Awe, Wonder and Love, Oh My!

A sermon based on Psalm 66: 1-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 13, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

An elementary school teacher called on a student during the math lesson, “Wendy, if I give you two rabbits plus two more rabbits, how many rabbits would you have?” Wendy thought for a sec and answered “Five!” The teacher responded, “No, Wendy listen carefully again. If I give you two rabbits plus two rabbits how many rabbits would you have? Wendy said, “Five.” “Let’s try another way.” “If I give you two apples and two apples how many apples would you have?” Wendy answered “ Four.” “That’s right! Good.” “Now if I give you two rabbits and two rabbits how many rabbits have you got?” Wendy said “Five!” “Wendy, how on earth do you work out that when I give two rabbits plus two more rabbits you have five?” “Well,” Wendy said, “I’ve already got one rabbit at home!”

Math word problems can be tricky, especially when you don’t “show your work” so the teacher can figure what variables are missing . . . or rabbits you are adding. I am pretty sure all of us remember having to show our work in math. It was not enough to provide a correct numeric statement showing two mathematical expressions coming out as equal, we had to also explain the arithmetic we used to get there. This meant that we could have the right answer but still be wrong in the dangerous area of showing our work. That may not have seemed fair to our young minds, but it revealed if we knew what we were doing. I suspect most of us do not want to do math problems at church or maybe at all on Sundays. Do not fret there’s no math test today. Indeed, it is unlikely I will ask anyone to show their math work today. But I brought math up because sermons are work being shown on theological questions and the answers derived.

Today’s Lectionary reading is a case in point. Way back in June I set out ideas for sermons all the way through Christmas. Basically for each Sunday I chose a lesson from the Lectionary Bible selections and named a topic. For today I selected Psalm 66 and I wrote this brief note “Is there cause for the world to make a joyful noise?” I often put my sermon ideas in the form of a question, because, that’s how I see the task before me. I lift up theological questions and then answer them showing the work anchored in Jesus and the Bible.

Only . . . well, it’s both simpler and more complicated than that. It’s simpler in the sense that I know the answer is going to be awe, wonder and/or love. It’s more complicated because not every question or set of verses obviously leads to that answer. So, see, every time I sit down to write a sermon it is in a way akin to explaining answers on math homework. “Okay, I know the answer, awe and wonder and love, but how do we get there?”

Theology deals with lots and lots of deep and complicated issues. But virtually all of the issues are in response to experiences of, or searches for, THE awe and THE wonder and THE love we encounter or hope to encounter in life. I know the answer is always awe, wonder or love because those are the basic answers Jesus gave throughout his life–and for Christians Jesus is the decisive revelation of God.

Before I go any further I want to briefly explain what I mean by awe, wonder and love.
By “Awe” I mean what Webster’s indicates the word means:

an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by . . . the sacred or sublime.

AWE.
By “Wonder” I also mean the Webster’s definition:

a cause of astonishment or admiration . . . the quality of exciting amazed admiration . . . rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience . . . a feeling of doubt or uncertainty.

WONDER.
Because I am using love in the Biblical sense of the word, I turn to the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms which defines love as:

Strong feeling of personal affection, care and desire for the well being of others. It is the primary characteristic of God’s nature and the supreme expression of Christian faith and action.

LOVE
If we admit that there is that sort of awe, wonder and love in our lives, then that admission surely is enough all on its own for us to make a joyful noise to God. Psalm 66 tells us to do just that. As the Psalmist goes on to assert, it is enough for the whole of the earth to make a joyful noise.

Fortunately the Psalmist shows his work whichmade my efforts a little easier. But the Psalmist starts with how to respond. Awe-plus-wonder-plus-love adds up to the response our lesson calls for in the first three verses. The response being

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of [God’s] name; give to [God] glorious praise. Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!”

I hear that as a call to try and stop focusing so much on the hardscrabble in life and take time to look, hear and feel the overwhelming goodness, all that awe and wonder and love.

Genesis tells us that God called all of creation good from the start, when we take time to gain perspective and notice how very true that is, it brings us awe and wonder and a sense of well being and desire for it– for the rest of creation. Psalm 65, which I read for the invocation, ends with creation itself celebrating:

You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. THE pastures of the wilderness overflow, THE hills gird themselves with joy, THE meadows clothe themselves with flocks, THE valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.

That is Psalm 65. In Psalm 66 it is humanity’s turn join in and “make a joyful noise to God” to “Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds . . .”

And God’s deeds include more than just the making of the wonderful world. The deeds of God for us go beyond the physicality of creation, they extend to God desiring our being and working toward it. God gives us help– rescues us. And we see that in the seminal salvation story of the Hebrew Texts. Psalm 66 raises up the image of Exodus where God helps Hebrew slaves escape over the Red Sea and unlike earthly powers that come and go, God rules forever. Listen again to verses 4 through 7:

Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him, who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations . . .

But its more that one Exodus we are to be joyful about. At verses 8 through 9 praise is added on for just keeping us alive in all the little exoduses we experience in life’s difficulties– we all have them and we have all lived through them. So the Psalmist writes:

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.

Professor Clint McCaan, an reknowned expert on the Psalms, who visited us during worship a few months back noted that those lines I just read are about “God will[ing] and work[ing] for life.” 1. The good professor goes on to point out that

Given the focus on life, it is not surprising that Psalm 66 recalls reverently and joyfully what was for Israel the quintessential and paradigmatic life-giving event– the exodus from Egypt and Pharaoh’s death-dealing regime. 2

The Psalmist, you see, wants all of humanity to grasp that and be moved by the reality of God’s exodus-wise actions in life, not just for the Hebrew slaves way back when, but for all those in need of help throughout time. As Professor McCann points out we need to grasp that “God’s characteristic activity is on behalf of those whose lives are most threatened and vulnerable.” 3.

The Exodus Bible story is the gold standard example of God’s actions for humans in the Judeo-Christian traditions. But it is not told just to recall one incident in history. It is meant to symbolize and remind us that God extracts humans from troubles throughout time. Psalm 66 acknowledges that difficulties in life are a part of the human experience, that they are a part of living in creation. We all know what that means, we all know difficulties. We all have hard things to deal with.

The Psalmist points out that life comes with troubles and they test us, but he also notes that they make us stronger and wiser so that we can survive and live– that without the endurance tests we don’t endure. Verses 10 to 12 address the tests of life in creation and the safe place God brings us to time and time again as we endure them and are rescued from threats and vulnerabilities.

For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; you have brought us out to a spacious place.

Over and over again Gods acts in the Bible stories to bring people out of trouble. God acts that way today for people, including me and you. God acts exodus-wise pushing and pulling and prodding us to our best as well as to provide the best for others and creation. There is so much awe and wonder and love in that.

Besides shouting for joy the Psalmist sets out how else he responds and gives back to God,
I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats.
The Psalmist gives blessings back to God. And he again shows his work when he tells others of the blessings from God:

Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer.

Finally the Psalmist finishes up by blessing God for actions and love received: “ Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.”

So there it is. We have Psalm 66 setting up the word problem why to we rejoice. The answer we know. We have awe, wonder and love, that’s the answer. The work shown in the Psalm and in this sermon evidences how he got that answer. Creation is good. Living in it includes difficulties. But God acts exodus-wise toward troubles in the lives of those in the Bible – and in our lives. God always seeks to act on behalf of those who are threatened and vulnerable. Help them exit it. And the proper responses is for us to grasp that as a blessing and offer blessings in return, including offerings and proclamation to the world of our joy and God’s good works in this goodly creation toward God’s goodly people.

That, of course, is just the work shown for a general answer. I said I would not give out a math test. But I do want to give us some homework.It is not math homework. It is holy homework. Take some time this week to sit in quiet with no electronic gadgets nearby, and prayerfully and carefully try – really try– to gain a perspective that allows you to notice how very true it is that creation is good. Take time too to consider how God has worked – and is working in your life– in an exodus-wise fashion. How has God worked to rescue you and others from troubles. And also take time to try to see how and what specifically there is in your life, big and small, that brings awe and wonder and a sense of well being, and a desire for well being for creation. As you do this, ask yourself is there a cause for me to make a joyful noise?

When you find the answer offer up to God thanks and blessings. And, of course, make a joyful noise. I hope and pray . . . and bet . . . all of us can find many things to be thankful for. Whether it be beauty of creation, kindness of people, love for family, help in time of difficulties or resolution of troubles as well as what we learned from all that– and let us consider how we can offer blessings back to God. Whatever detailed answer you come up with, be assured it is God-soaked . . . And proves beyond a reasonable doubt that you are loved and matter much.

AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
1. McCaan, Clinton, Psalm 66: 1-9 Commentary in Working Preacher, Preachng this Week on the internet at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1731
2. Ibid
3. Ibid
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Just Do It

A sermon based on Luke 17:5-10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 6, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Right after World War ONE there were movements in Christian quarters to try and unite the Church, for Christian nations to not be at such extreme odds that they’d end up fighting another world war. At that time World War ONE had a different hopeful name: “The War to End All Wars.” There actually was a sincere, if retrospectively quite naive, belief that it was the last big war.

And to their credit many in the Church began working at trying to bring Christians together to make double sure no more world wars occurred. As a part of that movement, what would become the United Church of Christ began forming, the Congregational and Christian denominations merged, as did the Evangelical and Reformed denominations.

Then those two newly merged denominations worked together toward becoming one even bigger denomination. But tragically World War TWO broke out. That war and legal maneuvers by those NOT wanting a merger held it off until 1957.

In that year, we finally became the United Church of Christ and we adopted as our motto these words from the Gospel of John Chapter 17 verse 21 “that they may all be one.” I set the flag out on my left to display that it’s still our UCC motto.

Before the efforts at a lasting peace failed with the outbreak of World War Two there was another effort to harmonize Christians toward oneness. It was spearheaded by the Presbyterian denomination. The idea was to have churches all over the globe annually celebrate communion together prayerfully and carefully as one, lifting up the bread and the cup united as one in the Body of Christ. As the Presbyterian website puts it: “The first Sunday in October is designated as World Communion Sunday, which celebrates our oneness in Christ with all our brothers and sisters around the world.” he first World Communion Sunday was held in 1933.

Obviously –and sadly– neither the UCC mergers, nor World Communion Sunday, nor any other efforts to bring Christians together, prevented the Second World War. That horrendous war pitted not just Christians against one another, but also against many people of other faiths – all of whom were and are of equal value to God. And all of whom not only deserved to be at peace, but deserved to be treated with respect and care especially by those who follow Christ who commands that we show that sort of love to everyone.

While early Twentieth Century efforts at uniting Christianity did not stop a terrible Second World War and its unspeakable atrocities from unfolding, Christians did not give up on aims toward oneness. I have just given two examples. The unification of denominations into the United Church of Christ which happened a dozen years after World War II. And here we are today seventy-four years after the war still celebrating World Communion Sunday with millions of Christians.

