Sunday, September 19, 2021

God Provides Blessings: Heart of a Parent

The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac.

After these events, God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”

Abraham answered, “I’m here.”

God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Abraham got up early in the morning, harnessed his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, together with his son Isaac. He split the wood for the entirely burned offering, set out, and went to the place God had described to him.

On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place at a distance. Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”

Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”

Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”

Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.” The two of them walked on together.

They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”

Abraham said, “I’m here.”

The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.” --Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from God’s beloved Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Parenting is so hard, isn’t it? Whether you love children of your own making, or children of your siblings, or grandchildren, parenting - in every form - is hard. My son is well beyond his “difficult” years, but I still remember the challenges of that time. Not so much that he was “difficult,” but that the choices I had to make as a parent were difficult. Whether to work those extra hours, so I could make more money and better support him. Or to choose to spend time with him instead and risk running out of food at the end of the month. Or then, there are the choices we make about our children’s behaviors - whether to respond and, if so, how strongly to respond, always worried about the risk of how an exaggerated response might escalate their response. And, even, possibly drive them away.

And, then, there are the sacrifices, aren’t there? When they're younger, it’s such a sacrifice of time. The constant feeling of exhaustion and a sense that you weren’t really prepared for this. Even as they grow older and older, the sacrifices change, but they are still there. Yet, none of those sacrifices even begin to compare to that being asked of Abraham in our story today.

This is a hard story. Let’s just be honest about this. In the Jewish tradition, this story is called the “Binding of Isaac.” I wonder if it's not better called “The Destruction of Abraham.” Abraham is called by God - this God we heard of last week as a creating God, a God of life. Abraham is called by God to take his one remaining son. (Remember how he sent his other son, Ishmael, born of Hagar, away and into the wilderness?) Abraham is called by God to take Isaac, his one remaining son. His most beloved child. To go to Mount Moriah - the future site of the temple - and to sacrifice him on an altar they will build together. 

One can only wonder what kind of God would do this? Would ask this of a man to whom a nation had been promised from this son? A father who loved his son more than everything? This story seems to completely contradict everything we know and believe about God.

But, there’s one more thing about this story. Something that nags at me each time I’ve read it.  As a parent, I have to ask the questions - maybe you’re asking them, too - Why does Abraham make the choices he does? And, why doesn’t Abraham say anything to challenge God in any way? 

We all have to make choices in our lives. Choices as parents. How to raise our kids. What to teach them. Whether to allow them to do certain things. And I don’t know about you, but there have been many times that I’ve made the wrong choices. Even with good intent. There were times when my choices were just complete failures. But, I think with most of us, our choices come out of our experience. Experiences that are so different from parent to parent. Experiences that drive us to make the decisions we make for our kids. And their lives. And our lives together.

Perhaps that’s why Abraham made the choice he made. Why he didn’t challenge God when God told him to take his son, his only son, his beloved son, and sacrifice him on the mountain that day. Perhaps Abraham made this choice based on his own experience with God. Up to this point, God had asked him to do a lot of things. Ten tests, in fact, according to Jewish tradition. Moving away with Sarah from their homeland to become strangers in this new land of Canaan. Then, on arriving, facing a famine. And then, promised to become a great nation, he and Sarah continued to be childless. The tests had been many for Abraham, from his first meeting with God. Yet, so far, his experience was that this God, to whom he had been covenanted, was a God who kept promises. A God who remained faithful.

So, perhaps, Abraham made the choice he made because he believed that God would be faithful. That God would not let his future and that of Isaac be destroyed.

This text has traditionally been read on Good Friday. If we were to read this story today as if it were that day, perhaps it might - as one theologian puts it - become at least clear why Abraham can afford to trust God with his own beloved son. Because, in every circumstance and beyond all reason, God can be trusted with a child because God’s heart is wholly the heart of a parent. And it’s on Good Friday that we see, with eyes of faith, our own God standing just as Abraham did. An anguished parent yearning over his adorable, true and only Son. Bound on the wood. Behold the Lamb of God.

In our Christian tradition, we know this God as the one whose heart has been torn wide open by the conflict between God’s love for God’s Son. And God’s love for the world. 

We know the choice made by God. Yet, stranger than strange, in making this choice, we also see that God’s heart, once it is ripped wide open, now has the capacity to love even more.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Preached September 19, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-14; John 1:29

God Provides Blessings: God's Good Creation

When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night.

There was evening and there was morning: the first day.

God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.” God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way. God named the dome Sky.

There was evening and there was morning: the second day.

God said, “Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.” And that’s what happened. God named the dry land Earth, and he named the gathered waters Seas. God saw how good it was. God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened. The earth produced plant life: plants yielding seeds, each according to its kind, and trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was.

There was evening and there was morning: the third day.

God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.” And that’s what happened. God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night. God put them in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was.

There was evening and there was morning: the fourth day.

God said, “Let the waters swarm with living things, and let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky.” God created the great sea animals and all the tiny living things that swarm in the waters, each according to its kind, and all the winged birds, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was. Then God blessed them: “Be fertile and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.”

There was evening and there was morning: the fifth day.

God said, “Let the earth produce every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.” And that’s what happened. God made every kind of wildlife, every kind of livestock, and every kind of creature that crawls on the ground. God saw how good it was. Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.

There was evening and there was morning: the sixth day.

The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created. --Genesis 1:1-2:4a (CEB)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Creator, Jesus, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, brooding over the waters. Amen.

The human story could have started anywhere. Our first peek at humanity could have been paradise. It could have been the fall from grace. But, the human story - our story - starts at the beginning, with the creation of everything. And it starts with the Creator of all things.

We just watched a video of one person’s interpretation of this Genesis story. Yet, if we go back to the holy scripture and read it carefully, we see just how intentional God was about creation. God was thoughtful. Careful. And creative. God included everything - light, universe, stars, sun, atmosphere, seas, land, plants, animals. And then, it was time for people. 

