5/26/2013 Sermon: “The Big Mystery”

Trinity iconOn the calendar of scripture readings known as the Lectionary, today is Trinity Sunday.  That’s an ancient icon/image of the Trinity as you might see it in any Orthodox church building.  Three equal individuals who look the same, together, one God.

Listen to the ways God the Creator, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit function together in these readings:

John 16:12-15.  [Jesus said,]  ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Romans 5:1-5.  [the Apostle Paul writes to the Romans, saying…] Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

One God, three functions, three persons.

So, we have God the Creator – and considering the complexity of creation and the vastness of the universe, you can use the words of Psalm 8 to say, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;  what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

We think of Jesus, God in human flesh, God becoming a person, becoming one of us, crucified and risen, standing there with his disciples, and with Thomas we say, “My Lord and my God!”

And then we hear the story of the Spirit coming to those first believers with the flames of fire over their heads, and their lives changing forever, from the inside out, giving them the supernatural power to be a lot like Jesus.  As the first four books of the New Testament are called the gospels (good news) of Jesus Christ, I’ve heard the Book of Acts called the gospel (good news) of the Holy Spirit.  This is God at work in us.

The idea of the Trinity might seem simple to you, or incomprehensible.  The Big Mystery.  It might be that the Trinity is easy to experience and impossible to explain.

For about a year, I had the privilege of having coffee about every other week with the head of the graduate physics department at a well-known Ivy-League university.  A world class expert in quantum mechanics and nano-physics.  A brilliant person who had miraculously survived a very rare form of cancer and felt that there are unseen forces at work around us and in us.  To that point in his life, he hadn’t given much thought to spirituality.  He could have been asking, “Why Jesus?”  Instead, his question became, “Why not Jesus?  Why not God the Creator?  Why not Holy Spirit?”  Faith was opening the door to a whole new world that needed exploring.

Scripture helps us know that the Holy Spirit completes the connection between us, and the God of the universe through Jesus.  Our faith in Jesus flips the switch.  Our sin, the barrier between us, is removed by Jesus; it dies with him on the cross.  But he lives, bringing us together with God when we trust him as our Lord. The Holy Spirit is the spiritual energy of God surging through us when the faith connection is made.

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Is it making your head hurt yet?  I’ve sometimes thought that a Trinity Sunday sermon is best preached outside, in a place where you can be with other believers, feeling/hearing the wind blow, feeling the sunshine, hear the birds and with hands held, praying with the presence of Jesus infusing everybody.   Maybe this is best done at sunset on a rooftop or a mountain top.

UCC minister/writer Tony Robinson (with some paraphrasing by me):  A wise person once said to me, “Most churches tend to be churches of one person of the Trinity or another.” Some churches, in other words, are all about God, Father or Creator, while others are all over Jesus, Christ and Redeemer. And still others seem to know nothing but the Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost power and gifts of the Spirit.

In my experience there’s a lot of truth in that. We get comfortable with one person of the Trinity, one way of thinking about or knowing God, and kind of overlook the others, with whom we may – for whatever reason – be less comfortable.

But the great gift of the Trinity can be to push us out of our comfort zones, out of the ways we limit God.

So if your church is real comfortable with God, Parent and Creator, the growing edge might be Jesus, who makes God down-to-earth, specific and in-your-face, personal, who moves us beyond God as “sacred blur” (in the words of one friend).

Or if your church just loves Jesus and honks for him every time, it might be good to remember that it didn’t all end at Calvary, that the Spirit is alive and at work here and now, teaching us new things.

And if you’re all up in the Spirit, digging the power and ecstasy, remember it’s not about how spiritual or spirited we are, for the Spirit teaches us to be Christ to our neighbors here and now, no matter who they are.  You might want to think about who Jesus healed and ate dinner with.  Who needs thaThe Trinity is a little gift of the church intended, among other things, to keep our heads and hearts spinning and our faith living. Given half a chance, it will remind us that whenever we think we’ve got God figured out, we don’t.  (based on Stillspeaking Devotional for May 25, 2013; http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/)

You might want to think for a moment about which part(s) of the Trinity don’t come as easily to you as the other(s).  It might be a good exercise to focus on each person of the Trinity as you pray, to get a fuller experience of the awesomeness, the personal love, and the intimacy of God in your life.