Aiming toward our oneness as brothers and sisters in Christ is as critical today as it ever has been. Indeed if Christians really want to conserve the very heart of Jesus’ teachings, and stay on his path then we need to consider every other person as family– not distant cousins but as siblings the brothers and sisters Jesus tells us we are. Jesus taught we all have one father, God. Which is why every Sunday we pray “Our Father who art in heaven,” it is not to my father . . . but to Our Father. There is a unification in the prayer that Jesus taught – we are family all of us brothers and sisters with one Father, God.

A part of Jesus’ oneness efforts include a set of simple and clear instructions in Matthew 23 that we Christians tend to wander away from and really should pay more attention to. At verses 9 to 11 Jesus says:

“[We] have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.”

While the UCC and World Communion Sunday’s attempts to unite Christians can certainly find support in the “one Father” instruction, that alone is not enough. The second part of that instruction – which we tend to ignore when it is convenient – is that we only have one instructor, the Messiah, for Christians that is Jesus. We are to take our instructions from him alone. We are not to take our instructions from anyone touting things he never said, let alone those that countermand him.

To state the obvious the Nazis in before, during and after World War Two should not have had a single instruction followed by a single Christian. EVER! White supremacy is counter to all that Jesus instructs. But it is not just Hitler and his ilk then and now who are not to serve as our instructors. We are not to follow any instructor in the religious or secular world who does not pass on Jesus’ instructions.

The instructions Jesus gave are all about love. His greatest commandment – bar none– is for his followers (for us) is to love God and neighbors as we our selves. Jesus made sure to point out that this includes loving enemies. Instructors touting lack-love are not not to be our instructors. We have one instructor and it is the Messiah, Jesus. Past, present and future leaders not in line with Jesus are not to be followed.

As a part of His love message – as we have heard in recent Lectionary texts– Jesus repeatedly teaches that we have to forgive. And he instructs that we have to do it over and over again.

Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18: 21-22 NIV).

With all the complications and nuances of Christian theology piled up for centuries, at the end of the day Jesus actually started it out quite simple as being all about love. In addition to teaching us to provide necessities for physical well being, Jesus knows that remedying disputes and healing harms is also necessary for well being, so he insists we forgive. Forgiveness is a process by which we learn to remedy harms and restore right relationship by working to understand those who hurt us –and those we have hurt– as our brothers and sisters under one God who loves everyone.

As I mentioned a few sermons ago forgiveness is hard to do, just getting in the same room with wrongdoers is difficult. It’s a process that can take a long time. This week there was an incredible example of forgiveness by Brandt Jean. In an interview Mr. Jean indicated forgiveness is a process and it can take a long time. It took him a year of hard work to reach a point where he could forgive a woman after a trial that convicted her of his brother’s murder. It may take others a lifetime to work out forgiveness.

The love that 18 year Brandt Jean showed in that courtroom was an act of love. It is pure and good–and incarnational itself. But forgiveness fully complete requires wrongdoers to do the hard work of remorsefully confessing, repenting and remedying the harm. If any of the wrongdoers treat a victim’s forgiveness as a discount ticket to redemption– they are sorely mistaken. There IS great power in Brandt Jean’s forgiveness, but none in failures to fully confess, repent and remedy the harm by the killer in that case . . . and the institutions and people of a culture that foster the racist violence and attitudes that led to the killing of Botham (Bow-thum) Jean, and to so many other sinful tragedies.

One of the reason Jesus had meals at a table with all manner of people was to provide more than physical nourishment, it was also to offer spiritual nourishment. This meal is a place that treats victims and wrongdoers as equal in the eyes of God, as worthy of love including that which comes through forgiving acts.

At the Lord’s Supper we commune with those who come to the table, not just Christ in the bread and cup and words, but Christ in everyone sharing the meal–today that intentionally includes everyone at Jesus’ table world wide. At Jesus’ table we are encouraged to find and give or try to begin to give forgiveness and repent and remedy harm done. To model this Jesus’ Last Supper included Judas whom Jesus knew had betrayed him, and he was welcome to the table. Today Jesus’ Table includes not just Jesus’ body and blood given for all of us, but it also includes Jesus’ spirit, his Way– which we are to follow. A Way that is loved-soaked and includes the process of forgiveness.

It is hard to tell from the Lectionary cutting but our lesson today is about forgiveness. Just before the lesson Jesus said

“Be alert. If you see your friend going wrong, correct him. If he responds, forgive him. Even if it’s personal against you and repeated seven times through the day, and seven times he says, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ forgive him.” (17:3-4)

It’s no wonder that the apostles response was “Give us more faith.” They are thinking – like we probably are– that to do all that forgiving we got to get help from God, some more faith to pull it off seven times . . . not to mention seventy-seven times! Forgiveness is hard work, so we tend to think we need some hard work from God to get it done. But Jesus gives an unexpected answer. First he says basically “Nonsense! You don’t need more faith, a poppy seed of faith is enough to toss a giant tree into a lake. So you have enough faith.” In other words, the apostles are questioning if they need more from God to forgive, and Jesus’ response is essentially, you have far more than you need from God “Just do it.”

And then Jesus adds a difficult parable about a servant doing the work expected and not bugging the boss to do it or expecting an additional reward for getting it done. That’s the servant part from Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 23 that I read. See the oneness we seek as Christians is gained by understanding we are all siblings and have one God and one instructor who through words and deeds instructed us to serve everyone.The service Jesus provided, provides, and referred to is: love. And that love includes not only working toward the physical well being, but also the spiritual well being of every person. his includes one of the hardest task humans face: forgiving and seeking forgiveness.

And Jesus’ message is we do not need to wait for more faith to forgive. We just need to do it. And to do it as an expected part of serving God. Without seeking more from God, without an added bonus or reward in mind, we are to just do it. The communion we are about to partake on this World Communion Sunday can serve to remind us to just do it. Last week I mentioned we are to be Holy as God is Holy. In New Testament speak that means we are to do as Jesus did. To love without strings attached and to work on forgiveness. We are to do it as servants of God, as God’s servants to others.

The only reward we should expect is what God promised as ordinary payment for such work. Which is doing what is right. Which is to love, which includes forgiving. Which God promises leads to no more than, well, you know . . . Heaven breaking in and peace on earth good will to all.

AMEN!

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Holy Actions Are What Matter

A sermon based on: Luke 16:19-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 29, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A preacher looked out over the congregation from the pulpit at the start of a sermon and said “Someday every member of this church will die!” A man from out of town (wearing blue and maize) whispered to his son he’d come to church with “Ha! Good thing I am not a member of this church.”

Regardless of what church we join we are, of course, all going to die someday– the overwhelming evidence bears this out. Death is a reality we can be sure of. This side of death– life– is a reality that we can also be sure of. What happens on the other side of death is a whole lot less certain. Yet many religious people focus their faith on the great by-and-by and end up living to die to live in heaven. A number of Christians cultivate this focus arguing that belief is a means to an end, and that the results are exchanging the purported default of hell for others’ beliefs for the purported reward of heaven in the afterlife for their belief. To this way of thinking salvation becomes a reward dolled out at death for how we believe in life. But that is a far cry from how Jesus tells it in today’s Lectionary reading. In Jesus’ story the passkey to heaven is not getting the right belief.

As Jesus tells it right religion is not what even opens the pearly gates. We know that the rich man in Jesus’ story had the right religion. He called Abraham “Father,” meaning he was Jewish. Meaning to Jesus’ listeners he had the right religion. Meaning to us today that he had the very same religion as Rabbi Jesus and all of the Apostles and the vast majority in their community. Having the right religion did not get the rich man into a good afterlife. His beliefs did not get him to heaven. In Jesus’ story belief does not open the gates to heaven. The rich man had the right religion and beliefs, but he did not listen and do what needed to be done.

As Jesus tells it: long ago God sent Moses and the prophets . . . and people did not listen. We know now that God even sent the risen Christ, yet just as Jesus tells it, there are those who still do as they want and don’t listen to him. If Jesus’ parable illustrates anything it is the obvious fact that it is too late after death to get it right in life. Afterlife is not the place to start working on living a good life. We need to work on it now. Jesus’ teaching can be understood to be about living the life we have to the best of our ability in every moment of now that we get. Jesus’ Way is not about living with right belief. It is about living with right actions.

This morning’s Lectionary text starts at verse 19, but if we go back to verse 14 we discover that Jesus directed today’s verses to what the Greek calls “philargurus” (fil-are-goo-ros), which literally means “lovers of money.” 1 Jesus is telling lovers of money that they are in great trouble, that there is a great role reversal waiting for them. And if we go even further back to the first chapter of Luke we find Jesus’ mother Mary describing the great role reversal Jesus teaches. Mary sings in The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55):

” [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. . . “

Jesus’ parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” is a study in the contrasts and role reversals that Mary sang about. In Jesus’ story the rich man is covered in purple and fine linen. The poor man is covered in sores. The rich man feasts. The poor man longs to eat what scraps fall from the table. The rich man gets a proper burial. The poor man has no burial.

The only good thing that happens while living to the poor man is he has a name – and one with great meaning. The rich man in contrast has no name. The poor man’s name is Lazarus, which means “Whom God helps.” God always helps the oppressed and the poor. While it may appear that the rich man has it all, the name Lazarus signals he is the one who actually has what we all want, God’s help. Lazarus is the one whom God helps.

That seems odd since Lazarus lays at the rich man’s gate in such bad shape that he cannot stop the dogs from licking his wounds. Degraded. Disabled. Hungry. Humbled. Lazarus. This is whom God helps. The rich man in sharp contrast is “dressed in purple and fine linen,” the purple indicates he is connected to royalty. And this rich royal fellow keeps have-nots like Lazarus (those whom God helps) at a distance. He does not help those whom God helps. Safe in his home away from the gate where Lazarus lay, the rich man “feast[ed]s sumptuously every day.” The rich man lived in the lap of luxury. In life he seemed to have it all. And he did not even grant Lazarus’s lowly desire to have his garbage, the scraps of food from his table. Lazarus was left longing in life for those scraps and the nameless rich man did nothing. He did not even notice Lazarus – a man he walked by every day in need at his gated home. The rich man did not help “whom God helps.” That is his folly, his do nothingness, he fails to help those whom God helps.

The way God helps is through humans who can help with what blessings God has given them. The Lectionary readings for a number of weeks have focused on the reality of that. Whether we like it or not, God depends on us to be holy agents. We are meant to live up to being made in the image of God. We are meant to be God’s human arms on earth reaching out to help. Leviticus 19:2 puts it like this: “ You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. Saint Augustine put it like this “God without us will not as we without God cannot”.

The rich man was God’s agent, God’ image, God’s hands and he chose to do nothing with his blessings and that glorious Holy power to help those whom God helps. When the nameless rich man dies his fate is set. His selfish lap-of-luxury life without help for his neighbor led to his own everlasting thirst. His life story echos through time as empty as his hands were empty for Lazarus and the poor. The slate marking his deeds as God’s agent is as blank as his name in the story. That empty life and the memory of it are blessings to no one. It was an un-Holy life. The reward for un-Holy lives is Hades.

