Dr. Jones's Christmas Eve sermon, "...A Small Affair," a first-person sermon preached from Herod's point of view. Scripture lesson: Matthew 2.1-12 Narrator: The time has come to hear a voice that was not nice and kind, a voice we hear a lot about, the king of Palestine: this Herod brought prosperity and peace to people there, but at a cost, for he was cruel and ruled without a prayer!
Now Herod built great public works, but he’s the jealous sort who put to death three of his sons and his own wife at court. For anyone who threatened him, who might just want the throne, he simply killed summarily; he lived his life alone.
See, Matthew tells us Herod was in his declining years when something strange up in the sky brought to him eastern seers. So let us visit Herod’s court and hear this king of old, for Christ was born in Bethlehem, and now, let us behold…
Herod: Travelers, you come to say, some Persians from the east? Astrologers, no doubt, but why come here, but for a feast that they expect me to put on? Well, do they come with gifts? I will accept them, or I’ll show how ground beneath them shifts!
Gifts they have, but… you say what? “They’re for a new-born king?” And do they know just who rules here? To me those presents bring! To me those Persians bring also. Bring me these foreign spies, for I will my own self discover where this treason lies!
Good gentlemen, come in, come in, my humble house is yours! I pray that all my palace staff may bring you worthy cures of what might ail you from your trip… you care not here to stay? Then, tell me, sirs, how can I help to send you on your way?
You’ve seen a star while in the east; three planets are as one. Yes, this a royal sign, I see; think you I have a son as yet unborn or unbeknownst to me or to my wives? “One who will take responsibility for many lives?”
No, I know not of such a one, but ’round me I have here some clever folk who’ve studied and made yet a full career of understanding sacred writ, the scribes and prophets plain. I will call them (and then we’ll see who in this land might reign!).
Your Excellencies, I beg you, please, retire and have a meal, while I consult with our wise men, this secret to reveal. For if a new-born king is come to make the world aright then yet to pay my homage would of course be my delight!
Now, no expense will we withhold to see that you are fed. But you are welcome; no problem; all will be as I’ve said. Why, yes, of course, you’re grateful; let us see what we find out… (Before you leave these palace grounds, I’ll know what you’re about!)
Bring quickly to me now the Temple priests and loyal scribes who can unlock the secrets deep of all the Hebrew tribes. For I would know what these men seek, what is their own ambition, what intrigue from afar has sent them on this distant mission.
There is no king but Herod in this land that I have ruled for almost forty years; you see, these men don’t have me fooled. If rumors of a king to far-off Persia now have traveled, then one quick move on my own part, and all the plot’s unraveled!
The power and the glory here belong to me alone! The wise are not as wise as one protecting what’s his own. It’s I who’ve made Jerusalem the city that’s on high; For country and my people now, this infant king must die!
Yes? Enter now, you priests and teachers. Come. You’ve no doubt heard about our royal visitors – their search for ancient word that might reveal a king to them. What does your learning say? How can we send these magi on without undue delay?
You brought a scroll from Micah. Who was he? A country boy? Was brash? Uncouth? Ill-mannered? And one of the hoi polloi? He did not like Jerusalem, and so he said… from where? “From Bethlehem in Judah…” Well, is someone out to scare
the court into rash act, into a fit of jealousy? Is there a sense that from this king Herodians would flee? That Bethlehem is David’s town, I know so very well. My throne is not secure until his seed are all in hell!
Go leave me now, our guests return, we mustn’t keep them waiting. An ancient prophecy like this I’ll not be found berating. Yes, thank you, holy scholars, please return now to your study… (I would not have you see just how your word is turning bloody).
Ah, noble friends from Persia’s land, I trust you all are fed and entertained most lavishly, before your trip ahead. My scholars and my seers, my priests, and holy men about have all consulted earnestly and they are in no doubt
to Bethlehem you all must go and diligently search and when you find this goodly child, whose name’s without a smirch, then please return and bring me word, that I, a humble soul, may also go and worship him, to make the kingdom whole.
Ah, blessings on your search; my wise and learned friends you are. Please travel safely and return. Keep in your sight that star! Your gifts will no doubt welcome be (’though what they’ll think of myrrh is anybody’s guess). We’ll be here as we were!
These poor, deluded, starry-eyed perusers of the sky; these followers of ancient dreams, whose learning I defy; they will in all their innocence discover this young child and then they’ll bounce right back to me, with name of mother mild.
And they will go on their good way, and I will go on mine. A visit from a soldier and the blood will flow like wine. And I will be refreshed, and my own kingdom good as new, and no one will remember who this was, this infant Jew.
The land will be secure. It’s for the nation that he dies! With one swift stroke I’ll lay him down, nevermore to rise. My kingdom comes, my will is done, that is my fervent prayer. I’ll think no more about this child; it’s but a small affair.
Narrator: Herod’s “small affair” we know, grew mightily outsize, but folks like Herod still are here, and still a child dies: the war in Yemen shows the worst, our southern border, too. We know the bad is with us still, but Love is also true.
It’s Love that causes God to bleed; it’s Love that cries in pain; it’s Love that brought the Christ to us, and if we all are sane, we’ll take the gift of proffered love. Don’t let it be ignored! Replace the hatred Herods have with Love straight from the Lord.
Dr. Jones's sermon "From the Little Come the Great" delivered on December 23, 2018. Scripture lessons were Micah 5.2-5a and Luke 1.39-55 The Washington Post has a column that appears two or three times a week called “Acts of Faith.” The authors discuss news from the world of religion in this column, and it always makes interesting reading. I don’t subscribe to the paper, but I do get that column emailed to me whenever it is published, and with the column come links to other religious news of interest. On December 20, there was a link to an article by D.L. Mayfield about Mary, or more specifically, about the Magnificat, this hymn of Mary’s that was the last half of our New Testament lesson this morning.
“My soul magnifies the Lord…” When the Greek New Testament was translated into Latin about 1400 years ago, the first line of this poem began with the word, Magnificat. Hence, that has been the name attributed to this poem ever since. It has been put to music multiple times, and it is a staple in the worship of the Church of England, which I discovered when I was an exchange student in Britain more than 50 years ago.
Raising up the lowly and bringing down the mighty is, of course, a major theme of Luke’s gospel, as we have been discussing in the Adult Bible class across the last two weeks. Here, Luke is having Mary emphasize the main theme of his gospel. Luke in his Nativity Story does not mention kings or wise men from the east coming to adore the Christ Child or even Herod, bent on his murderous enterprise. Luke mentions shepherds, common men, people who were looked down upon by proper society, because they, of necessity, stayed with the sheep in the fields and therefore could not get to Sabbath services in the local towns. They were considered unclean and slightly above rabble, and normal people had little to do with them. Yet Luke has angels appear to them, and they are the first people outside the holy family to see Jesus. They also deliver the first Christian sermon, telling Mary and Joseph what the angels told them. They, the common and mildly disreputable, are the first ones to hear and tell the Christmas story! The grace of God comes first to those whom society would rather forget.
What do you think “society,” the “proper” people, thought of, in Mayfield’s words, “a poor, young, unmarried, pregnant woman”? She certainly, to all appearances, was not a fitting vehicle for the grace and the very presence of God to come to humanity! But she was not only the God-bearer, but in the Magnificat she bore a revolutionary message! She says God has “scattered the proud… brought down the powerful… sent the rich away empty.”  The gospels are always described as “good news,” and in fact that is what the Old English word “gospel” means! But if you are proud, powerful, and rich, this would be rather unwelcome news! Mayfield’s article in the Post actually makes the point that white American evangelical Christians have historically played down the Magnificat, because this is not a message they want to share! Mary’s devotion and obedience and our preconception of her as “meek and mild” is perfectly good and reflects a woman’s appropriate place in society, but to regard her as a revolutionary is unsettling, to say the least!
Look at the picture of the woodcut in the bulletin. There is an explanatory note there about the artist, Ben Wildflower, and how the Magnificat inspired him to depict Mary in that fiercely unusual way! She was obedient to God, yes, but here, in the way Luke paints her, she is ready to change the world, turn it upside down, eradicate the selfish, the overweening, and the narrow! And of course, she did.
Now, it is important to realize that this idea of turning society upside down, of reducing the importance, influence, and wealth of the proud, powerful, and rich did not come to Luke – or to Mary – out of the blue. It is an integral part of Judaism from the very earliest times. The Hebrew people, after all, wrote of their coming originally from a group of slaves in Egypt. From the Little Come the Great! The man who gave the people a national consciousness was Moses, who certainly was not modest and unimportant, raised as he was as a prince in the royal court of Egypt, but he murdered a man and quickly fled into the wilderness, where he married, kept herds and flocks, and had it been up to him, he would simply have remained where he was. But moved by the power of God, he left his idyllic life, challenged the Pharaoh of Egypt, repeatedly, and then spent the rest of his life as the leader of a large band of nomads, wandering through the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, who were often angry with him and frequently on the point of mutiny!
Once the land of Canaan was occupied by the Hebrew people, the twelve tribes were loosely held together across two centuries by charismatic judges, who were just common people, both male and female, of no particular tribe or heritage, who rose up to meet a threat, gathered the people together, achieved victory, and then went back to being a common everyday person again! When finally circumstances required a permanent leader and a standing army, the first person commissioned to be this prince was Saul, who came from the tribe of Benjamin, the smallest and least important tribe of Israel, and whose only notable characteristic was that he was unusually tall. He, too, at least at the beginning, was modest, non-descript (except for his height), and of no particular talent, but he led the people against repeated threats and led them successfully!
Saul was replaced by the youngest of the eight sons of Jesse in Bethlehem, a boy who was just a shepherd and amateur musician, but who became the first great King of Israel, David. And David had his faults and his problems, but he remained humble and faithful, even when he did enormous things wrong, even when his own son revolted against him.
David was followed by his descendants for the next four centuries, but each of these, especially the problematic ones, had at his side a prophet, a conscience, one who repeatedly reminded the king, and the people if the king would not listen, about the ancient covenant and how important it was to keep the faith! Keeping the faith was just as difficult then as it is now, with pressures both foreign and domestic pressing upon every king, and the prophets were drawn from all walks of life, some aristocrats like Isaiah, some brash country boys like Micah, some hermits like Elijah, some whom everybody despised like Jeremiah, some day laborers like Amos, and some who are virtually unknown, except for the writing they left or the stories about them which others wrote.
God shows no partiality! However, that cliché is not quite true, for God does show some partiality: toward the down and out, toward the meek, toward the poor, toward the out-of-favor. From the very earliest times, the Hebrew people were enjoined to remember the poor and the “sojourner within their gates,” the visitors, the guests, the travelers, the immigrants, the people who could not fend for themselves. When Micah wrote about the great future ruler from David’s house coming from small Bethlehem, he was right in the middle of the best of Hebrew tradition.
So was Luke, when he describes Mary as singing about toppling rulers from their thrones. The artist of that woodcut which is reproduced in the bulletin, Ben Wildflower, wrote, “[Mary is] a radical who exists within the confines of institutionalized religion.” In fact, some people took issue with the political nature of his woodcut, until Wildflower wrote a post explaining the revolutionary text came from the Bible. It is amazing how some of the Bible’s most ardent defenders are ignorant of what is actually in the Bible!
From the Little come the Great! William Wordsworth wrote insightfully, “The Child is father of the Man.” Whoever we are, we began as a helpless infant, and the seeds of our adulthood were sown and nurtured in our childhood. In fact, everything great began as something small. Many things, many people, that are currently great continue as small and humble. I would venture further to say that the truly great are the ones who continue to be small and humble. It was Jesus of Nazareth, we know, who first popularized that thought.
Think for a moment – put in your mind a face and a name – of a person or several people who were extremely influential in your life, who made you who you are today, without whom you would be someone very different and be in a very different place than you are now.
My guess is every one of you is thinking of a parent, teacher, coach, clergy perhaps, a mentor in some way, but I venture to guess that the names of the people you are thinking of are mostly unknown to the broader world. You might well be able to name the President of the United States when you were born, but he probably did not have the same influence on you as the person or people you are thinking of. The author of the best-selling book your birth year, or the Major League Baseball player with the best batting average, or the winners of Best Actor and Best Actress Academy Awards were all very well-known in their time, but I would be surprised if any of them actually influenced you in some way positively or negatively. However, the much less-known friend, relative, counselor, guide who actually changed your life, that person will live forever in your gratitude, and you undoubtedly have passed that person’s lessons on, wittingly or unwittingly, to the people you have touched.
That person or those people changed the world for you, and thereby changed the world!
Therefore, do not despise the small or even overlook it. From the little come the great!
 From “My Heart Leaps Up,” written in 1802. Wordsworth also used this line at the start of “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” which he started the day after he wrote “My Heart Leaps Up.”
Dr. Jones's sermon "Finding Joy in Christmas" delivered on December 16, 2018. Scripture lessons were Zephaniah 3.14-20 and Philippians 4.4-7 “Rejoice!” Isn’t that good to hear? “The Lord is near.” Now that can be a scary thing, a judgmental thing, but it didn’t mean that to Paul, and he did not want the Philippians to dwell on that.
“Be filled with gratitude in everything, and feel free to ask God for whatever you want.”
Those are words of hope, a hope not founded on the writer’s material blessings nor on his fortuitous circumstances, because at the time of this writing, Paul had neither. What he did have was the peace which seems to be beyond all human understanding. What in the world gave him that peace, that hope, that sense of Joy?
Have you ever noticed that grateful people are happy people? Ungrateful people tend not to be happy. Grateful people are thankful for what they have. Ungrateful people are bitter because of what they lack. Paul had discovered the secret of being grateful in all circumstances, and the secret did not die with him. It is as open to us as it was to him, and I don’t think he discovered it. The secret is simple: people tend not to be grateful for what they think they deserve. Paul thought he didn’t deserve anything, and therefore every good thing was like a special gift to him. Even bad things he turned to good. Being in prison was a chance for him to preach to the Praetorian Guard, Caesar’s elite palace troops. The jealousy of a local congregation impelled them on to preach in opposition to Paul, and Paul’s view of this was that at least Christ was being proclaimed!
Paul lived joyfully. It’s true he didn’t have a family. It’s true he expected the end of the world, the Eschaton, the Last Judgment, to happen very soon. It’s true he was a fanatic, and to us tolerant Americans, fanaticism seems to cause many of the world’s problems. However, let us not dismiss Paul’s ancient advice out of hand for the differences between us. He may not have had a family, but he loved much; he founded a host of churches in Asia Minor and on the European mainland, and he was as concerned about them, as involved with them, and as protective of them as any helicopter parent! Paul may have expected the Second Coming within his lifetime, but that is an expectation that has never left Christian theology in 2,000 years, and while the imminence of the Rapture may not govern our every action, it probably didn’t govern all of Paul’s, either. His later letters talk about the return of Christ being long delayed; that didn’t diminish the hope which breathed through him and which he gave to others. And while Paul may have been a fanatic, he never fell into the trap of mistaking privileges for rights. Even though he was a Roman citizen and not afraid to use his citizenship for self-defense, he never put himself first. He never put his own interests before those of other people and their needs.
Let’s make an obvious distinction. Living a joyful life does not mean one lives a life where every waking moment is happy. Christmas songs and carols remind us of glory in the heavens, chestnuts on an open fire, sleigh bells ringing, and how ideal a nineteenth century Christmas might have been, but well into the 21st century, cards have to be mailed out, difficult relatives visited, presents for all sorts of people bought and wrapped, decorations and more decorations need to be unmothballed, half of which have broken or burned out from last year – and none of this is different from the late 1800s, of course (except that we have more things to burn out) – and furthermore candy canes crack our dental caps, and Tiny Tim and a redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge are used to hawk everything on television from bronzed mistletoe to toothpaste. We sing of peace on earth, but our local papers tell us of further revelations coming out of Washington, the breakdown of negotiations in Britain over its leaving the European Union, mass shootings in France and Brazil, and the Yellow Vest protests in France. Simple happiness is not an ever-present reality!
Yet Christmas really is a joyful time of the year. Families gather, which happens too seldom these days; we have dinners around a common table, also a rarity today; perhaps we say with some material gift what we feel all year; our houses look festive and perhaps for once are really clean. All of this is a real reason for joy, unless you are newly bereaved, or you are on the outs with your siblings, or you are alone for any reason, or you never had the Norman Rockwell family Christmas, and you resent that being pushed as normal. Christmas is a joyful time, but for some, happiness may be more difficult at this time of the year.
All of this is true, but it is still possible to live joyfully in the midst of the darkness of a northern December.
By prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.
Does that sound overly pious? The whole meaning of Christmas is that God is with us. Paul wrote to the Philippians that the Lord is near. This doesn’t just mean in time, in a reference to the Second Coming. It means God is available to us; God is close at hand, now, in our lives, where we are at the moment. And don’t forget that God being with us is good news, not bad; that Christ came to save, not to condemn.
This is the message at the end of the book of the prophet Zephaniah as well. He lived in the decades before the Babylonian Exile and was probably a distant cousin of the reform-minded king, who cleared images and statues of foreign gods out of the Jerusalem Temple. In this, the king may have been influenced by this cousin of his, Zephaniah, who railed against foreign worship and even foreign dress. He was long-remembered, for during the Exile, or perhaps after it, a later editor adopted Zephaniah’s themes and wrote of God’s joy, God’s pleasure, God’s elation at restoring the people who had been punished enough. Or in other words, the good news of salvation is not limited to the New Testament alone. The harsh preaching of Zephaniah, which takes up two-and-a-half chapters of his short book, turns to this shout of triumph at the end. It is the only passage in the Bible, the only I’ve been able to find at any rate, where God is described as singing!
[God] will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.
Not only does the author describe God as singing, but God is singing a song at a festival, at a party, at a feast, which brings to mind the image of the kingdom of God Jesus frequently used, and of the criticism Jesus frequently endured: that he was a wine-bibber and gluttonous man!
And why is God rejoicing? Listen again:
…I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home … for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes …says the LORD.
God saves the lame and the outcast, the shamed and the rejected, those people not wise enough or strong enough or skillful enough or lucky enough to have avoided disaster. It is those people, who have seen and experienced the worst that the world can do, who, in constantly changing metaphor because no one figure of speech will do, will find praise and fame and a home and who will gain a fortune.
This is the promise and hope of our faith. This is why, even in the midst of grief or loneliness or bitter unhappiness, we can take joy, not just at Christmas, but all the year through. This is why the Christmas carols are not sad, ironic commentaries on the state of the world, but songs of hope that make a greater reality present now where it is so sorely needed. This is why Paul could give thanks even in prison, and why he could, with prayer and supplication, gratefully make his requests known to God.
Two hundred years ago, the great Methodist evangelist, George Whitefield, had a reputation for being good-natured. After his death, a New York woman commented: “Mr. Whitefield was so cheerful that it tempted me to become a Christian.” What a wonderful commentary on George Whitefield’s faith!
Take joy in your life and work, whatever stage of life you are in, even if your work for now involves just preparation or recuperation or the enjoyment of past accomplishments, even if your life seems to have no meaning and you are searching for God’s word to you. Neither joy nor Christmas is of our creation. God is with us, whether we will God to be or not. The joy of the season comes from the Singing God, the Festival God. Christmas does not depend on our feeling happy, any more than winter depends on our being ready for snow. Joy does not depend on life circumstances. Like forgiveness, joy is a gift to us from a laughing, available, God. With prayer and supplication, gratitude, and trust, let not only the peace of God but also the unadulterated JOY of God fill your hearts, minds, and souls, and you will be able to live even in the darkness of grief or the half-light of uneasy expectation by hearing the exuberant sound of God’s exultant singing, inviting us to rejoice!
This is the Word of the Lord.
 Philippians 4.6  Zephaniah 3.17c-18a  Zephaniah 3.19b-20  Cal and Rose Samra, Holy Humor, Guideposts, New York, 1996, p. 140
Dr. Jones's sermon "Faith Begins at Home" delivered on December 9, 2018. Scripture lessons were Malachi 3.1-4 and Philippians 1.3-11 When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he was in prison. He wanted to see that congregation, to be with them, but of course the authorities prevented him. Nevertheless, he was very much with them in spirit, and they with him. He had founded that church, and relations remained cordial throughout Paul’s life. The church in Philippi was a community of faith, a faith that was obvious in the active love of that congregation.
Like love or language, we learn faith in communities. Like love or language, faith is very hard to acquire on one’s own. We learn to love by growing up in a community of love. We learn language by a community speaking to us before we can understand what people are saying. If there is no love in our childhoods, we will have to work much harder to believe in love as adults. If no one speaks to us as children, we will not be very communicative as adults, and our thought process itself may be slowed down. In the same manner, we learn faith by seeing it practiced and hearing words of faith spoken. We learn faith best by imbibing it! Some old bumper sticker described faith as bread for every day, not cake for special occasions. I am normally suspicious of theology by sound byte, but that is apt. The first community of which we are a part is our family. Our home is our first church. It is in our homes where we are given bread for every day. And it is our homes that have the most continuing influence with us.
That is why it is important, whatever the nature of our households, consciously to practice our faith at home, from the momentary pause for a table grace to Bible reading to adopting and using small helps like the devotional booklets available on the table in the Narthex. That’s why it is important, visibly and sometimes painfully, to practice the ethics which stem from our faith. Cindy and I have friends who struggled to pay Pennsylvania sales tax on a $50,000 home kit they brought from a company in Vermont. They had a real problem doing that! There was no form to fill out. There was no office ready to take this tax. Some bureaucrat wondered, only half-jokingly, if they were trying to launder money. That didn’t make sense, but neither, from the bureaucrat’s point of view, did a couple going out of their way to pay a sales tax on an out-of-state purchase! Our friends’ point was how could they insist on honesty from their daughters and their students if they did not practice honesty themselves, even the sort of honesty that is hard and expensive to accomplish! When households consciously practice Christian faith at home, then the church becomes an extension of the home. Faith begun there will be supported and given further expression here.
And what we discover, if the church is not trying to create faith but is simply supporting and educating what is already present in its households, is that the church becomes a family.
