Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Love of Joseph

December 22, 2019
Saint John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 1:18-25

Today's gospel lesson is about a dream: the dream of Joseph. What have you been dreaming about lately? I’ve been dreaming about having more time to spend with family and friends, and of how nice it would be just one or two things were a little bit different from how they are.

Joseph dreamed something wonderful. God would enter the world. God would be born to the woman he planned to marry, as crazy as that was to understand. If only there weren’t any complications. If only it didn’t seem as though she were carrying the child of another. Joseph had some serious trusting in God to do. But Joseph had to trust someone else, too. Joseph had to trust Mary.

They were betrothed, engaged as we might say, and surely Joseph must have loved Mary. But, still, this took a lot of trust! And for Joseph, the way of salvation meant trusting someone else. It meant trusting that even though things were not quite how he might wish for them to be, things would work out alright. More than alright. In his dream he’d learned that the child of Mary “will save his people from their sins.” It may be that trusting in our own plans, and our own righteousness, is not enough to save us. It may well be that true salvation comes through someone else.

That is a lesson for us, too. Like Joseph, sometimes, we are supposed to trust God and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working through our spouse, and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working in our children, and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working.

Trusting is hard, you know. I mean, take God, for example. Why doesn’t God speak to us directly? Wouldn’t it be great if an angel appeared again? Like the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary? I suppose it would be a little too easy. I mean, if you knew it was an angel, there’d be no room for doubt. There would be no room for faith.

God continues to come into the world, and we have to trust not angels but people – the people we love – if we are to encounter God. We have to believe, not only in God, but in others. We can’t know for sure what another will do or say until it has happened, so we have to trust in the goodness of others.

Trust works like gift-giving. You let go of something precious when you trust, and give it to another. What gifts are you giving for Christmas this year? The greatest gift you can give this year might be to believe in someone’s dreams. The greatest gift you can give is to have faith in someone else; believe in their dreams. Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in the dreams of your spouse. Believe in the dreams of your parents. Believe in the dreams of your children. Believe in the dreams of your friend. Believe in their dreams!

One reason we have relationships is so that we will have someone who will believe our dreams. God works through relationships of love in order to help us realize our dreams. God works through Mary and Joseph. God works through our families, our friends, and through our churches. Our dreams can be realized if they are based in the love of God and the love of our neighbors.

God believes in us. God believes in our dreams. God loves us like Joseph loved Mary and Jesus. I’m not a big country music fan, but there is this one song by George Strait that illustrates the kind of love God has for us:
Let me tell you a secret about a father's love,
A secret that my daddy said was just between us.
He said, "Daddies don't just love their children every now and then.
It's a love without end, amen.

It was Jesus who taught us what the love of God looked like in human form. We are disciples of the embodiment, the incarnation of love. Our own devotion to God and to Jesus is shown in our love for others.

In the story of Joseph, we learn about trust and the kind of love that looks beyond all the things that might not be just the way we’d like them. We learn about the kind of unconditional love that people are capable of, love that goes beyond anything that might push us away from another.

John Dorhauer, the President and General Minister of the UCC, wrote: “This baby Jesus whose birth we will soon celebrate inspires in all of us an impulse to love. Borne of God’s love for us, we extend that love daily to those most in need of our acts of compassion and kindness. Our own lives are daily transformed by the kindness and compassion of others. This Christmas, love wins.”

May the joy of this season inspire you to believe in the dream of love, alive in the trust of Joseph, alive in the mercy of Jesus, and alive today in your own acts of love —your love of neighbor, your self, and all creation.  Amen.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Prepare the Way of Peace

December 8, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

And, yet, for others this war has been distant. The war on terror, the endless battle focused mainly in the middle east, is no longer constantly in the news, on the radio, on the internet, and in our minds. But it continues. Many of us have been largely unaffected by the war, except for fluctuations in gas prices, and perhaps the psychological anguish of knowing that terrible things are happening over there and no end is in sight.

For young people today, the war has been something distant – “above their pay grade” so to speak. Adults, parents, or older relatives might talk about war, but children should be protected. They should be playing, learning grammar, algebra, and history. Children should know peace, not war.

Children should know peace, but the unfortunate reality is that they are often faced with the absence of peace. There is always a bully on the playground, it seems, or some disagreement that seems easier to solve with fists than with words. There are drugs and guns in the schools, despite our best efforts to keep them out, and children who see no alternative but to use them. There are bad influences, and bad neighborhoods. There is music that glorifies violence, first-person-shooter video games, and active-shooter drills in elementary schools. And when there is war, there are always children who lose a parent, or a home, or a life. For children, for our children, the lack of peace is too often what they know.

Lack of peace is the reality that we face. We live in troubled times, and our children are growing up in troubled times. We can’t always protect them from the troubles of the world. All we can do is try to prepare them to face those troubles when they come, and teach them that there is hope, there is peace to be found.

