The Big Read, Day 2 - Mark 4-5

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"Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil..."

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The Big Read - February 14 - Mark 1-3

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1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with[f]water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The Baptism of Jesus

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.”

The Temptation of Jesus

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness...Click here to continuing reading

The Big Read - Six Weeks Through All Four Gospels

The Big Read Graphic

During the season of Lent (February 14 - March 31) you are invited to join others in reading through all four gospels in just six weeks.  Each day's reading will be just a couple pages from the gospels, and by March 31 you will have read all of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

Lent marks a time of repentance and preparation before the joy of Easter Sunday. It is traditionally a time of turning our attention to God by leaving behind distractions to our faith and embracing new practices and disciplines that make us more aware of God and God's will.  

We'll be giving out the reading plans at church starting next week. The plan can also be downloaded here, and there will be daily posts here for each day's reading.  You can also join The Big Read Facebook group!

More details will be coming over the next two weeks before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.  Stay tuned!

 

 

How to Handle 2018

From December 31, 2017
By Rev. Shawn Coons

 

A mountain climber, who had summited Mt. Everest multiple times, was once asked what the secret was to climbing the world’s tallest mountain. His response was, “The secret to climbing Mt. Everest is the same as climbing any mountain. One step at a time.” This reminded me of the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant?” And the answer, “One bite at a time.”

One bite at a time, one step at a time. I’ve been thinking about these bits of advice as we stand at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018.  I imagine looking into the coming year may be a lot like standing at the bottom of Mt. Everest.  Some people will look at it and gleefully exclaim that they can’t wait for what lies ahead of them. The coming year holds challenge and opportunities for new adventures and rising to new heights.

Other people may look at 2018 as one large uphill climb, full of potentially harsh and dangerous conditions. It’s not an adventure to be undertaken, but something that will need perseverance just to get over.

 

I don’t know which kind of person you are. I don’t know if you are looking forward to 2018 and what it will bring, or the coming new year fills you with a sense of unease for what lies ahead.  Either way, I hope to bring you a word of encouragement from scripture this morning, and that is simply to take the next year one step at a time, and that each step you take, God will be there with you.

 

This morning, we stand in an interesting place in the church year.  Last week, we celebrated Christmas, and we are now in the midst of the proverbial twelve days of Christmas. Today is the sixth day of Christmas, so hopefully your true love has six gees a laying waiting at home for you.  So we still have the Christmas decorations up here, we are still singing Christmas songs, but we are also moving forward. We acknowledge the season of Christmas and yet life continues. 

This is kind of the theme of our scripture lesson this morning. Things happen in their time and season, but life moves forward through it all.  So let’s listen to Ecclesiastes 3:1-13.

 

3For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. 

9What gain have the workers from their toil? 10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This may be a familiar scripture to you. If you are like me, it brings to mind the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds.

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

 

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

And if you are like me, that will be stuck in your head for the rest of the morning.

Often when people quote this scripture or make reference to it, it’s used at a time where things aren’t going well, where something bad has recently happened or is happening.  When someone dies, when an illness is diagnosed, a job lost, a relationship ended. “Everything has its season.”  It’s a way of trying to make sense why this bad thing has taken place. There must be a reason, it was appointed to happen eventually.  It can also be a way of stating that if bad things are happening now, because it’s their appointed time, then there will be a time, a season, where good things happen to. If there is a time to die, there is a time for birth, for new life as well.

But if we look closer at this passage, we will find out that that may not be what is meant here.  The author is not trying to say that there is a divine order to when good things and bad things happen.  It would be great, as we stand on the threshold between years, to look at God’s divine schedule and know which season we are about to enter. Are we entering the time to heal, to laugh, and to build, or should we prepare for the time of mourning and loss? But that’s not what’s going on here.

The author of Ecclesiastes is reflecting on life as he has known it in the past and present, not trying to predict what is in store for the future. The author is listing the good and the bad that has happened, but can make no sense of why it happens at a particular time or at all, and so he simply states that everything must have a time or season for happening eventually.

 

We don’t know who the author of Ecclesiastes is. The only clue we have to their identity is there self-given moniker, “Qoholet” which literally means “the gatherer” but is often translated as “teacher.”  Ecclesiastes falls into the category of Biblical writing that we call wisdom literature.  Later Jewish tradition says that the author was Solomon in his old age.

But in reality, we know nothing about the author other than what is supplied in the text. Scholars date Ecclesiastes to a time in Israel’s history when they had been divided and conquered. A time of turmoil and rapid change.  One commentator writes:

 

Qohelet and his audience live in a world of rapid political, social and economic change...It is a world full of inconveniences, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Nothing that mortals do or have is ultimately reliable -- not wealth, pleasure, wisdom, toil, or even life itself. People try to cope with the situation...in various ways. They worry. They are never satisfied. They are obsessed with discovering any formula that will bring success and happiness...They strive to gain an immortality of sorts through fame, progeny, wealth, or accomplishments. They try to gain some control, if not actually secure an advantage in life. Nothing works, however.

 

Sound familiar? It does to me. Or to quote another line from Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Our lives are full of uncertainty. The world is full of uncertainty. Good things happen, bad things happen, and it can seem impossible to ascribe rhyme or reason to it. What does 2018 hold for us?  Who really knows?

 

Merry Christmas, eh? 

 

I’m not trying to bring us crashing down from our holiday high, but as we move through Christmas into the new year, I want to acknowledge that life can be challenging, and life can also be great, but through it all God is with us.  Ecclesiastes says that wealth, power, status, and health may be fleeting and fickle, but God is not.  There are good times and there are bad times, and they will come and go, but God will be by your side regardless.

In changing times, we are called the one who does not change.  The one who came to us, in the flesh, 2000 years ago.  When Jesus was born in the Middle East, when Jesus walked among us, laughed and cried, loved and hurt, when Jesus was arrested and killed and rose again.  We were given new life. We were shown a better way. We were brought into God’s kingdom, here on earth.

 

But Jesus’ coming didn’t end uncertainty in our lives. Jesus’ coming didn’t put an end to war, and death, and sadness, and mourning.  But we were shown the way to get through whatever lies ahead of us on our journey. One step at a time.

At the risk of giving you another ear worm, do you know the song Day by Day from Godspell?

Day by day
Oh Dear Lord
Three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly
Day by day

 

Day by day is how we get through each day of the coming year, each day of our lives.  You may be familiar with various 12 step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. The basis of these groups are meetings that members attend to get support and accountability from one another to help them fight their addictions each day. There is a saying among these groups that the most important meeting you will ever attend is always the next one.

The most important day of the coming year is always the next one. And each day begins by trusting God anew.  This year, I’d like to invite you to make it a point of starting your day intentionally by trusting God.  There are a number of ways that people choose to do this.  Many people begin their morning with a reading from scripture or a simple prayer. Others choose a deliberate 5, 10, 15 minutes of quiet prayer and meditation.  I’d like to share with you one particular resource that many have found helpful. D365.org is a website that will email you each day with a short devotional that you can read anywhere that you can check your email. They also have an app that you can get for your phone.

So for your homework today, just think of one small thing you can do each day to connect to God. A time of prayer, reading a verse of Scripture, reading a printed out prayer by your toothbrush each morning. Just one thing.

 

The Gift of Love

From December 24, 2018
By Rev. Shawn Coons

Most people are familiar with “the Christmas story.”  The virgin Mary miraculously pregnant, Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem, staying in a manger to give birth to Jesus, angels, shepherds, wise men.

But there is a second story told alongside the Christmas story in the Bible.  And this is not a story of humble beginnings or unimportant people. It is Caesar’s story, and though it often quietly goes unnoticed by Christians at this time of year, for the Jewish people of Israel 2000 years ago the story of Caesar was loud and ever present.

Paul Bellan-Boyer writes about it this way:

“there is this little bitty baby...

If it were up to Caesar, you would never hear his story. Nothing in it is exalted. The poor travelers have no family, connections, or money to give them a place. They carry only a swollen belly of questionable paternity. The newborn’s cradle is gilded with leftover hay and livestock spittle. The witnesses to this glory are the least reputable characters around, shepherds who, filled with angel visions, abandon their flocks.

If it were up to Caesar, you would not dare to: think of responsibilities to any Lord other than Caesar; glorify any Lord other than Caesar; even hint at challenging Caesar’s authority.

If it were up to Caesar, the tables of the powerful would never be overturned. When Caesar hears a story like this, he knows only to crush it, to crucify it. Yet in the starlight of those Palestinian hills and in the candlelight of a midnight Mass, we can glimpse a new reality: where peace comes not from armies, but from justice; where sin withers in the face of truth; where mercy rules the arena of human society; and where love conquers fear.”

Where love conquers fear.  The story of Christmas is a story of love. The story of Caesar is a story of fear.  All Caesars rule by fear. Fear of danger, fear of people of different races or religions, fear of losing your privilege.  But as we heard Mark read a moment ago, love casts out fear.  And love came to us powerfully 2000 years ago to cast out fear once and for all.

For this morning’s gospel lesson, we are going to pick up the Christmas story right after the birth of Jesus.  When a host of angels visits a ragtag bunch of shepherds.  Pay attention to the first words the angels speak to the shepherds.

Luke 2:8-16

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

Layton Williams writes:

“Don’t be afraid.” That is always the first thing that comes out of an angel’s mouth. Don’t be afraid. Be ye not afraid. Do not fear. Fear not. However you translate it, angel voices always issue the holy invitation to lean into courage rather than to give into fear.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God,” the angel Gabriel promised that young, engaged yet unmarried, peasant girl named Mary…In the Gospel of Matthew, the angel delivered that “do not be afraid” message to Joseph, as he dreamt…

The shepherds heard those words as well. There they were, minding their own business, watching their sheep, just doing their jobs when suddenly, brightness broke out all around them and angels appeared.

Don’t be afraid, an angel called. And then the angel told the shepherds of the birth. A birth that was to be good news of great joy for all the people. And the shepherds, like Mary, like Joseph, decided to lean into courage rather than to give into fear. They immediately took off to see what they would find. But again, the first words from holy mouths: Don’t be afraid.

It’s sometimes assumed that the angels are saying “don’t be afraid” because the presence of an angel, a divine and powerful messenger from God, is fear inducing.  That may or may not be the case, but I would suggest that Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all had reason to be fearful before the angels ever came to them.

As Jewish people living in Israel in the first century, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds were all living under Roman occupation. They were living under the rule of Caesar. And Caesar ruled by power and fear. And this Christmas story is set in the shadow of Caesar, from the start, the author of Luke sets up two narratives, with two saviors.

In the first verse of chapter 2 we heard about a census declared by Emperor Augustus, when Quirinius was governor.  Caesar Augustus was the winner of the Roman civil war.  He was Octavian, the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar.  Octavian formed an alliance with Mark Antony to rise to power.

Octavian and his ally, Mark Antony, had their inevitable falling out, and went to war against each other.  Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and ended the Roman Civil War.  Octavian--now Caesar Augustus--was given credit for ending thirteen years of chaos.  Many called him "the savior of the world." 

So when the angel’s came to the shepherds to announce that a savior is born, this is the author of Luke’s way of saying “Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.”  And it is in this moment, when the angels come to the shepherds, that Jesus’ kingdom is being defined in contrast to Caesar’s.

The first people that are told of the birth of Jesus are not the important people mentioned in verse 1. No Emperors, or governors here.  Just shepherds.  And shepherds are kind of sketchy people in that day and age.  One commentator writes:

While shepherds could be romanticized (as was King David), they were usually ranked with ass drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers, camel drivers, and other despised occupations. Being away from home at night they were unable to protect their women, hence considered dishonorable. In addition, they often were considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other people's property.

But they are the first recipients of the good news that a savior has come. A true savior.

Maybe they were chosen to receive the good news because they would be the most receptive?  Maybe it is those who are lowest and most despised who need a savior the most?  And maybe they are also the ones who need to hear “Don’t be afraid” the most as well.  Living on the margins of society, living in a vulnerable position, one day or loss away from losing it all. That puts a person in a constant state of stress and fear.  Never knowing if today is the day that what little you have gets taken from you.

But the shepherds respond in the best way possible.  They go with haste and joy to see the newborn Jesus, but notice what they do before they go. The Bible records them discussing what’s taken place with one another.  They decide as a group.  The first signs of the new kingdom show us that this is not a top-down system ruled by a Caesar, but a kingdom where all voices are heard and valued, and no one should be afraid.

Fear was a reality 2000 years ago, and it’s a reality for us today.  So much of what goes on around us seems to be driven by fear.  A quick check of today’s headlines gives us plenty to fear.  Powerful corporations taking away our choices, nuclear war, refugees and immigrants, other races, other religions, stagnant wages, crime on the streets, politicians run amok, global warming.

Even our own Christian faith is not a stranger to lifting up fear.  Leonard Sweet has said that too often religion spreads fear so that it can sell hope.  Have you ever seen a Christian street preacher?  The ones I have most often seen are the ones yelling loudly about sin, hell, and what happens to you if you don’t believe in Jesus.  They sometimes have signs with horrible things written on them in big blocky capital letters.  God hates this kind of person, or You will burn in hell.

That’s faith by fear.  Believe in God or else.  That’s a threat.

But that’s not what the Christmas story is about. Caesar’s story is about fear. Fear is the tool of those that oppose God.  Unfortunately, it works too often. It’s much easier to appeal to someone’s worst fears then their best aspirations.  But easier is not better.  And we believe in a God that chooses the best way and not the easy way.

