Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.


Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.


Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)


About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.



The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.




Monday, June 29, 2009

"Moving from Guilt and Forgiveness to Repentance and Obedience"

Mark 8:34-38; Mark 9:33-37; Mark 1:14-15

The Church began as a small group of Jesus’ followers. The disciples had literally followed Jesus, and the Apostle Paul, to whom the Lord had appeared after the resurrection, had followed that same path on earth, the way of Jesus. As Paul says “sharing in his sufferings.” Paul says: “I decided to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ, and him, crucified.”

The Church began with Jesus call to follow. “Follow me,” the Lord said to John and James, Peter and Andrew. And, they followed. “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest for your souls; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“If anyone would follow me, let him deny himself, let her deny herself, take up the cross and follow me.” Jesus’ call to follow in this way is not just a call for Peter and John; it is a call for you and for me. And, this way is the way of faith. Jesus’ way of obedience to God on earth.

In the book of Acts, Christianity is simply called THE WAY. It was a way of life. It was all about following the path that Jesus had walked on this earth.

The disciples were arguing about who would be greatest, and Jesus set things straight for them; “the one who serves will be greatest, the one who is like this little child, the one who receives the humble in my name.” In other words, the one who walks as I walk. Jesus served his disciples, received the little children, was a friend of the outcast, upheld the humble. This is the way of Jesus on earth.

Turning from other ways, and walking on Jesus’ way. The Christian way was an active way, it had movement to it. But, as time went on, the Church became less and less about following, and more and more, about groveling. It changed from the way of faith, to the rituals of religion.
Less about repentance and obedience and more about guilt and forgiveness. In the early days, Christians walked the path of Jesus day to day, and gathered to be fed and given drink to sustain them. They gathered to praise and seek strength for the journey they were on. As time went on, Christians gave up following the path Jesus had walked, and simply acted as the world did during the week, and then sought to commune with Jesus on Sunday through the altar of sacrifice: seeking forgiveness for the sins they had committed in the course of living.

Following Jesus was given up. It was no longer about repentance and obedience, but about confession and pardon. And, that’s where we are largely in our day. We are very similar to the middle ages of the church that Luther revolted against. They looked at the altar of the communion table as the real presence of Christ, being sacrificed over and over again for forgiveness of sins. It was all about confession and pardon, and then back out to the secular world, then retreat again each Sunday for restoration. Now, we protestants don’t look at the altar of communion table as the place of sacrifice, but we simply hold up the cross and look to Calvary isolated from everything else in scripture, and isolated from Jesus’ life as a whole. As John Calvin said very well: “Jesus death on the cross is the sealing of his obedience to God, the an obedience that characterized his whole life before God and people.” When we look at the crucifixion, the faithfulness, the human obedience to God ought to come to mind. Our desire to obey ought to awaken and praise ought to start. Instead we have come up with some so-called Gospel about how God was out to get us and put us to death, but Jesus intervened on our behalf, sacrificing himself. No doubt Jesus did give of himself for us and for the glory of God, but he was the expression of the saving will of God for us, not some one to save us from God! But, when it all gets to be about guilt and us being forgiven, God can sort of fall into the background, and Jesus obedience to God can sort of all into the background to. And, living life in obedience and for the glory of God each day can get lost as we talk about our guilt, our forgiveness, our salvation all the time. We need to get back to talking about our God, his Son, his Son’s obedience in human flesh, and the holy path that opens for us and all people on earth.

The Christian way finds Monday just as holy a day as Sunday, because Jesus path continues on Monday just as it does on Sunday. All this focus on guilt and forgiveness is just a human corruption of the Gospel of God. REPENT, Jesus said, AND BELIEVE THE GOOD NEWS OF THE GOSPEL. THE KINGDOM OF GOD HAS DRAWN NEAR, IS IN YOUR MIDST!!!!!

When church gets to be about confession and pardon first of all, then church comes under the Lordship of Preachers and Rituals. WHEN CHURCH GETS TO BE ABOUT FOLLOWING JESUS, WE ALL COME UNDER THE LORDSHIP OF CHRIST, FOLLOWING HIM ON THE WAY OF GOD, TO THE GLORY OF GOD MONDAY THROUGH SUNDAY. A holy path opens before us, and our Lord who obeyed even unto death walks before us, opening to us communion with the living God, opening to us the touch of the Holy Spirit, opening to us purpose and meaning and suffering and obedience even unto death.

As Soren Kierkegaard said 150 years ago: “When Jesus called us to follow him, he called us to follow him along his way on earth, his way of humility and struggle and suffering on earth.” He did not call us to come to him in his glory in heaven. We do not know Jesus in his glory. We can only know Jesus by walking the path he walked on earth. That’s why Paul says: “I decided to know Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

So, when you hear that call to follow Jesus, don’t think it is with the victorious banners up front, and flags flying. Think about Jesus as he walked on this earth, the friend of sinners and tax collector, the speaker of truth in hard times, the one who struggled to glorify God and indeed did glorify God in life and in his dying.

But, Christians in our day, think they hear the Lord calling them to run into his arms in heaven, to know him in his victorious glory. That is not the way of faith. That is not the way. That is not the way of the Bible. That is the made up way, that will not give power, will not give hope, will not in the end lead to life. Just false hope.

Again, Kierkegaard wrote: “The Inviter, therefore, is Jesus Christ in his humiliation, and he it was who uttered these words of invitation (“follow me”). It was not from his glory that he uttered them. But, from the midst of his life on earth.

Jesus says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Paul says: “We shall in the future share his glory, provided we share now in his suffering.” For Paul, the earthly path of Jesus is the present; the sharing of his glory in heaven, only for the final day of redemption. To know Jesus,which is to know God, in the present, means following his earthly path.

It is arrogance to think we can commune with him and with God in any other way, than through submission to the path he calls us to. Jesus told his disciples that the way to life is through a narrow gate, and a hard way, the way of Jesus on earth. The death of Jesus opens this way, it doesn’t excuse us from it. (GO ON A LITTLE ABOUT THIS).

If you want to know Jesus and come to God through knowing Jesus, then look at his path – the path scripture shows that he walked on earth. And, it is about repentance and obedience, and it is a gracious way, but you can’t experience it by groveling around the altar of confession and pardon, and then back again to the altar of confession and pardon. I’m about done with this part of our service. Today, it was still printed as confession and pardon, but I want to change it to a prayer of repentance and a celebration of obedience or a call to obedience. If you have indeed begun following Jesus, you don’t need to start over every week. You are on the way. Act like it. If you have sinned, renounce it and look ahead to see what you can do for God, for your neighbor; get out of yourself. Stop the groveling.

It seems like church has become all about psychology: the ultimate way to deal with guilt, through assurance of the sacrifice on Calvary. But, the church is supposed to be about God first of all, who defines what we need. And, God calls us to get up and follow, to turn from our sin, and turn towards the way of righteousness, and this is an active way, the way of following Jesus. But, Jesus doesn’t call us to join him in heaven, or in walking ten feet about the earth. He calls us to path he walked – right down in the middle of tax collectors and sinners and Pharisees and sickness and death. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadown of death, I will fear no evil.” The holy path of Jesus opens up in the midst of life, where we hear his voice, feel his Spirit, praise his father, love our neighbors.

I HAVE DECIDED TO FOLLOW JESUS. I HAVE DECIDED TO FOLLOW JESUS. I HAVE DECIDED TO FOLLOW JESUS. NO TURNING BACK. NO TURNING BACK.

Now, I know that we all have to deal with our psychology, our feelings, and even our guilt. But, the Christian way is first of all about repentance and obedience. Which means it is first of all about turning towards God and doing God’s will. And, when we turn towards God and get a glimpse of God, we start praising him. That’s how God is. Once you turn God’s way, you can’t help but want to please him. For God is good. You see that in Jesus. Right in the path he walked on earth. You see God’s goodness and our promise.

I can’t help but think that the church has largely missed the boat, largely missed the Bible’s message, and largely missed the glory of God in human flesh. And, I’m part of that church that has gotten off course. I’m part of that church that has traded faith away for religion; has settled for the cheap grace of forgiveness without obedience. Has gotten all caught up in wanting to feel better instead of all caught up in wanting to do better for God’s sake.

(I can’t remember how I finished this sermon – I left the ending unwritten). I said something about the hymn (“I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”) that we were going to sing. I remember that I had a time of silence before closing with a short prayer at the end)

4th United Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, June 14, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Dividing Wall of Hostility

Ephesians 2:1-22: “When Walls Fall Down”

Paul writes this letter to the Ephesians, and he reflects on that experience beyond all experiences in the faith. The experience of God breaking down barriers between people that he never thought would be broken down. Paul refers to this as the mystery of the gospel that was revealed only in the coming of God in Jesus – and, the mystery is real simple: the people of God includes gentiles – not just Jews.

The dividing wall of hostility has been broken down by Jesus, the Christ of God, the way of righteousness, hope and salvation. The dividing wall of hostility, built up by so many generations: between Jew and Gentile, between Mexican and American; between black and white; between Asian and white in one generation; between Asian and Mexican or Asian and Black in another generation, between male and female, between rich and poor, between protestant and catholic; between northern and southern, between gay and straight. The dividing wall in which so many hatreds reside; these dividing walls that cause one human to look at another with distrust, and fear, and even hatred. These dividing walls that we see between Jew and Palestinian – hatred of another, distrust of another, fear of another, disgust towards another person that is not even known.