Now, we have to be careful in using that word. A family is not a group of people united by blood – that would leave out adopted, foster, and blended families. Nor is it a group of people who live in the same household. I was introduced to a new term this week, listening to NPR: “diblings.” These are people who are biologically half-siblings, united by their mothers having had a common sperm donor, hence the ‘d’ replacing the ‘s’, creating “diblings.” One woman in her late 20s wrote to another woman in her late 20s, just after they met: “We didn’t have the chance to grow up together, but we do have the chance to grow old together.” A family is a group of people united by commitment, not always by choice. It is a group of people which seeks each other’s welfare but not to the exclusion of people on the outside. As Charles Dickens wrote in Nicholas Nickleby, a family “need not be defined merely as those with whom we share blood, but as those for whom we would give our blood.” In the best cases, a family is a group of people who love, allowing their love to overflow into the world.
We should not be schmaltzy about this. It is fashionable to describe the church as a family, but let’s face it: not everyone in church knows everyone else, and not everyone in this room likes everyone else. We certainly don’t all agree with each other, but we are united by faith nonetheless the way a biological family is united by blood, or an adopted family by love, or a blended family by commitment, or diblings by newly realizing they have common genes. And if we are united by faith, that means we are free to share each other’s joys, free to share each other’s worries, free to hold each other in prayer, free to work with each other for humanity’s common welfare.
One example for us is Paul and the Philippians. They were one with each other, even though enduring a forced separation occasioned by Paul’s imprisonment. Malachi is saying the same thing about God. God wants to be with us and God will be with us. Nothing will prevent God from coming to us. God wants to be with us so much that the Lord is going to prepare the way for God’s own coming! The refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap sound harsh, but the good news is that there is something in us that God finds worth refining and cleaning!
God believes there is something in us worth saving, which is good news for those who think they are worthless. It isn’t good news, particularly, for those who do not see anything wrong with themselves or with humanity in general, but God sees something valuable in those people, too. Nothing will keep God from coming to us. It’s as if God is saying, “Face-to-face contact is so important that I will go through hell itself to be with you.”
That is what Paul is saying to the Philippians. Letters are wonderful, he writes, but they aren’t enough: “…how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” Remember when the phone company, advertising itself, said that Long Distance was the next best thing to being there? Today, FaceTime and Skype are remarkable for bringing a distant person’s image and voice right into our homes and ours into his or hers, but the next best thing to being there isn’t being there. For that, there is no substitute. Faith and love united Paul and the Philippians. They shared his struggle. He shared their joy. This is what we find in a church at its best. This is what we find here when we are at our best. And this is why we gather face-to-face on Sundays!
Paul’s faith that was nurtured in community led to an overflowing love, much more than warm feelings of affection. Paul loved with full knowledge of the foibles of those whom he loved. Paul loved knowing that love does not end problems or dissipate troubles. On the contrary, love causes pain and problems and troubles. Paul knew those he loved, and he was insightful enough to know that love is not a cure. Family love is just like this. Love does, however, provide a focus and a direction so that good things may happen, both to those who love and to the world because of that love, or in Paul’s agricultural phraseology, so that there may be a “harvest of righteousness.” Did you hear what he wrote to the Philippians?
"May your love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, producing the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."
Let this be our prayer for Advent, and we’ll change it to the first person plural for our use. May our faith find its expression at home and at work in the words of this prayer, so that our love will overflow – knowledgeable, insightful love – helping us to determine what is best in all the crises, challenges and changes of our days, so that what we do may be right and good and faithful.
May our love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ we may be pure and blameless, producing the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Faith begins at home, but it does not stay there. Its effects flow all over the world!
This is the Word of the Lord.
Dr. Jones's sermon "Beyond the End Stands Christ" delivered on December 2, 2018. Scripture lessons were Jeremiah 33.14-16 and Luke 21.25-36 Apocalyptic literature, even when it comes in the gospels, is not fun reading! Who wants to read about fear, foreboding, distress, and the passing away of all that we know? I get a chuckle when I am with my ministerial colleagues on occasion studying scripture, because more often than not they will end the reading of the gospel lesson, even at a study group, with words something like this: “This is the good news of Jesus Christ.” When we read a lesson like today’s New Testament lesson, that concluding sentence is more often than not said quizzically: this is the good news of Jesus Christ?
I mentioned to Cindy the other day that it would be an awful lot easier if I were a hell-fire and brimstone preacher, one who could make members of the congregation shrink in their pews with fiery rhetoric about how rotten each of them is and how we are shortly going to get exactly what we deserve. Furthermore, the signs of the end are already about us, and therefore you had better make yourself right with God, for the present generation will not pass away before all these things happen! Cindy’s calm, almost dry, response was: “It’s about time we heard a non-fundamentalist interpretation of this text.”
Have you ever noticed, as you get older, that ancient beliefs which you once dismissed gain new validity? They do not return on their old, superficial, concrete level, but the depth of what they once communicated becomes newly apparent and newly important. Few of us actually need to be reminded of how rotten we are – not as the world sees things, now, but most of us know how we have fallen short of what we could be, of what God created us to be, and my guess is most of us actually use the printed prayer of confession each week to confess! You do not have to shrink in your pews and have your egos attacked to know this, but maybe that approach is useful for getting someone’s attention.
The signs of the end are indeed all about us; they have been since those words were written almost two thousand years ago. Seldom have we actually lived in a time of peace; humanity seems not to be a peaceful creature. And yes, you should make yourself right with God. For goodness’ sake (literally), if not now, when? You will not pass away before the Lord comes to you and shakes the powers of the heavens! This congregation knows what it is to be shaken! Does anybody here actually have to be reminded that life is fragile, that we do not know what tomorrow holds, that it is never too early to come in humility and contrition to the throne of grace?
There are two notes of hope in the apocalyptic reading from the gospel of Luke, which we heard this morning. The first is that, although “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” yet Jesus tells his disciples to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The second is that the parable of the fig tree is a good, wonderful, comforting parable. Summer is coming, when everything sprouts into life and the world seems to rejoice!
On this first Sunday of Advent – our annual reminder that indeed the Lord is coming as the Lord came once before, unexpectedly, in the least likely place, in the least likely way – perhaps God is telling us that to be ready for the Lord’s unexpected arrival we need to do exactly the opposite of what most of the world is doing. When the world cowers, we should look at the Apocalypse with faith and confidence, and expect that the worst is going to bring the best.
Those are simple words to say; they are difficult thoughts by which to live. When the very powers of nature seem to be conspiring against humanity, when people are doing their utmost worst to their fellow travelers on this planet, when wars rage and when common sense is notable by its absence, when Christ himself seems to be sleeping, then we are in the middle of the Apocalypse. And that is when Christ is born anew. That is when the Holy Spirit moves through the earth in a most unspirit-like way. That is when we see redemption!
Advent reminds us that we are waiting for redemption. Now, this is an interesting concept and not one we lay awake thinking about at night. Normally, we only conceive of redemption in terms of coupons, saving some expense on items we were going to buy anyway. We have now entered upon the premier shopping season of the calendar year, and every newspaper is filled with flyers and clippings, waiting to be redeemed at one of our local places of commerce. A coupon itself, of course, is worth little. Only when applied to the item for which it is meant does it gain value.
We are not coupons, worthless scraps which only achieve value when used for a purpose beyond our ken. We are human beings, made in the image of God, for whom God died. And yet we do have a value beyond our knowledge, a value known and judged by our Creator alone. When we value others as if they were Christ incognito, we are partners in God’s redemption of humanity!
This is what we were hearing in the passage from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah looked forward to the restoration of the kingdom that he knew, which he saw destroyed at the hands of the Babylonians, not just once, but three times in the decade between 597 and 587 B.C. He looked forward to the restoration of the kingdom he remembered from his boyhood, the kingdom that had not been a vassal state of any empire’s, a kingdom that stood on its own and worshiped no god but its own! Jeremiah imagined a restoration of everything he had once known: a new monarchy, based on the old line descended from David; a new Temple built on the ruins of the old, which the Babylonians had totally razed in 587; and a restored land, a nation, a community, dedicated to the common welfare and united in its ancient faith.
Beyond Jeremiah’s lifetime, but within the time when the scroll bearing Jeremiah’s name was still coming into its final form, the land was restored, the Temple was rebuilt, and although Judah was a province of the Persian Empire, the governor the Persians put in place was in fact a local official descended from David. The passage that was our Old Testament lesson comes from that time, around 430 B.C., and it is a variation of something Jeremiah dictated about 150 years earlier, but the emphasis in this later variation is on Jerusalem, the city that stands for all the hopes of the ancient Hebrew people, and not incidentally, the city that still stands for all the hopes of modern-day Jewish people. Jerusalem will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
The emphasis here is that the righteousness of the Lord will be found in community. Although Jeremiah placed his hope in the righteous Branch coming from the line of David, which we identify with Christ, his editor of a later time placed his hope in the community of the faithful. Putting the two together, we see Christ standing within the community of the faithful, and when we are actively part of that community, we are actively part of Christ’s redemption of all humanity!
This is the good news of Jesus Christ, that beyond the end, beyond the Apocalypse, he stands waiting. That is a promise that will never grow old and never be out of date. And you and I are part of that promise. We can stand with Christ, on both sides of the Apocalypse, making the future real and present now. The summer of promise, of plenty, and of joy in the warmth of God’s world can be a present reality in the deepest, darkest, coldest winter. I have seen it in this congregation. I see it now. I see it in our world. Beyond the end stands Christ. This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
To re-present that thought, I invite to this Table all who are sincere in their desire to continue to be part of this worshiping community, or of any community of Christ to which you may belong, and as part of that community, to prepare now, in your hearts, for the advent of Christ. I invite to this table all who are willing to be Christ to their neighbor, and thereby to show that Christ is here! I invite to this Table all who are willing to define “neighbor” in the broadest possible terms, as we all are children of God and fellow members of the creation for whom Christ died. Any such person present is welcome to participate in this sacred drama.
Dr. Jones's sermon "Should We Worry About the End?" delivered on November 18, 2018. Scripture lessons were First Samuel 1.4-20 and Mark 13.1-8. The story of Hannah’s distress and Samuel’s somewhat miraculous birth coupled with the little apocalypse from Mark are two passages hard to put together in one sermon. One speaks of hope, the other of despair. One speaks of new life, the other of near-universal death. One sets the stage for national greatness, the other for national (and perhaps world) destruction. Furthermore, we are conditioned to think of the New Testament as the Good News, and we certainly do not hear good news from Mark in this passage. We are conditioned to think of the Old Testament as unfinished business, but we get a sense of great new life and hope and promise in the passage from First Samuel.
If nothing else, the contrast and the clash of expectations are certainly enough to get our attention, and perhaps, if we are attentive, we may hear God pushing us to understand the grace of God, at the start of this Thanksgiving week, in a new way. Despite the popularity of movies, television shows, and books about Armageddon and the end of the world, and despite the fact that political change is upon us this season, we needn’t take dire warnings of the Eschaton as the last word. God has the last word, not Hollywood or alarmist literature. There is yet a future for us.
When I am asked about the end of the world and the Last Judgment, and questions like these come approximately every five years, I repeatedly quote a former minister of mine, Joe Mullin, who was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina 45 years ago. These questions were rife then, too, especially with The Exorcist newly released in those days, and his response was dismissive but telling: “Whether I go to Christ first or he comes to me makes no difference.” That was putting matters into perspective! We are all going to go. When and where is God’s business. Our business is attending to God in the first place!
Matters of life and death are nothing new, of course. In our Old Testament lesson, Hannah’s life was at an end. She was a second wife and childless. Her husband loved her and provided generously for her, but by the standards of the time, she was a failure as a person. Not even her husband could make things all right. She went, as was the family’s custom every year, to the holiest place in all Israel, prayed fervently, and found herself grievously misunderstood and even insulted by the priest in attendance. Armageddon at that point Hannah probably would have welcomed!
However, the priest acknowledged his error, gave her in effect a blessing, and Hannah returned to her family feeling pretty good. A sympathetic ear, a compassionate word, will do that sometimes! Hannah no longer worried about the future, and in due season, perhaps because she no longer worried, simply trusting God, a son did in fact come to her. Eli, the priest who had called her a drunk, even became the mentor and guide for the boy, Samuel.
Should we worry about important things that seem to portend the end of life as we know it? Certainly when we feel less than human, it is all right to pour your heart out privately before the Lord. It doesn’t matter what other people, even important people, think of you. In the words of the classic hymn, “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” You cannot be sure the answer will be positive or what you want to happen will happen, but when Hannah knew that her prayer had been heard, and that Eli would be praying for her as well, that was all she needed to feel restored and understood. She had a sad countenance no longer!
People who are sympathetic to and searching for faith often ask, “Does prayer work?” The correct answer to that is, with all the things wrong in the world, prayer works very hard, thank you. Sometimes it even succeeds! But prayer is not a cure-all or a last resort. It is a first response that guides all the rest of our actions. It is not a panacea, but it is a conversation with the one who loves us the most, with the one who is Love Incarnate. Love will answer, and Love will hold us through our realization of what that answer is.
A sympathetic ear, a compassionate word, Love itself, did not, however, save Jerusalem from the destruction Jesus in Mark foretold. All the prayer in the world probably would not have prevented the Zealot revolt in the year 66, that succeeded temporarily while Nero was in his last two years of madness in Rome. But when Nero was removed from the scene, courtesy of the Praetorian Guard, Rome got its act together and put down the revolt within a year or two, destroying the Temple in Jerusalem in the process. When Mark wrote his gospel, this defeat and destruction was recent news. To read that Jesus foretold it was to give hope in a hopeless situation that God was still in control, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
In the first century of the current era, Jesus of Nazareth was not the only one about whom messianic claims were made. There were a host of messianic pretenders, and most claimed that the way to the Kingdom of Heaven was through political revolt against the Roman overlords. The Romans were not blind or deaf to this sedition in that sensitive corner of the empire, and so they reacted strongly to messianic claims when they became aware of them. It was this that caused Jesus’ execution. Pilate heard that he was a messianic figure, and that was all he needed. Jesus would go to the cross!
Of course, in the way God works, that bad news was the very basis of the Good News, the gospel Good News. The worst that humanity could do released the best that God could do! This does not give us license to do bad, but it does mean that God will find a way, probably through self-sacrifice, that will turn the worst into the best. And so again we ask the question, should we worry about the end?
Well, do you remember the widespread concern about ten years ago that the Mayans had predicted the end of the world for December 21, 2012? Never mind that the end of the world was also predicted for the year 1000 and for the 1520s and for 1999 – who can forget the Year 2K worries that airplanes would fall out of the sky, the stock market would cease all operation, our entire defense structure would suddenly implode, and the phone system would break down – but in a perfect example of humanity never seeming to learn its own lessons, there was great consternation about the end of the Mayan calendar. An actually half-decent disaster film came out of all this, the movie 2012, but in its wake there were also a host of video games. It is a sign of grace that the worst of these is no longer on the market, but in its heyday eight years ago, one of these games told us we didn’t have to worry about the end, because we could practice it right then and there on our iPhones or iPads! As I was living and teaching in a boarding school back then, I became familiar with this game’s marketing material:
“Save civilization on your iPhone or iPod Touch!
(Modesty never was a gamer’s stock-in-trade.)
The year is 2012. As the Mayans predicted, scientists feared, and governments denied, the world as we know it is coming to an end. Natural disasters are wreaking havoc around the world. Humankind needs your help to survive.
Throughout 30 story levels, control windstorms, earthquakes, firestorms, and hurricanes
(if you had not lost touch with reality by that time, you could let it go then!)
– each with different destructive abilities – to navigate through a maze of city streets trying to avoid destruction wherever possible. Collect gems and lore items
(what in the world would you do with those with the world ending?!)
while guiding an unwieldy, strengthening storm to keep the buildings safe from damage.
(how does one “guide” a storm, but if that was too tame for you, the blurb concluded:)
In the alternative Rampage game mode, travel through cities without restriction, causing as much damage as possible in an anything goes free-for-all of exploding destruction.”
So your aim was to save the world, but if you got tired of that, you could wreck it!
With commercial items like that available, we don’t have to worry about the end; we have to worry about the middle, the here and now! End of the world games are in short supply these days, but they seem to have been replaced by zombie attacks and how to save us from the coming Zombie World War.
And actually, that really is the point of our scripture lessons, and also of the multitude of destructive games you can download today from the iStore. We don’t have to worry about the end, but we do have to worry about, or at least concentrate on, the present. When Hannah at last got a sympathetic and hopeful word from Eli, the priest, she stopped worrying about her future and was content with the here and now. Because she stopped worrying, she changed the here and now. Mark’s original readers in the eighth decade of the first century had seen people do their very worst in the midst of the Roman-Jewish conflict. They had lived through terrible war and destruction, and messianic pretenders and end-of-the-world-predictors were not in short supply in that time, yet they read that Jesus was telling them, Don’t worry. Don’t believe what you hear. You may well go through hard times, very hard times, but there is a reality above the destruction around you that neither you nor your opponents can comprehend. This is just the beginning. Look to yourselves, and let the end take care of itself.
Of course, with the news that the North Koreans are rebuilding nuclear sites and perhaps their armaments and with our leaders offending every friend in the world we had left, a change in the world order does seem possible. Nevertheless, there will be a 2019 and a 2020 after that. Worry not about the end. We do not know the time or date when that end will come. But we do know about our lives now, and we should – if not worry – at least pay due attention to what our lives are accomplishing now and what preparation we are making now for accomplishments and developments later. The people of Mark’s time had to live through what they thought of as the end, but it merely opened the door to a new era. So we will live through our crises, and we will discover that God is on the other side of them, as God is on this side, ready to lead us in every time to new understandings of goodness.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Dr. Jones's sermon "The Widow's Fortune" delivered on November 11, 2018. Scripture lessons were Ruth 3.1-5 and 4.13-17 and Mark 12.38-44. The Scripture readings this morning tell us of three widows and a hypocrite. Of them all, the one with the most social status was, of course, the hypocrite, the one who dressed well, was addressed the most respectfully by others, had the honored seat, and made a good appearance in public. The three widows, of course, had nothing, lived essentially by begging or scrounging, had no social status, and presumably had little to commend themselves by way of appearances. Yet in both Ruth and Mark, they are the ones commended.
Scripture like this hits very close to home. I dress well, have a respected title and an honored seat, make long prayers, and in essence like the scribe, I write for a living. I do not consciously take advantage of the poor, but I live adequately well. As a society, we do not denigrate widows these days, but in the majority of cases, men are still the principle breadwinners in families, and when he goes, the woman and her family are often reduced in life circumstances. Why do these two lessons seem to lift up poverty and praise it? Anyone who lives in poverty knows it is nothing to be praised. It is difficult and demanding and depressing and draining. And of course, in Ruth, the two widows come out of their dire circumstances by making a good match for the younger of them, who then protects and cares for the older, so they leave poverty behind them.
Nevertheless, we should understand that the widows’ fortune is not something monetary. If the woman whom Jesus saw putting two small copper coins into the Temple treasury indeed put in everything she had, what in the world did she eat that night? Where did she sleep? What did the next morning bring? Jesus praised her generous spirit, but where did that generosity lead her? As far as we know, Jesus pointed her out and declared her a good example for all to follow, but he did not take her under his wing or provide for her. She remained poor.
I spent 24 years as a schoolteacher, 20 of those years in one school. People often describe education, especially primary or secondary education, as a profession which does not make one rich. That is certainly true, if one measures wealth in monetary terms. However, that is not the only way to measure wealth. I think of a colleague of mine from Mercersburg who retired after decades on the science faculty. He then returned, teaching one course a term and helping out with dramatics. He retired again, and then returned again as the school’s archivist, preserving for the future so many of the pictorial, architectural, and written treasures of the past. At last cancer took him, but when his approaching death became public knowledge, he was inundated by cards, letters, phone calls, and visits from former students and colleagues, all of whom wanted to express how much he had meant to them. When I tried to visit him, and we lived a quarter of a mile apart, I had to make an appointment, because the train of visitors was so constant! These visits and expressions of love and gratitude continued up until the day he died – and afterward, as his memorial service was ample testimony.
So just exactly how do we want to define wealth? Any meaningful life carries with it hard work. It is only the indolent and lazy who sit on a beach sipping margaritas, and one does not need to be wealthy to do something like that. Wealth might be defined in terms of friends, but realistically, not everybody is outgoing and extroverted. Some people simply do not make friends easily and do not have the gift of inspiring others. In the Old Testament lesson today, Naomi seems to have had friends and people around her who cared about her, but Ruth was from Moab and had left everything behind her to accompany Naomi back to Judah. She knew no one in her new homeland, and she had no time to meet anyone. Ruth supported both herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning, going through the fields at harvest time after the reapers had already gone through, picking up the grain they dropped or neglected. It was not exactly begging, but it was living off the charity of others, for Hebrew people were enjoined by Law and custom not to send their own workers back through a field to pick up the left-over grain; it was intentionally left for the poor. There was personal risk involved in this, of course, for a young woman working alone in a field could be prey to unscrupulous men, and it was back-breaking, bone-tiring work, but at least during the harvest seasons, one could just about eke out a living. But there was, of course, no time for socializing. Ruth had no friends.
We know nothing of the widow Jesus praised. All we know is that she made a small contribution to the Temple, something that meant little in real terms. It meant a lot to Jesus, though. I was fund-raising once for a non-profit organization in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania when we lived there, and one man I called described his personal situation in dire terms but then ended by saying he could free up perhaps five dollars. I was so taken aback by his story that I said no! He needed it more than the organization on whose behalf I was calling. At that point, he began to press me to take his five dollars. I continued to refuse. I felt virtuous afterward, but the director of the organization to whom I recounted this exchange told me that the entire non-profit was supported mostly by five dollar donations from people who really stretched to contribute that amount. There were some large grants, too, of course, but the grants were dependent on community support: specifically, on those small sums one of which I had just discouraged! That non-profit floated almost entirely on broad-based community goodwill!