Israel was a land and a people that knew war. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and, most recently, the Romans had waged war in that region. The land of the Jews was occupied by enemies, and peace was maintained with the sword. The people of God yearned for a time so well described by Isaiah: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Is. 11:6). One day, peace would reign. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9).

As Matthew’s Gospel tells us, it was in these circumstances that hope appeared in the wilderness. John the Baptist, the one of whom Isaiah spoke, had come preparing the way of the Lord. “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Mt. 3:1).

The sign of the coming of God into the world, the herald announcing the coming of the Christ was this wild man who wore clothing made of camel’s hair, and whose food was locusts and wild honey. The promise of God, that “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Is. 11:1), was being fulfilled. The baptism by John, a sign of repentance, would become the blessing of water and the Holy Spirit that we know, symbolizing the grace of God, the new life that we have in Christ.

In the ceremony of baptism, we remember the covenant of God’s grace and we promise to help our children to be faithful members of the church of Jesus Christ, by celebrating Christ’s presence and by furthering Christ’s mission in all the world. We promise on behalf of our children until they are ready, in the act of confirmation, to affirm their baptism and take on that responsibility for themselves.

If you think about it, it sounds a little crazy. We bring our infants to the church and in front of everyone we promise that they will continue Christ’s mission! We then have this ceremony symbolizing death and resurrection. Why do we do that? Could it be that children are an embodiment of hope? Perhaps when we invite our children to join us on our mission, we are showing our faith that the mission has hope of success, that there just may be peace on the horizon.

Now, to hear John tell it, Jesus came to do battle, with his winnowing fork in his hand, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. Yet we also know that Christ came to guide our feet into the way of peace. In a troubled time, what a powerful message of hope, to know that there one who is more powerful than the wicked, who comes to seek out and save the lost! God has shown us mercy and will guide us to peace. It might not be easy, but we will get there.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We ask that question of all children, many times, and we laugh and we marvel at their plans and their dreams. But what is it that we are really doing? We are asking them to envision the future. We are asking them to tell us about hope. Having a vision is crucial for the vitality of a church or any organization. As adults, we don’t ask each other about our visions for the future very often. We hardly allow ourselves to dream of something better. But we ask our children about their vision all the time.

I think we could take time this Advent to prepare for the future. I believe that we have it in us to envision a better future for all, where there is peace and hope and joy. I am sure that one day they will not hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain. I know that with Emmanuel, God with us, the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. Let us prepare the way of peace, and cry out that the kingdom of God has come.  Amen.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Fear or Hope

December 1, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

We live in a time of uncertainty. There is certainly plenty to cause us anxiety these days. There is the rising tension between the U.S. and China, and Russia. There is ongoing war in the Middle-East. There is economic unrest and unemployment, farmers have been hit hard by weather and tariffs. Things seem pretty fearful in the world right now. Are the nations beating their ploughshares into swords, and their pruning hooks into spears? It seems that way sometimes. And it seems as if there is little we can do about it except worry.
I worry about how I’m going to pay for college for Zach and Nathan. I worry about the health of my parents, the condition of my dishwasher, and the political divisions driving us apart. What does it all mean? Where are we headed? And is there anything I can do about it? Sometimes, dare I say it, I fear for the future. I’m sure there are times when you do as well. Change comes faster and faster these days, and it’s hard to keep up with it all.
Part of that fear, I suppose, is because I think I’m supposed to know the answers. I’m a faithful person, I believe in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the Church Universal, and etcetera. I’m supposed to have it all figured out, right? But my faith doesn’t always help me figure out the right thing to do. There are times when I have no idea what God would have me do in a given situation. There’s nothing in the Bible about cell phones, Facebook, pesticides, electric automobiles, or noise pollution.
The disciples lived with uncertainty too. In this story from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and cleansed the temple. He has just finished a lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in chapter twenty-three. The disciples, who know who Jesus is, are starting to worry that things are not going how they expected, and in their fear they anticipate the end times. They ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”[1]
There have been many predictions of the end of time, and all of them (so far) have not come true. Jesus tells them about many signs; but more importantly he says, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son.”[2] There is some mysterious day in the future when the judgment will come, but even Jesus doesn’t know when that will be. Yes, Jesus doesn’t know everything; and you know what? We’re not supposed to know everything either. Uncertainty is to be expected. It is nothing to fear. And faith certainly doesn’t mean living without uncertainty, not for the disciples, and not for us.
It is possible to live with uncertainty, to keep moving steadily into the future with no guarantee that we’re on the right path. Jesus points us toward the everyday tasks of living – eating and drinking, marrying, working in the fields and grinding the meal – doing them faithfully in wakefulness. Keep living your life, keep an eye on what is to come, but keep your focus on the here and now, live a faithful life, and keep awake.
“You know what time it is,” Paul wrote to the Romans, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”[3] Things seem pretty troubling in the world today, but “the night is far gone, the day is near.”[4] It may be dark now, but a change is coming. When the doorbell rings, it is too late to clean the house. Jesus is coming; quick, everyone look busy!
Yes, we should do good works. Yes, we should do the best we can, uncertain whether we are right or wrong at times, faithfully going about the work we believe God would have us do in this world. But fear not! We’re not supposed to do everything ourselves. We’re not supposed to save the world. That job is already taken. Our role is to be God’s hands in the world, to work toward the realm of God, and the work that we do will be enough. Our task is to keep faith, joy, and love alive in the midst of uncertain times, and watch for the signs of hope.
What we must do is choose how we go about that work. The Rev. Mark Yurs, a pastor in Wisconsin writes, “The key element for Jesus is not the work, important as it is. The indispensable part of faithful work is [what] Jesus names as watchfulness or wakefulness.” [5] As we do good works in the world, the way we do the work, the watchfulness that we maintain, is what really matters. And what is it were supposed to be watching for? The disciple is the one who is watchful for the signs of the coming realm of God. “Hope will come,” Rev. Yurs continues, “the deepest, best, and highest shall come – not from our work but from somewhere outside and beyond it.”[6] The disciples don’t bring the hope, they point out where hope is present.
We are faced with an uncertain future. Things look grim, for many people around the world, for people in this community, and for people in this room. We are at a decision point. We can’t go backward, searching for halcyon days that weren’t as golden as we like to remember them. We can’t stick with the old reality. If we do that, things will only get worse. We have to start living into the future. The decision is whether we fear the new reality, or if we face it with hope. Do we trust the signs? Do we trust the prophets? Do we trust Emmanuel?
How do we live into that future? Do we allow ourselves to be driven by fear, or do we watch for signs of hope? Do we point out all the things that give us reason to give up, or do we keep our eyes open for ways in which we can make a difference? Do we turn our backs on people in need, or do we work together as people who have faith that things can be better? As Christians, we live into the future with glad anticipation, with hopeful urgency, awake with expectation of the dawn. “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”[7]
Let us pray. O come, O come, Emmanuel. God be with us. Cheer our spirits, disperse the clouds of night. Show us the path of knowledge, give us hope, and fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Jesus, as we come to your table, take from us our fear, and give to us your hope. Amen.