Paul said it so well: “If I build up again that which I tore down then I show myself a transgressor.” That is exactly what the church has done over the centuries: build up again that which Jesus tore down – the dividing wall of hostility based on race, religion, gender, social class, nation. And every generation is ready because of sin to build a new wall or to resurrect the old wall that looked like it had fallen down. But, then again, every generation is also ready to tear down the dividing wall of hostility.

In Ephesians, Paul addressed the division between Jew and Gentile, and how that had been broken down through the living Spirit of Jesus, the Christ of God. “He has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us, reconciling the two as one people in his death.”
Almost 20 years ago, I was called as pastor of two small rural churches in the middle of cotton country in South Carolina: Oswego and St. Charles, S.C. The church manse was in St. Charles, population about 400, and right in the middle of the cotton fields. And, the local culture was still very much influenced the ways of the Old South. The large cotton farms that still existed were still owned by white families whose ancestors once ran these farms as plantations. And, these large cotton farms often still had black families living on them or near them and working the land, some of the same black families whose ancestors had been slaves on the old plantations. Even though only a few of these farms and family situations existed, they did exist, and they had a great effect on the way people understood life in that area. I was pastor of two small Presbyterian Churches, where all members were white. About a half mile down the road from me was a small Presbyterian Church, Mt. Sinai, where all the members were black. The first year I was pastor, Mt. Sinai invited our choir to come sing at their homecoming service, and they invited me to preach at the revival service during that homecoming celebration. I accepted the invitation and preached, but my choir from Mt. Zion said: “thanks for the invitation, but our choir is so small and well, we just aren’t ready for that.” And, my members didn’t so much mind me going over there to preach, but when I invited black Presbyterian churches to a conference at my white church – well, that was it!

There were some heated session meetings, chills down the spine upon entering for worship even – at times. I REALLY FELT THOSE DIVIDING WALLS OF HOSTILITY. There was talk in the community about the trouble they were having at Mt. Zion with that “new, young pastor.” It only took some really small actions to stir things up.

And, just one other thing about that time in South Carolina. When things were hardest in my church; when conflict was the worst, I was taken in by a group of black pastors: Presbyterian and Methodists, who just happened to invite me to special services. I’ll never forget the 100th celebration of the black Presbyterian Church where I walked in just worn out with my church, and very, very tired in my soul. I was going to just slink off to the side unnoticed. But, when you are the only white person out of about 150 gathered, you are bound to be noticed. And, the preacher called me out: “Brothers and sisters, I want to introduce you to our friend, Rev. George Waters. He’s pastor of Mt. Zion. I bet they don’t know he’s over here tonight. And, he laughed, and insisted I come forward and sit up with the ministers. I prayed later in the service.” And, I remember the music just holding me close to the Lord that night, and the service went on. And, it was one of those times you just want to stay in. God’s people took me in. When I was a stranger, God’s people took me in.

Life is strange and wonderful. And, it’s been a gracious journey. And, the last 13 years at First United have been a blessing beyond blessings for me as I was graciously received as a minister of an African-American church. Peace, trust, love. The powerful and embracing help of a holy community of faith. In the end, God’s love dwells wherever human hearts are open to it. In the end, our friends are not necessarily those who look like us or come from where we come from – they are those whose hearts are open to the love of God and whose hearts express that love to others. That’s the power of the Gospel. That’s the power of the Gospel. I want more and more people in this community to experience that power of the Gospel. Amen.

"A Religion of Deeds"

The Book of James and a Religion of Deeds

As I look towards a new year, I am looking to this Letter of James to the early churches. And, what I find in this letter is a new word for the church in our day. Let me read a couple of passages from this letter to introduce this new word:

Chapter 1, vv.26-27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Chapter 2, vv. 1-4: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

Chapter 2, vv. 14-17: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Chapter 2, v. 18: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

Chapter 3, vv. 13-15: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”

And, since James learned from the Master, I ought to quote the fountain of this wisdom: In Matthew, Chapter 7, vv. 22, we hear these words of Jesus: “Not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my father in heaven.”

In this new year, I hear this ancient letter speaking a present and living word about A RELIGION OF DEEDS.

We live amidst a society saturated with religious influence. And, yes, I know, we also live in a society full of irreligious, secular influence. But, you can’t go too far, at least not in the Bible belt where we are, without hearing someone say “Jesus” or “praise God” or “church,” or something else about “I’ll pray for you.” And, you can’t go too far in your channel flipping on cable or satellite tv without running into preachers and religious music and teachers of all sorts. And, when you come to church, you are encouraged to “have faith,” to “believe,” to “keep the faith,” and to believe in your hearts in the grace of God. You are encouraged to confess your sins in prayer before God, to grasp his forgiveness by deeply believing in your souls. Now, all of these points are important for so many of us. Belief, inner conviction, silent or vocal prayer. These, we might say, are at the very heart of what it means to be a believer in God. We might say that all of these are right at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

James challenges this approach to religion. James strikes a strong chord of challenge. “I by my works will show you my faith.” Faith without works is dead. And, to make his point, James adds: “So you believe that God is one. . . even the demons believe!!” Sure, faith is made up partly of inner conviction, and expressed belief, but, even more central faith is “a way of life.”

When Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t say: “recite this creed, say out loud that you believe in me.” He said simply: “Follow me!” Again, Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”

Now, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, because prayer is part of that following. Prayer is that communion that inspires, and consoles. But, everything is about the way of life – the following, or, as James would say “works.” In the early church, we are told in Acts that Christianity was simply called “THE WAY.” James reminds us that Christianity is at it most basic level “A WAY OF LIFE.”

The well known instruction of the early church is recorded in a book called “THE DIDACHE,” which means “the teaching.” It begins like this: “There are two ways, one of life, and one of death, and great is the difference between the two ways.”

Some people take right to the language of faith, the creeds, the praises, the sacred rituals. And, for some people, these churchly things just don’t make much sense (or, you could say, these worship rituals and responsive readings and hymns just don’t do much for them). Of course, you and I may be moved by the language of faith, the creeds, holy songs on one day, and, then, on another day, we aren’t touched or affected at all. So, I think we know a little more about the lack of interest that some have in church - more than we like to admit. Because, this lack of interest comes into our lives and hearts as well. And, I’m not here to chide anybody for having days or even Sundays when their heart is just not very moved by holy words and holy songs or holy rituals. Because there are days when we say the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, but do not feel the reality that the Creed and Prayer point to. There are days when even our prayers seem so empty as to be unreal. There are days when the language of faith doesn’t do much for us. Yes, there are days like this even for those who feel it is almost second nature to pray and believe. So, on days like this are you a Christian? On days like this are you still a believer? James helps us out here, and unites to all who struggle to find a way of truth in this world.

James tells us: “The way of faith – if it is real – is all about the walk, and very little about the talk.” If you asked James: “is so and so a Christian?” James would answer: “Let me live around them for awhile, and see their way of life, and I’ll let you know.” And, I’m beginning to think that God’s saving power is more in the walk than the talk. As James said: “True religion is this: to care for those who have no one else to care for them, and to remain unstained by the world.” The most important thing in the New Testament was not what Jesus said, but what he did, which of course was united with what he said.

Religion comes down to a way of life amidst destructive forces in this world. It is about real life right in the here and now. It is serious challenge in the world to show mercy and remain uncorrupted by the world. There is a way of life in the world, and there is a way of death. Whereever human love and liberty and hope and purpose are being crushed the power of death is at work. Wherever human love and liberty and hope and purpose are being renewed and upheld, the power of life is at work. We believe in the God who works life out of death, who brings hope out of hopelessness, and who brings it in the here and now, in the flesh and blood Jesus shared out lot in life, to blaze a trial of life amidst a world of death, to cut out a path of hope in a forest of hopelessness.
But, even though Jesus cleared this trail of life for us, we, in the church have so often never walked on it. Its like he layed down his life to make a way for us, and we said: “We believe that you did that,” and somehow thought that belief was all that was required of us. I can almost hear Jesus saying: “Do you think I did what I did so you would believe in me and celebrate me?” Do you really think I care if anyone believes in me? All I wanted, ever wanted is for all of you to find the way to life, the way out of death, to way out of hatred, and hopelessness to a good land of love and peace and purpose and hope. I didn’t go through all of that so that you would gather in pretty buildings and say pretty prayers and sing pretty songs and say you believe in me, and say how great I am . The way from death to life is a real way, a real walk, a real struggle. You can’t believe your way through the woods; you’ve got to walk. You can’t sing your way to the good and broad land; you’ve got to climb the way of faith. There are people walking way ahead of you, approaching the powerful and good land of life. And, many of them don’t even know the songs of the church yet; they don’t even know that I am the one who blazed the trial. But, they have a taste for life, and a hatred for sin and death. And, they are on the way. When they get there, they will know me by name; they will know the one they honored without knowing exactly why. And, then, o yes, we will sing those praises, praises of joy to our great God, our gracious creator.

But, I don’t want to shut down before I bring it down even more clearly. James brought it right down to where we could touch it, taste it, even feel what he was saying.

What if we say: “God, I believe in you and that Jesus is your way of life in the world.” It is just as well, and even better, to simply follow that way of life in the world. There will be time enough to talk about it along the way, to enjoy and give thanks to God and share our inner convictions with each other along the way. But, the real important point is to walk in that way of life. So, what is this way of life? What does it look like? It looks like Jesus life did in this world.