And even there in Hades the rich man is stuck continuing to act like a snob treating Lazarus – whom God and Abraham honor– as a person beneath him. This is true even though it is the rich man who occupies the low-as-you-can-go station in eternity. The rich man tries to get the honored Lazarus to serve him water, and to run a message of warning to his brothers, not to his neighbors, just his own family. In Hades he still does not love his neighbors. He still does not want to help those whom God helps.

The rich man lived and died not getting it, and wants a dead guy to show up and warn his brothers. But Abraham tells him that “If they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Moses and the prophets set out God’s clear command to love neighbors as self, and to be Holy as God is Holy. The rich man failed to do it. He did not live God’s dream for humans. He did not heed God’s call. He did not do God’s work. His failure to love his neighbor –as Jesus tells it– dooms him to everlasting unquenchable thirst.

Humans are to act as instruments of God. In Jesus’ story God expected no less of the rich man, and God expects no less from us. This is God’s call to us. Moses and the prophets make this clear. Jesus makes it clear. In life we are to live for life; and not just our life, others’ lives. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ and neighbors’ keeper. We must live FOR now, FOR us and FOR others; and this is at least as important today as it was two thousand years ago. The Feasting on the Word commentary on this text puts it like this:

The ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor is one of the most important issues of our day. The intrepid “moral of the story” expressed in this parable is that if you do not cross the gaping chasm between the rich and the poor in this life, you will surely not be able to do it in the next. At least for now those who hoard and have more than their share on this earth, there is no respite to be offered in the life to come. Warnings and messages come in every form, but they remain unheeded. In the final day the chasm cannot be crossed.

Then commentary adds:

There is no escaping this indictment. Those who help create the economic divide by greed and selfish-ness will not be able to right themselves in any other life than this one. This is a parable urging “the haves” to do justice now, for there will be no opportunity later. The saying “Justice delayed is justice denied” extends even further through this teaching of Jesus that seems to imply that redemption delayed is redemption denied. 2.

The commentator is right, this is an important issue. A document called the 2018 “State of Poverty in Knox County” makes that certain indicating (and I am quoting),

Out of 15.6% of [the county’s] persons in poverty 22.1 % of those persons are children. 58.7 % of Knox County children are living in households receiving some kind of . . . public assistance. 4

Just a year earlier a 2017 Knox Community Survey indicated that there are approximately 2600 children in our county living in poverty and that the number of all ages experiencing poverty in Knox County is 7,900. Those whom God helps are here now. 4 Jesus’ lesson before us today is to his followers and addresses a single person in the parable, but the lesson to help in life those whom God helps applies to not just Christian individuals but churches too.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it like this “Every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.” How might we fair? I can tell you this, in addition having a modest amount of money to provide to individuals and projects for those in need now and then, our church supports with other monies and volunteers a number of local non-profits wrestling with the reality of local poverty.

This fall we are even amping up our efforts. We will continue to host Hot Meals on Tuesdays and make and serve the meals every other week, but our Mission and Service team has made Hot Meals a top priority and we are working to solidly sustain that great mission. Our church also contributes finances and people power to Interchurch Social Services, Hope Now, New Directions, Our Churches Wider Mission and Habitat for Humanity. I know some of our members work at elementary schools and the Mission and Services Committee is working on a mission to adopt Dan Emmett Elementary as a place for us to go and work and help with fiances too when available and needed. One website I saw indicates that 97% of students there qualify to receive free or reduced lunches. 5 As your pastor I serve on the Winter Sanctuary board, a number of you work at their homeless shelter and provide financial help too. And this year we have retooled our church theatre ministry Community Family Players to partner with the Winter Sanctuary to put together the Holiday play A Christmas Carol as major-fund raiser for the homeless shelter. I know many of you help out financially and otherwise with non-profits that help fight poverty that I did not mention.

We are doing a lot to help those whom God helps. We do all of this work for those in need because we have to be God’s agents working on this issue. We have to be God’s hands reaching out to those whom God helps. WE must be Holy, the Holy hands of God; because, “God without us will not as we without God cannot.” We must live in the now and heed the teachings of Moses and the prophets and most especially Jesus. Those whom God helps depend on it, now. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it like this “God wants all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and has left in this universe ‘enough to spare’ for that purpose.” We can help. God has given us the resources to do that.

The good news is there is enough to go around. The good news is the poor are whom God helps. The good news is we are how God provides that help. The good news is WE, you and me, are honored to be God’s very own agents. The good news is WE are alive and we can make a difference and there are plenty of us to do just that. We can be Holy as God is Holy. We must be Holy as God is Holy. We must continue to help those whom God helps. Thank you for doing just that as church and as individuals. And may we never stop until all have enough.

AMEN

ENDNOTES

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2010.

1. BibleWorks 8, KJV with codes definition of term at Luke 16:14 translated in KJV as “covetous,” but translated in the NRSV as “lovers of money,”

2. Nixon, G. Penny, Feasting on the Word, commentary on Luke 16:19-31, page 121

3. State of Poverty in Knox County,
4. KNOX American Community Survey 2017. https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=CF
5. https://www.niche.com/k12/dan-emmett-elementary-school-mount-vernon-oh/#students
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Balm is Always There . . . Always

A sermon based on Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 22, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

When I was a small child, way, way back in the day, if any of us smaller kids got a splinter, cut, scrape or any other kind of open wound short of disabling gigantic gash there was only one balm the parents in our neighborhood applied. It smelled terrible, left a bright reddish orange stain, and really, really stung a lot. The balm was applied directly to the wound with a glass stem that had been dipped into a small jar of the dreaded cure, a balm sold by the name of Merthiolate, but better known to us as that stinky stinging stuff. As younger kids we tried to avoid that cure going so far as to hide a wound as best we could for as long as we could – because the cure seemed so much worse to us than the wound.

It was not worse of course, it really did sterilize and start the healing process. So it was good for us. But the pain and ensuing tears that the balm brought about was proof enough to the contrary in our young minds. Consequently it was to be avoided whenever possible. Inevitably though our skinned knees would be discovered by a parent when we bathed or changed our clothes, and cuts and slivers tended to swell and change to a color moms and dads would notice. Upon discovery of our wounds our parents would sympathize, but would raise questions along the line God does in our Lectionary reading. “You know we have a medicine for that? Why didn’t you let us doctor your wound?” Our answer to why we did not get help was likely known, and certainly got expressed in short order when that little glass dipping thing got unscrewed and pulled out of the bottle “I’m not hurt! I’m okay! Please don’t put that on! It hurts! It hurts! OWWWWW!” we’d cry.

It occurred to me that our childish “the cure is worse that the disease” approach that we took toward Merthiolate, is an excellent way to understand what is going on in our Lectionary lesson. There’s a wounded-ness to the nation that needs a cure, the cure is known and available, but the nation is like a child not seeking it, for fear of the uncomfortable consequences taking care will cause. This leads to God’s famous questions that we heard Bobbie read from Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” Gilead at the time was a central location and clearing house for medicinal remedies and healers. It had cures for wounds. Jeremiah uses that known-to-his-audience fact to have God metaphorical ask why cures were not applied or sought by the national leaders when clearly the nation was wounded.

Like a number of the texts that have come up recently in the Lectionary Jeremiah 8 is about the wounds of the nation being left unattended while the salve and healers to heal are readily available. Known remedies are not being acquired and applied. Why would anyone in a nation not apply the balm needed to heal the wounds of the nation? Because the secular and religious leaders, like a child with a scrap and a bottle of stingy medicine. Worrying about the effect of the balm that will heal the people’s woes. The balm is being God’s presence proving justice and kindness to everyone. To them God’s cure is worse than the disease.

By the time we become older children most of us have the whole wound tending scenario down.

Step one is we are wounded. Step two is a remedy is sought by us or someone who cares. Step three is gaining access to a remedy, medical care, like a balm or a physician. Step four is application of the care to the wound. Step five is the medicine taking effect usually it soothes, protects and heals. That’s all kind of obvious to us. Boiled down we get hurt and get help.

In the lesson from Jeremiah God finds that only the first part is happening. There is hurt, but no one is getting help. And God we are told is mad because of that. But anger is not all God feels. We are also told God aches with those getting hurt. That God suffers when people suffer is made clear by the words at the start of the lesson:

My joy is gone [,God says], grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land . . .

A few verses later God adds these words of anguish and pain

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

And then God asks why the obvious next step, the cure, has not been acquired and applied:

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

And we are told God wants to cry tears of sorrow

O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

I am not sure why, but modern Christians seem to NOT know or think that the Bible tells us God actually has pain and sorrow and wants to cry when we hurt and die.

Moreover, God stops – and asks: “Why has the health of my poor people not been restored?” The anonymous author of our opening hymn answers that question in a very Christian way resolving the dilemma . . . the song tells us the balm is Jesus. In the scripture lesson God asks if there is a balm in Gilead? The writer of the African American spiritual answers “There is a Balm in Gilead.” The balm is the hope of friendship with Jesus and the love Christ gives. That is THE answer in the context of Christianity in general, but in the context of the awful American institution of slavery that the spiritual came out of it is very much connected to the original context in Jeremiah.

See Jeremiah was written at a time when Israel and Judah were being conquered by Babylon and their people were dragged off into enslavement in a foreign country. Jeremiah’s people, like the enslaved Americans who first sang There is a Balm in Gilead, were weighed down by the threat and the reality of the horrors and burdens of captivity and slavery. So the spiritual hymn’s context even 2500 years after Jeremiah, resonated and connected with the original setting.

I do not know if you have ever noticed, but a lot of the songs in our New Century Hymnals have historical explanations set out below songs, it’s the itty-bitty writing to the left. The note on “There is Balm in Gilead” reads:

This is one of the most moving of the African American spirituals because it illustrates the way in which the enslaved tried to encourage those who were feeling especially weighed down by the burden of their captivity.

As a whole the Book of Jeremiah understandably has a dark foreboding sense to it, there seems to be hopelessness. The wounds of God’s people caused by the secular and religious leaders of nations repeated failures to be God’s agents and end injustices and offer kindnesses are left unattended. The wounds fester before enslavement, and get worse of course, after it.

Despite the darkness there’s good news in Jeremiah, even hope and encouragement. Like the song it’s found in the balm that existed, but wasn’t being used. It’s not called Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s called God. We can hear the balm is God, in the ending of the first line in the Lectionary cutting:

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?”

God’s the balm, and She is right there. Yet in much of the Book of Jeremiah we hear how false gods’ snake oil medicine is chosen over the healing balm of God. After God asks “Is the Lord not in Zion?” God asks “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” The idols include worshiping the gods of wealth and power. Selfish gain trumps acting as God’s hands and feet and voice to provide justice and kindness to everyone.