[1] Matthew 24:3. The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2] Matthew 24:36.
[3] Romans 13:11.
[4] Romans 13:12.
[5] Mark E. Yurs, “Homiletical Perspective” on Matthew 24: 36-44 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 21-25.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Isaiah 2:2.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

All Things Hold Together

November 24, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Thanksgiving is more than the festivities, the feasting, or the football games on TV. It gives us time to ponder what lessons we have learned and how we can spread happiness to those around us. It is an opportunity to look back at the great memories and good people who have come into our lives. I am thankful for this congregation and I want you to know that I appreciate you. Happy Thanksgiving Day to you and your loved ones.

Many of us have traditions around thanksgiving. Some of us gather food for the less-fortunate. Some participate in “Turkey Trots”. And some just try to be kind in little ways. I read a story recently about one small gesture that made an outsized impact. This story is actually from Reader’s Digest.[1]

When Mrs. Klein told her first graders to draw a picture of something for which they were thankful, she thought how little these children, who lived in a deteriorating neighborhood, actually had to be thankful for. She knew that most of the class would draw pictures of turkeys or of bountifully laden Thanksgiving tables. That was what they believed was expected of them.
What took Mrs. Klein aback was Douglas’s picture. Douglas was so forlorn and likely to be found close in her shadow as they went outside for recess. Douglas’s drawing was simply this:
A hand, obviously, but whose hand? The class was captivated by his image. “I think it must be the hand of God that brings us food,” said one student.
“A farmer,” said another, “because they grow the turkeys.”
“It looks more like a policeman, and they protect us.” “I think,” said Lavinia, who was always so serious, “that it is supposed to be all the hands that help us, but Douglas could only draw one of them.”
Mrs. Klein had almost forgotten Douglas in her pleasure at finding the class so responsive. When she had the others at work on another project, she bent over his desk and asked whose hand it was.
Douglas mumbled, “It’s yours, Teacher.”
Then Mrs. Klein recalled that she had taken Douglas by the hand from time to time; she often did that with the children. But that it should have meant so much to Douglas …
Perhaps, she reflected, this was her Thanksgiving, and everybody’s Thanksgiving—not the material things given unto us, but the small ways that we give something to others.
When we think about what we are thankful for, most of us will have a long list. Much of that list may be material things, but I’m sure that our lists also will hold many names of people who have touched our lives. As you think through the names on that list, family, friends, teachers, mentors, is one of those names Jesus? I’m not trying to shame you or make you feel guilty. I admit that I don’t always include Jesus in my list of thankfulness. But when things fall apart, when I start to drift away from my center, I need reminding that there is One in whom all things hold together. There is One who empowers all my acts of kindness and gratitude. And I am thankful, truly thankful, for Jesus.

