, and just as she was about to jump into the river, a verse of Scripture popped into her mind, “My life is not my own. I have been bought with a price.” What was puzzling her was that she said she was not a Christian and had not attended church. When the professor probed a bit, she remembered that her grandmother had taken her to vacation Bible school, where she remembered memorizing some Bible verses. Her professor smiled and said, “You see, God stored that gospel word in your heart, so that one day it would save you.” In this case, the Gospel had literally saved a woman from death.

Last week, I mentioned in the sermon that people may not have the word “sin” in their vocabulary any longer. So, if salvation happens in the here and now as well as for eternity, what does that salvation look like? Luke tells the story of Zacchaeus, that wee little man who climbed up a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and when Jesus went to his house to eat and the people complained, Zacchaeus vowed to give half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back anyone whom he had defrauded. And Jesus said that on that day, salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house. So perhaps salvation today looks like those who have committed a crime working to restore what they have taken instead of languishing in prison, unable any longer to contribute to society. Or, perhaps if you are poor, salvation looks like having someone pay off all of your medical debt, as one church has done, so that you can climb out of poverty that much sooner. These are the kinds of things people in our society today want to be saved from: sentences in prison that don’t allow them to return to society easily; debts that cannot easily be paid off; illnesses that take a toll. And we have the power of God for salvation to everyone in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

That wonderful, powerful gospel sets us free: free from sin and free from the power of death. When we no longer fear death, we can be bold in the actions that God calls us to in Christ. We can look to the example of Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia, who, faced with declining attendance and an aging building, decided to sell the property to make room for a multiuse building that will include a new space for worship, 173 units of affordable housing, and a nonprofit organization. Making affordable housing available is one way of proclaiming the gospel to those who are poor. Or, we can do things on a smaller scale: by sharing the good news of Jesus with the children who will come to Vacation Bible School, we may be giving these children what they need to withstand dark times in their lives, whether or not those children ever darken the door of our church on a Sunday morning. Even if our congregations eventually die, we still have the power of God—the gospel—for salvation to everyone, and God will use what we say and do to bring that salvation to all.

And so, I would like to close today with a short prayer written by Rose Tonkin for our evangelism efforts in Steelton, Oberlin, and Highspire. Let us pray:

 

He is Risen!! He is Risen Indeed!!!!

May the Power given to us by the Holy Spirit at our baptism, give us the courage to go into our neighborhoods proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen, Let it be so!

 

Sermon for Easter 4 Narrative

Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

Last week, we heard the story about how Peter recognized, through his vision of the clean and unclean animals and his visit with Cornelius, that God poured out the Holy Spirit not only on Jewish people, but also on Gentiles. In chapter 11, Peter got called up on the carpet by the Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem for eating with the Gentiles, and so he had to explain his actions to them. He described his vision and how the Holy Spirit had fallen upon the Gentiles, and when the believers in Jerusalem heard his story, they were silenced. And then they praised God in wonder and awe, because God had decided to save Gentiles as well as Jews. With this, a wall began to break, and people began telling both Jewish people and Gentile people about Jesus, and more and more people became believers. One city, called Antioch, located in Syria, soon became a center for the early Christians, and the church there grew enough so that, when there was a famine back in Judea, this new congregation sent goods to the believers in Jerusalem to help them out. But things were still not safe for the early Christians. King Herod began to persecute them, and he had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. Next, Luke tells us, Herod imprisoned Peter, but, in one of the funnier stories in Acts, God sends an angel to break him out of jail. When the guards couldn’t find him the next morning, Herod had them put to death. But Herod got his in the end: read the end of Acts 12 to find out about the gruesome death that he suffered.

And with that, Luke brings us back to Paul in chapter 13, who is with the believers in Jesus in the Antioch congregation. One day when the group was worshiping, the Holy Spirit told the congregation to set aside Barnabas and Saul—by the way, Saul is the same man as Paul; Saul is the Hebrew name and Paul is the Greek name—for the work that God had called them to. Thus begins Paul’s first missionary journey. Our reading today skips over the first stops on Paul’s journey. He and Barnabas first go to Seleucia, which was the port city closest to Antioch, and they set sail for Cyprus, which is the island south of what is today known as Turkey that is still fought over by Greece and Turkey. They have some adventures on Cyprus as they speak the word of God, including blinding a magician who tried to turn a Roman official aside from believing in Jesus. Then they sail from Cyprus and land in the southern part of Asia Minor, which is today known as Turkey. They continue preaching Jesus, first in the synagogues and then to the Gentiles. Luke includes a sample of their preaching in another Antioch, this one in the region of Pisidia. But they get run off from Antioch by people who don’t believe what they are preaching, and they travel next to Iconium, where the same thing happens. And so, they come to the town of Lystra, where today’s story takes place.