People could simply have been made a higher form of animals. But God did something quite unique with humanity. God created people in God’s own image. Putting God’s fingerprint on humanity in a way not done with anything else in God’s creation.

So, we were created in the image of the Creator, which means we were created to create. This is no small distinction. We were not created to break down or to destroy. We were not created to hate, which is at the root of our desire to destroy.

In our lives, we have decisions to make all day long. At their core, each of our decisions comes with an underlying question. Will our choice create or destroy? Will it build up or break down? Will it contribute or remove?

We are living through very difficult times in our world. There is so much division. So much instability. So much destruction of God’s creation. So much that is bad in our world. 

Yet, the flip side is true, as well. I’ve been listening to many stories over the past few days - stories that reminded me of what that time was like after 9/11. That world-changing event that happened these 20 years ago. Do you remember that time? I remember how, in the midst of the destruction and the devastation, people pulled together - first responders in particular. We pulled together to do what was necessary to save as many lives as possible. 

Now, I recognize that life is complex. My own attitude after 9/11 was that we, as a nation, had taken the right steps, began to change. As I saw mistakes made by leaders, as I heard stories from my own son deployed to Afghanistan, that attitude began to change. And I began to question whether we had, in fact, done the right thing. Isn’t this often true. That we go into a situation thinking we are doing something right. Then, when we’re in the midst of it, recognize that, perhaps, our choice wasn’t so right after all. I wonder if we’d asked these questions - will our choice create or destroy? Will it build up or break down? Will it contribute or remove? If we’d asked these questions, maybe our choice would have been different. And the outcome better.

We are living right now in a world divided by partisan rhetoric. Where too many issues with complex questions and answers have been simplified into sound bites simply for political gain. Can things change? Can we come together to face the complex issues that affect our world?

I say we can. If we listen and watch for the breath of God brooding across the dark waters and ask these difficult questions about creating and building up and contributing I say we can. Isn’t that, after all, what our three congregations are doing right now? Isn’t that what the Holy Spirit is doing right now in our very midst - leading us to change and to form new and different types of partnerships, so that we might together live out our mission as God’s called people in new and creative ways. It’s not always easy and often very hard. But, this is what creating looks like! This is what building looks like! This is what contributing looks like!

If we were to approach all of our life’s decisions from this perspective that we, as God’s human creation, have been placed on this earth to create, and to build, and to contribute. If this were so, the world would be moving in a much better direction. And we would be brought together as we would also experience deeper joy, celebrating together what we have created and continue to contribute to this world.

So, as we leave here today and over this next week, I invite you to ask these questions of yourselves throughout each and every day. Am I creating or destroying? Am I building up or tearing down? Am I contributing to or taking away from all the goodness that God has created in our world?

As you consider these questions this week, may you also remember that you have been created in the image of God - that God has marked you as God’s own with the very fingerprint of God.


Preached September 12, 2021, at New Goshen Presbyterian, Prospect, with Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, John 1:1-5

Presence and Promise: The End of the World

 Six weeks ago, as we began this series in the book of Revelation, the first image of God we were introduced to was that of Creator. Remember that scene in the throne room with the four creatures as they, along with the twenty-four elders, bowed down to worship, saying “You are worthy, our Lord and God...for you created all things.”

Today, we conclude our readings in Revelation with that same image of God as Creator, whose final great act consists of a new creation. The first part of our reading is from Revelation, chapter 21.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. --Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the One who is and was and is coming and from Jesus Christ, faithful witness, firstborn from among the dead, ruler of the kings of earth. Amen.

Just a few short weeks ago, I asked this question, “Is this the end of the world?” 

I was talking to Pastor Elisa of New Goshen Presbyterian. In addition to her work there as interim pastor, she also works for Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light. If you’re not familiar with it, you might think it’s a power company. Well, it is a power company of sorts, I guess. It’s a community of congregations, faith-based organizations and other people of faith who have chosen to respond to climate change as an ethical and moral issue. And that, through education, advocacy and action, mobilizes a religious response to climate change and the social injustice it creates. 

As part of her work, she is privy to studies and other information that you and I probably don’t come across in our normal days’ activities. So, our conversation that day was about a study that she had just seen. That, as she put it, “if you knew what I knew, you would be overwhelmed.” She was referring to a recent report published by a large group of scientists that said that climate change is not some far away thing. That we don’t have 10-20 years, even 5-10 years. That it’s now. 

Given all that we’ve been witness to this past summer - the wildfires, the hurricanes, the record rain and flooding, the drought and so many other weather events - the idea that climate change has come is probably no surprise.

But, when you add this to all of the other crises that we have been witness to in the past year or so, including the collapse of the Afghan government, the political turmoil in Haiti, Myanmar, Hong Kong and so many other places in our world, and all those that have past and that I’ve already forgotten because they just seem to happen week after week after week. And, did I mention COVID? It was all of this that, in my conversation with Pr. Elisa, led me to blurt out, “Is this the end of the world?”

Maybe you’ve been wondering this a little, too.

So, perhaps, it has been a good thing for us to sit in Revelation for a few weeks. Because, like us, the early churches to whom this letter was addressed knew chaos and crisis. They knew massive upheaval and change. They knew and experienced hard and horrible things. It’s why the author shared his vision. To help them understand. And to help them prepare. To help us understand. And to prepare.

Their preparation - and ours - isn’t like preparing a “go bag” - one of those bags you keep handy in the event of a major disaster. Something filled with important papers and things you might need in an emergency. It’s not like preparing an “earthquake box” or a “hurricane tub” that you might pack to sustain you and your loved ones for a few weeks until help can arrive.