We have the experience of living in a community and culture that is largely Christian. While there are certainly disagreements about just how to be a good Christian, what we believe about Christ, and how we live our faith, we are all generally pulled in the same direction. That was not the case for many people in biblical times, particularly those who lived in the near-east where many cultures bumped up against each other, and many philosophies from near and far vied for attention.

Colossae was one of the most celebrated cities in the western part of what is now modern Turkey. A significant city from the 5th century BCE onwards, it had dwindled in importance by the time of this letter. The town was known for its variety of competing religious influences. Cosmic forces and unseen spirits were understood to be everywhere, and the Christian community was drifting. Paul writes to them to try to re-center Christ in their lives.

As we heard in our reading, Christ is not merely another choice in the marketplace of philosophies, but the center-point. Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (C. 1:17)[2]. The people may believe that they have to appease these other spirits lest they fall into disease or poverty. Paul reassures them that in Christ, “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” (C. 1:16). These other things may cause you to worry, but as Christians we must remember that Jesus Christ is our connection to God who rescues us from the power of darkness, and reconciles all things.

For us, following Jesus is not supposed to be one task competing with others, not just something we think about on Sunday morning, but the way in which we live our whole lives. There are certainly plenty of powers competing for our attention, from materialism and greed to struggles for power and prestige. What Paul is telling us here is that we aren’t subject to these other powers. We belong to another kingdom, “the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (C. 1:13).

This may seem like a lecture, but when you read the letter to the Colossians, you’ll find that it is filled with love, encouragement, and reassurance. Are you struggling with the fears and forces that pull you every which way? Are you weighed down by all of the suffering, brokenness, and sin in the world? All of it, and all of us are gathered up in Christ, who is able to hold all of us, to heal and comfort and restore. God’s house is big enough to shelter everyone and everything.

This letter is connected with Luke’s Gospel, and the account of the crucifixion. There are several reasons why this story comes up now in our yearly walk through the scriptures. We have reached the end of the Christian year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, marks the beginning of a new year as we return to the stories of the birth of Christ. It is fitting to be reminded now, as we mark the end of the year, of how the Gospel story approaches its end. “They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (L. 23:33).

These two scriptures are also connected because of Paul’s reassurance of reconciliation and peace through the good news of the Gospel story. Though the world around us swirls with troubles, and the rulers and powers seek our destruction, we have Christ as our king, the head of the church, the firstborn from the dead. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (L. 23:43). If you are feeling lost amidst all the cosmic powers, and you are starting to drift, remember to re-center your life in Christ, recognize and give your allegiance to the One who died in order to heal all the brokenness of the world, and to make us whole once again.

Let us pray. God, we are thankful. Make us strong with all the strength that comes from your glorious power. Prepare us to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to you, who have enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. We give thanks today for Jesus Christ.  Amen.

[2] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Whose Vineyard Is It?

November 17, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 20: 9-19

When the season comes, it is time to harvest the produce. Celebrating the harvest is the time when we give thanks to God for all that we have, pray that we will make it through the winter, and ask for blessings for the year to come. But for more and more of us, the harvest season has become a sentimental memory rather than a lived experience.

The image of the family farm holds a special place in our hearts. Fifty years ago, a small family farm would probably have been passed down from one generation to the next, or sold to another small family farmer. These days it’s much more likely that the land will pass into the hands of a large-scale farm.

Family farmers have a vested interest in the community and the environmental health of their family and neighbors, not to mention the fact that they put their income back into the local economy. But big farm or small farm, the more we can buy from the farmer next door rather than the farmer across the country, the less shipping is done in the process. The more we reduce shipping, the less fuel we use, and the less we depend on limited oil resources. In a world of rising fuel and food costs, not to mention food waste, it makes sense to focus our attention and buying power on the farmers in or near our own communities.

As Christians, it is helpful to remember that we are stewards of God’s creation. In the beginning “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, CEB). We are the tenants who farm the land, but all of it ultimately belongs to God. The wealth or scarcity of the harvest is not the only thing that matters. What is also important is the quality of our stewardship. And in this parable, Jesus warns the stewards to be true to the owner of the vineyard, and not be like these wicked tenants.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?
Jesus answers this question, “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

Who is Jesus talking to? There is the crowd, of course, and the disciples, but they seem to be mostly spectators. It is the scribes and chief priests who realized that he had told this parable against them.

Jesus looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean:
            ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

Luke ends this passage by telling us that “When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.”