The word “Trinity” is never used in the Bible. It’s a concept.  It plays a small part in helping us understand and experience God.  This God who needs to flow through us to make a difference in the lives of the people we live with – in our houses and on the rest of the planet.  We each, in our own way, need to say yes to this God, to surrender to this God who is reaching out to us and needs us to be Christ to each other.  The God of the universe wants to change the world through you.  If you’ve been struggling with the concept of the incomprehensible Trinity, lay it down, and just be a child in the embrace of a loving Father.  Most of the time, we make it too hard.  We systematize God to accommodate our small minds.  We make this… religion.  Just open yourself to God and let it flow. 

Three Holy Men.1 [A story that was originally told by the Russian author Tolstoy] In the DSC_4118days of the Tzars, a bishop was visiting town churches along the shore of a great Russian sea.  As he sailed along, he could see a small island off in the distance, and overheard one of the sailors talking about the three holy men who lived on the island.  The sailor was saying, “I have seen them with my own eyes!  I had heard about them for years, but never saw them until my boat was grounded on the island in a storm.”

The bishop asked, “What are they like?  What did you see?”

“They are all very old.  Maybe over one hundred years.  One is small and hunched over.  The second is tall and strong. The third is thin and has a long beard as white as the moon.”

“Are they alone on the island?”

“No.  I saw sick people.  Deformed people.  Blind people. The priests from the towns along the shore take them out to the island and the three holy men take care of them.

“Did you talk with the three holy men?”

“Not really.  They do almost everything in silence.  I understand that they spend most of their days in silence, taking care of the sick.”

The bishop had heard enough.  He decided he must see these holy men himself.  He went to the bridge of the ship and spoke to the captain.  “I want to land on that island.  I know you can’t get me close, so I will pay someone to row me ashore.  I want to talk with the three holy men.”

The captain was not cooperative.  “Your grace, I have heard that they are not as holy as they are stupid.  People who have met them say they cannot even utter an intelligent sentence.”

The bishop insisted and the captain made the arrangements. As the ship came toward the island, the bishop could clearly see the three holy men sitting on a rock, holding hands. They looked just as the sailor described them, but dressed in rags.

When he came ashore, the bishop said, “I have heard that you are here devoting your lives to prayer and the healing of others.  I have come to teach you whatever I can.”

The old men smiled.  After looking at each other for a moment, the one with the long white beard spoke and said, “We know how to serve each other.  We know how to take care of the sick.  But we don’t know how to serve God.”

The bishop asked, “How do you pray?”

“We pray like this: `You are three; three are we. Have mercy on us.'”

“That’s all?”

Holding hands and looking toward the sky, the three men said together, `You are three; three are we.  Have mercy on us.'”

The bishop said, “I can teach you a better way.  The Scriptures command us to pray like this, `Our Father, Who art in heaven…”

And the three men began to repeat what the bishop said: “Our Father…”  The bishop taught them word by word and phrase by phrase, until they could say the whole prayer by themselves. It took all day.  They stumbled over the simplest words time after time.

As the sun went down, the bishop stepped back in the rowboat and headed for the ship.  The three men bowed low as he moved away from shore, holding hands, repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over.

It was dark when the bishop climbed back on deck.  Most of the other travelers were sleeping.  But the bishop couldn’t sleep.  He sat alone in the stern as the ship weighed anchor.

As he sat, he saw a bright white light in the distance. Maybe it was a bird, or a boat with a DSC_4139white sail.  He watched as it grew larger and moved toward the ship.  He stood up to yell at the captain, but others on board had seen the light too, and the captain was already standing on the bridge with a telescope to his eye.  Everyone was standing at the rail pointing in the direction of the light.

The captain shouted, “It’s the three holy men, running after us over the sea as if it were dry land!”

It was true.  Together they ran across the water, holding hands and motioning for the ship to stop.  Before anyone could drop the anchor, they were at the side of the ship, calling for the bishop.  The crew and passengers were silent in amazement.

The one with the white beard spoke slowly: “We have forgotten the prayer, O Bishop.  We were repeating it until one of us forgot a word, and before we knew it, the whole prayer fell apart.  Please teach us again.”

The bishop crossed himself and leaned over the rail.  “Holy men, it is you who should teach us to pray.  Whatever your words, God hears you.”  Then he dropped to his knees.

The three holy men turned and headed back to the island.  As they walked, a bright, white light shone on the face of the water.

Prayer

Who are we, Lord, that you would come to us and love us the way you do? God, you said, “Let there be light” and there was light.  We thank you for sending us Jesus – we heard him say that he is the light of the world.  God, we believe in him; he is our light.  Now we open ourselves to you and ask that you fill us with your Spirit so that we can be light to others.  We know that we need to be your light, a city on a hill.  Help us love the way you love so that we can make a difference in your world.  Amen.