So perhaps wealth can be defined in terms of willingness to give. How wealthy are you? That depends on how willing you are to give to others. Ruth gave unstintingly of her time and effort. She sacrificed her chance at a normal life by staying with Naomi originally. Naomi was able to change things for Ruth by means of a stratagem that worked out well for them both, but it is important to remember that Boaz was an older man; Ruth gave of herself by following Naomi’s instructions. The result was protection and success by the standards of that day and culture, and three generations down the road, David was born, who became the first great king of a united Israel. But all of this depended on Ruth’s willingness to give everything for the sake of one other person – her mother-in-law. That is selflessness. Perhaps that is wealth!
And the poor widow Jesus commended? She gave everything she had. Perhaps no one in the world at that moment was more wealthy than she. We do not know what happened to her next, but we know that she was praised by Jesus Christ, and that is a compliment that I don’t think I’ve ever received, and I’ll bet not many of you have either!
We always think of wealth as having a lot of money. Jesus, as he did so many times, changes our way of thinking. Let us instead define wealth as giving. The more you give, the wealthier you are. The more selfish and greedy you are, the more you withhold gifts from others, the poorer you are. But since it is undoubtedly true that the more you give away, the less you will have, then we need to reorient our thinking away from possessions to generosity of spirit. The wealthy are the ones whose spirits are other-centered. The impoverished ones are those who think narrowly only of themselves, whose spirits are self-centered.
Perhaps not strangely, we see that played out every day in the people around us.
I grew up with a Bible verse taped to the inside of my closet door: “Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required.” I never thought of the corollary to that until I came to write this sermon. If that is true, then presumably everyone to whom little is given, of that person will little be required. That might bring a wry smile to our lips, because we each are our own judges about how much we have received. I believe this is a key to our determination of wealth. Scrooges and skinflints think they’ve been given nothing. People without a generous spirit think they have earned everything they have, so they are loathe to part with their gains. The Mother Teresas and Ruths of the world know they have been given everything, so they are grateful for everything they have. In return, they freely give. So whether you have been given much or little does not depend on some objective balance sheet. It depends on your attitude toward life!
Today is Veterans’ Day. Those who dedicate years of their lives to the service of their country generally do not begrudge the country those years of service. They are the ones most likely to give to national causes, most likely to rise when the flag or any other representative of the country comes into the room, most likely to support comrades in need. It is veterans who know the cost, and so they are most likely to help defray those costs. In a national, secular sense, it is perhaps the veterans who are the wealthiest among us, because they have given the most. I came of age during a time – the Viet Nam War – when vets were among the least honored of Americans. It is a blessing that today they are among the most highly honored!
My charge to you is for each of you to become wealthy, but you do not do that by the acquisition of money and things. You do that by adopting an attitude of giving, by being generous of spirit, by giving of yourselves, even if it is to only one person or only one cause. A generous spirit will just perhaps change even an over-privileged, hypocritical scribe from being self-seeking to being self-giving.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Dr. Jones's sermon "The End of Love" delivered on November 4, 2018. Scripture lessons: Ruth 1.1-18 and Mark 12.28-34 Jesus told stories. That was his genius. Someone would ask him a question, and he would respond with a parable, a story that was an answer to the question but an answer that allowed a lot of room for interpretation, for walking around, for identifying first with one, then with another character, or for interpreting the different elements of the story in different ways. And of course, his stories weren’t exactly simple answers; they changed the grounding assumptions of the questioner, often leaving the questioner feeling very uncomfortable. Or sometimes Jesus would answer a question with a one-liner, a riposte like a rapier thrust, that again changed the ground of the question. But not this time.
Of all the questions Jesus fielded, this was the one question he answered directly, although he did answer it in an unexpected way. While the aristocratic keepers of the great Jerusalem Temple were arguing with Jesus on esoteric questions such as what is marriage like in heaven, a scribe came up and asked, in essence, what Jesus saw as his own order of priorities. Which, presumably of the original ten but perhaps of the more than 600 others, was the greatest commandment? Around which one pronouncement from on high did Jesus organize the rest of his life? And without missing a beat, without telling a story, without changing the ground of the question, Jesus answered with the Shema from Deuteronomy:
Shema, Y’israel, Adonai elohenu, adonai ehad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one!
And the very next sentence is: You shall love the Lord with... [well, all that is within you]! Learning this would have been part of Jesus’ upbringing in the Nazareth synagogue. It is the foundation of everything else in Hebrew theology, and it is, not at all incidentally, the foundation of everything in Christian theology as well.
“Hear, O Israel [and in our context that means everybody of faith], the Lord is our God, and the Lord is Unique and Incomparable! Love the Lord your God!”
Unasked, Jesus went on to offer a second commandment of utmost importance: to love others as one loves oneself. On the surface, this seems to commend self-love. It implies the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but self-love is an interesting and double-sided concept. If you love yourself, are you selfish? Or, if we put an alternative in modern psychological terms, are you well-adjusted, instead? The difference is profound, of course, especially since Tuesday is Election Day. If you are selfish and love yourself egotistically, then your actions always serve to advance your own interests, whatever happens to others. If your love of yourself is founded on the love of God, if your self-love is a reflection of God’s love for us all, then your actions may not always coincide with your self-interest.
The perfect example of this difference we see in the book of Ruth. It was very much against Naomi’s self-interest to release her daughters-in-law. They were bound to her, by the custom of the time. A woman unattached to a man had few recourses in the ancient world, begging or prostitution really being the only options open to her, but a woman being served by other women could at least refrain from degrading activities herself. Naomi, however, let her daughters-in-law go. That meant a terrible future for her, although she was giving a chance at a new life for Orpah and Ruth. Ruth refused to go. That meant a terrible future for her, although it meant she was possibly saving her mother-in-law from disgrace and humiliation.
Why did these women act in this way? What causes a person, any person, to act against his or her self-interest for the sake of another? If you answer with the word “Love” I will ask you in return: what is love for? What is the goal of love? Why does one love if love will bring only pain and sacrifice?
In the Children’s Sermon, Jenny gave up what was to her a very valuable string of pearls. She gave them up for no reason that she knew of, except that her daddy had asked for them on two previous occasions. He had not forced the issue. He had not bribed her or threatened punishment. He had just asked for them. And Jenny did not want to give them up! She had even worked hard, in a five-year-old’s way, to earn them! And yet she gave them up, because she loved her father, not understanding or knowing why he wanted them. And she, of course, knew nothing of what he planned to do in response.
I marry couples now maybe only twice a year, but of course, I used to marry couples probably monthly. Always, before the wedding, formerly and now, I meet with the couple for three or four times across as many months to discuss the lives behind them, their hopes for their life ahead of them, and what brought them together for this custom called marriage. One of the Presbyterian requirements is that, in the wedding ceremony, they exchange a vow, a promise, and I have some sample vows, of course, for them to choose from, but I encourage couples to write their own, if they wish, and to memorize them, if they can do so. Therefore, when we reach that part of the ceremony, they say them straight to each other without my feeding them their lines. And one couple I know, on each succeeding anniversary surpassing 25 at this point, has repeated to each other the vows they memorized.
Once, ages ago, I married two people whom we can call Chris and Jerry. In their vows, which they wrote themselves, they promised to stay faithful to each other forever. That’s a long time. Normally, couples promise only to remain married until they are parted by death. That promise, which is an ancient one, provided the background for the trap set by the Sadducees, immediately preceding today’s New Testament lesson. They were trying to prove that there cannot be a resurrection to new life after death by describing a woman who had multiple husbands sequentially, due to the death of each one in turn. In Jesus’ response to them, he emphasized that after death there is neither giving nor receiving in marriage. And yet even so, Chris and Jerry promised to remain faithful to each other forever.
That is a huge commitment! But then, it reminds me of another couple from Marquette, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, whose names were Betty and Bill. Jesus says, in that same passage just before today’s lesson, that people who die are now like angels in heaven. Anyone who knew Betty and Bill would not be in the least surprised, because, although they both are gone now, they were like angels when they lived on the earth, both of them! I don’t mean to be sappy about this; it’s just that both of them continually conveyed messages about love and respect and new life that consistently reflected the love of God. If Christian faith means anything, it means that after Bill and Betty died, they lived with the God of love in a way beyond our comprehension – but not too far beyond our comprehension, because if they now are embraced by Love Itself, then love did not end with death. Betty and Bill’s family and their friends and their community continued to love them after they died, which is only further proof that love did not end with death. So maybe Chris and Jerry had the right idea at their wedding: since the love of God is forever, any love which reflects that first and greatest love will also last forever.
And so the end, the goal, the purpose of love is not to make one feel good. It is not for the achievement of selfish wishes. It actually is not for anything having to do with oneself. Love that reflects God’s love is wholly other-centered. And it will bear any burden, accept any hardship, suffer any loss for the sake of the other person’s growth in love, for the sake of other people’s growth in love. That was what Naomi and Ruth exemplified, and that is why the story still lives.
We do not love ourselves if we only love people identical to us. That is a sentence that has immediate political implications, and so I will repeat it: we do not love ourselves if we only love people who are identical to us! We show the love of God when we love people who are different from us, people who challenge us to see God in them, people who stretch our definitions of what is human and what is holy. So, yes, we should love the poor, miserable, sick, persecuted people painfully trudging north through Mexico. Yes, we should love the people of different color, different economic status, and different background. But we should also love the shooter at the Pittsburgh synagogue last week. We should also love the assassin in Louisville last week. And we should love the murderer in Tallahassee on Friday. We are built to love the victims. Can we love the assailants? Can we love the hate-mongerers who encourage such people? And can we turn their vitriol with our own self-sacrifice, as several people in the yoga class evidently tried to do?
When we love people who are different, different emotionally as well as physically, and allow that just perhaps God had something good in mind when the Word of the Lord created them, then we are living up to the expectation Love has for us. Then we are loving God with all that is within us. Then Christ’s sacrifice for us will not have been in vain. And we might even change for the better the people of irrational bitterness and violence around us.
Cindy Kohlmann, Co-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) spoke to an enthusiastic congregation on Sunday, October 21. She spoke without notes and while walking down among the pews. Her scripture lesson was Mark 10.35-45, where James and John ask Jesus to grant their request to sit on his right hand and on his left when he comes into his glory. Cindy's message was that they -- and we -- need to ask Jesus not to do what we want but to use us in the way he wants. The service was preceded by a mammoth reception where members of the congregation were able to meet Cindy and hear first-hand about the state of the Church.
Dr. Jones's sermon "When Our Souls Are Laid Bare" delivered on October 14, 2018. Scripture lessons: Job 23 and Hebrews 4.12-16 My father was an expert carver. I don’t mean with wood or stone, but every Thanksgiving and Christmas, with a few other holidays thrown in, I used to sit at the dining room table and watch amazed as he expertly laid open the turkey and sliced off just the right meat for the person being served, and as our family holiday table often had guests around it, that was in itself no mean feat! I asked him once if he had ever thought of being a surgeon, but he just shrugged the question off, probably not understanding why I even asked it. It was not, of course, just the turkey breast that he could cut so cleanly. It was also the dark meat, the legs and wings. The carving knife was always sharp, and to add that last bit of honing, he would use a whetstone on it right at the table, while conversation was going on and without anyone much noticing, but I noticed. The knife in his hands was a thing of precision, and even joints did not stand a chance against that freshly sharpened and expertly wielded carving knife.
Today’s lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews makes me feel like a turkey. In former congregations, some parishioners were ungracious enough to suggest that it was about time I felt like a turkey, but of course I meant that in the past and I mean that today literally, not colloquially. The living and active word of God is sharper than a sword; it pierces, and it judges. Before it, we are all naked and laid bare. When we realize that the word of God which is so living and active, according to the author of the book of Hebrews, is Jesus of Nazareth, the lesson should give us pause. Jesus Christ is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing, judging, laying us out with nowhere and nothing to hide, like a skillfully carved Thanksgiving turkey? That’s quite an image! Even when it’s necessary, even when a surgeon has us laid open on an operating room table, removing a cancerous growth that if left untended would kill us, still we tend to shy away from the image of being laid out, carved up, left with nothing private, nothing sacred, nothing left.
And that is the way Job felt.
If we tend to think in clichés, we often commend “the patience of Job,” but as today’s Old Testament lesson makes clear, Job was anything but patient. The way the center, the poetic section, of the book is laid out, three friends were trying to comfort Job, and each of them spoke to him in turn. He responded to each in turn, and this pattern is repeated three times. During the first round of responses, Job prayed nine times. During the second round of responses, Job prayed once. During this third round of responses, from which today’s lesson comes, Job prays not at all, instead feeling abandoned and in darkness. God has, in fact, become a terror to him!
For he will complete what he appoints for me; and many such things are in his mind. Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.
My guess is, without knowing, that no one in this room feels – now – that God is a terror to him or her. If you did, you probably would not be here. However, some people in this room may have felt like this at one time or another in the past. What do you do, how do you survive, how do you make sense of the world when God seems to have cut you open and laid you out? What do you do, how do you survive, how do you make sense of the world, when God seems to have cut you open and laid you out, and you have been exemplary in your life of faith and in your dealings with your fellow humanity? What do you do, how do you survive, how do you make sense of the world, when God seems to have cut you open and laid you out, and you have been exemplary in your life of faith and in your dealings with your fellow humanity, and there is nothing you can point to with integrity that could possibly have been the cause for your distress?
Many people, very simply, throw the concept of God away from them. There is no way God could allow a man seemingly without motive to set up an armed camp in a Las Vegas hotel room and fire indiscriminately into a concert crowd, killing 58 and wounding hundreds. There is no way God could allow a bridge to collapse in Genoa. There is no way God could allow an earthquake and tsunami to strike one small area of Indonesia. There is no way God could allow a limousine with 18 party-goers celebrating a birthday to crash and kill everyone in it, four of whom were sisters! Therefore, God cannot possibly exist! Even if we do not agree with the conclusion, we can sympathize with the emotion, the total lack of understanding, the overwhelming sense of loss that leads to it.
When God seems to be a terror, the question most unhelpful to ask is “Why me?” When God seems to be a terror, we do ourselves no favor to wish, as Job did, that all would be well if we could only lay out our perfectly rational case before the Lord. God is not a celestial accountant, laying out good deeds against bad, and visiting horrors upon those whose negative balance sheet overrides the positive. No parent acts like that, at least no good parent. Why would we attribute to God qualities that would be foreign to our own direct experience? When God seems to be a terror, and we are lost in grief and self-pity and even in the depths of depression, we just might have the strength to ask ourselves, “All right, this has happened and this is happening to me. How can I use this, how will I be better, how can I make the world better, because of this? How, Lord, are you going to use me and this hell that I am going through to change me and the world for the better?”
Across the years I taught World Religions, we would spend a week watching Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi from 1981. It helped my classes to understand Hinduism as it was practiced by one man some-70 years ago, although he was, of course, an unusual man. From his parents, Gandhi learned the principle of self-suffering. When he did something wrong as a child, his parents would pay penance in some way, and that absolutely galled him. It was a lesson he put to use very effectively later in his life when he fasted to bring about an end to Hindu-Muslim violence in India at the time of independence. When India was tearing itself apart, he punished himself, and the result, repeatedly and phenomenally, was an end to the violence of the moment. He laid bare the soul of India – all of India: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs alike – and all of India responded. Of course, ultimately, there are those in the world who will respond with violence to people who illustrate their weaknesses, and Gandhi paid for the grace and love he showed with his life, but the example he left behind continues to inspire.
How is the Lord going to use us and this church in the middle of Graniteville to change things for the better? God may not be a terror to you sitting here today, but many people in greater Barre probably can say, with the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, that Jesus Christ is a sharpened, two-edged sword, cutting both left and right, with precision, with purpose, leaving nothing to waste, nothing to chance. There are people in this area or who pass through who have felt themselves cut open like a Thanksgiving turkey. That is because an encounter with the living Lord is not always pleasant, and it may have consequences that turn one’s world upside down, but if such an encounter is ignored, then the world will not become what it could be and will become only what the forces of inertia move it toward. God’s creation is too important to be left to the forces of inertia.
God does not keep an Accounts Receivable book, however that somehow satisfies our sense of justice. The message we have received from Hosea, 700 years before Christ, and from most Biblical writers since him is that God is Love. Love does not keep count. Love might be demanding, and it might well hold us to account for what and who we can be, but Love is not petty. Love is expansive, forgiving, welcoming, and harder on the Lover than it is on the one who is loved. Love believes in self-substitution. That is what Gandhi’s parents taught him. Love is not a Christian monopoly. The love of God is broader than any one way of imagining it.
Here in Graniteville, Love will constantly and consistently ask you to give of yourselves in ways you had not previously imagined, so that you may do more work, reach out in new ways, engage additional people, encourage further searching, especially among those who feel an emptiness but have no idea what to do to fill it. The type of Love you practice might well make mistakes, certainly will shed more tears, and will suffer as you sit with those whom the Lord is piercing, judging, and laying out! But only by that opening up might Love have its way.
You and I can overcome the forces of inertia, and we can welcome people to the banquet table of new life. The people for whom God is a terror we can embrace! To many people we can be the Word of the Lord.
Dr. Jones's sermon "The Adversary and the Advocate" delivered on October 7, 2018. Scripture lessons: Job 1.1, 2.1-10 and Mark 10.2-16 If you walked into church today having seen the sermon topic on the board out front or on the church’s webpage, then you may be assuming that the political events of the past two weeks, specifically the debate over the nomination of Justice Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, is the major subject of my homily. In that, you will be sadly, or perhaps gladly, disappointed.
However, Biblical truths are often reflected in daily events, for the writers of the Bible lived in a world not too different from ours, in terms of human emotions and motivations, ideals, and the difficulty of putting those ideals into practice.
We will begin with politics, but rather than look to Washington this morning, let us look in theological fantasy a little closer to home. It is difficult, or maybe completely impossible, to imagine Phil Scott sitting in his Montpelier office, entertaining a guest who is skeptical at best about the State of Vermont and its people, finally telling the guest, “Have you considered that good Vermonter… and here you insert the name of any one of the fine people of the state …and how he or she loves Vermont and honors all its people?” And the guest would respond, “Well, take away all the good things that person has, remove friends and family, inflict him or her with loathsome sores and the latest flu virus, and then you’ll see how rotten the person really is!” And Governor Scott then says, “Okay, go to it with impunity, only let this person live.” That is an impossible conversation to imagine!
I hope it is equally difficult to imagine anyone coming up to me and asking about divorce and my saying, “If you divorce and remarry, you are going to be committing adultery!”
If these two scenes are difficult to imagine on the human level – the callousness, the judgmentalism, the casual severity – then they should be difficult to imagine on a divine level. After all, we want God to be kind, fair, understanding, and compassionate. We do not want hard and fast rules from God. We know we all make mistakes, and when we do, we want mercy from God, not terrible punishments, and we certainly do not expect undeserved punishments. This, of course, presumes that we understand bad moments in life as punishment rather than as correctives or just plain accidents. If we think of God as omnipotent, all-powerful, then all happenings are God’s happenings, but we jump to a conclusion when we conceive of disadvantageous things as punishments.
For instance: think of the fourth grader who wants help with his arithmetic homework. His wise parents, knowing he can figure out the problems if he puts his mind to it, refuse to help. He sees this refusal as punishment. His parents are being distant, heartless, disinterested, and aloof. He needs help and they are turning a deaf ear to his entreaties. The help they do offer is cold comfort, stuff he already knows. What he can not know is that only by struggling through the arithmetic himself can he come to understand how numbers work, how they relate, how different functions make further problems possible and solvable. The wise and kind parent does not do the work for the child but makes the child do the work. That way, the child grows! Keeping a person a child by doing everything for him or her is the most heartless, the most selfish, the most cruel thing a parent can do, even though at the moment of help the child is most grateful!
So maybe not all bad things actually are punishments. However, the fact is that God does not come off looking too good at the beginning of the book of Job, and Jesus comes across in Mark as rather severe. In the next paragraph he embraces children, and we like that, but the difficult saying on divorce we tend to overlook rather than grapple with. However, we need to do the grappling as much as the fourth grader needs to do his or her own homework!
Satan, of course, in the Job story, is not the devil, as I said in the introduction to the text. Satan is The Adversary. Hasatan [Hebrew for The Adversary] only a century or two later came to be regarded as a proper name. Here he is a member of the Heavenly Court, charged with testing the good and bad alike. It is perhaps a bit winsome to think of God making a bet on humanity in the person of Job, saying in effect, “I think my servant can stand up to the worst that could happen to a person. I have confidence in him.” We don’t like to think of all the bad that happens to those around Job, but that is having 21st century sensibilities. The story is meant to be about Job and God, and in the meat of the book, the part that starts with Chapter 3, Job proves to be anything but calm and patient, as he was depicted in our lesson today. He rants at the sky, calls God to account, demands answers, and by Chapter 38 he gets them, but not quite as he imagined. The question of why the innocent suffer is not exactly answered, but it is discussed, and Job is satisfied by the discussion. Humanity, in the person of Job, wins one for God, a win that was not a foregone conclusion as the book began. God gambles on us, and it is awfully good when we don’t let God down!
Does Jesus then let us down by taking such a hard line on divorce? This is certainly one of the sayings we tend to downplay in our world today. It is especially curious since ancient Judaism allowed divorce, as we heard the Pharisees say. But what began as good, freeing the woman from obligations that had become odious to fulfill, had become bad, abandoning her in a patriarchal world where after divorce, if she had no merciful male relative, she had only the options of begging or prostitution. Jesus would have none of that. A woman could not simply be abandoned. She, like the man, is a child of God, and God cares for all people. A man simply putting his wife away from him by a simple letter Jesus declared was a bankrupt policy. However, women cannot have it both ways. Although Jewish law did not permit a woman to divorce her husband, Roman law did, and so either Jesus or Mark in relating what Jesus said made the point that woman are not permitted to do what is forbidden men. In the new world Jesus wants us to live in, even while the world lags behind us, men may not abandon women to the worst society can do, but neither can women simply move on to another man, if they tire of the one they are with. Adultery in that day was considered to be an offense against men, something only women did. Jesus made it clear that adultery could also be an offense against women, something men could do, too. Statements like this did not make him very popular!
