Sunday, December 28, 2014

Restarting the Echoes of Christmas

(A Communion meditation based on Luke 2:22-40 for the 1st Sunday after Christmas Day 2014)

It was forty days after the birth of Jesus and the praise of the angels and of the shepherds was still echoing. In our text we hear it echoing in the words of two elderly people who had faithfully throughout their long lives waited and watched expectantly for God to act in the coming of the Messiah.

A few questions:

Are we looking for God to reveal the Messiah in whatever ways God chooses to reveal him?

Are we dedicating our lives to living in the light of his past, present, and future comings?

Are we proclaiming with our lives the presence of Christ in the world and in our lives?

Are the echoes of the Christmas event still echoing in our lives?

Mary and Joseph, in obedience to the teaching of their tradition, brought Jesus when he was forty days old to the Temple to be dedicated to the Lord. There they encountered Simeon and Anna, both of whom were well up in years. Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God for allowing him to see the Messiah. He then declared the role that Jesus would play in bringing about God’s purposes in the world, purposes that would affect all people. Then Simeon said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

“Good tidings of great joy”—that was what the angels had proclaimed forty days earlier.

“Falling and rising; opposition; a piercing sword”—that was what old Simeon now proclaimed.

The good news embodied in the baby Jesus was going to be worked out through love, you see, and love is willing to pay any price, no matter how difficult, challenging, or hurtful, to accomplish love’s work in love’s way. Love’s way is costly and sacrificial. Love is also contagious in both its positive and negative effects; when love leads someone we love to get hurt it hurts us—such was the price that Mary would pay. The angel Gabriel had told Mary that she was going to give birth to the Savior; Simeon was given necessary insight into what kind of Savior the baby was going to grow to be and he shared that insight with Mary.

Is it still difficult for us to accept that God’s way for the baby born in Bethlehem was the way of the Cross? It is one thing to praise God for the birth of the baby—it may be almost easy because it’s so much fun—but is it difficult for us to praise God for the path down which Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father took him? Mary seems to have taken the word of the Lord through Simeon as she took all of the words that she had heard and all of the experiences that she had experienced—she took them to heart, accepted them, pondered them, and lived with them. What do we do with them?

Simeon’s words and the reality that they reflected have echoed now for two thousand years. The nature of echoes, though, is that they fade away a little more each time they are repeated.

Perhaps it is time for us to proclaim the good news of the birth of Jesus with our words and with our lives in ways that are obvious so that the word can begin to echo anew.

How do we need to live? How do we need to give? How do we need to sacrifice? How do we need to take the hurt of others into our lives? How do we need to move from adoring the baby in the manger to following the man on the cross who told us to take up our cross and follow him?

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the One in whom “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Can we also celebrate the fact that the ministry of Christ continues through us, his Church? Will we embrace the truth that we are the body of Christ in the world and that we will be—we must be—broken for his sake and for the world’s sake?

Old Simeon held the Christ child in his arms. Today we hold in our hands the bread and the cup that represent the body and blood of Christ. As we go out, let us recommit ourselves to being the body of Christ in the world.

Sometimes it seems that the echoes of Christmas—and of Good Friday and Easter—have just about faded out.

Let’s live lives of love, of service, of forgiveness, of grace, of mercy, and of sacrifice that will get the echoes going again—and again—and again …

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Be Born In Us Today

(A sermon based on Luke 1:26-38 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2014)

Mary seems to have resolved in a few minutes a matter that some of us have been trying to resolve for a lifetime: can I receive Christ into my life?

I’m going to say that what happened in Mary can in a sense happen in us. But first, let’s note that there are at least two crucial differences between Mary and us (beyond the really crucial difference that she was the mother of the Christ child and we are not).

The first difference has to do with the state of our spirit.

We may have been trying to get Christ to come into our life; we may even have been doing so to a point that we have become anxious about it. Mary, on the other hand, made no effort and expended no energy; she was just going about the activities of her life when suddenly she learned that Christ had come to her. The coming of Christ into Mary’s life was, in other words, a gift of God’s grace and not a reward for some kind of super piety on her part. Oh, I have no doubt that Mary was a faithful worshiper of God and that she was among those who looked for the coming of the kingdom of God, but I also have no doubt that she was flummoxed by the news that she was to bear the Christ child.

So far as I can tell, if Mary had one quality that led God to choose her to be the one to bear the child it was her humility. A humble person may hope for much but she expects little.

Perhaps, then, one key to having Christ be born in us today is for us to relax and not worry about it so much. Maybe it’s those who don’t think they deserve to have him come to them who have the best chance of having him show up. Maybe it’s those who think they do deserve it who have the lesser chance.

The second difference between Mary and us has to do with the state of our mind.

We have a troubling tendency to think that we have the ways of God figured out; we have certain categories in which we think about how Christ can and even must come to us. We think we have to pray a certain prayer or follow a certain formula or experience a certain feeling when in fact Christ can come to us in any way that God pleases to send him to us. Mary, on the other hand, had no reason to think that Christ would ever come to her--the Messiah was to be a king and she was a peasant; the Messiah was to be powerful and she was weak; the Messiah was to be obvious and she was obscure. And yet when Christ came to her he came in ways that defied all of her understanding and overturned all of her preconceived notions.

It can be the same way with us—God is God, after all, and how God does what God does is up to God. It is the most extreme kind of hubris to think that we have God’s ways figured out.

Mary’s journey toward resolution began when she heard these words from the angel Gabriel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Interestingly, Mary did not seem perplexed to hear from an angel—let’s face it, we’d never get past that! She was perplexed rather at what the angel said to her. Why would she be favored? Why would the Lord be with her? After all, who was she? She was just a young girl in an obscure town in an obscure country; her engagement no doubt brought her some hopes for the future but they were likely not extraordinary hopes because there was nothing extraordinary about her, her situation, or her prospects.

Her pondering seems to have led her in the direction of fear since the angel told her not to be afraid. Are we afraid to hear from the Lord, too? When we hear from the Lord, whatever the circumstances, it is an act of great grace on God’s part. Mary heard from the Lord through an angel, which means that she heard from a messenger of God. We might hear from one of God’s messengers, too—from a friend, from a preacher, from a teacher, from a loved one, from a stranger, from an opportunity, from a crisis, from a book—or directly from God’s Spirit to our spirit.

Mary, the angel said, was not to be afraid because God’s grace was upon her. Because God’s grace was upon her she would bear the child who would be the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, and the Savior of the world. (It is worth observing that Gabriel’s assurances sound a lot like reasons to be afraid!) Mary asked, very reasonably, how this could be since she was a virgin.

That’s always a good question to ask: “How can this be?” How can it be that Christ can come to us? How can it be that Christ can be born in us today? How can it be that Christ can come to me? “How can it be since I am …?” and we can all fill in the blank for ourselves, although I suspect that usually our words will carry a more negative connotation than “virgin.” For many of us, the question will be “How can it be that Christ will come to me given that, when it comes to the things of the world, I am anything but a virgin?”

The word that came to Mary is the word that comes to us: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Christ wants to be born in all of us—even in you and me.

And so we come to Mary’s wonderful response: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Yes, there are a lot of ways in which we are different than Mary and there are a lot of ways in which our situation is different than hers. But the fact is that Christ can be born in us today just as surely as he was born through Mary into our world. He comes to us not because of our worthiness but because of God’s grace.

There is no one to whom Christ cannot be born today—even you, even me.

All we have to do is to be available. All we have to say is “Yes.” Not “Yes” to what we have done. Not “Yes” to what we deserve. Not “Yes” to what we can earn. Just “Yes” to what God has done in Christ; just “Yes” to the grace and love of God …

Monday, December 15, 2014

Where is the Rebel Church?

(A sermon based on Luke 1:46b-55 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent 2014)

Something’s not right.

The rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer. Every three years the Federal Reserve conducts a Survey of Consumer Finances; the most recent survey in 2013 revealed that the average pre-tax income for those Americans in the top 10% in terms of wealth rose by 10% from 2010-2013 while the average pre-tax income for Americans in the bottom 40% declined. The study reveals that in America no one is getting richer except for the rich.

In the United States in 2013, 45.3 million people (14.5 percent) were in poverty while 14.7 million (19.9 percent) children under the age of 18 were in poverty. 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 33.3 million adults and 15.8 million children; households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children, 20 percent compared to 12 percent.

Here in 2014, 225 years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, 140 years after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, we still, as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and other places have shown, struggle with issues of power and justice and race.

I know that some of you are thinking that that’s just the way it is and some things will never change. But as the prophet Bruce Hornsby sang, “Ah, don’t you believe it!”