-mercy on outcasts

-humility in prayer

-other’s needs over security of self

-openness to goodness wherever it is found

-courage to do God’s will without fear of human authority

What did your path look like this Christmas? Just like it looked throughout the year, probably. But, maybe Christmas makes it easier for us to focus on the way, and what it really looks like, feels like. The way Christmas is celebrated in our society is an strange mix of some real good things with some real bad things. And, a good time to ask about Christmas is after Christmas day, because then you start to get a feeling for what kind of Christmas it really was. Whether it was true or whether it felt false. Did we find a path of life through Christmas or did we get caught up in the way of death? But, maybe I ought to back up when I use terms like path of life, and path of death. Because I am talking broadly. When I say path of life, I am talking about those things which enhance life (such as a positive word from another) in distinction from those things that break down life (such as a word of condemnation or insult from another). I am talking about the path of life as an experience of walking down the street and enjoying the Christmas lights and thinking on good things at night, or, the path of death, as an experience of once again feeling you are broken by misunderstanding and wrong words said, and wrong deeds done that have broken a relationship with someone you love. Those things that raise our hearts, give us energy, enhance and strengthen the power and feeling of being alive – that’s what I’m talking about it feels like on the path of life. Those things that burden our hearts, take our energy, distort and twist and weaken the feeling of life within us, and leave us feeling more dead than alive – that’s what I’m talking about it feels like on the path of death. And, all of us know something about both paths, I think.

What we all need is encouragement and some good instruction and examples and above all, opportunities to find our way on the path of life, and to find our way off of the paths of death.

What does the path of life look like? It looks like my Dad coming in the morning and inviting me to breakfast, letting me know I was still a part of the family after I had badly violated the trust of my parents the night before. I had been on that path of death the night before and awakened on the path of life.

What does the path of life look like? It looks like a mother and daughter hugging each other after a long separation has been broken through. They had felt the pain of the path of death which brings separation even while we are alive, and they broke through to the path of life which brings reconciliation while we are still alive.

What does the path of life look like? It looks like the face of my Dad who has come to the hospital to check on my 2 & 4 yr old children who are both critically sick. It looks like my little daughter, at two, standing up on that hospital bed with the iv still in her arm that morning after the fever had broken. It looks like my little son, at 4 years old, sitting up and smiling in a hospital bed after he is starting to turn the corner after being critically sick.

What does the path of death look like? It looks like me walking around deeply discouraged because I’ve not listened, but only spoken, in a way that hurt someone I loved in their time of need.

What does the path of death look like? It looks like choosing some quick way to happiness and forgetting who you really love in life.

What does the path of death look like? It looks like a man who has given more importance to drinking and partying than to his own family, and now he has lost his family – maybe his health as well.

But, the path of life looks like the prodigal son, like so many prodigal sons and daughters, coming to his senses amidst filth and ugliness and immorality and remembering the path back to his father’s house – it is the determination in his eyes that says: “I am going home; I am going home; come hell or high water, I’m going home!!”

We are called to get up and follow along the way of life.
It is a way - Jesus cleared the way – the pioneer of the way of life. Jesus said to the paralyzed man after he had forgiven his sins: “GET UP AND WALK.” So, I say to you: THE WAY OF LIFE IS BEFORE YOU. GET UP AND WALK IN IT. AMEN.

Jan. 4, 2009, 1st United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

"A Meditation on the Second Commandment"

“You shall not make for yourself a likeness of anything that is in the heavens, or in the earth or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them and serve them.” -Deut. 5

The first commandment has already announced: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Why the need for this second commandment? Don’t be creating images to worship. I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD. If you do let the religious imagination run wild, you will end up fashioning idols and then bowing down to what you have made with your own hands.

But, the Jews of King David’s day seem to have a clearer understanding than the people of the Exodus. Those people who followed Moses through the Red Sea out of Egypt had lived in a time when their God was one of many gods, and the point of that first commandment was that they were to be loyal to their God, the God of Abraham, I saac, and Jacob, who had delivered them through Moses. The believers of Moses day appear to have believed in a world where there were many supernatural beings, many gods, but they had experienced Yahweh, their God, their deliverer, their savior, who had chosen them. That’s why the first commandment reads: “You shall have no other gods before me.” I am first. You shall not depend on them, and honor them. You shall be loyal to me.

So, the ten commandments were given in a religious environment that was polytheistic. That is, the Hebrew people of that day believed that the world was populated with many supernatural beings or gods. Yahweh, their ‘God, was their hope, but not the only supernatural being or god.
By the time Psalm 100 was written, which most scholars believe over a 1,000 years after the Exodus, well, by that time, the Jews were distinguished from the rest of the peoples, not only by the fact that their ‘God was Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But, they were distinguished from most all the people by their believe that there was only one great supernatural being and creator and ruler of all life. By the time Psalm 100 was written, the Jews were monotheists. Their world only had one God. God was not the greatest of the gods, but the only God. Every other so-called god was just the work of human hands and imagination. Now this monotheistic belief may have still been contending with the old belief at times. But, in Ps. 100 it seems clear, that it is not matter of bowing down to Dagon and Baal instead of Yahweh. But, there is a new type of idolatry to worry about. There is a new type of challenge to God’s throne.

Listen to the Psalmist: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us and not we ourselves.”
Now, those words in Psalm 100, don’t have to do with imagining that a golden calf, or some representation of a heavenly being, has power to save or help us. No: “It is God that made us and not we ourselves,” well, those words are all about remembering or learning for the first time, that we have a Creator and that we are his creatures.

Instead of worrying that the Jews will worship some golden calf or some other image of a god other than Yahweh, the Psalmist is worrying that the Jews will imagine that they are on the throne, that they are the rulers of their own destiny, that they don’t need to look farther than their own heart and mind and councils to find the ultimate meaning in life. “It is God that made us and not we ourselves.” Having come to a belief that all those so-called gods were simply made up. Having come to see that all these so-called spiritual forces could be explained in other ways j- through human understanding. The Jews are left in a world with just human beings and a God they cannot see or touch or verify through their senses.

In a world where superstition has vanished, God can vanish too, if one’s religion is part of their superstition. But, remember, true faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was alive even when the Israelites thought thei r were all sorts of other supernatural powers and gods that threatened their loyalty.

Of course, you can believe that the universe is filled with spiritual supernatural beings or you can believe that the only supernatural being is God. You could believe in angels, demons, or not, and still be a Christian. Because, the commandment is ‘you shall have no other gods before me.” If your loyalty and praise is for the God of Jesus alone, then your faith is true, no matter what type of world view that loyalty and praise comes out of.

I am thoroughly influenced by the Jewish anti-superstitious type of view. And, this is furthered by the learnings and views of modern science and the Protestant criticism of superstition and the Protestant emphasis on God as the one supernatural being, and the lack of emphasis on either angels or patron saints. But, a person can be more of a superstitious person, believing in many spiritual forces in the universe. You can see the world, not like a Jew, but more like a pagan, and still experience God in the middle of it. Now, if you come to Christianity with a more superstitious world view, certain old ways will be challenged as more and more you see that the only truly sacred is that which God blesses.

But, as we have lived through a few centuries of the modern age, we see that the old superstitions, the old idolatries have been replaced with a new idolatry. Whereas human beings used to betray the true God by seeking salvation from mediums and withcraft and other types of spiritual practices, human beings in our day seek salvation in our selves, as if we had become the source of all good and life and salvation. I may be reading Psalm 100 in too modern a sense, but the words are plain. It says: “It is God that made us, and not we ourselves.” I don’t know how to read that except to say: “God is God; human beings are not the Creator, but the created.” A proper understanding of Darwin might have brought that message home.

It might be a good way to start learning this by saying: “I am a creature, just like a squirrel is, and my relationship to God is that of creature to Creator.” Now, we are going to say more about human beings, because God has put us in a special place among the animals of this world. But, before we start saying too much about ourselves, and get carried away. We do well to remember: “It is he that made us and not we ourselves.” You are not any more to credit for your being alive here today than a squirrel or a cat is. And, if any of us runs out in front of a car like that cat did last Sunday, well, then we could end up just like that old cat, and somebody will be loading us into a body bag. We are creatures, not creators. We live, and move, and have our being because of the gracious gift of life from God’s Spirit. We are here at his good pleasure. If God should withdraw his power of life, we would be gone.

And, I think that is a good place to start in allowing this commandment to become a real word for us in the 21st century.

Now, I started out talking about making images of things and ending up worshipping those. Like those who made a golden calf and then thought it could help deliver them from the desert terrors. Moses reminded them in a real concrete way that there was only one savior who could help, and he was the God who had brought them across the Red Sea. Moses ground up that golden calf, and put it in their water, and made them drink it. So, the taste of idolatry would remain with them. For, they had poisoned the pure water of communion with God by imagining help could come from their creations.

Sometimes I think that in modern times we somehow imagine that we are gods, and not creatures. We have been able to chart the courses of the planets, and send people to the moon. We have been able to create a bomb that can destroy life as we know it. We know how to counteract bacteria infections with antibiotics. And, so, sometimes, modern humans have thought that we are a new humanity because of our understanding. But, I think we are still struggling to have faith in very much the same ways that the people of Moses 3500 years ago, and the people of Ezra and Nehemiah 2400 years ago, and the people around Jesus 2000 years ago, and the people of Augustine 1600 years ago, and the people of Martin Luther 500 years ago, or our great-great grandparents 100 years ago.

Now, I want to think in two directions about this. 1) What do we build up, and come to believe will save us? 2) How do we come to think we are the God of our own life: creator, judge, redeemer?