Few countries in the world today, and few societies within any country, enforce this rule against divorce to the letter. It is good they do not, because many are the reasons for divorce now, and increasingly in the world of today, the woman is gaining an equal chance to that of the man to make something of herself after a bad marriage. But the import of what Jesus was saying is still with us: women are equal partners in society and cannot be shunted aside on a whim. Neither should they do the shunting. Lest any miss the point of equal status, Mark in his next paragraph shows how Jesus elevated children to full person-hood. Jesus brings the marginalized into the center.
Children in the first century were regarded more as people-in-waiting rather than as full people, and laws about causing the death of a child reflected that. Half of all children died before puberty anyway, and so in the Roman world children really only half-counted. Jesus would have none of that. The teaching on divorce and the welcoming of children into his arms are really two different ways of Jesus showing God to be a second-class person’s Advocate, one who will defend and support those whom society pushes aside. No person is second-class to Jesus. No person counts less than another. Let the little children come to him! Let women take their places beside men! Jesus is ready to gamble on them, that they will rise to the challenge of being citizens in God’s kingdom! God is our Advocate! Let the Adversary make the test!
And that test is what has been going on all through the Kavanaugh hearings. I don’t know what happened on a summer night 36 years ago, but I do know that Dr. Ford had absolutely nothing to gain by telling her story the way she told it, especially since she tried to tell it discretely and privately in the right ears back in July before the Judge was formally nominated. Justice Kavanaugh had absolutely everything to gain by denying what she said. Neither of these people are exactly marginalized, as both are – or were – well-respected members of their professions, both with privileged backgrounds, and the professions of both are prestigious and well-remunerated. However, across history and across cultures with very few exceptions, women have always been treated as secondary to men, having to work harder and with less latitude for mistakes than the opposite sex. Whatever happened or did not happen back in 1982, what we have been witnessing the last several weeks has been a public removal of the automatic privilege that men, especially private-school educated, Ivy Leaguers, have become accustomed to, and I speak as one who knows, for I have just described myself. That privilege has not been permanently removed, but it is under attack, and no one reacts more strongly and with more utter indignation than a privileged person in danger of losing his privilege. Again, I speak as one who knows.
That is why we all are welcomed to the Lord’s Table. It is one table, and on World Communion Sunday it is being observed all around the globe. No one in Jesus’ view is second-class. Come to the table or not, as you choose, but that is the whole point: it is your choice, not some dictate from societal superiors. There are no societal superiors, not in God’s world. We gather, and we dine by serving each other, and we celebrate God’s goodness to us and our oneness with each other. God is not distant, aloof, and judgmental. God is not arbitrarily cruel. God is not our Adversary. God is our Advocate!
Dr. Jones's sermon "A Mirror or a Club?" delivered on September 23, 2018. Scripture lessons: Proverbs 31.10-31 and James 3.13 - 4.3, 7-8a Last week and today, I met with great followers of this church who are thinking about finally, at last, becoming members! They were wonderful meetings, and we all look forward to welcoming each of them into this fellowship formally and officially next month, if they so choose.
One thing I emphasized with each of them right at the start: the basic document of our faith, the Bible, is not exactly a book; it is actually a library. This took no one by surprise, as I’m sure it takes no one here by surprise, but it is good to re-emphasize the point. The Bible is not some kind of compendium of knowledge put together by superstitious people thousands of years ago; it is a collection of accounts of how people – from twelve related tribes and then more broadly after that – have tried to relate to God and to each other from about the years 1300 BC to about AD 120, and although of course our circumstances have changed across the ages and the world around us has changed, people have in our nature and our essence really changed very little. The influences, motivations, and passions that inspired people of two- and three thousand years ago still move and inspire us, and this should not take us aback. I mean, after all, we still read and perform the plays of Sophocles, and they speak to us where we are. We are still moved by Cicero’s oratory and amused by Juvenal’s satire. Antiquity is not a synonym for irrelevance; quite the contrary, when ancient writing is still popular, it is because it is very much still relevant and has been found to be relevant despite the distance in time!
Therefore, let us not look to the Bible as a rulebook or a catalogue of vices and virtues or a reference source for how to handle every modern problem. That is not its function or intent. It is a record of a portion of humanity’s views of God, and when read with the eyes of faith, it also helps us to understand God’s view of us. The trouble is that our world keeps changing, and therefore our view of God keeps changing. That is what makes the Bible so valuable. That is also what makes studying the Bible so valuable.
And so when we hear the passage from Proverbs that I read a few minutes ago, you can with a whimsical imagination picture my reviewing the passage yesterday, and looking up at Cindy when I finished. If I were inclined, as I can assure you I am not, to use the Bible as a club, I would perhaps have stood up, brandished the open pages at my wife, and shouted: “See, this is what an ideal wife is! Go out and seek that wool and flax, and buy that field, and make and sell those linen garments! I have to go sit in the gate with the other elders of the community and talk about great things. But you need to fulfill this list before I get back!”
On the other hand, if I see the Bible more as a mirror than as a club, then I would have read that passage as a challenge: if this is a perfect wife, then a perfect husband must be something similar, especially in the slightly less patriarchal society of modern America when compared with ancient Israel. Then I would have interpreted the passage about a perfect wife as a guide to developing in my own mind the thoughts of what a perfect husband would be and do for my life-partner! Then I would have seen the Bible as a guide and a help in forming and reforming my life and my and Cindy’s already wonderful marriage, instead of as a rulebook for someone else, not me of course, to live up to!
The attitude we bring to reading the Bible is everything. It is worth remembering that the very name, Israel, means “one who struggles with God.” The ancient Israelites never saw themselves as “having it made.” They always saw themselves as in a constant dialogue with God, even constant arguments, for the world is a difficult place, and in Rabbi Kushner’s simple words, bad things do happen to good people. Trying to understand this, trying to understand what God wants us to know about ourselves and about our purpose in the world, is the major task of theology, a study that has been going on for as long as people have imagined something beyond the world greater than themselves.
If the attitude we bring to the Bible is one of openness and humility, then we will gain great wisdom and insight from its pages. If the attitude we bring to the Bible is defensive and hostile, if we are intent on proving a point we want to make anyway, then we will learn nothing from the accumulated wisdom of the ages contained in here. James asks his readers to humble themselves before the Lord. The image we get of someone humbling him- or herself before another is of someone lying down spread-eagle in front of another person, in a position of utter vulnerability, like a new puppy rolling over and baring its belly to an older and larger dog. It is an uncomfortable position both emotionally and intellectually, which is why so few people adopt it, even symbolically, and yet it is a critical position to adopt before God. As long as we think we are in control, God will not interfere. Only when we admit our own weaknesses, our own lack of understanding, our own poverty of spirit, will God begin to fill us with strength and comprehension and richness of insights that we could not previously have imagined possible.
These are difficult words to speak in a Presbyterian church. A Presbyterian church by its very constitution seeks to instill in its members a sense of responsibility and an ambition to change the world for the better. A Presbyterian church tells its members that they are capable of anything and everything, just work hard to understand the universe and the way it works and the people in it, if such a thing is actually possible. And I have been a teacher, as well as a minister, and I believe in the mission of education almost as much as I believe in the importance of humbling oneself before God. What I have learned from my faith, however, is that humility in both worship and education is the way to further understanding. Realizing what you do not know is the way to learn. People who know everything already cannot learn.
The human soul is capable of the very greatest things. We can, we have, we do, and we will reach for the stars, both figuratively and literally, and we will succeed in ways previous generations could not have conceived. By refusing to acknowledge limits, we expand those limits. But without humility in our learning, without a recognition that there are greater forces at work in the world than we can know or control, without a sense of the transcendent, then we come to believe that we are the masters of the world, and then when the world does not bend to our will and whim, we destroy ourselves and everything around us.
These are strong words. They convey to you my belief that humility is the prime virtue that will lead us to greatness. All of the Old Testament prophets without exception condemned arrogance and pride, and none of them were shy wall-flowers who sat quietly in their studies. Each one of them was active in the world, acting as conscience to king and country, and many paid for their forwardness by suffering and persecution. The New Testament evangelists likewise emphasized the enormity of God and the smallness of humanity, but they put a twist on this. In emphasizing the enormity of God, they emphasized the greatness of God’s humility, which is almost a contradiction in conceptions. Yet, you see, this is what the Incarnation is all about. God became human, taking on the limitations of humanity and subjecting God’s own self to the very worst that humanity could do to itself. In accepting this, God showed us wisdom that is, in James’s words, “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Wisdom is not knowledge and not the mouthing of platitudes. It is living through the worst and transforming it into the best in the alchemy of our own God-given souls. It is giving God sway over the worst things of life in order to change them.
This is easily said. It is not easily done. In the world of education, we can imagine experiencing the trauma of tests in order to grow intellectually. In church, we can imagine developing human relationships, with the tentative starts and new beginnings, and then enduring the making and breaking of friendships, perhaps the creating and collapsing of romances, in order to develop the compassion and love necessary to live a full life. In the broader world and as we grow old, the tests become exponentially more severe. How do we face economic collapse and transform it? How do we endure natural disasters and bring good out of them? How do we face ghosts from our high school years and deal honestly with them? How do we lose loved ones and find anything redeeming?
Do not look for easy answers and do not give any, because there are none. Wisdom at least begins by knowing that. But if we are going to grow from even the worst that life has to offer, we need to use the resources of faith to build up rather than tear down, to enlighten rather than to increase darkness. With the unparalleled resource called the Bible, we need to use it as a mirror rather than as a club, seeing ourselves in its good and bad, letting it speak to us where we are and not imagine that it is speaking to someone else to whom we wish to give a message. We have to open ourselves up to its messages, to see how the conception of God grew and continues to grow through the ages, to see the wisdom in both the old and the new. Most of all, we need to humble ourselves before the Lord, despite the attitude of vulnerability which that idea conveys. It is only when we are vulnerable that God can enter into our minds, hearts, and souls and make, not just a perfect wife, but a perfect us.
This is the Word of the Lord.
 Harold Kushner. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York. Schocken Books, Inc. 1981.
Dr. Jones's sermon "Sophia in the Streets" delivered on September 16, 2018. Scripture lessons: Proverbs 1.20-33 and James 3.1-12 Where is there wisdom? We read about foolishness every day in just about every newspaper: foolishness abroad, foolishness at home, foolishness among those we know, foolishness among the high and mighty. Where is there wisdom? That is a cry that ascends to heaven from every generation, from every place on earth, and from people both old and young. Is wisdom only something ideal and godly and unreachable? Or alternatively, is it all around us on the main streets and back streets of our towns and so obvious we miss it? Sophia is the Greek word for “wisdom.” Therefore, we might ask if Sophia is a streetwalker? Or is she a goddess? The sage of Proverbs writes:
…those who listen to [wisdom] will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.
That is a peculiar observation in this age of extreme weather, war, terror alerts and having just observed the 17th anniversary of September 11. Right now, North Carolina as far west as Asheville is still being pummeled by the remains of Hurricane Florence, and South Carolina is facing unprecedented flooding. None of us want to be foolish examples of naiveté, and in this 21st century we heartily resist simplistic notions of faith. Disasters happen, and not just to the careless or the deserving. The good and the wise and the truly innocent also get caught up in horrible, unspeakable acts, and security is a chimera, even in beautiful, rural, and so far protected Vermont.
And yet, rather than fling the Old Testament lesson away from us, arrogantly claiming that our problems are new to the world and writers of more than 2,000 years ago cannot possibly speak for us or to us, we should pause and remember that the world of long ago was, if anything, more arbitrary, more cruel, more capable of springing on its inhabitants horrible surprises, for warfare was virtually constant, disease uncontrolled, and order and law was enforced only at Roman spearpoint, which was as good as the Roman governor but not much better. Security and lives of ease were not well-known or widespread, yet still the sage tells us to listen to godly wisdom, and all will be well.
Perhaps the ancients had a better idea than we do of what security and a life of ease were all about. We imagine a perpetual vacation away from responsibilities, cares, and worries: a kind of Club Med of the psyche! The ancients could not imagine a life without hardship, and so they imagined instead the freedom to work at what they loved to do, protection from enemies, and the ability to leave loved ones the fruits of their labors.
Protection from enemies, then as now, was and is beyond the abilities of any one person to assure, but for the most part, without being naïve about this and even with the economic uncertainties of our present time, once we reach a certain age, most of us do have the freedom to work at what we love and the ability to leave loved ones the benefits of our lives, whether our lives be long or short.
Downturns and layoffs happen, I know. Dead-end jobs kill the spirit and have family repercussions. All of this can be terribly difficult. In the midst of the difficulty, however, these problems can also present opportunities to discover what work it is one truly loves. Priorities need to be reordered, life-style changes need to be made, and hardship needs to be endured; there is nothing easy about this. But even these can be blessings, when we embrace what wisdom teaches. And when a lengthy life combined with infirmity at life’s end removes the possibility of leaving behind anything monetary, that does not mean a person leaves nothing. A life well-lived produces much fruit of great variety, and loved ones usually benefit most by the non-material gifts that makes up a person’s legacy.
Those non-material gifts – well, many material gifts as well – come from the depth of a person’s soul. James, the author of our New Testament lesson, emphasizes the importance of words, for words give us insight into who a person truly is. James seems not to have thought very highly of humanity in general. He describes the tongue as “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” A phrase like that probably is based on bitter experience, perhaps even on his own ill-timed words or thoughtless comments. Certainly words can be used for both good and evil, as can every other human creation. They communicate our thoughts, and that is why they are so important, for our thoughts either lift us up to heaven or keep us stuck in mud and dust.
We are what we say, someone once commented, but in a deeper sense we also say what we are, which is why paying attention to Wisdom is so important – the wisdom of the Old Testament that is, the beginning of which is the fear of the Lord. When we are struggling to be true to our faith, we are likely to speak words of wisdom, or, perhaps more commonly, God is able to use our speech to communicate divine wisdom despite our failings.
Let’s play with this for a second: the fear of the Lord does not mean being frightened of God. It means holding God in awe. It means taking God seriously. It means wanting to fulfill the purpose for which we were created in the first place. It means being a student of the Lord’s and learning, growing, and changing.
In a previous chapter in my life, I taught the shooting of .22 caliber rifles to young teen-agers at a summer camp over on the other side of the state. I always puzzled my campers when I taught them to aim their rifles with their eyes closed – not, I emphasize, to shoot them with their eyes closed. But in order to hit the bull’s eye of the target, I taught them first to get in the proper prone position on the mat, and then with eyes closed get comfortable with the rifle, position one’s elbows and the slant of one’s body, and then open one’s eyes. Where the shooter is then aiming is where the bullet will tend to go when the trigger is squeezed. One can pull the rifle barrel to point to the target, but one will not be accurate, for at the explosion, the shooter jumps slightly, and the bullet will tend to go to the point for which it was originally headed. And so I taught them to change their positions slightly, realign their elbows, change the slant of their bodies, all with their eyes closed, so that when they opened them the rifle was pointing straight at the bull’s eye. Then when one exhales and takes the shot, it is likely as not going to go straight into the center of the target.
Life tends to be like that. We will say and do what we are supposed to say and do when we are living and pointing in the right direction even before we start trying. I rediscover this just about every Sunday when I drive up and over the ridge of the Green Mountains, then up Rt. 100 and down Interstate 89 to come to church here. Somewhere along the way, almost always, I pass a stationary police car on the side of one of the roads. I have learned that it is wise for me actually to be going the speed limit! And I am always joyfully surprised on those occasions (when I am going the speed limit and I pass a police car)! I do not have to hit my brakes quickly or glance nervously in the rearview mirror to see if I have suddenly become a subject of interest. When I am doing almost accidentally what I am supposed to be doing in any case, I feel both virtuous and relived, and I am at ease, unlike other times when I do have to react quickly and nervously.
Charlie Parker, the great jazz musician, said the same thing when he was speaking about his playing, about where great music comes from. He said:
Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.[*]
If a musician has to live his or her music, how much more so does a follower of Christ have to live his or her faith? James wrote asking rhetorically if the same spring put forth fresh and brackish water. Of course, no spring does, any more than a fig tree yields olives. Certainly Wisdom is high above us, but we are children of God, and that means that wisdom is also here with us in the streets and in our very selves. We say what we are! Therefore it is important to be who we want and need to be.
One of my projects across the coming year is to write the Autobiography of James (well, he can’t do it himself any more, and so I thought I’d help him out). Imagine his feelings after his brother’s crucifixion and resurrection, he who had been so sure of his brother’s foolishness! He had been the lowland spring putting out brackish water, salty water, no good for drinking. But he had moved to the highlands now, and now he and Peter were looked to as the heads of the Church. There were problems and difficulties still to work out among the far-flung and many faceted groups of the faithful, but James stood for integrity and tradition and faithfulness to the old order even when faced with the new. While he approved of Paul’s ministry, he still wanted Gentile converts to become Jewish in order to be Christian. How could they not? It was the faith of his family’s. It was how Jesus and he had grown up. To follow Jesus, surely one had to adopt his faith!
Across the decades, and finally after his death, James lost that argument, but in a sense, it is an argument still with us. Whenever we are confronted with the new, there are faithful people who, while admiring new forms, nevertheless stick to old beliefs and practices. We see it in the world around us. Our churches are riven with the controversies unique to our age but prefigured in the ages that came before us. How can we ever learn the Truth, the Right Way, the Way of the Lord?
Listen to Wisdom, and that means to the Truth beneath words, to the thoughts deeper than modes of expression. Love knowledge and never cease to learn. And most importantly, answer God’s call. Pay heed to the counsel of the Lord. Stay in touch with God through prayer, through daily prayer. Be one whole and complete person, not a split personality, restless and poisonous. Let age make you wiser, as well as older. Then, despite the problems and controversies of the world, perhaps even through them, you will come to be at ease. You will weather the divisive issues of the day, hurricanes included, and even make of them new blessings for you and for all those around you.
This is the Word of the Lord.
[*] Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, ed.s, Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: the story of jazz by the men who made it, New York, Rinehart, 1955. p. 358.
Dr. Jones's sermon "Faith is More Than Platitudes" delivered on September 9, 2018. Scripture lessons: Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and James 2.1-17
In 86% unchurched Vermont, people who go to church regularly are often misunderstood. “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t true,” Mark Twain famously quoted a skeptical boy, and that is often the way people think of religious faith. We live in a modern, secular, pluralistic world, and too many citizens of this world think we should assign religious faith to our distant, medieval, superstitious past, and get on with our scientific, realistic, materialistic future, because that is, of course, in the too-popular imagination, all there is.
“Does faith work?” I am sometimes asked, as if faith were an aspirin tablet that one could take for a headache. I always respond, deliberately misunderstanding the direction of the question, “Yes, faith works very hard on all the problems of the world, and faith can transform them.” But that answer usually doesn’t satisfy the questioner, mostly because it’s thrown him or her off-base.
People who are a little less skeptical think of faith as subscribing to a bunch of platitudes, wise sayings such as we heard in our Old Testament lesson this morning from the book of Proverbs. There is nothing wrong with wise sayings. Benjamin Franklin initially built his reputation on them. Wise sayings are preserved because they truly are wise, and to subscribe to them, to follow them, is often the most prudent thing to do.
Reputation is better than wealth; injustice is bad for the person who is being unjust; to be generous is good; oppressing others will be bad for you; God cares for the less-fortunate:
these are examples of the wise sayings, slightly reworded, from Proverbs. We should pay attention to them; we should follow them; we should live by them; but it does not take faith to do so. It is wise to do so, but unfaithful people can be wise, too. Many are and put the faithful to shame. But wisdom and faith are in different categories of human endeavor.
Furthermore, if we equate true wisdom with simply following wise sayings, or platitudes, we reduce wisdom to triviality. Every one of us knows wise people. They are not slavish followers of good thoughts that could be found inside fortune cookies. Their wisdom exceeds platitudes as sunlight exceeds a 100 watt light bulb. Platitudes point to wisdom, but they do not define it.
What is true of wisdom is even more true of faith.
A faithful person is not a slavish follower of rules, even well-written and sensible rules. A faithful person is inspired by a relationship, not a rule-book. A faithful person lives his or her faith out of gratitude and trust, not out of fear and trepidation.
It’s like this: the people whose writings have become the Bible were courageous. They were not wimps. James, for instance, was Jesus’ brother. To my surprise, I discovered as I was preparing today’s sermon that even the online Catholic Encyclopedia admits this. James was not a follower of Jesus before the crucifixion. He probably was embarrassed by his older brother and wanted him to desist from his teaching and healing and preaching and come home. However, very quickly after Jesus’ resurrection, James became a follower of his brother’s and quickly rose to a position of such prominence in Jerusalem that all followers of Jesus in that city began to look to him as their leader. He was one of the pillars to whom the Apostle Paul had to report and from whom Paul needed to gain approval to continue his ministry to the broad Gentile world. Almost certainly, this Letter of James was written by James, the Lord’s brother.
James insists that belief by itself is empty. Faith is not simple assent to a creed, to a number of statements and wisdom sayings. Faith is a power that motivates action in and about the world. Faith is courage to live as the world ought to be, not as it cruelly is. Faith is believing that the God of heaven and earth loved humanity enough to share our lot, to share everything we go through, and to overcome even the very worst. Faith is deciding to follow that example and live for the benefit of the least among us.
In other words, faith is not believing what you know ain’t true. Faith is acting on what you know is true. Faith does not work the way medicine does. Faith works the way members of this church work, keeping this building and its grounds beautiful and welcoming. Faith works the way members of a restaurant kitchen staff work, feeding people all through the day every day. Faith is not an intellectual exercise. It is a daily habit.
Let us join together in acts of faith this year. However, do not just nod affirmatively too quickly, for I am not asking a simple thing. I am asking, I know, for more than I myself can consistently produce. But it is time people of faith quietly but insistently, conscientiously, and repeatedly act on their faith. It is time people of faith, remaining humble, nevertheless commit to being faithful.
This assumes niceness: greeting each other, holding doors open for each other, building other people up instead of tearing them down. I ask for discipline, care, compassion, and a commitment to use the gifts we’ve been given, instead of letting them atrophy. I ask for a year-long struggle against the negativism of the political season and the skepticism of a jaded public, a struggle for the humanity Christ died to save. That means believing in the best when you have experienced the worst, cutting others a break you would not give to yourself, and working to achieve some accomplishment which only you with your unique God-given talents can produce.
