Monday, September 16, 2019

Sermon 9/15/2019 Luke 15:1-10 (Lost Sheep, Lost Coin)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

I physically feel something when I look at the picture to the left. I feel the tiredness of my eyes looking into the dim light of the house, lit only by the candle which I hold in my outstretched hand. I feel the strain of my arms as I hold the candle down lower to the ground. I feel its weight and the weight of the broom I hold in my hands. I feel the stress in my old back and my old neck as I bend close to the ground, scanning the floor with my tired eyes, the weariness of my heavy feet.

It’s hard work looking for that which is lost. It’s long work looking for that which is lost.

Patience is a virtue. It’s not one of my strengths. That’s not to say that I’m not patient with others. But to patiently and methodically and systematically look for something, going from place to place in the house, to find one thing. My brain is most likely going to be flooded with messages, ‘You’re never going to find it.’ I’m likely to get overwhelmed with the sheer variety of things in the house, and quickly distracted. I must admit that whenever I’ve looked at this parable of the lost, I’ve been most apt to think, ‘He’s got ninety-nine sheep! She’s got nine other coins!’

But it’s not about that, really. It’s not about how much as a percentage the person has lost, it’s not about the economic value, whether it’s worth it from a cost-benefit point of view. It’s about what one does when something precious is lost. It’s about the patience and persistence and the strain you go through until the thing is found.

And it’s not even mostly about an object lesson, as if these images of careful searching should teach me how to be patient. It’s about the character of Jesus. About who he is. Why he is sharing his joy with others who have no right to expect it. It’s because he sees them as precious in the eyes of God. Why he will be willing to search them out, and to endure the stress of the journey and the strain of the cross to restore them to his Father.

This is what the scribes and Pharisees just don’t understand. They see these people as throwaways, as failures, perhaps even as active rebels against God. Perhaps they are. But Jesus doesn’t see that. He sees lost creatures, lost children of God, precious children who need to be found. These have been found, and so there is joy.

Because that’s what it’s for, right? The patience and the persistence and the strain and stress are for the sake of joy.

Maybe Jesus got through to them. Maybe one or two of them or even more got what he was saying. Maybe they grumbled a little bit less, they rejoiced a little bit more. Maybe none of them did. Maybe all of them, secure in their righteousness, were there grumbling when Jesus passed through Jericho on his way up to Jerusalem, and found another lost person, a tax collector to whom the Gospel of Luke gives a name: Zacchaeus. You remember, the little guy who climbs a tree to see Jesus because he can’t see him. But Jesus sees him and sees him as one of God’s lost ones. And invites himself over. And celebrates with Zacchaeus when he finally gets it and restores the money he’s gotten by cheating and gives half of the rest to the poor. Maybe they were all grumbling, but Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham. ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ (Luke 19:1-10)

As lost ones ourselves, these parables give us comfort. How do we know we were lost? Because we’re far too comfortable with our own sin which cuts us off from God and hurts others. Because we’re the ones who grumble at other people, being far more willing to condemn their mistakes, wrongdoings and sins than bewail our own. Because we’re the ones whose favorite image of God is the bearded angry old guy (not an image of God our Father, but an image of the Greek god Zeus); rather than the patient woman or, more completely, the Jewish man on the cross. Because we’re the ones who look at people from a cost-benefit perspective rather than as God’s precious children.

As long as we are clear about that, we’re halfway there. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. Jesus seeks us out like a tender shepherd, like a patient mistress of the house, and like a father who waits for both his wayward sons, the roving younger and the dutiful elder, to come home and live in the joy which belongs to them both. Jesus seeks us out so that we may live in that joy.

But that joy comes not without its costs. For part of living in that joy is to embrace living with the broad shoulders of the shepherd and the tired eyes and aching back of the mistress of the house. Jesus saves us for faith, for living in his kingdom, and that means celebrating with him but also ministering with him, searching with him. When Zacchaeus celebrated with Jesus in his house, it was not simply the end of a story but the beginning of a new one. You think tracking down all those people he’d defrauded and giving to the poor was easy? Stress, strain and maybe a few mistakes along the way – but we presume Zacchaeus kept at it because of the joy of which he’d tasted.

And having tasted joy, having been found, we embrace the life of faith – the life of the kingdom, with all its stress, strain and sadness, for the sake of the greater joy which is to come. Let us again taste that joy as we share peace, as we are found again at the altar. Let the sins of anger and impatience be quenched; the tired eyes be renewed; the aching back and neck be relaxed, the soul refreshed. There is work ahead, patient and slow, but for now and for ever there is joy.  