No, their preparation - and ours - happens by doing those things that keep us connected to God. Spiritual practices - like worship and prayer, and reading our Bible, and loving our neighbor - those things that form and shape us to be God’s people. It is these practices that guide our experiences and decisions and that give us that faithful endurance for those harder things. Because, through them, we learn that we have a God upon whom we can rely. Whether it’s through the small stuff, or the major crises and times of chaos. We have a God who loves us, who has offered up his Son for us and who promises us a new creation. 

The defeat of the forces of evil doesn’t result in the destruction or annihilation of the earth. Rather, it leads to God saying “I will make all things new.” It includes the resurrection of all the dead, but doesn’t stop there. When death is conquered, creation itself is made new. It’s a future - God’s future - that is pictured as a city with a garden at its center. Where both the human and the natural world are reconciled. With gates that stand open all the time to invite us and all people into the presence of God. With rivers and streams that offer life. And a tree that offers abundant fruit. Sweet, juicy, abundant fruit.

This is the future that God calls and invites us into. And all people everywhere. This is the end of the world that we are promised. May we live in anticipation of this world - this new Jerusalem - by claiming its way of life and by bearing witness to God, whose work of creation and new creation brings only life.


Preached Sunday, September 5, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5; John 16:20-21.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Presence and Promise: Conquering by Sacrifice

For sixteen chapters in Revelation, we read what is commonly known as the vision cycles. We heard one of these visions last week - that of the four horsemen. Throughout these visions, gruesome and frightening as they may be, the salvation community continues to praise God. We heard this last week in chapter 7 - that those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” continue to “worship God day and night.” There is also the promise that cosmic calamities, or the forces of evil at work in the world, or the final destruction at the end of time will overwhelm those who identity and security are found within  nor the final destruction at the end of time will overwhelm those whose identity and security are found in God and the Lamb.

Today, we hear of another vision. This time of the two beasts. Our reading today is from Revelation, chapter 13. I’m picking up at the very end of chapter 12.

Then the dragon stood on the seashore, and I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. Each of its horns was decorated with a royal crown, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard. Its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. The dragon gave it his power, throne, and great authority. One of its heads appeared to have been slain and killed, but its deadly wound was healed. So the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon because it had given the beast its authority. They worshipped the beast and said, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

The beast was given a mouth that spoke boastful and blasphemous things, and it was given authority to act for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to speak blasphemies against God. It blasphemed God’s name and his dwelling place (that is, those who dwell in heaven).

It was also allowed to make war on the saints and to gain victory over them. It was given authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation. All who live on earth worshipped it, all whose names hadn’t been written—from the time the earth was made—in the scroll of life of the Lamb who was slain. Whoever has ears must listen: If any are to be taken captive, then into captivity they will go. If any are to be killed by the sword, then by the sword they will be killed. This calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.

Then I saw another beast coming up from the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it was speaking like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence. It also makes the earth and those who live in it worship the first beast, whose fatal wound was healed. It does great signs so that it even makes fire come down from heaven to earth in the presence of the people. It deceives those who live on earth by the signs that it was allowed to do in the presence of the beast. It told those who live on earth to make an image for the beast who had been wounded by the sword and yet came to life again. It was allowed to give breath to the beast’s image so that the beast’s image would even speak and cause anyone who didn’t worship the beast’s image to be put to death. It forces everyone—the small and great, the rich and poor, the free and slaves—to have a mark put on their right hand or on their forehead. It will not allow anyone to make a purchase or sell anything unless the person has the mark with the beast’s name or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the beast’s number, for it’s a human being’s number. Its number is six hundred sixty-six. --Rev. 13:1-18 (CEB)

Throughout history images of animals have often been used as symbols to send different messages or to represent certain things.

Dogs in art, as one example, have not always been considered man’s best friend. From the earliest times up to the Renaissance, their qualities were mixed - from vigilance and faithfulness and wisdom, to anger, lechery, and greed. Titian used the idea of a dog as treacherous for this scene in the Last Supper, as he paired Judas with a dog to symbolize the disciple’s betrayal of Jesus.

The rabbit, as another example, has a long-standing symbolism for - no surprise - lust. However, because of the rabbit’s ability to reproduce often, there was also a myth that they could procreate without a partner. This led to another interpretation - that the animal signified the virgin birth and chastity as shown in another 16th century painting by Titian, entitled Madonna with Rabbit.

The peacock is one more example. Here in this painting called The Adoration of the Magi, by Fra Angelica and Fra Filippo Lippi, it represents immortality.

We use animal symbolism today, too. If I were to put up an image of a bear and a bull, what immediately comes to mind? They are symbols of the stock market. And what about these two images - an elephant and a donkey? Both are used in political cartoons, representing each of the political parties.

This is what is happening in today’s reading. We find the beast from the sea and his associate online represent a political authority that has become as destructive as a beast. The monster has been set up as the ultimate authority - a power that is to be worshiped above all else. For the author, this beast represents the Roman empire. But it is symbolic of any human institution that sets itself over and above God, at any point in history. And it describes conditions that we, too, know to be true about our world. 

One characteristic of the image is that one of the beasts gives power and authority to another more powerful and frightening. The nature of this evil - or Satan, personified in our today’s reading as a dragon - is that it goes against the desire of Jesus to free all people from tyranny.

Another characteristic of the beast is that the whole earth follows it. Because the gathering of numbers is essential and people are far too often swayed by the movement of a crowd or community. And, for evil, a movement desires to divide or to set people against each other in order to gain or preserve power and authority is a way that is contrary to the love of God and of God’s will to unite people through love and shared sacrifice. 

One more characteristic of the beast is that it mounts a full-scale assault on the agents of God. The evil here is that it is not enough to mislead followers, but evil must also discredit, incapacitate or even kill those who strive for good. 