I ask for the kind of faith Cecilia Woloch wrote about in poetic form fifteen years ago when she thought of her parents. Hers was and ours must be a twilight-struggle kind of faith, a long-term commitment, which we undervalue to our detriment. Woloch’s poem is entitled, On Faith:
How do people stay true to each other? When I think of my parents all those years in the unmade bed of their marriage, not ever longing for anything else — or: no, they must have longed; there must have been flickerings, stray desires, nights she turned from him, sleepless, and wept, nights he rose silently, smoked in the dark, nights that nest of breath and tangled limbs must have seemed not enough. But it was. Or they just held on. A gift, perhaps, I’ve tossed out, having been always too willing to fly to the next love, the next and the next, certain nothing was really mine, certain nothing would ever last. So faith hits me late, if at all; faith that this latest love won’t end, or ends in the shapeless sleep of death. But faith is hard. When he turns his back to me now, I think: disappear. I think: not what I want. I think of my mother lying awake in those arms that could crush her. That could have. Did not.
A new program year is beginning. Keep it new, I charge you, right through the year and the summer and into next September, so that 12 months from now it seems as if the entire year took only a week, and yet you have some good, private successes to show for it: a life that breathed easier because you were here; a new development that will last longer than you will; a newly recognized strength inside, unrecognized today; a fear courageously faced and then dispensed with.
We do not know the length of time we have to do the work that we alone can do. We only know that God calls us to do it. Faith gives us the motivation and the inspiration to work when we’re dog-tired. Save the platitudes, as wise and valuable as they may be. Let us fill this year ahead with action that shows the grace and power and humility of God to an unchurched and skeptical world!
Dr. Jones's sermon "Is It Wise to Fear God?" delivered on August 19, 2018. Scripture lessons: First Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14 and Ephesians 5.15-20
Let us pray: Lord, take our minds and think through them; Take our lips and speak through them; Take our hearts, and set them on fire! Amen.
Dr. Donald Meisel, the minister of my hometown church when I was growing up, used to pray that prayer before he preached every Sunday. Ministers are great copiers, and when I started my ministry in 1979, I began to pray that prayer before every sermon I preached. I haven’t stopped yet. That prayer always causes me to think, and depending on my sermon, my thoughts have varied widely. Based on today’s scripture lessons, that prayer causes me to consider that if the Lord thinks through our minds, would that not make us wise? I would like to think so, but then it is only someone who fears the Lord who would pray that prayer in the first place. If the Lord speaks through our lips, would that not make us profound? Again, it is only someone who fears the Lord who would pray for God to speak through his or her lips. And having one’s heart set on fire can sound like heartburn, but it can also be a metaphor for enthusiasm and a determination to accomplish something. Again, it is only someone who fears the Lord who would want his or her heart to be set on fire by the Holy Spirit, because, as we all know, fire is a dangerous element to play with.
The poet who wrote Psalm 111, from which our Call to Worship was drawn this morning, insisted that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Of course, that poet was not asking for people to be afraid of God, any more than Dr. Meisel was asking us all to be automatons and to do no thinking on our own. The psalmist may, however, have been asking his readers or listeners to be afraid of themselves, afraid of themselves when they are left to their own devices, afraid of themselves when they are cut off from God and from their fellow humanity. The Lord has given us great power, power the people of this congregation use repeatedly and well. But we also see power being used by the disturbed and misled to do great wrongs, as the trial of Paul Manafort across the last three weeks has shown us, and as we have seen in the horrible events of late June in Annapolis, of mid-May in Santa Fe, Texas, of last February in Parkland, Florida, or of the last 7 years throughout the country of Syria. When people have no fear, when they neither fear God nor themselves nor humanity collectively, then they themselves are greatly to be feared, for then they have become their own gods, and they know no master, not even their own common sense.
Is it wise to fear God? Of course it is, when one understands “fear” correctly. When one holds in awe the power of God, has great respect for the powers that God has shared with humanity, and realizes that we are mightily capable of exercising those powers for good or ill, then one is on the road to acquiring wisdom. A humble person can still wreak havoc, I suppose, but it is so much less havoc and so much more easily correctable, and the humble person is so much more likely to feel remorse and thereby learn, grow, and gain from the experience, that it is probably all right to equate humility with fear, properly understood. In God’s good way, the bad things done by a person who fears God – and make no mistake: even good people can do bad things – God can put right so much more easily!
It is only a person who fears God who knows absolutely that much of what he or she does, even with the best of intentions, is going to be… wrong. It is only a person who fears God who knows that his or her intentions are not always the best. Therefore, “wisdom” and “humility before God” are virtually synonymous. The wise and humble person remembers that God knows what we do not, that God knows more completely and with more insight even the things we think we do know, and that God knows what we yet will come to know and how that might change us.
Solomon, in our Old Testament lesson today, prayed for wisdom, for insight, for the powers of discernment. He humbly called himself “a little child,” although he was probably about twenty at the time, old enough to be taking responsibility for himself and for his place in the world. He was humble and modest, but he was not childish or unable to make decisions. The 35 verses in First Kings between the death of David and Solomon’s prayer – signified by the dot-dot-dot in the insert – are filled with palace intrigue and actions by Solomon that strike us as brutal. And yet, in a dream, when no one was around whom Solomon was trying to impress, when he was simply standing in his imagination before God, he merely asked for an understanding mind. It was as if he were saying, “I have acted decisively for the sake of the throne and for peace in the land, but I have put two people to death, banished one, and put another under house arrest, executing him when he violated his trust,” – this sounds like something out of the old Jason Bourne series of movies – “and,” Solomon continued, “I just don’t know if I have done right. Help me discern right from wrong!” Our way of operating has changed – at least, we’d like to think so – across the three thousand years that separate Solomon from us, and yet even so, modesty and humility in a person with power, both then and now, is rare indeed! When we see modesty and humility, we certainly should pay attention.
As an aside, this is what makes the last Bourne movie somewhat appealing – actually, it is what makes all the Bourne movies somewhat appealing. They are shoot-’em-up, chase-’em-down, action-adventure films, but the reason you might choose to call them up on whatever device you use to see old movies – and if you do, it would be advantageous to watch them in order – is that the heroes are appealing and vulnerable. They are humble and moral, in the pride-filled, amoral world depicted around them. But these films, in my humble opinion, are not destined to be classics of the cinema.
Ephesians, on the other hand, written a thousand years after Solomon lived, is a classic of literature, which is why the early church preserved it and disseminated it. This author tells us to live as wise people and not to be foolish. To understand what the will of the Lord is, he tells his readers, make the most of the time, be filled with the Spirit, and give thanks always. The implication is that if we do these seemingly simple things, we will be wise; we will be fearing God, in the way the psalmist meant.
Let us, briefly, examine these three requirements. If we are to make the most of the time at our disposal, certainly we should use it! The interesting thing is: it doesn’t matter whether we have a lot of time or just a little. We should put the time we have, whether many years or just a few days, to good use. We should take the talents and abilities we have, the advantages with which we are endowed, and the disadvantages through which we have developed character, and use these things to create blessings. In this act of creating, in the many acts of creating we perform every day, we will find satisfaction and joy.
I can tell you that; what I should do is illustrate it; but I think you can illustrate it with tens of images from your own lives and from the lives of those who have touched you. Wasting time is a sin – take it from one who knows! I do not mean taking time to relax is a sin. Honest relaxation is essential to all that we are and do. But the cavalier wasting of time, throwing time away, disregarding it as if it were a renewable commodity: that is sinful! How we use the time before us depends upon our gifts, our interests, and the Spirit of God moving through us. Not using the time before us means we are ignoring God, and that surely is the beginning, not of wisdom, but of folly.
The letter to the Ephesians tells us to make the most of the time, but also to be filled with the Spirit. That is laudable, but surely being filled with the Spirit is God’s doing, not ours. Surely God is the one who does the filling. Well, yes, but that’s not quite all. When the Jones family lived up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Cindy and I and our daughters on two occasions hosted Rotary Exchange Students for four months: one time a girl from Japan, another time a boy from Croatia. Between the two, we had moved to a different house in the same town, and so on both occasions, we took these opportunities to host an exchange student as a spur to get the guest room in the house ready. But in both cases, that meant improving one of the bathrooms, and that meant changing the laundry room, and that led to.... oh, you can fill in the rest. Fixing up our house in each case was fun, but it was work! Well, inviting a guest into your home is less involved than inviting the Holy Spirit into your soul. God is ready to fill us, of course, but God is polite and will not go where doors and minds are shut. We need not only invite God in; we need to make our souls hospitable to God. We need to change priorities in the way we otherwise do things. We need to do more than dust the furniture; we might need to reorder our living situation! And then once we have worked on our souls and readied them, we need to refrain from mindsets and actions that push God away from us. God wants to fill each of us with the Holy Spirit, but God is waiting for an invitation, a welcoming and reoriented life, and actions and thoughts that continue to show we value the presence of the Lord in us.
Making the most of the time and being filled with the Spirit are not just words. They involve actions and re-orientation on our part.
The author of the letter to the Ephesians goes on to tell us to give thanks to God at all times and for everything. This is a question of attitude. Giving thanks at all times and for everything means to stop lamenting what we lack in life and to start thanking God for what we have in life. Giving thanks at all times means every day doing something or preparing to do something that will leave the world a bit better after us. Giving thanks means realizing that we are expendable but the life God has called us to live is unique, and so thank God for our lives, even when the electricity fails and the temperature is 95 degrees, even when we ourselves or a loved one is called to go into harm’s way. Giving thanks at all times means enduring hardship and even tragedy but having a grateful attitude, all the same.
It is only the foolish who are ungrateful, who reject the Spirit God is dying to give us, and who do not value time, the very stuff of life. A foolish person thinks of the Lord, if at all, only as some arbitrary despot who has not yet been bought off. A foolish person refuses opportunities to grow in faith and in knowledge and in outlook.
Let us instead invite God continually to think, speak, and act through us, and then God will use all that we have and all that we are for the benefit of the human race God already loves; we will feel and be humbled by the power of God within us, and we will seek to use that power well; and we will be grateful for the circumstances that have gone into making us whole. Then, as if by accident, you and I will discover wisdom and joy popping up every day, a wisdom and joy we will share with a world much in need.
Oh, yes, it’s wise to fear God! Ask God daily, even hourly, to take your minds, your lips, your hearts and use them in the best way possible!
This is the Word of the Lord.
 That was First (now Nassau) Presbyterian Church of Princeton, New Jersey. Dr. Meisel led that church for twelve years and then returned to his roots to become the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota from 1972 to 1992. He passed away in 2009.
The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), all starring Matt Damon, and The Bourne Legacy (2012), starring Jeremy Renner. This is in no way an endorsement; it is just an illustration of the point about modesty and humility.
Dr. Jones's sermon "Love That Takes on Death" delivered on August 12, 2018. Scripture lessons: Second Samuel 18.5-33 and John 6.5, 41-51
Who of us in this sanctuary hold another person so dear that we would willingly sacrifice our lives for that person? My guess is there are several people in the lives of everyone here for whom we would willingly face death. But now, here is a different question: who here loves another person so much that you would lay down your life for that person, even though that person is thoroughly reprehensible, awful, traitorous, deceitful, and treacherous? Just about everyone would lay down his or her life for someone who is wonderful. Who would willingly die for someone who is terrible? If you would, then you know the kind of love David had for his thoroughly despicable, hateful, and rebellious son.
You heard, and you could read along with, the story of Absalom’s death. Absalom rejected his father, because Absalom was good-looking, vain, and was the oldest surviving son. He spent years preparing for his revolt, causing jealousy, stirring up resentment, enlisting followers. When he finally gave the word for civil war, David had to flee Jerusalem precipitously, and Absalom entered it, more or less as a conquering hero! He took over his father’s household and had the general acquiescence of the people of Jerusalem, because he had curried their favor and was, after all, his father’s eldest surviving son!
Of course, David was not completely without support, and so Absalom also inherited several of David’s spies. They were able to subvert some astute advice Absalom was getting and encouraged him to go to war with his father at a place and time that was to David’s advantage. The result was as we heard, with Absalom’s forces being routed and Absalom himself ending up in a comic-opera fix, with his head caught in the branches of a tree, hanging between earth and sky, a predicament from which Joab quickly dispatched him, despite David’s parting request! When it came to David’s welfare, Joab did not flinch.
Let us be hard-nosed politicians for a second. Joab was right! Absalom had just split the kingdom, and to have him around, even in prison, was a dangerous thing. And because he was David’s son, and because David had a track record of showing mercy to people who offended him, and because David had already shown that mercy to Absalom a few years earlier (this rebellion wasn’t the first problem Absalom had caused), it was likely David would have shown mercy to Absalom again. And Absalom would cause problems again. And in that era problems in a royal family meant national and even international problems for the entire country. Joab was brutal and even cruel, but he was politically and militarily perceptive.
No one was ready for David’s grief. How could anyone love someone who had been as horrible as Absalom? He had done everything he could to make himself odious to his father, including things it is inappropriate to say in front of children! He was thoroughly rotten, and yet David loved him and would gladly have traded places with him, if by his own death he could have saved and reformed Absalom’s life.
That is the sort of love Jesus spoke of when he told his disciples that he was the bread of life. That is the sort of love Itzhak Perlman showed the young girl in the hospital, if that story is true [this was the Children's Sermon today]. God loves us with a love for which we are barely ready and the depths of which we cannot understand, but we can catch glimpses of it. Our lesson from the Old Testament gave us one glimpse. We all know of others, and we all have received that kind of love. Some special souls among us have given it, people perhaps you least expect. This is the kind of love with which God loves us.
Think for a moment of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. You take a piece of bread and break it, rip it, from the loaf. Or perhaps that part has already been done for you. Jesus’ body was broken for us, and the reason Jesus’ body was broken, the reason he let himself be whipped, stripped, pierced, and hanged up on high, pinioned between heaven and earth, was to demonstrate with utter, obscene clarity the depths to which God will go to save human lives and souls. There is nothing the Lord will not do for you and me – except for one thing: the Lord cannot force you and me to love each other. The march of White Nationalists in Washington today is proof of that. It is now possible to march publically with hatred as your main theme and to be lauded, at least by one segment of the American public. And that implies a second thing the Lord cannot do: the Lord cannot force us to love God. You see, love has to be a free gift or it is not love. You can no more command someone to love than you can tell white nationalists that we are stronger with a diverse country. Love must come from a free soul. Freedom is not the gift of a wise and intelligent government, which everyone should know before he or she casts a first vote. Freedom is a gift of God, which governments, if they are wise, will ensure and protect. The breaking of the bread re-presents Jesus Christ’s free gift of himself to us – to all of us!
When we commune, we drink an ounce or so of wine, which has been poured out into a cup for us. Jesus’ blood was poured out for us, and the reason Jesus’ blood was poured out was to make of those who follow him one family, not those of one nation, not those of one origin, not those of one color, not those of one political persuasion, but all who follow him. It is a family we demonstrate here every Sunday, despite serious differences, even in this small congregation. It is a family we demonstrate, because Jesus’ blood makes us one, despite differences in habits, backgrounds, and even theology. All of the differences that make us unique, all of the habits and beliefs that are so important to us, have no validity whatsoever when confronted with the fact of Jesus’ spilled blood. The ancients believed and we know that blood is the life of the living being. So Jesus’ blood is the life of the church, whether we are white or black or yellow or red or mixed, as certainly most of us are! We, all of us, have been embraced by the Love that takes on death, by the Love that faced death, endured it, and visibly demonstrated that Life is stronger than death.
Love and Life: that is what our sacraments, that is what this congregation, show us. That is what God today wants us to know. Our task is not to blame God for where they are lacking. Our task, throughout the rest of our lives, is to take them into the places where they are not known or respected and embody them, to be both Love and Life to the politically perceptive and to the theologically skeptical and to the angry embittered, and to those we would rather not associate with. We can take on Death, because Love and Life already fill us.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Dr. Jones's sermon "The Separate Cells of Self-Hiding" delivered on August 5, 2018. Scripture lessons: Second Samuel 11.26 -- 12.13a and Ephesians 4.1-16
Who knew what David had done? Not Bathsheba. She knew about the adultery, of course, but when her husband died in battle, she could not have known that his death was orchestrated by the king. Not Joab, the commanding general in the field. He knew David wanted Uriah discreetly to die, but Joab was nothing if not loyal, and he would have had no inkling as to why David had made this request, nor to Joab did it matter. His king ordered it; he followed his king’s order! Not the messengers, who carried letters back and forth between the field and the palace. For one thing, Uriah himself had carried written word of his own death sentence, which because it was between the king and his general he would not have read it. And when word came back to David that Uriah was dead, it was as part of the general news of the battle, and so it would have taken an uncommonly perceptive messenger to realize something deeply personal was afoot.
David thought he had found the perfect solution to a very sticky problem, and he got away with it until after the child was born. He imagined that he was able to isolate himself in a separate cell of self-hiding, and in that he was no different from most of us. We all try to wall off our darkest secrets, at least psychologically if not in other ways, because then we do not have to face the terrible failings in ourselves. David was a good man, a man of faith, a man of high ideals. It must have hurt terribly to admit what he had done, and so he covered it up, as much from himself as from everybody else. Is he so terribly unusual? My guess is there is more than one person here who could see him- or herself in David. But David did not get away with his crimes. Nathan the prophet was there, whose call it was to be conscience to king and country. Nathan the prophet was there, with the insight, the ability to add together seeming coincidences in his mind, the courage to confront the king, and the creativity to confront the king in such a way that David pronounced judgment on himself.
There are Nathans in our lives who confront us in both gentle and embarrassing ways, and there are the times when we are called to be Nathan to someone we both know and respect. Either way, whether we are called to be Nathan or to be confronted by a Nathan, it makes for a very threatening and uncomfortable moment, a moment which does not go away with the ticking of the clock. When we are in the middle of those times, in either role or as a witness to such a drama, we need to realize that God is there, too, and the ticking of the clock reminds us that heaven itself is holding its breath to see how this moment will end.
David was guilty and had the humility to say so. He could have erupted in anger and a display of power. Saul, at least in his later years, would have done so, but David had the strength not to resort to power. Did you hear that? David had the strength not to resort to power! Oh, that our present politicians had such strength! David had the strength to admit his wrongdoing.
A thousand years later, Paul, or someone writing in his name, wrote to the churches of Asia Minor about the different gifts that the people of God had, but they were not gifts given without a purpose or a design. They were not gifts given to show off the diversity God loves. They were gifts given for a purpose, gifts given:
to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
The gifts of God are not toys to use and abuse until we tire of them, allowing us then to look for some other distraction to pass our days. The gifts of God are given to break down the separate cells of self-hiding in which we isolate ourselves. The gifts of God are given to build us up, but not to build us up individually. They are given to build us up as a people!
David was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, but Nathan did not call for impeachment. There was a punishment that followed. The child that had just been born to Bathsheba and David would die, and David’s reign would be marked by internal rebellion, fomented from within his own family, but God would continue to use David as the Lord’s own anointed, and Israel would be stronger for it! Nathan himself later became a strong supporter of Bathsheba’s, and with Nathan’s help it was a later son of hers that followed his father on the throne, despite the claims of older half-brothers. God can use even the worst that we do for some great good!
You see, God seeks to equip the saints for the work of ministry. God seeks to equip the saints for the work of ministry which they can perform together! Across my ministry, it came to my attention from many quarters that the word “saint” gives Presbyterians fits. We still imagine “saints”, evidently, to be those holy, pious people who are closer to God than most of us are. We imagine “saints” to be people dead at least five years whom the Vatican or some previous church council about which we know nothing has declared to be in heaven and can intercede with God, or if we do not like the Roman Catholic definition of the word, then we just imagine that a saint is some holy person far removed from you and me.
Paul uses the word “saint” as a synonym for believer. It is in that sense of Paul’s that the word is used in the Apostles’ Creed. “The communion of saints” is not a congress of holy folks; it is us! If that takes you aback, then you have just come upon the responsibility of calling yourself by Christ’s name. We are the communion of saints; not “we” exclusively, but “we” as a part of the whole and as a representative of the whole. God is calling us to work together to build up the body of Christ, to bring people to maturity in the faith. That is no small calling! That is why we need Nathans, and why we need to act like Nathan when that task is given to us, to meld a community out of disparate people, to live up to the faith to which we all-too-casually give assent, to help people face at least privately their own darkest secrets.
This is August 5. Across the first three days of August in Stony Point, New York, I attended, as a representative of the Presbytery of Northern New England, a conference on Anti-Racism, sponsored by the Synod of the Northeast but led by Crossroads, a conference that really was on the pervasive effects of our national aim to preserve white supremacy! Now, that may sound challenging and off-putting, and I am a good liberal Presbyterian. I reject racism in all its forms. I know that I am a privileged white person. I grew up with a verse from Luke taped to the inside of my closet door:
From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.
I know this! And yet, the conference took me aback! I do not want to think of the entire nation as racist at its core. I do not want to think that so much of what we do is aimed at preserving white supremacy. The Klan, of course! That I understand. But us?!
And yet, as we examined American history, as we heard the actual laws passed by Congress from the earliest days to the present and read Supreme Court decisions across the same period, we came to a startling understanding: from the earliest days and right through to today, we have had an unconscious bias – lately, but a conscious bias earlier in our history – toward keeping white people in control, European-Americans now, and others, non-European-Americans, out of the power loop. We have even redefined “white” periodically. At one point in our history, “white” did not include Catholics. It did not include southern Europeans. It certainly did not include eastern Europeans. And people whose origins were from other continents? Forget it! Across the last two centuries, “white” has been a malleable concept, depending on our biases of the moment.
For instance, Obama was our first black President. But Obama had a European-American mother and a Kenyan father. He was as much white as he was black. Why do we say he was black? And yet we all do. Are we whites that threatened?
We want to say we live in a color-blind society. Recent history should show us otherwise. What is the Church’s place in all this? Will we perpetuate white supremacy? Or will we work for a truly non-racist society? Who among us, here in this room, fear for our lives when we are stopped for speeding or for running a red light. We are miffed, angry, and mad, at either the police or ourselves, but we do not think our survival is at stake! Black people actually do think that. And there is enough recent evidence to support that fear.