Besides, while I am concerned about the situations that I have described, what’s really on my heart today is the way that we who profess to follow Christ and to be citizens of the kingdom of God think about—or don’t think about, and respond to—or don’t respond to, those situations, especially when we consider what Jesus’ coming into this world was all about. And what Jesus’ coming into the world was all about is what today’s scripture is all about.

Let’s set the narrative context. A priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who were both childless and along in years, were expecting a child; that child would turn out to be John the Baptizer. Elizabeth’s kinswoman Mary—young, poor, unmarried, and probably very, very frightened—had been told by the angel Gabriel that she was going to have a baby whom she would name Jesus and who would be the Messiah. Mary had left her hometown of Nazareth and gone to visit Elizabeth. When Mary said “Hello” to Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s belly leaped for joy. There’s a Hebrew Bible story about Isaac’s wife Rebekah experiencing a lot of excess movement during her pregnancy and the Lord told her that it was because the twins inside her—who were upon making their debut named Jacob and Esau—were two nations struggling together. They were really going to shake things up during their lives and even beyond their time on Earth [See Fred B. Craddock, “Luke,” Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), p. 29 for the comparison, although he makes different points with it]. Well, John and his cousin Jesus were together going to shake things up, too—in fact, they were going to turn things upside down.

Upon hearing Elizabeth’s report of John’s prenatal jumping jacks and receiving further words of blessing from her, Mary burst into song (or at least poetry): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She praised God for reaching down to her in her humility and blessing her in such a tremendous way.

As her praise continued, however, she stopped just praising and went to meddling: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Those are the realities that God was bringing about through her, Mary proclaimed.

It’s interesting how Mary phrases her words; she speaks as if those things—the bringing down of the powerful, the lifting up of the lowly, the filling of the hungry, and the emptying of the rich—have already happened. It’s also interesting how we hear her words; we hear her saying that those are things that are going to happen one of these days when Jesus returns and the kingdom comes in its fullness. It’s also interesting what we would expect her to mean if she is going to insist on saying such things; we would expect her to mean that they would happen in the near future because of the baby she was about to have.

The truth is that all three perspectives are accurate in their own way; such a reversal is what God has always been up to, it is what God was up to in the Christ Child who would grow up to be the Jesus who died on the cross and rose from the tomb, and it is what God will be up to when Jesus comes back.

But since that’s what God is up to, isn’t it what we should be up to, also?

Shouldn’t we be more interested in giving than we are in receiving?

Shouldn’t we be more concerned about meeting the basic needs of the poor than we are about preserving the advantages of the rich?

Shouldn’t we seek service rather than power and shouldn’t we stand in solidarity with the humble rather than with the powerful?

Weren’t those God’s agenda items in sending his Son Jesus into the world as Mary laid them out in her subversive song? Won’t those be God’s agenda items when Jesus returns? Then doesn’t it stand to reason that they are God’s agenda items now? And if we are God’s people, if we are the Body of Christ in the world today, doesn’t it stand to reason that those should be our agenda items, too? The day is coming when all that Mary laid out as the agenda that God would carry out through her baby will indeed and in fact come to pass. Should we not be living that agenda out right here and right now?

As Clyde Fant said,

The way of Jesus does turn the world upside down. But that’s only because it was standing on its head in the first place. God has not arbitrarily ruled one way of life to be right and another wrong. God has revealed through the gospel the way things are. Under the reign of God, power and tyranny, greed and cruelty are deposed, and the weak, the old, the ill, the poor, the child, the woman, and the foreigner are no longer beneath dignity but favored in the eyes of God [Clyde Fant, The Misunderstood Jesus: 10 Lost Keys to Life (Macon: Peake Road, 1996), p. 11].

Jesus was a rebel; he set out to overturn the structures and to reverse the priorities of the people among whom he lived, talked, and served. Jesus was such a rebel that his mother could speak before he even came out of her womb of how he would turn things upside down.

My title is the same as the title of a song by the prophet Jackson Browne. In that song he says,

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus.


Unfortunately, the church may be one of the places where it is most dangerous to talk the way that Mary talked—and to talk and live in the way that Jesus talked and lived.

May it not be so here!

Maybe it’s time we took our chances on the side of Mary and on the side of her son—God’s Son—the Rebel Jesus.

Maybe it’s time we started living in and working for the kind of world that God is in the process of bringing about in Jesus …

Sunday, December 7, 2014

People Get Ready

(A sermon based on 2 Peter 3:8-15a for the 2nd Sunday of Advent 2014)

Given the myriad problems faced by those of us living here on Earth, it is only natural that we who are looking for the return of Jesus Christ wonder why God is taking so long to send him back. After all, it’s been 2000 years now since he was here the first time. Would it make you feel any better to know that people were already wondering about that just a few decades after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus? Well, they were. Why? I can think of at least three reasons.

First, the memory of the Church was that Jesus had seemed to imply that he would come back soon, maybe even within a generation. Second, people are by nature impatient. Third, people have a misconception of what time is and especially of how God relates to time.

The truth about time, according to the science of physics, is that it’s relative. Einstein theorized and all physicists now agree that time is relative to how fast or slow you are going and to what kind of gravity you are experiencing. Have you seen the movie “Interstellar” yet? A basic plot point of that very interesting film is based on the fact that under the right conditions one person would experience the passage of time much differently than another person. So time is relative even for us.

But since none of us will have the opportunity to travel at speeds or to experience the kind of gravity that would show us how relative time is for us, it’s how time is relative for God that matters to us here today.

It’s not that time passes slower or faster for God; it’s rather that time doesn’t affect God one way or another. It’s not that God has all the time in the world; it is rather that all the time in the world doesn’t matter to God. Sure, in God’s grace God chose in Jesus of Nazareth to become time-bound as we are but ordinarily—and this would still go for the Father and the Spirit when the Son was down here among us—God lives outside of time; that’s what it means to be “eternal.” That’s what the Bible means when it affirms that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8, quoting Psalm 90:4). That’s not math; that’s theology.

When we join our concern about things that happen in the world to our inaccurate notions about the relationship of God to time we end up being impatient. Thank God that God is patient. As today’s Epistle text affirms, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). John Polkinghorne, who is both a theoretical physicist and an Anglican priest, said

When we think of the history of creation—the 14 billion year history of the universe and the three to four billion year evolving history of life on earth—we see that God is patient and subtle, , by no means a God in a hurry. When we think about God’s nature as love, we can see that this is how we would expect the divine purpose to be fulfilled, by the gentle unfolding of process rather than by the overwhelming operation of instantaneous power [John Polkinghorne, Living with Hope: A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), p. 36].

What seems to us like a long wait, then—and this should not be surprising to us—is a sign of God’s love and grace in giving people plenty of time to open their lives up to the good news of Jesus Christ.

God’s patience also provides us with ample opportunity to be who we are and to do what we are supposed to do.

Let’s note a couple of things about how the patience of God impacts the way we live here in the meantime.

First, we live in hope that mirrors God’s hope. God’s patient waiting is an indicator of God’s hope for the people of the world. So long as we are still here there is still hope for us. So long as the world exists there is still hope for the world.

Second, we live in patience that mirrors God’s patience. As God’s people living in the world we want to think about, to deal with, and to act upon circumstances as much like God does as we possibly can. We are moving toward the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth but we who trust in and follow Jesus are already living in the kingdom of God. So we are to be “leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11b-12a).

As L. Ann Jervis said, “Life during the time of waiting for the end is to be lived in light of the good future. Since what is coming is a creation cleansed of sin—‘new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwell’ (3:13)--now is a time for believers to live what will be” [L. Ann Jervis, “Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8-15a,” WorkingPreacher.org, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=181, retrieved December 2, 2014].

Now is the time for us to live what will one day be. What an opportunity we have!

Yes, God is giving people a chance to get ready for the return of Christ by opening their lives up to his love and grace.

And God is giving his people a chance to get even more ready and to show others how to get ready.

How do we do that?

We do that by living out the truth of what St. Teresa of Avila said a long, long time ago:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.


We who follow Christ get ready for Christ to return by being who are …

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Are We Waiting For?

(A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 for the First Sunday of Advent 2014)

We live in the Church and in our Christian lives with a tension between idealism and realism.

After all, we are followers of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah. During the Advent season we look forward to celebrating the birth of the Christ Child who was God incarnate, God in the flesh. In Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and when we open our hearts and lives up to him he comes into our lives and we are drawn into the very eternal life of God. God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, God the Father all come to be with us and in us and we come to be in them.