Evil works covertly and surreptitiously to undermine the work and the power of God. In chapter 13, the author of Revelation portrays the Roman political system in this way to ask people about their highest loyalties. When we listen to the news, which in this past week seems so challenging and frustrating and disheartening, do we believe that this destructive system has become invincible? That evil has won out? That’s what the people in this chapter of Revelation are thinking.

But that is not what the Revelation sees. It sees that the beast is the opposite of the Lamb, who gives us our true identity. It sees that the beast conquers by tyranny, but that the Lamb conquers by the sacrifice that frees. It sees that the mark of the beast is the opposite of the seal of God and of the Lamb.

All of these images challenge us to ask to whom we truly belong: do we belong to the forces that destroy? Or do we belong to the Lamb who saves and liberates?

May we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be and live as those who have been washed and freed in the blood of the Lamb, to worship God day and night. Amen.  

Preached August 29, 2021, online with Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Revelation 13:1-18, John 12:30-32

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Presence and Promise: The Promise of LIfe

Over these past two weeks, we’ve seen these visions of the heavenly throne room. In the first week, we had this image of God, the Creator. A God we’ve been introduced to over and over in the prophets. God, at the center of the universe, surrounded by the heavenly council and the four living creatures, who represent humanity and all of creation - all of whom are singing these songs of praise to God. Songs that we sing in our liturgy and our hymns: holy, holy, holy.

Week Two brought us the image of the Lamb. The One worthy to open the scroll in God’s hand - the master plan by which God would redeem and restore us and all creation. Once again, we heard of the praise of heaven and earth for this Lamb - Worthy is Christ the Lamb who was slain.

Today, these scenes of praise and celebration give way to threatening visions. As the Lamb begins to open the seals of the scroll, we experience a series of seven threatening visions. One of which - perhaps the most threatening vision for us of all - is the basis for the first part of today’s reading. In Revelation, chapter 6. 

Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victory.

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Out came another horse, fiery red. Its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth so that people would kill each other. He was given a large sword.

When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, “A quart of wheat for a denarion, and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don’t damage the olive oil and the wine.”

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a pale green horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and the Grave was following right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, famine, disease, and the wild animals of the earth.

These are the threats that are real. They are as real for us today as they were for people in the first century. These are the things that strip away any sense of security we might have. Each of them represented by one of the four horsemen. 

The first horseman in white represents the threat of conquest. 

How secure are we as a nation? The people reading John’s Revelation lived in the most secure nation on earth. Much like we do today. They, like us, took this for granted. Yet, as we have learned in these past many months, our nation’s security can easily be undermined. It is more tenuous than we realize. Unexpected and unseen forces, whether from outside or from inside our nation’s borders continuously threaten our national security. How secure are is our nation? This is the potential threat represented by the first horsemen.

The second horseman in fiery red represents the threat of violence - the violence we do to each other. It asks the question, “How secure are you in your community or even in your own home?” This is a threat that keeps us up at night. That causes such anxiety. How do we keep ourselves or our families safe? This is the threat that leads us to trust in weapons and in security systems that often give us a false sense of security. How safe really are you and your loved ones from violence?

The third horseman in black represents the threat of food shortage or of economic hardship. Isn’t this another threat that keeps us up at night? Where will the money come from? For food, for shelter, for those basic needs to, once again, keep us safe. How secure is your family economically? We live in one of the richest countries in the world, but as we see greater and greater economic inequality and insecurity in our nation. How secure are each of us really? One or two paychecks away from financial ruin. One stock market crash away from economic failure. How secure are you and your loved ones financially?

The fourth horseman in pale green represents the threat of death. How secure is your health or your life? This is perhaps the most frightening for all of us. Whether it is a cancer diagnosis, a heart attack or a stroke or the continuing threat of the pandemic, this threat of the loss of our health or of our lives terrifies us. 

Each of these four horsemen present threats that remind us of how vulnerable we really are. Over and over again, they ask the question, “How secure are you? No, really! How secure are you and those you love?” They lead us, like the writer of Revelation before the final seal is opened, to ask this question: who can stand in the face of these threats? How can we survive?

The answer is in the second part of our reading today. From Revelation, chapter 7.

After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. They cried out with a loud voice:

“Victory belongs to our God
       who sits on the throne,
            and to the Lamb.”

All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, saying,

“Amen! Blessing and glory
        and wisdom and thanksgiving
        and honor and power and might
            be to our God forever and always. Amen.”

Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

I said to him, “Sir, you know.”

Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
--Revelation 6:1-8; 7:9-17 (CEB)

Who can stand? Who can stand in the face of these threats? John sees who can stand: those who have been redeemed by the Lamb. You and I and believers across time. We can stand. 

It does not mean that these threats are not real. Or that they will go away. We have over this past year and a half been witness to every one of these threats. We have experienced every one of them. 

But, the promise here is that, even in the face of conquest or violence or economic hardship or illness or death - the promise we have is that of life. It is this promise that allows us to stand in the face of these threats, knowing and trusting that, ultimately, God’s purpose is one of life. No more hunger or thirst. No sun or scorching heat. No more tears. A promise for you and for me. For all people and for all time. 
Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.

Preached August 22, 2021, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, and Third Lutheran, Louisville.
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Revelation 6:1-8; 7:9-17; John 14:1-4

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Presence and Promise: The One Who Is Worthy

We are, once again, in the book of Revelation. Our reading today is a a continuation of the scene we heard about and imagined last week. The setting is the heavenly throne room. It is a scene of universal worship for God, who sits at the center, surrounded by the heavenly court and by images that are representative of all creation, including humankind. All have fallen to their knees in front of the One seated on the throne. The One who was and who is and who is to come.

We read today in Revelation, chapter 5. 