1  adapted from Stories for Telling by William R. White (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), who adapted the story from Tolstoy.

Between Floors

DSC_0138I had an unusual experience several years ago.  I went to a United Church of Christ Conference meeting (a day-long meeting of several hundred clergy and lay delegates from churches), got there on time (an achievement), and promptly became stuck in a parking garage elevator with eight other people.

Being the closest one to the phone, I made the calls – every ten minutes for the next 40 minutes.  There was a man named Skip on the other end, who assured me we would be set free soon.  We were all looking at our phones and watches, especially the man who was one of the keynote speakers at this event.  Forty minutes is a long time to stand in one place, in a box, with no way out.  We were keeping it light, but it was becoming less funny with each passing minute.  Then just as the humor of the situation had definitely passed and the air grown stale, the elevator moved and the doors opened.  I don’t think anyone was about to crack, but it was becoming a possibility!  Skip kept assuring me that everything would be okay.

On the way out of the building we met Skip, in a security guard uniform, who didn’t look anything like the Skip I’d imagined.  He shook our hands as we walked past; survivors of the ordeal.  There wasn’t anything he could do to fix the elevator, but he could answer our calls and use his own cell phone to get help.

Having company is definitely a plus in that situation!  The elevator is a great thing when it works, and now I believe one of its best features is the phone on the wall.  Every ten minutes or so, we needed to hear a voice from the outside.  “You will be okay.”

There is so much in life to be concerned about.  Okay, worried and overwhelmed.  If you are keeping your own life balanced spiritually, socially, and physically, etc., maybe you can be the assurance on the “other end of the phone” for someone.  As believers, we are God’s lifeline to others, and I believe God puts us in those situations regularly.

From a distance, from prison,  the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Philippi, in northern Greece:

“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying in joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”  Philippians 1:3-6

Like any church in any time, I’m sure the Greeks in Philippi must have had anxieties of some kind, together and individually.  Paul prayed for them and they prayed for each other.  They shared “in the gospel” (ministry of the church) together.  And God continued the good work in them, as God will in us.  That is most fulfilling – to know God is working in us.  And we will be okay.

5/19/2013 Sermon: “God Speaks Our Language”

LTP000792:1  When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2  And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3  And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. 4  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

5  Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6  And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7  And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8  And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?

[verses 9-11 = list of people from countries clockwise around the Mediterranean]  …we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

12  And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13  But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14  But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15  For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; 16  but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17  ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18  yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19  And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; 20  the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day. 21  And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

In 10th-century Rome, the church really knew how to celebrate Pentecost.  Lots of Italian cathedrals have paintings on the ceilings – something you don’t find everywhere in Europe.  But these elaborate scenes of angels and Bible people on the inside of the domes and vaults had more of a purpose than to inspire the people standing down below. They also hid some trap doors. Small openings were drilled through the cathedral ceiling to the rooftop. During the Pentecost worship service, some “volunteer” servant-types would be drafted to climb up on the roof. At just the right moment during the liturgy, they would shove live doves through these holes. From out of the painted skies and clouds on the cathedral ceiling, the “Holy Spirit” would come flapping down toward the people below. At the same time, the choirboys would break into the whooshing and drumming sound of a windstorm.

 {everyone slap their thighs and whoosh}

And then, as the doves were flying and the winds were rushing, through the ceiling holes would pour bushels and bushels of red rose petals. These little bits of red symbolized the tongues of fire falling on all the believers standing below.  They called these ceiling openings in medieval churches “Holy Spirit holes.”

Tongues of fire; everybody speaking in other languages.  This was not a parlor trick; some gimmicky thing God did to get peoples’ attention.  The Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost for two reasons: to help people understand the good news of Christ and to bring them together with God and each other.   These two things are not separate; the Holy Spirit’s power creates new life in us when we believe in the resurrection of Christ.  Only the Holy Spirit of God has the power to move people away from what separates them, whether it’s language, socio-economics, gender or race, to the one God who is saving them though Christ.  The Holy Spirit removes the barriers and becomes the one thing all people can have in common, no matter who they are or where they’re from.  The inner reality becomes a visible, outer reality – believers in Christ who share the love of God together and are known by their love for others.