And this is where the story gets really funny. Paul, seeing a man who had been crippled from birth, and seeing that he had faith to be healed, tells the man to stand up on his feet. And the Holy Spirit works through Paul and heals the man. But the crowds in Lystra are largely non-Jewish, and so they have a different response to the healing than Jewish crowds would. Steeped in a culture that worshiped many gods, and that had many stories of those gods coming down to earth to visit human beings, the crowds interpret this healing to mean that the gods had once more come down to earth. They thought that Paul was Hermes, the god of communication—yes, even the crowds back then thought Paul talked a lot!!—and they thought that Barnabas was Zeus. Well, this is a huge problem for Paul and Barnabas—as good Jews, they know better than to claim that they are gods. And so, they tear their clothes as a sign of mourning for the blasphemy of the crowds, and they frantically tell the crowds that they are not gods, but that they bring good news of the living God, the one God who created them all. But even then, they barely keep the crowds from offering sacrifices to them.

The question now is, what are the things that we can learn from this story? It seems as though Paul and Barnabas failed in their missionary work here, as the crowds did not have the proper framework for interpreting what happened to the man who had been crippled from birth. There are two things that I see that we can learn, and these things are tied together in the way that we are called to witness to others about Jesus Christ. One thing is this: we need to learn to communicate to people in ways that they can understand. The other thing is this: we need to be brave and to use words to tell people about Jesus, and not just depend on the nice things that we do.

Let’s talk about communicating with people in ways that they can understand first. When the people of Lystra saw what Paul did in healing the crippled man and interpreted it to mean that Paul and Barnabas were gods, and when Paul and Barnabas saw that the people were about to offer sacrifices to them, Paul talked to them in general terms about the one, living God. He knew that these were not Jewish people, and he knew that he could not refer back to Moses and the prophets to tell them about Jesus, because they would not have heard of Moses and the prophets. All the people knew were those Greek gods that even we, today, had to learn about in school. So Paul says this: “We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things (that is, the pagan gods) to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” In other words, Paul chooses the most basic thing that he, a Jew, and this group of Gentiles have in common: God created them both, and not the pagan gods.

When we are witnessing to people outside the church, we need to find the most basic thing that we have in common with them so that we have the best chance of understanding one another. Many people in our society today have not grown up going to church. They are not going to understand what is sometimes called church-y language, or church speak. The word “sin” may not be in their vocabulary, let alone justification by grace through faith. Their question is not going to be, “How do I get to heaven when I die?” but rather it is going to be something along the lines of, “How do I live a good life?” Or, “What is it that makes life worth living?” Therefore, we need to be thinking of answers to those questions that start at the most basic thing we have in common, but that move towards speaking of Jesus and why Jesus is important to us. For example, it could be something like this: “You know, I’ve asked those questions in my life, too. And I find meaning by helping other people, especially when I have things that I can share, like food and clothes. But I do this not because I think I am a good person, but because I believe in Jesus and his love for me. Jesus loved me so much that he died on the cross for me, and so I share his love for me through helping others however I can.” This starts at something basic that I have in common with the other person—I’ve asked those same questions—moves to something that the other person can probably understand—sharing things with those in need—and finally moves on to why I do this—because of Jesus.

And this brings me to the second lesson that we learn from Paul and Barnabas today. There is a quote that is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” First, St. Francis never said it. I don’t know how or why it was attributed to him, but it isn’t in any of his writings. And second, it’s a bad saying. Don’t ever say it again. Your actions, no matter how good they may be, can always be misinterpreted. Paul did a good thing by healing the crippled man, but it turns out, his actions were misinterpreted, and the people decided they wanted to worship him and Barnabas as gods. And I think the philosophy behind this saying is why our congregations are in the situation that we’re in. Too often, we have worked in our social ministries and helped others, hoping that our actions would prompt people to ask us about Jesus. Well, that didn’t happen. And so now we need to get bold and talk to people about why we are doing the good works we are doing. When people come into our buildings for food and clothes, we can strike up a conversation with them and ask them if we can pray for them. And don’t just say, “I’ll pray for you,” stop and pray with the person, right there, if they are okay with it. Let’s invite people to our worship service, and not just a “Come to church on Sunday,” but rather a specific, “Come and worship with me this Sunday. Do you need a ride? I’ll come and get you. And, I’ll sit with you and help you through the service if you’re confused about what’s going on.” This is how we build relationships with people.