Monday, July 22, 2019

Sermon July 21, 2019 (Mary and Martha)

So it is jarring to me when one woman plunks herself down at Jesus’ feet and just sits there listening. It was jarring then and it’s jarring today, not so much anymore because a woman is sitting where the men are supposed to be, but just because anyone is sitting down and listening.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sermon July 14, 2019

That’s what a parable does – it’s an imaginative story which illuminates reality, getting around our own mental barriers to cut to the heart of the matter. We are not told, you should do this; we are shown what reality is and who we are to be.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Sermon June 30, 2019

When we speak of the word, ‘call,’ in the church, we most often are talking about a ‘call’ to the ministry. But I can think of at least three ways we can speak of the calling of a Christian.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Sermon June 23, 2019

When the kingdom of God comes, then we are set free. Only a free person can worship and obey God. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Sermon Easter 7 - June 2, 2019

Acts 16:16-34
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you* a way of salvation.’ 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ 29The jailer* called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’31They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ 32They spoke the word of the Lord* to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

‘Where the spirit of the LORD is, there is freedom.’
This word from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians
is not in our lessons today,
but I can’t think of a better accompaniment
to the first reading,
which is one of my favorite readings from the book of Acts.
‘Where the spirit of the LORD is, there is freedom.’

For we have a division in our first reading
between those who are unfree and those are free;
a division between those who are animated by the Spirit of freedom
and those who are enslaved to a spirit which keeps them in bondage.

We have what our translation calls ‘a slave-girl with a spirit of divination.’
This is not an ability she has, but it is a curse.
First of all, she must say whatever the evil spirit wants her to say.
Secondly, the spirit makes her profitable to others.
She works for others, to make them money.
She is neither free to say what she wants to say
or do what she wants to say.

Neither is he free who holds the keys to the jail.
He has the power to keep people in chains,
but he must work for a system
that is not interested in what is right or what is wrong,
but only in what is expedient.
He must follow the instructions of those who are in charge,
and if he does not follow them to the letter,
it is he who will be jailed or worse.

And finally, we have Paul and his assistant, Silas.
They are very much annoyed by the slave-girl with the spirit of divination
and eventually find themselves in prison.
And yet, they are the ones who are free in this story,
for they are the ones with the spirit of the Lord.

‘Now the LORD is the spirit,
and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’
We so easily assume that external circumstances define our freedom,
but if we listen to Scripture,
we see that those with the Spirit of the Lord
are free wherever they go.
For what is freedom?
Freedom is to have a soul able to praise and serve God.

Even people who have the most freedom
according to external circumstances
may not be free to praise and serve God.
They are the most blessed in the external circumstance,
but perhaps the least in the spiritual circumstance,
for they are least able to see that they have no freedom.

But those who have the Spirit of the Lord, which is freedom,
take the Spirit of freedom with them even into the places of bondage.
And when the Spirit of freedom invades the places of bondage,
there the breath of God can do its work of liberation.
For the last time this Easter season,
remember again the story of Jacob DeShazer,
the US Navy flyer imprisoned by the Japanese
who was given a Bible midway through his captivity,
and found himself liberated from the hatred and bitterness
that had haunted him throughout his imprisonment.
After his external freedom was restored,
he went back in the Spirit,
to proclaim freedom in Christ to those of the nation
whose army had tortured him,
and to liberate those whose spirits were crushed
by their defeat in war.

Think of our reading in Acts,
when the girl with the spirit of divination
could think and speak not as a slave,
but as a free person,
and because of this,
could no longer be exploited by others.
Think of the jailer who,
expecting death at the hands of his captives or captors,
was instead offered his freedom by Paul,
his physical freedom and his spiritual freedom.
For Paul and Silas stayed in the jail and did not escape,
for their purpose was not to secure their own physical freedom,
but instead to live in the freedom of the Spirit
and to bring others into that freedom.

Perhaps we can see now that freedom is not primarily political freedom,
freedom to do what we want,
freedom to live how we choose,
but freedom is primarily freedom in the Spirit.
‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is,
there is freedom.’
When our political freedom serves life in the Spirit,
then we as individuals use it wisely and for its intended purpose.
When it does not serve life in the Spirit,
then we cannot pretend that it does any good for us.
Though it is good, it may not be good for us.

More importantly for us,
do we recognize our need for freedom,
the freedom of the Spirit
which liberates us from bondage
both self-chosen and inflicted upon us.
Do we recognize our need for freedom from envy,
which drives us to spend our money on things we don’t need
and to spend our time watching stories of those with glamorous lifestyles?
Do we recognize our need for freedom from anger and hatred,
which shows us no mercy even as we show others no mercy?
Do we recognize our need for freedom from lies,
which alone we trust to keep us free from responsibility?
Do we recognize our need from freedom from fear,
which causes us to serve the powers of the world,
the powers of the world which countenance no contradictions
and who stand to profit handsomely when we are not free to live in the Spirit?
We are in desperate need of liberation.
We are the ones who are both slave-girl and jailer,
we are those ground beneath the wheels of our systems
and we are their unwilling servants.

Where shall we receive this liberation?
‘The Lord is the Spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord is,
there is freedom.’
We must wait for the Lord.
For ‘we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.’
But the promise of Jesus ascended into heaven
is the promise of Pentecost,
and Pentecost is the promise
that the Spirit of freedom is active in the world.

That Spirit is active
when we read the Scriptures 
and pray in the name of Jesus. 
When Paul prayed in the name of Jesus,
the Spirit set the slave-girl free.
When Paul spoke the word of God to the jailer,
he believed in the Lord and was set free from fear.
If there is anything we can 'do' for ourselves,
it is to name the name of Jesus
and to come to the place where the Word is spoken.
And the Spirit of God will set us free.