Because, it seems that both of these need some thought. First, I might build up my house, and my bank account, and come to believe that my hope and security and meaning is in those things. That might be a way of fashioning something from my own hands, and then coming to believe that I can be saved by those things I have made. But, as we have found out , that safe money I thought I had – well, its not so safe as I thought. So, I might have saved and saved, and have nothing to show for it. Those who have no investments knew that they were dependent on the Lord for their daily bread; now many who had investments are finding that out too. So, that’s one way of understanding this commandment. And, once you build something up and trust in it, it does come to have a power, almost a spiritual, invisible power over you. You can say you don’t believe in all that stuff, but that possession of yours can come to rule you (just like the ring overbore the will of Gollum and everyone who touched it in the Lord of the Rings).

Now, let’s move to a more personal view of this. What about me, and how I create and uphold and view myself in this world? Now, I am getting back to those words in Psalm 100 – “it is God who made us, and not we ourselves.” Now, I’m not talking about bank accounts, or shiny cars, or homes, but you and me. And, making ourselves out to be the creator, savior, center of our lives. I’m talkling about sitting ourselves up on the throne as ruler or captain of our fate. This is certainly has a modern feel to it. Could I really come to imagine myself as my own creator, ruler, judge? I think so. I think this is probably the type of idolatry that haunts and hurts many of us. Its what I spoke about a few weeks back when I talked about getting down out of the captains seat and giving it back to God. And, I think this type of superstition, and that’s what I want to call it, is the hardest to see through and the hardest to get over. If someone tries to get you to worship a block of wood or the devil or something, you[ll not have any trouble saying “no.” Because, your mind is already programmed to reject superstition like that. But, the superstitious believe that you are your own god, your own savior, your own creator, your own judge; well, that is one superstition that modern science has to come extent created, and certainly not destroyed.

By faith, and the experience in faith of the living God, we know “It is he that made us and not we ourselves.” We came into this world by “God’s grace We came in with nothing, and we won’t be able to take anything with us. The Egyptians thought they could take all their riches and even favorite servants and pets with them, so when the great ones were buried they would take all that with them, and have certain people and pets killed to be buried with them. We think: that is crazy!!! But, sometimes when we build our life around all these same things, we seem to believe that somehow we can take it all with us too. We can’t. We are not gods. We are creatures. We are humans, part of the animal kingdom first. And, then, second, graciously chosen to commune with God through Jesus Christ. We are specially chosen to mediate God’s presence to the creation, to represent God’s will for the creation, but we are creatures – flesh and blood. We had no more to do with our being born than a chipmunk does. We are no more to be credited with being alive today than a crow is. “It is he that made us, and not we ourselves.”

Thank God that we are not God. That God is God and that we are his creatures – the work of his hands, just like the mountains and rivers and polar bears and eagles and ants. Let us take our place as those who bow down and worship him. Let us give God his place in the center of the world, in the center of our hearts, In the center of our families, in the center of our church. Let us never imagine that that place as the center of everything belongs to anyone but God. A’men.

"CARRYING EACH OTHER IN FAITH"

Luke 5:17-26

These four men fought through the crowd when he saw their faith, carrying their paralyzed friend on a stretcher. They fought through the crowd, because they believed that Jesus could help their friend. And, when they got close to the door of the house, they couldn’t get in, but they could tell that Jesus was inside. So they climbed up on the roof, still carrying their paralyzed friend, and a couple of them dug through the thatched roof, dug a section out so large that they could lower their friend in front of Jesus, right there in the room where he stood.
This must have caused everyone to take notice. Surely, some materials and dirt fell into the room when they dug. But, Jesus waited for them to finish their work. And, after they were done and lowered their friend in front of Jesus, we are told that “WHEN HE SAW THEIR FAITH,” he said: “My son, your sins are forgiven.” And, people started saying: “who does he think he is?, saying, ‘your sins are forgiven?’ Jesus looked at them and at the man: and said: “get up and walk!” And, the man on the stretcher was set free; he got up with limbs made strong by the almighty and he didn’t just walk, he jumped and praised God, right there as his friends gave thanks.

When Jesus saw their faith (not the man’s faith), he forgave and he healed the man. So far as we know, the paralyzed man didn’t say a word. We don’t know whether he believed or not. We know that his friends believed, and maybe even believed for him. THAT IS FAITH. BECAUSE THAT IS LOVE.

THESE FOUR FRIENDS LOVED THEIR FRIEND AND BELIEVED THAT JESUS WOULD HEAL HIM. THEY HOPED FOR HIM, EVEN IF HE HAD NO HOPE LEFT. THIS IS FAITH, BELIEVING FOR ANOTHER.

Now, we usually think of an individual person having faith for himself or herself. But, it just may be that for most of us, someone else believes for us before we have the faith to believe for ourselves. Someone comes before God and prays for us; someone believes in the God-given potential and promise within us even when we can’t see it ourselves. In a Charlie Brown movie, there is a song that goes like this:

“If just one person believes in you, harder enough and strong enough, believes in you, deeper enough and long enough, believes in you; then, maybe even you can believe in you.”

Paul talks about “faith working through love.” I think that is what we see here with these four men, and it touches the heart of Jesus. When he saw their faith/their love for their friend, he opened his heart to the man, the concern of these four friends.

Yes, we think often of what an individual believes. But, maybe we ought to take comfort in what WE believe. Because there will come a day, when you really need someone to believe for you. There will come a day, when you need someone to pray for you. And, that day will come for me as well. There will come a day, and it may be today, when it’s all you can do to just make it to worship, and you need to hear the songs of thanksgiving and praise, even if you haven’t got the heart to sing them yourself. But, you can hear those songs, and fill them touch your heart even when it is worn out.

When you come in to this place, you come into a place where we believe in the importance of your life, and we believe in God’s love for you. We live in that faith. And, we come to be reminded and to remind each other of that living faith, that love of God which surrounds us.
When you believe in God’s love for another person, that means God’s Spirit is working within you and through you. That is the power of God’s Spirit reaching out through you. Unless you feel God’s love for another person, you can’t speak to them a true word about God. If you feel God’s love for another, you will be a channel of God’s grace to them, whether you plan to be or not, whether you say anything or not.

Paul speaks of the love of God being poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This love of God is active, it causes you to see with new eyes, to feel with new hearts, to experience other people as children of the living God.

That’s what the community of faith is all about. When you’re tired and worn and weary, you find rest with the people of God. Of course, God has claimed everyone as his child. In Christ, God has designated every human being as part of the people of God. What God has willed, and what we do are two different things. We are called to be part of a community of faith.
A few miles away, members of two congregations and the families of Rev. Allen and her husband, are gathered before God as their son, little D.J. is baptized, and they are gathered in their faith, and they are believing for little D.J., looking upon him with the love of God in their hearts, believing in his dignity and the hope he has as a child of God. And, we are gathered here, holding little D.J. in our hearts before God. And, where a community continues to believe in God’s grace for a child as he grows, then that belief grows within him, day by day.

We need each other in the community of faith. We really do. If I’ve learned anything over the years as a pastor, it is that need of others in the church. Our faith, when it is isolated from others, can become false; it can become made up; it can come to just serve our interests and not have much to do with love of God and neighbor. But, the faith that I share with others, and join together with others in the church; well, that faith is tested by the living faith of others; and, it is tested to see if it really is true, if it is really that love of God poured out into our hearts. Because, as 1 John says: “if I don’t love my brother or sister whom I can see, then how can I love God whom I can’t see?”

The struggle to continue in the way of reconciliation, is right at the heart of faith. It is right at the heart of any family that stays together. Because, there are so many circumstances and actions and inactions that cause us conflict and hurt in our relationships, whether they be at home, in the wider family, among friends, or in church. And, sometimes, we just get weary, weary with arguments, weary with misunderstandings, weary and just wanting peace. But, where there are people, there is sin and imperfection of all types, and that goes for us, even when we are with those we love. And, our hearts get weary at times and just want to give up. Why does it have to be such hard work to get along? Why do we say such stupid things? Why do others? Why does conflict always rear its ugly head? Well, it does. But, for those who have faith, the dawn comes. For those who have faith, shouts of joy finally come after those times of weeping.

The community of faith teaches us how to endure in life, how to believe in difficult times, how to lean on others and support others in times of trouble. What the church really teaches in the long run is how to love and not grow weary, how to love with a love eternal, with a love that comes from God, a love that is so great that it raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and reaches out to gather more and more children into the fold.

So, where are you today? Are you here believing and loving and feeling that powerful healing of God in you, and reaching out through you today to others? Are you, perhaps, just worn out, and just hoping that somebody here is believing for you, because you are too numb to carry yourself before the Lord. Maybe a couple of us here today are like that man paralyzed and not knowing where to turn. And, the faith and love of his friends carried him before the Lord. That is faith – it works through love.

Sometimes the person who shows us God’s love is not the one we expect it from. I remember being in S.C., and having a real serious church conflict over race relations in the community. And, one of my elders, Archie was real mad at me over this. And, I guess I was pretty mad at him too. And, we were there celebrating the Lord’s Supper. And, I had served the 4 elders the communion bread, ‘this is the body of Christ broken for you.’ The last one I served was Archie. And, then I served the cup: “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” And, somehow I messed up and didn’t get any bread for myself during the serving. I didn’t even realize it. It was a tense Sunday in many ways. But, right before I was about to close the communion part of the service, I saw Archie motioning to me: and whispering, ‘you didn’t get the bread, you didn’t get the bread.’ And, he got right up, went to the communion plate and brought it to me and served me. I COULDN’T HELP BUT SMILE AND HE DID TOO. THIS IS MY BODY, I HEARD IN MY HEART, BROKEN FOR YOU. DO THIS IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME.