What amazing lives we should and could all be living! What an amazing body the Church should be!

Ideally, that is.

Here’s what we often tell ourselves, though: “We’re only human. We cannot really live in this world as the body of Christ; we have to settle for much less than that if we are going to get by. But it’s ok because when Jesus comes back and takes us all home then we’ll be everything we are supposed to be.”

Oh, by the way, that’s something else that we anticipate during Advent—the Second Coming of Christ. We’re waiting for it. But sometimes it seems that we’re waiting for it as if it will somehow by magic turn us into something completely different than what we have been becoming during our lives here rather than as the culmination of a process that began the moment Christ came into our lives.

Wouldn’t it be better to wait for it in a way that will enable us to be as ready as we can be for it? Wouldn’t it be better to be always growing toward what we will be when Christ returns?

This would be a good point at which to look at what Paul said to the Christians at Corinth here at the beginning of his letter to them. He began by saying that they were “sanctified in Christ Jesus” and “called to be saints” (v. 2). He went on to say that he thanked God because they had received the grace of God in Christ Jesus (v. 4), that they had “been enriched in (Christ), in speech and knowledge of every kind” (v. 5) so that they were “not lacking in any spiritual gift” as they awaited the coming of the Lord (v. 7). He also said that God would strengthen the Corinthians “to the end” so they might “be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

Paul told the Corinthian Christians that they were holy people to whom God had given the great gift of grace and the great gift of the Holy Spirit that made them able to grow in being God’s people in the world in which they lived.

Wow! Just wow!

By the way, I would say the same kind of things about you.

But when we read the rest of the letter, we find that the church at Corinth was very fractured and troubled. Their great gifts had become a source of division among them; they were thinking too much of themselves and too little of others. They had become factionalized according to which leader they preferred or didn’t prefer.

In the living of their real lives as real people in the real Church in the real world they were running into problems. Even those realities that were among their greatest strengths had become their greatest weaknesses.

It’s like the Bradford Pear trees that are all over the place around here. Aren’t they beautiful this time of year? Their leaves are turning that glorious shade of red and they are absolutely and stunningly gorgeous. Well, they are gorgeous so long as the leaves stay up in the trees where stuff can’t get at them. But once they fall to the ground, it doesn’t take long before they are a big mess. And you have to clean them up! And they keep falling!

If we could stay up in the lofty heights maybe it would be easier to keep looking good and even being good. But the reality is that we live down here on the ground where things can get rough and dirty and where we might even get ground underfoot.

Let’s never lose sight of the ideal: we are the saints of God; we are the holy people of God who are being filled with God’s grace and with God’s Spirit and with God’s life so that we can and should every day be living more and more in God’s grace and love. The effects of God’s grace and love can and should be becoming more and more evident in our lives. We should be experiencing the constant strengthening of God “to the end” so that we will be “be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

That is our ideal and we can and should always be moving toward it.

Living real lives as real people in the real world makes it a challenge. We can, will, and do mess up along the way. We will not always be or do our best; sometimes, even when we are trying to be and do our best we will come up far short.

But that’s ok because that’s the way it is.

Remember this: it is God who makes it possible for us to grow a little more every day toward being able to live up to the ideal of who Christ enables us to be. Remember this too: it is God who makes it possible for us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again whenever we fall.

So here on this First Sunday of Advent, what are we waiting for?

We are waiting for our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus.

We are waiting for Christ to come again.

We are waiting for Christ to come to us right here and now.

We are waiting to be transformed into all that we can be.

But let’s not wait to seek God’s help in becoming more who God would have us be. There are things for which we have to wait. Being transformed by God’s grace so that we are constantly growing into who we should be—people who are marked by great faith, by great grace, by great love, and by great hope—is not one of them …

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The One and Only King

(A sermon based on Ephesians 1:15-23 for Reign of Christ Sunday preached on November 23)

We live in a society that is plagued by shortsightedness. We see that reality in how we live our personal lives and in how our leaders design and implement public policies. We tend to adopt the short-term fix rather than work toward the long-term solution. We think more about what’s good for us than we do about what’s good for the generations that will follow us.

There’s a Bible story that illustrates what I’m talking about. Hezekiah was king of Judah in the eighth century BCE. He received some Babylonian envoys during the time that Babylon was rising in power; he tried to impress those envoys by showing them all of his treasure. When Isaiah the prophet found out about it, he told King Hezekiah that there would come a day when all of Judah’s treasure would be taken to Babylon and some of Hezekiah’s own sons would be taken into captivity. I find the king’s response to the prophet amazing: “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good … Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?” (2 Kings 20:19). “Who cares what happens to my children?” Hezekiah said, “so long as I’ll be all right.”

That’s unbelievable—yet we often are afflicted by the same mindset.

The short-term view is not one that best befits those of us who call Jesus Christ Lord and who take seriously his status as King of all that is, of all that ever has been, and of all that ever will be. We can and should take the longest-term view—the eternal view. That eternal view, though, gives us the greatest incentive to do all we can to live fully, to help freely, and to serve sacrificially in the here and now.

We can have an eternal perspective because Jesus Christ is King. This last Sunday of the Christian year is a good time to look back over the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus—over all that we have been saying and celebrating about Jesus since last Advent— so as to remind ourselves of what his life is all about and what our lives are all about.

Let’s look at Jesus. Jesus was born as God incarnate, as God in the flesh, thereby showing us how far God will go to be with us. Jesus lived his life as the Son of God; he embodied grace, truth, trust, and love, thereby showing us how God would have us to live as God’s children. Jesus died on the cross, thereby showing us how great, how determined, and how costly is the love God has for us. Jesus was raised from the grave by God, thereby gaining a victory over death in which we by grace through faith participate. Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, the position of highest authority from which he reigns over all of the powers that exist.

God is bringing together in Christ all that is.

Now let’s look at us. Because of all that God has done and is doing in Christ, we know God—not just know about God but know God—and can come to know God better and better. Because of all that God has done and is doing in Christ, we are being delivered and will be delivered from all of the powers that threaten our life and our well-being, be they powers that show themselves in disease or in war or in racism or in sexism or in classism or in poverty or in any other reality. Because of all that God has done and is doing in Christ, we will be and we have been joined with Christ in the power of his resurrection. In Christ the powers that hurt and limit us are being overcome and will one day be completely overcome. As Paul says elsewhere, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

So what are we to be doing with our lives right now? Surely we are not to be sitting around bemoaning how bad things are; surely we are not to be giving up because we think things are just going to keep getting worse and worse; surely we are not to live in ways that make us part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

No, because we believe in what God in Christ is doing and will do, we want to be part of the process; we want to be involved in what God is doing as we move along toward that time when all of the powers that afflict us will be completely subjected to Christ. This marvelous good news about what God is doing and will in Christ affects the ways that we live right here and now.

Let’s look at just one example. Paul, in very lofty and inspiring language, celebrates the fact that God’s plan is “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that God is already doing that by gathering Jews and Gentiles together in the Church (see chapters 3 & 4). In other words, God will one day bring all of God’s people together and in the meantime, all who will come together in the Church are welcome by God to come together in the Church.

One day we will all be one in Christ. These days such oneness is a challenge for us. But we have the privilege and the responsibility of craving, seeking, and working toward such oneness. Clearly we should want and work toward oneness with all who call on the name of Christ; we should all try to grow in our relationship with Christ so that we can also grow in our relationship with one another. But we should also seek all the oneness with others that we can and to work toward understanding and helping to improve the world in all the ways we can precisely because we believe in God’s great future.

It is the power of God—the same power that is seen in the resurrection of Jesus and in the ongoing submission of all powers to him—that is working in us to make it so.

Thanks be to God …

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Counting to Twelve

(A Communion message based on John 13:21-38 and preached on November 16, 2014)

They’re not here. Did you notice? Somebody who should be here is not here. Some of those who are not here have legitimate reasons; some of them would give just about anything if they could only be here. But there are members of this church family who are not here because they have chosen not to be here; they are not here because they do not want to be here. They have chosen not to be here to worship God; they have chosen not to be here to celebrate the baptism of two of our children; they have chosen not to be here to observe the Lord’s Supper.

I wish we were all here. I don’t wish we were all here so that we could have a big crowd; I don’t wish we were all here so that we could talk next week about the large number of people that came to church. I wish we were all here because we are a family and whenever a family gets together we miss the absent ones. I wish we were all here because this is where we all belong. I wish we were all here because today offers a beautiful reminder of what it is to be the body of Christ. These things—the worship of God, the baptism of believers, and the observance of the Lord’s Supper—are so very meaningful. They remind us of not only of who we are but of who God is.