The parable is a test of stewardship. Whose vineyard is it? God planted the vineyard. God is the owner. As the people most responsible for leading the Jewish people at that time, the scribes and chief priests are the tenants. And we should expect good tenants to pay the rent, to do the work that is expected, and to turn over the harvest to the owner. But these are wicked tenants. As one commentary tells us, the wicked tenants are those who (1) do not want to give fruit to the owner (or perhaps are unwilling to produce the proper fruit); (2) reject the owner’s authority; and (3) work for themselves.[1]

The fruit of the vineyard are grapes which are to be made into wine for sale. What do you think are the fruits of the kingdom? (Peace, justice, joy, love, etc.) The Apostle Paul, in Galatians, wrote this list: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). If this is not the fruit that you are producing, then you’re not taking very good care of God’s vineyard.

By rejecting the authority of the messengers, the tenants reject the authority of the owner as well. The tenants see these messengers as a threat to their own prosperity. They have it pretty good in the vineyard, and they’ve worked hard. They expect to keep the profit for themselves. I mean, who needs the owner, right? We’ll just kill his son, the heir, and then the vineyard will be ours! The owner, he’s never around. Who needs him?

One suggestion for understanding this parable is that sin, the behavior of the tenants, is an attitude of selfishness that has no need for God. God is a nuisance who gets in the way of our selfish desires, demanding that we give up some of what we have worked so hard for.[2] But whose vineyard is it? Do we owe something to God? If we want to live in the kingdom, we are expected to live under the authority of the Owner; to produce and give back the proper fruit.

The warning that Jesus gives to the scribes and chief priests is that the vineyard, the kingdom of God, will be taken away from you and given to others who will produce the fruits of the kingdom. At the time the Gospels were written, war had swept through Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed. Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Jews, Jewish worship stopped being centrally organized around the Temple, prayer took the place of sacrifice, and worship was rebuilt around rabbis who acted as teachers and leaders of individual communities. The priests of the Temple, with all their power and authority, essentially disappeared from history. Those who tended the vines, who had the responsibility of leading the people, were gone.

The early Christians saw themselves as the new tenants in the vineyard; however, the responsibility for producing fruit didn’t change. God has the same expectations of the new tenants. Even if we have inherited the kingdom of heaven, we could suffer the same fate as the tenants in the parable if we reject the Owner’s authority over us—if we fail to produce the fruits of the kingdom and return them to God.

So, the question I ask is: You’ve been saved; so what? What are you going to do? What fruit will you produce? There is a cure for sin, God’s grace. There is a cure for selfishness, serving others. Why does a vine produce fruit? It may help to spread its seeds, but the vine doesn’t benefit from the nourishment in the fruit. It is the animals who eat the fruit that benefit. The fruit that we as Christians produce are those acts done for the benefit of others. As Christians, we are responsible for the well-being of others. When we say “Love your neighbor,” the word “love” is a verb. I have a bumper sticker somewhere that reads, “For God’s sake, do something!”

I have good news for you. We have produced the fruit of the kingdom. When we sent money to support One Great Hour of Sharing, we produce fruit. When we donate and volunteer with the Marengo area OutReach Enterprises, we produce fruit. When we welcome people to share food and fellowship after worship, we produce fruit.

So, let’s continue to be good stewards of God’s kingdom. Let’s produce the proper fruit, and remember it doesn’t belong to us. Let’s live under God’s authority rather than our own. Let’s work for the benefit of others rather than for ourselves. Let us follow the way of that stone that the builders rejected, for it is the cornerstone of a whole new world.  Amen.

[1] Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith, pp. 298-299. This analysis applies equally well to the parable as it appears in Luke.
[2] Brian P. Stoffregen, Pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, Yuma, Arizona. From:

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Children of the Resurrection

November 10, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 20:27-38

Does anyone else think the Sadducees are a little crude? Yes, there is this odd instruction in Deuteronomy 25 that if a married man dies childless, his brother should take the woman to be his wife and the children “shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”[1] If you hadn’t noticed before, there is some shady stuff in the bible that makes us cringe. The Sadducees, hoping to humiliate Jesus, go for the gotcha line. They pick a demeaning rule about widows and make up a ridiculous hypothetical. They use a rhetorical fallacy, the slippery slope, to try to show that belief in the resurrection can’t be based on the Torah, the laws of Moses. “Whose wife will the woman be?”

Jesus doesn’t fall for it. People in this age marry, but in the age of the resurrection there is no marriage. The rules no longer apply. Your question is meaningless. And don’t get me started on the concept of married women being the property of their husband. The children of the resurrection don’t belong to anyone but God. Don’t be so crude.

So, who are these Sadducees, anyway? During the time between 200 and 100 BCE, the interpreters of the law were split into factions, with the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreeing over belief in the resurrection. According to the Sadducees, there was no doctrine of the resurrection of the dead or of angels in the Torah, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Pharisees argument was that the written Torah was only part of the story, and the interpretation of the law must be ongoing, taking into account new beliefs such as those which emerged in the prophetic literature.