ARCHIE REACHED OUT THAT MORNING AND REALLY BROKE DOWN THE BARRIERS OF MY HEART, AND HIS HEART. FAITH, WORKING THROUGH LOVE. SOMEONE, EVEN WHO IS MAD AT YOU, THAT BELIEVES THAT GOD LOVES YOU AND THAT YOU ARE A BROTHER IN THIS FAITH OF CHRIST.

Sometimes others carry us before God. We don’t always know who or when. And, sometimes we carry others before God. Thank God for this bond we have in faith. None of us can make it alone; all of us can make it together. Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A House of Prayer for All People

“My house is to be a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a den of robbers.”

There is something raw and living in these words and actions of Jesus that really don’t fit into church or our religious world. And, because I think we need this raw power of life from Jesus, and because I think our church traditions tend to domesticate that living message, I am going to do the best I can to tell the story of this passage, and stay clear of church doctrine.

Jesus comes to the place of worship for his people, the Jews, and what he finds is a business that is only open to paying customers. Jesus came from the country, into the holy city. This was a pilgrimage, of a holy man. He had prepared for this time, to come and worship in purity and truth with others in Jerusalem. But, when he got there, the temple was not a refuge of the world, but merely a reflection of the world. The children and the disabled were kept out; and peace and silence and purity and reverence were kept out. But, Jesus brought that holy faith into the temple that day.

He took a whip of chords and violently upset the businessmen and ran them out with fire in his eyes: “This is to be a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a den of robbers.”

Jesus must have known and felt how badly people in this world need a place that is holy and decent and peaceful – a place where human beings can pour out their hearts before God in praise and in their need.

When places of peace and refuge and hope are corrupted, then need to be cleansed. Because everybody needs a place where they can feel their soul alive again. Everyone needs a place just to be – a creature before the Creator, giving praise, crying out for help to the One above all others.
In most of the major religions of the world, those who believe take pilgrimages, or, at least many used to. A pilgrimage is, of course, a journey to a holy place that shows commitment and reverence. Each year at Passover in ancient Israel, the people from far off lands and from other regions of Judea saved and planned for the great trip to worship and celebrate during the holy time of remembrance of how God saved them from bondage in Egypt.

The older I get, the more I think of the trip each Sunday to worship as a pilgrimage. The journey starts sometime during the week as I try to find my way through daily life and work and worries and joys down a path to a holy place. And, a holy place is hard to find in this world, as you know. And, we don’t get to just find it and stay. No, we have to journey in this life through some tough places, taking on challenges, and enjoying the give and take, up and down of life, and like the Jews of old, we yearn to return to a place that reminds us who we are, what path we are to seek, and restores the soul, uniting us to the great power of truth and justice, the God of our redemption, the God of Jesus, the Christ.
And , I wish I had the ability and the power of truth, so that I could cleanse this place, make it full of the power and grace and goodness of God. Because, if I and we could really do that, we would all be renewed. To be in God’s presence is to be renewed, restored. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”
I don’t have the ability to do that. But, I can point to the one who did and who does. The holy one of God, the one who came humbly, not claiming equality with God, but giving his life in obedience and for the glory of God. I don’t have the ability or magic to give you grace and truth and peace in your souls. But, I can point you to the One who has become the way of truth and light in this world. Jesus is God reaching out to embrace all people, to open a path of life for all people, and this way is a way of mercy. And, as Jesus knew as he walked into that temple. Places of mercy are few in this world. But, mercy is pushing forward in all of life, becauses the one who has created and sustains life is the Giver of Mercy, the Merciful One, the one whose peculiar form of justice is mercy.
As Jesus walked into that temple, seeing so many – the young, the crippled – who needed mercy being kept out of the temple. As he saw this, his heart was filled with a determination to provide that place of mercy and hope. That day he cleaned out the temple to make a way for those in need to find a place of peace and hope and redemption and purpose – where they could join with others singing: “bless the Lord, o my soul.”

Is that the kind of holy place we want? Is that the kind of holy place we are seeking and trying enable? If the Spirit of God comes upon us and shakes our holy place, will we end up shouting out praises to God or will we take cover, like the businessmen in the temple courts?

The reason I ask these questions is that I am filled with the conviction that the place of worship, where we call upon the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – I am certain that the spiritual quality of this place is a deep responsibility for us. In a world where mercy is hard to find, we need to give God a chance to bring it among us. Because one day a man, a woman, a child will arrive here among us weary of life, beaten down, and in need of grace and peace and mercy. And, if we aren’t a place alive with that Spirit of Christ, then that woman, man or child may go away starving for help for his heart and soul.

In the end, I gues s that’s what we do have here at 1st United. Despite ourselves, we keep arriving here from our difficult journeys. Some of us stay away for a while, but we come back. And, we keep finding that renewal from our God who loves us, who values us, and who doesn’t seem to be able to give up on us. The one whose power fires the sun, the one whose wisdom holds all things together in the universe. We continue to find his touch, his power, as we continue to receive and help each other along the way. And, no we don’t run a real tight ship here. We try to have enough order to not let chaos run us over, but we don’t want so much order that we don’t have room for faith and new revelations from God in our hearts and souls.

We have been through many things over the past years – we’ve gone through some of them together, endured other things alone. But, through all of that, the words of Paul ring true: 2 Cor. 4:7-10.

We have appreciated being able to make these pilgrimages back to a holy and familiar place. I ask you to continue to work with me in giving God room to bring a spirit of peace and understanding and grace to each of us and to our community of faith. People of this world, including you and me, need a place of mercy they can count on. A place where they can worship God and feel a unity with others, and then return to their homes, work places, ,communities, and challenges with an awakened and illumined soul, a soul renewed by the Creator and Redeemer of all.
We have made many pilgrimages in our lives. Maybe we haven’t realized any religious significance in these journeys, but many of us mark our years and lives by special journeys we take again and again. Like going home for Thanksgiving or another holiday each year.

Or, travelling back home for a mother’s birthday, or travelling back to start a new school year. Journeys like this have always meant a lot to me. Returning to my seminary after being away for many years was like a pilgrimage back to a holy place, with holy memories. There is a sense in which each trip back to this place, this church, is a small pilgrimage. And, its not always an easy one to make. I understand that it has been hard for some of you from time to time to make your way back into this church after times of great loss, because there is something about coming back to this place that makes several of us face ourselves, our lives, our loss, our love and our hope.

Being the one who preaches about every Sunday, it is a given that I will make the pilgrimage (maybe it’s not fair to call it a pilgrimage if you are the pastor). When I don’t feel like I can make the pilgrimage, well, I just have to go on and do it anyway. And, I do understand why some of you stay away for a while at times. When it means something to you, its not always that easy to go. I am fortunate to be a minister, and have to somehow face where I’ve been and what’s up in my life each week as I prepare to preach. If I didn’t have to, I would have avoided a lot of things that could have overcome me. And, showing up over here each Sunday and Tuesday, so often restores my sanity, brings a sense of hope and the experience of care and love, that, it takes me by surprise. God will take us by surprise, if we remain humble and child-like enough to still be surprised.

Some of you show up more often when you are under great struggles; some of you show up less often when you are under great struggles. But, although some of you might stay away during times of great struggle, you often maintain close contact and share your struggles with one or two of us at those times. And, so, you stay with us, we stay together. What is important is that we stay together in the spirit, and don’t let even one of us feel too isolated , alienated, lost in this world. If we remain open to the graciousness of God, then our church will be a place of refuge and restoration and hope, and even when those who attend are away for a while, ,they will be encouraged to know there is such a place. Just as we are comforted even when we are away from home for a long time in knowing that we have a home where parents love us, where our mother loves us, where we will be received with open arms when we make it back home.

And, yes, I do believe this is such a place, a good home base in this world of struggle. And, we are considering whether to remain on these grounds or move to join with another small congregation over on Broadway, two miles away. On one hand, it’s a practical decision: big building, we don’t own, being dependent on the college’s survival which is in serious question. Look ing at it practically, those are considerations. Looking at it in a deeper way, thinking about a move makes us worry that we might lose a holy place. For those of us that have come to rely on making that pilgrimage back to this place, the thought of going somewhere else on Sunday is a little unnerving to say the least.
If this has been a holy place for us, how do we know that that will continue at a different location, with a merged congregation? What will we really find when we walk in over there: a house of prayer, or something less? These are just some questions that come to me as we face this decision.

Well, if we go, I guess we will find out something about ourselves. We will find out about our faith. We will be tested to see whether we are really about creating a place of prayer, and not just another religious group. We will see that when others who are strangers come among us, will we open our arms and hearts to them or do we just think we are that way. What we will find out is whether these pilgrimages we have been making to this holy place have been reliant on the living God who is not bound to place or whether these pilgrimages have been a little too reliant on lesser gods of place and institution and familiar surroundings. And, we will find out how dedicated we are to the way of Jesus who brings mercy into houses of worship, and who will not stand for keeping out those who need it so badly.

For, he walked in that day, seeking a place of prayer and renewal, and he found human competition, conflict, self-interest. He found a lot of self, and no soul. But, he opened that place to God’s Spirit, and the Spirit came and brought freedom and healing and hope. And, O, yes, some real anger from those who wanted to rule over what only God can rule over – the holy place of prayer.
Amen.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Jesus Slips Away

1 Cor. 1:21-25; John 1:10-13

The Apostle Paul says that what he preaches is Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God, and he preached that Gospel in the midst of a world in distress, a world that needed a saving word amidst all the forces of destruction. And, we live in a world that is in distress. The peoples of this earth are like sheep without a shepherd, and it was that way around the time of Christ’s coming as well.