Jesus said, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink.  He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” (John 7:37-38)

That flowing, gushing river of water is the power of God is us making a difference in our world as we say yes to God.  It’s the bond between us as we worship, the fellowship, and then the love flowing out, like… our mission team spreading out around the community to work at helping agencies next month, the team building a house in the Dominican Republic in July, our Melissa Shumaker beginning her mission work in Spain in September.  The river of water is flowing.  And, of course, each of us may do a ministry somewhere that none of us here will ever know about.

I used to wonder, what was the point of the speaking in tongues?  A neat God-trick to get people’s attention?  It was God helping people communicate!  God’s first priority in the creation of the Church was (and is) communication.  If the church doesn’t do that, the river doesn’t flow.  There cannot be too much communication at any level of the church.  At the center of it is our common desire to have a church filled with the Spirit, people connected with the God who is saving them.  When we talk, we discover that we have much more in common than we thought.

As the Spirit is filling and flowing, the story from Acts said, “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. I think that’s happening!

Language isn’t the only thing that keeps believers apart.  It might be lifestyle or politics.  It might even be church backgrounds (imagine that!).  When people have faith in God and in the resurrection of Christ, they have a greater capacity for overcoming the things that might overcome them.  We can’t do this on our own as mere humans.  It’s the Holy Spirit that lives in us and makes things like this happen.

A few years ago, I heard a story about the custody trial of a deaf teenage girl.  Custody was given to her interpreter instead of her parents.  Custody cases are always tragic and damage families in some way.

The story said that it was her father who wanted custody, and although he apparently had some problems with alcohol, the main reason the judge chose the interpreter was that the father refused to learn sign language.  He didn’t want to learn her language, and may as well have been saying that he did not want to understand or be understood.

That’s not how God is with us.  God goes way beyond the barriers that keep us apart.  When we believe in Christ, God goes straight to the heart of the relationship and says, “What can I do for you?  You know, I could help you a lot right now.”  God speaks our personal language.

DSC_2433Without the Spirit, we are a bunch of frightened disciples hiding in an the upper room.  Without the Spirit of God, we only have some rules and traditions and a church building.  We need the power of the Spirit to be the church God intended us to be.  We need the Spirit to be Christians with Christ in us.  With the Spirit of God living in us, we see the world and we see each other through God’s eyes.  We sing about Christ, we speak about Christ, we eat together to honor Christ. Through all these things we grow closer to each other as the Spirit teaches us how to love; how to care for our church; how to reach out to our world and communicate the most important person we know.  The Holy Spirit allows you to be Christ to someone in your life who needs him desperately right now.

In many churches, there is a spot in the Sunday bulletin or newsletter that says something like… St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.  Ministers: all the members.  That’s daunting, isn’t it?  But it’s also true, and it’s the power of the Spirit that makes it possible.  It’s not about you doing ministry; it’s about God doing ministry through you.  The river of faith flows through you.

There is always something you can do or say to bring Christ into the room.  I know how petrified some of you are about public speaking.  But I’m not talking about being eloquent or have a convincing speech ready. It doesn’t mean you have a degree in theology.  Sometimes bringing Christ into the room means not reacting to something you’ve seen or heard.  But it does mean you are willing, when the time comes, to talk about your own experience with Christ. In the book of Acts, when the Apostle Paul preached, all he did was tell his story.

One of the most powerful sermons another person can hear is your own telling, in your own words, why Christ has made a difference.

You might be able to say, because of Christ

  • “I can no longer be comfortable with my prejudices.”
  • “I have real peace that stays with me, even when everything is going wrong.”
  • “I am less judgmental and more able to forgive.”
  • “I know a joy and contentment in my life I never knew before.”
  • “I can no longer ignore the needs of others.”
  • “The guilt I lived with has been taken away.”
  • “I have a song in my heart.”
  • “My life now has a purpose.”

None of this guarantees that God will be able to reach the person you’re talking with, but the words you have to say – the words the Holy Spirit gives you when you need them – have a greater impact than the best-written Sunday school lesson or the most articulate sermon that was ever preached from a pulpit. That’s because nobody can deny your personal experience. Realistically, all they can do is say that they have never had a similar one, and when they open that door, you can encourage them to give Christ a try and see for themselves.  You just lit a candle for their darkness.  And the river keeps flowing.

One of my favorite preachers, Fred Craddock, once told a story like this…

I remember sitting in a little rural church on a Sunday night. It was a summer meeting, so it was hot, and the window was open beside my pew. The minister was preaching on his favorite text, “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, because fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

I was listening to him drone away when a man came by the church building and stopped by the window and said, ”Psst, psst.”

I said, “What is it? I’m listening to the sermon.”