But we also learn later in Jeremiah that the people, the nation and it’s leaders return to God and stay with God while in captivity and it matters much, it gives them the hope they need. It starts to sooth the wounds and offers promise of healing. Borrowing from the words I quoted in the New Century Hymnal, the Book of Jeremiah ends up

illustrat[ing] the way in which the enslaved tried to encourage those who were feeling especially weighed down by the burden of their captivity.

Christians have long the named God incarnate “Jesus.” Which is what the American Christians in slavery do in the spiritual we sang as our opening hymn. For Christians Jesus the Christ is “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” Jeremiah spent a lot of time 2500 years ago warning that the failure to follow God, and the consequences of the sins of the nation– the immorality, injustices and oppressions of people– are wounds soothed by repentance, healed by turning to God. When Jeremiah’s warnings are not heeded the nation crumbles and captivity ensues.

But Jeremiah does not gloat, he laments and offers the hope that the balm of God will still heal the wounds and he encourages the wounded to stay true to God even in awfulness of captivity and enslavement. He assures them they will return from exile. It works. God through the prophet Jeremiah gets through and they return to being faithful to Yahweh. Not unlike the American Christians enslaved in America, the Israelite Jews enslaved in Babylon accepted that God is with them and loves them even in adversity, even in the horrors of slavery. Here’s how Jewish theologian Rabbi Joseph Telushkin puts it:

after Jeremiah dies they regard him as a hero. They preserve his message, including his devastating critiques of their behavior. They accept his insistence that God’s presence is universal, and [that God] can be worshiped in exile. Even in the darkest days of exile, they are uplifted by his optimism that someday they will return to Israel. 1

All these years later at traditional Jewish weddings around the world these hopeful promising words from Jeremiah 33 (10-11) are sung to an uplifting tune (od yeshama):

there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: “Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for [the Lord’s] steadfast love endures forever!”

Those last words capture the good news “the Lord is good, for [the Lord’s] steadfast love endures forever.” See, really, “there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” The balm is and always will be God. For us as Christians Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. Jesus the Christ is the name we give to the balm.

But by whatever name people call God, the balm of God to effect healing the wounded-ness to any nation’s people is always there . . . always. We just need to turn to God and apply the divine remedy summarized on the walls in the quilts to my right and left. When nations seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God wounds are soothed, protected and healed. There is a reason those three things are the only requirements God has for us, because they are the balm of God that’s always there . . . always . . . right in our hands. May we seek and apply it.

AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
1. Telushkin, Joseph, Jewish Literacy

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

All Alone We Are of Concern to God

A sermon based on Luke 15:1-10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 15, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A police car pulled up in front of Grandma Bessie’s house. She was very surprised to see her husband, Morris, step out of the car while the police officer held the door open. The officer walked Grandpa Morris over to Bessie and politely explained to her that Morris said he was lost in the park and couldn’t find his way home. “Morris,” Bessie said, “You’ve been going to that park for over 30 years! How come you get lost today?” As he hugged his wife closely Morris then whispered so only she could hear, “I wasn’t lost. I was just too tired to walk home.”

In that story Morris did not think he was lost, but the thoughtful police officer did. The officer’s duties included being on the alert and ready to help those with perceived needs. The officer left the scene certain he had helped a lost man– and he actually did help, he got a too tired elderly man home. Morris may have been unwilling to admit he was tired, but I doubt the officer would have denied him a ride if he’d told the truth that he was. Either way the officer is the one who would have perceived a need for rescue and acted on it.

In Jesus’ parables that Cindy read so nicely, the two lost things are notably also only lost in the eye of the one who seeks, finds, and rescues. The finder perceives the need, but the objects sought and found do not. We are NOT told the sheep had a sense of being lost; and the coin of course, did not have any sense of it.

Another fascinating part about this lesson is that neither a sheep nor a coin can repent. In other words, Jesus stories are not so much about the lost and their need to repent, as about gaining perspective about what is lost and what to doggedly seek and find and rescue. And maybe most poignantly that the truly righteous are supposed to rejoice, not grumble, at the pursuit and welcome of each person. In the Gospels we see Jesus time and again – as God’s hands and feet and voice on earth – endlessly pursuing lost ones. This is true even if the culture did not care to find them– which is hinted at in our lesson today.

It is also true that in the Gospels. Jesus’ pursuit of the lost goes on even when the lost do not feel lost. See neither sinners nor scoffers stop Jesus from passionately seeking to find and rescue those he considers lost. And it is also notable that the immediate rescue is not from hell in the afterlife, but rather salvation from the lesser way of life –including lack of Jesus’ company and the meals the Jesus’ critics in the story would deny to the lost.

The message throughout the New Testament, and in our verses this morning, is that the truly righteous strive to do as Jesus does. So the grumbling Pharisees and the scribes in the story are ironically back-handedly highlighted as sinners themselves for not acting in the manner Jesus does. They look down their noses at those they perceive “less-than-they,” so Jesus tells a story where the lost are equal to the un-lost, and even so have more of God’s attention because God abhors waywardness and calls over and over and over to the wayward to get back on the path toward goodness . . . toward Godness.

God endlessly aims humans to get back on track. The sheep and the coin in the story today are metaphors for the spiritually lost. They are lost in the sense that they are sinners. We know that’s what they are because we are told they have been coming to listen to Jesus . . . yet the religious elite chided Jesus by “grumbling and saying this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” But I have already suggested, the grumblers are also sinners. Their grumbling alone evidences that.

I know a lot of us cringe when a pastor puts the word “sinners” in a sentence. The word sin and sinner, in my opinion have long been abused and misused. Jesus acts as if they were in his day too. The word “sin” has been loaded up with guilt and dark foreboding negatively, but what it really seems to do is name the truth that humans as a rule are not perfect, certainly not me and I am guessing probably not you either. Humans “as a rule” being imperfect is not the same as “humans as rule” being terrible –which is how most of us have been taught to hear the words “sin,” “sinner” and “sinning.” I have mentioned before that the word “sin” is derived from an archery term in Hebrew for missing the mark. To sin is to miss the marks God aims us at. From time to time we all have such misses. Repenting means to turn from the failures when we notice the miss, and then pick up our arrows and re-aim them and try and hit the mark. It’s how life works. Sin does need not be understood to always mean terrible conduct. IT IS only terrible when we do not even try to hit the mark God aims us at, or worse when we intentionally mis-aim, like the grumblers in the lesson who should know better.

So our lesson starts with the irony of the self righteous missing God’s mark of care and welcome. The elite who would have Jesus NOT welcome sinners, are themselves sinners. As is often the case, Jesus does not directly call them out on the hypocrisy. Instead he tells stories of lost things being sought. God seeks as a shepherd in one, and as a woman in another.

Notably Jesus has God metaphorically appearing as both a male and a female figure. You many have heard that God must be thought of as male, yet Jesus smack dab in middle of the Gospels evokes a female image for God.

If Jesus can do that, so can we. And we can understand Jesus’ very intentional inclusion of images of God as male and female as a lesson that both men and women –all people– can and should act like God does in the parables – and like Jesus does in the story and throughout the New Testament. Like God and Christ we are to seek out the lost by doing what Jesus opponents accuse him of doing, “welcom[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them.” We are supposed to do that.

What’s more we are not to wait around hoping they will decide they are tired and want a ride, or figure out they are lost. We are to tirelessly search, and move heaven and earth if need be, to find them and rescue them like the shepherd with a lost lamb and the woman with the missing coin. And we are to rejoice when we find them and they are rescued, not grumble. We are assured that heaven itself will rejoice when they are found. Which I think Jesus said as a tongue-in-cheek reference to those negative sinning lookie-loos not rejoicing.

We can understand one more point Jesus makes in these verses, a point often overlooked. The stories Jesus tells are not about lumped together groups of the lost, as if all the tax collectors, or all the grumbling self righteous; or all aliens; or all the enemies; or all the non-Christians are signaled out for rescue. The singularity of the lost stands out. The grumblers lumped others into groups to ridicule, Jesus goes out of His way to talk in terms of THE one sheep, THE one coin, THE one sinner, THE one who repents. Jesus does not label groups. He does not “otherwise” others by making it about stereotypes or lumped-together-people.

Jesus’ lesson is about individuals. So he does not see himself as welcoming and eating with types of people, he sees his ministry as focused on and caring for each individual. He tends to the person. In the Gospel accounts he certainly challenges the collective conduct of people in and through institutions, but HE tends to the person. The single individual is of deep concern to Jesus. I remind us every week that we matter much and it so, so true. In this great big ginormous universe the very creative source and power that made it cares about little, tiny us . . . YOU! Whatever troubles you not only troubles God, but has God affirmatively trying to end the trouble. Whatever waywardness you think you have, or whatever waywardness you have and cannot see or admit, God’s already on the hunt trying to help you be found and restored to the path that’s best.

If that sounds unbelievable, let me ask if there has been – or is waywardness– in your life that troubles you, and if so did you or do you have a longing to get onto the right path and leave it behind? I am willing to bet that even if any of us has not taken action to correct whatever is troubling us that we feel a pull to do so, a pull to our better way of being. Believe it or not, that sense of pull is the very force of the universe, God, focused on you. To put it in the words of Jesus’ parables whatever lost feeling you may have– YOU are the lamb the shepherd tirelessly looks for, YOU are the coin the woman tenaciously seeks. The singular YOU matters and YOU can feel it.

And it is not just when we are lost, or we are otherwise wayward, we are as I mentioned last week, made of the stuff of stars. We are stellar in make up and in the eyes of our Creator. I chose the invocation, Psalm 8, for it’s remarkable way of pointing out that we matter. Speaking to God the Psalmist writes.

When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you set in place— what is humanity that you should be mindful of us? Who are we that you should care for us? You have made us barely less than God, and crowned us with glory and honor.

In the Book of Matthew Jesus points out that God, the Creator of the universe cares for us individually. We can understand Jesus to take Psalm 8 to the singular level in Matthew 6 (26) when He says

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

Four chapters later in Matthew 10 (29-31) Jesus returns to the if-even-a sparrow-matters-to-God-humans-surely-do when He states

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

How is it that the God of the great expanse of the universe cares for us like a shepherd cares for one lost sheep or a woman cares for one lost piece of treasure? I think the better question is why do we persist in thinking God would not care for us? To either question the answer is:(to quote the Bible again– the Apostle Paul actually)– that it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” The more I quote that, and I do quote it a lot, the more I think of us all as being in the womb of God, her very own children enveloped as they are formed through life. We may exit our mothers womb at birth but we are born into God’s womb and stay there for life.

I always marveled at the last month of pregnancy where each unborn person is very much a part of the mother– and can be seen and felt actively living and moving and having their being in her womb. I hear Paul’s theology to place us in the womb of God. It fits with Genesis’s theology that has us made IN the image of God and to have God’s breath in us. And as we discussed last week WE have no less that the very makings of the universe in us.