Our reading from Acts today ends with what seems like failure on the part of Paul and Barnabas. But the Holy Spirit never fails. Paul and Barnabas were driven out of the city, and Paul was stoned, but he did not die. He and Barnabas continued on to Derbe and made many disciples there. They then returned to Lystra, and there they found believers in Christ. Some people were obviously affected by the words that Paul spoke, even though he was driven out of the town. Today there are ruins near where Lystra was, and a large part of the site remains unexcavated. But, in the ruins that can be seen, there is a church building. The Holy Spirit works, but often does not work on our timetable. So, keep witnessing to others about Jesus and build relationships. You may not see any results, but you never know if you will be planting a seed that will grow long after your initial encounter with the other person. Do not be discouraged, for the Holy Spirit is with you and is working in you. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 3 Narrative

Acts 10:1-17, 34-48

This week, we move from the Gospel of Matthew into the book of Acts. And that’s a little odd, because the Book of Acts was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, as a sequel to that Gospel to show the beginnings of the early church. So even though Acts could still be looked at as a sequel to the Gospel, this author is going to have some different concerns as he tells the story than what Matthew’s Gospel had. And, we’re starting in the middle of the story of Acts, so I’m going to try to fill you in on what’s happened in the book so far.

The Gospel of Luke ends with a brief description of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and Acts, its sequel, begins with a more detailed story of Jesus’ ascension. Jesus promises that the disciples will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Pay attention to that, because that is how Luke structures his book of Acts: by telling stories of how the disciples witness to others first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and then all the way to Rome. Jesus then ascends into heaven, and an angel comes and tells the disciples to stop standing around and get to work. The disciples first take care of some “administrative business” by choosing Matthias to take the place of Judas, who betrayed Jesus and died. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples; we will come back to that story on June 9, which is when we celebrate Pentecost this year. In the next few chapters, Luke recounts stories of Peter and the other disciples preaching to the crowds and healing those who are ill, with many people converting and the Christian community sharing their goods with one another and caring for one another. Luke also tells about how the disciples get brought before the authorities to explain what they’re doing. In chapters 6 and 7 we get the story of Stephen, who is, according to tradition, the first Christian martyr. In chapter 8 the disciples are scattered out from Jerusalem because of persecution, and we get stories of Philip witnessing to others and the Holy Spirit converting people to belief in Jesus through him. Chapter 9 tells us the story of how Paul, who was the great persecutor of the church, came to believe in Jesus and began preaching to others powerfully about Jesus. And then we return to Peter, who has landed in the town of Joppa, and is ministering to the Christian community there.

So now I want to take a look at a couple of things that we might otherwise miss in today’s story of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion, a member of the Roman force that was occupying Judea and ruling over them. But, Luke tells us, Cornelius was a “devout” man. This means that, instead of worshiping the Roman gods like his fellow soldiers most likely did, he instead followed the Jewish God. That means that, as again Luke tells us, he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. There were people like this among the Romans: those who found the Jewish faith appealing, but who would not convert because of the requirement for men to be circumcised. So, here’s this Roman centurion, doing his best to follow what he knows of the God that the Jewish people worshiped and performing his duties as a soldier, when suddenly he sees a vision of an angel telling him to send for a man named Simon Peter. And so Cornelius sends his men on the 33-mile trip from Caesarea to Joppa.

In the meantime, in Joppa, Peter is also having a vision, but his vision is of a sheet full of animals, both clean and unclean. Peter is an observant Jewish man, and God has laid out in the Torah a list of animals that can be eaten and a list of animals that cannot be eaten. Among those considered unclean are, for example, pigs: so no bacon, ham, or pork products of any kind. Also not acceptable for eating are animals like the eagle, vulture, weasel, mouse, crocodile, gecko, and various other birds, rodents, and reptiles. Peter has had these rules drilled into him since he was a little boy, and so when he sees this sheet full of animals that are both clean and unclean, and hears the voice telling him to kill and eat, he is naturally horrified. Lord, he says, I have followed your law all my life; I will not eat anything unclean. And then God says that what God has made clean, Peter should not call unclean. This happens three times, and then the vision ends. Of course, Peter is puzzled. What does God mean to tell him? That it’s now okay to eat anything? That doesn’t seem right.