He said, “Come with me.”

I said, “Where are you going?”

He said, “I know where there is a pearl of great price that’s more valuable than all the other pearls in the world.”

I said, “There’s no such thing.”

He said, “In fact, where I’m going, there is treasure buried in a field.” I said, “You’re kidding!”

He said, “Where I’m going, bums are invited to sit down at the king’s table.”

I said, “That’s ridiculous.”

He said, “In fact, they give great big parties for prodigals who come home.”

I said, “That’s stupid.” Well, I listened to the rest of the sermon and after it was over, I told the preacher about how I was disturbed and that I hoped it didn’t upset him during the sermon.

He said, “Who was that?”

I said, “I don’t know. Telling me all this fancy stuff.”

He said, “Well, was he getting anybody?”

And I said, “Well, none of our crowd went, but I noticed he had about 12 with him.”

(Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 36.)

Genesis 1:1  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3  And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.  God spoke and something new happened.  Is God still speaking?  Let the new thing happen through us.  Let God speak through us.  Let the river flow.

Prayer

God, we pray for our own day of Pentecost.  Fill us with your power, speaking the truth of your love in a language our families, friends, and neighbors understand.  Show us where to go, what to do, what to say, and when to be quiet.  Use your Spirit to help us make a deeper commitment to following Christ.  Help us see the world as he sees it, feeling his joy at the good things happening in his church, his weeping at the sight of sick or hungry children, his anger at the injustice of a senseless war.  Use your Spirit in us to bring forgiveness and healing to a world you love.  Amen.

“Jacobi the Baker”

Istanbul, Turkey.  CN - 2011.
Istanbul, Turkey. CN – 2011.

Matthew 5  ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Once there was a Jewish baker named Jacobi.  He lived in a small village where everyone added somehow to the survival of the community by raising sheep (for wool), or raising cows (for milk and cheese), or by farming.  There was also a carpenter and a tailor, and so on.  Jacobi loved to bake, and everyone in the village would find some excuse during the day to walk past his shop to smell the bread or the cakes he was making.

Jacobi was a devout man and was very thankful for all that God had given him: his wife, family and friends.  He went to the synagogue three times a week.  He fed the poor of the village.  He felt that he could never do enough to please God.  In fact, it burdened his soul that there might be something more he could do that would please God, but wasn’t doing it.  One day it came to him.  He could bake some bread for God.

The next morning, before his regular customers came around, he took two loaves of his most popular bread, and quietly crept inside the synagogue.  He went to the ark (where the Torah is kept) and carefully put it inside.  Then he quickly left.

All day he felt so good.  But at the same time he wondered, “Would God really eat that bread?  What if nothing happens?”

Meanwhile, the shammash (the man who cleans the synagogue) was sweeping the floors.  In contrast to Jacobi, he was not a happy man.  Most folks found him hard to get along with and he didn’t have many friends.  Every day he would sweep the floors in the synagogue and dust the seats complaining, “All this I do for You, and I simply cannot make enough to live on.  Lord, I am hungry!”  This day he noticed the doors of the ark slightly ajar and just as he was about to close them, he peeked in.

“Oh, thank you, Lord!”

After that day, people began to notice a difference in the attitude of the shammash.

Jacobi came back the next morning and looked in the ark.  His bread was gone!  He ran back to his shop, grabbed two more loaves, ran back to the synagogue, and put them in the ark. The next day, they were gone.  Raising his hands, Jacobi yelled, “God loves bread!”  From that day on, Jacobi was an inspired man.  He was the picture of fulfillment; and he never told anyone about his gifts of bread to God.  Every day for forty years he put bread in the ark, and every day, it would disappear.

Eventually, Jacobi became ill for a short time and his wife had to make the bread for him.  But she was not as strong as Jacobi and it was harder for her to knead all the lumps out of the dough.  But ill or not, Jacobi brought the bread to the synagogue as usual.

He came later than usual one day and after putting the bread in the ark, the rabbi surprised him.  “What do you think you are doing, Jacobi?”

Jacobi explained to the rabbi the miracle that had been taking place for the last forty years.  Just as he finished, the shammash came in, but didn’t notice the two men in the corner.  He walked up to the ark, opened it, and took out the bread.  He looked toward the ceiling and said, “Lord, come on now, what’s with this lumpy bread?”

Jacobi shouted, “What sin!” and ran toward the shammash, who stood frozen with a wide-eyed expression on his face.  But by the time he had reached him, Jacobi realized what had been happening all these years.  He had been giving bread to God, and God had been feeding a hungry man.  They embraced and from that day on, Jacobi gave his bread directly to the shammash, and both continued to give glory to God.