The Christmas story is about love. The kind of love that casts out fear.   

So friends, despite whatever else we hear out there, as followers of Jesus, we are invited, called, challenged to be not afraid. To fear not. For we have seen the face of our God and know the incomprehensible depth of God’s love. May we all go from this time of worship, from this Christmas Eve, deciding to lean into courage rather than to give into fear, trusting that God is still at work in this world and even at work in and through us.

Just imagine what could happen in our lives and in this world if we all decided to heed the angels’ voices and to not be afraid anymore.

The Gift of Peace - How to Conquer Your Enemies

From December 10, 2017
by Rev. Shawn Coons

In just a few moments I’ll be reading part of the Christmas story from the book of Luke. We are familiar with the Christmas story and the various characters in it. We know the ensemble gathered around the nativity.  Of course, there’s Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.  The shepherds and the wise men.  An angel or two, as well as a couple sheep, a donkey or a cow.  I’m guessing you all have nativity sets at home with all of these present.

But there are other characters in the Christmas story that we often don’t remember, or that we leave behind by the time we get to the candlelight of Christmas Eve.  And I’m not talking about the extra characters you see in some nativity sets. For example, we have an advent calendar at home that has a different Christmas character for each day of December up until Christmas Eve.  24 different ones.  There are the ones mentioned above, but then they add a few more.  There’s one who is a bringing a pizza.  And then there’s also a bag piper.  So much for your silent night.

The passage that I am reading from Luke has none of the people (or animals) listed above.  Instead the only person speaking or acting in the passage is Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and husband of Elizabeth.  John the Baptist is an important person in the Gospels. He is the one who comes before Jesus to prepare the way of the Lord.  Elizabeth is familiar from the passage before this one, where her relative Mary comes to her after receiving word of her miraculous pregnancy.  And when Mary and Elizabeth greet each other, it is recorded in poetic verse with memorable lines such as “Blessed are you among women!” and “My soul magnifies the Lord!”

But Zechariah doesn’t have as big of a role to play in the typical Christmas story, nonetheless if we skipped over his story and how the Spirit works through him, it is only to our loss.  In some ways, the story of Zechariah and Elisabeth seems more at home in the Old Testament.  When we are introduced to them we meet an older couple, their lives and ancestry rooted in the Jewish tradition and the Jewish priesthood.  And we hear this familiar theme, “ they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.”

Immediately, this will remind many of the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, who were well beyond child-bearing years with no children, until God came to them to being them the good news that Sarah was pregnant and would bear a son.  Elisabeth and Zechariah also received this news.  In both cases it was met with skepticism, and in Zechariah’s case his disbelief caused God’s messenger to strike Zechariah mute until his son was born and named.

The passage we will be reading this morning, Luke 1, beginning with verse 67, are the first words he says after regaining his speech. And it is a poetic verse on par with Mary and Elisabeth’s earlier verses.  First recounting the promises of God, and then naming God’s plans for his newborn son, John.

67Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

“To guide our feet into the way of peace.”  Today is the second Sunday of Advent, and on this Sunday we focus on the Advent theme of peace.  In first century Israel, especially at the time of Jesus birth, the Jewish people were longing for peace.  They weren’t currently at war. The people of Israel wasn’t battling any other country at the time. But that’s because they had lost the war.

Israel was an occupied country. The Romans had long ago conquered Israel and their rule was law.  So when Zechariah speaks about God raising up a savior who would save Israel from their enemies. He meant the Romans. When he says that God will bring light and guide our feet into the way of peace. He is expecting a messiah he will bring about peace by fighting the Romans and throwing them out of Israel.  Zechariah, would have been a typical Jew of his time and recall the stories of Hebrew scripture where God was often on the battlefield with the armies of Israel. God led them in battle to defeat and conquer their enemies of old. Peace in Israel was brought about by the mighty hand of God against their enemies.

But we begin to see a clue that this isn’t what God has planned for Israel. Mary is not carrying in her womb a military messiah who will bring peace through might, but one who with the dawn from on high will bring about the tender mercy of God.  In Zechariah’s poetic passage he uses imagery and words from Isaiah chapter 42.  In this passage, there is a servant of God described. One who will be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind.”

A light to the nations.  Not the general of one nation. But a light to all nations.

For the people of Israel, and for us today, there is a monumental shift in how peace is achieved that becomes reality through the incarnation, through Jesus taking human form.  During this time of Advent, you may remember that we look to and prepare for Jesus’ coming, not just 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, but to when Jesus comes again, at the end of time to fully realize the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes when looking forward to the Second Coming of Jesus we talk about the apocalypse, which is often described at times in the Bible with striking and almost violent imagery. Dark skies, the sun and moon turning red as blood, turmoil across the earth.  For many Christians, the apocalypse has come to serve as code for a cosmic and spiritual war to end all wars. It will be a battle where God will strike down and conquer any enemy of God and Christians throughout the world.

But does this sound like how Jesus would bring about peace?  Through violence, through war, through conquering? Does this sound like the Prince of Peace?  James Alison in his book Raising Abel suggests a different way of looking at the end of time when Jesus comes again.  He asks us to look at the second coming not as apocalyptic but as eschatological.  Eschato-whu? 

Eschatology is a fancy word for a how Christians talk about the end of time.  Not the end as in the finish, but the end as in the completion, the goal, the fulfillment.  When we talk about eschatology, it’s not about how the world will end, how the world as we know it will be destroyed.  We talk about how the world should end up, how the world should be when all is right and God’s purposes are achieved for all creation.

James Alison compares Apocalyptic vs. Eschatological:

Apocalypse is about a violent ending to the creation, a retribution by God against the tyrants, and the vindication of God's people. Behind this understanding of the completion of all things is a God who is a super version of ourselves. He will redeem and cleanse the world from its violence and evil, by using even more violence.

In apocalyptic thinking the hope is in God’s ultimate sacred violence [whereas in] eschatological thinking… the nonviolent God is rescuing us human beings from our own violence.

A key part of apocalyptic thinking is a dualistic us and themgood and evil mindset.  The sheep will be separated from the goats, and we inevitably think we can perceive the lines of that separation, despite long experience that we get it wrong.

When Zechariah spoke his words of prophecy about the coming savior who would rescue Israel from its enemies, he didn’t know what he was saying. Yes, Jesus would come to get rid of our enemies. But not by fighting them, but by loving them. Ghandi once said, “Whenever you are confronted with an opponent. Conquer him with love.”  And Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

But long before any of those were said, Jesus taught people to “love their enemies” and to “turn the other cheek.”  Jesus knew that true peace wasn’t achieved by destroying those opposed to you, but by loving them until they were no longer your enemy.  This was a powerful and strange message to those in Israel who were looking for God to take care of their enemies and give them what they had coming to them.

It’s a powerful and strange message to us today as well.  We live in a time and place, where too many people are looking to strike out against their enemies, where too many people are looking for enemies where there are none.  Some of our leaders have discovered that the quickest way to power is not to unite people, but to divide, to label this group or that group as the enemy. To look for those who are of a different faith or a different skin color, and turn their followers in anger against them.

Some leaders even claim to do this in the name of God and Christian faith.  But a true leader from God doesn’t look to make enemies out of neighbors, or create enemies for personal or political gain. A true leader from God seeks to create neighbors out of enemies, and to lead and live in such a way that enemies are not vanquished or conquered but loved until they are enemies no more.

It’s so easy to find an enemy and pray for that they get what’s coming to them, but that is not what we are called to, Christians.  In Matthew 25, we have a somewhat apocalyptic passage where Jesus comes back at the end of time to judge the nations based on how they treated those who were poor and in need.  And it can be easy to read it as a passage where God takes our enemies and gives them the punishment they deserve.  Jesus separates them like sheep and goats, the sheep, the good ones on one side going to eternal reward, and the goats on the other side, headed for eternal punishment.

But I want to read to you a continuation of this story, written by Andrew Prior. It’s not from the Bible, but it rings of truth to me, and maybe to you as well.

A great silence settled over the stockyards. Many among the sheep had expected to go to the other place. They had, after all, not lived well. But some small mercy on their part had them standing here kingdom bound. A few shifted uneasily. Some of that charity had only been to shut up and get rid of beggars on the street.

n the other yard, people who had worked long and hard, and sacrificed much for God gazed dully at the ground. It was so obvious now− how could they have not seen that doing the right thing while leaving someone unloved was an absolute contradiction of the kingdom?

A small lamb squeezed its way between the fence rails and limped into the middle of the goats. The king rumbled, "You! Lamb! What are you doing there?" The lamb quavered before the roar of the king."

You said you would draw all people to yourself." (John 12:32) The Great King said nothing. The lamb paled. "Blessed Paul said, 'One man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.'" (Romans 5:18) Still the King was silent. "He said, 'For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.' (Romans 11:32) And he said, 'all will be made alive in Christ.' (1 Corinthians 15:22) And he said− "

"Enough!" said the King. "What do you propose to do, little lamb?"

"I… I think I will stay with the goats, sir. They need someone to care for them."

And the King laughed a laugh of great joy. "Someone has understood! Someone has really loved! They have seen. The only judgement is love." And the King was gone, and all that remained was a Lamb standing among the people, goats and all.

Zechariah’s words call through the ages to us today, on the Sunday of Peace, in a world where peace seems far and enemies seem near: The dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And so we pray for peace, we pray for an end to our enemies, not to their end, but to the end where we are enemies no longer.

 

 

 

 

Getting Christmas Right

From December 3, 2017
by Rev. Shawn Coons

Everybody talks about New Year’s resolutions. But how many of you have ever heard of Christmas resolutions? Maybe you haven’t heard of them, but I’m willing to but you’ve made a Christmas resolution.

The video we just saw talked about “getting Christmas right” and Christmas resolutions are all about getting Christmas right. These resolutions aren’t made on Christmas necessarily, although they can be, they are usually made in the stressful moments of this season.

·         Next year – I’m getting all my shopping done in November!

·         Next year – we’re not going overboard with the presents.

·         I’m tired of sending Christmas cards out in January, I’m starting them in July next year!

·         We’re doing Christmas simpler next time.

·         Next year we’re putting our tree up before Christmas Eve.

·         Next year we’re taking our tree down before Easter.

Any of this sounding familiar?

I have my own personal resolutions each year regarding our Christmas lights outside. I really enjoy Christmas lights, both seeing them and having them on our hoe and in our yard. Over the years, I’ve bought white lights, blue lights, multi-colored lights, icicle lights, warm lights, cool lights, C5s, C9s. I’ve put them on the roof, on our trees, along the walk.

And each year, I wish I would have done something different. A different color, style, placement. I’m never quite satisfied.  Last year, I don’t think I put up any at all because I couldn’t figure out what would look best. I wanted the get it right.

There can be so much pressure to do Christmas right.  To meet the expectations of family, kids, parents, in-laws, distant family. To meet our own expectations of making Christmas meaningful and reflective.

How do we get Christmas right?

I’ve got good news for you this morning. I have the answer to that question. And it’s a pretty simple answer. We don’t have to get Christmas right. That’s not our job.  Our hope - and this is the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Hope - our hope is in the fact that we don’t have to get Christmas right, because God already has.

Advent and Christmas are not about what we do, but about what God has done and God will do. The simple fact is we aren’t going to get Christmas right. We are fallible human beings, living in a more than fallible world. At times our Christmases are going to be less than perfect. At times our lives are going to be less than perfect. At times our world is going to be less than perfect.

And Jesus didn’t come 2000 years ago to help us make the world better. Jesus came to make the world better, because we hadn’t done such a good job with that up until that point.

Our gospel lesson today is a prime example of that.  We are going to read form the 13th chapter of Mark. This section is sometimes called “the little apocalypse.”  Scholars believe the gospel of Mark was written in the latter part of the first century. When Roman persecution of Judaism was rampant and the Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Roman government.

So it should be no surprise to hear Jesus, in the gospel of Mark, speaking about turbulent times and how to get by in a less than perfect world.  Mark 13:24-37

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light, 
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he* is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert;* for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 

This is the Word of the Lord.

When we read apocalyptic passages like this one, it can be helpful to think of them as what one scholar calls, “crisis literature.”  There was something going on at the historical moments the passage was written, and the author and/or the author’s community had questions about the power and righteousness of God.

These words came at a time when the Christian and Jewish foundations were shattered, and their world was coming down around them.  The destruction of the Temple represented a catastrophe of divine presence and a violent break with the continuity with the past. The Temple was a center of religious life, but also political and economic life, too.

And it was destroyed.

It was to this community that Jesus’ words were addressed:

the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken

Now this may sound scary to us, but remember this would sound familiar to the 1st century Christians.  Jesus wasn’t describing something that might happen, he was describing what was happening.  This passage isn’t predicting turmoil in the world, it is acknowledging it. Not only, acknowledging it but then Jesus goes on to say, don’t worry because when your world is shaken that may be the moment when God comes back.

In the 21st century we think of apocalypse as a bad thing. apocalypse to us means the world as we know it coming to an end through nuclear war, zombies, aliens, or some other larger than life, Hollywood blockbuster scenario.  But to those first century Christians the apocalypse meant that God was right around the corner, ready to come on stage and save the day.

The scary apocalyptic events were already happening to them, so their hope was in looking for signs that God had not left the building. So when Jesus speaks of signs to come, and portents in the sky, the early Christians looked eagerly for those signs.  Because they were the announcement that God was coming.