The point is we need to emerge from our separate cells of self-hiding. Let us not be like David, trying to get by without a challenging word. But, on the other hand, be like David, who, when confronted, admitted his complicity, and sought to make amends.
The Lord is calling us into the light to work together to build up and to bring to maturity all of the saints in the body of Christ! And the saints will bring into maturity the rest of creation!
Dr. Jones's sermon "Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve" delivered on July 22, 2018 Scripture lessons: Second Samuel 7.1-17 and Ephesians 2.11-22
Ash on an old man’s sleeve Is all the ash the burnt roses leave. Dust in the air suspended Marks the place where a story ended. Dust inbreathed was a house -- The wall, the wainscot and the mouse. The death of hope and despair, This is the death of air.
T.S. Eliot, the American-born writer and poet who settled in London in 1914, was pessimistic when he saw how Europe did not recover exactly from the First World War. The horror of that war had been great, not only because it was terrible in itself, but also because it came after a century of general peace which had seen an unprecedented expansion of the power of humanity to do good, and the result was an enormous increase in the average standard of living. When Eliot was a young man in his twenties, there was every reason to expect that the sort of progress the 19th century had brought would simply go on forever.
The 19th century style of life came crashing to an end at Verdun and the Somme, as an entire generation of young men was wiped out. If such a cataclysm could happen, then there must not be any good in the world, and so the predominate tone of Eliot’s writing was pessimistic.
And yet he wrote the truth, a truth which the prophet Nathan, three millennia earlier, had also grasped, but without being pessimistic about it. That truth is that all that we do, all that we have, all that we leave behind, ourselves, our homes, this church building, the capitol building in Montpelier, will one day end up as nothing more than ash on an old man’s sleeve. Knowing that, therefore, we must live as servants of the One who will not end up as ash and build as God alone tells us how.
David wanted to build a temple in Jerusalem. His desire to build such a temple will mean nothing at all if we do not realize that David was a good man, a faithful man, who wanted to serve God faithfully. David, of course, recognized that he had ability, and he wanted to put that ability to use in the right way. The twelve tribes of Israel were one country because David had pulled them together, and he had done that by being shrewd, merciful, and politically astute. He had captured the last remaining Canaanite stronghold, Jerusalem, and made it his political and military capital. Then he made it the religious center by bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The ark was the sacred box, dating from the people’s encampment at Mt. Sinai under Moses, which had been God’s mobile throne through all the wilderness wanderings, and which may have held the actual Ten Commandments.
We heard last week the trouble that ensued when David brought the ark to Jerusalem. From that trouble, David learned that one cannot put God in one’s pocket. God does not dance to the tune we play. But the ark was in Jerusalem now, in the tent which had housed it through all the wanderings in the wilderness, a time that then was 250 years earlier. How proper was it for the king to have a beautiful palace and for the ark to be in an old tent, even if it was luxurious and special? It didn’t make God look very grand to the casual observer, and since David was by this time receiving ambassadors from other lands, how God looked to the outsider reflected on how Israel looked to that same outsider. This was no idle consideration.
After initially being in favor of the idea, Nathan’s considered response the next day is interesting. In one of the few times that a pun survives translation, Nathan played on the word “house.” It can, of course, mean a building, but it can also mean a dynasty, and when one is royal, that is no idle consideration! Nathan told David to forget about the building. The permanence of a building makes a good theological point, but permanence can also lead people astray. People can put their faith in the building instead of in God. The building symbolizes God’s presence, and the building isn’t about to pick up and leave, so the people can eat, drink, and be merry, because God will always be there. What could happen, and in fact what did happen when the Temple finally was built, was a lessening of personal responsibility and accountability.
You see, the tent is movable. As the tent came, was unfolded, and erected, so it can be dropped, folded up, and taken away. The point that makes is that one cannot presume on God’s good graces. What we do and how we act does matter. We never have a handle on God. God is never ours to possess.
So leave the tent, David, Nathan said in effect, but don’t leave the idea of a “house.” The Lord is going to make your “house,” David, your line, your lineage, a witness to the permanence of God, a witness to the grace of God, a sign of God’s presence. The very grace of God will live in your house, in your dynasty, my good King David.
That was quite a promise! It stayed fulfilled for more than 400 years. Even after Babylon leveled Jerusalem and carried all its inhabitants off to slavery in 587 B.C., the final editor of the Biblical history emphasizes that the last Davidic king was well-treated in Babylon, and the book of Second Kings ends with this note of hope, as if David’s line might yet be restored.
Early Christians, of course, emphasized Jesus being descended from David’s line, both to increase the importance of Jesus to skeptical Jews, and to emphasize that the original promise to David was now at last eternally fulfilled. That latter thought is one we today ought to take seriously. If the promise to David means anything now to those who follow Christ, it means that we are the house – not a building, of course, but in us, the church, lies the promise of God’s presence.
What that means on a day to day basis is that each of us who call ourselves by Christ’s name carry with us the presence of God into every situation in which we find ourselves. The question to keep in mind in every place you are is just this: am I incarnating the presence of God here? There is no place God is not. In this place, (wherever you are at the time you note it,) God is present here in me. If you are uncomfortable thinking that thought, then you are either not where you are supposed to be, or you are not doing what God is calling upon you to do.
Now, of course, the church is more than individuals. The church as a body needs to be God’s presence in the world. We as a church cannot let the poor and lame, the blind and homeless go unattended. We as a church need to be involved, not just as another social service agency, but fulfilling our unique calling to be the presence of God in a society which has grown too busy and too sophisticated to admit to God’s presence. This is why we as a church are mission-oriented. This is why we as a church, a local church, First Presbyterian Church of Graniteville, give away hundreds of dollars a month to needs as we become aware of them. This is why the national church is so mission-oriented and why hundreds of us walked to the St. Louis Justice Center last month with bail money. And this is why Presbyterians at all levels are involved politically, carrying a weight beyond our numbers. Where there is misery, where there is trouble, where there is shame, there is where the Church must be!
You and I have an individual responsibility to be Christ to our neighbors, and more than that, actually to be the presence of God wherever we find ourselves. Secondly, we as a congregation have a corporate responsibility to be the presence of God in society, and that means individuals must support, critique, and in all ways involve themselves in the church they’ve been called to join.
And God too has a responsibility. This is God’s world, and God has not given up on it yet. God has not let it go. Nor has the Lord turned it over just to us. We must strive to be the presence of God, knowing while we strive that God is bigger than our presence. We must strive to be Christ to our neighbor, knowing that Christ has more neighbors than we can even imagine. We must really consciously struggle to incarnate God in our daily lives and in those life-situations we would rather not be judged on, all the while knowing that God’s full incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth cannot be improved upon nor even matched. God too has a responsibility – a responsibility which the Lord is masterful at meeting – a responsibility to pick up the pieces when we fail, or forget, or do exactly the wrong thing while striving to do right.
We are the temple David wanted to build. As followers of Christ, we are the “house” David did faithfully build. T.S. Eliot’s pessimism had a solid basis in reality, but it sadly lacked any sense of faith. Although it is true that all we are and all we do will end up as ash on an old man’s sleeve, yet who we are and what we do nevertheless shows God’s presence and just may have a purpose beyond our knowing. As the author of the letter to the Ephesians put it:
In [Christ Jesus] the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
This is the Word of the Lord.
 from T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets ‘Little Gidding’ (1942) pt. 2
Dr. Jones's sermon "Dancing Into Ecstasy" delivered on July 15, 2018 Scripture lessons: Second Samuel 6.1-19 and Mark 6.14-29
Our Scripture lessons this morning give us two examples of dancing. One was sensuous and lovely, captivating and exhilarating, certainly skillful and beautiful, capable of sending the audience into spasms of ecstasy. The other was wild, care-free, unrestrained, probably unintentionally vulgar, and – from the dancer’s point of view anyway – ecstatic. These two dances tell us something, not about dancing, for times and cultures change, but about service and priorities.
The more beautiful of the two dances was certainly Herod’s step-daughter’s. Her purpose was to entertain: to be, as a dancer, a birthday present to her mother’s husband. She succeeded, to the point where she could have become fabulously wealthy or fabulously well-married, or anything else she might have chosen. Of course, she presumably already had material well-being, so when she was offered virtually anything she could dream of, she was flustered. She embraced her mother’s suggestion perhaps because John’s death would remove an annoyance from the family and help solidify her step-father’s rule. This Herod, known to history as Herod Antipas, did not sit comfortably on his Roman puppet throne, for he was unpopular with the people, and a religious force of the importance of John the Baptist calling his morality into question did not make for sleep-filled nights! From the daughter’s point of view, removing John would make for a much more secure and prosperous life!
The less beautiful dance happened a thousand years earlier, and it was undignified, a bit extreme, very public, and it was not meant to entertain. It was meant as an act of worship. That concept is a bit strange to us. Liturgical dance has seldom been a part of Reformed Christian worship, and where it is performed now it is dignified, flowing, well-rehearsed, and intended to touch a congregation in worship in a way preaching or singing cannot, but it is not done unrestrained and with abandon. David lost himself in the dancing he was doing, not caring how he looked, dancing for sheer joy as the Ark of the Covenant was coming into Jerusalem. The text tells us that he was wearing a linen ephod, which is a little apron worn by priests. The context implies that that is all David was wearing!
David was a complex person and had a number of reasons for his joy. Probably we all do things for multiple reasons, and seldom are all of them good ones. We are inevitably a mix of bad and good, even the best of us, and David was no exception. It was obviously good for him politically to bring the primary religious object of the nation into the new national capitol, which he had just captured. That way the political capitol of Jerusalem would become the religious capitol as well, and it could not have been lost on him that this would also be good economically for Jerusalem. Hence, there were lots of reasons for him to bring the ark to Jerusalem, and the cynical among us would tend to emphasize the material purposes, the ones that would redound to David’s own advantage. This perhaps says more about the current atmosphere surrounding our own politics rather than the politics of David’s era, but the fact is no one in a leadership position, whether of David’s time or ours, acts out of completely pure motives. The same is almost certainly true of each of us.
Having said that as a disclaimer, however, it is still important that we understand that David was a man of faith, even if expressing his faith sometimes worked toward his political advantage. He did not have to dance before the Ark of the Lord to reap good things from the ark’s move. He could have solemnly followed the procession. Instead, he chose to lose himself in it.
Herod Antipas, on the other hand, gave lip service to Judaism, and he was honestly fascinated by his nemesis, John, but he was not a person of faith. He lived for fame and honor, with a hefty dose of pleasure thrown in, and the only authority in life he and Herodias really paid attention to was Caesar.
Both David and Herod, in the midst of their ecstasy, were suddenly confronted with a crisis. Herod was asked to execute someone he had absolutely no intention of executing. David watched a faithful man in the midst of the procession suddenly die. There is nothing like sudden death or the request to do murder to snap someone out of his or her ecstatic feeling!
When the tragedy with Uzzah, son of Abinadab, who was driving the cart on which the ark rested, did happen, David did not continue. Uzzah was only trying to help, and he probably did succeed in saving the ark from damage. Nevertheless, he touched what should not have been touched (such was the concern in ancient Judaism for recognizing and preserving the holiness of God). According to the understanding of the time, he died for his transgression immediately. David became angry with the Lord, and fearful, too, wondering if this was a bad omen, and so he postponed his plan to bring the ark into Jerusalem. Instead, he had the ark taken to the house of a Gittite, someone from Gath! Gath, you may remember, was the same town Goliath was from, which means Obed-edom was probably a Philistine! I can imagine David thinking, “If God is angry, let’s not bring his wrath down on another Hebrew!” Of course, far from wrath, Obed-edom and his household experienced only blessings.
This strange incident should tell us, as it seems to have told David, that God cannot be manipulated. One cannot put God in one’s pocket. God does not leap to human ends. Although the writer says David was angry with God, I wonder if the truth lies the other way around: God was angry with David. The ark symbolized the presence of God, but the ark could not be manipulated for partisan political purposes. It could only be an aid to and a centering of worship. David may have wanted to whitewash his political and military success with a little religious patina. God said, “I cannot be used.”
When three months had passed and David put together another procession to take the ark from the house of Obed-edom to Jerusalem, did you notice that he took only six steps and then sacrificed an ox?! That was no small sacrifice; it was as if he were asking, “Lord, is this okay?” And when the ark was at last safely inside the tent pitched for it, David offered up sacrifices of thanksgiving but did not burn the carcasses up. He distributed the sacrificed meat to the masses. This was a man who learned his lessons well and whose principle desire, despite his failings and his mixed motives, was to honor God.
Herod, on the other hand, executed John the Baptist “out of regard for his oaths and for the guests.” In other words, he wanted to save face. He did what he did not want to do because how he appeared in front of birthday party guests was more important than morality. To execute John the Baptist was nothing less than murder – plain, frivolous murder – and Herod knew it.
Remember how the New Testament lesson began. When the name of Jesus began to spread, and it became obvious that even Jesus’ disciples could do great proclamations and great saving works, Herod’s guilty conscience told him immediately what was going on. The power of God that Herod knew had been at work in John seemed to be equally at work in Jesus and even in Jesus’ disciples! Herod could not get away from the power of God! No wonder he did not execute Jesus when Pilate sent him over to him, a year or two or three later. What might God have done after that?! It seems that Herod, too, learned that God cannot be manipulated.
Within a few years of Jesus’ crucifixion, Herod Antipas, goaded on and accompanied by his wife, Herodias, set sail for Rome to ask Tiberius Caesar to grant him the title of king like his father had had. All this time Herod Antipas had actually been just a “tetrarch,” a Roman title meaning provincial director. Tiberius was a friend of his and the request was not far-fetched, although Herod had not done a whole lot to earn such a title, either. Two things conspired against him. While on their way to Rome, Tiberius died and was succeeded by the vain, pompous, and mad Caligula. And Herod’s half-brother sent messengers to accuse Herod of treason. The result was that both Herod and Herodias were banished to Lyons in southern France and died at some unknown date in dishonorable exile in Spain.
David reigned in Jerusalem until the end of his life. His reign was not a completely peaceful one. He caused problems for himself and he suffered crises caused by others, foremost among them a revolt fomented by his own son, Absalom. And yet with all the good and the bad, he remained a person of faith, failing perhaps more than occasionally but honestly intending to be the sort of person God wanted him to be.
Whoever we are and whatever we are called to do, and despite the mixed motives that almost certainly corrupt and will corrupt our lives, we must remember whom we serve and why, and let us not be shy about losing ourselves in that service. The Lord will offer correction when we need it. Let us be ecstatic about our service, knowing that God cannot be manipulated, but God can be honored and honorably served in good times and in bad. We can save ourselves from learning that friends, colleagues, superiors, and mad people cannot be manipulated, either, and seeking to honor and serve them only leads one far astray.
This is the Word of the Lord.
 Herod the Great lived from 73 to 4 B.C. He is the Herod referred to by Matthew as king when Jesus was born. Herod had ten wives and many children. One of his sons, who was given Galilee by Augustus when his father died, was called Herod Antipas. This is the Herod who ordered the death of John the Baptist.
Dr. Jones's sermon "Turning Strength Into Weakness" delivered on July 8, 2018 Scripture lessons: Second Samuel 5.1-10 and Second Corinthians 12.2-10
Does anybody remember the body builder named Charles Atlas? Evidently, really, one summer day, a bully did kick sand into his face at the beach, and that convinced the adolescent Mr. Atlas that he had better do something about being so weak. So he began to lift weights and go on a body-building regimen, and the rest is history! It is hard for me to imagine Charles Atlas writing:
"I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
There are few of us here in this room who would write that! The topic of this sermon is “Turning Weakness Into Strength,” but I originally called it “The Perfect Weakness.” I thought that would look terrible on the signboard out front, so I changed it. I mean, after all, the perfect weakness is no weakness at all! Few of us would choose to be weak if we could actually exercise choice over the matter, as Charles Atlas showed! Paul certainly did not embrace his weakness as a gift from God, at least not at first, and he even calls whatever his problem was a messenger of Satan! That is very strong language! He makes the point that being weak is not synonymous with being Christian. Being weak is not necessarily the preferred way of being Christian. Weakness is not a state or condition to seek!
The people to whom Paul was writing, the church in the Greek port city of Corinth, were cosmopolitan and up-to-date. If they did not actually worship they at least valued highly physical beauty, athletic ability, and verbal proficiency. Weakness was loathed. The Olympics had developed as a way of showing off the prowess of the human body, and sculpture celebrated human perfection. Debate in the marketplace and around the great temples served as a means of displaying the sharpness of the human mind and the skill with which logical thoughts could be expressed. Candidates for political office debated their opponents in the public square, and military leaders were expected to be both erudite and physically vigorous. It was common practice as late as the first century of the Christian era to leave exposed on rural hillsides newborns with obvious physical or mental deficiencies. The perfect weakness in the Greek world from which the New Testament sprang was no weakness at all!
From what we can gather from his letters, however, the apostle Paul would not have won a Greek Idol television show, had there been one at the time! He was evidently short, unattractive to look at, a clear thinker but not articulate when on his feet in front of a crowd, and possessed of a physical disability – perhaps poor eyesight or a speech impediment or something more serious like epilepsy. He pointedly described this disability as a “thorn in the flesh,” and in the way he describes it, it is obvious that the malady was a daily burden and a problem to him, a drain on his physical and spiritual resources. This would immediately seem to disqualify him from being an effective evangelist in the Greek world, and the Greek world at that time extended from Persia in the east to Rome in the west, as far south as Egypt, and as far north as the Black Sea! Therefore, Paul had to defend himself vigorously, and this is probably why he was being criticized in Corinth in the first place, even though he had founded that church and engaged in more correspondence with them than with any other congregation.
Yet Paul did not dwell on his disability. In all his extant correspondence, it is only in our lesson this morning that he mentions it, and he does not even describe it specifically. He certainly did not want it. He prayed that it might pass from him, not because it was a problem but because it interfered with his mission and ministry. Three times he spent a dedicated amount of time in prayer about this malady. Since this is the man who told the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing,” we can assume, when he writes to the Corinthians, that he is not simply referring to bedtime prayers. With such an emphasis as he makes here, he undoubtedly means on three occasions he devoted days to prayers on this one concern, in a context we today would label a retreat. Three times he wrestled with God about the point and purpose of his disability, but when his praying was over, he felt he knew God’s answer. This was not a problem that was going to go away. This was a chronic condition with which he would have to live. It was a terrible weakness, but in and through this terrible weakness, because of this terrible weakness, God would be glorified!
This needs to be profoundly understood. Not all weakness works to the glory of God. Paul was no masochist, nor did he have a martyr-complex. Paul did not seek weakness in order to be different from the Greek world around him, nor did he robustly accept weakness when it became obvious that this was his lot in life. He did patiently and humbly accede to it after praying about it for sustained periods of time, and he interpreted it as a way God’s power would be shown more clearly.
This level of humility, this realization that even our disadvantages can be turned into blessings, is not unique to Paul or to New Testament figures. People of faith in all eras and at all times have seen God’s hand in good and bad alike. We heard in the Old Testament lesson about David becoming king over all Israel. While Saul, the first king, lived, the northern tribes remained loyal to him, but the tribe of Judah in the south followed David, after Saul’s murderous insanity had caused David to retreat into the hills. There in the hills, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin recognized David as king for seven years before Saul’s death. When Saul and his son, Jonathan, died in battle, the northern tribes came to David also, but David knew he needed a capital city that could somehow serve as a symbol linking north and south. The capture of Jerusalem was a stroke of genius, since it was situated midway between north and south, had not been previously captured, and so was not allied with either side in that awful conflict between Saul and David. To want to take it was wise, but it was heavily fortified and siege-proof because of an aqueduct carved through 700 feet of solid rock, which brought fresh water into the city. Jerusalem was a prize that seemed unattainable. David did capture it by the deceptively simple device of sending troops up the water tunnel. Once he had captured the city, he did not follow the common practice of the time of putting all the citizens to the sword. He defeated them; now he needed them. Jerusalem became his city, with its citizens repaying their merciful conqueror with tremendous loyalty.
David was charismatic, accomplished, and faithful, and yet he had tremendous faults, and none of those brought glory to God. Even so, Solomon, his son, who took Israel to its greatest extent, was known for his wisdom, and who built the great Jerusalem Temple, was born to David and Bathsheba, and David’s marrying Bathsheba was not, shall we say, his finest moment!
Not all weakness works to the glory of God, but God can use all things, strengths and weaknesses alike, for divine purposes. When we declared our independence 242 years ago, it not unnaturally took seven years and a fratricidal, then international, war to get Great Britain to recognize the fact. And even then, the British did not send a fully-accredited ambassador to the United States until after the War of 1812! The United States was too weak and insignificant to warrant recognition, but of course, more than a hundred years later, the United States came to Britain’s aid twice to save it from devastating wars, and a special relationship has existed between our two countries, no matter the governments in power, up at least to the present administration. But I venture to say: today’s weakness may be tomorrow’s strength.
The perfect weakness may be no weakness at all, but most of the time that is not the lot with which we are blessed. They tell a story in the Episcopal Church of a candidate for bishop who during his interview was asked how he handled failure. He looked puzzled for a moment and then responded that he couldn’t remember having failed at anything. He did not become the bishop of that diocese! You see, if we had no weaknesses, then we could (and would) credit our achievements to ourselves alone. As it is, with our limitations and weaknesses, credit for our achievements goes to no one but the Lord, who makes everything possible in the first place. And this is why Paul came to glorify God for his weaknesses, not that they weren’t terribly aggravating, but that they kept his feet firmly on the ground. In Jesus Christ, even God took on human limits and weaknesses. Could Paul, or any of us, be any greater than God Incarnate?
Weakness is not a state or a condition to seek, but God uses weakness to bring about new understanding, new opportunities, new awareness of the very power and grace that can only come from God alone. This is why Paul could write honestly that he was content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities, not that they didn’t irk him every day of his life, but that he realized God’s power was greater than all of these disadvantages, and in God’s alchemy, disadvantages themselves become blessings.