The truth is, though, that we’re not well served by looking around to see who’s not here; we’re not well served by counting. Sometimes a football team is penalized for having too many players on the field. Certain officials are responsible for counting the players: the Back Judge is responsible for counting the defensive players while the Umpire is tasked with counting the offensive players. Interestingly, though, there is no penalty in football for having too few players on the field. Of course, if you have ten players and the other side has eleven you are at a disadvantage.

The church is at a disadvantage when we are short on players; we are not a complete body when we are missing members.

We are here, though. So let’s talk about us. Some folks tend to want to talk about who should not be here—you know, who is not good enough or righteous enough or right enough. They count and they don’t like some of the ones that are here to be counted. Let’s not talk that way; let’s not even think that way.

On that last night that Jesus shared with his disciples, Judas Iscariot, the one who was going to betray Jesus, was there. He had been with Jesus for years and Jesus must have wanted him included; so far as we can tell Jesus washed Judas’ feet right along with the rest of the disciples. But Judas was a traitor to Jesus. Jesus brought up the fact that someone was going to betray him; the disciples could hardly help but wonder who it was. The “disciple whom Jesus loved” actually asked the question and Jesus, through a symbolic gesture, told him. Judas went out and, if anyone was counting, there were no longer twelve disciples in the room—they were down to eleven.

Before long, when the going got tough, the twelve would dwindle to zero.

So some folks aren’t here and some folks may be here that some of us don’t think really belong. But there’s always hope, even for those of us who pass judgment on others without seeing our own hypocrisy, who think we see specks in other people’s eyes but can’t see the log in our own eye. So let’s hold out hope.

Let’s hold out hope that we’ll count to twelve in the way that really matters. Let’s count to see if we love enough of our sisters and brothers and if we love our sisters and brothers enough.

After all, Jesus told his disciples on that night that he was giving them a new commandment: “I give you a new commandment,” he said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

So let’s focus on us. What’s our love like? Do we love one another like Jesus loves us? Do we love one another so much that we will give ourselves up for one another? Jesus had just demonstrated his love by washing the feet of his disciples; will we wash one another’s feet? Will we let love and humility and service flood our lives to the point that apathy and pride and privilege are driven out?

In Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians regarding the Lord’s Supper, he very famously said, “Whoever … eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). When we read the entire passage, we find that Paul is talking about the habit that some well-to-do members of the church had of getting to the supper early, long before the working poor could get there, and eating up all of the food and letting their less fortunate brothers and sisters go hungry. “So then, my brothers and sisters,” Paul said, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation” (11:33-34a). When we partake of the body of Christ, Paul says, let us partake as those who show love and compassion for all the members of the body of Christ—and especially of those who are in the greatest need.

Let’s pretend that there are just twelve of us and let’s count. Do we love all twelve? Do we love all twelve enough?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Knowing God

(A sermon based on John 14:1-17 preached on November 9, 2014)

Let’s start with a question: Do we even want to know God?

Please note what I am not asking: I am not asking if we want to know about God. I am asking whether we want to know God. Do we want to be in a real relationship with God, by which I mean a relationship in which God is in us and we are in God? After all, such a relationship requires openness, it requires vulnerability, and it requires intimacy. It requires recognizing that while the basis of our relationship with God is God’s love for us, it is not a relationship between equals; God has the right to point out our sins and to expect us to repent of them, to point out our weaknesses and to expect us to strengthen them, and to point out our strengths and to expect us to build on them.

The question assumes that we believe that God in fact exists, that God is God and nothing less than God, and that God in God’s grace wants to be in relationship with us. It assumes that we believe that life is about more than keeping a bunch of rules, having a decent reputation, and even showing up at church services. It assumes that we believe that real life—the life most worth living—is the life that is always in and with God and is always aware that it is in and with God.

It was the night on which Jesus was going to be arrested; he would be crucified the next day. As Jesus shared supper with his disciples, he told them that he was going away and that they knew the way he was going. Thomas said, “Umm—no, actually we don’t. How can we?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” To which Philip responded, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

To which Jesus replied, “Really, Philip? Really?” (I wonder if Jesus rolled his eyes and sighed deeply? I wonder if he thought, “Philip, I just like 30 seconds ago said “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”) What he did say was, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

Jesus was telling Philip that if he wanted to see the Father he had only to look at the Son; he was telling Philip that the Son fully revealed who God is. What an act of amazing grace by Almighty God: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son; God so wanted us to be able to know God that he sent Jesus so that we could know who God is. Philip and Thomas and Mary Magdalene and those other Marys and the rest of Jesus’ followers had the privilege of walking with and talking with the one who fully reveals God.

Just as surely as those followers of Jesus had Jesus with them, we have the Holy Spirit in us; that Holy Spirit also reveals God to us and teaches us how to know Jesus so that we can know the Father. We have just as great an opportunity to know God as we would have had if we had been able to walk around with Jesus. How can we pass up that opportunity? How can we not open our lives up to God and let the Spirit bring the Son and the Father into us?

Perhaps the saddest thing about the life that many of us who profess belief in Christ lead is that we do not take full advantage of it. We can know God and not just know about God. We can experience God and not just vaguely think about God. We can love God and not just casually assume God and presume upon God.

We really can. Listen to me—we really can!

And when we do, over time everything becomes different because we are living out the life that God intends for us. After all, Jesus said, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” Just imagine all of the good that would be done if all the members of Christ’s body—if all the members of the Church—were carrying out the works of Jesus through the power of the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in and among us! Just imagine how we could touch the sick, the poor, the lost, the hungry, the lonely, and the hungry! Just imagine if we were so full of Jesus’s love that we couldn’t hate, if we were so full of Jesus’s humility that we couldn’t be arrogant, and if we were so full of Jesus’s service that we couldn’t seek power.

Jesus also said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” To ask in Jesus’ name means to ask in line with who Jesus was and with how Jesus lived; it means to ask in line with who the Spirit teaches us about the Son.

The Gospels tell the story of who Jesus was and of what Jesus did; Jesus served, Jesus gave, Jesus sacrificed, Jesus forgave, Jesus healed, Jesus helped—the bottom line is that Jesus loved. And if we get to know God as the Son revealed God and as the Spirit who is in God dwells in us and connects us to God, we will come more to live a life in which we serve, we give, we sacrifice, we forgive, and we help. The bottom line will be that we will love more and more and more and more.

So I return to my original question: Do we even want to know God? Do we really? Or would we rather settle for far less than God? Would we rather settle for less than in God we can be?

We have the blessed opportunity to know God. Let’s seize it!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Tracks of Our Tears

(A sermon based on Psalm 126:5-6 a ndRevelation 21:1-4 preached for All Saints'/Souls' Sunday)

Mourning, crying, and tears will be part of our landscape for as long as we live in this world. That’s because, whether we are looking backward or looking forward, death is on the horizon. A time comes in everyone’s life when for the first time someone significant dies; from that time on, when we look back we will see that life and that death. From the moment we are born our own death is on the horizon; so are the deaths of other people that we know and love.

Something we ought to remember that we often forget is that we are all in it together. There are people who die with no one to mourn their passing and that is unspeakably sad. But 99% of the time, when someone dies someone else mourns. That is the case whether we are Americans, Iraqis, Canadians, Syrians, Israelis, or Liberians. It is the case whether we live in a capitalist or in a socialist society. It is the same whether we are rich or poor, black or white, male or female, straight or gay, believer or atheist.

It is the human condition. People die. And when people die, other people mourn. And when people mourn, we cry.

Our tears are a testimony. They are a testimony to the lives others have lived and to the ways in which they shared their lives with us. They are a testimony to all that we have been through together. They are a testimony to all that we have done with each other and to each other. They are a testimony to shared love, shared hope, and shared effort. That’s why not all tears are bad, even those to which loss and grief give birth: they testify to our relationship with the one who has died.

Still, there is no denying that loss and grief are hard and that tears produced by mourning come from a place of pain. So it is very good news that John shares when he tells us that in the new heaven and new earth that God will bring about one day that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes” and that “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” God will eliminate death, mourning, crying, and pain because God will be with us; notice how in John’s symbolic world the new Jerusalem, which represents the community in which God and all of God’s people live together, comes down from heaven to us. It is a beautiful picture of how God chooses to make God’s home with us and how in that home, when it is fully realized, God will take care of all of our ultimate needs forever.

It is all because of what God has already done in Jesus Christ our Lord; it is all because of what God has done through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In him we will have new life free of tears.