If you are familiar with Batman, those signs were kind of like the Bat signal. If you saw it then you knew that Batman was probably not far behind.  This is why we don’t have to worry about making Christmas right.  Christmas is about God making the world right, making the world whole, making us whole.

Advent literally means coming, and it is the time when we not only look forward to Jesus coming to Bethlehem, but we look forward to Jesus coming again to make things whole and right.  So if this Christmas, things don’t go according to plan. It’s OK. If right now in your life, things aren’t going according to plan it’s OK. Right now, if your world is falling apart around you. It’s OK.

God is coming to make things right. God comes to make things whole.

There is a wonderful story about Russian composer Ignace Yan Paderewski. It seems one evening he was scheduled to perform at a great concert hall.  In the audience of black tuxedos and long evening gowns was a mother with her fidgety nine-year old son.  His mother brought him in hopes her boy would be encouraged to practice the piano if he could just hear the immortal Paderewski.  So, against his own wishes, he had come.

As she turned to talk with her friends, the boy slipped from her side, and without much notice from the sophisticated audience, the boy sat down at the stool, staring wide-eyed at the black and white keys, he put his small fingers upon the keyboard.  He began to play "Chopsticks."  The roar of the crowd was hushed by hundreds of frowning faces turned in his direction.  An angered audience began jeering at the boy, booing and hissing for him to be taken from the stage.

Backstage, the Paderewski overheard the sounds out front and quickly put together what was happening.  Hurriedly, he grabbed his coat and rushed toward the stage.  Without one word of announcement, he stooped over the boy, reached around both sides and began to improvise a counter melody to harmonize and enhance the tune.  As the two of them played together, Paderewski kept whispering in the boy's ear:  "Keep going.  Don't quit son.  Keep on playing.  Don't quit. I'm right here...don't quit!"

Advent is the time when we hear Jesus right behind us, whispering in our ear, “Keep going.  Don't quit. Keep on going.  I'm right here."

 

 

 

 

 

How Will You Measure Your Life? Week 1

From October 22, 2017
by Rev. Shawn Coons

We’re going to begin this morning with a reading from Philippians 3:1-11. This is a letter believed to be authentically from the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi. 

In this passage, Paul is addressing the ongoing conflict between some Jewish Christians and some Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. The argument is about whether Gentiles should be follow Jewish law and traditions, including circumcision. What should be the measure of one’s Christian faith. Is it, as some propose, how closely one follows Jewish law? Paul squarely confronts this issue of measuring faith by contrasting the measurements who used in his own life in the past vs. how he measures his faith now. Listen and see if you can pick out his old standard of measuring vs. his new.

Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.2Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh—

4even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

[9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.]

Did you hear it? Paul’s old unit of measurement vs. his new one? He recites his credentials as a, in his words, “a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”

circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

That’s the old standard of faith: his Jewish credentials by birth and by practice. Then he says he considers all of that “rubbish.” The Greek word used here is stronger than rubbish. Trash, excrement, filth. And what is his new standard of measurement? The surpassing value of knowing Christ.

Paul addresses this conflict in the church by telling them that how they measure their faith matters. It matters what the standard of measurement is.

Ok, let’s put Paul aside for the moment. And I’m going to give you a pop quiz: what is pictured here? What is the metallic object inside these bell jars?

This is a kilogram. And I don’t mean it weighs a kilogram, although it does. I mean it’s literally a kilogram. It is one of a small number of official kilograms made over the last century and a half.  All of these officials kilograms are copies. Copies of what is affectionately known as “The Big K,” or officially known as the IPK, the International Prototype Kilogram.  The IPK is stored in the outskirts of Paris, at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. It is kept in a safe, in a lower vault, in a basement at this international headquarters.

A kilogram is 1000 grams, and on April 7, 1795, the gram was officially defined as, “the absolute weight of a volume of pure water equal to the cube of the hundredth part of the meter at the temperature of melting ice.” A little unwieldy, eh?  By 1889, others thought so too. So the IPK was manufactured and the official definition of the kilogram was changed. “A kilogram is equal to the mass of an object known as the International Prototype Kilogram.”

There are copies of the IPK in various parts of the world to be used in calibrating tools and scales and other kilogram measurements. But on close scientific examination we’ve found that these kilograms all have slightly different weights!  Due to environmental conditions, various minute amounts of other materials have gathered on these copies, changing their weights ever so slightly.

In other words, the kilogram used by this part of the world may not weigh the same as the one in another part of the world, and so people are using different standards to measure by.  And if the difference is big enough, that can be disastrous.  Take the example of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999.

This was a 700 pound robotic satellite sent by Nasa to orbit around Mars.  Unfortunately, after years of planning, tens of thousands of work hours, and hundreds of millions of dollars it made it to Mars but was apparently destroyed in Mars’ atmosphere when it arrived.  It ended up descending too far into the atmosphere because one of the software programs was using U.S. standard measurements while another piece of software was expecting metric measurements.

Because one team in this project used the wrong standard of measurement, the whole mission ended in disaster. The standards we use to measure, matter. And I believe this carries over into our lives as well. If we use the wrong standards to measure our life, the results could be disastrous.

This is what we are going to be talk about over the next three weeks in this series, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

This is the question asked in a book Clayton Christensen, entitled, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Christensen is a Harvard Business School Professor and in one particular course he teaches his students about theories they can use in business. These theories offer explanations for why things happen in certain ways, and seek to help predict what the outcomes of various business practices and strategies will be. He instills in them the idea that specific outcomes in business are the result of specific decisions and actions.

But on the last day of the class each semester he asks them to apply this concept beyond the business world, and he asks, “How will you measure your life?” What results do you hope to achieve with the decisions and actions you make.  Christensen feels this is an important question to ask based on his observations of his own life over the years, and also his observations of his classmates.

Christensen went to Harvard and Oxford for his education. He was a smart, hard-working, motivated and accomplished young man with lots of potential after he graduated.  And the men and women he graduated were likewise filled with talent, intelligence and potential.  The schools he attended, Harvard and Oxford, both do a remarkable job of reuniting alumni and classmates, so over the years Christensen often got to see his classmates and friends and learn about their lives and accomplishments.

Early on, there was much for people to be proud of. High paying positions in Fortune 500 companies. New marriages and families. Book deals, big houses, semi-annual trips to Europe.  But as the years went on, Christensen noticed that some of his classmates didn’t seem to be happy with their lives. Other classmates were struggling in their marriages, had gone through multiple divorces, or felt distanced from their children. Some of his colleagues had even ended up in jail for business fraud or embezzling.

Christensen began to wonder how this had happened to so many of these bright, talented and driven people. They had so much potential but so many of them, sometimes including himself, had ended up in places they never intended.

So he began to think in terms of his education in business theory. A business theory seeks to make sense of how certain actions and decisions are translated into specific results. It says that if A and B happen, then the natural results will be C and D, but if E and F happen, then expect G and H to happen.  And what he saw is that many of his classmates had a sound theory for their businesses, but they didn’t apply a sound theory to their life.

They put great thought and effort into a strategy for business, but not into a strategy for life. In his words:

I know for sure that none of these people graduated with a deliberate strategy to get divorced or lose touch with their children—much less to end up in jail. Yet this is the exact strategy that too many ended up implementing.”

So how did they do this? How do we do this? How do we have the best of intentions? Want the best for our life? But end up choosing a strategy, making decisions, that lead us to different results?

Let’s go back to Paul, and let’s go back to our question for the day, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” A few moments ago I said, if you use the wrong standards to measure your life it would end up being disastrous. Too often we have the best of intentions. To live a generous life, to have a thriving marriage, to be close to our children, to go to bed happy and fulfilled each day. We have the best of intentions, but we choose poor standards of measurement.

And I don’t believe we do this because we are dumb, or because we are short-sighted. Rev. Adam Hamilton, in preaching on this same subject, suggests that the reason we choose the wrong standard of measurement is because some things are easier to measure than others. 

Think about it. If I’m building something with lumber, and I need to cut a piece of wood to a certain length, I’m going to use a tape measure and measure in inches.  If I’m trying to lose weight, I’m going to use a scale and measure in pounds. If I’m cooking at home, I’ll use a measuring spoon and measure in teaspoons.

But what do we use if we are measuring more intangible things?  Can we use a scale or a yardstick to measure how happy someone is? What tool should we use to measure the enjoyment that comes from reading a good book or coming home to your dog?  So when it comes to measuring our life we tend towards measurements that are easier that we can understand, even if they are the wrong measurements.

So what is easy to measure?  How much money you make. Your job title. A promotion. How many hours you work. How big your house is. The clothes you wear. The degrees you hold.

What’s not so easy to measure? How close you are with your spouse. Your presence in the life of your children. Care and compassion for others.

See the difference?  I certainly fall prey to this.  I’m a pastor, and there are multiple standards I could use to measure how our church is doing. But do you know what’s easiest? Nickels and noses. How much money is in the offering plate and how many people are here on Sunday. Do you know what’s a harder standard to measure? If someone came in this morning feeling low, and somehow had their spirits raised enough to get through another day. It’s hard to measure the amount of times one of you is inspired by a song, a sermon, a prayer, a bible study, and shares a word of care or an act of hope with someone you meet. 

But there are times when we can see clearly what is important to measure in life.  For me, one of those times is when someone dies.  I’ve done many funerals over the years, and one of the privileges I have in this role is to meet with the family of the person who died to hear about their lives and who they were.

And without fail, as I sit down with the family, do you know what they tell me first about their loved one?  It’s not how much money they made. It’s not their job title. It’s not what they acquired in life or the degrees they held. It’s statements like:

She loved her family so much.
He was always there for me.
He was so proud of his children.
She was so generous and caring.
He always had time for me.

It is always some form of how much the person loved others and how much the person was loved by others. How we love. Who we love. Those are how you measure a life.  Are you familiar with the song from RENT, “525,600 Minutes?”  The lyrics are:

525,600 minutes. How do you measure a year in the life? How about love? Measure in love.

We measure in love. Chet read from 1 Corinthians 13 a little bit ago. A familiar passage to many, but it speaks to this exact question: “How Do You Measure Your Life?” Allow me to paraphrase:

If I measure my life by being able to speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not measure my life by love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I measure my life by my prophetic powers, and my understanding all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I measure my life by having faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not measure my life by love, I am nothing. 3If I measure my life by giving away all my possessions, but do not measure my life by love, I gain nothing.

So here is your homework for today. Ask yourself “How do I measure my life?” And be honest with your answer.  I would encourage you to make this a conversation with others. Parents, ask your children to answer this question for you. How are you showing them what measurements are important in life. Ask this question of each other at coffee hour after the service, on the way home in the car, at lunch or at dinner. Ask your friends, classmates, co-workers, neighbors.

And if you are unsure of the answer, or unhappy with the answers you get or arrive at. Then you won’t want to miss the next two weeks. Because we will be going deeper into what exactly it looks like to measure your life in love.

“How will you measure your life?”

Joint Anti-Racism Statement from Neighborhood Congregations

To the residents and friends of the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood:

As people of faith representing the congregations of our neighborhood, we feel that it is our duty to respond to the racism, hatred, and discrimination that exists and continues to resurface in different ways within our nation and even here at home. We were profoundly troubled to learn of racist comments and an act of racial intimidation in our Butler Tarkington neighborhood.

Collectively we are speaking out against any action, group, or ideology that demeans the unique dignity of every person that lives, travels through, or even visits our neighborhood and beyond. We condemn acts of racial intimidation in any form.

We recognize the systemic injustices that exist against the African American community and have a collective desire to act. We condemn groups like the Ku Klux Klan, all white supremacist groups, and all others that adopt their beliefs, recognizing that their roots are not found in any of our faith traditions. Every faith tradition values every life.

It is our common hope that our faith and goodwill will encourage everyone to seek understanding, peace, and reconciliation among all people. We are committing not only our congregations, but asking all people to join us in praying, if that is your tradition, and certainly acting in love toward others. We look forward to future engagements with the clergy, congregations, and neighborhood and future partnerships with the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association. We invite you into this journey of conversation, listening, acting, and supporting one another during this time.

Signed:

Rev. Ronnie Bell, North United Methodist Church
Rev. Jeff Bower, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Rev. Shawn Coons, Fairview Presbyterian Church
Rev. Steve Conger, Meridian Street United Methodist Church
Rev. Sarah Ginolfi, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Fr. Michael Hoyt, St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church
Dr. Philip Karl James, Pastor, Mount Zion Baptist Church
Rev. Matt Landry, Meridian Street United Methodist Church
Pastor Jim Matthies, Common Ground Church
Pastor Jeff Reichanadter, Common Ground Church
Jamie Hinson-Rieger, Worship Leader, Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis
Bethany Scott, Director of Family and Neighborhood Ministries, Meridian Street United Methodist Church
Rev. Darren Cushman-Wood, North United Methodist Church

Neighboring - We Are Each Other's Air

From October 8, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

neighboring postcard -front.png

Indulge me in a little geekiness this morning.  How many of you have heard of an internet service called Napster?  How about BitTorrent?  Ok, not many.  How many of you have heard of BitCoin?  Napster first came to fame a number of years ago as a file-sharing program. What this means is that you would download the Napster program to your computer and then you could share specific files on your computer with another Napster user, and they could do so with you.  And one of the first major uses was to share mp3s, digital versions of songs.

So if you wanted the latest Britney Spears song, you just needed to find another Napster user who had it on their computer, and download it directly from them.  BitTorrent is a similar program, that makes many different types of files shareable directly between users.