Note:  I have had this story for a very long time and have lost the source.  If you know where it came from, please email me: revjcn@gmail.com. 

05/12/2013 Sermon: “This New House”

09868_10
Blois, France. CN – 2000.
The Dome of Rock on the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives behind.  CN - 2011
The Dome of Rock on the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives behind. CN – 2011

Coming over that last hill from the east, into Jerusalem, the first thing that catches your eye is the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock.  This is the spot where King Solomon built the first Jewish Temple about 3,000 years ago, and it’s the spiritual home of the Jewish religion, even though a Jewish Temple has stood in that place for only about half of those years.  At the center of the Temple Mount is a Muslim shrine called the Dome of the Rock, and it has been there for over 1,300 years (since the year 691; it’s the traditional spot from which the Prophet Muhammad made a night journey to heaven).

Temple model
CN – 1989

If we could do some time travel and see the Temple as Jesus knew it 2,000 years ago, it might look something like this (right).  Inside the temple was the Holy of Holies, where the chief priest would offer sacrifice on behalf of the people once a year.  Do you remember what happened inside the Temple when Jesus died on the cross?  The curtain in front of the Holy of Holies was torn in two.  You could think of that in two ways:  1.) Now we all have access to where God is, or… 2.)  God has escaped!.

This was the Temple where Jesus taught, where he healed, where he overturned the tables of money-changers…  And this Temple was less than a century old when the Romans tore it down, all 13 stories of it, and left many people wondering, now what do we do?  Where is God?  How can we worship?

To appreciate the moment fully, maybe you have to imagine what we would be if this building was suddenly gone.  In the middle of the night, an earthquake leveled it.  No more stained glass, big wooden cross, organ…  What would we be?  What would you do as a member of this church?  Build a replica?  Start with a new idea?

The writer of the Book of Revelation had a vision that answers this question:

Revelation 21:10  And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 22  And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

23  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24  By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, 25  and its gates shall never be shut by day – and there shall be no night there; 26  they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  27  But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices  abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

So much symbolism and metaphor!  But it’s actually very personal to us individually and us as a church of Jesus Christ.  “…the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,” is you.  This is a symbol of God’s new beginning with believers in Christ, with you and me.  The old city is gone, the old Temple is gone.  It’s all rubble.  It’s destroyed.  The destruction of the Temple is not a happy memory for the Jewish Christians.  It left them feeling desperate.  And it wasn’t just the Temple, everything they had and were was taken away.

Have you ever had that moment of loss that left you with your head in your hands saying, “Okay, God, now what?”

This is the moment when God turns on the light.  You were (maybe you are) empty, now it’s time to be filled.  Now, it’s all about light.

God lives with us and in us because of our faith in Christ.  You are the city of God; we are the city.  God is the temple in the heart of the city, God is the temple in the heart of us.  As we have faith, as we trust God and believe in what Christ has done for us, and as we worship God fearlessly and share our faith in Christ with others, it is a light in darkness that can’t be ignored.  The light isn’t reflective light, as if God has turned on a spotlight to draw attention to us.  It’s light from an inner place that shines out…

v. 23  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  24  By its light shall the nations walk;

By its light shall the nations walk… Why did God turn on this light?  So that the nations can walk.  And this light that they need comes from where?  From us.

It’s all pretty symbolic, isn’t it?  Right?  Did I lose you?

Years before the Book of Revelation was put together, Jesus was much more direct when he said…

Matthew 5:14  ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

It’s fun to walk around this building and imagine the things that happened here.  Many, many people have been fed in this place.  Not just casseroles; the important food of life that helped them have faith and get them through life, and to thrive.  But it’s more important to see who could be here than it is to imagine who was here.  The building gives memories, but it’s our faith that gives us the presence of God and a vision to step out of the building and bring light to the nations.

What’s interesting to me is that in scripture,  God seemed not to be as attached to the Temple as the people were.  God is much more interested in what goes on in the lives of the people who worship him.  God is much more interested in the light of our good works. 

We love our building, don’t we?  On the other hand, having a nice building allows us to keep God “in a box.”  We make ourselves think that God is controllable; that God only has expectations at a certain time of the week; that God is only active on Sunday mornings inside the walls of this place.  I imagine people driving by on Main St. saying to themselves, “Good thing God stays in there.  God wouldn’t want to be where I was last night.”