Our own being is in all that God-ness. One way or another God is a part of us, we are a part of God. That’s true no matter what we do, whether it is sin, scoff at Jesus, collect taxes, or whatever it is any of us might think makes us unworthy– or anything anyone else claims makes us unworthy. There is joy in heaven when sinners repent because it means that small part of God is healing. When we allow that God has female attributes –as Jesus allows– our life can be understood to be in and a part of the very womb of our mother God. And God wants all Her parts healing. What hurts us hurts her. When we heal she heals.

The quickest way to healing for human mistakes and wrongs (what we call sin) is forgiveness. Forgiveness is what Jesus is doing when he lets in sinners. He gives forgiveness, freely, as God does. For us, forgiveness can be harder and not so freely given. We have to work at it, sometimes all our life. So for us forgiveness is best thought of as a process that we need to offer ourselves and one another. The first things I always point out are that the process of forgiveness can be very long and it is not forgetting, it is working on the reparation of the relationship with God in others. As wrongdoers we need to strive to do our part on the path of forgiveness. We must acknowledge the harm we have done, show remorse for it, and request forgiveness as we try our best to repair the damages.

As victims we need to work to find a way to abandon whatever sense of revenge and retribution we may have toward the person who harmed us, we need to aim as best we can to try and no longer see the wrongdoer as an other. This does not mean there are not other consequences for wrongs. Nor does it requires victims to be in the same place with a person who makes them feel unsafe. It means that we need to work on being able to one day let go of our anger and revenge and see a wrongdoer as a person, even if broken– a person worthy of God’s love.

We need to get to the point where we do not complain that Jesus and God welcome ever sinner. Indeed like the shepherd they seek all those lost sheep, like the woman they look for all those lost treasures. And all heaven rejoices when they are found. Jesus forgives them. God forgives them . . . and the them includes us. May we rejoice as the angels in heaven do, and strive mightily to forgive as God and Jesus do. And may we know that whatever it is we might think keeps us from God, it is not true, because among those God and Jesus are hoping to find – no matter what we do– is me and you. Steadfastly and forever they love us through and through.

Amen.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Starry Mud, the Breath of God and the Remolding of Nations

A sermon based on Jeremiah 18:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 8, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The Bible has this great old set of verses early in Genesis that reports God made humankind from the very stuff God made the earth out of. Remarkably those verses were written long before our modern understanding that basic elements comprised of atoms and molecules form all the physical parts of creation. The Bible can be understood to have got it generally right without modern science. We ARE made of the same stuff as the earth. Which is also reflected in the playful name the Bible gives to the first human, Adam– is a pun on the Hebrew word for dirt, “Adamah.”

Because I have liked puns even before I met you all. In one seminary course I wrote short play about the Garden of Eden and I had God riff on that Genesis word play. God first notes that humans are from humus. Then tickled with that joke God says:

Humus, human.1 Not bad. Hmmmmm, but the new creature will need a nick name.

(God then asks the audience for name ideas)

Help me out here, I need a name that means dirt for this person. What do you think of the name Clay2? How ‘bout Dusty3? Or hey, its name could be Mud. Okay, what about Sandy? Rocky?

Someone keeps saying “Adam.” Wait a minute (then God pulls out a Bible thumbs the pages and point to Genesis). Ah, yes. Look, this story in Genesis will first be recorded in Hebrew. Check it out. The Hebrew word for earth is “Adamah.4 Hey how about Adam? How’s that sound? I like it . . . “Adam.” Oh, that ought to get a rib out of the creature . . . Hey, that gives me another idea.

It was fun to write that.

While the author of Genesis intuited that humans came from the same stuff as the planet, modern people, like us, tend to not appreciate that is a primary point of the creation of humans story, that we humans are directly related to the earth. She is our mother.

The ancient Hebrews may not have had the benefit of modern science, but they did observed that lifeless bodies decay into earth. They saw humans becoming humus. Which I suspect led to the words in Genesis about the creation of humans out of the earth. Listen to the King James Version that most of us grew up hearing:

the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

That’s from Genesis 2 (7). Just a few verses later in Genesis 3 (19) God notes that Adam and Eve’s mortality means that “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

The Bible pretty much gives us a rocky start with clay feet from the git go in this gritty life. Puns intended of course. Our name seems to be “Mud” in our culture, where being dust of the earth has this humbling even humiliating sense to it. But our dirty origins making us feel soiled may not have been the author of Genesis’ intent. He was from an agriculture culture in a very dirt dependant time and place with people who appreciated soil for crops and for pottery and stone and metal implements. The earth’s dust is precious to those depend on it first hand and work it.

To get us back to a sense of honoring the dust we come from and are made of, I like to hold up and remember that the particles the Bible claims God literally made us out of, is the dust that makes up the earth, the same kind of dust that makes up all stellar objects. Celestial bodies are made of stardust and we should not forget that SO ARE WE! Famed astronomer Carl Sagan put it like this

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.

Star stuff. Now that is impressive.

A few years back I started adding to Ash Wednesday Services language that it is from stardust we are made and to stardust we return. I often include that in funerals, I mentioned it yesterday at Bob Wagner’s memorial service. In our day and age and culture we get all wrapped up in the faults, foibles and follies humankind forgetting that we have the very wonder and awe of the heavens in our make up. Overwhelmingly individuals are good– the breath of God is in us and gives us life which leads to love. The fact that we have the stuff of stars in us needs to be factored into how we see ourselves . . . and others. We are each of us all on our own full to the brim with wonder and awe if for no other reason than the recipe for humans includes a healthy heap of star stuff. Take stardust, add some water and God’s very own breath and VOILA!, you have the makings of you, of people.

But once those ingredient are mixed all up and brought to life, there’s still forming to be done. Our reading today includes a famous parable about “people clay” being shaped. We may be constituted out of the clay of stardust, but we are shaped and worked upon as vessels in the hands of God the potter. There’s less atoms and molecules to that part of the process, than the pull and push and tug and pressure that molds us . . . and our institutions. Lifelong we are always heavenly clay and breath, but the making and remaking is at the hands of the Creator, God.

We are divinely plied and shaped; molded and formed; and sometimes balled back up and reformed on the potter’s wheel to grow into the vessels God needs, God wants and God desires. When the stardust becomes significantly flawed it is reshaped, not destroyed mind you, but reshaped. The New Testament language for individual reformation is “born again” a phrase that can have a negative ring to it since it has been coopted by some of our Christian brothers and sisters who tend to focus more on purported afterlife consequences of believing their way than on the loving and unloving consequences of their actions in life on Jesus’ Way. But we can understand ‘born again” as very positive, a rebirth in life to a better way of existence for all, salvation from a lesser way of being by taking actions to move into a supreme being-ness on earth while we live.

“Born again” was originally a metaphor for being re-formed by Jesus Way, in the same manner as the metaphor of a potter remakes living clay God’s good way in our lesson today. In that lesson the first allusion to God as a potter remaking the clay can be heard as a positive:

The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

I mean, who would not want to be reworked into what seems good to God? That’s why most people are in churches and in other faith communities. We want to be plied by God into a better people, to be our best shape. “God, please make this stardust the best it can be” could be most religious people’s prayer. We could even say most people– religious or not– want that.
A part of the Supreme Being in our being is a longing, an aching to be the best being we can be. We all struggle toward that as individuals– but, we do struggle toward that. It is the rare person who does not want to be the best they can be. It is a rare person who does not want to be their supreme self. To almost everyone, whether Theist, Agnostic, or Atheist the supreme being of existence matters.

While it is rare that it does not matter to a human, it is tragically not all that rare, however for human institutions to take a different course, to veer from best-ness. Even religious institutions are not immune from moving away from God’s way. Sadly we can see this in the nature of religion reflected in the media of our nation which seems to more often than not be about rescue from individual sinfulness for salvation in the afterlife by self serving ideas of right belief and right actions.

Notwithstanding the media self-centered portrayals of religion and the religious elite they feature, the Bible spends more time on the need to reform human institutions of power, than it does on individuals. Proper worship matters far less than seeking justice and loving kindnesses. So religious and secular institutions and their leaders who vie for earthly power around self, are not applying heavenly power, as God in the Bible tries to get them to do.

See, individual people by and large are good in intention and good in their souls, but the same cannot be said about human structures aimed at acquiring earthly power. So we see Bible verses over and over again addressing the sins of nations. Jesus’ famous story in Matthew 25 about nations being judged by how they treat the least among us is the most famous in the New Testament. Many Old Testament Prophets prophesy that too. Our text from Jeremiah is a great example. After setting up the image of the potter reworking spoiled clay Jeremiah aims God’s judgement and a very direct address to nations. God says

Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

The truth of those words of God actually happen time and time again in the history of all nations. Nations rise and then they fall when they fail people and do evil. They become like spoiled clay and God reworks them.

The history of our nation’s very founding is an example. Britain brought slavery and genocide and oppression and injustices to the occupants of this continent and God reworked the clay of the colonies into a democratic republic that for the first time ever claimed in lofty words – if not in outright deeds – the equality of humankind and the God given rights owed to all humanity. And the new nation that God created through individuals, has been molded and remolded and worked and reworked by God, through individuals and God-centered leadership. They continue to challenge and change institutions toward God’s Way.

God’s goal for nations and its leaders is set out in the invocation I read from Psalm 72, justice and peace and well being for all. God will rework nations whenever they fail to turn from evil. Notably the Scripture lesson before us today ends, not being about God smashing the clay of a man or a women or a child, but of human institutions. At the end of the lesson, a warning is sounded to them:

Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.

That warning is followed with words of hope that nations can avoid the tearing down by repenting. God says “turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” God is talking to a nation as a whole and its leaders – the politicians and religious elite who head up the evil-doing institutions. The evil at issue can be summed up as not doing what the verses from Micah on the walls of this church set out. The nation was not seeking justice, was not loving kindness and was not walking humbly with God.

To put it in Jesus terms from Matthew 25 the nation was not tending to the needs of the hungry, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the strangers, the least among them. Jesus notes all nations are judged by that. And the invocation Psalm is a prayer for leaders to tend to those needs. God’s will is not just for humans as individuals to care and desire and act toward supreme beingness, but for human institutions to do so as well. Why? Because we are all the stuff of stars and matter much and need to act like it alone and together. Consequently nations need to listen to God and to Jesus and amend their ways and doings so that they turn from evil. Which is what repent really means.

The good news is we are made of the stuff of stars, and that God expects institutional bodies comprised of such star stuff to behave in heavenly fashion– and is working toward that outcome. May it be so.

