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.