If you walked into church today thinking I was going to show you or describe for you how to turn weakness into strength, I’m going to suggest another approach to the topic. If some bully kicks sand into your face at the beach, you can do something about that. All it takes is will power and dedication. But if you are, or an institution you are associated with is, living with a chronic condition, then follow the example of my daughter, who was eight years old in 1998, when my wonderful, generous, and gracious aunt lay dying. She lived in another city, but we had recently visited her. She had been declining for years and was then well into her 90s. I was with Frances in her bedroom one night when she prayed that Aunt Marion might get better. It was a beautiful prayer spoken out loud, along with other concerns. I could not help pointing out afterward, and to prepare her for the inevitable, that Aunt Marion was not going to get better. Frances fixed me with a glare that only an 8-year-old can and said, “Father, I am going to pray that Aunt Marion gets better, and God can do what he wants with my prayer!”
That is how we turn weakness into strength. If lifting weights won’t do it, then have the faith of Paul, or Frances. This is true on the personal level, of course, but it is also true at the levels of our community or nation. Few countries endure the weaknesses and calamities that America does! They are in the news every day. But those weaknesses just may be our very strengths. We are almost absurdly self-critical. We have numerous faults. But we have enormous regenerative powers! As an editorial in The New York Times put it this week, we re-invented ourselves once: after the Civil War with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution; the Times hopes we can do it again. I am sure we can! The Presbyterian Church is as old as the document under which our government operates. Controversy is never far from its Assemblies, its boards; and every level of its judicatories. As an institution, it receives many blows, but then the Church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers! And I suggest to you that the First Presbyterian Church of Graniteville has many challenges, but these challenges contain the very seeds of the strengths that will lead you in different and creative ways.
Thank God for the weaknesses in our lives, but do not be content simply to live with them. Understand that God is using them in each of us to bring about a new creation beyond our imagining!
Dr. Jones's sermon "Reflections on General Assembly: Touching Base with the Kin-dom" delivered on July 1, 2018 Scripture lessons: Second Corinthians 8.7-15 and Mark 5.21-53
Every one of you needs to experience a General Assembly. If you can imagine being with a large group of people, numbering a thousand and more, all of whom are actively seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all of whom care what happens to our Church and our world, none of whom agree with each other on myriads of details but who see beyond disagreement to a larger purpose, then you can imagine a General Assembly.
There were 538 commissioners from 171 Presbyteries, 142 Young Adult Advisory Delegates, 16 Theological Student Advisory Delegates, 8 Missionary Advisory Delegates, 14 Ecumenical Advisory Delegates and a number of corresponding members from different denominations around the world. All the Advisory Delegates had voice and vote in committee and voice on the floor of each plenary session. Their votes were taken first, so that commissioners could in fact be advised by their collective wisdom. And then there were a host of exhibitors, overture advocates, staff members from Louisville, and just plain observers, like me. All of us together numbered well over 1,500 people.
We sing well here, no matter how many voices are in attendance. I told you in May what a joy it was to visit my seminary on a Reunion Weekend, with 200 ministers and spouses lifting up their voices. Now picture in your mind’s ear worship in a convention center with more than a thousand people singing lustily, supported by the brass section of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra! It’s a good thing there were no windows, because I think they would have broken! And the worship is always imaginative and just a little bit unusual, enough to make you say, “Oh, yes, that’s what this is about! I never thought of things that way.”
In our first lesson this morning, Paul was asking the Corinthian church to help out financially the Jerusalem church. Remember, according to the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem owned all things in common, which for two millennia has inspired people to give up what they own and become part of small, intentional communities. That is a wonderful ideal, but the problem is that the association can last only as long as the assets do. Once the assets run dry and the charismatic leader departs, the community fails. Peter left Jerusalem for Corinth and then for Rome, and James, the Lord’s Brother, was martyred in the mid-60s of the first century. The Jerusalem church did survive but it was chronically short of funds until its eventual demise around the year 130.
Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians is based on justice. You have much, he says. The Jerusalem church has little. Do not give so that you are impoverished, but do give so that your sister church, your mother church, may live and perhaps eventually give back to you when you are in need!
This General Assembly asked that we give to those who had little. In St. Louis, and by extension probably elsewhere around the country as well, there are people who are arrested for non-violent crimes, like traffic violations or minor drug offenses, who cannot afford the bail that most of us would cough up without thinking. These are bails set as low as $50 to $100 up to $5,000. Because they cannot pay, they are incarcerated, and in Missouri, if you are jailed awaiting trial, you do not just sit in a cell. You are sent out to one of the many work camps. So people charged with misdemeanors and small felonies are sent to what amounts to a debtor’s prison, losing their jobs, taking away the chance to earn the bail they cannot pay, incurring mounting fines, removing support from their families, and causing child custody issues. As one might imagine, the people thus affected are overwhelmingly people of color. Local organizations such as the Bail Project and the St. Louis Action Council work to distribute bail money on behalf of those who cannot pay, but they, of course, are always chronically short of cash. At the opening worship service on Saturday, June 16, the offering was dedicated to support this cause. More contributions came in online, and on Tuesday, June 19, 6-700 Presbyterians, marching a mile down Washington Avenue from the convention center to the City Justice Center, delivered a check for $47,000 to provide bail for people already prescreened for release.
As significant as that amount was, we all knew it was only a gesture, but it was a meaningful gesture and one with real-life consequences for a lot of people. And beyond that, we were declaring ourselves as a church kin to a lot of people in dire circumstances.
What we do in worship here consists of gestures and symbolic declarations, but again, they are gestures with real-life consequences for people, not just in this congregation but beyond it, as well.
When my parents were active in the United Presbyterian Church back in the ’60s and ’70s, the General Assembly was entirely or almost entirely white male. There were a few women, but never more than a few, and there was an occasional African-American and a very occasional Native American. Now the GA looks like Times Square in New York City on an average day!
Accentuating that, most plenary sessions opened with greetings from one of our ecumenical partners around the world. Sometimes a new agreement was signed. For instance, a new mutual mission agreement was made between the PCUSA and the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba. Its moderator was an Ecumenical Advisory Delegate and spoke movingly of his denomination’s 54 churches, 25 active pastors, and 11 pastoral candidates. After Castro took over in 1959, many Presbyterians came to the United States. Those that remained suffered some persecution. Recently, the numbers have been growing again.
At my first breakfast in St. Louis, I attended a meeting of the Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. I had not heard before of Hand In Hand: integrated Jewish-Arab schools, K-12, numbering 1600 students now in about ten schools. It was founded 20 years ago and presently has a community of 6,000 parents. An elder from First Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor spoke of its support of Hand in Hand with other congregations in Ann Arbor. And then a Palestinian spoke of the three priorities Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza are wanting: jobs, education, and health. Few would mention statehood. He mentioned three points we could all support: a shift from hate to tolerance, a shift from violence to non-violence, and a shift from economic sanctions to economic cooperation. The rabbi of the only congregation in St. Louis followed the Palestinian. He said God commands us to love the stranger. You only have to honor your parents, but love the stranger! Where there is no justice, there can be no peace. And just as a sidelight: 40% of the doctors in Israel are Palestinian. Peace there can happen, but we have to work for it in both active and subtle ways.
The highlight, of course, for me and for many was the election of the Moderator of the General Assembly, who moderated the meetings for the week, but who also is the symbolic head of the Church for the next two years. This year, it took four ballots, a majority of those voting needed to win, which meant the magic number was 263.
Cindy Kohlmann, our Resource Presbyter, and Vilmarie Cintron-Olivieri, an elder from Tropical Florida Presbytery, were running for Co-Moderators, splitting the moderator job both during that week and across the two years to come. In their own introductions and in the answers to questions, they came across as very personable, action-centered, and a great pair! Although they both are young, in their 40s, they have 42 years of church experience between them. Cindy as a pastor and Vilmarie as an elder together represent the parity between clergy and laity that the Presbyterian Church is based on. Furthermore, Cindy is a New England white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Vilmarie comes originally from Puerto Rico and is thoroughly bi-lingual. In this, they represent at least part of the diversity of the Presbyterian Church. The other candidates were equally strong but in different ways. It became clear to me through the voting that we as a church have moved away from having one Moderator, as we have had every year since 1789 until 2016. In that year, the GA elected Co-Moderators, and it became clear to me that that will be the model from now on. And with a two-year stint between GAs now, that may be best for the denomination. The Co-Moderators do a lot of traveling during their moderatorial years, both nationally and internationally, and that is an awful lot to expect from one person and from that person’s employing organization, which basically has to get on without that person while he or she is Moderator. In any case, Cindy and Vilmarie came in second on the first ballot by 21 votes, while the leaders were only 13 short of a majority. Across the next two ballots, Cindy and Vilmarie climbed until they went over the top on the 4th ballot, 266-253. We are in for a good two years under their leadership, and I think we can get Cindy into this pulpit at some point before I leave you in December.
A group of about 20 youth and adults walked from Louisville to St. Louis, a distance of 263 miles, to raise awareness of the danger burning fossil fuels presents to our environment. They as a group continued to be an active presence throughout the Assembly, singing and chanting outside the Convention Center, speaking as advocates in the Environmental Issues Committee, wearing their bright orange t-shirts. They succeeded in getting the committee to recommend that the PCUSA divest from all fossil fuel industries, a recommendation that was supported by eight former moderators of the General Assembly. This was, as you might imagine, controversial, and the entire GA spent four hours discussing the majority and minority committee reports, a minority report being filed in favor of no-divestment, staying at the table, and trying to reform the fossil fuel industries from the inside. Representatives of the two major investment agencies within the PCUSA were in favor of the minority report. We are evidently involved with an umbrella group of fund managers called Climate Action 100+, and if we “stay at the table” we can continue to have a voice. The minority report, not divesting, was adopted by the entire GA. This is a matter about which honest people may honestly disagree, and one of our investment boards said that divestment is always an option in the future.
The Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, introduced something new to the Assembly: Kindom Time. Commissioners were asked to spend five minutes talking together, then two microphones were open for 45 seconds for anybody who wanted to share something. I was an observer, but I and the woman two seats away also spent a good five minutes talking, getting to know one another briefly. It was good!
After this, the Presbyterian Mission Agency commissioned new Young Adult Volunteers. It was very moving, and these Under-30s are off for a two-year period to the ends of the world!
This idea of kin-dom was a major theme for the Assembly, as you might guess from this sermon topic. We may be familiar with, or quickly discern, that talking about the kin-dom of God is a way of removing gender-specific language from theological discourse. But as I learned in an early morning Bible Study, taught by Deborah Krause, the Dean of Eden Seminary, what is usually translated as “kingdom of God” was a Greek alternative to the reality of the very hierarchical Roman world. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a Cuban theologian, put forward in English translation the idea of a “kindom of God,” which more accurately represents the Biblical writers’ intent of changing the model within the community of believers. It is a sign of our fallen-ness that the model didn’t really change. In the church, we re-established the hierarchical model within a century, until the Reformation 1500 years later. The idea of a kin-dom, or a kinship of God among the faithful – and among all the living inhabitants of the earth! – is something we should all adopt in our thinking.
But it has implications, as Raj Nadella from Columbia Seminary made clear in another early morning Bible Study. What does kindom-building in the current political context entail? It might mean crossing borders, both literal and metaphorical, and making neighbors of people who look and think differently than us. It might mean advocating for immigrants and refugees as we would fight for our own siblings. It might mean leveraging our privilege wherever we need to. It might mean getting on the phone, being persistent like the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15.
Our identity as followers of Christ depends on making neighbors of the other, as Jesus did, welcoming the stranger and advocating for those at the margins.
I am not asking for a show of hands at this point, but let me ask rhetorically, how many of you who are physically able were at one of the rallies yesterday for immigrant rights? This building the kin-dom is challenging and uncomfortable. I think it is also necessary. If the church is only a Sunday morning gathering place, then it is not being the church. The people are not in here. The people are out there. The people are like the woman with the hemorrhage, to whom Jesus paid attention and healed, keeping the ruler of the synagogue waiting. And during that waiting, the little daughter of the synagogue head died! What did he think about Jesus delaying to help this poor woman when he could have been helping him? The woman’s hemorrhage had been going on forever. Would it have hurt her to wait one more day? He must have been furious! But then, Jesus shows that the grace of God helps even the high and the mighty, even when all hope has been lost.
Maybe God will even help the Presbyterian Church!
This is, and for five days I felt absolutely immersed in, the Word of the Lord.
Dr. Jones's sermon "Living Again" delivered on Pentecost, May 20, 2018 Scripture lessons: Ezekiel 37.1-14 and Acts 2.1-21
Lord, take our minds and think through them, the lips we have also. Speak through them, we so freely pray, so we can lift the low. Take, too, our hearts, our inner depths, our souls alive entire, And with your Spirit, freely shared, O God, set them on fire! Amen.
The lesson from Ezekiel, which you should plainly know, is that God is always with us all, whichever way we go. When your loved ones all are missing, and there is no home in sight, when you’re broken and abandoned, and important things seem trite, when you see no hope in living, and your spirit long has fled, when the only good about you is that soon you will be dead, then you need to know that God the Lord does not ignore your pain, that the Spirit of the living God is blowing in the rain, that the lightening and the thunder and the storms that people brew are part of human living, and they never will be few, but the reach of God is greater than the horrors people make, and you and I may pass away, the earth itself may shake, but God will not be stymied, and the Lord will make a way for even dead and dusty things to see the light of day. And if it is the will of God for what is past to rise, it will not be our doing, but before our very eyes the wind, the breath, the Spirit of the Lord our God will come and make a living, feeling host which earlier were numb.
The prophet saw this vision, now, for his own time and place, but it has lived and been passed down, because in every case where people weep, and death is felt, and glory’s in the past, the purpose of a gracious God will still come clear at last. The mighty host Ezekiel saw rising to its feet was nothing less than Israel before the Judgment Seat, but not the Israel that was, the kingdom David made, not the middle eastern power t’which tribute once was paid. It was a new Jerusalem to which our God gave life, a people in whom wisdom grew, a wisdom gained in strife, a people who knew hardship and the devastating loss of all they thought essential, except knowing who’s the Boss! And in this knowledge, with this faith, a different glory grew: a realistic sense that good does not reward the few; that evil comes to bad and good; that punishment and sin were not the cart and horse they thought or were believing in.
We cannot tell the wind that blows to blow another way. We cannot tell the clouds to change to white from darkest grey. But we can trust the one who made the winds and clouds and us to give us faith and hope and love no matter what, and thus the valley of dry bones through which the Spirit of God blows may yet produce the Giving Trees, despite our Springtime snows!
The Giving Tree, as you all know, is Silverstein’s great book about a tree who loved so much, it gave its all and took great joy and satisfaction in the giving that it did, although the subject of its love, a most ungrateful kid, did little to return its love, somewhat like you and me who, more often than we will admit, go on a spending spree! And like the tree, our God is one who gives beyond the hurt. In Jesus Christ, God died for us yet ever stays alert to guide us in the way God wants, for we sure need the aid to be the people God foresees, the people our Lord made.
If we are lucky, we can see God’s kingdom here on earth among a group that brings together folks of different birth, among a group that celebrates the Spirit flowing free, even though we hear strange tongues and see things differently. Those different people gathered there at that first Pentecost were from the eastern known world, including nations lost! The Medes, we know, did not exist for, lo, 200 years. The Elamites were last around when Ezra shed his tears! Luke doesn’t mean to play us false. He’s saying something deep: the Spirit blows through every age, at no time is asleep. Of course, we run a risk when we allow the Spirit’s lift; even in this company will some deny the gift. One cannot feel the pow’r of God or let the Spirit shine without some making snide remarks on quantity of wine. That is a risk we run, no doubt, our being seen as fools – the Spirit works by God’s design, ignoring human rules. But if we’re ready to stand with th’Apostles, bold and true, God’s Word to us is simply this: the Spirit’s our gift, too.
What we do with such a gift is ours to figure out! There’re many paths which we can tread or routes which we can scout. We are not blind, we do not walk a single, narrow course. We’re free to choose how we will serve, for no one God will force! The Spirit moves, and with its pow’r, we can do anything! And the Spirit waits for you to move, and to its service bring the talents, treasures, time you have, your very selves and more: a willing heart, an open hand, your soul cut to the core. And if you give all that to God, you can be sure of this: you will not be abandoned here, despite some things you’ll miss. You may not have the fastest cars, you may not fly to Spain, you may not have the biggest homes, you will get wet in rain, yet wealth you’ll come to measure here, not in your things and such, but in how you’ve helped the multitudes, in all the folks you’ll touch.
The Spirit’s gifts are not confined to beauty, smarts, or strength. No matter who receives God’s gifts, God goes to any length to see that they are used and well! God does not want to waste the talents that we’ve all received, with which we’ve all been graced.
And so the summer stretches out, three months for us ahead. How can we use them best, good friends, how can we weave the thread that runs through all the Spirit’s gifts? How can we put to use the one good skill – or multitude? Don’t use as an excuse that you’re tired and you need a rest. Of course you do! God knows! But no one has your very gifts. No one has just those.
And I myself, and Cindy, too, will work, and we’ll reach out. You do not know, however, that we struggle with some doubt. Not doubt about our God, not doubt about good Jesus Christ; We doubt our own abilities. We wonder what enticed Us into this full summer of hard work and travels broad: What are we as a pair supposed to do, although we’re flawed! Where is God calling us to serve? What effort only we Can finally accomplish here to serve God faithfully? The answer to those questions will not come as revelation, Nor would we find it helpful to engage in speculation. The answer to those questions comes as history unfolds. The answer comes as we observe what God gives and withholds.
The answer comes to this good church throughout the month of June As we take opportunity with others to commune. Who knows what truths await out there which you can bring back here? Who knows what strengths you’ll witness which might change this atmosphere? And just perhaps when finally we gather in July, You might have tens of stories which will strengthen, edify This congregation in its search for a pastor called, installed Good stories which will guide the church, leave all of us enthralled!
And so let’s take our many gifts, and as one family we’ll offer them to Jesus Christ, and gather soberly around the table that he sets, a table that unites, for in this simple sacrament, one of the church’s rites, we see the future, what could be, God’s hope for this old world: a diverse group that reaches out, each hand and heart uncurled, to give to each what we each need, to give a blessing real, which could be just a human touch, or actually a meal. So use the time that’s ours right now, the time that is our own, to make another bless this life. Let no one be alone.
In Jesus’ name, I now invite, to gather ’round this board, all who truly wish to live as students of the Lord, reaching out and reaching down and reaching ’round about, ignoring no one, for we’ve heard, “Let no one be without!”
Dr. Jones's sermon "The 13th Apostle" delivered May 13, 2018 Scripture lessons: Acts 1.15-17, 21-26 and John 17.6.19
In the story we heard this morning from the Book of Acts, Matthias was chosen to replace Judas. He became one of the Twelve, a recognized leader of the church. What an honor! He was chosen by lot, which seems a strange practice to us, but until relatively recently, until only about two- or three hundred years ago, that was the accepted method for determining the will of God. Before the Enlightenment began to emphasize human reason, everything – good and bad – was credited to God’s will and purpose, and there was no belief at all in chance. Games of chance existed, of course, but whether a player won or lost was considered the work of God or the devil, depending on a person’s theology. Therefore, when the apostles cast lots to determine who would replace Judas and join the others in leadership, they were expressing faith in God’s ability to work through the seeming chance and choose whichever of the two should be chosen.
What about Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus? He’s the fellow who was not chosen when Matthias was. I am sure that none of you experienced this, but all through my schooling, whenever teams were picked for baseball or basketball or capture the flag, I was always left with one or two other weaklings, twisting my hat or bouncing a ball, looking and feeling foolish, and whenever only two were left, both team captains would look at each other with an air of resignation and a shrug, and we would be divvied up to no one’s cheers, the only good coming from all this being that nothing was expected of me, so when I struck out or dropped a pass or got captured in the first moments of the game, no one was let down! I wonder if Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, felt like I felt all those years?
He may well have. You may, also. Everyone of you has experienced disappointment in your lives, and for some of you that disappointment is recent and still smarts. I can say things will work out in the end, but you already know that. I can even say that the disappointment you have felt or still feel is actually part of God’s plan for you, but my guess is you already know that, as well. Taking the long view does not exactly ease the pain, although it does make it bearable. Time eases the pain, but time has to be lived one day after another. Even on Mothers’ Day – usually or hopefully a time of joy, of retrospect, of anticipation – even today we can feel the pain of love unrequited or love unfulfilled.
Did you find it curious how Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus was described with three names, in case anyone had heard of any one of them, but Matthias was mentioned by one name alone and without further modifier? He, it seems, needed no further description to Luke’s original readers. Matthias must have been a household name in the churches of the second generation, around the years 75 or 80 of the first century, when the Gospel According to Luke and the Book of Acts were written. Matthias is never mentioned again in the Bible, but my guess is we are still feeling his influence. He took Judas’s place, not a stellar act to follow, admittedly, but he did it with such grace that forty years later a Gentile readership knew exactly who he was. Church legend says that he preached the gospel in Judea, Ethiopia, and in what is now Georgia, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, and there he was martyred in the year 80, just as he was being mentioned in the Book of Acts. Pope Clement at the end of the first century mentioned him in a letter, and there is a second century work, now lost, attributed to him, so if someone wrote in his name a hundred years after his ministry, he was obviously held in high esteem!
And yet, we do not know him. His name has been all but lost to history. He became an apostle, not one of the original twelve, but one of those who was with Jesus from the beginning to the end, and he took a stand, witnessing to what he saw, and eventually, about fifty years later, paid for his testimony and courage with his life.
That’s important, because in our day, we tend to think of being a witness as a passive activity, observing what happens around us, but not taking part in those happenings. The Biblical use of the word “witness” is slightly different. In the Bible, “to witness” is an active verb. Peter proposed to the 120 faithful then gathered that one of those who had been with them through all of Jesus’ ministry, who had observed everything, become “a witness” to his resurrection. Since no one actually observed his resurrection but many saw Jesus afterward as the Resurrected Lord, Peter meant that to be a witness one had to speak out. A reflection of this today is in the legal world, where speaking out, taking a stand, becomes literal as a witness in a trial must go to the Witness Stand and tell all he or she knows about whatever matter is being discussed. So in the world of faith, “to witness” or “to be a witness” means sharing the truth of God as God allows you to see the truth.