But we already have that new life; we are already living in the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit God is already with us, holding us while we weep. It is just that right now we cannot live without pain, mourning, and tears. But we can live in a way that gives them new meaning and that helps simultaneously to embrace them and to see beyond them.

A while back I saw something I had never seen before: I saw the end of a rainbow. I was driving along in the country when I saw a huge rainbow spanning the sky and as I looked across a pasture I saw where the rainbow touched the earth; I could see the trees of the woods through it so that the trees looked tinted with the colors of the rainbow. I briefly considered pulling over and walking over to the spot so that I could have the colors of the rainbow bathe my body. “Perhaps,” I thought, “the rainbow might bring a little color to my life.” I knew, though, that by the time I got there it would be gone and that even if it wasn’t I wouldn’t actually be able to see the colors on my skin.

Still, the sight gave me hope. It let me ponder how the beauty of the sunlight refracting through the moisture of the atmosphere could lift me up even while I could not become fully a part of it. At least I couldn’t yet.

For now, we cannot avoid the tears because we cannot avoid the pain. But we can know the power of God’s love and the wonder of God’s presence with us right here and right now. And one day, death and mourning and pain will no more and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

There’s a part of me, though, that hopes that the tracks of our tears will remain. I’m not sure I want to forget what helped to form and shape me into the person that I am and that I am becoming, even those experiences that hurt …

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Knowing God in the Time of Ebola

(A sermon based on Job 42:1-6 and preached on October 19, 2014)

We have an Ebola situation.

One of the things that I keep hearing commentators and political figures say about that situation is, “People are afraid.” It seems to me that some of them want us to be afraid because they figure that our fear will help them get elected or reelected or will help their ratings improve.

We should not give in to fear, which is not to say that we should not be concerned.

There is a difference, though, between beings concerned and being afraid; as rational human beings we have good reason to be concerned about Ebola. We should pray for our public health officials, the doctors and nurses treating the sick, for the medical and military personnel who are in West Africa to try to help contain the spread of the disease, and for political leaders as they make decisions that hopefully will be for the good of everyone. Other than such praying, there’s really not a lot that we can do; chances that any of us will come into direct contact with the bodily fluids of a person infected with Ebola are so infinitesimal as to be practically non-existent.

There are long-standing epidemics in this country about which we should be much more concerned. Since 1976, there has been in the United States an average of 23,000 deaths per year from the flu. There is an average of 32,000 deaths by handguns (both suicide and homicides) in the United States each year. An estimated 300,000 Americans die each year from obesity-related diseases. So far one person has died on U.S. soil from Ebola. All others who have so far been diagnosed with the disease were people who helped treat those who were sick. (Perhaps it should be noted that if helping out someone in trouble is what exposes you to Ebola, most people—a lot of whom are, sadly, Christians— are at little risk.)

We can do something about those epidemics—we can get a flu shot (only about 45% of Americans do), we can enforce our gun laws and adopt more sensible ones, and we can lose weight. (A word to those of you who think that such observations have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ: please ponder how our Jesus-stated goal of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves should impact both the personal behaviors we pursue and the public policies we support.)

But as Christian human beings we do not have good reason to be afraid even of our real and ongoing epidemics, much less one that is not yet an epidemic on our shores. (By the way, while it is good news that only one person has died on our soil of Ebola and that no Americans have, as Christians our hearts break for the 9,000 people in West Africa who have been infected and for the families of the 4,000 who have died. An American is no more valuable to God than is a person in Sierra Leone, in Guinea, or in Liberia; they are, therefore, equally important to us, too—Christ died for them just as he died for us and they are our neighbors as surely as those who live in our neighborhood are).

Given that we have much more prevalent diseases to address, why are so many Americans so obsessed with Ebola? I think there are several reasons. One is that we don’t understand it. Another is that some folks are for their own reasons intent on getting and keeping us worked up about it. Yet another reason so many of us are obsessed with Ebola is that it comes from “over there” and we are always afraid of what the influence of “others”—meaning people who are not us—is going to do to us. As Christians, we need to move beyond such fearful and limiting attitudes and mindsets.

Again, though, even as we are concerned we should not be afraid.

Why should we not be afraid? We should not be afraid because we are Christians.

That is not to say, though, that bad things cannot and will not happen to us Christians. And when they do, we may have no idea why.

Take Job, for example. Job was a good and righteous man; yet he experienced the tragic loss of everything—his family, his possessions, and his health. As he sat with his grief and his pain, he was joined by three of his friends with whom he entered into a dialogue. His friends had Job’s situation figured out; conventional wisdom (backed by biblical teaching) taught that people were blessed by God if they did right and cursed by God if they did wrong and that was the position that Job’s friends took. Job, on the other hand, maintained that he had lived a life characterized by integrity and that he had done nothing to deserve what was happening to him. He was crushed by the silence of God; he wanted nothing more than to have a hearing before God so that God would have to acknowledge that Job was in the right and was not being treated justly.

Finally, God shows up and for four chapters makes a speech about how Job (and by implication anyone else) had no idea how the universe worked and that God and life are characterized by mystery and wonder that Job (and by implication everyone else) could never grasp. In the end Job admits that he had said too much, although—as this is very interesting—God says that Job had, unlike the friends, “spoken of me what is right” (42:7). Was God referring to everything that Job had said throughout the book? If so, then God affirmed that rightness of Job’s asking hard, probing, and challenging questions to God about what was happening to him.

In the end, Job affirms God’s majesty—God is God because only God can do and know what God does and knows. But in the end, God also affirms Job’s humanity—a full human being is one who stands before God with full awareness and challenges God if it is deemed necessary.

I have come to believe that in the end Job also affirms Job’s humanity.

The last thing we hear Job say to God is (and the NRSV translates it like most English translations do), “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6). The first part of Job’s statement seems clear enough: he has moved beyond God as a theoretical construct to be discussed to God as someone with whom to have a personal relationship. God has come to Job. In a very real way, that is for Job enough.

But the last part of the statement could just as well be translated, “Therefore, I relent and find comfort on dust and ashes” (CEB) or even “I repent concerning dust and ashes” [Samuel E. Ballentine, “Job,” Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), p. 695]. In other words, while Job accepts that there is much he can’t know, he also knows that his humanity has been affirmed by God’s coming to him. He now knows that while there is much he cannot know the same God who puts him in his place also honors his place. He embraces an expanded view of both God and of himself in light of the fact that God has come to him.

So—what if Ebola does come to us? What if some of us or our family members contract it? What if an American epidemic develops? What then?

Then we will exercise our full God-given humanity by pouring out our hearts to God in questions and laments. We will stand before God and ask “Why?” We will intercede with God for our family, friends, and enemies just as Job interceded for his children at the beginning of the book and for his friends turned opponents at the end of the book.

We will rest in the knowledge that God is with us no matter what pain and loss we experience. We will remember that like God came to Job in Job’s suffering, God came to us in ours in a far greater way: his Son Jesus died on the cross, thereby actually entering into our suffering with us.

In the 1998 film “Deep Impact,” which is about an impending asteroid strike on Earth, reporter Jenny Lerner (played by Tea Leoni) is estranged from her father Jason (Maximillian Schell). When a large piece of the asteroid hits the ocean, the two of them are standing together on a beach where their family had long ago shared happier times. Reconciled, they stand there holding on to each other as the tidal wave envelops them. In the cross, God wrapped God’s arms around us to hold us tight as we together confront the worst things that life can throw at us.

And we will live in the trust that everything is going to be all right—some day. Scholars are divided over whether or not Job held out any hope for beyond this life but now, on this side of the resurrection of Jesus, we live in the assurance that God is working God’s purposes out and that God has unfathomably wonderful plans for creation and for us.

In the short term, we won’t be afraid because we know in whose love and grace both the short term and the long term rest.

So when those folks keep saying, “People are afraid,” let’s keep answering, “No we’re not!”

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grace

(A sermon based on John 1:1-18. I wrote and first preached this sermon years ago; I shared it with our Vespers congregation tonight. It occurred to me that some folks might find it helpful ...)

I know what it is like to be driven. Some of you will have experienced that dynamic in your life, too. When I was in elementary school I was not blessed with attractiveness, charm, or talent. But I discovered early on that I was good at school work. I did not have to work particularly hard to get good grades. Frankly, it was a gift. I was gifted with a love for reading and a love for learning. Exercising the gift was no problem. So, I made good grades. It felt good to be good at something.

Things changed, though, when doing well at what I was good at doing became too important to me. Before long, my self-esteem got all tied up in how good my grades were. If I made good grades, I was a good person; if I made bad grades, I was a bad person. What had been joy because it was a gift became a burden because it turned into an effort. What had been grace became works.