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed[a] with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
    saints from[b] every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving[c] our God,
    and they will reign on earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!” -Revelation 5:1-13 (NRSV)

Do you remember the movie Cinderella? There’s this scene, after the ball and after Cinderella has made it safely home just at midnight when her carriage <poof> turns back into a pumpkin. The mice, formerly her footmen, scatter into the night. 

The prince decrees a nationwide search. To find the young woman who foot fits the glass slipper, left on the palace stairs. He searches far and wide. High and low. To find the one whose foot fits the glass slipper. Because, when that happens, he will know that it is her. The woman he wants to make his wife.

It’s a similar search that our text today opens with. But this is a search to find the one worthy to open the scroll held in the right hand of the one seated on the heavenly throne - the right hand which always is a sign of power and authority. This scroll in the hand of the Creator One contains the plan. A plan written on the front and the back of the scroll, which has been fasted by seven seals. We talked about the significance of the number seven in John’s writing. Seven, meaning completeness, wholeness. This scroll contains the plan by which God will redeem the world. 

But there’s a problem. A crisis, really! There is no one to be found worthy enough to open the scroll and break its seals. No one, neither the angel or anyone else in heaven or on earth or under the earth can be found who is powerful enough to open the scroll. The narrator of this vision - John - is distraught. Yet, he is comforted by one of the elders who reminds him that the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” the Messiah has emerged victorious. And is thus worthy to break open the scroll and the seven seals.

Suddenly, in his vision, John sees a Lamb. He was expecting a roaring lion. Instead, he sees that this Lion is, in fact, a Lamb that has apparently been slain. This person, this Lamb, alone has the power to open the scroll of the future.

Now this is not some fuzzy, sweet little lamb. This Lamb has seven horns and seven watchful eyes, both signs of royal power and vigilance. The Lamb stands as if it has been slaughtered, a violent image that not only brings to mind the crucifixion of Jesus, but also the violence that is about to befall the Christian churches in Asia Minor, to whom this revelation has been addressed and who are no longer considered followers of an “official” religion of the Roman Empire.

This Lamb is the worthy One. And when the slain lamb takes the scroll from the hand of God, the universe erupts in song. First, those who surround the throne, then the angels, and finally, every creature in the universe. “You are worthy!” they sing. “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain. Because by your blood you have purchased for God persons of every tribe, language, people and nation, making them a kingdom and priests to God. They will rule on earth.

This scroll will mark God's plan. God’s final and fully predetermined plan to redeem the world. A plan that begins with the death of God’s own Son. A sacrificial lamb, willingly offered for the cleansing and rescue of the world. A self-giving, life-giving Lamb, who offers itself that the whole world might be redeemed. 

Both of the throne room scenes - last week and today - set the stage. The death of Christ is the way that God’s power is unleashed. Not the kind of power that we are witness to in our world - authoritarian power that harms or corrupts or is self-serving. No, this is the power of self-sacrifice. A power that builds God’s kingdom by redeeming people of every tribe. And every nation. That redeems you and I. And that calls us to live in the same self-sacrificial way. The way of love. The way of service. 

In this time, when so much is unsettled. When it seems as though the entire world, even all creation, is falling apart before our very eyes. Know that this Lamb, this self-sacrificial, bloody Lamb is worthy. Worthy to carry out God’s final plan of redemption. For you and I and all creation.

May we join the heavenly chorus in song. “Worthy is Christ the lamb who was slain!” Amen.

Preached August 15, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Goshen, and Third, Louisville.
12th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Revelation 5:1-113, John 1:29-31


Thursday, August 12, 2021

Presence and Promise: The Center of Our Universe

The book of Revelation. What comes to mind when you think of this book? Maybe it’s the Left Behind series so popular a few years ago talking about the end of the world and the so-called rapture. Or maybe it’s all of the bizarre imagery in the book, ideas and word pictures that seem nearly impossible to interpret. Or maybe it’s 666 - the anti-Christ and the many people that have been identified as this being. Or maybe you’ve just never read it because, as one member told me, it just scares the bejesus out of her. 

Today, we are in the first of five Sundays in this book. This apocalyptic writing. Yet, it is more than this. So much more. It’s also a book of worship. As we read through selected passages, you will hear words that sound familiar to you, words that we have sung or spoken in our worship in the Church for over two millenia. 

It’s also an epistle - a letter to the Church. Originally addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor to prepare them and comfort them and challenge them, it is really a letter for the whole Church, the universal church. A letter that uses picture language, not to conceal, but, ultimately, to reveal. That opens with this claim - that it is “a revelation of Jesus Christ.” A revelation given to John that is intended to show us God’s ultimate mission and purpose for the world. 

We begin in Revelation, chapter 4.

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,

“Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come.”

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they existed and were created.” --Rev. 4:1-11 (CEB)

I’d like to begin today speaking about the context in which this book was written. The seven churches were churches all of which were likely planted by Paul. These were the seven churches of Asia Minor (present day Turkey): Ephesus. Smyrna. Pergamum. Thyatira. Sardis. Philadelphia (not in Pennsylvania). Laodicea. 

The number seven is the number of completeness, a number that figures prominently in all of John’s writings. The seven days of creation. The seventh day of the week, made holy by God as a day of rest. The seven clean animals Noah was commanded to bring in the ark. The seven years centered around the Year of Jubilee. Over and over again, we see the number seven used in scripture, intended to suggest wholeness.

This letter, although addressed to the seven churches, is really intended for the whole church, the universal church. A quick glimpse of these letters in the chapter preceding today’s text tells us that the positives and negatives of church life then are really no different from church life today. 

Ephesus is a congregation that is more interested in truth than in love. A church that has abandoned the love that first brought them together. Unable to distinguish between good theology and bad theology without becoming hateful. 

Smyrna is a persecuted church, rejected by people they had considered their friends, that has lost its privileged status as a “legal” religion and now faces the very real threat of persecution. 