It’s kind of like borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor instead of going to the grocery to buy it directly from the store. It’s a little bit more sketchy, because many people have used these programs to share copyrighted material illegally. BitCoin is a little bit different, it is a currency system. You can buy BitCoins and then use them to make purchases. But the records BitCoins and their transactions aren’t stored at a bank or with a specific company. The records are distributed and shared among BitCoin users.

All of these are what are called “peer-to-peer” services. They are decentralized, distributed, there isn’t one source which everything flows out of, instead each user contributes, gives and takes as required. Which means that users of the services are dependent on other users to make the service work.

Great, Shawn. What in the world does this have to do with church? And what does it have to do with our current series on loving your neighbor? Well, this series is called Neighboring, God’s plan for taking care of each other, and I want to suggest to you that God’s plan for taking care of each other is “peer to peer.”  There are dozens of examples in the gospels of Jesus taking care of people, showing love to specific individuals.  Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, healing the centurion’s daughter, and casting out demons from the Gerasane man.

But that wasn’t the limit of acts of love and care that we find recorded in the gospels. We can read about thousands of people shown care in the gospels, not by Jesus, but by Jesus’ followers. Where ever Jesus went, once people began to follow him, once they received his care, he turned them into caregivers for others. Care was given “peer to peer,” person to person, not just from Jesus to person.

This continued throughout the rest of the Bible, as the early church spread.  This morning we are going to read about one church where this model of care was practiced.  Modern day Turkey is the site of the city of Ephesus, who’s residents were known as Ephesians in scriptureAs Jesus’ message and movement spread, it got farther and farther away from Israel and the large Jewish population there. So by the time the church spreads through Asia Minor and reaches a city like Ephesus, it is going to places with a large Gentile (non-Jewish) population.

Ephesus was already ancient in the time of the New Testament.  It was a major urban area, with a large (for that time) population of fifty to a hundred and fifty thousand people, with all the diversity of population, trade, religious groups, and social classes that was typical of a Greco-Roman city. Ephesus in particular held an important place as the location of the great temple of Artemis, and the place where great Asian games were held.

We’re going to be reading from Ephesians 2:11-22, a letter to the church in Ephesus, often attributed to Paul, but scholars believe it is more likely a student or follower of Paul based on the textual clues. Listen for the calls for “peer to peer” care among this diverse church of Jews and Gentiles.

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

There’s a rift in this church, and it seems to be between those who were born Jewish and followed Jesus, and those who came to follow Jesus without being a Jew. There is a conflict here between the Jews and the Gentiles of the church.   Now there really shouldn’t be, this has all been decided. In Acts 15 we read about a council of church leaders that were wrestling with this very issue.

Shortly after the time of Jesus’ resurrection the early church was still solidly connected to Jewish tradition and Jewish law. And it was thought by many that any Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus would be required to follow Jewish laws and customs. But there were some church leaders, Paul and Barnabas among them, who argued against this. They brought this matter to the apostles and Peter declared that except for a few simple laws, Gentiles did not have to practice Jewish traditions.

So the word has come from the top-down that Gentiles should be welcome to follow Jesus alongside Jews. But the problem was that it was top-down still and not peer to peer.  This had not been embraced by individual members, both Jewish and Gentile, within churches. And it’s peer to peer that matters, because that’s how God intends it.

Notice the imagery that the author of Ephesians uses in the passage.

You are…members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 

Jesus and the apostles are the foundation of the household of God, Jesus is the cornerstone, but if you think of the rest of us as bricks or stones in the household.  They don’t all touch the cornerstone or the foundation, but each brick is connected to another brick, multiple bricks. We aren’t all directly connected to the cornerstone or the foundation, but we are directly connected to each other, each of us, side by side with others. We are each meant to support the others around us.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it?  Jesus wouldn’t have been able to directly care and nurture every one of his followers, once the church grew the apostles wouldn’t be able to either. Paul, who was instrumental in developing churches, nurturing the faith of many Christians throughout the New Testament. He wouldn’t have been able to provide nurture and care for everyone he introduced to the faith.

This makes for a stronger church. When we are all tasked with providing care and love for one another, than our support network is stronger.  Go with me on a mental journey.  Let’s travel up to the International Space Station. First, imagine you are an astronaut going on a spacewalk, you have to get in your spacesuit and go outside of the station on a mission. How do you breathe?  Well, the suit has oxygen tanks in it. Your air comes from one place – your suit. If something goes wrong with that one source of oxygen, you are in trouble.

Now imagine that you are done with your spacewalk and you are back inside the space station. Or better yet, imagine you are done and back on earth. Now where is your oxygen coming from?  It’s all around you, it surrounds you. You aren’t dependent on just one source for the air you breathe.

Friends, we are oxygen for one another. The love and care we provide for someone is their life support, and so the more sources of that life the better.  If you look around this room, these people should be your life support. You should be able to find multiple sources of love and care and support, and likewise you should be ready to provide love, and care and support for multiple people here.

Now, nobody is expecting you personally to provide direct and personal care for all 150+ members of our Fairview family, that’s not realistic. But each one of us is expected to care about and for as many people as we can, and to make sure that our circle of care is inclusive. Not just of people we know, but we should especially pay attention to the people that we may not know.  We don’t have to know everybody intimately, but we should be aware of people who may not be known, may not be connected to others.

We have many groups of care and support here at Fairvew. There are the formal groups: the chancel choir, the bell choir, weekday Bible studies, Sunday School classes, the Wednesday night pitch-in crowd.  There are relationships and bonds that form within these groups as we get to know each other more personally by meeting week after week together. But there are also more informal groups here at Fairview.  We group ourselves by generations, by how long we’ve been at the church, by where we live or where we used to live, sometimes by political leanings or by how old our children are.

There’s nothing wrong with these groups, but we can’t let our care and support and love be limited to these comfortable groups.  If we only tend to our circle of friends, then we are kind of in the same boat as the church in Ephesus. We may not have a division between Jews and Gentiles here, but if we aren’t careful we can end up with different isolated groups within the church. 

You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God

We are no longer strangers.

The Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus weren’t united by Gentiles becoming like Jews, or Jews becoming like Gentiles, they were united by both becoming like Jesus. Likewise, our unity is not based on how old we are, whether we have children, what we want for the church, who we voted for. Our unity, our love and care for each other, our life support, our love for neighbor is dependent on the God who has called us all here.

So I encourage you, to take this call to unity seriously. Take your part seriously. In the next month or two we will be welcoming a number of new members into the church.  Every time we welcome a new member, and every time we baptize a child, as a congregation we make promises to be there for that person, to be there life support, to be a source of love and care.

Continue to take that promise to heart. Renew that promise today.  Look for someone you don’t know, or someone you know who may need you to be their life support today.  And if you feel your oxygen running low around you, reach out to someone here and let them be your support and comfort.  If we do this, if we continue to live into the people and the church God is calling us to be, then with Christ as our cornerstone, we will indeed “grow into a holy temple in the Lord…built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

Neighboring - Go!

From October 1, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

This morning we are continuing with our series on neighboring, which is God’s plan for taking care of each other.  We’ve heard about God’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves, last week we talked about loving our actual neighbors, the people next door to us, by getting to know them by name and by their stories.  Next week, we will talk about what this looks like within our congregation- how we can all be responsible for loving and taking care of our neighbors in this room.

But first, this week, we will be talking about what it looks like for us as Fairview Presbyterian, for us as a congregation, to love our neighbors.  How can our church be a good neighbor?  How can we live this out so much, that when people pass our church they say, “That’s the church that loves their neighbors and shows that love all the time?”

The first step in being a church that loves its neighbors is an easy one.  It’s simply realizing how many neighbors we have. In the passage we are going to read in just a moment, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”  This is Jesus’ way of saying, there are a lot of people out there who need what we have.

The same is true for Fairview. This church does a great job at offering God’s love, hope, good news, challenge, care, healing, transformation to all who come here.  But here’s a little not-so-secret. The majority of Indianapolis doesn’t go to Fairview. Shocking. I know.  Well, OK but other churches offer God’s love and hope too. Absolutely, they do. But here’s another not so secret, a lot of people don’t go to church.

So, if we are going to define a neighbor, like Jesus did in the parable of the Good Samaritan, that Bill read a moment ago. That is, we define our neighbor by someone in need of help, in need of God’s love and God’s care. Than we need to realize we have thousands of neighbors.

The harvest is plentiful but the laborer’s are few.  So what’s the plan then. For bringing the love of God that we experience here at Fairview to the thousands of our neighbors who need that same love.

Let’s see how Jesus goes about this in Luke 10:1-11:

10After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.

7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

What has Jesus’ ministry looked like up to this point.  Jesus and his followers were curing the sick, offering healing to people.  They were casting out demons and feeding the hungry.  They were sharing good news, bringing hope to the oppressed and downtrodden.  And Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful. There are so many more people who are sick, struggling with oppression or their own demons. So many more who need hope and healing.”

And Jesus comes up with a plan. I’m not going to share that plan with you this morning. I’m going to let Rev. Katie Hays of Galileo Church in Texas, share that plan by video. We’re going to hear from Rev. Hays a couple times this morning. Back in September, Elder Stephanie Bode and I had the chance to hear her speak on this morning’s passage at a conference we were attending. And Rev. Hays brought some powerful words about this passage. And rather than try to sum them up I will let her speak for herself.

So Jesus realizes the vast number of people in need of good news and God’s love and he has to come up with a plan. Here is one option that he could have chosen:

Hays Video #1 7:47-8:52

Jesus could have set up shop. Could have planted himself and his ministry in one place and said let everybody know I’m here and let them come to me. But he didn’t. Instead he realized that he and his followers needed to go to the people. They needed to spread out all over the area and find those who need healing where they were. They needed to reach those struggling with their own demons, wherever they were. The burden of travel should not be on those who needed help but on those who had already received God’s blessings.

So Jesus gathers seventy of his followers, and he gives them some two things. First, he gives them some specific instructions. Don’t take anything with you, and rely on the hospitality of those who will welcome you. Don’t take a bag to carry stuff in. Don’t take stuff. Don’t even wear shoes!

Why is this? Is Jesus being harsh? Cruel? No, I don’t think so.  What’s happening here is Jesus wants them to know that when they go out, they aren’t to rely on their own abilities, on their own power.  They are to rely on the second thing he gives them: power and authority.  Jesus tells them that wherever they go they are to cure the sick and let them know the Kingdom of God has come near.  They don’t have traveling provisions, but they don’t need them because they have the power and authority given to them by God.

And to make that clear, Jesus says that the seventy need to simply move on if they are rejected, because in reality, the people aren’t rejecting Jesus’ followers, they are rejecting God.

I think we, you and I, often miss this blessing.  Too often, we are intimidated when we think of going out offering God’s blessings, healings, message of love, to other people. We worry about how we will come across, what will people think of us, what if we offering a bit of our faith or a kind act out of God’s loves and it is rejected?  Or we worry that we don’t know how to talk about our faith or offer a compassionate act to someone in need of God’s blessing.

But Jesus promises the seventy, and Jesus promises us, that we don’t need to have exactly the right words, or know exactly what someone needs, we don’t need to rely on ourselves and our own ability. If we just go to the people, then God will do the rest.

Our biggest challenge, is not knowing what to do when we get in the midst of the harvest, but going out to join in the harvest in the first place. The biggest challenge we face is truly believing not in God, but that God is calling us to love and care for our neighbors as much as we care of ourselves.  If we truly believe that our thousands of neighbors out there, need God as much as we do, need God’s love, and healing, and wholeness, as much as we do, then like the seventy we must go find them.  Let’s here from Katie Hays again:

Katie Hays Video #2 17:37-19:25

Loving our neighbors as ourselves, means leaving our beautiful church building. Not expecting the man left for dead by robbers on the side of the road to pick himself up and come to us, but for us to be like that Samaritan and go to him in his need.  Loving our neighbors as a church means hearing the urgency in Jesus’ voice. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Jesus is saying, “Don’t wait until you feel full ready. Don’t wait to pack your bag. Don’t wait until you have a place to stay. Go! Now!” Jesus was always moving forward, always looking for the next person who needed God in their life.

Jesus is saying to us, “You did a great job of taking care of the person in your midst who had cancer, so keep it up, keep going. There’s ten people with cancer who need that care, your care, my care, ten people within blocks of you right now!”

We’ve talked as a congregation about “Finding Our Why” discovering and articulating God’s call for us, the reason behind everything we should be doing. For Jesus, his Why was to go to as many people as he could, heal them, love them, give them good news.  As Christians, that’s our why too: get to as many people as we can, bring them God’s love, healing, and good news.

We are long past the time when we can expect that most people who need God will come to us.  And many of them have good reason. Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic, a church in Los Angeles, says, "people have given up on the truth of God because they don't believe anyone can be trusted. The world is full of people who have been hurt by those who were supposed to love them-people they should have been able to trust. Before churches will be heard, they must reestablish trust. To establish trust, they must first show their ability to love.”

The harvest is plentiful. Let me turn one last time to Rev. Katie Hays, and a story she has about her church’s work in the harvest.

Katie Hays Video #3 21:55-24:14

How do we make Fairview a church for non-churchy people too? Nothing against churchy people, I’m one of the churchiest people you will find. But most of our neighbors in need are not churchy people. They aren’t going to come to us, but they have needs and struggles like we do, but they don’t have the faith, the community of care that we do. How do we bring it to them if they aren’t going to come to us?