Really, though, the grace existed long before I found that I could make good grades. My good parents loved and accepted and embraced me as soon as I came into this old world. At that point they could not know if I would be gorgeous or plain, dull or interesting, a good student or a bad one, a jock or a nerd, sick or well, or struggling or successful. But they loved me. Why? For two reasons. First, I was there. Second, I was theirs. I existed as a human being and I existed as their child. So they loved me. They would always be there for me. They would always embrace me. That is grace—the love that comes prior to and regardless of any action that might seem to earn that love.

Henri Nouwen told of attending a bar mitzvah. After the thirteen-year-old boy had read the scripture and delivered a short blessing, he was blessed by his rabbi and his parents. Nouwen said that he could still hear the words of the father: “Son, whatever will happen to you in your life, whether you will have success or not, become important or not, will be healthy or not, always remember how much your mother and I love you.” Nouwen said that he thought, “What a grace such a blessing is” [Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. 55-56].

I never had a bar mitzvah but I had the grace of such a blessing. How grateful I am.

It is not saying too much to say that Jesus himself knew such grace from his Father. When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he heard the voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Isn’t it interesting that Jesus heard these words of blessing from his Father before he ever preached a sermon, before he ever offered a parable, before he withstood the temptation of Satan, before he performed a miracle, before he healed a sick person, and even before he was crucified? How affirming it must have been for Jesus, as he was about to embark on his mission of service and sacrifice, to receive the love and affirmation of God the Father! The Father was pleased with him before he did anything. The Father was pleased with Jesus because Jesus was his Son.

The grace shown by my parents is but a magnificent reflection of the grace shown to me and to you by our God in the saving act that he carried out in his Son Jesus Christ. Listen:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people….
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known
(John 1:1-4, 14, 16-18).

The pre-existent Word of God, who has always been and without whom nothing was made that was made, became flesh and dwelled among human beings right here on this earth where we work, play, eat, drink, love, hurt, and live. It is so marvelous as to be almost unspeakable. Yet the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth so that he could be seen and felt and heard and talked about. The Word became flesh so that we could see in him who God is and what God is like. Jesus was full of that of which God is full—grace and truth. Jesus fully revealed the grace and truth of God.

Now, it is true that it is “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). It is true that not everyone will receive him and so not everyone will be saved. But it is also true that God loves everybody and that God has shown and continues to show his grace to everyone. Jesus came into this world so that everyone might know about the grace of God. By his very coming he showed that God loves everybody without exception.

So I want every person here today to hear this clearly and to know it absolutely: God showed his love for you by sending Jesus into this world; that love was made most obvious in the fact that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He loves you just because you exist. He loves you because he made you. He loves you because you are precious in his sight. He will receive and accept you just as you are. Salvation is not something that you have to earn; it is the free gift of God. He loves you. He affirms you. He will save you.

Christ has all the grace that we need and from him we receive all the grace that we need. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (v. 16). About the phrase “grace upon grace” A. T. Robertson said, “Here the picture is ‘grace’ taking the place of ‘grace’ like the manna fresh each morning, new grace for the new day and the new service” [Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. V (Nashville: Broadman, 1932), p. 16]. Because you lose a good bit of moisture during a night’s sleep, it is good to know that you can have some water in the morning to replenish your body’s moisture. It is good to know that each day we can have our supply of grace replenished. From Christ we receive abundant grace and endless grace.

When we feel like we’ve had all that we can take, Christ gives more grace.

When we’ve been hurt and wronged and think that we just can’t forgive, Christ gives more grace.

When we can’t take another step, Christ gives more grace.

When we get down on ourselves and start thinking that we are worthless, Christ gives more grace.

When we start wondering if we are worth anybody’s love, Christ gives more grace.

Brennan Manning tells this story.

Recently I directed a three-day silent retreat for six women in Virginia Beach. As the retreat opened, I met briefly with each woman and asked them to write on a sheet of paper the one grace that they would most like to receive from the Lord. A married woman from North Carolina, about forty-five years old, with an impressive track record of prayer and service to others, told me she wanted more than anything to actually experience just one time the love of God. I assured her that I would join her in that prayer.
The following morning this woman (whom I’ll call Winky) arose before dawn and went for a walk on the beach which was less than fifty yards from our house. Walking along the seashore barefoot, with the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean lapping up against her feet and ankles, she noticed some one hundred yards away a teenage boy and a woman some fifteen yards behind walking in her direction. In less than a minute the boy had passed by to her left but the woman made an abrupt ninety-degree turn, walked straight toward Winky, embraced her deeply, kissed her on the cheek, whispered “I love you” and continued on her way. Winky had never seen the woman before. Winky wandered along the beach for another hour before returning to the house. She knocked on my door. When I opened it, she was smiling. “Our prayer was answered,” she said simply
[The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), pp. 93-94].

Every morning we can meet God afresh and hear him say “I love you.” What more do we need?

Every day Christ tells us anew that we are loved by God, that we are accepted by God, that we are saved by God, and that we are embraced by God. He takes our brokenness, our frailty, our failures, our successes, our weaknesses, our strengths, and our incompleteness and every day does a little more with us.

This is truly amazing grace!

Know today that God loves you. Know that God accepts you. Know that Christ died on the cross for you without your having to prove that you were worthy of that sacrifice. Know that he is waiting to save you. Know that he will never leave you nor forsake you. Know this little big word. Know God’s grace!

Never Alone

(A sermon based on Genesis 2:18-25 and preached on October 12, 2014)

We sometimes refer to ourselves as “people of the Book.” That is a misleading term; it is misleading because it is often taken as a description of our primary allegiance. Our primary allegiance is not to a book; our primary allegiance is to a person, to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is the one to whom Scripture points; Jesus is the one by whose light Scripture is read. We are Christians, not Biblians. We follow Jesus; the Bible helps us find our way. Jesus is Lord; the Bible is a help to us in following our Lord.

It matters how we come to the Bible; it matters what we are looking for when we come to it. If we come to it looking for proof texts to undergird our preconceived notions, we will find them—but someone of a differing perspective will find proof texts to undergird theirs, too. If we come to it looking for rules to guide our every action, we will find them—but we will soon be hopelessly confused since the rules are not always the same in every part of the Bible. If we come to it looking for discrepancies so that we can be excused from taking it seriously, we will find them—but what an experience we will miss.

I want to suggest that the best way to approach the Bible is as a story, but not just any story—it is the story of what God has done and is doing to bring about the kingdom of God, to bring about what God has always intended there to be. Now, while it is true that the Bible is made up of thirty-nine Old Testament books and twenty-seven New Testament books and that most of those books are made up of many parts that were written, edited, and collected over long periods of time, it is also true—and in some ways more true—that the Bible is a book with a beginning and an ending. Everything that occurs between that beginning and that ending is the working out of the plot. Like any good story—and this is the best story—we readers get caught up in it and find ourselves living within it. Indeed, this story invites us to find our place in it and to be alive in it.

The plot of the book begins with “Once upon a time,” with “In the beginning.” We read that in the beginning God created and what God created was deemed by God to be “good.” In the picture painted in Genesis 1, God creates humankind; God creates humankind in God’s image—“male and female” does God create them. Whereas Genesis 1 is interested in the creation of humanity, Genesis two is interested in the fact that humanity is made up of individuals. In the picture painted in Genesis 2, God creates a man from the dust of the ground; for the first time, we are told that something in God’s creation is “not good”—“It is not good that the man should be alone,” God says. So God sets out to rectify this “not good” situation; God sets out to find a companion for the man, someone to complement him. God creates the animals and brings them before the man to see what he would name them, but (thankfully) none of them is deemed suitable as a companion. Then God reaches into the man, fetches a rib, and fashions a woman out of the rib. When the man awakens and sees her, he declares “This one—she is it!” And they lived happily ever after.

Only they didn’t, did they? No, they thought that in crossing the only line that God had established—in eating of the only tree that had been prohibited to them—they could have a better life. Under the best of circumstances their life was going to be a sojourn, a journey, a pilgrimage—but now their journey was transformed into an exile. They were exiled from the garden; they were barred from the tree of life.

But there is a happy ending; you just have to wait for the end of the book to find it. In the very last chapter of the very last book of the Bible, we find a picture painted of the New Jerusalem that is at the center of the new heaven and new earth. It is portrayed as a garden that has within it the tree of life. There and then Adam and Eve—who are, after all, all of us—will finally find themselves at the end of their exile, their journey over, being who they were always meant to be.