Usually, being a witness is costly. There is a price to pay. That cost may be upfront and dramatic, or it may come across time. There is a common misperception that Christianity takes you out of the world, protects you from it, and puts a hedge, a wall, around you so that you are oblivious to the workings of the very world through which you walk. The reverse of that is true. Christianity takes you into the world, does nothing to protect you from it and usually subjects you to its problems and corruptions, its pollution of all kinds, and its depravity, and opens your eyes to the workings of the fallen world which Christ died to save.
You know the Spirit is moving through you when open eyes, and painfully acquired knowledge, and vulnerability, and involvement fill you with love and determination to change what is wrong. The Spirit is not moving through you when you are filled with disgust, disdain, despair, and the desire to remove yourself from all that is awful.
John records Jesus as praying, “I am not asking you to take them [his disciples] out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” There are many paths stretching before each of us. If we walk down any one of them in faith, we will feel the power of God within us as we become involved with the world at the very deepest levels. We must not seek comfort, but we should seek service. There is a world that needs us! And we should seek that service with joy!
John, the gospel writer, wanted his readers to understand that about Jesus. He wanted his readers, his own disciples, to understand that associating with Jesus was not a drag. There were disappointments, and there were threats, and there was serious trouble at times – life-threatening troubles – but the overwhelming impression one had when one was with the Lord was one of joy. That is why he remembers Jesus praying on the night before he died:
But now I am coming to you, [God,] and I speak these things in the world so that they [my disciples] may have my joy made complete in themselves.
Matthias and Justus: Matthias was chosen and Justus was not. Matthias we never hear of again, although we are aware of his influence. Justus, however, may be the same as the “Judas called Barsabbas” mentioned in Acts 15 who became a special messenger of the apostles in Jerusalem, sent with Silas to Antioch to vouch for Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles. If so, then Justus was held in very high esteem and could communicate the word of the Church with authority, even to congregations far away. Or Justus may be the same as “Jesus who is called Justus,” whom Paul mentions at the end of his letter to the Colossians. If so, then he became a co-worker with Paul and was a comfort to him in what was probably his final imprisonment. Or both references may be to him, showing that he did not let disappointment consume him but trusted in God to find the right way to use him.
God is not yet finished with using the people who follow God in faith. If not already, God will find the right way to use you. Everyone of us is beloved of God, and everyone of us has a call from God to accomplish something unique in whatever time lies ahead. I think I am safe in saying that everyone of us knows and believes that. We may not be called to be what we envision at this moment or what we had hoped to be throughout a long life. We all know that we will certainly encounter times of devastation yet ahead. But whether we follow in the footsteps of Matthias or Justus or in the footsteps of one of the others whose names are completely lost to history, still God is yearning to use us, with our willing consent, for some good purpose.
On this Mothers’ Day, think of yourself as the Thirteenth Apostle – or perhaps the overlooked and unheralded Fourteenth – called by God for a task only you can fulfill. God doesn’t need any of us to have a title. God only needs all of us actively to witness with love and humility when the opportunity is there.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Dr. Jones's sermon "Turning the World Upside Down" delivered May 6, 2018 Scripture lesson: Acts 10 (the entire chapter)
When was the last time your world was turned upside down? When was the last time the foundations of all that you knew and thought stable were suddenly shaken, and you were left bewildered, confused, feeling lost and suddenly at sea without a compass or a star to guide by? Do you remember, or are you now living in, a time when what was previously acceptable was suddenly something not done, frowned upon, and forbidden, or when what was improper came to be seen as all right, what was anathema suddenly gained respectability?
I suggest to you that the answer at least to that last question is yes for every person in this room, and every person in this room has felt him- or herself suddenly cut off from all that seemed good and true and right. It happens in every generation, and it happens in every stage of an individual life. Someone dies, and the world is turned upside down. An unplanned pregnancy happens, and life has to be resorted and reorganized. The boss fires you, and there are immediate economic consequences for which you are not ready. The nation goes to war, and you are caught up in it in a personal way that you never anticipated. A car swerves into your lane, and before you can think, you are living a new physical reality that you had only read about before.
Or an unexpected election result happens.
Every stage of life, every era of history, has its problems. There never was a past golden age, except for the time when we were children and our parents handled all the adult crises that then shook the world. We, however, were shielded from them, just as later you shielded your children from them, and they in turn are shielding, or will shield, theirs. I look back on the 1950s as a magic time, literally a “Leave It to Beaver” world, in which everyone was respectful, everyone went to church, and every person had his or her place in the grand scheme of things, but that was the time of McCarthyism, and President Eisenhower federalizing the National Guard and sending it into Little Rock, and nuclear attack drills where we all filed out into the hall at school and put our heads between our knees, as if that would have helped us survive a nuclear attack. To adults of that era, the ’50s were a time of great change and threat and discomfort, and so it has been with every era. History does not stand still, and its movement is upsetting by its very nature. It is especially upsetting when the standards of which we are sure are suddenly challenged. Even high school and college students experience this within the short span of three or four years.
The tenth chapter of the book of Acts describes an event that ultimately turned the world upside down. Its effects were not immediately apparent, but like yeast thrown into a bowl of flour, its effects became known all over the world as soon as heat was applied. It is virtually impossible for us to realize in our day the enormity of what Peter’s visit to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, meant to the faithful people of his day. Suffice it to say that Peter broke two hard-and-fast rules in this visit: first of all, he entered Cornelius’s house. A good Jew did not enter the house of a Gentile. One became ritually unclean, and that meant one was not honoring God properly. We can appreciate that, because we are a tolerant society that wants to honor each other’s customs, even while we think such a custom is quaint, but if some Sunday morning I had roller blades or roller skates for anyone who wanted them, and some or many of you went rolling around the sanctuary, up one aisle and down another, some of you at least might feel that God is not being honored properly. People who take the concept of sacred space seriously might even feel like this sanctuary had been defiled in some way.
Secondly, at the very end of the chapter, we heard that Peter stayed with Cornelius several days. This really was upsetting! If one did not even enter a Gentile’s house, one certainly did not stay overnight in such a place, and staying implies eating with, and this presents a whole new set of problems. Peter was breaking all sorts of taboos, and he himself, and his followers, and those people back in Jerusalem who simply heard about this, were nonplussed that all this could happen!
Furthermore, Peter did not have the excuse that as a follower of Christ he was not bound by the old rules. That line of argument hadn’t been developed yet! This is the event that led to that line of argument developing! When Peter visited Cornelius, Paul’s letters had yet to be written! Peter could look to no authority above him or beside him for justification of his actions. He was completely on his own, but his actions – or more properly, his recognition of the Holy Spirit’s actions – allowed the free and open grace of God to spread out of the confines of Judaism and encompass the entire world.
This was not accomplished quickly. To those who in our day are angry at the slow pace of change, it is well to remember that Luke wrote about Peter’s visit probably a good forty years after it happened. Gentile Christians were by then a fact of life, but the controversy about whether Jews and Gentiles were equal in the Church continued. In the book of Acts itself, the entire story of Peter’s visit to Cornelius is told in full three times, and since books were written then to be read out loud, this triple emphasis is meant for those who would have dismissed or discounted a single hearing of such a controversy. And Christians in Luke’s time were already establishing rules of membership. Therefore, Luke recounted the gift of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Gentiles before they had been baptized! Luke’s original hearers would have been dumbfounded by God’s complete disregard for protocol! People are supposed to be baptized first, and then the Holy Spirit comes upon them! How dare God act in this unrestrained, uncontrolled manner (uncontrolled by us, of course!)!
I have come to the conclusion that God delights in turning the settled world of our habits and understandings upside down. God will not be boxed in. God will not be dictated to. God will be who God will be, not who a previous generation in their good wisdom for their time decided God would be. Our job is to stay abreast of God and to let ourselves be led by the Lord to new understanding. For youth, that should be easy, but it isn’t. For people above the age of youth, it is harder. The one guide is the rule of love. If change does not involve expanding the love God has already shown to humanity, it is not change one should adopt. If it does, it probably is.
That is why education is so important – all education, not the least of which is education about one’s faith and how people see God’s activity in the world in many different contexts. It certainly is too much to say that education and educated people will save the world, but I am quite convinced that ignorance will condemn it. Ignorance of the history of God’s relationship to humanity will not condemn us to repeat it; it will condemn us to miss our entire future. If we do not know how God has acted toward us in the past, we will miss God’s actions in the present. And if we miss God’s actions in the present, then we have no future. We have only years to live, either rejecting the depth and richness of life God wants to share with us, or repeating ancient formulae we picked up somewhere, which will quickly become platitudes without depth and banalities without meaning. Only when we know what God has done in the past can we be aware of the changes God is bringing about in the years to come.
In almost all aspects of our education, we continue to study. No one is content with 5th grade arithmetic. In high school, we take algebra 1 and 2 and geometry, following that with trigonometry and calculus. No one is content with Earth Science. Two or three in-depth lab sciences usually follow. No one stops at 7th grade social studies. At high school, we pick up ancient or medieval history, as well as U.S., and maybe AP European. The study of English does not stop with grammar. It continues with the study of American and English literature, at ever greater depths and with further and more interesting insights. Yet our religious education usually does stop with elementary school, or if you have the good fortune to attend a church with a senior high program, you might learn of things a bit more deeply, but few there are who pursue this in college or through life. Yet no person of faith should turn away from education offered at higher levels of school or through one’s community of faith when you join one as an adult.
I am not being self-serving when I stand with the teachers of West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona to proclaim that educators are the most important people in any society that wishes not to be stagnant. In their teaching, educators are learning, and in their teaching the next generation or their peers, they are allowing the wind of the Spirit to be felt by everyone. No one who keeps learning will ever grow old. Anyone who stops learning has gotten old already, whatever the person’s age. A society full of learners is a young society, because the first thing education teaches a person is that there is so much more to learn!
But perhaps the true value of education is not the material one learns. Becoming educated means learning how to think. I do not normally use geometry, but I am very grateful for the discipline inherent in developing proofs. Geometry made me more rational and logical. The brains of those who learn music at an early age develop differently from those who do not. The imagination of a musician evidently works differently from that of a non-musician. People who grow up knowing the Bible are less likely to be dictated to by a false messiah, and they are also less likely to deify the Bible itself or any other idol which a fallen humanity sets up to protect itself. Educated people never have it made; they are always in the process of learning more. To put this another way, there is nothing more faith-filled a person can do than to keep learning.
A person who is still learning can deal with a topsy-turvy world better than someone living in ignorance. There is no guarantee that the world we know and the lives we have established will continue without change or difficulty. In fact, the reverse is true. There is a guarantee that the world we know and the lives we have established will not continue indefinitely. A person who is in the process of learning knows that and will not cry out in unfairness at the inevitable changes when they come. A growing person, one who has an outlook that involves religious faith, will see the changes and will ask what he or she can do to be faithful in the midst of those changes. A learning, faith-filled person will look with love on the world God died to save and will grow and adapt and sometimes take radical action, asking what he or she can do to lead the changes coming upon us and make them reflect the love of God. A loving person who refuses to live in ignorance will make sacrifices for the world to come, seeing beyond what is to what could be. A person who is constantly learning has vision beyond the moment.
Every era has its problems. Every stage of life is upsetting. The world is both constantly turning and moving about in its orbit simultaneously. Imagine what this globe on which we are seated is doing! Nothing is static, and the Creator of all of this is no exception. When the world turns upside down, and it has and it will, we can grieve of course, because grieving is natural, but then our job is to adapt, learn, and give to humanity in love.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Dr. Jones's sermon "For Whom Would You Die?" delivered April 22, 2018. Scripture lessons: First John 3.16-24 and John 10.11-18
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. That’s quite a sacrifice! Most of us can imagine laying down our lives for people close to us, usually family members or very close friends, but to lay down your life for a sheep...! That is a good shepherd!
Actually, there are people who will die for their sheep, if they are employed to keep them safe. It isn’t just affection that moves people like that; it is commitment. It is a sense of obligation, a duty, that fills people, leading them to sacrifice even their lives for the sake of their charges, and if their charges are animals, it makes no difference.
A week ago, you may have noted in the popular press and online, that we were marking the 106th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Back on that April night in 1912, fifteen minutes before the ship dipped forever beneath the waves, Captain Smith walked into the radio room and saw Radio Operators Phillips and Bride, hard at work, tapping out the distress call, receiving the latest positions of ships racing to their rescue, and trying to wake the Californian, another ocean liner stopped a mere ten miles away. The captain told them to abandon ship, that they were released from their duties, and that they should try to save themselves. Unnecessarily, but in appreciation for their selflessness, the captain added, “That’s the way of it at this kind of time.” But it was another five minutes before the two left their post and headed for the deck. Bride, at least, survived.
In 1775, Connecticut school teacher Nathan Hale volunteered for and received a commission in George Washington’s army. He came from a family of ardent patriots and wanted to do what he could in the conflict with Great Britain. Present at the siege of Boston in March, 1776, he watched the British evacuate, and a few months later was with Washington’s army, now as a captain, at the Battle of Long Island. The loss of this battle left Washington in control of Manhattan but blind as to what the British were up to. He needed a spy.
Hale volunteered against the advice of a friend who said he was too frank and open to be deceitful. But Hale wanted to make his mark and help the Revolution, and so pretending to be a Dutch school master, he circled around behind the British lines and came through them, making sketches and notes all the way. The British found him out (upon being asked, Hale admitted he was on a secret mission for Washington) and executed him within hours as a spy. Although historians disagree, he probably did in fact say something on the order of: “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
For whom or for what would you die? Would you die for dumb beasts over which you have responsibility? Would you die for a group of people you do not know but who are using and depending upon the ship on which you are employed? Would you die for the principles upon which our country is founded, principles that govern our life and welfare?
Of course, these are not academic questions, because unless we know what we would die for, we cannot know what we will live for. And if we do not know what we are living for, then our lives pale away to translucent shadows, devoid of passion, of contour, of texture, of promise, of hope. While still living, we become nonentities, a terrible fate for a child of God and a human being for whom Christ died.
For whom would you die? For whom do you live? If you have children, you know you would gladly die for them and you do gladly live for them. We live and would die for them because they, our children and grandchildren, are part of us. We identify with them, because they are ourselves in miniature. In a very real sense, their success becomes our success, their failures are our failures, their livelihood is inextricably tied up with our own well-being. Parents and children are at one with each other.
For whom else would you die? For whom else do you live? With whom else are you at one? Two days ago, April 20, students around the country from some 2500 schools walked out of their classes to press state legislatures and Congress to pass common sense laws concerning firearms. As a former teacher, I can say with absolute assurance that 90% of their teachers would willingly die for those students. The same is true for all of us in this room, when people for whom we are responsible are threatened. We would die and we do live for someone in whom we see ourselves. And we will lay down our lives without coercion for a cause above us we believe in or for a person next to us whom we charitably regard as similar to ourselves.
But I don’t think I’m being unkind when I suggest that it takes the Lord of heaven and earth to help us expand that idea of similarity and responsibility.
Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Metaphorically speaking, or perhaps literally, we can imagine dying for our own sheep. We might even think of it as heroic to do so. But what is this idea of dying for someone else’s flock? Just how many other sheep are there? Where, exactly, is the Lord leading us?
The bad news is: when we were baptized into the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, this is exactly what we were baptized into. We became one with the flock, every flock, not just this congregation, not just the Presbyterian Church, not just all of Christianity, but with all of humanity! That includes the high and the low, the profound and the absurd, the generous and the miser, the victim and the shooter, the barmaid and the politician, the hourly worker who has nothing to look forward to other than more of the same, as well as the captain of industry who splits his time between Florida, Colorado, and one of the great metropolises of our land.
The Good Shepherd is the metaphor John used to describe Jesus, and chances are it came from Jesus himself, for it was very apt in that agricultural and herding society, but it is a metaphor only. We are not sheep but people created to be just a little lower than the angels, people created to be in partnership with God in this great business of salvation, which is a much closer relationship than actual sheep have with their actual shepherd. The metaphor means that we are called to be like the Shepherd himself. It means that we are identifying with the children of God whoever and wherever they are found, and as the Parable of the Good Samaritan so subtly made the point, there is no human being who is not a child of God.
I hope, of course, that the Lord is not calling any of here to lay down his or her life. But the Lord is calling us to lift up our lives, to lift them up on the Lord’s behalf for everyone you meet, and even for everyone we won’t meet. And the good news is that then we will find, as we live our lives for others, that it is not us alone lifting up our lives but the Lord who is lifting us up, who is making nothing less than miracles possible through the talents and abilities with which we each are blessed.
This is the Word of the Lord.
 Hale was familiar with the 1713 English play, Cato, by Joseph Addison. These lines are in Act 4, Scene 4: How beautiful is death, when earn'd by virtue! Who would not be that youth? What pity is it That we can die but once to serve our country!
The text of Dr. Jones's sermon "The Earthy Gospel of Reality" for April 15, 2018, undelivered, as the service was cancelled due to ice covering roads and ground. Scripture lessons: First John 3.1-7 and Luke 24.36-48
In a previous pastorate, fifteen or so years ago, I was active in a Christian prison ministry where we lived on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I spent two weekends a year in Marquette Branch Prison, as part of the team for Keryx, an outreach program to people on “the inside.” It was a remarkable experience each time, which is why I kept volunteering. “Remarkable” is not quite the right word, however; it doesn’t carry enough meaning. “Awesome” is a better word, or “awe-filled.” On one occasion during a preparation evening, before a program got started, team members were sitting around sharing the best parts of previous weekends, and someone mentioned the Friday night birthday party. Now, these Friday night birthday parties were for any inmates who had had a birthday within the past twelve months or anticipated having a birthday in the next twelve months! Each inmate was given a huge piece of birthday cake with his name written on the top in frosting. For some, it was their first birthday cake ever!
To share in a birthday celebration is a gift of love. Of course, when little kids go to birthday parties, they think of it as a sign of friendship, but as the list of birthday parties to attend gets longer, parents know that it really is an act of love, and then putting on a birthday party for one’s own child is another act of love, especially when the guest list grows unwieldy and long and then it rains on the day of the party! When the last guest leaves happily clutching his or her goodie bag, and the birthday honoree collapses in front of the television set soon to fall asleep, parents wearily begin to pick up the mess and ask themselves how love can be so utterly exhausting!
The birthday celebrations for the 25 honorees at Marquette Branch Prison were also exhausting, and they were exhilarating. For some of them, it was literally breath-taking. It was a sign and symbol of love, and love was not something most of the men there had felt in overwhelming quantities. Love was not something that had been earthy and real for most of them. Forms of love had been bad news, not good news, for many of them, and to receive a card and a piece of cake with nothing expected in return was positively mind-boggling!
To receive cards and good wishes and little gifts is not mind-boggling for anyone here, I am guessing. You, we, have given and received love all of our lives. Love, of course, always surprises, and it is always welcome, and it is always wonderful, but love is no stranger to most or to all of us. Love has not been some ethereal sense of good up there among the stars, unattainable and removed from the harsh realities of life. Love has been active, real, and down-to-earth in the harsh realities of life, and I’m thinking that for most of us, love has transformed the harshness into kindness and goodwill. Because we receive love initially, we are able to give love. Because we have given love, we receive it back again many times over. Most of the time, we receive it as we have given it: in actual, practical acts of generosity and thoughtfulness and compassion.
This is what the earthy gospel of reality is all about. It is practical, real, concrete, and substantial. When the disciples encountered the Risen Christ on Easter night, they thought at first they were having an hallucination of a heavenly being, but this being was not perfect in white robes with no spot or blemish. The disciples found themselves face-to-face with a flesh-and-blood man! When Jesus told them to look at his hands and feet, he was not showing off the work of a heavenly manicurist! He was showing them his wounds. The Risen Christ is one and the same with the crucified Jesus, but this is no ethereal spirit. The needless little detail about Jesus eating a piece of broiled fish emphasizes that this person was earthy, real, substantial, and very good news!
In our language today, being “earthy” sometimes implies being crude and vulgar. Jesus’ wounds could certainly have appeared disgusting, loathsome, and coarse, but my guess is his risen presence overwhelmed the sight of his wounds, so that, while real, the wounds no longer had the power to unnerve. Alternative implications for the word “earthy” are natural, practical, real, and sensible. That is how the Risen Christ appears to people of faith. My guess is this is how most of you are, even though the very real wounds you have suffered across your lives have not magically gone away. That is how the Keryx participants experienced the love of God on those weekends, even though they remained in prison. Love is natural, practical, real, and sensible.
Most of us – I shouldn’t say all of us, but probably most of us – have grown up in an atmosphere that for us was as natural as the air we breathe. It was the atmosphere of love, and that love enveloped us, so that we did not know anything else. It came to us from our parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends. It was our birthright, which also means it was our assignment. We were privileged to grow up in such an atmosphere, but our responsibility has been to provide that kind of atmosphere to other people, wherever we are, whomever we are with, whatever we do. We are not talking about warm, fuzzy feelings here. We are talking about earthy reality that conveys good news, the good news of the love of God. In doing this, we have certainly been and will yet be wounded. You know it has happened and you know it will happen again! We can no more escape the wounds of life than we can escape breathing! The wounds that have pierced us certainly identify us, for everyone is unique, but – and this distinction is important – they do not necessarily define us.
Think of any long-term, loving couple that you know. That couple has certainly been through a lot, both individually and together, and I am not guessing when I say that not all of what they have been through has been pleasant or good. However, if they really are a loving couple, then they probably describe themselves, not as sufferers, but as children of God. They show that they are children of God by the love which they have shared and do share with you and with others, in solid, concrete, substantial, even earthy ways.
The men with whom I used to spend the weekend in prison had been hurt a lot, and they had done their share of hurting others, but they were learning that those hurts, both the kind they endured and the kind they inflicted, did not have to define them in the future. They would never lose those marks, either kind, but their wounds did not have to restrict them or isolate them any more, despite the incarceration which was for them a simple fact of life.
So with us, our job across however many years lie ahead of us is to let the awesome power of God fill us, so that the earthy reality of our lives will be good news – like a birthday party! – to everyone whom we touch.