Pergamum has also known persecution and martyrdom. It has experienced external pressure from the government, as well as, internal pressure from its own members to conform to the wishes of the state. 

Thyatira had secret societies and a fascination with a type of spiritualism that John describes as “the deep things of Satan.” He warns them about playing with people’s spirituality. 

Sardis is a church that has a great community reputation as a church alive and active. But, behind its facade, this church is dead. Only going through the motions. With little substance to its witness. Fooling everyone, including themselves. Because it is no longer a church able to tell the difference between real Christian witness and useless religious rituals and beliefs.

Laodicea is a wealthy, self-sufficient church. It’s a “show” church. Fat, smug, self-satisfied. Free of controversy. But neutral, lukewarm and paralyzed. Financially secure, it is spiritually useless. 

Only one of the seven churches escapes John’s wrath. Philadelphia. It’s not a fat church. Not self-sufficient. Not financially secure. Yet it too is under pressure to conform to the religion of the Roman empire and offered special status if it cooperates. The members of this church, though, have found the cost of power too high. And they have decided to remain true to the name of the Crucified One. As a result, they, too, have been rejected and now face persecution.  

Seven churches. Each different, yet all of them somewhat similar. Which of these seven churches is like a church we know? Better yet, which of these seven are we? Or perhaps, we can find a bit of ourselves in all of them.

The book of Revelation is intended to be either a comfort or a challenge. A comfort to those experiencing persecution because they have refused to follow the religion of the state. Or a challenge to those churches who simply want to get along to go along. It is a book that reminds us - especially in today’s text - that God the Creator, and none other, is at the center of the universe. Not us. Not our culture. And, particularly, not the powers and principalities of our world. 

This is the meaning of the vision in the throne room in today’s reading. God, the creator, is seated on the throne. God looks like jasper and carnelian - stones of paradise from Ezekiel. The throne is surrounded by a rainbow, recalling the promise to Noah of God’s commitment to show mercy to every living creature. There are the twenty-four elders representing the heavenly court - the community of faith gathered around God in heaven. There’s lightning and thunder, images that represent God’s awesome power in nature. Finally, there are four living creatures which, for John, represent all living things. Notice that the one with the human face - representing all humanity - is not at the center. These beings join the elders, all of creation, and all the people of God, day and night praising the Creator. 

This is how the universe is ordered. With no human or anything else at its center other than God, the Creator. It is a reminder for us that no matter the chaos or difficulty or persecution or self-induced mess we may experience, God is at the center of our world, our universe, the whole cosmos. And God is at work, bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. And nothing. Nothing will separate us from God, ​​the Lord God the Almighty, who was. And is. And is to come. Amen.

Preached August 8, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Goshen, and Third, Louisville.
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Revelation 4:1-11, John 17:1-5

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Partners and Promise: Equipped and Called

Do you remember the book “All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten?”  It was first published in 1986 by Robert Fulghum. He was a graduate student at the time. The book was a series of essays, each formed around a simple premise. Do you remember some of them? Here are a few:

1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don't hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
6. Don't take things that aren't yours.
7. Say you're SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.

This central aspect of this list is relationships. Similarly, the central aspect of what we’ve been talking about as we’ve been working through Ephesians is about relationships. About this vertical relationship we have with God - this inheritance. This gracious gift of life and faith. And beginning last week about our horizontal relationships. About the barriers we place between ourselves and other people. And how Christ is our peace - the one who breaks those barriers down that are between us. The one who reveals the mystery of God’s plan, which is to reconcile all of God’s creation to Godself.

Today, we are reading about our part in this. About how we, as God’s called people, are to live worthy of that call. Kind of like the rules from kindergarten. Basic ideas that are simple, but elemental and fundamental to our entire way of being.

We read today from Ephesians, chapter 4.

Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. 2 Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, 3 and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. 4 You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. 5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. 

7 God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ. 8 That’s why scripture says, When he climbed up to the heights, he captured prisoners, and he gave gifts to people.

9 What does the phrase “he climbed up” mean if it doesn’t mean that he had first gone down into the lower regions, the earth? 10 The one who went down is the same one who climbed up above all the heavens so that he might fill everything. 

11 He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. 12 His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ 13 until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. 15 Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, 16 who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part. --Ephesians 4:1-16 (CEB)

They’re pretty simple, aren't they? These rules for the road. Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Enter into relationships with a sense of humility. And gentleness. And patience. When conflict arises, to always be looking inward to see how you or I might have been at fault. Or at least partially at fault. 

To accept each other with love. Including accepting one other as we are, understanding that each one of us is a work in progress. And, above all, making an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties us together. One body. A body that is grounded in our baptisms as God’s called people. A body that has been given all of the gifts needed to do God’s work in the world. A body to be trained up in the way of mission - that has been formed with all of the gifts it needs to go out into the world to accompany the Spirit’s work of building the kingdom. And a body that requires all of its parts to function. Where no part is more important or less than the other. It seems so simple, right? And, yet, we know how very hard this can be.

I want to talk for a moment about anger. The verses we are reading today don’t speak specifically about anger. But, if you go just a few verses further in chapter 5, there it is. “Be angry, but don’t sin.”

We have a problem in the church with anger. We don’t do anger well. Often believing that anger is not okay.

The Greek word for anger is orgizmo. It describes an inner boiling that needs to explode out. Generally, we fall into two categories: exploders or imploders. 

With exploders the anger boils and the rage comes out immediately. We shout. We gesture boldly. Perhaps we engage in some kind of violence, whether it’s slamming a door, throwing something, putting a fist through a wall, or shouting a not-so-repeatable string of words.

With imploders, the anger boils, but it boils internally, while the exterior stays calm, even cold. Imploders are silent, but often deadly. You might not know they are angry, but they may be inwardly plotting revenge. Beware of imploders.