And do any of us have any doubt that when the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, when God’s will is done completely everywhere and all the time, that our relationships will be what God intended for them to be in the beginning—relationships of equality based on mutual respect, trust, and love? Do we have any doubt that God’s goal is to restore us to the kind of relationships that God always intended for us to have?

You see, the picture of human relationships that Genesis 1-2 paints for us is one of mutual respect, vulnerability, and trust; it is a picture of equality. And that is the way that it will be between us—and it will be that perfectly—when God’s kingdom is fully in place.

Now, some of you are thinking that in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, God sentenced Eve to be subordinate. Here’s how that works: because of our brokenness and our sinfulness, because we refuse to live and to love like God intends for us to live and to love, God makes accommodations. Thus in certain times and in certain situations (in some of the situations addressed by Paul, for example), accommodations were made so that the will of God could be lived out as fully as possible in light of the social and cultural realities of the time.

But here’s the thing: we are the Church; we are the people of God; we have the Holy Spirit in us and we are being formed in the image of Christ. We pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Why then would we—why do we—settle for less than the best? Shouldn’t we move as fully toward God’s perfect will as we can? And that means that in all of our relationships and in all of our structures—be they in the home or in the church—we strive for the equality that God means for us to have. That has to do with the relationship between men and women but it also has to do with all of our human relationships.

It is not good for us to be alone. And so God made it so that we are never alone; there are always other people. It is not good, either, for us to settle for less than what God intended for us and for less than what God is moving us toward. Yes, as long as we are here it will be struggle. Yes, as long as we are here we will make accommodations in order to make the best of an imperfect situation. But by the grace and Spirit of God we can move toward being the fellowship of full equality that God intends us to be and that we will one day and for all eternity be …

Sunday, September 21, 2014

In Your Beginning

(A sermon based on Genesis 1:26-28 and preached on September 21, 2014)

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So begins the Bible. The phrase can be translated “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth” (Fox, 5) so that we could read it as “To start with …” In any case, creation had a beginning and God was up to something with it. Later in Genesis we read about God’s creation of humanity. Regardless of how we literally came to be, which it is the business of science to figure out, God was up to something in the creation and existence of our kind. It stands to reason, then, that God was up to something in the making of you and me and in our placement in this world.

Given how great the odds are that we shouldn’t be here, we really should be amazed that we are. In the summer of 2011 Dr. Ali Binazir posed the question, “What are your chances of coming into being?” He considered such factors as (1) the odds of your parents meeting, which he estimates at 1 in 20,000, (2) the odds of that meeting leading to a relationship that produces a child, which he estimates to be 1 in 2000, (3) the odds of the right sperm from your father joining with the right egg from your mother to form you, which he puts at 1 in 400 quadrillion, and (4) the odds of every one of your ancestors living to the age at which they could reproduce, which Binazir estimates at 1 in 10 to the 45,000th power [“That number,” Binazir observed, “is not just larger than all of the particles in the universe – it’s larger than all the particles in the universe if each particle were itself a universe."].

When you put all of that together, Binazir said, the probability that you could exist is 1 in 10 to the 2,685,000th power. Binazir attempted to describe the enormity of that number by offering a comparison. The number of atoms in the body of an average male (80kg, 175 lb) is 10 to the 27th power. The number of atoms making up the earth is about 10 to the 50th power. The number of atoms in the known universe is estimated at 10 to the 80th power. So what’s the probability of your existing? It’s the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up the exact same number – say, 550,343,279,001. Therefore, according to Binazir’s calculations, the chances that you could exist are so infinitesimal as to amount to zero; there is virtually no probability that you could exist.

National Public Radio blogger Robert Krulwich, in his intriguingly titled post “Are You Totally Improbable or Totally Inevitable?”, summarized Binazir’s article and then observed, “On the other hand…there are poets who argue exactly the opposite: that each of us is fated to exist, that there is a plan, and that all of us are expected.” The poets of the Bible, I think, would come down mainly on the “there is a plan” side; we at least have strong intimations of such. For example, the Lord said to the young Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). For another example, the Psalmist sang, “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed” (Psalm 139:16b).

Had the biblical writers been confronted with the speculations of modern thinkers, would they have admitted to the presence of randomness and chance in our world and in our lives? Some certainly would have. Have you read Ecclesiastes lately? For the most part, though, I suspect that they would have looked at Binazir’s conclusion—“A miracle is an event so unlikely as to be almost impossible. By that definition, I’ve just shown that you are a miracle. Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are”—said “Amen,” and done a little praising, a little thinking, and a little writing about how God works God’s purposes out even through random selection, chaotic human behavior, chance, coincidence, evolution, and happenstance.

I suspect that the philosopher Forrest Gump was on track when he said, “I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both (are) happening at the same time.”

The bottom line is this: in some mysterious and providential way, we are here. We are here on this earth and we are here in this life. There is virtually no way that we should be here and yet by chance and by the providence of God, here we are. Surely it matters that we do something with the opportunity of being here; surely it matters that we take full advantage of the fact that we are here. You’ve won the lottery and you’re the apple of God’s eye. How can we not be inspired to live life for all it’s worth?

As the philosopher Neil Young put it, "It's better to burn out than it is to rust."

President Jimmy Carter is, as you know, a man of strong Christian faith and commitment. While reflecting on his life, he said, “One of the things that shaped my life was realizing that I have one life to live on this earth and I ask God frequently not to let me waste it and to let my life be beneficial for my fellow human beings in His kingdom” [Randall Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (New York: Basic Books, 2014), p. 182, citing “Legitimate Pride” in Conversations with Carter, ed. Don Richardson (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998), p. 268]. That’s a good prayer for all of us to pray in light of the great gift that this life is: “O God, don’t let me waste my life. Let me live my life in ways that are beneficial to your kingdom and to people.”

Only one person has ever gotten it just right and that person was Jesus Christ. Jesus showed us how to live a full life defined by total love for God and by selfless love for others. Because of his crucifixion and resurrection and because of the presence of the Holy Spirit of God through which the fullness of God dwells in us, we are empowered to live in ways that are always moving toward that kind of life. It is a life in which we love God with all we are and in which we love our neighbor as we love ourselves; it is a life in which we think all the time of God and think all the time more of others than we do of ourselves. Such living is how we take full advantage of the life that God has given us to live.

So go now and live as the miracle that you are …

Monday, September 8, 2014

This Is the Day that the Lord Has Made

(A sermon based on Psalm 118 preached on Sunday, September 7, 2014)

Sometimes we find ourselves in a tight spot. We find ourselves confined; we find ourselves shut in with little room to move. Figuratively (and perhaps literally) speaking, we find it hard to breathe.

We find ourselves wondering how we got there. We need to take a good hard look at our situation so that we can acknowledge what we need to acknowledge and confess what we need to confess and face what we need to face.

After all, it is just possible that we put ourselves in the tight spot that we are in. Oh, I know—believe me, I know—that family background and social circumstances and other people’s actions and other factors play into the choices and decisions we make. Still, when you get right down to it, our choices and decisions are our own. “The Lord has punished me severely,” the speaker in our psalm says (v. 18a). So sometimes we find ourselves in a tight spot because we have put ourselves there; sin does have consequences, after all. Things we do, relationships we betray, words we say, shortcuts we take, ethical corners we cut—they can hem us in.

The speaker in our psalm speaks of being surrounded by enemies (vv. 10-12). While he sees what has happened to him as being the judgment of God, not all difficulty is. Not all suffering comes because we have done wrong; some suffering comes because we have done right. Bad choices can get us in trouble but so can good choices—so can even the best choices! We may find ourselves surrounded by enemies because we have chosen to live, by the grace of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, as much like Jesus showed us and told us to live as possible. Jesus himself said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). And, as 1 Peter puts it, “(I)t is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.” Still, we need to be careful how we think and talk about being “persecuted”; we do well to take Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to heart: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”

So sometimes we find ourselves in a tight spot because we have done wrong and sometimes we find ourselves in a tight spot because we have done right. And sometimes we find ourselves in a tight spot without having any idea why we are there; sometimes the best we can say is, “Things happen—and they sure are happening now!”

Given what is going on in the world right now, I hardly need to remind you that the tight spot we find ourselves in can be the result of events that involve the great big picture in this great big world so that while we are impacted we are impacted along with a whole lot of people and we may be much less impacted than others are. So, for example, the people of Syria and Iraq are suffering greatly because of the ISIL threat but we feel pressure and stress because of the possible implications of that crisis for our nation and for the world.