In the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus came unto his own but his own received him not. He came to the people of God. He was born a Jew among Jews. And, the very people of God rejected him. He was the light of the world, but those who were supposed to celebrate and proclaim his arrival did not. They didn’t recognize him for who he was, but a few did. A few of the Jews did receive him and a living faith began in the early church. You know, here we are about 2,000 years after this time. 2,000 years of church tradition and teaching that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of the world. And, I wonder as Jesus tries to come among God’s people in the church . . . I wonder whether he is being received or not. Those words, “he came among his own and they received him not” may be relevant to our time as well. Could it be that the church that bears his name does not recognize who he is? You know, if Jesus came among us bodily today, would we recognize him as the Christ of God? I’m not sure we would if all we depend upon is the church’s teaching and tradition. You know, when Jesus came among the Jews, they had a long history of prophetic teaching and tradition, and they did not recognize him. In John’s Gospel it tells us that when Jesus came among the Jews at one point, a big group of them tried to make him king; they tried to seize him and make him into their king. And, we’re told that he slipped away from them . . he slipped out of their grasp because he would not be made into their image of a Messiah. But this wasn’t the last attempt to make Jesus into something that he is not.

What about the crusades of the middle ages? The church presented Jesus as the commander of a military force and sang “onward Christian soldiers” as they sought to annihilate the Muslims over in the holy land. And, surely when they called upon Jesus to be their military general, he slipped away from the church. Because he will not be made into what he is not. “He came among his own, and his own received him not.” And, then, in modern times, in our days: we have the Jesus of liberalism, who waits upon university professors to tell him what is proper and enlightened and what serves the interest of science and the academic elite. This Jesus is not seen as the Son of God, but merely as another wise teacher, whose teachings serve modern agendas. Of course, some of Jesus' efforts do support modern efforts that are focused on freedom and equality and finding cures for disease, because Jesus came to heal and make humans whole. But, ,where Jesus is only seen as a good teacher, he slips away from the church. Because he is the incarnation of the living God in human flesh. Even in his humility, he cannot deny that he is one with the Father. He will not be made into what he is not. And, then in modern times, on the conservative side of things, there is a revival of the King Jesus image, that sees Jesus as a victorious conquerer who rules over the victorious church where everyone is saved, separate and absolutely sure that they know the truth about absolutely everything that troubles the modern world. But, Jesus wouldn’t be made into some worldly king by the Jews and he won’t be by Christians.

And, so Jesus slips away from liberals and conservatives in our day looking for a church that will humbly receive him as he is. But where is that church? Where is that church in our day and how do we receive him as he is? Is there really room for Jesus in the Church that bears his name? The Bible reminds us that Jesus was more welcome at the tables of tax collectors and sinners than he was at the homes of the righteous Jews of his day. Where is that church in our day who will receive Jesus as he is?

First, the church needs to be reminded of the weakness of its preaching and the limitations of its knowledge. You know the Apostle Paul . . surely there wasn’t hardly anybody who could preach the Gospel like Paul, and what does he say of his preaching: “the foolishness of what we preach.” “God chooses to bring saving knowledge through the foolishness of what we preach.” He’s acknowledging his limits, that he can only point to God, not that he possesses some wisdom in himself. So that’s the first thing: the church needs to be reminded of the weakness and the limitations of its own teaching and preaching.

Second, the church needs to be reminded of its sinfulness and tendency to focus on minor problems while overlooking the major ones. As Jesus said: “You tithe mint, dill, and cumin, but overlook the weightier matters of the law: mercy, justice and truth.

And, Thirdly, and most importantly, Christians and all those who overhear the preaching of the church need to be told that they will never find the truth of God if they are simply relying on the tradition, the teaching and the preaching of the church. As long as your relationship with God is mediated by preachers and teachers, you cannot experience the truth and fullness of Christ. Only the direct experience of God is reliable. He is the only teacher. And, all of our teaching and preaching is to awaken that experience within those who hear. It is the awaken that desire for the experience in human beings to know God directly through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

When it comes down to it, the church can’t save anybody from destruction. Only God can save. The church can’t even explain how salvation comes in Jesus; we can only celebrate that it does.
I want to read you a prophecy from Jeremiah. I thought I could remember it but I can’t, so I’m going to have to turn to the prophecy. This is Jeremiah 31:31-34. Because this prophecy points so clearly to the truth that I am talking about. It says:

"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. [33] But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD
No long shall each man teach his neighbor, but they shall all know the Lord, from the least to the greatest."

Because, as the prophetic word says: “I will put my law within them; I will write it upon their hearts.” We live in this day that Jeremiah pointed to, that Joel prophecied about. This day when the Spirit of God has been poured out upon earth through Jesus life, death and resurrection. And, in this day of the Spirit, God has implanted a living word within us, if we could just find it. God has placed his claim upon every man, woman and child. He has pronounced his blessing upon all people in Jesus. The way to God is not through some church ritual or teaching, but through God’s living presence in human flesh – this presence that came among us in Jesus, and that seeks to come among us now.

Now you might have noticed as I criticized two or three different views of Jesus, I didn’t tell you exactly who Jesus was and how exactly God saves through him. Conservatives and liberals KNOW; but I am just a poor, limited sinful man who can point with a trembling finger at a mystery that I can’t understand. I can only point to God’s goodness and grace though I can’t really explain it. I feel like that blind man in the Gospel of John, when they started questioning him about who Jesus was and how Jesus healed him. And, what he said was: “I don’t know, but I was blind and now I see.” “I was blind and now I see, and this man did it.”
Through the weakness of such preaching, may God awaken your desire to know and receive him, so that you won’t have to rely on the weakness of human teachers like me. But, so that you can rely on the direct experience of the living God.

All praise and glory to the mystery of God that graciously seeks a place among human beings: to save and not destroy, to heal and not harm, to bring love and reconciliation, not hatred and division. He came among his own once, and they received him not. As Jesus seeks to come among us, let us receive him with humility and praise and glory to God that we might not reject our only hope.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

""Broken for You"

”Many are the plans of a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”

-Proverbs 19:21

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, saying: ‘this is my body, broken for you.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many.”

-Mark 14:22-24

Since the earliest days of the church, believers have gathered to pray, break bread, share wine, and sing praises to the Lord. The Lord’s Supper has been a solemn and holy celebration since the very first believers gathered. This supper has served as strength through the trials of life, affirming that faith amidst human life is possible, affirming that God’s grace is experienced in human flesh. There has always been something beyond words about taking the bread and the cup in faith. It stands as a sign and a witness that God’s eternal power remains with us even amidst our broken and fragile human lives. And, here we are again. Coming as we are to the Table. Looking for God’s fullness in our emptiness, the Spirit’s energy in our weariness.

In Ecclesiastes it is written: “The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterwards they join the dead.” Of course, this is a very grim view of human life, but it is the view that was impressing itself on the heart and mind of wise man long ago. “Many are the plans of a man or woman’s heart.” Thoughts and feelings swirl within us. Good thoughts, bad thoughts, confused thoughts, clear thoughts; good feelings, bad feelings, mixed up feelings. We human beings are subject to ups and downs in our inner life, up and down moods, thoughts. One day we are hopeful, the next we may despair. One day we are loving, the next we struggle not to be filled with hatred. And, so Ecclesiastes says: “there is madness in their hearts while they live, and then they go to the dead.”

And, there is some truth in that, no doubt. But is that all we are? Proverbs suggests that the plans and movements of our hearts are various, but then, the Proverb writer points to another reality: “but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” This Proverb points to the eternal amidst the experience of our time-torn lives. Because the life of faith has to do with the experience of change, uncertainty, ups and downs of this flesh and blood life and the life of faith has to do with the experience of the eternal life of God even and precisely in the midst of real, fragile human life.

It takes faith to be in the world but not overcome by the world. It also takes faith to not flee from the world.

One religious answer to the struggles and fragility of life has been to seek peace in a renunciation of flesh and blood reality. Christian monks have taken this route. . . Buddist monks have taken this route. . . Salvation is seen as escaping the bonds of this flesh and blood life. In this view, God is experienced by renouncing one’s fleshly nature, and affirming only one’s spiritual nature.

And, there is some wisdom in this impulse to flee from temptation and flee from the insecurity of human experience. But, this fleeing from life is not the fullness of faith, nor does the scripture lead us to renounce the goodness of life on earth.

In the 1500’s Martin Luther was faced with this very choice. Is salvation found by renouncing the flesh and seeking refuge from the flesh and the world? Or, is salvation found in affirming and experiencing the goodness of the flesh and the world in a living, earthy faith? Luther’s experience was that true grace is found in a holy affirmation of the created order, in the sanctification of human flesh and blood experience, not in fleeing from all that God created. Luther believed that God had become flesh, not to condemn human flesh but to restore and bless it.

And, I come to you this day, looking with you at the struggles and pains and anxiety of this human life, and having some sympathy with those who want to find a way to escape and flee from the struggle. But, I come to you this day, knowing in my heart, that we won’t find God by fleeing from God’s creation. We will find God in the reality of our flesh and blood experience, in the reality of God’s earth, and in being able to sing praise to the Creator for our daily bread, our daily struggles, our daily hopes, our daily failures and successes. But, I’ll be honest about one thing: I’m at the point of just wanting to run away from it. Run away from being responsible for others; run away from worrying over others; run away from struggling to make things right in a world where so much is wrong; weary with the struggle to overcome sin with righteousness even in my own life. Yes, I’d kind of like to find that mountain retreat and stay there a long time – anywhere where there is lasting peace.