Amen.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Least Eating at Banquets

A sermon based on: Luke 14:7-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio, September 1, 2019 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I am pretty sure I have mentioned before that Nancy and I moved to LA in 1980 so that I could make it big in show business. I humbly note that I think we all know how that turned out. What I don’t think I have mentioned up here before is that shortly after arriving in LA with barely two dimes to rub together my brother Darin who lived in North Hollywood somehow got us a gig in the television industry. When we accepted the job we were going to be working with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time and have dialog with TV personalities! Listen to this line up of just some of stars we were originally hired to work with: Alan Alda, Lauren Bacall, Ed Ansner, Patty Duke, Henry Fonda and Bette Davis.

That is all true . . . only our work with them was probably not what you are thinking. Our job in the television industry was to work for the caterer of the Emmy Award’s celebration dinner, a very garish affair where we were to serve very expensive food and drinks to the stars and their guests. But as luck would have it 1980 was the only year the Emmy’s were boycotted as part of an actors’ strike. So instead of serving exquisite papaya stuffed with crab to rooms full of superstars, we got to serve it (and other delicious fare) to a sparse crowd of used-to-be and wanna-be stars. Dick Clark and Steve Allen replaced then top draws of the day Bob Newhart, Michael Landon and Lee Remick as the hosts.

And sadly at the dinner area we served, Dick and Steve were nowhere to be found. I did see the Smothers Brothers and Rip Taylor walk by. I also personally got to serve Jane Kennedy, a very pleasant B actress back in the day. Jane was quite nice. She even answered the one question I got up the courage to ask. I went right up to her table, cleared my throat and I said . . . “Would you like some more coffee?” And I have never forgotten her response . . . she said “No, thank you.” See I did get to have dialog with a TV personality.

Although working that dinner gig did not result in our getting close to any bigger stars it did provide an unexpected benefit. Since only a small portion of the expected crowd showed up, there were mounds of those papayas stuffed with crab in the back along with other delicacies. So, after the guests all got their serving, the caterer sort of did what Jesus suggested in the lesson, he exalted all of us humble servers by allowing us to partake of the exquisite food. Granted we had to eat it standing up in a back room, but we got to share in the Emmy feast. All of us humble servers got our fill of those epicurean delights. And this part is really cool, while the honored guests did not have seconds, we got seconds, thirds and fourths, stuffing ourselves with high quality food . . . I mean that was some spread.

I doubt the caterer had today’s story in mind when he invited us to partake but, he certainly did not expect us to replay him for the favor. We just got the glorious gift of that scrumptious spread for free. Plus I got to talk to Jane Kennedy and see Rip Taylor’s toupee and I can honestly say I ate dinner at a banquet with the Smothers Brothers! Although I am pretty sure Jesus did not have any of that expressly in mind in when he gave instructions in the lesson Kris read, it’s as close as I have had to being on the receiving end of his command that “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you . . . ”

In Jesus’ day getting a taste of gourmet food was not the issue. Access to food in general was. It was a big deal. When Jesus taught his followers to pray “give us this day our daily bread,” he literally meant it. To have daily nutrition was a primary goal in first century Palestine. People were hungry most of the time, often starving, or on the edge of it. The Hot Meals program in this town, which meets here every Tuesday is an amazing example of Jesus’ teaching being played out today in our community.
I am grateful for how Kris and Beth have headed our share of the Hot Meals banquets this past year. They, and the other wonderful volunteers do a remarkable job of not just feeding the gathered, but welcoming them and treating them as honored and respected guests. It is a remarkable meal done in the manner Jesus sets out.

Meal gatherings are especially a big deal in the stories about Jesus because meals were a huge social event in his day. People met with people they knew broke bread together. Just like today people did not get to the table to get to the bread unless they were invited– and just like today at parties and dinner gatherings those invited often tried to sit in the best seat. Jesus uses this need for food, the meal customs and the seat of honor struggles to make two points, a literal one and a metaphoric one. Jesus is all about making everyone equal at the human level and in human institutions. Jesus wanted – and wants– the constructs that oppress people, those that raise one above the other, taken down.

And Jesus saw no better place to start than at the local meal custom. He tells his followers at those meals to not exalt themself because “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If we think and act like we are better we will always be humbled to learn we are not, because no one in God’s eyes is better than anyone else. On the other hand, if we humble ourselves we will always be held in higher esteem. See, the one who claims to be exalted will be humbled. And the one who is actually the humblest will be exalted. As we heard in our Lectionary reading Jesus says

to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus meant that. Food was hard to come by. Meals were the place people shared food. Only those invited to meals got a share of that food. “The poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” were outcasts. They were not invited to share in the food at most banquets. So Jesus literally commands party and dinner hosts to invite them. Jesus saw uninvited people needing feeding and he urged His culture’s version of BBQs and dinner parties to affirmatively be open to all so everyone could literally get their daily bread. To eat is to live. Jesus’ lesson at the literal level is about feeding all, including the less fortunate. It’s about making sure all have enough!

What would the world be like if churches made an effort to feed those in need in every community, to literally apply Christ’s command today? Just a few faith communities do that in Mount Vernon and everyone in need of food can get it every day. If just that happened in communities around the world, God’s will would be done on earth. All would have daily bread.

If the literal meaning Jesus intend was that all are to be invited to meals and be fed, what metaphoric meaning did Jesus intend? It is that the openness Jesus wants for tables needs to apply to community all the time, so that all may be nourished spiritually– as well as physically. Jesus is all about making everyone equal at the human level and in human institutions. He wants the human constructs that hold people down to be taken down, not people. Jesus is not anti-anybody. He is pro-everyone. And Jesus call his followers to be pro-everyone too.

When Jesus says that the exalted are to be humbled and the humbled exalted we tend to hear it as a negative and a positive– one gets pulled down to the bottom while and one gets pulled up to the top, swapping places. But is does not have to be heard that way. If it is heard as being about equality then “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” means when the constructs come down no one is worse off than the other. We are all pulled to the same level.

Why do this? Well as our nation’s most revered document, the Declaration of Independence, puts it “all men are created equal,” which updated to modern English means all people are created equal. The effect of the reality of that secular and religious truth is that if you think and act like you are better you will always be humbled to learn you are not. If you are humble you will now be held in higher esteem. That’s Jesus teaching. And it does not put anyone above or below the other it just makes everyone equal on the same plane, because all people are created equal.

So the metaphor of the table where all are invited, where all are equal is Christ’s community. Jesus understands heaven as needing to break in on earth– in all things we do, not just at meals. Heaven in that context is not a lofty domain of gold reserved for ethereal beings in the afterlife. It is an earthly existence where there is love and fairness and justice and enough for all. FOR ALL, ENOUGH! That existence must begin in Jesus’ communities, like this church – as well as other places God by any name is breaking in. And one day the hope, the promise, is that the world itself will be heavenly, because God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus’ table and communities are meant to be places where everyone who accepts the invitation can come. The invitation has no barriers or boundaries. The invitation is equal to all, and those who accept it are to be treated as equals – with equal access to resources, RESPECT and God’s love. 1 Jesus’ table and community are places very different from the world out there.

That Emmy Awards Banquet Nance, Darin and I worked at was a place of decadence, and although we literally came in the back door we got invited to partake of the food offered at the table. We got invited because of some odd circumstances. Mostly a whole bunch of workers with nothing much to do and an abundance of leftovers with nowhere else to go. Jesus wants the invitation– indeed Jesus commands that the invitation– not be to table leftovers available by happenstance, but to the table itself. No one is barred from any part of the banquet.

That means you and me and whether we like it or not everyone else in the world. Even those we don’t like or hate or those who don’t like us or hate us get in. The reason Jesus wants this is simple. ALL ARE LOVED AND ALL MATTER MUCH. It’s true. And that truth comes from Jesus– and it is at the very heart of today’s lesson.

So if anyone asks you what the sermon was about this morning. You have two choices: You can tell them that it was about the pastor and his wife eating with Tommy and Dicky Smothers. Or you can tell them that AT Jesus’ table and community all are invited and all are equal because all are loved and matter much to God.

AMEN

ENDNOTES
* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2010.
1. See, Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, (1998), 86

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

A Divine Promise For All Creatures

A sermon based on Genesis 8:1-19; 9:8-17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 25, 2019 *2011
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Do you know what Noah said as he began to load the Ark? “Now I herd everything.” And when he was herding Noah thought at first the horses didn’t want to get on board because they kept saying “neigh.” But it turned out there was only one pair of animals that caused trouble they tried to take cuts in the boarding line, ever since they have been known as cheet tahs. To make sure he could watch the cheetahs at all times Noah installed the first ever flood lights.

I could of course go on and on but, I do not want anyone to leave. In addition to being a source of humor over the ages the story of Noah’s Ark has been a boon to those who make things for children. All those animals in one place are cute and eye catching. But despite our rather light-hearted view of the story it actually has a scary beginning. Genesis 6 tells us God “determined to end all flesh” with a world-wide flood because the earth was corrupt and filled with violence.

Hardly a beginning to an acceptable modern children’s story. But in the story God finds a righteous and blameless person, Noah. God entrusts Noah to preserve all creatures from complete destruction. He is to build an Ark and collect and safeguard representatives of creatures in order to start creation anew.

We tend to think of the Noah’s Ark story as basically about Noah and the animals forgetting God’s relationship with all the animals, not just humans, but all animals. We also miss that not only is creation rebooted in the story but so is human understanding of God. Before the flood story was written the Hebrew people understood God to be one among many gods. His name was Yahweh and he championed their causes as a warrior defeating other peoples and their gods.

You probably recall another flood story, where God is reported to part a sea to let the Hebrews cross and then God un-parts it to flood Egyptians chasing the Hebrews. In that famous Exodus story, that little Red Sea flood was meant to also destroy that which was corrupt and violent– just like the Flood in Noah’s day. As the champion of the Hebrews, God was understood to punish their enemies.

God has steadfast love for his people and that love is proven in the Red Sea story by his being a warrior against the Egyptians. The warrior and punishing traits exists side-by-side with the trait of steadfast love The traits of this warrior punishing God are old threads woven into the tapestry of the Bible “loomed in” tight along side of the loving God traits. But, one of the consequences of understanding God as punishing is that God does not just punish enemies, but ends up being understood as punishing God’s people too. In Psalm 7 (12-13) there is imgaery of God shooting arrows of the fiery shaft of lightening as punishment. It reads:

If one does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; he has prepared his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.

It is that punishing God that is said to bring about the flood in today’s lesson to not just destroy enemies, but every creature not on the Ark. The warrior God is angry at all the awfulness of the world and punishes it. That’s an old way of understanding God. But the story includes the rainbow experience – and it does so because it was written in light of the Exile when Israel was destroyed by Babylon and the Hebrews were exiled. Under the old theology that destruction and exile meant that God must have done it as punishment. That, however, mades no sense in face of the truth of God’s steadfast love. So Israel re-imagined God. In light of the Exile the understanding of God changed. So God is heard to make the remarkable one-sided promises we heard in the lesson. God vows to all of creation to never, ever, destroy the world again.