The speaker in our psalm had been in a tight spot but now he celebrates—and the people of God join him in celebrating—because the Lord has brought him through. He gives credit and praise to the Lord because only the Lord could bring him out of his tight spot; we should give credit and praise to the Lord for the same reason. Let’s face it, while we should do all that we can to help ourselves—so long as we help ourselves in ways that are true to the life of Christ in us which means in ways that reflect our love for God and our love for others—when all is said and done, only God can see us through and only God can get us out.

That’s why we celebrate this day as the day that the Lord has made. We are Sunday people because Sunday is Resurrection Day. Because we are resurrection people, every day is Sunday because every day the Lord brings life to death, victory to defeat, and deliverance to captivity. Every day is the day that the Lord has made because Jesus is alive every day and because in Christ we are alive every day.

“I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord,” proclaims the speaker in the psalm (v. 17). As Jesus said to Martha just before he raised her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Death and events that feel like death hang over us like a dark cloud, but in the crucified and resurrected Christ the death sentence is lifted and life now reigns where death once ruled. That is what we celebrate on this and on every other day.

The psalm begins and ends with the summons to “give thanks to the LORD” because “he is good” and “his steadfast love endures forever!” That love was shown most clearly in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; that love is shown clearly to us in the ways that God sees us through in this life and in the way that he will carry us into the life beyond this life.

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Communion This Morning, Church Conference Tonight

(A sermon based on Romans 12:1-21 preached on Sunday, August 18, 2014)

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.”

And so I thought life was all about getting what I needed with little to no effort being expended by me. A roof was kept over my head, food appeared on my plate, and clothes were placed in my closet.

“When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

It’s not like I had much choice.

I found that if I was to keep on having a roof over my head, food on my plate, and clothes in my closet, I was going to have to do what adults do: become a grown human being who met my obligations and met my responsibilities.

And so with the blessings of family come the responsibilities of family. With the family dinners come the cooking and the cleaning. With making love comes making the bed. With the ball games and the competitions come all of the practices. With the house comes the mortgage. With the fun comes the commitment.

This morning we are celebrating the Lord’s Supper; we also refer to it as Communion. We call it Communion because (1) it symbolizes and celebrates our communion with God in Christ and God’s communion with us and (2) it demonstrates our communion with each other. We share in the Body of Christ as the Body of Christ.

In eating the bread and drinking the cup, then, we remind ourselves that we feed on Christ and we feed on each other. We gain nourishment and strength and life from Christ our Lord; Jesus said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day …” (John 6:53-54). We also gain nourishment and strength from our sisters and brothers in Christ. Romans 12 is filled with encouragement that we love one another and that we demonstrate that love by thinking more highly of others than we do of ourselves, by helping each other when we are in need, and by living peaceably with each other.

So we celebrate our fellowship with God and with each other as we take the Lord’s Supper as the Body of Christ this morning.

We will be just as much the Body of Christ and we will be just as much in fellowship with God and with each other tonight in Church Conference as we are in sharing the Lord’s Supper this morning.

It’s all the same thing, you see, because we are always the Body of Christ and we are always in communion with God and with each other. We are always feeding from Christ and we are always feeding from each other.

We always have growing to do, though, so sometimes our feeding becomes corrupted. Our feeding from Christ becomes corrupted when we do so selfishly or with a sense of entitlement or without accepting the obligations that come with being his Body. There is a well-known passage in 1 Corinthians 11; Paul is giving instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper when he says, “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (vv. 28-29a). When you look around the passage to find out what Paul is talking about, you find these words: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation” (vv. 33-34a). In other words, legitimate Communion with the Lord requires legitimate communion with each other.

Just like our feeding on Christ can get corrupted by our self-centeredness and lack of love and compassion, so can our feeding on each other as Paul put so well in Galatians 5: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (vv. 13-15).

Yes, we mess it up sometimes.

It is as Bill Moyers once said: “Small wonder Baptists have been compared to jalapeno peppers: one or two makes for a tasty dish, but a whole bunch of them together in one place brings tears to your eyes.”

But it is also as the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood once said: “Simple people can be amazingly powerful when they are members one of another. As everyone knows, it is almost impossible to create a fire with one log, even if it is a sound one, while several poor logs may make an excellent fire if they stay together as they burn.”

Let’s remember that we are the Body of Christ in both meetings. Let’s remember that we are feeding on Christ and on each other at both times—and indeed, at all times. Let’s let our feeding on Christ and on each other be motivated and exhibited in our love for each other. Let’s be more interested in giving that we are in receiving—even as we are so very grateful for what we receive.

It’s Communion this morning and Conference tonight—but all the time Christ is Lord and all the time we are the Body of Christ, growing in his love, grace, and peace …

And as we celebrate our privilege this morning, let’s meet our responsibility tonight …

Elbow Grace

(A sermon based on 1 Peter 4:7-11 preached on August 10, 2014)

Most of us are familiar with the term elbow grease; it’s used in a phrase like “That pan was hard to clean—I really had to put some elbow grease into it!” It’s a way of saying that you had to put a lot of effort into a task.

My title is a play on that term. There are two ways I’d like you to think about it. First, let the phrase “elbow grace” help you think about the effort that we need to be making as Christians; Christ deserves our all because Christ is our all. Second, let the phrase “elbow grace” help you think about the fact that grace is our “elbow grease”; it is the grace of God that fuels and drives all that we are and all that we do.

In the opening words of our passage, Peter tells his readers, “The end of all things is near” (v. 1a). Now, it is likely that Peter anticipated that Jesus would return very soon. We must remember, though, that God’s time is not our time and God’s schedule is not our schedule; Jesus might not come back for thousands of years and it would still be, according to God’s clock, “soon.” We do neither ourselves nor anyone else any good when we listen to people trying to scare us into watching their shows and buying their books and controlling our lives by telling us that the Ebola outbreak or the fighting in the Middle East or some other event signals that the end is near. God’s wrapping up (cf. The Message translation) of all things is always near, regardless of how far away it is.

The important question is not “When is Jesus coming back?”; the important question is “What are we to be doing until he does come back?”

Peter’s direction is spot on for us here today.

First, he said “Be serious and discipline yourselves” (v. 7b). We have a life to live under Christ and we need to take it seriously. That means paying attention to our thoughts, to our attitudes, and to our actions. It means growing ever closer to God, becoming ever abler to follow Jesus and becoming ever more sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. We each need to make a personal commitment to such serious discipline. It’s time for football and one of the things that will mark a successful team is the seriousness and discipline with which they have made themselves ready to play ball. Such seriousness and discipline is what will make us ready to live Christian lives.

Second, Peter said that we are to pray. Our serious dedication to our Lord enhances our praying. Why? Because our life as Christians is a life of prayer; our life is a life of continuous fellowship with God and that is what prayer is. Prayer is communion with God as well as communication with God so as we grow closer to God we can communicate better with God.

Third, Peter said that we are to love one another. It is to be a “constant” love; the word can mean “fervent” or “intent.” Such love is not just a feeling; such love is a commitment to each other that shows itself in action. It requires effort. It grows out of our disciplined following of Jesus. Such love, Peter said, “covers a multitude of sins”; that is, it leads us to do the very hard work of forgiving one another and of working and living together despite our differences. As we grow in love for one another we are less likely to sin against one another by our attitudes, our words, or our actions, but when we do, we are more likely to forgive one another and to maintain our relationship as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Fourth, Peter said that we are to “be hospitable to one another” (v. 9a). In the early years of the Church, travelling was dangerous and it was important for Christians to welcome missionaries and other believers into their homes. For poor Christians, it was an especially demanding responsibility. What does hospitality mean to us in our context? For one thing, it means that we welcome one another into each other’s lives. We are glad to share our joys and burdens with each other; we think more about someone else’s needs than we do our own. For another thing, it means that we welcome any and all comers to our church. There is no one who is beyond the reach of the grace of God and so everyone is welcome in the house of God. Notice that Peter said that we are to practice hospitality “without complaining” (v. 9b). That will take discipline, won’t it?

Fifth, Peter said that we are to “serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received” as “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (v. 10). By God’s grace we are saved and by God’s grace we have the gifts and abilities we need to serve each other. We are not to keep God’s grace and God’s gifts to ourselves; we are to pass them on to others. We are to make a conscious decision and make a disciplined effort to put God’s grace to work by helping and serving other people.

Finally, Peter makes it clear that even though we are called to use some elbow grace, to be disciplined in and committed to sharing God’s grace and love with other people by serving them, it is only possible because God is in us and with us. Everything that we are and everything that we do is because of God and so that God will be praised.

[The commentary on 1 Peter by Richard B. Vinson in the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary was particularly helpful in the preparation of this sermon.]