Both of these expressions of anger are natural. Human. But both are equally dangerous if left unchecked. Exploders and imploders are capable of delivering great physical and emotional damage, not only to others, but also to themselves.  

So, what does the Bible say about anger? First, Jesus got angry. All four of the gospels record that incident in the temple, where Jesus saw the money-changers extorting the poor. And drove them out with a whip, overturning their tables. 

So, here’s the logic. If Jesus got angry, and Jesus was without sin, then anger is not sin. Going back to Ephesians, there’s a distinction a little further on beyond our reading today - a distinction between anger and sin. “Be angry, but do not sin,” Ephesians tells us.

It’s okay to be angry. God got angry all the time as God watched the people of Israel repeatedly make poor life choices that brought harm to themselves and to the weak, the poor, and foreigner among them. Every good parent gets angry when children disobey and make harmful life choices.

The problem isn’t anger. It’s what we do with anger. The Ephesians writer goes on to say, “don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” But, the Greek word used here for anger is not the same one as in the first part of the verse. It’s a word that is better translated as wrath.

The longer we stay angry, the more intense the anger becomes. If we don’t deal with it in a healthy and constructive way right away - before the sun goes down - then it will fester into bitterness and lead toward dark and destructive forces of vengeance. And when we act in this way all we do is to repay evil with evil, becoming the evil we seek to destroy.

So, what can we do about our anger?

First. Breathe. Breathing is essential to life. Perhaps that’s why the Holy Spirit is portrayed as breath. When we breathe deeply it calms us down. 

Second. Walk away. Create physical spaces that are calming to you and go there as you need to breathe. 

Then, third, examine your boundaries. Anger is an alarm system that indicates that there has been a breach in the perimeter we’ve established around the things we hold dear. But, what if those things we hold precious are our position, or our power, or our status, or money, or our self-importance. We become angry if, for example, someone makes us look stupid or tries to speak truth to our selfishness. Should this make us angry? Or is it perhaps necessary for us to look inward at the boundaries we’ve set for ourselves and to question whether our boundaries are the same things that God considers precious and worth protecting? This kind of self-reflection can be painful. But necessary. 

Fourth. Communicate clearly and constructively. Anger that is sparked by important things is good anger that should lead to justice and the betterment of our world. This rarely happens through argument or violence. This kind of anger should lead to clear communication that is assertive, respectful, and constructive for the whole community. Conversation that begins with “I feel” rather than “you don’t.” One of the greatest tools for any relationship is to learn how to fight well.

Then, finally, seek counseling. I’ve been there. Grief can cause us to lose control of our anger. Finding someone - a professional - to help us process our anger and our grief can teach us the skills we need to manage our anger and to focus it into more constructive behavior.

There you have it. Rules for the road. Simple, but foundational to who we are called to be as God’s people in this place. Mature adults. Fully grown and measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. Speaking the truth with love. 

May God lead each one of more maturity as members of the body of Christ. Amen.

Preached July 25, 2021, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, and Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Ephesians 4:1-16, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Psalm 65

Partners and Promise: Breaking Barriers

Last week, as we began our four week series in Ephesians, I mentioned to you the general consensus among theologians that this letter was not written by Paul. For some of you, this may be a little unsettling. Yet, we know that this was a way of doing things in the first century. We also know that this letter was used widely in the early church and was accepted as authoritative by church leaders when the canon - the collection of writings that make up our Christian Bible - was decided.

One of the reasons that it has been determined that this is not Paul’s letter is because the author of Ephesians goes a little further than Paul in a few areas. One of these relates to Christian baptism. Both authors write of baptism as a death and resurrection. That in our baptisms we die to an old way of being and are raised to a new person in Christ. Paul is careful to locate that resurrection with Christ into a future time - at the fullness of time. We heard this today in the Romans text: “we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

The Ephesians author goes further than Paul - saying that Christians have already been raised with Christ. And, therefore, are already part of Christ's heavenly kingdom. Just a few verses before our reading today, the author to the Ephesians writes these famous verses: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” The writer continues: “so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” 

This idea, that through our baptisms we are already part of Christ’s heavenly kingdom then sets the stage for our reading today, which begins to unpack the mystery of God’s plan mentioned last week. The mystery of the new thing that God is doing.

We read today in Ephesians, chapter 2.

11Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. --Ephesians 2:11-22 (CEB)

Who is your enemy? That may be a startling way to begin. But, who is your enemy? This is really the question that is being asked here.

To understand this, we need to grasp the huge divide between Jews and Gentiles in the first century. The Gentiles to the Jews were anyone and everyone who were not Jewish. There was deep hostility between Jews and Gentiles - hostility that was bound up with the law, which created personal and social antagonism between them. The laws, for example, that made eating with or intermarrying with Gentiles often led Jews to have contempt for Gentiles, regarding them as less than human. In response, then, Gentiles would often regard Jews with suspicion, considering them inhospitable and hateful to non-Jews. They would engage in prejudicial acts against the Jews.  This mutual animosity was one of the uglier elements of the first century world.

We might think of the relationship between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. My family is half Lutheran and half Catholic. When I was young, my aunt, who was Lutheran, fell in love with and married my uncle, who was Roman Catholic. It was scandalous in my family. So scandalous that my grandmother did not speak to my aunt for decades. Perhaps something like this has happened in your family. Where the barriers - the divisions - that arise, that we create, deeply harm relationships. 

But, the Ephesians author argues here - but Christ has demolished this law, this barrier between Jews and Gentiles, between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. To take it further, between black and white, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, and on and on. By demolishing the law, Christ has made each person part of the heavenly kingdom. Taking two divisive elements and creating one new person that transcends the two. A new creation. This is the claim of Ephesians.