An example they would have used was the book of Daniel, which features the angels Gabriel and Michael as well as reference to the resurrection of the dead. The Pharisees valued the ongoing interpretation of the Torah in oral tradition, embracing new understanding about the final judgement and everlasting life. Jesus participated in these debates, and spoke often about eternal life. Even though we often see Jesus arguing with the Pharisees, they were both aligned against the Sadducees.

It is interesting to read about these debates, these challenges to Jesus’ authority. Questions can have many purposes. Questions can set or frame the conversation. Questions can seek knowledge, a better understanding of a situation, or seek to challenge the authority or character of an opponent. Questions can be used to find out what another knows, or to show that the other can’t possibly know anything of value and should be dismissed. For the Sadducees, the question they ask here is clearly framed to show the crowd that Jesus is not trustworthy or knowledgeable.

Jesus doesn’t fall for the dirty tricks. This is the master Teacher, after all, and he takes the question not as a challenge but a teachable moment. Heaven and earth are not the same. The rules are different. Things work differently in the life to come, and God is less concerned about the particulars of the rules than the love and mercy that you show to one another. “Holy God, whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts…”[2] These familiar words remind us that in heaven even the lowest of the low “are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

The kingdoms of the earth are not the kingdom of heaven, where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Jesus teaches that heaven is where those who have been dehumanized will be restored, the oppressed will be set free, those who have been treated as inferior will be lifted up. In God’s realm we neither marry nor are given in marriage, women are no longer the property of men, and the children of the resurrection will know the peace and joy that was denied them in life.

Jesus knew the scriptures. He had studied as much as any good Pharisee or Sadducee. What set him apart, among other things, was that he looked up from the book to see the people. People who hurt, people suffering, people in need of hope, people in need of the God of the living. These people living under the oppressive Roman rule, slaving day after day to see little or no improvement in their lives, these people needed to know that just because it has been this way in life doesn’t mean it will be this way in the life to come.

Suffering keeps people from imagining new possibilities. The dehumanizing systems of oppression that we witness today, of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, keeps people from seeing anything better. Suffering keeps the children of the world looking down, backs bent in labor, faces hidden in fear, minds weary from struggle, so that they cannot see the promise of freedom. Though they may be dead to the world, Jesus sees them, and to him they are all alive, for they are children of the resurrection.

It is in faith that they, and we, have hope. Had it not been for the steadfast faith of Moses, the Hebrews might still be lost in the desert. Had it not been for the faith of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, the people might not have returned from Babylon. Had it not been for the faith of Mary, Peter, and John, the risen Christ might not be preached today. Had it not been for the faith of the slaves in America, the spirituals of freedom might still be only sung in chains.

In the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, we know that we too are children of the resurrection. In the midst of every situation, this promise bring hope to rise above what tries to bring us down. God loves and cares for the poor, the widow, the oppressed, the exploited, the illegal. In this knowledge we may find hope. As children of the resurrection, this world does not have the last word, and our worth and dignity will be restored. With this faith we may find courage.

When God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, he was greeted by these words: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”[3] To God, all of them are alive. This means that not only these ancient ancestors, but all who have gone before us are alive in God. They are not dead to God, and they are not dead to us. They did not only speak in times gone by, but they speak to us now. And together with all we are the complete family of God.

We cannot connect directly with those who have passed on before us. It doesn’t work that way. But we do believe in the resurrection, and we know the living God, and in the life of God we are one with all of God’s family. In that company we are strengthened for the journey of faith, encouraged in the work of justice and peace, and blessed to share this world, and this life, with our one great family.  Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 25:6.
[2] Reprinted from Book of Worship © 1986 by permission of the United Church of Christ Office for Church Life and Leadership, p. 373.
[3] Exodus 3:6.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Spirit of the Saints

November 3, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

All Saints Sunday is a time to connect with our past, with our ancestors and elders, those who have come before us. We read the names of some of the saints of this church who have departed from us in the last year. And as we do so we may think of others who have passed away, grandmothers and grandfathers, parents, old friends, former ministers, and teachers who touched our lives and brought meaning to our existence. And our list of saints, if we were to make a comprehensive attempt, would be longer than most; not because we are somehow holier or better than any other group of people, but because of how we define a saint.

In the New Testament, in the letters written by Paul and others, all Christians are called “saints.” Saints are both young and old, both living and departed; they are all those who set their hope on Christ, and who have responded affirmatively to God’s call. And so, even as we look to the past and the dearly departed, we must not forget to look around us and recognize those saints sitting here with us who are doing their best to answer the call of God.

Doing our best is all we can do, of course, because when we talk about God calling us, it is never to attempt easy or trivial tasks. When we talk about the call of God, it is not a call to be wealthy, full-stomached, contented, or well-spoken-of. In our scripture from Luke today, Jesus matches “blessed are you” with “woe to you,” and if we are honest with ourselves, we squirm a little. Echoing Isaiah, Jesus says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18a). Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus talks with, heals, and helps people who are poor, oppressed, and marginalized, and challenges those who feel certain they are righteous.