And all of this is very frustrating for God, who went to a lot of trouble to be a part of the daily lives of believers everywhere that they happened to be.  Where did Jesus do his ministry?  Everywhere: the Temple, hillsides, beaches, streets, country roads, and homes.

We hold it to be the mission of the Church to witness to the Gospel and Jesus Christ in all the world, while worshipping God and striving for trust, justice, and peace and to make a difference through the love of Christ.  (excerpt of the Convenant of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Manheim, PA)

God doesn’t stay just in any Temple anymore.  God escaped.  Because of our faith, God has invaded our lives, every day, everywhere, healing us, giving us hope and confidence, making us whole.  You and the people sitting next to you, we, are the city of God.  Together. A city where others can find faith.  A city where our children and their children can find faith.  A city that exports the love, the light of God, to the rest of the world.

Prayer

God, we thank you for the family you have gathered here.  We have come from many different backgrounds and we have walked many different paths on the way to being together here.

And through this collection of people, through this family, you are working in each of our lives.  Help us all to find a way to play a part in the ministry you are doing.  We are your body; we are the house in which you live.  Help us to work and pray to build up your house. Give us a true sense of us, not just a collection of individuals.

We also gather together to be a team, a team committed to overcoming the forces of Hate, Destruction and Injustice. In other words, a Team committed to making “your will done on earth as it is in heaven.”

So, God, through your Spirit working in each of us and all of us together, make us a force for change.

5/5/2013 Sermon: “The Beginning Is Near!”

DSC_8861
One of the winged creatures of Revelation 4:8. Hagia Sofia, Istanbul. 12 century? CN – 2011.

I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted to read the Book of Revelation, but it can be a challenge, full of weird symbols and imagery.  Winged creatures and lakes of fire.  That image is on the wall of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, one of the oldest church buildings in the world (image- 12 century?).  Cults have been born out of reading Revelation.

A few helpful thoughts about reading a book of the Bible like this one:  Not all writing in the Bible is meant to be received exactly the same way.  There are narrative stories and poetry.  You receive the metaphors and images of a poem differently from an adventure story.  Revelation is what’s called apocalyptic writing.  It’s full of images that are symbols of reality.  I’ve heard it said that this kind of writing could be compared to a verbal political cartoon.  Or, if it’s not too much of a stretch, maybe you could think of the C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia as a picture of the Christian faith in a similar way.

For example, in the Old Testament, Babylon was a real kingdom that conquered the southern kingdom of Judah and took away captives around 600 BC.  But the evil “great Babylon” of Revelation, everybody knew, was the Roman Empire.  As strange as the wording of Revelation might be to us, the people who first received it knew exactly what it was saying.

The passage for this morning is meant to communicate the hope all Christians need to have for the future.

Revelation 21:1  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; 3  and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; 4  he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

5  And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6  And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment. 7  He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son.

Our culture has learned to obsess about the future.  Just think about a few of the books and movies from the last few generations:

The book 1984was written in 1949. George Orwell writes a book about how the world is constantly in tension with government (Big Brother), which  wants to take away the rights of all citizens.

The movie “2001 – A Space Odyssey”… came out in 1969.  Some astronauts exploring the moon find a monolithic communication device left by some superior race that lets them know when humans have developed the technology to find it.  And computers are going to replace humans (true now?).

The movie “2012”…  came out in 2009.  According to a Mayan calendar, the world as we know it was supposed to end last year.

It was in the 1970’s that I first heard that the world was going to end soon and it was going to happen in 1986.  Over the years, there have been many predictions of the end of all things, some of those coming from Christians, even though scripture says that the timing of such things is not for us to know.

At first glance, it seems like the Book of Revelation adds to the hysteria.  But as I said, it was written first for the people who received it, and helped them get through the times they were in.  It’s a great help to us, if you understand that it was written for them more than it was for us, that it was written to give them hope, more than it was written to help us predict particular things about the future.

But it does predict our future.  The main point of the Book of Revelation is that no matter how bad things look, God has everything under control and will win in the end.  This means that if you are one of God’s family, you have victory through the things God has done through Christ.  God will set things right, so keep your faith. God is already setting things right through the Holy Spirit, making us new, stronger, whole people because of our faith.

There are two things I believe God wants us to get out of that reading: 1) trust in Christ and 2) don’t compromise your faith.  You might be tempted to think that the end is near, but that’s not true.  For us, it’s the beginning that’s near.