It is at this point that the messengers that Cornelius sent to get Peter arrive. Now, we who live so far removed from this time and place don’t always get how frightening this would be. For Jewish people, especially Jewish Christians who knew that they could be persecuted for their faith, this might be the equivalent of having a state trooper arrive at your doorstep. Even if the trooper has come for some reason other than to deliver bad news or to arrest you or someone in your house, your immediate reaction is going to be one of extreme fear. But, when the messengers tell Peter why they’ve arrived, Peter begins to think that God might be revealing what that vision he had was really about, and on the next day, he goes with the messengers to see Cornelius.

And here is where the really important part of the story comes. Peter states that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, that is, a non-Jewish person. This is an overstatement of the matter: Jewish people did interact with Gentiles on a regular basis, but they did so with care, so that they would not be seen to be worshiping idols or eating prohibited foods. But up to this point, the Christian movement had largely been a Jewish sect, and non-Jewish people had not been included. But as Peter preaches Jesus to Cornelius and the other Romans there, the Holy Spirit falls upon them, and Peter realizes that this is what the vision of the animals was about: God gives the Holy Spirit to everyone, Jewish or not, and Peter realizes that he cannot withhold water for baptizing these new believers in Jesus Christ.

So, what does this mean for us today? Well, I’d like to approach that by telling a story. Last week, when I was visiting friends in upstate New York, I went to church on Sunday with my friend in Utica. We went to Grace Episcopal Church, and this is what I experienced there: Utica has been very open to having refugees resettle in their city, and at Grace Church, I saw many people worshiping there who were Karen. The Karen people are a minority group who originate from Burma and who have been persecuted by the Burmese government. In the church, the Karen people were fully accepted and appreciated in the congregation. They sang a song in their native language during the service, and they participated in the large choir. Grace Church is also very welcoming of LGBTQ people, of whom my friend is one, and at the lunch afterwards I observed people welcoming him, conversing with him, and laughing with him. The fact that he is gay was not an issue for these people who loved him as a fellow Christian, just as there was love and acceptance shown to all the different ethnicities who were present on that day. And, as a guest, I was also welcomed and fully included in the conversation around the table at the luncheon.

This is the kind of community that we should aspire to be. Now, my friend did tell me that, like any congregation, Grace is not perfect, and they still have some work to do. But from what I saw last Sunday, they have done a wonderful job welcoming everyone who comes to worship with them and supporting those in Utica who are not with them on Sundays without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. In our communities of Steelton and Oberlin, however, we have a longer road to walk. Right before I left on vacation, it was brought to my attention that there is a refugee family from Syria, living in Steelton, who has been experiencing harassment from people in Steelton. Despite intervention from the school district and the police, and despite a supportive presence to walk alongside the family from volunteers in the community, the harassment has continued, and the family has decided to relocate. Funds are being raised to help the family as the father looks for work and the family decides where they can safely relocate; I will have the information available after worship if you would like to donate to this cause.  We as Christians need to do more to witness to God’s love and to act to show God’s love in our communities, so this kind of thing does not happen again.

On that long ago day in Joppa, Peter and the Jewish believers who had gone with him were very surprised at who God welcomed into the kingdom. I bet that God will surprise us, too, on who God welcomes into the kingdom. We will be astounded when God seats us at the banquet table next to someone who we did not treat well in our lifetime. Our call from God is to love everyone, not just our Christian sisters and brothers who think like we do, but also our Christian brothers and sisters who believe differently from us, and not just our white neighbors, but also our black neighbors, our Karen neighbors, our refugee neighbors, our LGBTQ neighbors, our Jewish neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and so on and so forth. In short, EVERYONE. Any time we draw a boundary between us, Jesus is there behind us tearing down that boundary. Therefore, let us love our neighbors and welcome them regardless of who they are or where they come from. Amen.

To donate to help the family mentioned in this sermon, please follow these instructions:

Online at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence webpage (NRCDV is the fiscal sponsor for the Community Responders Network)
  • Go to www.nrcdv.org, Click the Donate Button on the top left
  • Choose either the Donate with PayPal or the Donate with a Debit or Credit Card option
  • Enter the amount of your donation
  • In the “Special Instructions to the seller” section, type in “For the Syrian family”
  • Complete the rest of the section
Checks can also be written to CRN, with “Syrian Family” in the memo line and sent to
CRN
c/o NRCDV
6041 Linglestown Rd.
Harrisburg, PA 17112