As Jesus travels, he blesses those whose suffering he sees up close. Then he curses those whose wealth, comfort, and prestige are built upon this same suffering. And it is no easy thing to avoid that curse in our infinitely interconnected world today. Are you sure that chocolate you’re planning to eat tonight was not made from cocoa harvested by child slaves in West Africa? That coffee I drank this morning, was it fairly-traded? What happened to the chemicals used to make those bottles of water we take from the fridge – are they polluting someone’s water supply?

Jesus does not offer an easy way to the disciples, nor to us. But there is the hard way. It is the way of loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, doing unto others as we would have done unto us. There is the way of holy living that is connected to the real suffering and struggle of real people, and the challenge to change societies and patterns and relationships that depend on the suffering of many to support the few. This is the difficult way, and it takes tremendous courage and strength to live like this. So, we do our best, and that is all we can do.

We don’t have to do it alone, however. This is where the saints come in. Those who have come before us have made many sacrifices to bring us where we are today. The early Christian martyrs kept the Way of Jesus alive in the face of vicious persecutions. The reformers challenged the corruption of the church. Pilgrims forged a new nation with religious freedom as the standard. Abolitionists ended the abomination of slavery. Suffragettes secured the right of women to vote. People in this very congregation have struggled for equality for all races, creeds, nationalities, genders, sexualities, and abilities. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and together we form the body of Christ who fills all in all.

As individuals and as a church we are part of something greater than ourselves, something which transcends time and space. We belong to something much bigger, built on the foundation of the prophets, apostles, and saints who have come before. We set our hope on Christ and on the immeasurable greatness of God’s power that we know in Christ who was raised from the dead. As Christians we are shaped by our hope and the future into which we are living.

We are those who can make a difference. We have the power to influence the practices of producers around the world. We can change our purchasing patterns to be more selective – only buying slave-free, fair-trade, green-cycle products. We can put pressure on those who make decisions in the companies we work for to consider the life cycle of products we make, buy, or sell. We can investigate before we invest. We can petition our representatives in government to pay more attention to the needs of the poor, the hungry, the distressed, and the oppressed. And we can vote.

The world is ruled by powers that are hostile to the way of justice, love and forgiveness, and thus hostile to Christ and to Christ’s community of saints, the church. We may feel that we are not up to the task, that we lack the courage and the strength necessary to live in the way that is difficult. It helps to remember that, as Paul reminded the Ephesians, we have been destined according to the purpose of the one who accomplishes all things. Our call to live as saints comes with a spirit of wisdom and revelation, the power of the God of glory, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our hope will be sustained and our future shaped within this community, in the company of saints both living and departed. We will live for the praise of God’s glory, sung by the saints of every age. Having heard the gospel of our salvation, and marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, we will live as God’s own people, to the praise of God’s glory. Amen.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Faithful Witness

October 27, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Exodus 20:2, 16; Matthew 15:10-20

In Exodus, the Hebrew people, set free from the Egyptians, begin to establish a new culture, and discover their identity as God’s people. Having set the people free, God gives them the means to remain free. The law, beginning with the Ten Commandments, sets this people apart as the people of God – the Lord God who brought them out of slavery to freedom. And the people of God worship and honor God by obeying God’s laws.

The law is not a punishment, a burden, or an obstacle to freedom. True freedom requires responsibility. Freedom without responsibility, without limits, is anarchy. And anarchy is the mob rule, freedom for the strong and the powerful, but slavery for the weak and defenseless.

In order to be a free people, we must be at peace with one another, able to trust one another, responsible for the well-being of one another. And God, by giving the commandments, by setting the boundaries, has provided the means for the people to remain free. If the people worship God, resist temptation, and take responsibility for one another, they will prosper and remain a free people. God fulfills the promise made earlier in Exodus: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.”[1]

The commandment to not bear false witness is a particular command that protects society by creating a space for truth to be told. In ancient Israel, witnesses to a crime – who incidentally also brought the charges – had to testify before a court of elders. At least two witnesses were required, as stated in Deuteronomy: “Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.”[2] If a witness was found to be lying, the punishment was the same as that given to the accused. This was when “an eye for an eye” was the rule of law. If one was accused of a crime that was punishable by death, the lying witness would have been put to death. This harsh reality ensured that the court of elders was a place where truth would be told.

Truth, indivisible from trust, is the foundation of community. The Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann says this commandment is “a recognition that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.”[3] In order for society to function, there must be a place and time where we can trust that the truth will be told.

The commandment that we shall not bear false witness gets at the heart of our capacity to ruin ourselves and others by lies and deceit. Another theologian, the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, once wrote: “The capacity to speak… is the primary way through which we human beings express ourselves, and nothing reveals more deeply the biblical insight into the sinfulness and brokenness of human life than our verbal means of self-expression.”[4] Speech can express both truth and falsehood.