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

How many of us are here this morning?  1..2…3…maybe somewhere around 70? God says, “I am sending you. Go. Don’t worry about what you will bring with you, you don’t need it. All you need is me. Bring peace to those you meet. And if they reject you, they are really rejecting me. Go! Cure the sick, bring wholeness in my name. Let people know that the Kingdom of God is near!”

Later in in Luke chapter 10, the seventy return, amazed and what happened at what God enabled them to do.  I have no doubt, that if we go, trusting God, our results will be amazing too.

Neighboring

From September 24, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

neighboring postcard -front.png

We’re going to get to our second reading in a moment, but first I want to visit briefly a passage from the gospel of John, not even a passage, just one verse, and not even one verse, but just a part of a verse. It’s the first part of John 1:14 and if you were to open your pew Bible it would read: And the Word became flesh and lived among us.  If you don’t know much about what’s going on in the first chapter of John that’s OK. Let me just tell you that it’s a poetic and symbolic summary of how and why Jesus comes into the world.

In this chapter, the author refers to Jesus as “the Word.”  The first verse of the chapter is: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God. But right now I’m more interested in: And the Word became flesh and lived among us. And even more than being interested in that verse, I’m interested in how John 1:14 is translated in a translation/paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. Here’s how it reads: Jesus moved into the neighborhood.

Now, technically, that’s not really a good translation of this verse.  But, I want to suggest to you it may be a good interpretation of this verse. Jesus moved into the neighborhood. And even more than a good interpretation of this verse, I think it is a good theological summary of much of Jesus’ ministry and who he was.

Jesus moved into the neighborhood.

Right now, at Fairview, we are in the middle of a Sunday morning series on “Neighboring: God’s Plan for Taking Care of Each Other.”  We’re learning about God’s call to love God by loving our neighbor, we’re taking specific steps to practice loving our neighbors. And this falls right in the beginning of a larger journey we are on as a church of learning about our neighbors, learning about our community, listening to God and seeing how God is busy in our neighborhood and figuring out how God is calling us to be part of that work.

All of this hinges on getting to know our neighbors. And that’s what I want to focus on today. And not figuratively. We’re going to explore getting to know our neighbors, my neighbors, your neighbors, the churches neighbors. The people that are near us. The people that we interact with and see day to day.

Before we go further, I want you to do an exercise with me.  This is something you can write down or you can just do mentally.  I want you to name your neighbors.  Take the houses around you, next door, across the street, on the other side of your back yard. And write the names down of the people who live there. Parents, children. Extra credit for pets.

In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we don’t have any record of where Jesus lived and who his literal neighbors might have been, but we have plenty of examples of Jesus encountering people in their homes, where they work, where the live. In their neighborhoods.  Ruby read the story of the calling of Levi (who we know as Matthew). Levi was a tax collector, Jesus met him at work and called him to follow, and then the next scene takes place at Levi’s home where he is having Jesus and other guest over for a big dinner.

We have a similar story in Luke 19:1-10. Another tax collector, another meeting in a neighborhood, and another invitation to dinner at home.

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 

So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

This passage starts in Jericho.  Jericho was a nice city. It was on a major trade route. It exported a lot of crops and goods. There was one point in earlier history where Mark Anthony was supposed to have presented Jericho as a gift to Cleopatra. Zacchaeus appears to be the chief tax collector for the Romans in Jericho, and that’s a pretty good job, in some respects.  With all this trade, with all this wealth, there were plenty of taxes to be collected.

Taxes worked a bit differently in the Roman world. It was kind of a franchise deal. Each city or area would have a tax collector, and Rome would tell that tax collector how much taxes he was to collect from the city.  This was how much money the collector owed Rome on the area’s behalf.  But Rome didn’t say that the tax collector only had to collect that much.  He was free to collect more in taxes from the people, and then keep the extra for himself. 

The more taxes a collector collects, the more money he pockets.

That’s Zacchaeus’s job.  So he is hitting people up for their fair share of taxes, and then some.  Add onto this that he was a Jew helping the Roman occupiers.  It is safe to say that Zacchaeus was probably not a popular man in the Jewish town of Jericho.

But then one day, Jesus is “passing through” Jericho. He’s walking through the city, walking through the neighborhoods. And he’s kind of like a rock star, all these people want to see Jesus, including Zacchaeus. And so the crowds start forming. The Bible says that Zacchaeus is not a tall man, so he climbs up a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  And then something happens. And this is where we get our first lesson from Jesus about getting to know our neighbors.

What happens is that Jesus sees Zacchaeus. Jesus looks up into that sycamore tree and sees Zacchaeus, who is trying to see Jesus.  I wonder, how often do we see our neighbors?  How often do we see the people we live near? Literally, how often do you see your neighbors?  Earlier I asked you to name your neighbors, now take that list or mental list and think of the last time you saw them. Maybe in the yard, walking the dog, driving to work.  When was the last time you saw your neighbors?

Back to Jesus and Zacchaeus.  Jesus sees Zacchaeus, and then, he speaks to him. He tells Zacchaeus to get down from that tree and hurry home because Jesus is coming over for dinner.

When was the last time you spoke to your neighbors?  Take a moment to think of the last time that you had a conversation with them.

Now as you are doing this, I’ll confess that I was a little ashamed as I did this exercise myself.  I’d love to tell you that I could name every one of my neighbors in the eight houses closest to us. I couldn’t. I could name at least one person in each house, but maybe not their spouse or all their kids.  We had a neighborhood block party this past weekend, so I did a little bit better in the last time I talked to them.  But I still wasn’t pleased with how little I’ve had conversation with some of my neighbors.

Marie who lives on one side of us, we see and talk to her with some frequency. She loves to work in her yard, and it’s common to say hi or have a conversation with her.  On the day of the eclipse a month ago, Carrie and I had a fun time of 20-30 minutes passing around our one pair of eclipse glasses with her and her son-in-law. But our neighbor, JoAnn, on the other side works in her lawn a fair amount, and I haven’t talked with her as much. Our neighbors across the street we don’t hardly see at all.

But Jesus speaks with Zacchaeus, and as we read, he does more than that. Jesus isn’t satisfied with a passing greeting in the street. He wants to sit down with Zacchaeus, to break bread with him, get to know him. Even though it causes quite a stir with those “religious folks” who can’t believe that Jesus would spend time with a tax collector.

But, look what happens!  Even before they leave the scene, even before they get to Zacchaeus’s house, Zacchaeus makes a promise to Jesus that he will stop his crooked ways, he will repay fourfold those he has cheated, and he will use his wealth to help those in need.  I guarantee you that people were surprised and shocked when they heard Zacchaeus say this.  But it’s even more interesting than that. The tense of the Greek verb here suggests that this may not be a new promise, that this is a present action that Zacchaeus is doing and he is promising to continue it.

If this was the case, I wonder if any of Zacchaeus’s neighbors knew this about him.  Had anyone taken the time to get to know Zacchaeus, to learn that he might be more than just a despised tax collector? Did anyone know why he was so eager to see Jesus?

When we take the time to get to know our neighbors, we are bound to be surprised at what we learn about them. There’s a church in Colorado, that decided they wanted to make loving their neighbors an important part of each person’s walk as a Christian, and that began with knowing their neighbors. So they challenged each person at the church to begin to know their neighbors, their names, what’s going on in their lives, their hopes, their challenges. I want us to watch a brief video where one couple tells of their experience.

I’d like to invite you to love your neighbors by knowing your neighbors. Maybe for some of you, you really do know your neighbors well, but I’m guessing for many of us, it’s something we could work on.

Before I end, I’d also like to give you another resource to help you love your neighbors and get to know your neighborhood.  In your bulletin, you should have a sheet that describes what a neighborhood prayer walk is.

Neighborhood prayer walking is just what it sounds like. Praying and walking in your neighborhood.  It is an activity that allows you to not just enjoy the outdoors and a nice walk, but to be mindful and aware of where you are, who is there, what is special about your neighborhood, what is unique. It also allows you to see with a new lens, so to speak. To look for things you may not have noticed before, to have God guide you to see new things, or to pray in specific ways.

I invite you to take this home and try prayer walking your own neighborhood this week. I’d also like to invite you to come next Sunday at 10:00 a.m. and we will be sent out to prayer walk the neighborhood around Fairview. Then we will gather briefly to share what we experienced on our individual walks.

Love God. Love Neighbor. Jesus said that that sums it up.

I’m game! How about you?

Neighboring

From September 10, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

In the beginning of Matthew, chapter 21, Jesus enters triumphantly into Jerusalem.  The crowds adore him and praise him. This is what we celebrate on Palm Sunday. The day that Jesus had a rock star entrance into Jerusalem.  And then Jesus gets down to business. He goes to the temple, the heart of first century Judaism and he overturns the table of the money changes and vendors there.  He takes on the religious authorities of his own Jewish faith with this bold and defiant act.

neighboring postcard -front.png

This action begins a series of confrontations and arguments with the Jewish authorities, the Scribes and Pharisees, that take place over the next few chapters of Matthew. After coming into Jerusalem like a king, cleansing the temple, and having his authority challenged by the chief priests, Jesus goes on to tell those leaders that tax collectors and prostitutes will make it into God’s Kingdom before they will. He tells a story of a landlord and some wicked murderous tenants, and tells the Scribes and Pharisees that they are like those evil tenants. Then tells another story of a wedding banquet where those originally invited were judged not worthy to come, and makes it clear that it’s the Jewish authorities who God is uninviting to God’s banquet.

In short, Jesus comes into Jerusalem ready to confront and condemn the Scribes and Pharisees. Ready to take on the powers that be. And in just a few days, Jesus makes so much trouble, so many enemies, that he is arrested, tried, tortured and executed as a criminal.

I wanted to set the stage of these penultimate chapters in Matthew, because it’s where we find a passage of Scripture that many of us are familiar with.  It’s a passage about love, and we often think of love as a beautiful, soft, warm, fuzzy, tingly feeling or emotion. Love makes our hearts swoon. Love lifts us up where we belong. Love is a many splendored thing.

But as we read this passage about love, I want us to remember that this was part of what got Jesus killed.  So as we listen to this passage that you may have heard before, listen for what’s dangerous in what Jesus said. Listen for its subversive nature. Listen and try to figure out what is so offensive about what Jesus says.

Matthew 22:34-40

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As I said a moment ago, in this part of Matthew the religious leaders are trying hard to get at Jesus. He and his movement are becoming a threat to the order of the day, to the powers that be, and they want him stopped. So, they are trying to catch him doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing.  They bring out all these religious experts and all sorts of legal experts, and they try time and time again to get him to convict himself by doing or saying the wrong thing.

Then this lawyer comes to Jesus. Not this is not a lawyer as we think of it, but a person studied and Jewish law and scripture. And he asks Jesus, which is the greatest commandment?  The lawyer knew that there were over 600 different laws in Jewish scripture. And he’s hoping Jesus will pick one, so that the lawyer can accuse Jesus of ignoring the others. Or if Jesus says they are all important, then the lawyer can get on Jesus for the times he broke certain laws like working on the sabbath or hanging out with the wrong kind of people.

Jesus could have avoided answering. He’s done it before. Jesus could have answered the question with another question, putting the lawyer on the spot. But instead he answers straightforwardly. He quotes Deuteronomy 6 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” And it’s kind of hard to argue with that. This is the command that God told the Israelites to remember, to teach to their children, to literally wear it on their bodies and post it in their homes.

But Jesus isn’t done. He then goes on to add a second greatest commandment.  The lawyer asked for one commandment, but Jesus goes for extra credit. He quotes Leviticus 19:17-18: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Then he adds one more thing for good measure. On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets. So, Jesus answered the trick question by highlighting two commandments that encompassed all 600+ commandments. 

In one answer, Jesus essentially says to this group of religious leaders, who feel they know it all that love of God and love of neighbor aren’t parallel endeavors. They are mutually interdependent. You can’t have one without the other.  If you love God you will love your neighbor. When you love your neighbor, you are loving God.

And I find it very telling that Jesus lays down this profound rule of love in the midst of his confrontations with the authorities. Jesus is confrontational, he is disruptive, he is in your face. Why? Because he likes to make trouble? No. Because he has a chip on his shoulder? No. Jesus is making waves because he is following the greatest commandment. To love God and love neighbor.

Lance Pape, Homiletics professor at Brite Divinity School, writes:

Our definition of “love” is often suspiciously easy on and for us. But this is not the definition of love that Jesus is working with in Matthew. The Jesus we see in these stories thinks that to love God with the whole self, with “all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind” (verse 37) is demanding and risky. Following the path of love leads him to jump into debates and conflicts with his whole self. Love leads Jesus into all kinds of situations that are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous.

The same love that inspired Jesus to eat with the outcast, reach out to the untouchable, and embrace the powerless, also drove him to confront the demonic, outmaneuver the manipulative, and correct the clueless. 

So let’s pause for a moment. This week we are beginning a series on Neighboring: God’s Plan for Taking Care of One Another.  And maybe it seems a bit odd, to talk about loving your neighbor by saying that Jesus’ confrontations and condemnation of the religious authorities are how Jesus showed love.

Am I saying that I want you to love your neighbor by confronting them with hypocrisy or wrongdoing? I can just see it now, some of you are getting some idea. You’re thinking of that neighbor who doesn’t mow their lawn often enough, or who plays loud music late at night, parks in front of your yard.  You’ll be knocking on their door this afternoon, and saying, “I love you neighbor, and my pastor said that I could show it by pointing out what an insensitive jerk you are!”