21:1-2  ” Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband;”

For Christians, life with Christ is a new beginning.  The life Christ gives us not only heals us and makes us whole, it lasts forever.  It’s like seeing the world through new eyes.

We are the “holy city,” the “new Jerusalem.”  We are Christ’s bride.  That’s how close God wants to be with us – as close as a bride and groom.  It’s God who prepares us through the Spirit for this wedding; dressing us in wedding clothes, making us pure.

It’s a common misconception for Christians to think that they have to make themselves good enough for God, but that’s not Christian.  It’s our faith in Christ that makes us clean. When God sees us, God sees the mark of Christ, and that’s enough.

 21:3-4  “and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

The voice from the throne is the voice of Christ, saying something early Jewish Christians must have had to hear over and over again: you are now the temple of the Holy Spirit; God lives in you.  Never again will you face life alone. 

Temple ruins in the city of Ephesus.  CN - 2000.
Temple ruins in the city of Ephesus. CN – 2000.

When Revelation was written, there were many new Christians living in Asia Minor (the general area of Turkey on the eastern side of the Mediterranean) where there were pagan temples everywhere, built to honor Greek and Roman gods.  These were truly impressive cities, Roman colonies, where craftsmen would sell small idols (like a little statue of Athena) for personal use and to some degree, local economies depended on the pagan temple worship (see Acts 19:21ff).  For Jews, the idea of a temple was even more important.

The focus of the Jewish faith was on the temple and Jerusalem, the holy city.  This place is still very important to Jews, even though the actual temple structure has been long gone, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.  Many of the people hearing the words of this book would have remembered the beautiful temple in Jerusalem and might have barely escaped with their lives when the Romans leveled the city.  They might have been asking, where is our place of worship?  The answer?  Through the Holy Spirit, God lives with you and in you.  It’s the Spirit that gives you your life, that wipes away tears, and takes away the fear of death.

21:5-6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment.

7  He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son.

This life God has for us, this Spirit, is free for the asking!  A hard concept for those of us who feel a need to pay for what we get.  God doesn’t want a payment in return for spiritual life.  God doesn’t want your wallet.  God doesn’t want part of you.  God wants all of you.  That’s how it works.  In the church, the sharing of finances is a natural response to the presence of God in your life.

Revelation was written as a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor (Turkey).  It came at a time when some of these churches had it easy and some of them had it pretty rough.

The Roman Empire had begun to see Christianity as a movement that had to be stopped.  The Roman Emperor Domitian was proclaiming himself God and demanding to be worshiped   He called himself “Savior” and “Lord.”  All over the empire, citizens were required to offer sacrifices.  The temptation to compromise was strong.  Hey, why not worship both?

Many Christians refused to take part in the emperor worship, so they were arrested; they lost their homes and belongings; they were boycotted economically; they were killed.  It was worse in some places than others.  This is why these people needed to know that God is in control; that God can wipe away their tears.

A couple of weeks ago, we welcomed new members into the church.  How would you feel about joining the church if you knew you might lose your job, or your family, or your life?  That’s always a hypothetical question Christians like to ask to test commitment.  Historically, churches (and Christians) often grow stronger spiritually in painful times.  Faith can be like a muscle that grows weak and flabby when it doesn’t get used.

Our culture wants us to worry about the future.  Have you ever added up how much you spend on insurance?  Health, car, home, life.  I was just hearing an NPR report on pet insurance, which isn’t something I’ve considered, but it makes sense, I guess.  Why do we do we buy insurance?  In the end, it’s probably so that we don’t have to be dependent on other people.

So for Christians, this threat to faith isn’t just an ancient situation in some foreign culture.  We are always being asked to compromise our faith.  There are always opportunities to worship some other god.  Money, grades, drinking, lifestyle; the list could go on and it will be something different for each of us.  We are always being asked to give up, to turn away from God somehow, to let these things own us.  Each of us has thought of a moment at home or at work or at school when we thought, “Hey, wait a minute – is this what God wants from me?”

These days, you say something to your world when you stand up in public and say that you are one of God’s people. Be careful.  Being a member of the church will cost something.  God wants all of you.  All that you have and all that you are.

The voice says: trust the one on the throne. The one who was crucified, but still lives.  In the end, the future is his. Let him be Lord.  Let him be your Lord.  We should let him be our Lord together.  With him, our beginning is now.

 Prayer

God, we thank you that we never face our challenges alone.  Fill us with yourself.  Give us wisdom to face the real challenges of our lives.  Take away our worry and anxiety.  Give us the inner peace we crave in the name of the one who holds our past and our future in his hands.