Our words are powerful. They can do tremendous good – think of the words written by Lincoln in The Emancipation Proclamation. But our words can also do tremendous harm. Mein Kampf led to the rise of Nazism in Germany. The thoughts in our minds and the feelings in our hearts come forth in our words, and they make an impact on the world around us.

In the Gospel According to Matthew, we hear about the power of our words to do harm. “Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles… What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.’”[5]

Bearing false witness means to lie, to give false testimony, to mislead. It is speaking with the intent to deceive. Another form of lying – slander and gossip – also bear false witness, leading us to believe in stories that are fiction born in the heart of those who would harm. False witness breaks our relationships with others, and damages our integrity.

There is a story that tells of a man who spread gossip and lies about a neighbor. When she heard the stories, the victim confronted her accuser with the truth. The man apologized and asked if there was anything that he could do to right the terrible wrong that he had done. The woman walked into the bedroom and took a feather pillow from the bed. Taking out a knife, she cut open the pillow, and then, going to a window on the second floor, dumped the feathers into the breeze so they blew in every direction. “Yes,” she said. “There is something you can do. You can go out now and gather up all of those feathers and put them back inside this pillow.” The man protested, “That is impossible. I could never recover each of those tiny feathers.” “Yes, it is impossible,” the woman agreed. “It is just as impossible as it is for you to take back all the hurt and the pain that your malicious rumor and lies have caused to me. You cannot recover the suspicion that you have sown. The damage to my character can never be undone.”[6]

When we bear false witness against our neighbor, we deny our responsibility for our neighbor, we deny our duty to God, and we destroy ourselves as we become untrustworthy. The trust that holds the community together is broken, and without trust, we can no longer be a people. Bearing false witness brings us into the state of sin: separated from God, separated from one another, and separated from our own integrity.

We must do more than not lie. We must face the challenge of being witnesses to truth, creating a society where truth can be told, where our words are reliable, where we can trust one another. Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount about the Ten Commandments. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”[7] Jesus requires a level of truthfulness from his disciples that goes beyond taking an oath not to lie. It is a life of truth; a life lived with faithfulness toward God and responsibility toward others. The followers of Jesus were to be trustworthy, true, and faithful, a community of God’s people bound, not by oaths, but by love, trust, and responsibility for one another.

As Christians, we are challenged to do more than not bear false witness. We have a special call to be faithful witnesses. We are the people who witness to the work and words of Jesus Christ. We are the evangelists who are tasked with sharing the good news.

Evangelism is a word that tends to make us cringe. When I hear that word, I usually think of people who want to convert me to Christianity – at least their version of it – and my blood-pressure rises. But I’m not talking about proselytizing. I’m not talking about standing on a street corner shouting that judgment day is coming and we’re all going to hell unless we believe on Jesus. I’m talking about the evangelism of speaking our truth, the truth of how God is moving in us, and through us, and around us.

Now, let me stop to say that we must take care that we do not fall into the trap of thinking that our view of reality, of truth, of faith, of God, of what it means to be Christian, is the only way of seeing things. We don’t have a universal perspective. Bishop Spong warns us:
Words can point to God, but words can never capture God. Creeds can be formed to contain truths but creeds can never be formed that will exhaust the truth. God is bigger than the human frame of reference which tries to talk about him. God is bigger than any of the words of any human being about [her]. No matter how hallowed by the ages, no matter how thin or how gilt-edged the pages which we say contain the holy words, God is beyond the understanding of the Bible. God is beyond the understanding of our holy traditions, beyond the creeds, beyond the Church itself. No human system of thought can ever be ultimate. God, alone, is ultimate. Anything less than God will be destructive the minute we elevate it to the level of ultimacy.[8]
As witnesses to Jesus, we are evangelists. However, the evangelism I’m talking about does not make the claim that any of us hold the absolute truth for all time. God is, after all, still speaking. The evangelism that I’m talking about means being a faithful witness to the living Christ that is at work in our own lives. It means bearing truthful witness, speaking the truth, even though it may be hard, even though we may pay a price for it.

Evangelism means not hiding the values upon which we base our lives and our actions, but standing up for them. It means becoming representatives of Christ, ambassadors of God to the world. It means seeing other people, every person, no matter how strange or different, as a neighbor. It means loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. It means being true to ourselves and our vocation. It means bearing faithful witness to our own identity as Christians, as the people of God.

Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

[1] Exodus 6:7.  The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[2] Deuteronomy 19:15.
[3] Walter Brueggemann. “The Book of Exodus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).
[4] John Shelby Spong. “The Human Tongue – A Call to Responsibility” in The Living Commandments (New York: Seabury Press, 1977).
[5] Matthew 15:10-20 (selected).
[6] This story, from the Jewish tradition, I altered from Spong in The Living Commandments.
[7] Matthew 5:33-37 (selected).
[8] Spong.