God’s relationship with creation is no longer understood to be angry and punishing, but rather unconditionally caring and loving. God’s promises in the story disconnect God from punishment. Bad things still happen but, but they do not occur by the hand of God– they are no longer credited to God. The old understanding that God is a warrior who slays the wicked with the slings and arrows of calamity and catastrophe is put to rest. Yahweh has changed in the eyes of humankind. In light Babylon’s cruel capture and enslavement of men, women and children the God of Love is virtually impossible to find if he is the one who caused it. So in the Noah story the God who ruled over the Hebrews is talked about and seen in a new way. 2. Yahweh the warrior with a bow that shoots lightening bolts of tragedy from his quiver of judgement is no more. That Yahweh has hung up his punishing bow on the wall of the sky forever. The warrior God is retired in the story.

When storms with destructive forces bring trouble, the bow hanging on the wall of the sky – the rainBOW reminds us that we are to no longer understand God as in the doing-bad-things-to-creation business. God has put up all divine weapons of destruction and will not punitively use them on creation . . . ever. God’s people no longer need to imagine God as vengeful and punishing. But can forevermore imagine God as loving and good.

And the rainbow – that splendid BOW of God’s which hangs on the wondrous wall of the sky– reminds us of the reality that our imagined God’ s old traits of warrioring and violence and punishment are to no more be a part of our theology. We now worship the God of steadfast love. In the story God’s makes an unbreakable vow to all of creation, that no human being, no living thing, need worry again that awful things in life are God’s doing. God is understood to love all of creation. And it is important that we “get” the ALL part. God loves ALL creation. The promise God makes after the flood is NOT to humankind alone.

God’s promise is for each of the creatures gathered here this morning and all those out in the wild and in other homes and places. Cats, dogs, birds, lizards, bugs, tortoises, rabbits, fish, ferrets, rats, mice, hamsters, goats, horses, snakes and humans; you name the animal, God cares for it. God’s promise goes to all creatures. The good news is: God loves all of us animals gathered here today, as well as all of those in the rest of the word.

AMEN
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Peace Work is Unrestful

A sermon based on Luke 12:49-56
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 18, 2019 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

There’s a cartoon of a stick outlined church. Outside it is a stick figure of Jesus struggling to open the church door. Inside the church is a crowd of stick figures desperately holding that door shut saying “Don’t let him in! It will change everything.”
Today’s reading is about the more drastic changes Jesus brings that people are afraid of. A part of letting Jesus into our life and into church can be jarring. That Jesus disturbs, is not what we want to think. We like to think that letting Jesus into our life– into church especially– will change us calmly for the better. But Jesus indicates in our Lectionary reading that the change is initiated by fire and division . We learn later in the Luke-Acts narratives that it is the Pentecost fire, but even still Jesus notes it will be divisive. That Pentecost fire makes us and the world better for sure, but typically “better” make us think about less stress and calmness, not about fire and division.

So while it is true that Jesus changes us for the better, the definition of “better” may not always be what we want or expect. On a personal level I can affirm that Jesus certainly changed everything in this former agnostic Oregon lawyer’s life– drastically. I let Jesus in and it changed everything! I am a Christian minister in Ohio, who would have thought? Certainly not me or my wife. Much good has happened and it is great to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian. But a part of the following has included old ways being metaphorically burned down, I’ve been divided from my former life – I have been divided from people and not just by distance, but by new differences. While I certainly think the changes have been wonderful and for the better, they disrupted my whole life. They have given me great Spiritual highs and personal peace even as people I know, even Christian brothers and sisters, have responded in negatives ways I never imagined.

Our last hymn (Peace I Leave with You My Friends)will remind us and leave us with the sense of personal peace we tend to think of, but it will also tell us to show God’s kindness without end, that Jesus gives us peace so we can give peace to others too. And therein lies the rub. In the words of Jesus in the lesson that Becky read so well, Jesus Way brings fire and division. Love’s aim for peace for all has a way of disturbing people, including people in churches and they lash out and even want to bar Jesus from getting in. It may make us uncomfortable and upset us, but the tumult signals we’ve successfully let Jesus in and embarked on his Way.

To frame it in a different metaphor, I like to think of it as Jesus being a sail we put up, a sail that catches the wind of God’s Spirit and takes us where God wills on the rough seas of life. It’s not a smooth ride, but it is a holy one. Nance and I rode the winds of the Spirit here to this church on such a holy ride. This church is our port of call because unlike the STick church in the cartoon I mentioned, this church has made a concerted effort to not bar the door to Jesus.

This community has let Jesus in and over and over again it causes change. We have been celebrating the church’s birthday the past month. It’s been a good reminder of the transformative power of letting Jesus in, which First Congregational Church has done for 185 years. That power causes change even now. I have seen it in the five and half years that I have been here. When I arrived I heard this church was the best kept secret in the county. Jesus has changed that. Acting as the Body of Christ we have declared loud and strong Jesus’ Way of wide openness and inclusive-ness. We have worshiped and followed Jesus’ God of Love. All the while doing what God requires of us, seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. Along the way we have continued the church’s nine score and five years of effectively challenging injustices and working to help those in need and provides special programs children and youth like Peace Village and Community Family Players. Like our predecessors– and Jesus– we have continued to make it our business to tend to the least among us.

The sail of Jesus set out by this church has caught the wind of the Spirit and taken our predecessors and us on a powerful ride in many ways. It was, and remains, a beautiful thing.It has been the Holy Spirit powering us through, well, the Body of Christ (the church), and as such should be deeply revered. This church matters, especially to those suffering injustices and those who cannot find a church that teaches and preaches and worships and loves and listens to and acts on behalf of the God of love. Love, at the center of a faith community, matters. It matters to us. It matters to the greater community. It matters to God.

The congregations of this church, generation after generation, have decided to hold the door open for Christ to come in. Using my other metaphor, we have let Christ’s sail up and into the wind of the Holy Spirit that has taken us on Jesus’ Way of the wide embrace. In other words, where God propels us. It is a good thing, but it also changes things. Christ shakes things up. Taking Christ into our lives and out into the world in word and deed changes things, transforms lives and challenges human institutions.
Like Jesus’ original following there are no strings attached here. All are honored and loved equally. Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Sadly, and even painfully, Jesus’ leading us on his path of love and peace has caused more than few folks to say less than nice and peaceful things. For 185 years now it has caused some to lash out, some to not come here and some to leave. Being advocates and actors for God’s unconditional love upsets people– it does. Unconditional love sounds like a sweet thing, but it disturbs.

Today’s Bible reading is about that very thing. Jesus tells his followers the painful truth that I am talking about today. The truth that being on the side of love is a very difficult task, not only does it take energy and get us out of our comfort zone, we are also required to do more than just say to ourselves we support love, we have to act on it.

Some folks do not want to hear that– let alone do that. And in fairness the text today gives a reason not to. It may be one of the most difficult texts in all the Bible. Jesus begins by telling his followers that he came to “to bring fire to the earth,” and how he wished that fire were “already kindled!” That phrase “how I wished” in Greek can more accurately be heard to mean “how I am committed to” 1. See, it’s a fire Jesus is committed to having kindled. The Luke-Acts narrative is the only part of the Bible with the Pentecost story, where the fiery Spirit descends after Jesus’ accession and ignites the church.

With that in mind, we can hear the fire Jesus is to kindle in this Lukean text, as us, the church. Jesus dies and rises and ascends to heaven in order to kindle and ignite the bright burning flame of the church. So he can rise from the ashes like a Phoenix anew in me and you and in all that we do. But even though Luke begins and ends with Jesus heralded as a peacemaker and peace bringer, Jesus in the midst of the turmoil of blazing a path of justice and love for all, warns that path which leads to peace – the one we follow as church– can, and will, cause a lot of strife.

The fire of the Holy Spirit is not always peaceful in immediate affect. And that is difficult and disturbing news. That Jesus’ path to peace leads to unrest is an irony that we have to learn to live with as followers of Christ. Jesus is up front about this in the lesson, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Jesus then lists relations being divided. None of this should surprise us. Notwithstanding Hollywood versions of the Bible, the greatest story ever told has as A pivotal point a cross. That awful, scandalous and very unpeaceful death on the cross is a part of what got us here today. We can’t get to the promise and the hope of the risen Christ without that unpeaceful rugged unjust tool of terror. TOO many people want Christianity to be about a Hallmark ending without the suffering that must occur to get there. God’s shalom comes at a price, crucifixion, literally for Jesus, and at least in some sense figuratively for all serious peace makers.

The reason there is unpeacefulness on the path to peace is because, as The Feasting on the Word commentary puts it: “Jesus has not come to validate human institutions and their values but to initiate God’s radical will.” 2. The commentary goes on to note that:

The divinely wrought peace that Jesus inaugurates and bestows involves the establishment of proper relationships of mercy, compassion, and justice between God and humanity. Not everyone, however, wants or welcomes the divine peace plan. Hence the initiation of Jesus’ peace agenda also triggers contentious disunity and fissures among all facets of society, right down to the social core of the family. 3

We learn in the words of that commentary and in Jesus’ words and experiences– and in our own experiences– that blood relatives and brothers and sisters in Christ, do get upset and divided over the wide open embrace of love being offered by Jesus’ Way. We learn that in our nation’s history. When Jesus’ followers have sought the abolition of slavery and to end racism, divisions in blood and church families occurred. When Jesus’ followers have sought to end the genocide of Native Americans, and discrimination against those of other nations and other faiths divisions in blood and church families occurred. When Jesus’ followers have sought an end to sexism and an end to heterosexism, division in blood and church families occurred. When Jesus followers seek to substantively challenge injustices division in blood and church families occurs.

The path to Jesus’ peace is unpeaceful. Shalom shakes us up. Jesus did not set out to create division in blood and church families with God’ peace, but he knew it was part and parcel of God’s Way. It’s a hurdle in the path. The only way around it is through it, and any Christian who thinks that we can go around it or let people bar the door to keep Christ out and get to peace is mistaken.
I wish I could stand up here and tell you that Jesus’ Way is easy and full of only peace and quiet and comfortable ideas and only peaceful moments for all who walk in the door. But, I can’t do that. Those moments of peace certainly exist, and abound-fully so, but the pursuit of peace for all also shakes things up, personally and corporately. What I can tell you, is the good news that for all who walk through that door there will be love. There is love because we let Jesus in the door and love is always the result. Always! And God . . . God is love. And love not only ultimately brings peace but pursues it. As our ending hymn puts it, the peace is given to us so we can give it to others too. May we always let Jesus in and strive to do just that.
Amen.

ENDNOTES:
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2013
1.Carlson, Richard, Feasting on the Word, Year C. Vol. 3, p. 359-360.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

As Free as the Air We Breathe

A sermon based on Romans 5:1-5
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 16, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Today is Trinity Sunday. Every time it rolls around I have to smile. It reminds me how far I am from what I once thought I was, and how close I am to what I aspired to be. Sounds intriguing, even poetic . . . I suppose. What makes it even more intriguing and perhaps even more poetic is that the lesson today lifts up things I once rejected, Paul and God’s grace and how good can come of suffering.