But, its too late for that. Its too late for fleeing from life. I’ve poured myself into it, and there is no turning back.

The way of Jesus was not a retreat from life. He is the one who poured himself out for others. He came to redeem human flesh. He is God in human flesh, the blessing of God’s created order, the blessing of life on earth.

So, having come to faith in Jesus, there is no turning back from reality.

And, that’s a way of understanding the old hymn: “I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus . . no turning back, no turning back.” Faith is about this way of Jesus. Its about pouring our lives out in love for others, in concern for this life, this society, this experience. Its about honoring God in the midst of this world. And, that’s where my heart leads me to this communion.

Jesus and his disciples sat down together to eat supper. It was a solemn moment. He took the bread, gave thanks to God, and as he broke the bread, he handed it to his friends saying: “this is my body, broken for you.” It was an act which showed what he would do in giving his life for his friends and for all people. It was Jesus’ expression and commitment to be given in faith and love, to pour out his life in love for God, for the salvation of others. And, Jesus took the cup of wine and gave it to them saying: “this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many.”

Now, I don’t really think the point of Jesus’ action and words: breaking bread, saying: “this is my body, broken for you” --- I don’t think he was real concerned with beginning a new ritual meal, or a sacred ceremony at religious services. What Jesus was doing was expressing his faith and love in the most powerful way he could, showing them what he had been doing and was to do, and telling his disciples to do the same for each other and the world. “Do this in remembrance of me.” He says: “Be broken in love for others in remembrance of how I was broken in love for others. Pour out your heart in faith and love, as I am pouring out my heart in faith and love.”

Of course, not everybody at the meal went out and showed love for others. Judas did the opposite of Jesus, and went out and “sold out” his friends for 30 pieces of silver. He betrayed their trust. You can partake of this bread and this cup and do just like Judas: consider money or popularity or some other good more valuable than love and faithfulness to other people. Surely, we’ve followed Judas’ way at times, instead of the way of Christ. Jesus says: “Be broken in love for others in remembrance of how I was broken in love for you. Pour out your heart in faith and love, as I am pouring out my heart in faith and love.”

That’s what this meal is all about. Real communion is about this faith, and is experienced in the giving of the self in love for others. That’s when the Risen Lord is experienced – when human beings pour out their souls in love for each other in the name of the gracious Christ. To really honor our Lord, and commune in his name, we probably ought to each take bread and break it, and pass it to another person and say: “this is my body, broken for you in the holy name of Jesus.” Amen. And, then go out and give of ourselves to others in the love of Christ. The real presence of Jesus is not in the bread and the wine, but in the flesh and blood struggle of love, the imperfect giving of the self in his name.

Do this in remembrance of him. Amen.

"Faith, not Sight"

Scriptures: 1 Kings 19:1-5; 2 Cor. 4:7-10; 2 Cor 5:6-7

“For we walk by faith and not by sight”

That sounds good, even beautiful. “We walk by faith and not by sight.” But, sometimes it gets old. Having to get up another day, with worries unresolved, with loved ones sick or in trouble, without seeing any evidence that healing is on its way, without seeing any signs that our children or spouses or grandchildren or parents or friends are going to get things turned around; we get up and trust and go to work, clean the dishes, try to pay our bills, take care of our little ones and our sick ones; we go on by faith, but we sure would like to have some good news in sight. We would like our faith refreshed with seeing good things happen in our lives and in the lives of those we love.

“We walk by faith and not by sight” is a heavy and deep saying. In those words, there is the admission that all is not well. In that holy expression, there is a lot of pain, and yearning for things to get better. “We walk by faith and not by sight” means there is a contradiction between what we hope for and what we are experiencing. As we are upheld by the eternal within us, our mortal bodies yearn for something good now. As the eternal hope drags us forward and lifts us up, our flesh and blood longs for peace, love, happiness, rest. Paul expressed the struggle well in 2 Corinthians 4:7-10: “we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; knocked down, but not destroyed . . . “

But, Paul never gave up looking for deliverance in the present time. He experienced it in Asia when he says: “we despaired even of life itself, but that was to make us trust, not in ourselves, but in the God who raises the dead.” And, the faith we have is faith in a God who acts in the here and now as well in the victory to come. In the Psalms it says: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Old Simeon was a prophet in Israel, who had waited and waited on the coming of the Messiah, and then when he was very old, he got to hold that little baby boy, Jesus in his arms, and he wept for joy, for he had seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And, Simeon, said: “Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen thy glory!” I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. That is our faith even when that goodness is not yet in sight.

In our lives, there are times of ease and of pain; there are times when life seems to go well, troubles seem far away, and there are other times where life is a struggle at best, where troubles seem to pile up one after another. In faith, we learn to celebrate in good times and have mercy on those with trouble, and in trouble we learn to be faithful to each other and “walk by faith, not by sight.”

“We walk by faith and not by sight.” What does that mean for me and you today? Is that a real experience that we can share with Paul, or are those just nice and beautiful and holy words that really can’t do much for us?

Walking by faith . . . is finding something worth doing when there seems to be nothing worth doing. By faith, we begin to hear God’s calling amidst our despair. As I despair that I cannot do anything to make a situation better, God begins to reconcile, to repair, to open a way where there was no way.

I’ll never forget certain meetings with church members over the years, when all seemed lost. The couple in South Carolina who had been married for 30 years and suddenly couldn’t stand the sight of each other. Or, the couple who had just been married for 2 or 3 years, and he had become totally disabled, and couldn’t work anymore. Or, the man at one of my former churches who decided life wasn’t worth living anymore, and I sort of chased him around the church yard talking to him for about an hour. People at dead ends . . absolute dead ends . . . out of ideas or hope.

And, everytime, God’s Spirit moved and showed us some way to go. Sometimes it came through a laugh or tears or just stubborn determination to go on. It never came through my wisdom, but through the faith we put in God and the response of that mysterious grace.

Well, that couple who had been married for 30 years, I got them talking a little bit. He had his bags packed out in his car, ready to leave for good, but had agreed to come by and talk to me at the church. And, as he talked, I looked at him and said: “you sound like you still love her . . . you’re talking about her in the third person, but all you say is good things about her . . . He broke down; she broke down . . Grace.

They used to say, “it aint over til the fat lady sings.” But, its not over til God says it’s over. And, so long as we look to God in faith, it ain’t over! And, these efforts of ours – to love and reconcile and have peace; we may have hit a dead end, but God’s Spirit is stirring . . new life, life out of death, love out of hate, joy out of sorrow . . He is the God who raises the dead.

We walk by faith and not by sight and faith gives us the deep assurance inside that our hope is real, that God’s promises are true, that love will overcome . . . We walk by faith and not by sight . . . You can’t feel it, but you believe so you get up and make the coffee . . you get up and clean the dishes, wash and fold the clothes, go to work . . . That’s the kind of faith I’m talking about. You feel like just laying down and quitting but something gets you up and helps you walk on.

The prophet Elijah was worn out after his struggles with Queen Jezebel. He said: “it is enough Lord, I am ready to die. . . “ He had the great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, but now he was running for his life once again as the Queen was out to kill him before the next sun went down. But, instead of doing harm to himself, and instead of staying awake and moaning about it all, Elijah layed down and went to sleep. The next thing he knew he was being woken up by an angel of the Lord, who gave him food and drink and encouragement.

I’ve looked through the bars of jail cells, with a man or woman or even child on the other side, feeling all was lost – their reputation, their family, their career, their future . . . but, there are times when the light comes back in their eyes . a glimmer of hope . . for we walk by faith and not by sight . . .

Its not over until we have no place left inside for God’s Spirit. As long as we have room for God to work, its not over.

But, how do we keep that holy space inside of us? How do we keep our hearts open to God’s grace?

It has something to do with hope. And, hope has to do with still being able to believe that something good is going to come. It has to do with experiencing God’s love for us and God’s love for our fellow human beings in our hearts. This is one and the same experience. Faith is when God’s love is poured out into our hearts. We discover in joy that we love each other and that we are loved.

And, that experience of faith and love may be much closer than we think. When we are filled with God’s love and open our heart to another, the Lord is near, his grace begins to repair broken hearts, broken lives, and we begin to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

So, “we walk by faith and not by sight.” Are those just beautiful religious words, or is that an experience we have in our heart? With the worries that badger us, and the recurring problems we can’t seem to fix, can we really say words like this with conviction? Can hope and joy begin to grow once again in our hearts?

The prodigal son had run off with his inheritance money, wasted it all in wild living, and was desperate and broke and hungry and homeless and a long way from home. But, somewhere deep in his heart, he remembered his father, and he remembered that he was loved. His life had fallen apart, but he remembered his father. And, at that moment, hope began to grow. He decided, “I’m going home.” The young man had buried his love deep down, and hidden it from himself. But, when it seemed all was lost, he found it again. His father had long since given up hope of seeing his son, and then, one day, he saw him coming down the road, dirty and skinny and tired looking. His heart broke wide open, he ran, he embraced his son and wept. “We walk by faith and not by sight” and we believe in the God who gives us love, who gives us hope, and thank God, even gives us back to each other. Amen.

Mercy

Matthew 5:6: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
2 Corinthians 1:3-7: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of mercy and the God of all comfort, the one who comforts us in all our affliction in order that we might comfort those in any affliction with the comfort which we ourselves are receiving from God . . . “
BLESSED ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT, FOR THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.
BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO MOURN, FOR THEY WILL BE COMFORTED.
BLESSED ARE THE MEEK, FOR THEY WILL INHERIT THE EARTH.
BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO HUNGER AND THIRST FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS, FOR THEY WILL BE FILLED.
BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL, FOR THEY WILL RECEIVE MERCY.