That’s not quite what I had in mind, and it’s not quite what scripture has in mind.  The point of putting Jesus saying, ‘love God love your neighbor’ in the midst of his religious confrontations is to demonstrate what love is and isn’t.

So often today, we think of love primarily as a feeling. It’s warm and fuzzy, it’s overwhelming. Love makes you do silly and romantic things. Love is cheery and pleasant.  But what we read in scripture about love, specifically the kind of love God practices and calls us to practice, is that love isn’t a feeling. Love is a commitment to act. Love isn’t something we get caught up in, but it’s something we choose to do.

To love our neighbor, is not to have warm feelings for them, it is to act lovingly towards them. To make a conscious choice to put their needs on the same level as our own.  Think about it. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus calls us to love our enemies. This doesn’t mean, this can’t mean, feel lovingly towards them. That’s not realistic. What it does mean that even if we don’t feel love for someone, especially when we don’t feel love for someone, we have to consciously choose actions of love towards them.

Alyce MacKenzie writes:

Biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous. Herein is the good news for Christian people. To love neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as one would act toward those close to you. We treat the stranger as well as we treat those that we love emotionally.

God never commands us to feel love, but to do love.

To love the neighbor (including our enemies) does not mean to feel affection for them, but to imitate God in taking their needs seriously.

So, no matter how you feel towards your neighbor, and by neighbor God means your literal neighbor, your family member, your co-worker, your boss, your enemy, a stranger that you see on the road, anyone. No matter how you feel towards your neighbor, if we love ourselves more than our neighbor, then we are not acting as a Christian. We are failing at the greatest commandment.

Over the next few weeks we are going to be talking about what it looks like to love your neighbor, not what it feels like. I will be asking you to do specific things to love your neighbor, get to know your neighbor, to think about what does it look like to love my neighbor as much as I love myself. But we won’t just be talking about loving God through loving your neighbor. We will be choosing to act.

Next week we will be having the Day of Caring. We will be joining Presbyterian churches all over the Indianapolis area in loving acts of service to our neighbors.  We will meet here at 10:00 a.m. Have a very brief service of prayer and then disperse to different places to serve.

On September 24th we will be back for our regular worship service and the sermon will be focused on our literal neighbors, the people that we live next to, and how can we get to know them better so that we can love them better.  You will get some resources to take home with you that day that will help you get to know your neighbors, and get to know your neighborhood. You will take home with you that day a guide for prayer walking. A guide to help you walk through your neighborhood while praying for those who live there, and keeping your eyes and ears open to see what God moves you to see there.

On October 1, at 10:00 a.m. we will gather to do the same sort of prayer walking in Fairview’s neighborhood. The church is called to be a good neighbor, and since you are the church you are an integral part of loving Fairview’s literal neighbors. After we are done walking, we will come back for our regular worship service and hear more in worship about Fairview’s call to love our neighbors, and what that might look like at a congregational level.

Let me close by reminding you of Alyce MacKenzie’s words I read earlier:

Biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous.

Our faith is not a romantic comedy or a good love story. We can’t just sit around waiting to feel love for our neighbor. It’s something that we choose, whether we feel it or not.  With that in mind, I want to give you some homework. As you go from here today, as you go about your week. As you are at school, or at work, or at home, or with friends, I want you to consciously observe every chance you have to choose to love your neighbor.

Take note of the times when you could have chosen to say something or do something that would have expressed God’s love for someone. A kind word, a helping hand, a listening ear, a needed gift, anything that someone needed that you could have provided. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, so ask yourself throughout the day: If I was that person what would I need right now? What would make me feel loved?

Choose to love your neighbor throughout the week, and be mindful of the opportunities to choose that present themselves to you.

’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Simple Questions. Simple Answers? Can God Forgive Me for Anything?

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From August 27, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

Can God forgive me for anything?  This is the final question in our short series, “Simple Questions. Simple Answers?” Our first two questions, “is science the enemy of faith?” and “can God save non-Christians?” dealt directly with misperceptions about Christian faith held by many people outside of the church.  Today’s question does as well.

Unfortunately, there are many people who believe that Christianity teaches about a punishing God. I God who is eternally vigilant in waiting for us to mess up so that God can quickly deliver punishment, or write it down on our divine scorecard to be used against us at a later date.  It is also unfortunate that it is mostly Christians who have perpetuated the myth of God who is based on punishment.

To be fair, there are definitely scripture passages that illustrate that there are punishing consequences for sin.  If you remember Jesus story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. Lazarus was a poor man who suffered in his lifetime, while the rich man lived a life of luxury. After they both died, their fates were reversed and Lazarus was taken care of at Abraham’s side, and the rich man was in the torment of Hades.  Then there’s Exodus, were God punishes the Pharaoh and the Egyptians for keeping the Hebrew people as slaves.

But what Christians have done with passages like this is fixated on them and elevated them above the larger witness of Scripture which shows God is a loving, forgiving God.  And so we have works like Dante’s Inferno, which is a book detailing the various circles of Hell and the punishment God has in store for each type of sinner. 

A more recent example that I witnessed, was when a group of us from Fairview marched in the Indy Pride Parade.  We were there to let our LGBT neighbors know that they are loved by Fairview and by God, but at one point we marched by a group of Christians with signs condemning people who are gay and detailing the punishment that God had in store for them.

It’s no wonder people think God is judgmental and punishing. It’s no wonder people think Christians are judgmental and punishing.  God’s message of love, mercy, forgiveness and grace speaks louder throughout scripture than punishment and condemnation, but that doesn’t always come across, does it?  So it’s important for us, as Christians and as Fairview Presbyterian Church, to be loud in proclaiming God’s love so that our faith is represented accurately. This is one reason we are addressing the question, “Can God Forgive Me for Anything?”

But I think there’s a more important reason, today, and that is for us. And maybe more specifically for some of us.

Can God Forgive Me for Anything? Simple Question, and the Simple Answer is yes. An absolute,  unqualified yes. This is the fundamental bedrock of our faith. But the problem is, there may be someone here this morning who cannot believe this, you think it sounds too good to be true. Especially for you. Maybe there is something that you have done, something you think is so bad, something that hurt someone deeply, and you can’t imagine every being forgiven for it.

You are unable to forgive yourself, and so you can’t imagine a loving and holy God being willing to forgive you.

There was a movie in 1986 called The Mission. It was set in the 1700s and follows a Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel, as he works with a remote tribe in the jungles of Argentina.  In this movie Robert DeNiro plays a slaver, Rodrigo Mendoza, who in the past has kidnapped members of this tribe to sell into slavery.  He later repents of his actions and goes with Father Gabriel to work with the tribe he once enslaved.

But he carries the guilt of his sins with him. Literally. As they are going up through the mountains into the jungle, as penance, Mendoza bundles his heavy armor and weapons together and ties them to his back to pull up the mountain.  He cannot imagine forgiveness for his sins of slavery and so he punishes himself as he feels God must be punishing him.  Let’s watch a short clip of this:

Mission Video #1

I wonder if that seems familiar to any of you. Are you carrying a burden that weighs you down? A burden of something you’ve done in the past that you can’t let go, that you can’t forgive yourself for, and certainly can’t imagine God ever forgiving you for?

If so, I want to state again. Can God Forgive You for Anything? Yes. 100% yes.

But don’t believe me. Believe Jesus, as he speaks with a woman accused of sin and facing the punishment for that sin. A reading from John chapter 8:

 2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 

7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.* 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11She said, ‘No one, sir.’* And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’]]* 

If you are someone who is holding on to something you think is unforgivable, then maybe you can relate to the woman in this story.  Here she is, her sins exposed for all to bear witness to.  Imagine the emotions she is feeling at this moment. Fear. Shame. Remorse. Imagine how she feels about herself. She feels like a sinner, unworthy. She knows what she has done. How can Jesus forgive her? These scribes and Pharisees have made clear to her what they think God has in store for her.  She’s guilty. She knows it. She feels it.

Now at this time, there’s really no historical evidence to suggest that stoning took place in situations like this.  But certainly there would public judgment and punishment of some sort.  And these scribes and Pharisees are looking to Jesus to condemn and punish.  And they are appealing to Jewish scripture, our Old Testament, as the basis for their (and God’s) condemnation.

But what they are conveniently overlooking, is the rich Old Testament and Jewish tradition of a forgiving God, of a God who from the very beginning acknowledges that we are sinners and makes plans and paths for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Lauren read a moment ago from Psalm 103:

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
   slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 
9 He will not always accuse,
   nor will he keep his anger for ever. 
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
   nor repay us according to our iniquities. 

The Bible shows us that forgiveness and mercy is fundamental to who God is.  Let’s go way back to Genesis. Within the first four chapters, there are two egregious sins committed, and if any sin was unforgivable it might be these two.  In Genesis chapter 2, the second creation story we find in the Bible, God creates Adam and Eve, God creates the Garden of Eden, God gives them everything they need and gives them free reign, except for one thing, right? God says, see that tree there, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Don’t eat from that. See all the other trees? Have at them! That tree, no. Everything else, all yours. God says, don’t do that thing, so what do they do?  They do that thing?

Immediately, they rebel against God. And according to Genesis, God punishes them. There are consequences for their actions, but God also provides for them. Moves them from the garden, makes sure they can’t get back to it, but provides for them by still giving them animals for food, the ground to work, and clothes to wear. God could have said, “Well, that didn’t work,” and decided to get rid of Adam and Eve and start again. But God essentially, said, “You screwed up, but I’m not giving up on you. There’s a way forward and a way back to me.”

In the next chapter, Genesis chapter 4, we have the story of Cain and Abel.  Cain murders his brother out of jealousy, and God punishes him with exile, but when Cain is fearful for his like God protects him with the “mark of Cain” so that all will know the he is under God’s care. Even in this sin, even when God has a right to be most angry, God is keeping the door open, saying “I am not ready to give up on you.”

Then fairly quickly in Genesis and later more fully developed in Exodus and Leviticus, we have an ordained system of sacrifices as a way to repent for sin. A way to reconcile with God and be forgiven for sin.  From the very beginning there is a strong message from God that says our relationship with God is not based on us being perfect, but forgiven.  Our relationship with God is not based on whether or not we sin, because guess what, we will sin.  We don’t have to be perfect, we aren’t perfect, just forgiven.

That’s hard to admit for some of us. Marjory Bankson, author of The Call to the Soul, recalls a conversation with her mother, a recovering alcoholic, in which her mother wondered why she could be more honest about sin at her Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than she could be at church.  The only answer she could come up with is “because they know it’s a matter of life and death at AA and they don’t at church.”

We could learn a thing or two from Alcoholics Anonymous.  What if I came up here and said, “Hi, my name is Shawn, and I’m a sinner,” and then shared with you my struggles with sin.  And after me, someone from over here came forward and did the same thing.  Just take a moment to imagine how you would feel as you walked forward with everyone’s eyes on you, stepped up to the microphone with a lump in your throat, and then looked out at everyone gathered here today and admitted to us that you were a sinner.  I know I would find it a little scary and pretty intimidating.  How about you?

But, you know what?  It shouldn’t be embarrassing.  There’s no reason that anyone of us should be afraid or ashamed to admit our sinfulness to one another, because we are all sinners.  Each and every one of us! 

This is why it is so important to answer the question, “Can God Forgive Me for Anything?”  Because some of us know all to well that we are sinners, and the problem isn’t being honest about your sin, the problem is not being honest enough about the forgiveness God will grant.

Oswald Chambers, in his devotional book My Utmost for His Highest, says that “Forgiveness is accepted, not earned.”  Forgiveness is accepted, not earned.

Let’s go back to John chapter 8. At the end of this passage, Jesus forgives this woman by pointing out that there is no one there to condemn her, including himself. She doesn’t ask for his forgiveness. She doesn’t repent. She doesn’t do anything but accept the forgiveness offered by God.  Now I could certainly make an argument, that accepting God’s forgiveness can’t truly happen without some sort of remorse or repentance. But the forgiveness and mercy of God is there before we can truly grasp our need of it.

Remember where we left slaver Rodrigo Mendoza literally carrying his burden of sin behind him?  Let’s watch another clip that begins when he and his party meet the tribe that he had formally enslaved. Let’s watch what happens when they recognize him and the burden he is carrying.

Mission Video #2

Let me close with a story from Norman Neaves:

A young father and his daughter were on a cruise, a "get-away" cruise because his wife/her mother had just died. Turning to one another to help relieve the pain, they huddled together on board ship. And on the deck of that ship the little girl asked her father: "Daddy, does God love us as much as Mommy did?"

At first, the father didn't know what to say. But he knew he couldn't side-step the question. Pointing out across the water to the most distant horizon, he said, "Honey, God's love reaches farther than you can see in that direction." Turning around he said, "And God's love reaches farther than you can see in that direction, too." And then the father looked up at the sky and said, "And God's love is higher than the sky, too." Finally he pointed down at the ocean and said, "And it's deeper than the ocean as well."

Then the little girl said "Oh, just think, Daddy. We're right here in the middle of it all!"

We are right in the middle of God’s love, wider, higher and deeper than we can ever imagine. Know that you are forgiven, for anything, and be at peace.

Simple Questions. Simple Answers? Can God Save Non-Christians?

From August 27, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

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“Can God save non-Christians?” That’s the question we are asking and answering in week2 of our series: Simple Questions. Simple Answers?  In this series, I’ve promised to give you simple and direct answers to these questions, and I’ll get to that in a moment.  But first, a reminder about why we are doing looking at these questions.