And going further, the Church is the place where the results of this peacemaking by Christ, this embodiment of peace by Christ, is to be seen. Verses 15 and 16 from today’s reading: He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” 

If Christ has done this for Jew and Gentile, then Christ has done this wherever there is division, whether that division is caused by tradition, by class, by color, by nation, by groups of nations or by whatever it is that divides us. And we, in the Church, in this temple where God dwells, are called to be the example of what it is to embody peace. To move into the places in relationships that are uncomfortable. To cross the barriers that exist. Through our relationship with Christ and our relationship with one another, we are being shaped into a sanctuary that is fully fit for God.

So, back to my opening question. Who is your enemy? What are the relationships in your life that are characterized by division. Whether that division comes as a result of color or class or even just personality? Christ calls us to move beyond the division, to work to repair these relationships in our lives and in our church.

This morning, I invite you to sit silently for a few minutes before we sing our hymn of the day. What are these relationships that need tending in your life? Make a note in your bulletin of one of them. Then, add one step you can make, one uncomfortable step you can make, that begins to bridge the divide in that relationship. And trust that Christ will be in the midst of it overcoming the barriers that exist. Amen.

Preached July 18, 2021, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, and Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Ephesians 2:11-22, Romans 6:1-11, Psalm 84

Partners and Promise: Our Inheritance (and Responsibility)

 Today, we begin four weeks in Ephesians. Before we dive in, I’d like to offer a few notes about the context and circumstances, as well as, the authorship of this letter. Although this letter has historically been attributed to the apostle Paul, it has become fairly widely accepted that Paul did not write this letter. There was a practice in the first century of later authors writing under the name of an honored teacher or predecessor. The author of this letter adopts Paul’s name, the style and form in which he wrote, and other typical features of Paul’s writing as a way of honoring Paul, but also relating Paul’s teaching for a new time and new circumstances in the church.

It is also understood that this letter is addressed to later congregations, some one to two generations after the churches Paul planted. They reflect churches that are organized and structured and that have specific leadership roles. These are more mature churches. Likely located in Asia Minor - present day Turkey. There is a hint of discord and division in the churches. In chapter 4, we read that they are being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” that was coming, perhaps, from newer teaching not consistent with that of Paul and of their heritage. The primary concern of the author is that the unity of the church be maintained. 

Today, we read from Ephesians, chapter 1.

1 From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will.

To the holy and faithful people in Christ Jesus in Ephesus.

2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

3 Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. 4 God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. 5 God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan 6 and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. 7 We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, 8 which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding. 9 God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. 10 This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. 11 We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. 12 We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ. 13 You too heard the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation. You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory. --Ephesians 1:1-14 (CEB)

These opening verses are nothing other than a hymn of praise to God. They follow an ancient Hebrew tradition - the berakah, meaning blessing - a tradition that originated in response to an act of God’s deliverance. The Greek word for blessing, used here, is where we get the word “eulogy” - that practice, especially after one has died, of remembering and giving thanks for a life.

These first 14 verses are a eulogy to God. A song of praise celebrating the wealth and the abundance of God’s grace. Over and over we hear words repeated that, piled onto each other, speak of the riches of all that God has done. 

But this opening song is a distinctly Christian song of praise. It is linked to the presence and work of the Spirit that comes to us by way of our adoption as God’s children in Christ. Adoption that, through our baptisms, has brought us into God’s presence. Where we find forgiveness. Where we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit as downpayment on God’s future promises.

I first met Jesus in an adoption courtroom. I’ve mentioned many times to you of the years I worked in the court system in LA. For a couple of years, I was a relief clerk in the civil and family law divisions downtown. The adoption courtroom was located in the midst of the family law division, set among many departments that handled divorces. Difficult, acrimonious, and hard places to be. But, the adoption courtroom was different. It was my favorite courtroom to work in. A place of pure joy. Jesus was a little boy I met there, who, even though he was still young, had lived a difficult and hard life. He had been abused as a toddler, suffering through cigarette burns, broken bones, beatings and all of the related trauma of severe child abuse. Even though he was only 9 years old, he had been in the foster system since the age of three - in foster homes that, honestly, weren’t much better than the abusive home he’d escaped.

But, then he moved into the home of Fernando and Mary, a couple who’d been able to have a child of their own. Here, he found structure. And safety. But, mostly, here he found love. So, the day I met all of them was the day, four years later, that Jesus would formally be adopted by his new parents. There were balloons and stuffed animals everywhere. There was joy everywhere. It was a celebration of this new family, who had been brought together in adoption. 

You and I are also people of adoption. You and I have been adopted by God in our baptisms. Into places of refuge and safety, to which we have been called and are re-called over and over in our daily walking wet - as Luther calls it. A cleansing and renewal that we need and that is ours every day. Adopted into the forgiveness we receive in Christ. Given the gift of the Spirit as a downpayment. It is all part of God’s plan - a plan made well before the foundation of the world. Not some quick, last minute idea on God’s part, but a long-developed plan to have an intimate relationship with each one of us through Christ. God, who loved us before we were born and who loves us even more now. Who showers us with grace. Who continues to deliver us from the difficulty and hardship of life, even that of pandemic life. 

But, that’s not all! That isn’t all there is to God’s plan. There is so much more - an even bigger plan than the lavish grace that forgives our sins and buys us back from all that would seek to own us. God’s plan is to gather not just us in Christ, but to gather all things up into Christ. A plan that continues to unfold. So that the love, healing, wisdom, and welcome that we receive in our baptisms into Christ will be the same for all creation. It is through Christ that the mystery of God’s cosmic plan is revealed.

This is our destiny as people of God. This is the destiny of all creation. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Preached July 11, 2021, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, and Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Ephesians 1:1-14, Acts 2:37-42, Psalm 46