Jesus left the crowds behind, and went up to the mountain to teach his disciples. But, he went up – not to simply teach them about God – but, to share his experience of God. Jesus opened his heart to his disciples and said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” This good word brings so many things to an end, and at the same time is a new beginning. This short and gracious statement brings to an end all rigid, legalistic, judgmental, anxious religion and begins something new – a new way based in the reality of Jesus’ life. His life was mercy. The way of God in Jesus is mercy. He was the one who said: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
In Jesus the old age comes to an end, and the new age begins. Jesus gives us a key here, opens a door to new life when he says: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” That teaching makes us stop in our situations of conflict and struggle and doubt and ask one question that silences all others: “what is the merciful thing to do?” or “how can I show mercy?” That question brings to an end church fights, theological controversies, moral confusion, selfish grappling, blaming and distrust. Come to think of it, if I start asking that question, it spells the end of my conflicts in the family, at work, with my neighbors. “Have mercy . . show mercy . . . be merciful in your thinking and acting.” But, what about my lazy co-worker? See what’s going on in their life. What about my wife or husband or child – I sure wish I could change them, make them more responsible, more thoughtful. “Show mercy.” Listen, be patient. It’s not your business to change people, only to love them. Your love gives God the room, to bring change, but the change comes from God, not you or me.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” What is mercy? To be merciful means to really consider the needs and situation of another person. What is mercy like? I think it’s the way you always hoped you’d be treated, but even better, because it makes you merciful towards others. Mercy is a place of refuge in this world – it is not business as usual in life – it is a place of grace and hope. It is living water in the barrenness of the desert. Mercy is God’s presence. When we have mercy, we honor God in the midst of the life. To be merciful is a way of treating someone that makes them feel their life is worth living. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

And, you never know when you are going to need that place of mercy. So, maybe showing it, you can store up a little for a time of need. And, that time will come. A time when you face something you never thought you’d have to face in this life – it will come. And, you will be in need of mercy, understanding, patience and love – deeper than you’ve ever needed it before. . . when you get that call in the middle of the night . . or the call from the doctor’s office with results from a test . . or that day you have a fight with a loved one that you never thought you’d have . . and, unfortunately for some us, that day you wake up and realize that you have made a mistake, hurt someone else, and you cannot take it back, and you cannot fix it. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” And, at times, we need mercy as badly as we need water and air and food.

The showing of mercy and receiving of it, are a central part of the movement of God’s Spirit in this world. Jesus was sharing with his disciples and others this life of God in the world. He was inviting them in to this river of God’s mercy. For the merciful are those who participate in the life of God – who experience mercy and are agents of mercy to others.
Paul celebrates this living presence of God in our lives, saying: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of mercy and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction that we might comfort others in their affliction with the comfort we are receiving from God.” This is our experience of God in this life that vacillates between trouble and comfort. Paul speaks of the active presence of God – the father of mercy and the God of all comfort.

“Blessed are the merciful (or those who comfort others), for they will receive mercy (the comfort of God).” We become merciful by finding life in this gracious movement of God in the world. And, often this comfort and mercy come through the kindness and love of others for us. They give God room to bless and save us. One day as Jesus was teaching in a house, the house got so crowed as people drew near to hear him and seek healing, and four men came carrying their paralyzed friend on a stretcher. And, it was so crowded in the house, that they couldn’t get in to see Jesus. But, they were determined to get help for their paralyzed friend. They believed Jesus could help. So they climbed up on the roof of the house, dug a hole through the thatched roof and lowered their friend down in front of Jesus. “My son,” Jesus said, “your sins are forgiven . . . rise up and walk.” Mercy. The mercy of friends, making room, making way for the powerful and saving mercy of God.

Unless we somehow experience God’s mercy in our trouble, how can we be part of this gracious movement that brings hope to the hopeless, life to the lifeless, love to the loveless? Unless we receive renewed life from God, we can’t pass on that power to others.

Could it be that we are receiving mercy, but aren’t aware of it? And, since we are not aware of it, it slips away before we know it, we lose it, and are unable to pass it on. For God is merciful and ever present. I am talking about a real experience of God’s healing, loving, redeeming presence in our mind, heart, body and soul . . . in our real struggles and joys of life. I’m talking about when you’re worried to death over family matters, over money, over your job, your friends . . . I’m talking about feeling like you want to disappear in some hole and not have to feel anything at all, and certainly not have to stand up and face the day. I’m talking about waiting on God on a morning like that, waiting in emptiness, waiting in anxiety, until the Spirit of God calms your soul, renews your heart and mind and feelings and makes you able to get up and face the day. I am talking about the comfort of God in the affliction of life’s struggles, the real comfort, the living presence of God.

You can always convince yourself of the 4 spiritual laws of salvation and convince others too and gather a big group together for church; but, if there is no experience of the living presence of God healing, then there is nothing real - no redemption and no presence of God.

Doctrines and creeds don’t save. Words don’t save. What saves is the shared experience of the living God. What this world needs is people who make a way for the coming of God into human hearts, minds, souls, bodies and communities. We make way by showing mercy. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The merciful make room for God. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” means “give God room to work and save and heal.” Say, “yes, Lord! Come, Lord Jesus – in the name of the Holy God of all creation – come and claim this world; come claim my heart, my family, my church, my community – this entire earth. Come among us and be honored and glorified – for you are our hope in life and death, in good times and bad, in health and sickness – you, the Merciful. You are the Lord, giver of mercy. You are the Christ, giver of mercy. You are the Lord, giver of mercy. Come, Lord Jesus, unite us with the Holy and merciful will and movement of God, that holy presence of God, the holy hope of all people in God. Amen.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” The merciful know the father of mercy and the God of all comfort. And, those who receive mercy, pass it on, because they . . . we don’t know what else to do. We have mercy on others because why would we choose to judge and condemn – having been loved by God and others, why would it occur to us to hate or promote hatred? Father Moses was a very revered African Monk of the 4th Century, one of the most well known and respected of the Desert Fathers. He was holy and wise. One day all the elders of that Christian community gathered to judge a monk who had been caught with a prostitute. At this meeting they decided to cast the sinful monk out of their community. Father Moses arrived late at the meeting carrying a basket of sand. The basket was full of holes and sand was pouring out as Father Moses walked. He said: “Here I come with my sins pouring out behind me and I would condemn another?” On another occasion, the elders gathered in this same community to consider the immoral conduct of one of their monks. They voted that he must leave the community. Having heard the judgment, the condemned monk got up and walked away and the most respected elder among them who had remained silent in the meeting got up and walked out with him. Mercy.

Having known our own sin and the grace of our cleansing, why would we want anyone else to feel trapped in their sin, defined by their failures, cut off from redemption and covered with shame? Why would we not want to do everything in our power to help them on the way of repentance, restoration and reconciliation with God and neighbor?

We have been touched by him deeply. We have been shown mercy by the Savior and Liberator of all people. We came to religion in desperation, or even curiosity, like the woman with the sickness that could not be healed, we reached out through the crowd just hoping for a little help – we touched the hem of his garment, and he healed us through and through. And, he asked: “who touched me?” I did Lord. I touched you.

We, like Nicodemas, didn’t want anyone to know how badly we needed God’s grace, so we slipped in and asked about it in secret, in the night, when nobody could see us. And, he showed us the way to life and gave us hope to share.

And, God’s grace comes to us today. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” But, for some reason, so many of us keep him away – leave our hope and life at the door knocking. As the spiritual goes: “O sinner, why don’t you answer . . somebody’s knocking at your door.”
Realize, right now, Jesus seeks to come in to commune with you, but he’s also reaching out through you to others. Mercy. He seeks room in your life to reach out to others and bind us all to God and each other. Mercy. So, let’s not get all caught up in religious rituals and teachings. Let’s get too caught up in God’s mercy to worry over all that. The Spirit of God moves to fill our emptiness, to cast out demons, to save body, soul, mind and spirit. God doesn’t wait to make sure you’ve been baptized, or confirmed, or joined the church. He comes when he is ready to come – in his mercy. He comes like he did to Paul on Damascus Road, to John on Patmos, to Elijah in the desert. “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” Don’t say: “wait Jesus until I can clean up my house. It’s just not fit for you to come in. Wait until I clean up these dirty back rooms of my life. I’ll get that all in order, and then I’ll let you come in. Then, I’ll be ready to receive you.” Sometimes we treat Jesus like he’s our picky mother-in-law, like everything has to be perfect before he comes. God knows the backrooms of our lives. He knows those parts of which we are ashamed. Let him in. He will look at your life with you, not against you. He will guide you, show you how to clean what needs cleaning, how to fix what needs fixing, how to endure what needs enduring. Mercy. I said that showing mercy gives God room to work. And, I guess that even goes with having mercy on ourselves as we would for our friends. That gives God some room to work within us. When we quit running around in the dark parts of our mind and heart, and stirring up our guilt and self-hatred, then God has room to redeem and reclaim us for his good and merciful purposes.

The Good News is not some 4 spiritual laws that can be packaged, bought and sold. The Good News is God’s living presence – the shared experience of divine mercy in human life. Pray to experience this. Wait to experience this. Words about God won’t save; the shared experience of God will. To experience him is to have received mercy and to have received mercy is to pass it on. One love, one movement. The Lord’s words are true: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” All praise and glory and honor to God, the father of mercy and the God of all comfort. Amen.