It’s important to ask these questions and answer these questions.  Because these are questions that we have as Christians, but for people outside the church – they often feel like they know how we Christians will answer these questions. This is why people say things that aren’t so flattering about the church. “Why do Christian think science is bad?” “Why do Christians think God will punish everyone but them?” “How can you believe in a God that is so punishing?”

We Christians, as a group, have done a lot to misrepresent God and to misrepresent our faith.  And it’s important to answer these misconceptions directly, understanding how they might have come about, but being unwilling to let them continue.

So, our question this morning, “Can God Save Non-Christians?”  Yes.  But this question needs a whole lot of unpacking to understand why we say the answers is “yes.”

Let’s begin by trying to understand the question a bit more specifically. “Can God Save Non-Christians?”  What do we mean by save?  The language of salvation, being saved, Jesus saves, is common in Christianity, and usually what is meant is the idea that all humanity, every one of us, starts as a sinner, a sinner who has sinned against God and is condemned to an eternal fate of separation or punishment from God.

And the only way a sinner can be spared from that fate is to become a Christian. To place trust in Jesus and commit one’s life to following Jesus. In many Christian traditions, this is synonymous with saying a prayer “inviting Jesus into your heart.”  It is this moment of accepting Jesus that marks when one becomes a Christian.  And at the end of time, on judgment day, God will save Christians from the eternal punishment that all of us, as sinners, supposedly deserve.

This is the most common understanding of what it means to be saved. It may or may not be the most complete or correct understanding. But when the question is asked, “Can God Save Non-Christians?” what is meant is usually “when someone dies who isn’t Christian, whether that’s someone of another faith or no faith, can God spare them from eternal punishment, can they go to heaven?”

Now I want to point out that this is merely one understanding of what salvation may mean.  And there are some larger problems with it.  The Bible speaks with different voices and images of what the endgame of Christian faith is.  Certainly, there is language about an afterlife and places called Heaven and Hell. The Bible also talks about the Kingdom of God being already among us, but not yet complete, and that it is this here and not yet here but coming Kingdom that encompasses salvation. Other places in scripture talk about a new earth at the end of time, not an otherworldly afterlife.

Within the next few months, we’ll be doing a sermon series on different Biblical understandings of salvation, the kingdom of God, the afterlife, revelation, and the ultimate end for Christians. But for this morning’s purpose, let’s stick with the typical understanding of being saved, so we ask will only Christians be spared an afterlife of eternal punishment or separation from God, or “Can non-Christians be saved?”

And again, I assert that our particular Christian tradition answers that with a solid “yes.”

In a 2002 PC(USA) study paper entitled “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” the following is written:

Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, for “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” [Ephesians 2:8]. No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.

“we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”

“we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith.”

Essentially, the authors of this paper fall back on a fundamental Presbyterian belief found in scripture, that God is 100% in charge, God is the ultimate power in all creation, and God can do whatever God wants to do. So, if God wants to save non-Christians, then God absolutely can.

But far be it from me to have anyone take the word of a committee, even though we Presbyterians love our committees, let’s go to the biblical understanding that underlies our answer.

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ*—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

 

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing”

 Let me give you one piece of background on the book of Ephesians that is important to our message this morning.  This letter is attributed to Paul, but most scholars today believe that it was writing after Paul’s death, most likely by a student of Paul or a follower of Paul’s theology.  One of the reasons biblical scholars think this letter is not from Paul, as well as several other supposedly Pauline letters in the New Testament, is because of the shift in the understanding of Jesus’ return.

In Paul’s early letters Paul writes as if Jesus will be returning to gather his followers within his lifetime. He writes as if he and the other early Christians will still be living when Jesus returns.  But in these later letters, there is an understanding that Jesus hasn’t returned as thought and that it may be a while.  So while Paul seems to assume that Jesus will be coming soon, and who is saved and who isn’t will be pretty clear before too long. These later letters assume that it could be a long time before Jesus comes and resolves these questions, so there is more attention placed on who is saved and how we are saved.

So in this passage from Ephesians,  the author makes pretty clear that being saved is nothing that we do, and has everything to do with God’s action.

“for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing”

 This is not your own doing. That’s pretty clear, but early in the passage it is even more clear.  The passage begins by saying “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.”  “You were dead.”  If we were dead, and God gave us new life, then we didn’t do anything to deserve it, earn it, or bring it in any way, shape, or form to us.  Now, often Christians want to nuance this by saying, sure, we didn’t do anything to earn or deserve God’s grace, all we have to do is accept it. But even accepting it is doing something, isn’t it?

The writer of Ephesians says that we were dead in sin, can dead people accept gifts?  Imagine someone swimming at the ocean. He is out in the waves and a big one sweeps him under and he loses his breath, inhales a lungful of water and goes unconscious.  Fortunately, there’s a lifeguard on the shore who sees this and she swims out and reaches him just in time.

Imagine if the lifeguard said to that unconscious person, “I need you to swim back to shore, please.” Does the lifeguard wait for the person to accept help? No, the lifeguard brings him back to the shore, with no help or assistance from the unconscious person.  When the lifeguard gets to shore, does she say, “Sir, I know you’re unconscious but I need you to start breathing please?” No, she begins mouth to mouth resuscitation and gives him new life with her own breath.

This is our understanding of how God saves. It is not our own doing. There is no God’s part and our part. There is just God. We were dead to sin. Dead people don’t help the doctor.  Richard Carlson, a New Testament professor at Lutheran Seminary, looks at the grammar of this passage to make this point. He writes:

"You have been saved by grace." Here the Greek use of a passive, perfect periphrastic participle bears comment. The use of the passive voice underscores how we are totally passive when it comes to being saved. God's grace has accomplished our salvific reality. The use of the perfect tense and periphrastic participle emphasizes the duration of our being saved. It was accomplished in the past and remains our reality into the coming ages.

 Ok, I admit, one reason that I read that was just to say, “passive perfect periphrastic participle.”  But the point he is making is that the tense of the Greek indicates that our being saved happened a long, long time ago, and that it is ongoing into the far future.  Our being saved, happened before we could ever have anything to do with it.

Martin Luther, in a debate with the great humanist, Erasmus, illustrated this idea another way. Erasmus pictured God’s rescue like this. It was like a mother helping a baby learn to walk. She holds the baby’s hand, steadies the baby’s little body, let’s the baby take a few unsteady steps, and then catches the baby when she falls. No, said Luther, with characteristic bluntness, it was like a caterpillar surrounded by a ring of fire. God reached down and plucked the helpless creature from certain death.

So, we don’t do anything to deserve, earn, or receive our salvation. It is by grace, it is completely not our doing. And so, if God can save us independent of our belief or actions, then why can’t God save anyone else, even non-Christians, independent of their beliefs or actions? This is why we say, yes, God can save non-Christians.

Now here’s the catch, just because God can does not mean God will or has to. Remember the excerpt from the study paper:

we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith.

God is sovereign, God’s in charge, we don’t determine what God must or mustn’t do.  In fact, we try to stick to the things that we know about God and what God wants from us. Another passage from the Hope in Christ Alone study paper reads:

Christians find parallels between other religions and their own and must approach all religions with openness and respect. Repeatedly God has used the insight of non-Christians to challenge the church to renewal. But the reconciling word of the gospel is God’s judgment upon all forms of religion , including the Christian. The gift of God in Christ is for all. The church, therefore, is commissioned to carry the gospel to all, whatever their religion may be and even when they profess none.

“The church, therefore, is commissioned to carry the gospel to all, whatever their religion may be and even when they profess none.” Just because God can save non-Christians, we are not relieved of our call to share the gospel message of love and justice with others. There is a strong Biblical message that says the job of Christians is to be bearers of good news throughout the world. We are to talk with people about our faith, sharing what God means to us, wanting others to experience the blessings and joys of faith that we have experienced.  It may be possible that there are other paths to God that we don’t know about. But as long as we do know about the path that Christianity shows us to God, we are called to invite others to walk that path with us.

Here’s how I like to think of it.  When I met my wife, Carrie, in seminary. Her parents, Richard and Nancy, lived in Ashland, KY. Her dad was serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ashland.  We would visit them in Ashland with some frequency, and eventually we were engaged and got married in Ashland. Ashland is right off of interstate 64 where Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia come together, it’s on the bank of the Ohio River, and it’s in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, and it’s quite confusing to navigate in. 

Most of the roads don’t go straight, but wind through the foothills. I grew up in Iowa. It was flat and most of the roads were in a grid, so when this midwestern boy was dropped in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, I got lost pretty easily.  But eventually, I learned how to drive from Carrie’s parents’ house to downtown. And I was pretty proud of myself.

But then Carrie would say, “There’s a faster way if you go down this street.” Or “If you’d like there’s a neat way to downtown that goes by the hospital…”  And each time I would say, “No, thank you. There may be faster ways. There may be better ways. But there is one way I know, and I know it will get me to where I need to be. I will stick with that.”

I think this is how we can approach Christianity. Our faith is a path to God, it is a path to salvation.  There may be other paths to God, there may even be better paths to God, but this the one path we know of, and we know it will take us where we need to go. So rather than speculate on other paths that may or may not lead to God, we are called to share the one path we know for certain does lead to God.

So, can God save non-Christians? Yes. This is one of several reasons that we are called to treat other faiths and people of other faiths with respect. But this doesn’t lessen our call as Christians to share, with respect and love, that path that God has shown to us.

Simple Questions. Simple Answers? Is Science the Enemy of Faith?

From August 20, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

For the next three weeks we are going to be looking at three questions. Three simple questions, at least simple in the terms that they are brief, and only require a yes or no answer.  Today, “Is science the enemy of faith?” And then in the following weeks: “Can God save non-Christians?” and “Will God forgive me for anything?”

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I think it’s important to ask these questions and answer these questions. Why? Because these are questions that some people outside the church are asking. Often assuming the question has already been answered. “Why do Christian think science is bad?” “Why do Christians think God will punish everyone but them?”

Millions of people assume they know what you believe, what I believe, simply because that’s the impression they get from other Christians.  If we don’t actively engage and correct these misperceptions, then we encourage them. I want to share with you a story about Jenny, a member of a church in Arizona.  It’s told from the perspective of her pastor, Eric Elnes. It beings with Jenny saying something a little odd to her pastor.

“I’m tired of being a Christian butt,” Jenny exclaimed with obvious exasperation.

I thought this was rather unusual language coming from a high school choral director and member of my congregation in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s not her choice of words but the sentiment that surprised me. In the past few years, I have only seen Jenny get more excited about her faith, not less. When Jenny first cautiously started coming to my church, she had not actively participated in a church for over twenty years.

She considered herself “spiritual but not religious.” “I have a problem with organized religion,” she had told the friend who originally invited her. “Not to worry,” her friend said. “My church is more like disorganized religion. [Through her involvement in the church Jenny had] her personal “Great Awakening” about Christianity. Since that day, she has been like the Energizer Bunny of spiritual exploration and discipleship. She has rarely been immersed in less than three or four small groups. She has helped with our teen mentoring program and assisted in our outreach to homeless families. Jenny almost never misses a Sunday worship experience and sometimes helps lead it.

So you can imagine my surprise when Jenny used Christian as a modifier for butt. “What do you mean by that?” I asked. “I mean,” she replied without hesitation, “I’m tired of having always to qualify the word Christian when I tell people I’m going to church. I might as well say I’m radioactive. They get a surprised look on their face and say, “Not you, Jenny. You don’t seem like the Christian type.” So I find myself throwing in more and more buts all the time: ‘I’m a Christian, but . . . but . . . but . . .Why should I have to explain to people, ‘I’m a Christian, but I don’t think [people who are gay] are evil.... I’m a Christian, but I believe women are equal to men . . . but I’m concerned about poverty . . . but I care about the earth . . . but I don’t think people who believe differently from me will fry in hell for eternity . . .’?”

If we ignore these questions and aren’t proactive in asking and answering them, then we may simply remain a “Christian, but.”

So let’s dive into the first simple question: Is science the enemy of faith? In 2011 the Barna Group published the results of a study surveying young adults about their perceptions of Christianity and the church. 3 out of 10 young adults feel that that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in.”  1 out of 4 young adults believe that “Christianity is anti-science.”

Are you familiar with the “Jesus fish?”  How about the Darwin Fish?  How about the Truth fish eating the Darwin fish?

Is it any wonder people think science and faith aren’t compatible. So let’s put this to rest right now. Is science the enemy of faith? No. No, science is not the enemy of faith. Not in any way shape or form.  But don’t trust my word, let me walk you through a Presbyterian understanding of faith and science.

Let’s start in the beginning, literally in the beginning with Genesis 1:1.

1In the beginning when God created* the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

Our understanding of faith and science is rooted in Genesis. In the belief that it is God who created the universes, it is God who is the power behind all of creation. Now in the Presbyterian church, we don’t necessarily mean that God created the universe in six 24 hour days, or that the earth is only 6,000 years old. We understand that in Genesis, what we are reading is a poetic origin story, not meant to teach us scientific cosmology or scientific truth, but a different kind of truth. Truth about God.

And we believe that these truths are complementary not oppositional. We see science as running parallel, alongside theology.  That is to say, that theology is a way of talking about God, a way of trying to learn more about God, about us, about God’s world and the relationships between God, us and the world.  What is God like, what are the characteristics of God, what kinds of things does God do.  Who are we? What did God make us for? How does God expect us to act in the world?

For centuries in the Christian church, science has been seen as answering a different set of questions, but still related to God. Randy read from Psalm 19 a moment ago:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.

A Christian understanding of science understands the knowledge and discoveries learned through science illuminates the universe created by God.  So the more we learn through science about the world, nature, the universe, ourselves, the more we learn about God.  Think of it like learning about an artist by viewing and studying their artwork. By examining their handiwork, the techniques they use, the subjects they paint or draw or sculpt, the materials they employ. All of those things give you clues to who the artist is.

From early on in Christian history, the Bible was not seen as the only source of truth given to us by God.  In the 5th century, there lived a man named Augustine. He was a theologian and writer from Northern Africa, and one of the most influential people in church history.  He cautioned Christians not to elevate claims about the natural world found in Scripture above human reason and experience. He was worried that doing so would make Christians appear ignorant, and cause people of faith to be scorned and laughed at.

John Calvin, one of the most influential theologians in our Presbyterian tradition, taught that reason, mathematics, and science were gifts from God bestowed on us, and to not use them would be a slap in the face of God.

More recently, in 1947 the Presbyterian Church put out a paper on science and faith in which they said:

There is no conflict between religion and science.  Each new discovery demonstrates the infinite wisdom, logic and consistency of the omnipotent Creator. 

A Presbyterian paper from 2016 says:

Scientific inquiry to date has provided descriptions and ever more profound understandings of the scope of God’s creation in space and time.

We have a long Christian tradition of valuing science as a God-given source of truth to which we are called to apply our God given minds, and powers of reason and observation.  But, it would be dishonest to say that the Christian church and even the Presbyterian church has always lived up to this.

You may remember that the findings ofGalileo and Copernicus were both denounced by many Christian authorities, including the Pope, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.  They all felt that the finding that the earth revolved around the Sun, that the earth was not the center of the universe, was heretical and must be wrong because parts of the Bible indicate that the sun and the heavens rotate around the Earth.  As Martin Luther said in reference to Joshua chapter 10, where God, working through Joshua, stopped the sun in the sky: “He ordered the sun to stand still and not the Earth.”

More recently in Presbyterian history we have William Jennings Bryan, most famous for arguing against the teaching of evolution in the Scopes “Monkey” trial.  Bryan was a Presbyterian elder, who almost became moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly. In his time as a Presbyterian, he tried to get the denomination to cut off funds to schools that taught evolution.

We’ve had a long history of respecting science as a partner to faith and theology, but we have not always lived up to that ideal.  As Presbyterians, we not only believe that science informs our faith, we believe the reverse is true, that Christian faith can inform science.  Not in the sense, that the Bible teaches scientific truth, but in the sense that science needs moral and ethical guidance and constraints, and that theology and faith can be a valuable conversation partner in this area.

Have you ever seen Jurassic Park? It’s the movie from several decades ago where someone thinks it’s a good idea to take DNA from fossils and use it to bring back dinosaurs.  What could go wrong?  There’s a famous line from the movie, spoken by Jeff Goldbloom’s character:

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It is common sense to most people that just because science has enabled us to do something, doesn’t mean we should do it.  Swedish Fish flavored Oreos, may just be evidence of that (confession: I think they are kind of tasty).  How to use what scientific discoveries make possible, is not a question that can be answered through science alone.  Science created the atomic bomb, but science couldn’t tell us when to or not to use it.  Science has enabled us to live longer, and prolong death in new and unheard of ways. But science cannot tell us whether life is worth preserving at any cost, or with extraordinary measures, or when quality of life should be weighed against length of life.

Surely Christian faith is not the only source of wisdom in these matters, but for the millions of Christians around the world, our faith must not remain silent in these matters.

A 1982, Presbyterian study paper state:

Theology and natural science though oriented to different “objects”—theology to God, science to nature—have common concerns. If they are to be effective and directed rightly, they ought not only recognize one another’s importance, they ought consciously to be in dialogue with one another and even depend upon one another.

Furthermore, as Christians we are obligated by God to use our minds, our intellects, scientific pursuits and discoveries, to serve God and the world as best we can.  In Genesis, God gives all of creation to the care of humanity, and to ignore what science tells us about caring for our environment, is to turn our back on how God created us and what God created us for. To deny the truths found in science, that help us to exercise care over creation, is like being given a shovel to dig a hole and deciding to use our hands instead.

To recap. Science is not the enemy of faith. Christians can and should embrace the knowledge and truths science bring us to help us serve God and others as best we can.  What we do with the capabilities that science provides is a question that science alone cannot answer, and should be determined by moral and ethical considerations, which Christian faith has a lot to day about.

I want to close this sermon with a short video from Mayim Bialik, who you may know as Amy on the Big Bang Theory, or Blossom from years ago. She is an actor, but she also has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and a self-described “Modern Othodox Jew.”    In this video she talks briefly about her thoughts on faith and science.

I’m with her. Understanding that there is a force that underlies all of this “beautiful chaos” and understanding the proper relationship of faith and science makes me a better Christian and a more complete person.

Is sciene the enemy of faith? No.

Half Truths: Love the sinner. Hate the sin.

From August 13, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

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We’re on our final week of our Half-Truths series. This series is based on a book by Rev. Adam Hamilton called Half-Truths. In this series we are looking at common sayings that are often associated with Christianity and said by many Christians. And at first, they may sound OK, and we often mean well when we say them. But when we look a little closer we realize that these sayings aren’t as true or as Christian as we first might have thought.  The final saying we are looking at today is “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.”

This weekend, as I watched the news out of Charlottesville, I debated writing a completely different sermon for this morning. When neo-Nazis and KKK members are marching in broad daylight on the streets of America, their words and actions filled with hatred and racism, then there is the need for the word of God to be heard.  When people are killed and injured by an act of domestic terrorism for the world to see on TV. The church should not remain silent.

So yesterday, I wrestled with whether I should throw out what I had written and instead devote this sermon solely to what is taking place in Charlottesville, and what it says about what is taking place all over America. But in the end, I decided to mostly remain with my original sermon. I did this for two reasons.

First, I was unsure that I could come up with the words needed to theologically address the events taking place in Charlottesville. Like many of you, I am still trying to make sense of what has taken place, and how God is calling us to actively engage in opposition to hate, racism and white supremacy. The second reason that I stuck with this sermon is because I think it does speak, in several important ways, to the events of this weekend.  We need to be talking about love. We need to be talking about sin. We need to be talking about hate.  And it’s more important than ever, that we speak loudly of love and tread carefully when talking about hate, sin and sinners.

Love the sinner. Hate the sin.  It sounds Ok, on first read.  How can it be bad to love anybody?  And doesn’t it sound really Christ-like to love sinners? And shouldn’t we hate sin? Especially if we think of sin as things that we do that hurt ourselves, others, or hurt God.

The phrase is not in the Bible, though.  It is thought to have originated with St. Augustineseveral hundred years after Jesus.  In one of his letters he called for early Christians to have a “love for mankind and a hatred of sins.”  Over the ages, this saying has appeared in various forms, but they all mean basically the same thing.  If we know of someone who is sinning, we should continue to love them as a sinner, but hate and condemn the sinful actions they do.  And this does sound true, right?

Never stop loving someone no matter what horrible things they’ve done.  But here’s the catch. Rarely, are we ever able to contain our hatred only to the sin. Ghandi once spoke about this saying: “Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.”

Love the sinner. Hate the sin. If we practice this, we end up focusing much more on sin and the label of sinner, much more than we focus on love.  Jesus never said love the sinner. Jesus said love your neighbor.  Jesus knew that if he commanded people to love the sinner, they would begin looking people more as sinners than neighbor.

Think about it. If I said to you right now, I want you to love everyone sitting here in the congregation today, especially those who have been recently diagnosed with a highly contagious form of smallpox. Are you going to focus on loving your neighbor, or on who looks a little under the weather today.

Love the sinner. Hate the sin, doesn’t lead us to love, instead it leads us immediately to a place of judging who is a sinner and what sins are they guilty of.  Love the sinner. Hate the sin, is often used as code for saying “I judge you. You are a sinner, you should be ashamed that you do _____, but even though I am better than you, I will love you anyway.”

This is a good time to read our second scripture this morning. Because it addresses this very topic.

Luke 18: 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

In Jesus day, the Pharisees were Jewish authorities, who by all accounts, should be considered as righteous. They strictly lived their lives according to proper Jewish laws. And to many who first head Jesus tell this story, they would probably agree with the Pharisee’s self-assessment. He was a righteous man, especially when compared with the tax-collector.  The tax-collector would have even agreed that the Pharisee was more righteous than he was.

But in a twist at the end of the story it is the tax collector who is justified by God, and not the righteous Pharisee.  Seminary professor, David Lose says this about the story:

Here is the essential contrast. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord's benevolence. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn't so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.”

What matters to God in this story, and in our own lives, is not who is righteous, but who is judgmental and who is not. Not who lives a so-called perfect life, but who realizes their dependence on God and that righteousness is a gift from God and not our own doing.

So coming back to Love the sinner. Hate the sin. The problem with this saying is that it focuses us on the sins of others, on judgment of others, rather than on our own sin and being honest about where we are with God.  Love the Sinner. Hate the sin, at its heart focuses on the sins of others and our judgment of them.

In the Half-Truths book, Adam Hamilton tells this story about Billy Graham:

Some time ago I read an interview with Billy Graham’s eldest daughter, Gigi. She was her father’s date to Time magazine’s seventy-fifth anniversary party, a banquet in Washington, DC. President Bill Clinton spoke at the event. He had just been impeached by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice. The charge of perjury involved what President Clinton had said, under oath, about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. At the banquet, her father sat with President and Mrs. Clinton. He was warm and gracious to them. After the dinner ended and Graham and Gigi were riding back to their hotel, the two discussed difficulties the president and First Lady were going through with so many people gossiping and judging. Gigi said her father’s simple comment was, “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict; it’s God’s job to judge; and it’s our job to love.”

It is our job to love. Not to judge. It is our job to love.  When we label someone as sinner, we stop seeing the person and we start seeing the sin. Our job is not to convict but to love.

Should we keep silent about the problem of sin? Of course not. There are absolutely times when Christians must stand up and name sin and evil for what it is.  This moment in the life of our country is one of those times.  We must name hatred, racism, white supremacy, and the failure to condemn them as sin.  Any Christian who engages in actions or rhetoric motivated by hate or racism, has ceased to represent Christ. Any Christian who remains silent in the face of racism and hatred, will have to answer to God for their complicity.

But we must resist the urge to judge and label those protestors in Charlottesville simply as sinners or to think of them as lesser people, not as holy and righteous as we are.  Our job is not to convict but to love. In fact, Adam Hamilton says:

The truth in “Love the sinner, hate the sin” stops with the first word: Love.

Let me ask you this. Where have you most often heard the phrase Love the Sinner, hate the sin, used? I have most often heard it used in terms of homosexuality. For those Christians, who believe that Bible says that homosexuality is sinful, this verse has been used to explain how someone can condemn a large part of someone’s identity while still claiming to love that person. Ask someone who is gay, ask someone who is transgender, ask them if they feel loved by people who say love the sinner, hate the sin.

When we use this saying we are first and foremost defining that person as a sinner, rather than as someone we love. Furthermore, as you heard Kelsey read from Matthew, we should not be judging other people, we have enough sin in our own lives that makes us liable to judgement.  The only person we should label as sinner is ourselves. Love the sinner, hate the sin should be rewritten and we should instead be saying, I love you, even despite the fact that I am a sinner.

·         Everything happens for a reason.

·         God helps those who help themselves.

·         God wont’ give you more than you can handle.

·         God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

·         Love the sinner. Hate the sin.

Five half-truths. So if I have done my math correctly, that makes 2.5 whole truths. And isn’t that better than no truth?  If there is some truth to these why do we really need to be worried about saying these things? If we mean well, isn’t that enough. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. The reality is these half-truths can hurt people who need hope and healing. These half-truths can be destructive to someone in a time of need. These half-truths can discourage people and turn people away from God and Christianity.

And even more importantly, why would we give someone a half-truth when we could give them the whole truth of a God who loves them and is there to support and guide them every step of the way.

I am indebted to Rev. Adam Hamilton and his Church in Kansas that made the inspiration for this sermon series available to other churches and preachers, and so I’d like to close with his words today:

I’d like remind you of the “whole truths” we found behind the half truths we have rejected. We reject the idea that everything that happens is God’s will. Instead we say that whatever happens, God is able to able to work through it, to redeem it, and to bring good from it.

We reject the idea that God only helps those who help themselves. We recognize that God expects us to do what we can to help ourselves. We pray and we work. But ultimately the very definition of grace and mercy is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

We reject the idea that God won’t give us more than we can handle. This is partly because we reject the idea that whatever adversity we face is given to us by God. What we do believe is that God will help us handle all the adversity life will give us.

We reject the idea that every verse of Scripture should be read, out of context, as the literal words of God. Instead we recognize that the biblical authors were people, influenced by God but not merely stenographers. Like all of us they were shaped by, and responded to, the historical circumstances in which they lived. And thus we believe that, when they are rightly interpreted, God speaks through the words of Scripture in order to teach, guide, shape, and encourage us.

Finally, we reject the notion that God calls upon Christians to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” When we choose to focus on the sins of others and speak of hating their sin, we violate the words and spirit of Jesus. Paul calls us to hate our sins, and Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, all of whom are sinners. When we demonstrate love and not judgment, we draw people to Christ rather than repel them from him.