The short version of why Trinity Sunday and the text have me smiling and poetic-ish is as a young teen I aspired to be a minister and work on justice issues until I got disillusioned with the church over justice issues regarding LGBTQ and other faiths I eventually gave up on church and rejected Christianity, chiding much of it including the idea of the Trinity, even God, strings– attached– grace . . . and Paul. When I left the church I had to give up on the idea of being a minister. Here’s a spoiler alert: I obviously found my way back! Here I am a Christian minister, working on justice issues in church and embracing the Trinity, God, and no-strings-attached grace . . . and I often even like Paul.

Funny how God, this thing “we live and move and have our being in” works. And it is fair to understand that it IS the grace of God which brought me into church, sent me a way, and brought me back and keeps me here. I truly believe that, and I am going to flesh that in a bit, but first I want to spend a few moments explaining the Trinity. I try to do that each Trinity Sunday, because as I used to say in my away-from-church days, ideas about the Trinity make no more sense than a mythical three-headed dragon or THE three-headed dog “Fluffy” in the Harry Potter story. How can one God be three God persons? The answer that I typically got in church was, “It’s a mystery.”

I looked for a better answer and found one. The Trinity is a notion from a model for God created to help understand the different aspects of God that Christians name as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The idea of the Trinity was not intended to be confusing or unbelievable. It was meant as a helpful device, not something to be misused as dogma or mystification about who or what God is.

The word Trinity, and the confusing Trinity doctrines that developed over the years, are not in Jesus’ teachings, they are not in Paul’s letters, they are not even in the Bible! The Trinity idea was first proposed in the writings of a 3rd Century lawyer named Tertullian. He created the idea to rebut claims that Christianity was polytheistic. Opponents misunderstood the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost as separate deities, so Tertullian pointed out that was not true. Using the Latin word for Roman theatre masks, “persona,” he showed how one God could act in three different roles. The roles are named in the New Testament and Christian practices as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. (We often call them Creator, Christ and Spirit in this church, but I am mostly going “old school” today to lessen the confusion). Through those three named roles Tertullian demonstrated that God can be one being encountered in reality in different ways. Just as humans can be experienced in different roles, so too can God. Tertullian’s simple point being, the named roles of God are different aspects of one being, not three separate beings.

The Trinity model is about different ways we experience the Divine, God, THE ONE we live and move and have our being in. The Trinity model for God is a metaphor that can be understood in different ways. We can retroactively apply it to Paul’ description of God . . . (1) Living, (2) moving and (3) have being. The Creator Father made us live. The Christ Son is how we aim to be. The Holy Ghost Spirit keeps us moving forward. Another way to name that approach is God’s existence in the past, present and future. Played out on the stage of life this version of the model understands the persona of God the Father made creation, the persona of the Son of God soaks creation now and the persona of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of God, calls us to move toward better-ness in the moments and days and years to come. It’s all God.

Some religions have hundreds of names for the myriad of roles God plays on earth, we have three. We CAN call them a Trinity . . . or not. It’s just a model to help. It was not intended by Tertullian to be a litmus test for the faith or convoluted dogma that confuses. So that’s my primer on the Trinity.

Okay I said I would flesh out how the grace of God brought me in to church, sent me a way, and brought me back and calls me to stay. It fits in the Trinitarian model too, God’s past, present and future involvement in my presence here wrapped up as gifts to me from what the church has long called the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I’ve indicated before that as a young adolescent I wandered into church to fulfill a bargain with God to go to church if someone in my family stopped drinking. My big time ask was answered, so I went to church. I found a nearby Reformed church and voluntarily went by myself . . . (as a teenager, no less!).

There was a huge paradigm shift when I showed up by myself at that church. Although alcohol abuse ended at home other abuse did not, so that is not what I mean. What I ran smack dab into was the embrace of God’s grace, I’d never encountered the likes of it before. Of course I did not know to call it grace at the time. But grace it was. In the Old Testament grace typically refers to God or a person turning to someone to provide them assistance, bestowing if you will, a favor. 1 Outside of Paul’s letters grace in the New Testament tends to mean pretty much the same thing, it is something that brings pleasure to another through a welcomed favor offered without expectation of anything in return. 2

At the relatively conservative Reformed church that I wandered into, God, especially in a number of people provided that sort of Biblical grace to me. God assisted me in moving out of darkness and despair and into light and hope. God especially favored me with something I had not had before, a sense of self value. For the first time I felt I had worth. I felt loved and cared for by God, not only in the actions of a Pastor, adult youth leaders and youth, but also by this bigger than creation supreme Spiritual being who appeared not only in Bible stories, but also in the worship and prayers and songs, and to my delight out in creation. I got doses and doses of Old Testament and New Testament grace. It caused me to turn my life around in so many ways including getting very involved in the church and wanting to be a minister and work to provide kindness and justice in a humble walk with God, that is I wanted to participate in providing grace and access to grace to others.

Paul put a spin on grace that is not typically found in the rest of the Bible. He added that humans do not merit or deserve grace. For example in Romans 3(12) he notes we all are worthless and not humna can be justified in God’s sight. Paul claims grace is free, but tainted that lovely Truth by adding that humans are unworthy of it. As a consequence of Paul’s addition, God’s grace is now very often understood in Christian circles as something like:

God’s goodness toward humanity as expressed in unmerited, undeserved favor given supremely in Jesus Christ to bring salvation, forgiveness, and new life.

That definition is from my Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, so it is mainstream. Even so, I personally have a lot of trouble with the wording “unmerited and undeserved favor” because it sounds like we are bad and don’t deserve God’s favor.
Paul and lots of churches and theologians understand humans that way, as if Adam’s sin tainted everyone’s DNA to the point we all just stink. Paul felt humans were born tainted and sinners. As such Paul claimed humans are unworthy and undeserving of God’s love. But in my experience “unmerited and undeserved” are human judgements and boundaries and requirements, not God’s. That is the whole point of grace, there’s no judgment in its dolling out, it just there. It is just ours. It’s just as free as the air we breathe.

Like I said, Paul actually agrees grace is free, he just thought no human deserved it and Jesus had to die to make it so all humans could get it. In modern speak, Paul’s position might be something like, the purported taint to human DNA that he thought made us unworthy, was altered by Jesus’ death . . . Jesus’ at the cross took the taint away, so God could love us. I think Paul is wrong, but in the end Paul reaches the same fundamental result with respect to grace, that it is not earned and is as free as the air we breathe. Which all on its own belies Christian theologies that claim humans have to do or believe something to get God’s grace.

That’s also true and Paul claims that. Nonetheless Paul would say Grace cannot be earned. I say there is no need to earn it. That may sound like a slight difference but I think it matters. Because I think calling humans unworthy is harmful. We all are loved and matter much. I’ve noted over and over again that people need to hear and know that. I am particularly aware of that because as a very young teen I came to church feeling unworthy. I was shy and lacked confidence and I was a pretty broken being. In the judgment of myself, my abuser, and apparently Paul, I did not merit or deserve favor. But that is not what Jesus taught. In Jesus’ theology we are all of great worth– we are all loved and matter much to all aspects of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Paul, and many others since, have claimed otherwise, creating the false impression that humans are so flawed God cannot love them without Jesus having been sacrificed which leads to strange and discordant views of God as father who . ..what? So unloved the world he needed a blood sacrifice?

But John 3:16 is Biblical proof Paul is wrong. If God so loved the world before sending Jesus, that means any taint Paul thought we had before Jesus, did not stop God’s love. From day one humans have been ipso facto worthy of love. God so loved us always, because we are worthy of love. Period. Had I understood that God thought I was worthless when I showed up at church I doubt very much that it would not have altered my life. I only showed up because I did not want to get in trouble by backing out on my deal with God, who I pictured as a disciplinarian in the sky, punishing and looking down on me. I showed up thinking I was unworthy and fearful of God’s wrath. The grace I got at church was all together unexpected.

I got what I was sure I did not deserve. I got goodness, I got salvation, I got forgiveness. And I got new life . . . I got no strings attached love . . . I got God’s grace. And I got it because Jesus and the God of Jesus so loved me that they offered me love and grace. Neither was earned. Neither was won. They both just were and they are. Always. Forever. Not one string attached. Not one issue of worthful-ness. Not a modicum of judgement. I was and am worthy of God’s love . . . and so are all of you, and everyone else too.

Paul agreed that God gives grace freely, but unfortunately argues that we are not worthy of it. We may, like him and others, judge that as true, but that is human judgement. In God’s judgement we are worthy of love. As Cliff’s amazing song from Psalm 139 points out, there is nowhere God and God’s love is not. As other Psalms, long before Paul, put it, that love is steadfast and endures forever.

I am going on about that because most of us may think we are not worthy but we are – that IS what the Psalms mean. That is what “God so loved” the world means. That is what “God is love” means. It is why Jesus says in the Gospel of John (15:9) “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” We are all worthy of the Father in Heaven’s love. We are all worthy of Jesus’ love. We are all worthy of abiding in that Spirit of love.

For anyone who might be aghast that I would dare to disagree with Paul’s words in the Bible, Christianity has long, long understood that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. “Jesus loves me this I know because the Bible tells me so . . .” and Paul cannot alter that because the Bible says JESUS and God find us worthy of love . . . me and you and everyone else too. Jesus telling us so in the Bible trumps anything that contradicts him.

Jesus, you see, trumps contradictions found in other Bible verses. Jesus trumps contradictions by Paul. Jesus trumps contradiction that religious people have made up over time. I did not know how to say that was why I left the church when I did but it was. It took me a long time to get that. I loved Jesus’ Way, it was what others put in the way of his Way that led me away.

And here’s the final thing, I may disagree with Paul on worthiness because it’s not Jesus-like; but I agree with him that grace and goodness can come out of suffering because that is Jesus-like. Jesus’ terrible suffering was not a good thing, but it led to a good thing, not because God and Jesus wanted or planned the suffering; but because Jesus’ Followers through the guidance of the Holy Spirit figured out how –as Paul puts it in our reading– to endure it and produce character from it– all of which led to hope in it. Paul’s sufferings have had similar effects. Indeed my own difficulties as kid led me to church to find the grace Jesus taught and gave. The Creator set it moving. Christ magnified in Jesus and others showed how Christ could be magnified in me, The Spirit calls me forward … that, that is the Trinity.

I came back to Christianity as an adult because I found a UCC church like this. Where in the past, present and future, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, call God’s people to shower people with grace not only to all who enter, but to all they can . . . anywhere. All three of those personas – the Trinity– call us to that, to provide love without bounds. The Trinitarian God wants us to treat all as worthy because that God so loved the world the Father sent the Son who’s Spirit is with us always, then . . . now . . . and tomorrow. May we so love the world like that.

AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
1. Hollman Illustrated Theological Dictionary, p 678.
2. Ibid.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED