Texts of the Pastor’s sermons

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The text of Scott’s most recent message:

Living Love, Not Life to Its Fullest
a sermon based on John 12:20-33
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 22, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

Three long time friends died in an accident and arrived in heaven for an orientation. They were told “When you are in your casket, and friends and family are mourning over you, you’ve all been such good people we can grant a wish for one true thing you’d like people to say as they pass by the open casket. ”

 

The first guy said, “I guess I would like them to say in truth, ‘He seemed to care more about others than life itself. What a great doctor and a good family man.'”
The second guy said, “You know, I’d love to hear them truthfully say, ‘He lived his life for others as a wonderful husband and school teacher and made a huge difference in many children’s lives.’”

 

The last guy said, “I really loved my life, so my wish is to hear all the people passing by truthfully say . . . ‘Look, he’s moving!'”

 

Too bad for that third guy that all four Gospels report what we just heard Elinor read that Jesus said “Those who love their life lose it, those who hate their life in this world keep it for eternal time.”

 

In the context of the Gospel of John that saying means to be willing as Jesus did, to give up life if necessary for love. It means as Christians we can’t let the desire to stay alive supersede risking the sacrifice of life for love. That’s what is meant by the scriptural reference to hating life in this world, you give up life as the be all end all and risk it to gain for God . . . for God.

 

On Jesus’ Way – as difficult as it may be to hear– living is not paramount, loving is. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary puts it like this:

 

To hate one’s life in “this world” is to declare one’s allegiance to Jesus and so receive his gift of eternal life. (p 711).

As Jesus explains it in the reading:

 

“Those who love their life lose it, those who hate their life in this world keep it for eternal time. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. ”

The New Interpreter Bible Commentary notes this means that Jesus “calls the disciples to love as he loves, hence to serve as he serves.”

 

Simply put, we – followers of Jesus– are called to make comfort and even survival – life– take a back seat to loving. And that’s not just tough to do . . . It is counter-intuitive, it’s counter instinctive. Right? Living beings in creation have a longing and yearning to live, that’s not bad, but it’s not supposed to be paramount on Jesus’ Way. We need to rewire our thinking so that we long and yearn to love, more than we long and yearn to live.

Following Jesus as he tells us to do, and living a life toward love, is most important, even more important that living to stay alive, or worse living to be comfortable with no hassles, while doing nothing about others being oppressed or forgotten or shunned or killed.

 

If heaven on earth is Shalom – a word for peace that means well being for all– it cannot come about if less than all have well being. That’s why Jesus claimed the rich in his day did not have much chance of inheriting the kingdom of God, this was because the rich in the Roman Empire had extreme well being while almost all the rest of the people at that time were barely able to survive day to day. This was especially true in Roman occupied Palestine. They, the rich, were the few who had the comfort of well being, and they were ignoring love for others in order to live as they wanted. It wasn’t that the rich were rich per se, it was they were doing nothing about others well being.

 

Heaven is a place where all have well being. Jesus came to show us how to bring heaven to the here and the now. His Way is most often emphasized these days as about the afterlife, but it was and is really about life now. Jesus’ Way is about doing the work needed to acquire well being on earth, not just for you and yours and me and mine, but for 100% of the people. That’s the heavenly goal. It’s about love being played out to its fullest in life.

 

What Jesus taught, what he wanted for us to worry about while we are alive, is living to love so the whole world experiences Shalom, has well being. Now. Here. That’s the race Jesus ran and the stories of his resurrection include his handing us the baton to carry, to keep running the race to the finish line, the victory is heaven on earth for all. Stopping short of heaven is like the third guy in the joke who wants life so much he makes a wish to avoid heaven. We get that, because a part of us wants to cling to life over anything–even heaven, even being in the presence of love. The joke is about living to avoid a post-life heaven, but Jesus’ teachings are about living to bring about a heaven on earth. Actually that’s what the parable Jesus tells in the story is about;

 

unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

 

Jesus’ death created rebirth of him through us, the baton carriers. Jesus seed of love in us bears fruit in the likes of us. That is, through our experience with him and following his teachings, we bring more and more of the fruit of love that he planted into the world. But that requires us to live love to it’s fullest, not life to its fullest. That’s exactly what Jesus can be heard to mean when he said:

 

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. (John 12:24-27)

 

Hear how counter-intuitive and un-instinctive that is? As living creatures we tend to want to be saved from death, have people claim at our casket that we are still moving and alive. But for what? To live for life? Or to live for love? That’s what this boils down to. Actually if we think about it that is what all of Christianity boils down to: do we live for love first? Or do we live for life first?

 

There are and always have been Christians who soften up the meaning of love, so that they can wriggle free of it’s meaning and fudge it so they get to keep their way of life when it conflicts with love. You can hear them do this by defining love in ways that would not be considered love anywhere else. They define it in ways that allows them to consider some factor in themselves as of supreme importance, things like their race, gender, sexual orientation. Or nationality or religion. Of course, it’s always an attribute they possess that is superior.

 

And they bend the meaning of love to allow them to place what they find a supreme attribute to take precedence over the actual well being of others. So they don’t have to love, actually care for the well being of those without that attribute.

 

Supremacist is a term we tend to hear as referring to racial supremacy but the term actually means an “advocate of the supremacy of a particular group.” (Google Definitions).

 

Sadly history is littered with the mistakes of Christian supremacists, those who use the religion to advocate for their group’s superiority. Like white supremacists believe whites are better than people of color. Like male supremacists believe men are better than women. Like wealth supremacists believe rich are better than poor. Like straight supremacists believe straights are better than gays. Like citizen supremacists believe citizens are better than aliens. Like religious supremacists believe those of their religion are better than others. Like hermeneutic supremacists believe their interpretation of the Bible makes them better than other Christians.

 

Christian supremacist’ re-define Jesus’ love commands and the word love to allow themselves room to mistreat others, to subordinate those who are not supreme in their eyes to justly abuse and disregard, even shunning and outcasting. As if they get to be in charge of God’s call and Jesus’ meaning to love.

To make wriggle room for mistreatment in “Christian love” is a cop-out. It is sinful. Choosing our way over the loving way, is in a sense like the third guy in the joke wishing to not experience heaven, only heaven in this scenario is here in life.

 

The point of today’s Lectionary reading is that we are not supposed to be in charge of deciding what God’s call is. As Christians, our lives are not for us to do as we want when it comes to love, there’s no wriggle room. We are not supreme. It’s the meek who inherit the earth not the arrogant.

 

Love means to love. Period. We are not to water it down so we can mistreat others. Putting Love first means to make others’ well being of supreme importance, as Jesus did.

 

The New Interpreter’s Bible on today’s text notes:

 

Since Jesus ultimate service is the gift of love, [verse] 26 calls us to love as he loves and hence serve as he serves. (P 711).

 

Nowhere – nowhere– does Jesus assert anyone who follows him gets to claim they are supreme. He provides no authorization to mistreat anyone, not women or Blacks or LGBTQs or Aliens or the poor or other religions or other Christians.

 

Indeed nowhere in all the Gospels does Jesus mistreat anyone. He loves everyone, and that’s hard stuff to do, that’s why so many folks muddy the love part up, it’s easier to be able to claim you are supreme and loathe or mistreat those you want to look down upon, than to really truly love everybody. But that is what Jesus does and asks us to do. As I just read, verse “26 calls us to love as he loves and hence serve as he serves.”

 

Jesus’ followers do not get to revise the meaning of love so as followers of Jesus they can mistreat those they think they are superior to. Jesus’ Way is not about reading texts to justify hates by softening up the word love so that we can call it love to consider others less worthy than us.

 

Christians who want to oppress –to mistreat– others tend to claim to take literally Bible texts that support their mistreatment, but in order to do that they have to get rid of the pesky Bible texts that command love and they get rid of them by ignoring them or redefining the word love to fit their need. But the truth is love never ever literally means love if it allows for mistreatment–there’s no care or well being in that. There’s no heaven in that, none. There’s no Shalom in that.

 

Jesus held hard and fast to the love God and neighbors commandments. He claimed those love the commandments were greater than all other commandments for a reason. The reason is that love is all that matters. It needs to matters more than life itself.
In our reading today we heard Jesus call on God to glorify God’s name, not his own. “Father, glorify your name,” he says. Then we heard “a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’”

 

I find the next part of the reading very interesting. We are told
The crowd standing there heard [the voice] and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

 

Thunder is sign of experiencing God throughout the Bible. It’s often a part of theophanies, God’s tangible presence. In the story today, the people gathered experienced it, some heard thunder, some heard angelic words. Apparently not everyone understood God saying “ “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” But we are told everyone knew it was a theophany.

 

Whether they heard thunder or angelic words, or understood what it meant, the gathered all were in on God presence. And there’s a reason God showed up. And as Jesus explained God showed up for his followers’ sake “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. ”

 

The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary observes that

 

Thunder was a common religious symbol for the voice of God. And angels were traditionally understood as God’s messengers. The crowds hearing the voice of God as either thunder or an angel’s voice suggests that the crowd recognized that they were witnesses to an epiphany, some revelation of the divine, but they did not grasp that they witnessed the unmediated presence in God’s relationship to Jesus. (p 712)

 

See the voice of God is telling us Jesus is the real deal. The theophany is experienced, as Jesus instructs his followers, to not love life more than love. Love is the be all end all point for Jesus. It is supposed to be for us too.

 

I like to think that those who hear that message hear the angel’s voice. Those that hear thunder, they know God said something, but for some reason that just cannot . . . or will not . . . seem to make it out. The thunder-hearers don’t get . . . or don’t want to get . . . that love means love, that we have to love more than life itself, more than even attributes we want to claim are superior in ourselves. The ones who hear the angels voices get the message that it is all about love. And it’s not love as we want to define it. The word has a dictionary meaning.

 

I’ve read this to you before it is the definition of love from the Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms. I read it often because we don’t get to define love and most religious debates boil down to what love means and people tend to redefine it and our job is to not let them redefine it for us. The dictionary definition defines:

 

Love [as] Strong feeling of personal affection, care and the desire for the well being of others.

 

And here’s perhaps the most telling part of the definition, it goes on to note that love
is a primary characteristic of God’s nature and the supreme expression of Christian faith and action.
It’s hard work to love, but it’s God-work and it is the supreme expression of Christianity. In fact, it’s the only supreme thing there’s supposed to be about it. May we all work toward loving love more than even life itself . . .as Jesus did.
AMEN

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Scott’s message from  March 15, 2015

Hearing John 3:16 Anew
a sermon based on John 3:16
at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 15, 2015 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

During elementary school I attended a conservative Baptist church. A very nice older woman down the block made it her business to see that my older sister and I got there. I say older woman because that is how I perceived her as a six-year old. In retrospect though she may very well have been younger than I am now! So it might be more accurate to describe her as aged-just-right.

 

Mrs. Harris was this aged-just-right woman’s name; and I am sorry to say that I must have been a disappointment to her. You see, Mrs. Harris was also my Sunday school teacher and one of her great joys was having her charges recite scripture from memory, proudly marking each child’s progress with a colorful shiny star next to their name on a chart on the wall. Students got extra rewards every time they reached a numeric milestone with the stars. I remember that for the first star we got a bookmark. I can’t recall what the other prizes were, because, well, I never made it past one star. Oh, I was there a lot and although others may have perceived my lack of star power as a sign of not being very bright, at the time I saw it a bit different. In fact, I thought I was pretty smart. See I tried it once to see what it was like, but, all that work for a shiny star and bookmark didn’t make sense to me. I had others things that took up my time like, melting army men with a magnifying glass, lobbing walnuts over the roof at my sister and her friends in the front-yard, and dozens of other things to do– with parents completely unaware of any homework due in Sunday school.

 

In retrospect I wish I’d learned more. The one scripture verse I learned for my pathetic one little star was not “Jesus wept” (I must have missed the day that one came around). No, the only scripture I memorized was one of today’s verses, John 3:16.

 

I have long thought it quite ironic that the one verse most used by conservative Christians to claim that Christianity is the only way to avoid perishing and gaining eternal life is the one verse I have had in my head for more than fifty years. My guess is that a lot of us still hear that verse as saying you must believe in Jesus to get to eternal life.

 

Most of us have been conditioned to hear John 3:16 as an exclusionary text, one that if literally true leaves non-Christians perishing and missing out on eternal life. John 3:16, you see, seems to be about asserting not only that non-Christian paths to God are invalid, but are paths to hell. We’ve been taught it’s a threat.

 

In seminary I spent a good deal of time discussing and debating our need to honor and respect other paths to God, even the need for us to consider other religions as members of the Body of Christ, to the extent that means God, which is actually not far fetched since the Gospel of John in chapter one defines Christ to mean just that.  Even at the somewhat liberal Eden Theological Seminary this sounded to some like heresy, but, I made it one of my rallying cries.

 

Now I came to seminary not only with a law degree, but sixteen years of lawyering so my rallying cries even as a freshman tended to be formidable just as a matter of course, since I came with well honed arguing skills.

 

Believe is or not, a number of famous theologians had legal training. While I may not be a famous theologian, as a retired lawyer, legal training has been a blessing in my ministry and at seminary.

 

Here are two lawyer tricks . . . I mean legal skills, I often used to hold my own in discussions at seminary even with seasoned professors. The first was to find and have precedence for a given position.

 

In seminary a Bible verse was akin to a Supreme Court decision. I liked to kinda mix in some poker rules and so I made sure to have three-of-a-kind or at least a pair of verses in the tougher debates. I discovered that if I had at least a pair of Bible verses I could hold my own in theological debates and on term papers.

 

The second legal skill I discovered worked well at seminary was to take verses used against a theological point and do what I called in my law practice a “judo flip” of the other side’s argument.

 

I’d take a verse that purportedly opposed my idea and show how it actually supported my position. This is particularly effective with people who insist the Bible must be read literally and without interpretation, because the Bible tends to be the be-all-end-all in debates for them.

 

Alright, for the price of admission to worship this morning, you just got about two years worth of law schooling! Find binding precedence and flip your opponent’s arguments against them.

 

I am being a bit light heartedly smug about arguing – and it may, perhaps, even sound crass– but it’s really not. Unless you take your theology spoon-fed, testing your’s and others’ notions and understandings of God against tradition, other verses contemporary thinking and different perspectives help you and all of us in the community to grow.

 

In fact, Jesus does this type of intellectual arguing. For instance in Luke we hear him asked by religious folks how he can work on the Sabbath picking grain and healing people. Jesus goes to the Bible for precedence noting that David broke Torah to eat and then he points out the Sabbath was made to do good not harm.(Mk 2:23-28). Jesus used scripture, a judo flip and wins!

 

I mention all this, because we are looking at John 3:16 as a Lectionary Text, and I want to suggest a way to flip a common interpretation of this verse completely on it’s head. No matter what you have heard about this verse, take a deep breath and set it all aside for a moment. It won’t hurt . . .

 

Okay here’s the KJV of John 3:16 that most folks know:

 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

 

Reading it literally. Who does God love? The World. Not just the Jewish followers of Jesus that John is addressing. Not just Christians who believe as fundamentalists do. Not just UCCers, like us. The whole world. God loves the whole world – literally no exceptions.

 

And it is a whole lot of God-Love, right? It’s so much Love, what happens as a result of that love for the world? God is understood and experienced by Christians as giving God’s very own offspring to the world, what John calls “the Word made flesh,” which means God incarnate in life.

 

And so what happens to those who believe in that offspring of God? They shall not perish but have everlasting life.

 

Now Let me ask this can we literally believe in Jesus, but not believe he is the only Way?

 

The text asks us to believe in Jesus not doctrines. I believe in, ummmmm, Joan Baez I have seen her live and on T.V., I have her CDs– I believe in her. In the same way I am sure that most Jews, and Muslims and Buddhists can claim they believe in Jesus, in the sense that he was a historic person.  John 3:16 does not literally say more is required than to believe in “him,” it does not say more than that.

 

And if we believe in him what happens? You shall not perish. Have you ever met a Christian that is, or was, literally non-perishable? All the saints, Peter, Paul, Francis, Teresa, Mary and Joan and most popes and Christian theologians who have ever lived, have died and so have perished. Jerry Falwell died and perished. It is safe to say that literally every Christian who has passed away has literally perished.

 

If you don’t like that quibbling, let’s say that a non-perishable Christian means their souls live forever– they get eternal life. Okay. Fine. So now what does this famous verse say happens to non-believers? Does it say anywhere that they shall perish in some other way? No, it does not. Does it say they in any way forgo eternal life? No, it does not! It says God loves the world, it says some, those who believe in Christ get eternal life. Importantly it does not say those who don’t believe automatically don’t get eternal life. Nor does it say that they can’t otherwise find a way to eternal life; and it certainly does not say that non-believers are damned to hell.

 

John 3:16 literally does not pronounce Christians alone as saved– nor does it condemn others in the world. That famous verse held up at ball games and known far and wide on it’s own defeats the argument anyone who doesn’t believe is hell bound, because its plain meaning does not say that. That’s a judo flip. Plus best of all it’s a verse that says God loves the whole world, not just Christians.

 

Now you may be thinking – as I surmise some in seminary did– something like:“Oh come on all this fancy word play is smoke and mirrors. Anyone can isolate a verse and play around with it.” Well, my response is “Hey, I read it literally and did not add anything to it and it says what it says don’t blame me.” The judo flip is built-in.

 

And I’ll even dare to go to the next verse John 3:17. Make that I will dare anyone who reads John 3:16 as condemning the world, to go to John 3:17. Here is what that verse says in the NRSV: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” The world is literally not condemned by God’s sending the Son, but rather through him it might be saved. No condemnation. None. The Son was literally only meant to be a way to save the world.

 

The word translated as “save” in Greek means to deliver or protect, to heal, preserve or make well. Jesus the Christ is a means, a gate, an access, an opening, a portal, in the universe through which the world can be protected and made whole. Now that’s my kind of salvation. Jesus is a blessing to the world not just to Christians.

 

Literally how could Jesus be a blessing to the world if his coming means those who don’t believe in him are condemned? How could God, whom we are told loves the whole world, have literally sent his Son “not to condemn the world” while at the same time causing the world to be condemned for not believing in him? This is not lawyer’s trick it is literally an impossibility. 1

 

I am running out of time but Verses 18 and 19 which I cut out of the Lectionary reading to make it easier on the children, go on to indicate that those who do not believe are in Greek “judged” and the judgment is that those who are deemed to have loved darkness rather than light are found to be evil, the Greek word for evil actually means hurtful, but, note that there is no mention of hell!

 

The Genesis 12 the verse I read at the invocation indicates that Abraham was sent to be a blessing not just to his family or the families of the Jewish people. We are told he was to be a blessing to all families. God did not send Abraham to the world to only work in favor of the Jews, or to condemn non-Jews. God used Abraham as vehicle through which all the world would be blessed. John 3:16 evidences that like Abraham, it is through Jesus that God is seeing to it that ALL families of the earth are also to be blessed. How? Through us. Jesus saves, protects and makes the world whole, not by our belief in him: but in our faithful actions through him. Our good deeds are Christ’s good deeds . . . are God’s good deeds.

 

We can go out in our community and do good. We are supposed to do that good stuff of everyday reality where salvation can come in the form of hands that help; feet that carry our neighbor’s load; ears that listen; mouths that speak care and comfort; or our otherwise being Christ’s presence in the moment for someone in trouble or in need.

 

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us as a community of faith to take up a number of holy tasks, like providing Hot meals for strangers, and the poor every Tuesday.

 

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led is us to take up the holy task of offering support to the Winter Sanctuary to help provide a bed and shelter from the cold for those who might otherwise have no place to go.

 

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to offer to sanctuary and a wide embrace of equality and love for those often cast off and shunned by the culture, even by other churches.

 

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to endure ugly mean protests in the newspaper and on our church steps on the way to worship.

 

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to join with others in creating the multi-church Youth Group that begins it’s meetings today.

 

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to open our doors to interfaith care and compassion, with plans to host Zen Buddhist Community meetings

 

Our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to create an interfaith day camp for children this summer to teach peace.

 

I’ve listed just a few things our belief in God’s begotten Son has led us to do.
We can so love the world that we give of ourselves to help save it. We can do that without considering ourselves, or our path to God better than others. We can love, we can follow Jesus and believe in Christ without condemning others.

 

Here’s the thing, I’m hoping we can remember. That today’s sermon was not really about skipping two years of law school, it was about seeing text anew, it’s about understanding that through Jesus we really are helping to save and transform existence in the here and now by doing our part as followers and believers in God’s begotten Son to help make the whole world better.

 

For God so loved the world he gave us Christ so that we might do just that; be love in the world. And through Christ we are called to take action to save the world and we are doing that in our own community.

 

If we remember nothing else, let us remember this: God did not send his Son to condemn the world but to save it. And our church through believers are going out to do just that! May we do it more and more! AMEN.

 

ENDNOTES:
* This sermon was based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2008.
1. John 3:18 does assert that “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  “Believe” in these verses does not mean buying into doctrines, it means trusting in God incarnate, the word made flesh, which is what Christ means in the Gospel of John.  See, Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, p161-163. Moreover condemnation is not hell in this context. The judgement for those who do not trust God incarnate is as John 3:19-21 tell us:

19 that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

 

 

 

 

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The text of Scott’s March 8 message

Holy Unrest Can’t Be Quelled
a sermon based on John 2:13-22
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 8, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in turbulent 1960s and early 70s. Civil rights and peace movements were going, like the march of Selma that took place 50 years ago this weekend on large scale, but smaller things too. My mom did things like join NAACP and send C.A.R.E. packages to the poor in the deep south, she even wrote letters to the editor of the San Jose Mercury News.

 

I don’t, however, recall my parents going to the public protests that seemed to saturate our part of the country, and I was too young to go on own. But like most adolescents of that time and that place I yearned to take on what we called “The Man” and be involved. I wanted to be an active part of what I understood to be unrest aimed at transforming the world.

 

I know it is not everyone’s thing, but at the time as a kid I would loved to have participated in the public protests and non-violent unrest. Not having an adult to drag me to the happenings I was left to my own devices and became involved in environmental efforts and I tutored younger children. I even rode around with bumper stickers upright on back of my bike rack. And of course, I also wore peace and ecology buttons, and argued and debated with others on war and civil rights issues like I think a lot of folks (including my mom) were doing .

 

When I became a college freshman in the mid 1970s the era of unrest was ending but lingered still. In college I finally felt empowered to do a bit more. I worked on weekends entertaining children at health stations in migrant worker camps and I did volunteer work tutoring children with reading concerns . . . and I still rode my bike everywhere with the bumper sticker.

 

But my biggest memories from my freshman year have to do with some unrest, a public protest, that I staged. You may disagree with me–many folks have– but as a Feminist I felt that the selection of a homecoming beauty queen at my college was a very sexist tradition that needed to be challenged. So I checked the rules and discovered no one had thought to limit contestants to women, so I caused a ruckus by applying and running for the Homecoming Queen of San Jose City College. My simple point was that if we wanted Homecoming representatives for our college they should NOT be selected based on a sexist beauty contests–which I was protesting as I supported gender equality.

 

 

There are two things I remember most . . . First, is the hostility and hate my protest engendered. As I sat in the room with the other contestants I endured the ugliest, meanest, taunts and anger I’ve ever encountered. I had prepared myself with Feminist points for the judges, but I was not ready for co-contestants scowling at me.

 

The second thing I remember is that in the weeks leading up to the contest I met the most beautiful person I’ve ever encountered – Nancy– and she not only knew from the newspaper that I was running for homecoming queen , but she became a dear friend and supporter at the time–which months later led to our dating– and well, you know the rest of that story.

 

In the interest of full disclosure, despite my brilliant performance in front of the judges–and obvious good looks– I did not win and become the 1976 Homecoming Queen of San Jose City College. I did not expect to win, I did it as a symbolic protest. I ran – even though some folks found it a bit disturbing that I did. It wasn’t a Slem large size protest.

 

Here’s the thing I am hoping you’ll remember, whether you agree with my ideals or not, I still caused a little unrest with the point eventually being heard on a pretty big campus even though my protest occurred in a small part of the college in front a panel of a few judges.
(And parenthetically, of course, I got the best consolation prize ever, a life long partner and pal and love named Nancy).

 

I mention the small unrest I staged because a lot of us listen to the Lectionary lesson from John about Jesus disrupting the Temple and don’t think of it as staged, but as Jesus lashing out in a rather disturbing fashion. The “turn the other cheek, love your neighbor, love your enemy and forgive everyone Jesus” does not seem to be in the lesson.

 

Non-violence and love and peace seem to have been set aside in Jesus’ actions. We tend to hear Jesus as getting so upset and downright angry in the Temple – a sacred space– that he loses his temper and rages about thrashing the temple and threatening the well being of animals and humans.

 

That’s what the story in today’s reading and the painted images and even dramatic re-enactments ever since suggest happened . . .but this morning I want to suggest that’s not very likely what happened. What’s likely is that Jesus staged a bit of unrest, a protest in the Temple and it was heard and remembered. But it was not recorded in writings until more than a generation later – and by then the story had layers of embellishment added and spins put in it.

 

Something happened in the Temple, a protest, but what was it? What was Jesus up to?
Last year on Palm Sunday we discussed how Jesus’ rode in on a humble donkey as a protest. Pilate on that day rode into Jerusalem as a military leader on a horse in a parade of soldiers representing Rome’s power sent in to quell unrest with violence or the threat of it. Rome used violence to crush unrest — to bring about “peace.’ 1

 

On the other side of town Jesus rode into Jerusalem in a likely small parade of palm bearing peasants representing God’s power on a humble donkey, as a Spiritual leader among ordinary people causing unrest with non-violent love to bring about justice and ultimately real peace . . .Shalom.

 

Palm Sunday was street theatre-like. Earthly power (looking like earthly power always does, violent) clashes with heavenly power (looking like it always does with the God of Jesus at the helm, non-violent). The Heavenly empire uses non-violent unrest to get peace. The Earthly empire violently crushes unrest to get peace. Can you hear the clash?

 

Jesus on a donkey with a message of unrest to obtain humble peace wins the clash. God can be dramatically seen with him and the throngs. Gleaming weapons and breastplates, pageantry and “violent might” to stop unrest do not give a message of love. That message of love is found in the guy on the donkey who represents God creating unrest with the way things are, to get to peace, the way things ought to be.

 

Jesus’ Palm Sunday street-theatre demonstration was a brilliant protest portraying what cosmic power looks like, no shinny armor and blades needed, just seeking justice, loving kindness and traveling humbly with God wins. Every time. 1

 

That was the Palm Sunday protest. It can be heard to be about symbolically standing up to an earthly empire’s army sent to quell unrest during Passover. The Temple protest where Jesus creates more unrest is thought to have occurred after it, probably the next day, on Monday. 2.

 

Pilate’s entry into Rome with military might that Sunday was to police the Passover week as pilgrims arrived and the threat of protests– unrest– increased. On Monday Jesus defied that might creating a bit of unrest in the Roman controlled Temple. Now, had Jesus literally done what we picture and John suggests in the Lectionary reading, Pilate’s army garrison overlooking the temple would have swooped in on Jesus and arrested him THEN –if not killed him – THEN– on the spot. 3

 

Violently wielding a multi-thong whip while chasing “ALL” the merchants and money changers and animals out of the temple, and scattering coins and overturing the tables would have surely caused the policing military to immediately and unmercifully pounce on Jesus. The scale of his reported actions in the Temple–as John tells it– would have brought in the Centurions, maybe even quicker than such behavior in a mall would bring in squads of police today.
That Jesus was not arrested at the Temple evidences that his actions were, as Marcus Borg put it, “sufficiently limited so as not to incite intervention. It was not intended to be efficacious, but was a symbolic act.” 4.  In other words, it’s not likely Jesus went into the Temple and lost it one day having a fit of violence against the buyers and the sellers throwing all the tables over and violently chasing everybody out with a whip. In fact the physical lay out of the Temple belies this could have occurred. The Temple area covered 35 acres and was big enough to fit in 34 football fields. 5 . During Passover it was very busy with thousands of people. So this wasn’t like chasing a few people out of a store downtown. It would have been more like chasing out multitudes at a big city mall the weekend before Christmas.

 

All of this information evidences it was physically impossible for Jesus to run around with a whip literally doing all the stuff John reports he did in our lesson today. And John’s violent Jesus, of course, does not comport with the actions of the forgiving loving Jesus who teaches and urges love and justice and peace. Jesus could certainly have spoken critically or harshly and even turned tables over and let loose animals in civil disobedience, to symbolically disrupt the Temple, but nowhere else in the Gospel stories does Jesus wield weapons or hit people or animals– and he preaches the opposite.

 

So John’s report, or at least how we hear it, with an angry violent Jesus does not gibe with physical reality, nor with what we know about Jesus.

 

All four Gospels, however, do report that Jesus did something in the Temple, some sort of protest that was remembered. Mark the earliest Gospel records this somewhat less violent version of story:

 

[Jesus] entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. (Mar 11:15-20 NRS)

 

 

That story in Mark has impossible events going on too, like “not allow[ing] anyone to carry anything through the temple.” Literally that could not be accurate, and again it is hard to picture a non-violent loving and forgiving Jesus driving out people– in the sense of threatening them, especially since we are told the whole crowd was spellbound, not angry– with his teaching.

 

And if he had done any of that stuff–even as Mark records it– again, surely the Roman guard would have quickly stamped his effort out. But they didn’t. And Jesus left the Temple, strongly suggesting that the Gospel accounts exaggerate Jesus’ actions. But Jesus did enter the temple and he did do some sort of protest there. And that protest would have been a direct challenge to Rome’s way of doing things, Jesus was challenging Rome’s control and its quelling of unrest; AND the Temple leadership and the worshipers letting themselves be quelled.

 

That challenge, perhaps coupled with his Palm Sunday protest and a reputation as one criticizing Roman authority and Roman appointed authority led to Jesus’ arrest, conviction and execution. See . . . the temple protest may very well have been the last straw.
All of this though still begs the question: What was Jesus protesting?

 

Going to the earliest version of the story in Mark we can hear that he is remembered as protesting the Temple as having been “made a den of robbers.” That is actually a quote from Jeremiah (7:11). But the word “robber” is better understood as someone who commits “any form of resistence to established control.” 6

 

In Jeremiah 7 that Old Testament verse was referring to Temple leaders and worshipers who resisted God’s control making the temple their den, as in a lair– a hideaway from doing God’s work. See the Temple at times was seen by prophets, as behaving, well . . . like a lot of churches in history behave, as a Holy place to go and be led to act and say pious things, but to leave and go out in the world to commit, or allowed to be committed, un-Holy acts like oppression of outcasts and poor. They, in other words, are not being the places that they should be causing Holy unrest out in the world to get God’s work done

 

The “den of robbers” saying is not about the Temple vendors being robbers, the merchants and coin exchanges were not the issue. The issue was the Temple being used as a hideaway where God’s established control was resisted. Instead of God’s Holy unrest being carried out, Rome’s quelling of that it was allowed to occur. 7. It was Rome in Jesus place and time that spearheaded the resistance to God by controlling the Temple allowing it to only do what Rome wanted.

 

Jeremiah 7 and the use of it in the Synoptic Gospels by Jesus can be heard to be akin to the Micah 6 text on the wall behind me. That text in Micah is surrounded by the prophet’s criticism of “worship-ie” things in the temple not being followed by seeking justice and loving kindness and religious humble walking. Oppression of outcasts went on unchecked.
In Jesus’ day Rome’s not only oppressing outcasts, but not allowing the Temple to stop it. What Rome sought was the utter domination of Palestine and it’s inhabitants. Rome used the Temple as best it could to that end– so much so, that Jesus’ challenge of that Temple was a challenge of Rome. And Rome did not take kindly to challenges.

 

Micah, Jeremiah and actually all the prophets and Jesus were trying to stir up in people an unrest against the way things were. The status quo was being shaken. They promoted unrest, even as the earthly powers sought to stop it. And sometimes they protested the earthly powers outside the Temple and sometimes they protested it as a part of the Temple. John the Baptist actually did both, he called people into the Jordan River as a symbolic re-conquering the Promised Land from the Romans. And he was also out there in the water offering repentance and forgiveness something the Roman controlled Temple was alone allowed to do that. 8

 

Jesus may well have been following John the Baptist’s blueprint, protesting both Rome and the Temple. Only he brought the protest from the countryside to the city, Jerusalem. On Sunday of Holy Week, Palm Sunday, Jesus can be heard as protesting an earthly empire’s army sent to quell unrest during Passover. On Monday of Holy Week, Jesus can be heard as protesting the quelling of the unrest by that earthly empire.

 

Through Jesus the empire of God clashed with the empire of man, Rome. Rome took a violent swipe at Jesus, killing him. But God non-violently swiped back with a long lived resurrection. God joined in on the protest of Rome’s violence and quelling– stopping– of justice and kindness.

 

One important lesson in the Gospels is that Rome couldn’t stop God’s unrest with injustice. Jesus created that unrest in the way he taught and lived and protested. Our job as Christians is to keep that unrest going so that one day earthly empires’s ways rule no more. So that God wins. So that Love wins. So that Jesus wins. So that we all win. Holy unrest, you see, must not be quelled– indeed it ultimately cannot be . . . That is good news!   Amen. 9

ENDNOTES:
1. Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week, p 31-53
2. Ibid.
3. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, p 182.
4. Ibid. At 183-184
5. Funk, Robert, and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, p 121.
6. The Last Week, p 51
7. Ibid., at 52-53.
8. Tatum, W. Barnes, John the Baptist and Jesus, a report of the Jesus Seminar, p. 20, 123-124, Crossa, The Historical Jesus, p 162-165
9. I utilized a number of writings as I researched this sermon. There are many ideas about what happened during Jesus’ protest in the Temple, and why he did it. The books I consulted do not necessarily all square with conclusions in this sermon, but they did help lead me to them. The books included Jesus a Revolutionary Biography, and The Historical Jesus, by John Dominic Crossan; Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark by Marcus Borg; The Last Week, by Borg and Crossan; The Misunderstood Jew by Amy Jill Levine; The God of Jesus, by Stephen Patterson; Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 2; The Acts of Jesus and The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say by Robert Funk and Jesus Seminar;  John the Baptist and Jesus, a report of the Jesus Seminar by Tatum, W. Barnes;, and The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. The book by Crossan and Borg, The Last Week as I read it, draws a similar conclusion as to what Jesus was protesting and I relied a lot on that as well as their discussion of Palm Sunday which made me think the “Temple Event” was likely a related staged protest.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Scott’s Message from March 1, 2015

Helping the Impossible . . . Happen
a sermon based on Genesis 17: 2-7; 15-16
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 1, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

A resident living near Yellowstone had this interesting observation:
Tourists come to Yellowstone National Park armed with a lot of questions [, she wrote]. As someone who works nearby, I don’t always have the answers. Like the time one earnest woman wanted to know, “At what elevation do deer turn into elk?” 1

 

Today’s story from the Bible sounds to us as impossible as deer turning into elk. Abram is ninety-nine. Sarai is ninety. God’s been promising them offspring for twenty-four years. It wasn’t possible sounding in their late 60s and 70s, and it sure isn’t possible sounding in their nineties! But somehow Abram and Sarai have lived faithful (if flawed) lives ever since the first promise, hoping against hope for a baby. And now when it is so far beyond reason as to be impossible by any human reckoning, God makes a covenant to make this barren couple fruitful. FRUITFUL! They are –the promise goes– to have offspring. Not only that, although they are nomadic people, somehow nations and kings shall come from those offspring.

 

The reading from the Lectionary cuts out some of the details of the covenant God makes. For example, even though they are aliens in Canaan they can expect to receive perpetual holding rights to that land, and that God will be their God and their family’s God and their people’s God. Aliens, nobody strangers to the rest of the culture, are the beneficiaries of God’s bounty and grace. And for their part of this deal Abram and all the males of his household must be circumcised, as a sign of the covenant.

 

The gist of the entire covenant, the promise in the story is that God’s gonna do the impossible giving a child to an elderly alien couple to start a royal bloodline, and give land to their small nobody-to-the-world-nomadic- clan-of-aliens, and to then care about them personally in a culture where gods were said to side with the powerful, not the puny.
Abram and Sarai up to this point have trusted God with their heart and were connected to God spiritually. Now bodily Abram the man needs to be circumcised, and Sarai the woman needs to bear the child. They each bodily sacrifice a bit, so that now they can be heard to give of their whole selves – body and spirit– and God rewards them with the impossible! A very elderly couple bears a child and God supports and cares for them even as despised aliens. And God – when gods backed the powerful– makes a remarkable commitment to be their God.

 

In the age or reason we live in, in modernity, this sounds more than a bit unbelievable. In the age the story was recorded it may have sounded even more unreasonable to have elderly barren nobody aliens claiming divine care and help.

 

So why does this story exist? I mean, what is it’s meaning? Whether we think the story really occurred or is meant as metaphor we still have to wrestle with that question. What’s it’s purpose, it’s meaning? It’s clearly intended to be about God’s commitment and ability to do the impossible, and how the faithful have faith and trust that the impossible can be done. But why is this story being told, how does that intent have meaning?

 

Well, see, like some of the other Old Testament stories we have recently considered this one was crafted in the form we have around the time of the Exile, or shortly thereafter. Babylon had conquered the Hebrews and took their leaders into captivity. The story is told from the perspective of that leadership, of complete exhaustion from a half century of being conquered and exiled away from the homeland. Others conduct, their own failures and ordinary life and time should have them defeated, giving up the notion that Jerusalem would ever be seen again, let alone be reborn. Reason, reality evidenced that such was utterly impossible.

 

That the elderly who would be let go to return to Zion could midwife a new Zion was simply unbelievable. On the cusp of that impossibility we can hear how Abram and Sarai’s story of hope and faith for birthing a child during hopeless barrenness has a deep, deep metaphoric meaning in light of the experience of Exile. The men and women of the Exile can be heard to be symbolized in Abram and Sarai’s situation. They represent the old worn out body of Zion, that has not given up faith in God.

 

This is just me with a side note musing, but I wonder sometimes if Ishmael, Abram’s son with Hagar, might represent the Jewish Northern Kingdom (called Israel) that fell long before the Jewish Southern Kingdom (called Judah) fell. That Northern Kingdom did not come back it was left to the desert in a sense, it’s people and kingdom no longer Hebrew, though no less loved by God. And Isaac, the son that God gives Abram and Sarai, represents Judah, the Southern Kingdom almost sacrificed (like Ishmael) , but just in time the Exiled return and the Kingdom, the progeny, is birthed by the elders who were Exiled for fifty years or so.

 

Too old to parent offspring but miraculously–like Sarah and Abraham they do. Imperfect but devoted; fallible but faithful God is with them. In the story, elderly Abraham and Sarah can impossibly give birth to a son. In history, elderly mothers and fathers of the Exile can impossibly give birth to a new Zion. From old bodies the promise of new life is given by God. Everything is being re-envisioned.

 

In the story it’s such a powerful re-envisioning that all the characters get a new name. For the first time Abram is called Abraham. For the first time Sarai is called Sarah. For the first time God is called Almighty.

 

From the perspective of the old patriarchy we can even hear it as giving new meaning to God, self and others because finally, at long last Sarah, a woman, is named and honored by God and promised to experience God’s bounty. Women matter very much in this 2500 year old re-envisioning. It is not just Abraham and God who get focus, but Abraham AND Sarah and God as they move forward from the barren-ness to the fruitful. The Exile experience gives women a new and honored place. They suffered through the barren years in Exile. Everybody is being re-defined.
And it takes the heart and soul and body to accomplish the transformation from childlessness to parenthood, from nomads to royalty, from Abram to Abraham, from Sarai to Sarah from the Babylonian Exile to the return to Zion– from one among other Ancient Near East gods to God the Almighty. If we want transformative miracles to happen, we can be flawed and old and tired, but we cannot be without a heart full of faith, connecting our body and spirit to Almighty God. In short, our whole being must be in on the workings of the transformation.

 

God does not do the miraculous transformations in our lives, the impossible cannot occur, without our total involvement. When we commit wholly inconceivable things can happen– we can be wholly transformed. For Christianity that is what Lent focuses on, it’s what Easter promises.

 

In fact, lets be honest transformation, positive alteration of the lesser-ness of living into a greater-ness of living is at least one reason most of us are here all year long. We come to pay respect and to be in awe of God the Almighty for sure, but most of us, hopefully all of us, are also here because we want to change negatives into something positive. We want to understand how we can do this to better ourselves and to better our world.

 

The Lord’s Supper, this table, the Communion we are celebrating today– the Sacrament we partake of– can be understood to reflect the fundamentals of the lesson today. It’s Old Testament meets New Testament which happens quite often and should not surprise us because Jesus and his followers and the early Jesus Movement considered themselves Jewish. And the stories in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, influenced and inspired and guided and helped them experience God. They can still do that for us.

 

Here’s one way I hear the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament can be understood to meet, to transect:

 

In the story Abraham and Sarah flawed and tattered are good at heart and have faith and give of body and spirit to God’s calling to have faith to help transform what seems impossible to the possible. At Communion we come in our faith, our trust in the Divine and with all our heart we lift up the body and spirit, the bread and the cup, of Christ– Christ incarnate in the world and Christ incarnate in us, in both our body and our spirit.

 

We remember that Jesus dedicated both as best as can be to God. And somehow that dedication in Jesus led to an amazing resurrection from the dark ugly events of Holy Week meant to beat him and strip him of dignity, and life, to exile him to the forgotten dreaded corners of executed criminality. The impossible happened. They did all that to Jesus. Yet, Jesus lives. The dance of the Lord goes on and on and on.

 

God transformed the hate and violence of the passion story into the love and joy and hope of the Easter Story. This was done for you and for me and for all the world’s betterment.

 

And doing as Jesus did, even just dedicating our body and spirit to try and do it transforms us and by us I mean us individually, and us as church, and us as world.

 

Think about the remarkable transformation such dedication brings about Poor can be fed. Strangers can be welcomed. The sick and imprisoned can be cared for angry and hurt people can forgive and be healed. Outcasts can be brought into the fold to no longer be shunned, but loved as equals. Injuries can be healed. Alcohol and other chemical dependency can be halted. Lives can be turned around. Why even Agnostic Oregon lawyers can become Ohioan Christian ministers. And best of all a homeless wandering poor rabbi executed as a nobody criminal can impossibly live and help us to live too!

 

Sarai and Abram are barren deer turned into the fruitful elk Sarah and Abraham. At the elevation of God in their lives they are transformed. As we elevate the bread and the cup at the table this morning let us think about, and aim for, transformation, even impossible transformation, from whatever troubles us as individuals and as a people.

 

Let us consider how we can elevate God and partake in the betterment of our lives and the world with a heartfelt dedication of our body and our spirit to no less than our God. AMEN. 1
ENDNOTES;
1. This sermon was influenced in good part by the commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol 1, pages 50-55. I found Barbara Brown Taylor’s essay particularly helpful. I also considered The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on the Genesis text.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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The text of Scott’s March 1, 2015 message

Non-Violence from God’s Rainbow
a sermon based on Genesis 9:8-17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 22, 2015 (based in part on a*2009)
by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

Okay, you know I’m not going to pass up on the opportunity to tell a short funny story about Noah. Here’s how it goes: Once the Ark had successfully landed all of the survivors went ashore and began living on land again. After a while one of Noah’s son, Shem, noticed Noah sitting in a field chewing hairy animal hides set out in piles. He’d would gnaw on a hide, make a face, stop, then add the hide to a pile and tabulate the results. Seeing his mother nearby Shem went over and asked “What’s dad doing in the field with all the hairy hides? It looks kinda weird. His mother looked out at her husband and said “What can I say? There’s Noah counting fur tastes.”

 

The story of Noah has been mined for centuries for all kinds of funny jokes. I mean building a huge ship without a body of water nearby and herding animals on it, AND being on stuck board with all those animals lends itself to humor.

 

Of course the story has also been mined for meaning. I actually wonder if the jokes also arise as a nervous response because the meaning has often been made to be threatening and ominous. The pulpit version is often something akin to “If we don’t behave God’s got a record of doling out violent punishment that ought to make us tremble!” But if we were listening to the text today – and feel free to re-read it– in that Lectionary text we heard that God makes a covenant with every living thing to not do that violence any more.

 

This text is thought to have been written after the Jewish Exile to Babylon. And it can be heard to be about human understanding of God evolving from doling out violent punishment to doling out only love.

 

Evolution generally means the process of changing from one form into a better form. It also has a particular meaning with respect to the theory of evolution, the idea that life changes through natural selection– that is the most favorable traits for survival are passed down over generations leading to alterations in species, and in some cases even new species.

 

So has God evolved? Well, I can say this human perception of God appears to have evolved. And evolution seems as apt a word to symbolize what’s going on with God in the Bible.

 

People experienced God with differing traits in the Bible stories, and we can hear them as threads reflecting an evolution that occurred in the Ancient Near East cultures’ experiences and understandings of God. As this evolution occurs we can even discern a symbolic natural selection of sorts occurring, in that the most favorable traits of understanding God are passed down through the generations – and so God in a better form is best-known. Simply put, the Bible suggests new understandings of God evolved from the old.

 

Christians rely heavily on Bible stories to help understand God – and it is the Hebrew people who give us our first stories. The early Hebrews seem to have first experienced God as one among many gods. He was given the name Yahweh and championed their causes.

 

Like many cultures in the Ancient Near East the god of the Hebrews was understood to be a warrior who went to battle for them, defeating others and their champions. We can hear this in an excerpt from the parting-of-the-sea story from Exodus 15

 

Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea . . . The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea . . . At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. . . . You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters . . .You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them. “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed . . .

 

 

Hear how God was understood to go to battle? He is the champion of the Hebrews on the battlefield. He punishes the enemy Egyptians with defeat. And, of course, he punishes them with plagues and plights before the Red Sea drowns their army.

 

What’s odd is that we can hear in the excerpt I just read the warrior and punishing traits exists side-by-side with the trait of steadfast love. God we are told has steadfast love for his people and it is that love that is proven by his punishing might on the battlefield against the Egyptians. The traits of this warrior, punishing God are woven like threads in the tapestry of many stories that make up the Bible.

 

One of the consequences of understanding God as punishing is that “He” does not just punish enemies, but punishes “His” followers too. Like in Psalm 7 (12-13) where God is likened to slaying with swords and shooting deathly arrows at sinners, that Psalm provides:

 

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.

 

There is a thread of theology in the Bible suggesting bad things happen to people – and peoples– as Divine punishment: like God’s shooting lightening bolts to punish wickedness. If we understand that God’s response to wickedness is destruction and harm, then destruction and harm is necessarily seen as a proper authorized response to wickedness, real or perceived.

 

It is this punishing God that brings about the flood and destroys virtually all the world, every animal, every man, every woman and every child that is not on Noah’s Ark. The warrior God is angry at all the awfulness of the world and so drowns virtually every bit of creation. That’s the angry God envisioned early on.

 

The story of the rainbow – as I said– is believed to have been written in light of the Hebrew’s experience of exile in Babylon. Israel and Judah are destroyed. Zion is occupied. Hebrews are in exile. Under the old theology God caused these things and all calamity. But in light of awful destruction, probably symbolic of the Babylon experience, what happens to God in the Lectionary Lesson today? God makes a remarkable one-sided promise, a vow to all of creation not just to humans, but to all creation – to never, ever, destroy the world again.

 

Nothing is needed in exchange for this forever promise from God. Nothing is needed.

 

And this promise has the effect of breaking off the connection of human misdeed to punishment by God; evil, bad things and destruction still exist but they do not occur by the violent hand of God’s judgement. They cannot, because God has promised not to do that violence any more.

 

The greatest Old Testament theologian of our time, Walter Brueggemann puts it like this:
The one-to-one connection of guilt and punishment is broken. God is postured differently.

 

From the perspective of this narrative there may be death and destruction. Evil has not been eradicated from creation. But we are assured that these are not rooted in the anger or rejection of God. The relation of our creator to creation is no longer a scheme of retribution. Because of a revolution in the heart of God, that relationship is now based on unqualified grace. 1.

 

Unqualified grace! That’s the same as what you’ve heard me call over and over and over again, unconditional, and no-strings-attached, love. It’s what numerous verses in the Bible call God’s steadfast and enduring forever love. It’s steadfast. It’s never ending. IT’S FOREVER!

 

God the warrior who slays the wicked with the sword of vengeance and slings and arrows of calamity and catastrophe has evolved, to something else entirely. Yahweh has changed in the Lectionary text from a violent form to a loving form.

 

We can even claim a symbolic natural selection at work. The most favorable traits for survival of God in the experience of the Hebrews is passed down. God’s love is steadfast . . .it has no strings attached! God’s grace is unqualified. After all if the capture and exile and enslavement of men, women and children by Babylon was God’s doing, how are the Hebrews to love such a God? And where is the steadfast forever love of that God? That God of Love is virtually impossible to find if God is the one who caused the enslavement and destruction of Zion.

 

In today’s story the God who rules over the Hebrews ends up being seen in a wholly a new way. In light of the Exile. God had to be re-imagined. God was re-imagined. 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 bow on the wall of the sky for all creation to see forever. When storms brew and spew destructive forces, when they bring dark clouds and trouble the bow hanging on the wall is said to remind the God of old that HE is no longer in the doing-bad-things-to-creation business.

 

God cannot knowingly violate a vow and the rainbow comforts humans with the knowledge that it reminds God so “He” cannot forget that vow. More importantly it reminds US that God’s hung up his weapon of destruction and will use it no more on creation. We no longer have to imagine God as MALE WARRIOR who is vengeful and punishing. From the rainbow story onward we can forevermore imagine God as loving and good.

 

This story can be heard to tell us that from the flood on, from the first rainbow onward God will not, and does not, and has not destroyed anything in creation. We can hear that God has evolved and the rainbow – that splendid bow of God’s hanging on the wondrous wall of the sky– reminds us of that evolution. God’s old traits of macho warrior-ing and violence and punishment are to be imagined and experienced no more. God’s made 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 had to evolve in the Hebrew Scriptures for us to understand Love in light of the horrors of the Exile, in light of the difficulties of life. God cannot both be the source of terror and the source of steadfast Love. So, if we look in the Bible we can fairly find the God of steadfast love. The God who does not terrorize with the chaos of deep waters and punish with flailing sword and bolts of lightening.

 

The re-imagined God of steadfast love sides with the oppressed, seeks justice and calls us to such righteousness in hope of shalom for all creation. This is the God of Jesus, the God who’s old reign’s bow hangs on the wall as an everlasting symbol that divine retribution and destruction will not– cannot exist based on God’s own promise and unconditional grace.

 

Did God literally evolve? We can choose to see it that way. Or we can choose to see that human understanding of God has evolved. Either way we end up at the same place. The God of vengeance, of fire and brimstone, of floods and famine and destruction and war is no more. The rainbow is said to be proof of this.

 

Yahweh is now and forever the God of steadfast love who calls us to justice, to righteousness, to love, and to shalom from wherever we are. Even when we choose to create storms in our lives or the lives of others God is not going to respond in violence. Rather God will always, always respond with Love. That is what steadfast love on a cosmic scale is all about.

 

The good news in today’s reading is that we can rest assured that God does not create storms or trouble in our lives. The Bible can be heard to beautifully claim that that’s God’s unbreakable and beautiful promise reflected in every rainbow that we will ever see. That’s good, good news.

 

But there is disquieting news. We have to similarly re-imagine ourselves. That’s what Lent is about. We are to act as God acts, as Jesus acted. The Old Testament instructs us to be holy as God is holy. (Lev. 11:45; 20:26). The New Testament reflects on that command like this:

 

as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1Pe 1:15-16 NRS)

 

In all conduct . . . ALL . . . CONDUCT . . . Christians are to be holy. The word “Holy” in my theological dictionary is said to mean “that which is able to convey the divine . . . that which is godlike by being spiritually whole, well, pure or perfect.” 2

 

What being Holy as God is Holy means is we are to follow the divine example of non-violence, hanging up (like God in the Noah story does) whatever bows we’ve used in the past to sling violent arrows with. This matches up with Jesus’ teachings, right? Jesus commands us to love our neighbors and our enemies. He commands us to not only put up our swords, but to turn the other cheek.

The Book of First John teaches that we ought to be like Jesus, to strive to walk as he walked:

Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:4-6)

When we imagine God as love and non-violent, we cannot in turn be the hands and feet and voice of God in the world unless we reach out and walk and talk as God would do . . . lovingly and nonviolently. From the first rainbow onward there’s been no God, no holiness, in violence– none! To be holy as God is holy we must act with non-violence, with steadfast love, with peace. We have to re-imagine how we are to be. We have to put up our swords. We have to turn the other cheek. We have to hang-up our bows and shoot no more arrows. We have to love like God. We have to be like Christ. We have to make our own rainbow promises of no more violence.

 

It is common at Lent to give up or start a practice until Easter. What if we consider re-imagining our selves during Lent by returning the promise God gave creation to do no more violence. What would happen if from now – this first Sunday in Lent– until Easter Sunday – and maybe, just maybe, beyond– we reached out and walked and talked with arms and legs and voices of non-violence? Why we’d be holy as God is holy. We’d walk as Jesus walked. Imagine . . . imagine that. AMEN

 

ENDNOTES
1. Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary, Atlanta, John Knox Press (1982), 84.
2. Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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Scott’s February 15 message:

Jesus Cannot Be Confined in a Church Container
a sermon based on Mark 9:2-9
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 15, 2015 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

The mountain part of our reading reminds me of a Sherlock Holmes story:

 

Holmes and Watson were camping in the highlands of Scotland. The vista both day and night was vast and stunning. Asleep on a moor they both awoke very early and were about to get up in the predawn darkness when the great detective laid back, put his hands behind his head, starred into the night sky and said ”Watson, look up and tell me what you see…”
“Why, I can see millions of stars,” Watson replied. “And what does that tell you?” Holmes inquired. “Many things, my dear Holmes. Astronomically, it tells me that there are billions of galaxies in the cosmos. Theologically, it tells me that God is truly awesome and that we are a tiny part of the great spirit of creation. Meteorologically, it tells me that we will have a good chance of clear weather today. But I doubt that any of these opinions match the powers of your deduction,” continued Watson, “What, pray, does it tell you?” Holmes replied, ”Elementary My dear Watson, it’s quite certain someone’s stolen our tent!” 1

 

I actually like Watson’s observations best on that highland moor. On mountains we tend to have spiritual experiences that are impossible to confine in a tent. My theory about why mountains and skies – and even bodies of water– are spiritual places is because in those places we experience greater vistas of creation. Our day-to-day world tends to make us feel a part of a confined world and sometimes disconnected, but looking out from mountains tops and up to the sky and out across bodies of water makes us feel apart of the vastness and connected to it. Paradoxically the larger the vista the smaller we feel and the more we feel a part of creation. It all reminds us that we are made of stardust and very much related to, and connected with, the cosmos.

 

The reading today is the first and oldest of the existing stories of the transfiguration and it has a bit of mountaintop humor to it. In our story Jesus goes up a mountain with Peter and James and John. Mountains are a location in the Bible where God’s presence is often more tangibly experienced. And in this story, sure enough, up on a mountain God shows up. Very tangible Divine audio and visual experiences– what theologians call theophanies– are reported. Jesus is transfigured, transformed, so much so his clothes become dazzling white.

 

Two top prophets, men of God from the Bible, Moses and Elijah, show up and start talking to Jesus. Moses and Elijah both have mountaintop stories of their own. Moses encountered God on a mountain coming down with the ten commandments and his face aglow. Elijah on a mountain experienced earthquakes and fire, but heard God’s voice up there as still and small.

 

In our story today ghostly figures appear, Jesus is transfigured glowing white. Peter, James and John representing the human side of the experience are terrified. I would have been too. So this very somber tense scene is set . . . And the tension is broken when Peter comically blurts out in what I imagine is false bravado “Rabbi it’s uh, good to be here.” And then trying to act calmly, like they are all up on the mountain for a camping trip, he casually says to Jesus “Let us put up some tents for you and Moses and Elijah.” As if the glowing bright white Jesus and his long dead pals need to get some shut eye, or can even be held in a human-made container.

 

That’s kinda funny stuff. Mark meant it to be. So it is okay for us to smile at it. Even God’s reaction can be heard as a bit of humor. While Peter wants to pitch tents so Jesus and the ghostly visitors can have a nap or be put in a box, God’s response to such nonsense is to enshroud them all in a dark cloud and then boom out these instructions “THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED, LISTEN TO HIM.”

 

That’s really not unlike an Abbot and Costello spoofy horror flick scene. Spooky stuff gets the knees shaking and Peter – bumbling like he’s calm– suggesting tents be pitched, God rolls in the misty fog that overshadows them and while they cannot see a thing out of the spooky mist issues the command: “ THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED, LISTEN TO HIM.”
Then all of a sudden they are alone with Jesus, God’s Son and Beloved, the One they –WE– are to listen to.

 

So what are Peter, James and John –and us– to do? You’d expect that we’d listen to Jesus. That’s the message followers are supposed to take away from this scene. It is the message from no less than God! And that listen-to-Jesus directive from God is not really a surprise. Jesus says way back in chapter four of Mark, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen.”

 

 

This is not a directive to corn framers, but it is still funny. You probably thought I was going to say it “was EERY” didn’t you? I was, but decided that would have been too CORNY. Jesus has COB-bled together a comedic assertion. Why else do we have ears to hear, except to listen? . . .

 

 

Throughout Mark Jesus keeps telling folks to listen. But they don’t. So what happens? No less than God comes down and makes it stunningly clear: “THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED, LISTEN TO HIM.”

 

I am pretty sure that churches all over the nation claim that they listen to Jesus and a bunch of them assert the proof you are listening is when you believe this or believe that certain thing. Jesus and Bible stories and God get put into human-like containers, like Peter tried to do in the story. My new February 4th’s Christian Century (2015) magazine put it like this

 

Peter tries to create containers for the experience, placing holy men each in their own tabernacle, organized, separated, preserved.

 

Churches still try to do this.

 

Indeed it seems to me ironic that Peter, the one upon whom Matthew tells us the church is founded, is the one who advocates boxing Jesus in. But Jesus and God cannot be boxed in and contained in human confines, and we can hear what happens when we try. God will fog up what we think is clear and eventually God booms out the bottom line, one simple command: “LISTEN TO JESUS! “

 

In the UCC we try not to put God in small human sized containers. We don’t have a list of you have to believe “this and thats” at this church. You can be of another religion or no religion at all. You can even be an agnostic or an atheist and as a rule, we will not call your faith or lack of it wrong for you, nor judge anyone as condemned by God.

 

But for those of us who claim that we are Christian we gotta believe something, right? Other churches and other pastors will tell you all kinds of things you must believe. I am not going to do that. This refusal gets me and other progressive pastors in trouble. One criticism I sometimes hear is that by not forcing beliefs we leave folks without a moral anchor, compass, rudder or sail. It’s not always a moral nautical tool they feel we deprive Jesus Followers of, but more often than not it seems to be.

 

As a Christian pastor I do have to wrestle with the questions, What is it that makes a Christian? And . . .What sort of moral compass does that provide? The start of the answer can be found in a common dictionary. Christian literally means a follower of Christ. The name, Christian, was originally a derogatory name meant to separate the Jewish sect of Jesus Followers from other Jewish sects. 1 Ironically despite the complaints of others about UCC folks not being real Christians because we do not force a long litany of beliefs, we get special mention in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Listen to how Webster’s defines “Christian:”

 

“1 a: one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ . . . (2): a member of one of the Churches of Christ separating from the Disciples of Christ . . . (3): a member of the Christian denomination having part in the union of the United Church of Christ . . . 2.”

 

According to Webster’s number 3 answer, then, if you are a member of a UCC church you are a Christian. So everyone should join a UCC church and we’d be set. End of sermon.

 

Actually, I still have some pages left to preach. In fact, it is not the UCC part of the Webster’s definition I want to focus on. It is the first part that defines a Christian as “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ” that I want to focus on.

 

I find it interesting that a secular definition from a dictionary, is the source that not only avoids all the nit-picky ideas of doctrines and beliefs that many Christian sects tell us we have to believe to be a Christian, but it echos today’s scripture reading. At the end of the day isn’t someone who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus, one who does as God directs and listens to Jesus? And let’s listen to what Jesus taught in Mark about; what the moral compass, his teachings; always points to– what Jesus asserts is the law which stands above it all.

 

This is not new news. We have talked about this particular teaching a number of times over the past few weeks getting ready for Lent when we remember it is from stardust that we are made and to stardust we return; a time of striving to rise from ashes in our life.
Repenting means turning, it can be heard to mean turning back toward the bright light we all come from. If we listen to Jesus the one word answer to what he stands for is: “Love.” Right?

 

Love, we talk about it all year long. Love describes God, our longing for ourselves, and our primary directive from Jesus. Just as God who is love soaks our lives we are to let love soak our actions and being.

 

Here’s Mark’s (12:29-34) version of the story of Jesus’ giving the love commandment: a scribe asked Jesus “Which commandment is the first of all?”

 

Jesus answers:

 

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’– this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

 

This is the stuff that gives Christians (or ought to give Christians!) our moral compass, anchor, rudder and sail. Do you have ears? Were you listening? Jesus says is all about Love! The first commandment is “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells a non-Christian scribe that because he knows this he is not far from the Reign of God. Jesus tells him and us that there are no greater commandments.

 

No matter how complicated, convoluted or exclusive any church, preacher or theologian tries to make it, if we listen to Jesus we can glean the most important things we must do.

 

Above all else Jesus tells us to love God; and love others as we love ourselves.
Jesus clearly tells us that these laws stand above all others, they best anything and everything which is what we have been discussing the last few weeks. If you ever wonder why we seem to talk about Love here every Sunday, well, now you know. Because all of Jesus’ teachings flow from it. Because God is love. Love may not be the topic of some traditional church doctrines, it may not be the moral focal point of others’ Christianity, but it is here.

 

Looking to today’s story as a modern metaphor, others might believe, like Peter, that building things to house and confine the doctrinal ghosts of dead men is a god idea. That may be fine for others. . . really, but, that’s not what God says in the story. God says “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to HIM.”

 

If we listen to Jesus as God tells us too, then love soaks our action and being. It bests everything else. It governs all things even all the other laws– actually IT especially governs all other laws. If we listen to what the Gospels tell us about Jesus we hear time and again that Jesus was not afraid to challenge the rules and regulations, the traditions and doctrines of the religious elites, with what? Love.

 

Listening to Jesus is not about believing this church doctrine or that church doctrine. In nautical terms Jesus’ moral compass has four directions and they are what those who listen are supposed to head toward in one degree or another: Direction one: love God. Direction two: love others. Direction three; love yourself. Direction four: make more important than everything else, love!

 

With the Transfiguration story and Jesus’ words we can find an answer to the question: Do Christians have to believe anything to be a Christian? And what the story indicates is that followers of Jesus, Christians – not everybody, Christians– need to listen to Jesus.
And when we listen to Jesus he tells us the prime directive that needs to govern our lives is love — love God, others and ourselves.

 

May we all listen to Jesus and try do our best to make love paramount. If we do that then we are followers of Christ, AKA Christians.

 

AMEN.
ENDNOTES:
* This sermon is based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2009
1. I modified this joke that I found at http://www.walkscotland.com/Humour.htm
2. Metzger & Coogan, Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 111.
3. Definition taken from the on line version of Webster’s found at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/christian.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of Scott’s February 8, 2015 message:

We Can Choose To Fly Like Eagles in the Heaven of Love
a sermon based on Isaiah 40:21-31
given at Mount Vernon, OH on February 8, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

Most of us at one time or another have had to step in and resolve misconduct by a child or two. We can take some comfort, I suppose, knowing that even God’s omnipotence does not seem to always be of help with God’s children’s misconduct. I mean, humankind has been misbehaving for along time. Since the very start this has been true. I want to share what I think is a funny summary of God’s first interaction with humans:

 

After many other things God created Adam and Eve. The first thing God said was, “Don’t.” Adam replied “Don’t what?” “Don’t eat the forbidden fruit.” “Forbidden fruit? We have forbidden fruit? Hey, Eve…we have forbidden fruit!” “No way!” Eve exclaimed. “Yes, way!” “Do NOT eat the fruit!” said God. “Why?” said Adam. “Because I am your Father and I said so!” God replied probably wondering why he did not stop creation after making elephants.

 

A few minutes later, God saw his children having an apple break and boy was he upset! “Didn’t I tell you not to eat the fruit?” God, the first parent of human beings asked. “Uh huh,” Adam replied.”Then why did you?” asked God.”I don’t know,” said Eve. “She started it!” said Adam. “Did not!” “Did too!” “DID NOT!”

 

Having had it with the two of them God decided the consequence of the conduct was that Adam and Eve . . . should have children of their own. 1

 

I adore and dearly love my children, and I am sure everyone here does loves theirs too, but . . . I like the consequences at the end of that joke.

 

I also like the joke for its simplicity. There is at one level a beautiful simplicity to creation and the rules of creation. The quilts on the walls behind me lay out what the Bible in Micah 6 claims are the only requirements God has for us. That we seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

 

You might have noticed that some Biblical Literalists who push a loathing of others do not seem to follow these rules – even though they are in the Bible. I cannot explain how they avoid this text, as they self-righteously walk with an angry god, reject justice and avoid kindness for those they loath . . . but sadly they do.

 

Micah 6 is in the Old Testament (The Hebrew Scriptures) . And Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, can be understood in his teachings to amplify its mandates. Justice is about getting what is due. Kindness is about making sure what is due comes about. Humble walking with God is about non-violently and hubris-lessly practicing one’s faith.

 

Jesus’ commandment to love is the means to make these mandates come about. Last week we talked about the pretty simple rule of loving. Jesus called it loving God and loving neighbor.

 

Loving our neighbors is the area humans seem to have the most difficulty with. Humans want to get what is due and be cared for by the Creator and by creation and by others, but as a whole we don’t seem to want to apply that to every other person. As a rule of existence, however, we must apply it. Which is why every major religion states in one way or another the simple rule Jesus also told us to follow “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luk 6:31 NRS). Most of us know this as “The Golden Rule.” The Book of Matthew even records that this rule is how Jesus sums up Scripture. He says: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Mat 7:12 NRS).

 

And actually other Jewish traditions make that same summation Leviticus 19(18) tells us to love our neighbors as our self. The Talmud says “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” 2

 

The Golden Rule also appears in Islam, Muhammad said “Wish for your brother, what you wish for yourself” 3

 

In Confucianism the rule reads: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” (Analects 15:23). 4

 

Hinduism put it like this: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you” (Mahabharata 5:1517) 5

 

And Buddhism provides in the Udanavarga (5:18) “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” 6

 

The list goes on and on. The Golden Rule is a fundamental law of religions regarding how we are to relate in community. So like the Adam and Eve joke I told, we too have a simple rule here in the Garden of Creation. It is to be treat people like we want to be treated. But like the Adam and Eve joke we also break the rule and we tend to blame everyone else for it but ourselves. We are like bickering children. Only this is not a fable. Our bickering leads us far astray from the purpose and possibilities of this idyllic Eden we call earth. It’s a world we are supposed to enjoy and could enjoy a heck of a lot more if only we were to actually do to others what we want done to us. But we don’t. Do we?

 

As a whole humans tend to love themselves, but fail for the most part to love goodly portions of the rest of humanity. Hence the universal religious creed to treat others as we want to be treated. Which if we think about it, is really a call to have empathy and to understand and relate to the feelings of others. In short, it is a call to act lovingly– a basic mantra at this church because it is the heart and soul of Jesus’ teachings. We also hear every week the truth that each person is loved and matters much. God loves me and you and everyone else– whether we like it or not.

 

We discussed six weeks ago or so how we can see this in the beauty and the bounty of creation, everywhere we go there is God, and God has made all of creation in such a way that there is enough for all creation’s well being – and this includes the well being of every single human being. All of us are loved by God. All of us matter to God. Creation is set up in a way that would allow all of us to survive and stay alive and thrive, but our violation of the Golden Rule gets in the way.

 

Our text today from Isaiah comes from a time period when all of Judah had suffered under the rule of Babylon which had conquered Judah. Babylon’s leaders did not treat the Jewish leaders as the leaders of Babylon would have wanted to be treated. Instead they exiled them to Babylon.

 

And the Jewish leadership grew weak and weary in exile. And who can blame them, it lasted a half century or so.

 

When the Golden Rule is violated humans not just lack empathy, but can act downright cruel and evil. In Psalm 137 verses 1-6 we can hear the sorrow and cruelty of Babylon’s forced exile from Zion:

 

By the rivers of Babylon– there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

 

In the words of that 2500 year old song we can still feel God’s call for empathy vibrating. It puts us in the shoes of the exiled and we want for them what we want for us, that is, well being. Centuries and centuries later we long for these people to be allowed to return to Judah and their beloved capital city Jerusalem. That’s God’s voice we hear in verses 1-6 calling us to care.

 

The suffering reflected in Psalm 137 came to an end. The lack of empathy and the cruelty of the Exile were over once Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and treated the Exiles as he would have wanted to be treated. He let them return home to Judah. Cyrus followed The Golden Rule

In the context of the Exile, and relief from Exile, our Isaiah reading can be heard to laud the limitless glory of God and need for human patience as God’s work unfolds in our lives– through human instruments, which for the Exiles was Cyrus’ empathetic, caring release of the captives so that they could return to their beloved Zion.

 

The first half of the reading today contains a poetic celebration of the vast greatness and power of God who, in one unforgettable passage, is said to “sit[] above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers . . .” As we heard Kasie go onto read there’s this great imagery of God unequal in power and permeating creation. When the people of Israel lament that they are hidden from God and of no concern, as the grasshopper image might suggest, the answer is NOT “Yeah, you are right you do not matter.” Instead it is

 

Why do you say . . . “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

 

This text is an affirmation that God is good and everywhere and cares even when circumstances suggest otherwise. God’s working God’s goodness in creation. This is true all the time. Just like we also hear every week “God is good/All the time.”

 

But life is hard right? It’s messy. The troubles we experience can wear even the best of us down. The captive elders after decades of exile are run down. Verse 30 notes that it’s not just elders who tire, but children and teens do to, it says: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.”

 

But see, God never gets exhausted. God’s always as work. God is good all the time. God chips away at what ails creation including what harms humankind. We may not always see or appreciate it, but like a river slowly wearing away rock, God’s love is washing away mountains of trouble to make us a grand canyon of life to thrive in and soar above.

 

We want it to all be grand overnight. But that is not how it works! We get weary from the troubles of life but we cannot give up. We may have to rest and gather the ability to help each other soar, but the hope – the promise– is our good and loving God is making it worth the effort and the wait. As the Isaiah text famously puts it “ those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

 

Life has a whole bunch of messes in it. It just does. We are human. We are alive and that is a part of life, we really have no choice over it. What we do have choice over is “hanging on” through the rough patches– what Isaiah calls “waiting for the Lord.”

 

And we also have the choice to be like Cyrus, the kind of people who do to others what we want done to us. When we make that choice, that’s the LORD at work, that’s love doing it’s thing through humankind.

 

Empathy is God voicing a call for us to act. Justice, kindness and love are the acts. Those acts are summed up in what Jesus and every religion teaches: to do to others what we want done to us. The book of First Peter (3:8) puts it like this, “all of you/ have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1Pe 3:8)” Paul in Romans tell us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Rom 12:15). At the end of the day isn’t that really what we all want?

 

We cannot, however, just want it for ourselves we have to want it for everyone–and work to make it come about. Which means we have to, as Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Plain, “Love our enemies.” We have to, otherwise when God’s call to help one set of people is answered, their enemies will no doubt be suffering next when their enemies gain the upper hand.

 

And that’s what happens after the Exile. I read to you the first six verses of Psalm 137 to show God’s call for empathy still echoing in lament of the Exiled. Ordinarily when we read Psalm 137 aloud in church we usually stop at verse 6 because the remaining verses are the opposite of God’s voice, they lack empathy for the now vanquished Babylonian enemies. Listen to the awful last three verses of Psalm 137:

 

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

 

What an awful horrid text. The cycle just starts all over again.

 

Cyrus acting as God’s hands and feet rescued the Exiled with empathetic acts freeing the exiled to go home– doing for them what he would have wanted done to himself. And the weary worn out Exiles go home and having waited the Lord was ready to renew their strength so that they could “mount up with wings like eagles [and] run and not be weary . . .” But apparently, at least some of them– including the Psalmist– don’t want to mount up to fly like eagles, instead they want to go back down in the mud with their former captures and do to them and their families what was done to them.

 

Revenge and retribution are not the stuff of love. They do not allow us to mount up with wings like eagles. But rather keep us down in the mud like . . . unclean pigs.

 

And so between the Psalm 137 and Isaiah 40 readings we can hear the dilemma. Humans cause other humans trouble– Humans in trouble cause God to cry out for humans to help them– Humans help– The troubled are rescued.– The rescued cause other humans trouble– Those humans in trouble cause God to cry out . . . and the cycle starts again and it goes on and on and on with endless sorrow and wailing in the mud of hate instead of soaring with wings of eagles in the heaven of love.

 

Jesus did not add The Golden Rule to world’s religions. All of them have it. Jesus did not even add love your neighbor as a religious concept, as we heard it’s in Leviticus. What Jesus did add, was he figured out the weak link in the chain of love, enemies hating enemies. So he declared that his followers – that’s us– are supposed to love our enemies. Here’s how he put it:

 

I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luk 6:27-31 NRS).

 

If we want to mount up on wings like eagles; if we want to run and not be weary; if we want to walk and not faint then we need to always, always, always to do others as we want done to us. That’s what following Jesus’ Way is about . . . May we choose to fly like eagles in the heaven of love!

 

AMEN

ENDNOTES

1. I found this creation joke/story at this fun website: http://www.digitaldreamdoor.com/pages/quotes/God_jokes.html

2. I found this religious quote at Wikipedia on the Golden Rule at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule

3. Ibid.

4. I found this quote at Got Questions. Org on the Golden Rule at http://www.gotquestions.org/Golden-Rule.html

5.Ibid.

6.Ibid

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

 

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The text of Scott’s February 1, 2015 Message:

Jesus Authoritatively Trumps Contradictions in the Bible
a sermon based on Mark 1:21-28
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 1, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

I heard about this brand new preacher who placed a whole pitcher of water next to the pulpit for his first service. His first sermon lasted a long time and as preached he poured and drank water until there was none left in the pitcher. After the service someone asked an old farmer in attendance what he thought of the new pastor? The farmer thought for a moment and said “Well, I’ll tell ya, he’s the first windmill I ever seen run by water.”

 

Preachers are often full of windy sermons, some might even say hot air. You, of course, are quite lucky in that regard, never having to worry about it. In Jesus’ day apparently not all scribes – another name for lawyers – who were preaching were like that. In fact the lesson we just heard indicates that unlike Jesus the scribes in the story didn’t preach with authority.

 

Aren’t you glad that you all lucked out in that regard too . . .you know with my authoritative preaching? I am going to be honest and confess that as you can see in local letetrs to the editor there are actually folks who would disagree that I preach with authority, because I believe Jesus’ commandments and teachings to love supercede anything including contrary Biblical texts.

 

And, see, a lot of Christians think authority only comes from understanding the Bible’s words in the same Fundamentalist manner that they understand it–which usually considers all the words in the Bible to be inerrant and infallible and meant to be read literally (interpreted their way of course). There’s a great deal of irony in that sort of thinking, because both Jesus and Paul and the early church founders went out of their way to assert that some of the Bible texts don’t have to be followed. In other words, scripture was not unquestionably considered inerrant, infallible or literal to the founders of our faith– that’s a very modern tradition.

 

In fact the Jesus movement and early Church itself thrived and grew in great part because it did not follow unloving Biblical mandates, like exclusive cleanliness practices regarding food and circumcision; or rules about divorce or outcasts or even punishments. Jesus himself rejected religious washing rituals, marriage laws, restrictions on touching outcasts, Sabbath rules and even Biblical punishments. For example, in Matthew 5 (38-42) Jesus quite famously rejects the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” edict from Exodus 21.

Every time I hear a Christian quote that Old Testament passage in support of revenge or retributive justice I want to ask them if Jesus’ words are exempt from literalism or are fallible or errant when he tells his followers:

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. . .”

 

That’s Jesus in the Bible directly challenging a Bible passage in a way that leaves absolutely no room for revenge or retribution. I want every single Christian who’s tried to force feed oppressive violent punitive passages on anyone they claim is an evil doer to explain why this teaching of Jesus does not apply to their lives and their beliefs and the officials their churches support and help elect to office.

 

The Old Testament verse authorizing retribution and revenge has been 100% completely reversed. It’s been X-ed out of the canon as valid. It’s been declared errant and fallible by no less than Jesus. It is literally not true. If we take seriously Jesus’ command in this example then we cannot take literally the errant Old Testament command to seek or take violent revenge. Indeed, under Jesus’ teaching we are mandated to give wrongdoers non-violent love. And this is paramount, as Jesus also made it clear as a bell that loving God and our neighbors are the greatest commandments. Right?

 

We may not like to hear that, we may want the “eye for an eye” thing, we may want to not love our neighbors, but the teaching of Jesus clearly does not authorize that conduct or belief. That’s in the Bible. We get it from no less an authority than Jesus Christ.
Jesus is our ultimate authority as Christians. Right? He is, as Marcus Borg put it, “the decisive revelation of God for Christians.” 1 Judaism and Islam find the decisive revelation of God in books, the Torah and the Qur’an. That works well for them, but, we don’t find the decisive revelation in a book, but rather in the person Jesus. Nothing in the book we call The Bible trumps what the Gospel of John calls “the Word made flesh” in Jesus.

 

Here’s how Dr. Borg addressed this revelation of God in the person of Jesus in his last book, Convictions:

 

The distinction between Christianity and other religions is not about superiority. Rather, it is about difference. It is distinctive to Christianity and has been so from its beginning. To affirm the inerrancy of the Bible elevates “the Word of God” as book above “the Word of God” as Jesus. But the Word become flesh– what Christians call the incarnation– triumphs over words in a book. 2

 

Jesus Christ’s teachings trump anything in the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible, that contradicts them.

 

A simple summation of the concept that Jesus’s commandments overrule anything that contradictions them might go like this in the vernacular of sports: “‘Love God and love neighbors’ rules!” Why do they rule? Because Christ– as the Word made flesh– told us they are the greatest commandments . . . and Christ is our ultimate authority.

 

In case there is any dispute what that means we can look to Jesus’ words and actions, which time and again place love above all else. The example of the “eye of an eye” reversal show this. And actually so does the Lectionary reading we heard Dick read. Jesus, we are told, was experienced as speaking with authority in our lesson. He’s recognized as teaching and acting “as one having authority.” What’s more we are not told the words Jesus preached, but rather the action he took in healing a culturally ostracized and outcast man. It can be heard as a story about the Word of God we venerate in Jesus, in action. The man was considered to have an unclean spirit. When Jesus speaks in the story it is not a sermon we hear, it’s his action taken to chase the unclean spirit away.
Jesus’ word, you see, has authority . . . Like last week’s lesson on Jonah, we can hear this to be about the Word of God making all the difference in the world. And as I mentioned last week it is important to note that “The Word of God” is not necessarily words from the Bible, but rather “the still speaking God” idea that Dick just led us to recite.

 

See the “Word of God” in Christian theology has a meaning that goes beyond the words in the Bible that Fundamentalists insist God put in there, but that is a modern church notion we do not have to agree with. The “Word of God” is never about hate or oppression or injustice. NEVER! It’s not even about human words. “The Word of God,” is a term of art which does not denote the Bible per se. It has long been a theological term symbolizing how God reveals God’s self in creation. The Bible itself backs this up. God speaks creation into being and that, not the Bible, is God’s Word in Genesis. God gives us the gift of Christ Jesus, and that, not the Bible, is God’s Word in the Gospel of John. As I pointed out last week, “the Word of God” is theologically defined as “God’s self revelation.” 3

 

Is God revealed in the Bible ? You bet. In every word of it? Not if you agree with Jesus that “an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth” is an unloving and un-Godly text and therefore errant and fallible–for Jesus some of the Bible has no authority- the texts that are unloving, the texts that make anyone unclean. This is true for the early Church too, in Acts (10:28) Peter is actually commanded by God to “not call anyone profane or unclean.”

 

The authority of “The Word of God” is not always in the words of scripture. God – love– is not always revealed in the literal meaning. And the words are not always infallible or inerrant. There are Biblical texts that lack love and therefore can be said to lack authority of the Word of God, who is love. I gave one example from the Old Testament, we can find them in the New Testament too. Like that part in First Timothy that requires women to submit and to be seen and not heard in church it too is unloving and therefore an un-Godly text. It has no authority.

 

As a rule, Biblical texts that call for killing or violence or oppressing or ostracizing or out-casting anyone have no sway on Jesus’ Way even if he did not address them back in his day. How can I say that with any certainty today? Well, it has to do with the Word of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ as our supreme “authority.’ The starting place is Jesus’ declarations about the paramount nature of the greatest commandments to love God and neighbor. These give us what I like to think of as a love filter. If a text in the Bible contradicts loving God or loving neighbor we are not just free to question it, we have an obligation as followers of Jesus to question it and to reject it as authoritative if is not loving. That is, if a scripture passage does not promoting the well being of others we need to challenge it–because love in the Bible means the compassion and desire for the well being of others. 3 Jesus himself set this model up, he challenged a number of Biblical verses. Paul challenged them too.

 

Both Jesus and Paul get into tussles with religious folks, sometimes generally referred to as Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes. There’s a dig in the lesson on that right? The scribes are said to not speak with authority and from the context of the of the story, they also don’t seem to have the authority to heal those with unclean spirits. Jesus does both. He speaks and heals with authority. What’s he got going, that the scribes in the story don’t have? Some sort of authority, God –the God who is love. Jesus’ words are the “Word of God” they have power in them, the power of love.

 

One of my all time favorite books is a rather obscure text by a professor of mine back in seminary, Dr. Stephen Patterson. The book is called The God of Jesus. It’s an amazing, eye-opening read by a brilliant New Testament scholar. 4 I n one chapter Dr. Patterson addresses the enormous amount of people that the Roman culture considered throwaways, outcasts who were considered basically disposable because they offered nothing in the complex web of patrons and clients that made up the cultural structure of the Roman empire.

 

The best modern example of this type of structure, for me, is seen in “The Godfather,” movies where you had to be apart of a “family” to have worth. If you remember, in Godfather II, Vito Corleone had no value to the mafia bosses when he was young. His job was cavalierly taken away and he and his family were left to fend for themselves. The mafia just tosses him and his family aside. It wasn’t personal to the hierarchy, it was that he had no worth to them.

 

That’s what goes on in Rome on a huge scale. Many, many people in Palestine had no worth to the Romans. It’s these worthless ones, those Dr. Patterson calls “expendables,” that Jesus makes sure to bring into his community, bring to his table, gathering them under his protective wings like a hen – as Jesus puts it in Matthew (23:37) and Luke (13:34). While Caesar may have been everyone else’s highest ranking Godfather with ultimate authority, Jesus X-ed out that scheme of authority in his life. And he invited everyone else to do the same, to play by rules of a whole other game where God is ironically the anti-Godfather “Godfather,” the non-violent Divine patron, parent of us all– that’s the meaning of “Our Father” in The Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us.

 

Our father is love. And that love– the compassion and desire for well being played out in the here and now– becomes the source of all authority on Jesus’ Way. It’s such a powerful authority that as Dr. Patterson puts it “in Jesus we have come to know a God who renders impotent the power of dirt to keep the unclean outside the human community.” 5 So in the story today whatever unclean thing the man had about him, whether it was a real spirit or cultural demon, Jesus tossed it aside, silenced it with the Word of God revealed in Jesus’ inclusive love.

 

Throughout the Gospels all expendables are made worthy, no one is unclean in Jesus’ sight, in his community or at his table. That’s why the Lord’s Table in this church is open to everyone regardless of membership, religion, unbelief, status, or conduct. There are no unclean spirits here in this church. No one is considered unclean by the Word of God revealed in Christ Jesus. We understand God to be our patron, our loving Godfather (as it were). “Our Father” the God of Jesus, revealed by God’s very own self as love. And so love is our guiding authority. To paraphrase Jesus, loving God and loving neighbor are the greatest commandments . . .they supercede all other commandments, as well as old and new Christian traditions and any local critics.

 

Jesus is the Word of God that speaks with authority for us. Even the words in the Bible cannot trump Jesus. Because Love is always paramount. Just ask Jesus . . . and you can also read about it in the Bible.

 

Amen.
ENDNOTES:

1 Borg, Marcus, Convictions, p. 99.
2 Ibid., at p. 101.
3. Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms
4 Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, pps 56-89
5. Ibid., at p. 73

 

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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The text of Scott’s January 2th message:

A Very Funny Fish Tale

a sermon based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 25, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

As we just heard today’s Lectionary text and children’s message are about Jonah, a biblical character swallowed by a fish because when God asked him to do something that he wooden’t. 1 Jonah’s not to be confused with Pinocchio a storybook character swallowed by a whale because he’s wooden.

 

I find it interesting that while a lot of people understand the story of Jonah as literally true, the story is better heard as a “fish tale” of another sort, it was very likely porpoise-ly meant as a “whale of a tale.” In other words, Jonah’s author probably meant it as a funny story, and hearing it as literal truth can be out of tune with that intent. There’s a saying that you can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish story. And . . .“Sorry Charlie!” . . . I know the fish puns may be getting me into trouble, but Jonah’s whole story works better as a fable than as record history.

 

So for today, without gill-t lets scale back any notion that it is history and take this op-perch-tuna-ty to find the heart and sole of the story. By the end of the sermon I hope you can say that “No trout about it, today’s sermon helped lure me out of a fishy way of hearing Jonah, because with the literal understanding we flounder.”

 

Just for the halibut, those were my opening thirteen puns, contained I might add on a quarter of a page in small font. The story of Jonah is two and half pages long in my even smaller font Bible, that’s about the length of some modern comedians’ set-up and joke. So consider yourself lucky about the short run of awful puns this morning!

 

We only heard a bit of the Jonah story in the Lectionary lesson. Some of us may recall the whole of the story, and we heard a good deal more in the children’s message but I’m going to retell it and put it in context to help us get the humor and the point of this prophet’s fish tale. 1

 

As we heard in our reading “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” There’s a first time I’ll get to in a moment, but I want to mention the importance of “the word of the Lord.” The word of the Lord is not just the Bible per se, “God’s word” symbolizes how God acts in creation. It is defined in the Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms as “God’s self revelation.”

 

In the Bible God’s Word or speaking often represents the very essence of God incarnate – present and acting in creation. We are told in Genesis that God spoke creation into being, God’s word gets the world going. We are told in the Gospel of John that Christ is the word of God, God revealed in Jesus. God’s word gets our religion going.

 

In the story today the word of the Lord, of course, is not the Bible coming to Jonah. It God’s revelation to get Jonah going to Nineveh. The first time God speaks to get him going Jonah doesn’t heed the call which unleashes a series of comedic events as Jonah tries to hide from God and God’s word, so the “word of the Lord” comes (as we heard) a second time. That God had to come a second time on its own evokes humor since Jonah as a prophet ought not to have to be told twice by God what to do. Right?

 

But Jonah does have to be told twice because he’s been running from God’s Word. See Jonah’s one of those self-righteous types who choose to ignore God’s word and try and do what they want instead, hoping God won’t catch up to them–which is funny because, seriously, how do you hide from God? The comedic irony of a prophet –a man of God– ignoring and hiding from God weaves throughout this story.

 

Prior to the second call that we heard about in today’s Lectionary reading, Jonah’s been dogged in amazing ways by the first call.

 

Jonah reminds me of a modern day televangelist and other holier-than-thou-religious types who hear the word of God but purposefully do their own thing; running from the mission of love, hoping to crush those they hate, blatantly ignoring God’s call to love and call to save everyone. That’s what goes on with Jonah, only to the delight of listener when this religious holier-than-thou type high tails it away from God’s call, we get to hear the slap-stick manner in which God chases after him.

 

In Chapter One the story starts with Jonah son of Amittai (ah-mit-eye) receiving the word of the Lord telling him to go to Nineveh and “cry out against it; for their wickedness has come out against me.”

 

Names in the Old Testament tell us a lot. Jonah in Hebrew can be heard to mean “dove” or it can be heard to mean “mistreatment.” Amittai (ah-mit-eye) means “truth.” So Jonah the runaway prophet’s own name humorously sums up what God uses him for, bearing peace like a dove, but also for what Jonah does, mistreat the truth by running from it, by avoiding the Word of God, not wanting to save those he (Jonah) doesn’t like.

 

So the first line of the Book of Jonah sets Jonah up as a religious man whom the word of the Lord comes to, but what happens from there on out he represents religious type who’ve been around for ages, a man of God mostly in name only. Of course the ironic twist is Jonah while not acting up to his name, is forced by God to live up to it nonetheless– that is how powerful God’s Word is, it can be heard and effective through even begrudging religious hypocrites. And more to the point is, that when the word of God is even barely followed it can transform the wicked and save lives.

 

See Jonah’s called to go to Nineveh and preach to the people there. Nineveh is basically the biggest baddest hometown of the Assyrians, then Israel’s arch enemy and a people Jonah wants nothing to do with helping. Jonah does not want to bring the saving grace of God– Yahweh– to them or have any part in saving them. So Jonah tries to run away. He goes down to Jobba and gets passage on a boat going the opposite way from where Yahweh told him go.

 

Jonah in Hebrew can literally be heard to symbolically step down to hell with his defiance, with his intentional travel away from God’s call. The Hebrew tells us he went down to Jobba, down in the boat, down in the hull and laid down to a deep snoring sleep.

 

At this point we are told God was not “down with that” behavior and starts causing things to be hurled to affect change. First a powerful storm is hurled, so powerful it causes even non-Jewish sailors to change allegiance and pray to Yahweh, but not Jonah. Then the sailors cast (hurl) lots to get an answer on who’s troubling Yahweh. The answer comes up “Jonah.”

 

Even then the non-Jewish sailors do not want to harm Jonah and they try to put him ashore. But that didn’t work, so Jonah rather than do as Yahweh asks, has the sailors hurl him down into the sea where he is swallowed by fish going down into her stomach. The fish then takes Jonah down into the depths for three days, symbolizing death’s three day journey down to Sheol–what we might call hell today. Down in the stomach, down in the depths, on the way down to hell Jonah finally prays which results in God causing the fish to vomit–“hurl” as we might crassly say – Jonah onto dry land.

 

To sum up, Yahweh calls to Jonah, a supposed prophet, to go save his arch enemy. Instead Jonah tries to run away from the all powerful, all seeing God by going down to the docks and down in a boat and down for a nap. So God hurls a storm at him that converts heathen sailors to do God’s bidding but not Jonah.  Jonah more stubborn than pagan sailors, hates his enemy so much he’d rather disobey God and be tossed into the sea, die and go to hell than preach to them. Consequently God begins to grant that wish, having him hurled into the sea and into the belly of a stinking slimy fish. On that hellish trip down to Sheol Jonah begrudgingly prays for life and is literally thrown-up onto shore. Where our Lectionary lesson finds him.

 

Can you hear how so far this story is kinda like a Saturday Live skit?

 

Think about Jonah as an angry Pat Robertson-like televangelist told to go to ISIS in Iraq, but instead he hops a cruise ship to Hawaii. Then while he’s napping in his stateroom God hurls a storm at the ship to change his mind which gets the Agnostic crew to pray to God, but not the televangelist. The Keystone Kop like crew consults a magic eight-ball about how to stop the storm, which tells them to throw the televangelist overboard – which the televangelist prods them to do so he can avoid going to ISIS. But he is not allowed to drown! Instead Charlie the Tuna swallows him and after three days her stomach is so upset by the obnoxious little man she vomits him out on the Iraqi shore. That’s the tenor of the story . . . the funny truth is that prophets who mistreat the truth of God’s word are no better than fish vomit.

 

So what happens when the word of God comes to Jonah a second time? Jonah’s told to get up, go to Nineveh “and proclaim to it that message that I tell you.”  So he “went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.” Nineveh’s a huge city that takes three days to walk across.  Jonah walked a day into the city, stops and cries out to no one in particular what may be the world’s shortest – and certainly one of the worst– sermons ever. Wanting to do as little as possible to help Nineveh, Jonah begrudgingly preached with no explanation these words: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it.

 

But here’s the thing, that awful little sermon yelled out in the middle of the city by a terrible behaving self-centered little man, carried in it the bare bones gist of the truth of God’s Word. That nugget of truth–much to Jonah’s chagrin– was powerful enough to have affect. The people of Nineveh believed and in the reading we are told they “turned from their evil ways” and were saved from calamity.

 

The selected Lectionary verses leave off some more funny details that The Book of Jonah reports. When the king of Nineveh heard the news, the place goes crazy trying to appease God. First the king takes off his robe, covers himself with sackcloth and sits in ashes, then he decrees that every person and animal in the city is to fast and be covered in sackcloth and “cry mightily to God.”

 

Just picturing the herdsmen and farmers trying to dress unfed sheep, camels and chickens in sackcloth makes me smile. And the image of all the herds and pets and barnyard animals finally dressed and mightily crying out to God with similarly dressed and crying townsfolk makes for a comedic scene even Mel Brooks would be hard pressed to top. Plus there is the humor of the ironic twist that all the Ninevites – like the heathen sailors, but unlike Jonah– act without question on the word of the Lord. The king commands that “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.” And as we heard, they did as commanded and that changed God’s mind.

 

What was also left out the lesson is the story’s end. You’d think after all that Jonah saw and heard and went through he’d be changed too. He’s not. We are told that the saving affect of his preaching

 

“was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled . . . at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

 

Because God’s love is inclusive of his enemies Jonah asks that God take his life. Jonah hates that God’s love has no strings attached.

 

God responds with the question we should all be asking the Jonahs of the world “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah leaves in a huff and sits on the outskirts of the city brooding in a tent. The guy never stops acting like putz.

 

As Jonah sat sulking God caused a bush to grow up and offer more shade to him. “Jonah was very happy about the bush.” Then at dawn God caused the bush to wither and here is how the story ends

 

When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

 

Jonah the great religious man is shown by God to selfishly care more for a bush and his own shade and his own way than for the lives of 120,000 mixed-up people! He’ having a tantrum because God caused him to help save 120,000 people. For all the miracles he has witnessed and the one he helped bring about Jonah remains unmoved and unconcerned and unloving for his enemies. He behaves like a jerk.

 

So what’s the point of the story? It’s not a literal historical truth. It’s truth of another sort, that God loves everyone and wants us to help everyone and that Jonah and his ilk will never learn. But that will not stop even those who behave like fish vomit from being used by God to bend the world toward salvation and love. Because God is concerned not just about prophets and religious folk who believe in God, but about everyone and everyone’s actions.

God loves us – and everyone else– whether we like it or not!

 

And like it our not God is going to use all of creation from storms and salty sailors, to icky fish stomachs and vomit and even icky people to save the world and end wickedness wherever it is.

 

As Jonah derisively puts the ultimate beautiful truth of the story: God is “gracious . . . and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah concludes this is an awful attribute of God. We are meant to see the folly in selfishly following a way that leads to such conclusions.

 

So…. May we be as unlike Jonah and his ilk as possible, to not only avoid being swallowed and thrown up by fish, but to live in ways that actually follow the word of the Lord whenever and wherever it calls us. May this be so even when it is to love and help our enemies–something God wants us to do even if we don’t want to do it. Because another truth is that sometimes we can all be like Jonah, standing in the need of prayer . . .

 

The moral of the Jonah fable: May we all live in tuna with God . . . AMEN.
ENDNOTES:
1. The idea of the very humorous nature of this story and some of the ideas about the humor come from Lawrence Wood’s brilliant essay in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol, 1, pages 267-271 that covers today’s Lectionary text. I also relied on the New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary on Jonah to fill out the rest of Jonah’s tale and word meanings, etc.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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The text of Scott’s 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. weekend sermon:

Helping Bend the Arc Toward Justice for All
a sermon based on Amos 5:21-24
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 18, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

Years ago one early winter Saturday morning I drove the misty dawn lit country roads of Oregon headed to a legal seminar (I was a lawyer back then). There was not another car in sight as I slowed down for a town outside of Portland, but when I entered the town another car came out of hiding and got behind me with red and blue lights flashing. I pulled over, got my registration and license, stepped out of the car and waited for the town’s police officer.

 

I have a great deal of respect and gratitude for police. As a lawyer I often dealt with them as witnesses and they have helped me during jail visits. Police have of course– THANKFULLY– also provided protection in every community I’ve lived in. I’ve had police officers as clients, friends and fellow parents of kids. I even directed a police chief in a play. It is my experience that the vast majority of police are very good people in a very tough occupation enforcing laws, providing life saving and helpful work, along with experiencing lonely drives and hostile encounters with violent criminals . . . and citizens upset about tickets.

 

I have to honestly report that I added to one officer’s list of encounters with citizens upset about tickets. In the twilight on that Oregon roadside the officer came over and told me I was driving above the posted limit. I politely indicated I’d looked for a sign and even though I saw none had slowed way down.

 

The officer told me the sign was on the left in the center divider. Speed limit signs are supposed to be on the right. Why would they ever be on the left? I asked myself, and instantly answered “For a city to set a speed trap.” So I verbally confronted the officer with my objections to his city’s trap as he prepared the citation. The officer heard my –what I am quite certain were brilliant and animated– protests. He remained professional and courteous, and this will surprise you: he gave me the ticket.

 

I actually had pretty much forgotten about that traffic stop until a few weeks ago when I heard a professor at Kenyon College speak at panel on Civil Rights and the Police. Dr. Glenn McNair has a PhD from Emory, but spent a dozen years working in law enforcement as police officer and federal agent.

 

Dr. McNair’s presentation included an expert break down of what broke down from a police perspective during Officer Darren Wilson’s encounter with Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And he discussed his insider view of risks Black men face in police stops.
What brought to mind my traffic stop in Oregon was a “Q & A” answer that Professor McNair gave to a young Black man asking advice on how Black males should act during traffic stops.

 

The answer was stunning to hear. Dr. McNair advised that all Black men should remain seated; get the registration and license out before the police approach; roll the window down; put the documents in one hand while gripping the top of the steering wheel with both hands in plain sight; look ahead until the officer approaches; and then –no matter what– be calm, non-confrontational, non-threatening, and cooperative to lessen police concerns.

 

That advice appalled me, not because Dr. McNair was a White man trying to tell American men who are Black to be calm and non-confrontational to the police, but because Dr. McNair is an American Black man with years of experience as an police officer with first hand knowledge from both sides of the car door of the threatening situation police stops as a rule pose to American Black males. His advice was intended to minimize those threats by acting in a completely un-challenging manner whether a stop is unjust or not. Two other professors of color on the panel, one a former criminal defense lawyer and the other a former criminal prosecutor, agreed with Dr. McNair’s advice.

 

There are two reasons this advice reminded me of my own traffic stop in Oregon.
The first may seem obvious, clearly I did not follow any of that advice. I did not sit still and act completely calm and non-confrontational in the dark twilight. I got out of my car and felt empowered as an American citizen to aggressively challenge the impropriety of the stop. I had no fear for my safety, no fear of pretext searches, and no fear of the officer retaliating with more citations or an arrest, let alone violence. Indeed the officer was the one who acted deferential and respectful to me – a very apparently White man (this is as tan as I get– you don’t get whiter looking than me). See, Dr. McNair’s advice was not pertinent to my stop. That’s what I find appalling.

 

The second reason my stop came to mind was that the advice the Professor gave might –White as I look– have applied to me. Around the time of my ticket I was told my great grandmother was 1/8th Black. I have not been able to verify that news with any genealogical data or reliable family sources, but I’d be honored to have, and gladly welcome, such rich heritage in my veins. I hope it is true. If I had such heritage under the “one drop rule” of racist Jim Crow laws my 1.6% African-American genes would’ve made me a 100% Black American male–and my White American privilege would’ve been made non-existent in another place and time. The tenor of Dr. McNair’s advice, especially during a darkened country road police stop, in a virtually all White town might have been germane to me– the whitest looking male you’ll likely ever see.

 

I’ve thought about this a lot since that panel discussion. I’ve thought about Eric Garner challenging the police in New York for what he thought was a nonsense stop for selling loose cigarettes. Would I be choked or manhandled by law enforcement for talking back? The risk seems very low for me as an American White man, but I have to say honestly, the chance would sure seem higher if I was perceived as an American Black man.

 

I thought about John Crawford too. The handsome young African American who was shot for carrying an unloaded BB gun for sale in an Ohio store; the same type of store White Americans recently open carried firearms in off the street to demonstrate Americans have the right to carry guns.

 

Professor McNair’s advice – and Eric Garner and John Crawford’s deaths– sure made me wonder . . . those deaths have made much of America wonder. Of course we also wondered at unarmed Michael Brown’s encounter with Officer Wilson’s deadly volley of shots. Saddest of all we have wondered about 12 year old Tamir Rice – a child– being shot and killed in a park in Cleveland.

 

These events even in isolation suggest something went wrong. Americans as a rule do not want unarmed people being shot and killed. We. Don’t. Want. That. Nor do we want American families, police or communities to face the grief and trauma of such deaths. No American in their right mind wants such killings . . . certainly not us . . . and certainly not the police.

 

And I want to make it clear that none of the deaths I mentioned evidence that police are bad people. None of them suggest that police lives don’t matter. None of them suggest we should hate police. But all of them do suggest something is amiss.

 

Why should anyone in America have to take Dr. McNair ’s advice as sound?

 

Why should this American up here in this pulpit think he can safely get out of his car and argue during traffic stops, but other Americans, who happen to be Black men, cannot?

 

And Dr. McNair, far from giving racist advice, was giving compassionate caring advice to protect American Black students.

 

You are certainly free to disagree with me, but I am convinced something’s very wrong if our culture is such that that advice is needed and valid and good–concurred to by both an experienced defense attorney and a prosecuting attorney.

 

There has to be something wrong.

 

Even if we ignore the deaths of Americans I’ve named, the cold hard facts of statistics indict us.

 

Something is wrong when the fact is American Blacks who are stopped by the police are twice as likely to be arrested as American Whites stopped by police. 1

 

Something is wrong when the fact is American Blacks, sentenced for the same type offenses as Whites, get on average 10% more time in jail. 2

 

Something is wrong when the fact is American “Black men of all ages are five to seven times more likely to be incarcerated than [American] white males of the same age.” 3

 

Something is wrong when the fact is “African Americans make up about 40 percent of the prison and jail population but just 13 percent of [our] population.” 4

 

Something is wrong when the fact is “an estimated 4,777 black males were locked up for every 100,000 black males in the free population, compared to about 727 per 100,000 white males.” 5

 

Something is wrong when the fact is “A stunning 11.7 percent of black men in their late twenties were incarcerated.” 6

 

Something is wrong when the fact is that such “Mass incarceration steadily drains away breadwinners, fathers, and heads of households” in American Black families. 7

 

These are cold– hard– ugly– facts.

 

Here is another fact we know, Black men ARE equal to White men. Period.

 

Black men are equal to White men. So here’s the thing, there is only one possible answer for what is wrong. We can deny it all we want but the reality is our culture, one way or another, has created a time and a place –NOW!– where there is an unjust difference in how Americans are treated during encounters with our justice system. Whites are not treated the same as Black males . . . and visa versa.

 

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the great clergyman, civil rights leader and American whose birthday we celebrate this week defined unjust laws in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail like this:

 

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal . . . [ Martin Luther King Jr.]

 

Unwritten rules requiring only Americans who are Blacks males to face risks if they question or object to –or are not hands-up on the wheels– in traffic stops, is unjust.

 

Unwritten rules subjecting Americans who are Black males to more searches, more arrests, and more jail time is unjust. These are differences made legal. In order to undo those differences – to end the injustice – we can do one of two things. We can require every American –White and Black, male and female– to be subject to that same set of unwritten rules so all Americans face higher arrest and longer sentence risks and that all Americans must only be calm and non-confrontational in routine traffic stops, and put our hands on the wheel gripping our documents looking straight ahead not daring to challenge a stop–even if it is unjust.

 

Or . . . or we can require every American– White and Black, male and female– to be subject to the same set of rules that Whites, like me, presently experience, where we do not have to be unquestioning or non-objecting or hands on the wheel; where we do not face the risk of more arrests and longer sentences than any other Americans.

 

See if we think it is okay that American Blacks males have to be calm, non-confrontational, and hands-up-like during traffic stops, and also face a higher level of arrests and sentencing, then all Americans need to face that heightened stuff too. My guess is none of us are willing in that regard. What we want is safe, fair and equal treatment. We want justice. That is what the protests triggered by the recent rash of American Black men and boys’ deaths in police stops are about. They are not about Black lives mattering more, they are about Black lives mattering equally.

 

That Black lives matter equally is a truth no American or Christian can justly deny.

 

The protests – with the vast majority of protesters acting non-violently– are about wanting what I am pretty certain everyone in this church wants for themselves and their family and their friends. We all want safe, fair and just treatment. We want justice. The facts evidence that this is not occurring for all Americans. We can deny it all we like, but the ugly truth is American Black men, relative to American Whites, are being treated differently and oppressed by our justice system. That’s an injustice– and to quote Martin Luther King Jr “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In other words, American Black men facing any injustice threatens all of our justice.

 

What we’ve been seeing in the protests around the country is what Rev. Dr. King predicted a half century ago when he wrote: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself . . .”

 

Martin Luther King’s greatest legacy was his very Christian teachings and non-violent actions for equality and love-centered change, which are not only backed by the Bible but by Christian and American ideals. Listen to his list of theological and Christian and American ideals written fifty-years ago that remain just as pertinent today:

 

I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .”

 

Rev. King goes on:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. . . .Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

 

Right now (2015), in America, there are injustices in the treatment of Americans. At every point of encounter in our criminal justice system American Black males face inequities. 8 That’s an injustice none of us should stand for and all of us should stand non-violently against as extremists for love, truth and goodness.

 

We are in the need of non-violent extremists for love, extremists for truth, extremists for goodness, extremists for the gospel, extremists for providing the rights given by our Creator that are enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. Equality. Life. Liberty. Pursuit of happiness.

 

Jesus was an such an extremist for such things. Martin Luther King Jr was too. I am wondering these days are we extremists for such things? Am I? Are you? Is the church too? Because that is what Christ and God call us over and over again to be and do.

 

And when enough of us answer that call, it will be a force to reckon with, the Holy Spirit and justice will roll down like waters. In closing here is how Martin Luther King Jr put it:

 

When the cry of justice has hardened into a palpable force, it becomes irresistible. This is a truth which wise leadership and a sensible society ultimately come to realize.

We have a strong feeling that in our struggle we have cosmic companionship. This is why the movement is often referred to as a spiritual movement. We feel that the universe is on the side of right. . . Even though the arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice. . . 9

 

May the Holy Spirit move us . . . to help it bend toward justice!
AMEN!

 

 

 

ENDNOTES:

1 UCC facts http://uccfiles.com/pdf/SCOR-and-Criminal-Justice-2012-Fall.pdf
2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/fourteen-examples-of-raci_b_658947.html
3. Aspen Institute, p 19 http://www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/pubs/Race-Crime-Punishment.pdf
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8. http://uccfiles.com/pdf/SCOR-and-Criminal-Justice-2012-Fall.pdf
9. King, Martin Luther, “The Montgomery Story” 27 June 1956, San Francisco, Calif.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

 

 

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The text of Scott’s January 11, 2015 message:

An Indelible Mark of Water
A sermon based on Mark 1:4-11
Given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 11, 2015, *
By Rev. Scott Elliott

Before performing a baptism Rev. Jones solemnly said to the recent college grad “Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?” “I think so,” the young man replied, “My wife and I made appetizers and we have plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests.” “I don’t mean that,” the minister responded, “I mean, are you prepared spiritually?” “Oh, sure,” came the proud reply. “We’ve also got a keg of beer and plenty of whiskey!”

 

Last week on our first Communion Sunday of the year we discussed the sacrament of Communion and it, God, Jesus, the Bible and the Church’s political nature. Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday. Baptism is our denomination’s only other sacrament and it too has a political nature.

 

I have had the great honor of baptizing a good number of babies and other folks in my eight and a half years as a pastor. Here in this space a little over a year ago was my most recent baptism. Our sister and good friend Darlene Kurth was baptized and we were all honored to have her join the church, a blessing to this very day.

 

I remember that last baptism, or course, but I also remember very well my first, he was a young adult. When I first heard I was baptizing that strapping young man I had the funny image of carry him around the sanctuary like a baby as is the custom with infant baptisms. Of course newly baptized adults aren’t carried in the arms of the minister down the aisle for all the congregation to see. That was good news for my back, of course, but really it’s a shame. The newly baptized adult is just as much a person to coo and tear-up over as an infant.

 

Each person young and old being baptized comes before us a precious person with the proclamation of a new life in Christ. Each baptism is an outward sign of an inward indelible mark of our love center. It is a visible recognition of our being clothed with Christ (Gal 3:26-27).

 

Whether old or young each of us is a child of God. Indeed when we accept Christianity as the Way we choose to follow, we experience transformation to a love-centered life, saved from a less love centered way of being. So Christians have long been considered born anew.

 

In case any of us are wondering how a living person can be born again we’re not the first to wonder. In the Gospel of John, Jesus told Nicodemus that we cannot see the reign of God without being born anew and Nicodemus asked:

 

“How can anyone . . . be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again: What are you saying with all this ‘born from above’ talk? ”

Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation –the ‘wind hovering over the water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life — it is not possible to enter God’s kingdom . When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch — the Spirit– and becomes a living spirit.

“So don’t be surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’ out of this world, so to speak . . .” (The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible)

 

A Christian’s rebirth occurs before baptism. So why do we have baptisms? Because baptism is a sacrament, a visible outward sign instituted by Jesus to convey inward grace, and it is a mark of incorporation into the universal Church, the church with a big “C.” As the UCC Book of Worship puts it, it is a mark, “a sign and seal, of our common discipleship, through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the church of every time and place.” 1

 

The early Jesus Followers were Jewish. And the sign of the covenant for Jews, was, and still is, circumcision. For reasons that I assume are obvious un-circumcised adult men were, well, just a bit concerned about having to be circumcised if they joined the Jewish sect of the Jesus Movement. And if you have read Acts and the letters of Paul you may remember lots of debate about whether folks had to follow Jewish cultural laws when they converted to the then Jewish sect of the Jesus Followers, what later becomes Christianity.

 

Paul successfully argued that the Bible dictates about circumcision did not apply to the new sect. So males (then and now) seeking the Way Jesus taught could relax, the Scriptural mandate of initiation by circumcision was replaced with the initiation of baptism.
See, Jesus was baptized and early on it became customary for his followers to be baptized. Baptism has ever since been a sign and time to celebrate a person’s stepping onto the Christian path to God, and welcoming them to the new life the Way that God’s light and love brings.

 

Ulrich Zwingli, an early Protestant reformer, argued that baptism represented a covenant between God and believer and the believer and community as an “objective sign of membership in the Christian community that found fulfillment in God’s blessings and promises.”2 He saw Baptism as a renewal through Christ of God’s Old Testament covenants.

 

Martin Luther, perhaps the best known Reformer, saw baptism as “God’s promise attached to the sign.” 3 A promise that became effective upon positive human response in the form of faith.

 

For Heinrich Bullinger, baptism was a sign of adoption into God’s family, like circumcision it was a sign of God’s covenant, but unlike circumcision it is not bloody 4 . . . it’s not violent.
I might add that unlike circumcision, baptism has always been a sign available equally to both men and women in the church. Galatians 3 tells us

 

baptism in Christ [is] not just washing [us] up for a fresh start. It also involve[s] dressing [us] in an adult faith wardrobe–Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise. In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew or non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. (The Message)

 

This verse from Galatians is thought by scholars to have come from very early baptismal rites. Circumcision was only painful for men but it was not even an option for women. Adopting baptism as the initiation rite not only opened the Jesus Movement up to men unwilling to be circumcised, but it opened the movement up equally to women. Baptism is the great equalizer, a rite available to all.

 

From the start Christian baptism was about community recognition of equality between all. Jesus’ open table and community and message of universal Love and equality is reflected in Christian baptisms. So like Jesus’ table (communion, the Lord’s Supper) that we discussed last week, Jesus’ baptism has roots in politics too.

 

First century Palestine was governed by a brutal Roman Empire which lacked compassion for most of its inhabitants and thrived on inequality, inequalities that led to resistance movements. One such movement was led by John the Baptist. Johns’ baptisms served to signal the baptized’s repentance; to mediate God’s forgiveness; to protest the corrupt temple; and to reenact Joshua’s river crossing in order to set the stage for The One who would reclaim Israel from Rome in a coming retribution that John preached about.

There were other religious groups baptizing then for things like purification, commitment or initiation. 5 We can see some Jewish cleansing rituals in New Testament stories. In Matthew the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples did not perform traditional washing of hands. (Matt 15:2). Likewise Pharisees in Luke are “amazed to see that [Jesus] did not wash before dinner”(Lk 11:38) as he also ignored that ritual. There are also references to foot washings. Jesus chastises a host for not providing for his feet to be washed and praises an outcast because she washes them. (Lk 7:44). In the Gospel of John bathing is a part of the transformation from unclean to clean as a newly healed blind man is instructed by Jesus to “go wash in the pool of Siloam” (Jn 9:7).

 

Of course, we can find stories of John’s baptisms. And we learn in those stories that John called Jews to the desert wilderness to confess their sins and come into the river Jordan to be immersed as a baptism of repentance and to be cleansed and initiated into the group bearing “good fruit” in anticipation of the Coming One who would bring about what he believed would be a violent apocalyptic end time.

 

John’s offer and practice of forgiveness by baptism side-stepped the temple, its rites and its expensive temple fees.6 So John was “perceived as a real threat to those whose authority was grounded in the temple.” 7 His movement was seen as a political protest. 8

 

And John was doing more than just providing a ritual of forgiveness. He was asking Jews to go “back into their own ancient stories and . . . ritually reenact those great inaugural acts of Exodus from bondage in Egypt and arrival in the Promised Land.” 9 John the Baptist was inviting followers into the desert wilderness to cross the Jordan in hope of a Divine ousting of Rome and a reconquering of the Promised Land for Israel.10 Now John’s movement itself was non-violent, but it was a highly explosive challenge with “overtones . . .of political subversion.” 11

 

As I said, John foresaw a Coming One who would wrest Israel from Rome and its temple goons with divine vengeance, and John had violent images of God using a chopping ax and destructive fire (Matt 3:10).

 

Jesus’ connection to John can be seen in his baptism and in his resistence against the temple and Rome. But at some point Jesus parted company with John’s movement. Jesus understands a non-violent God of love who did not and would not operate through imminent apocalyptic restoration. 12

 

Jesus chose a very different route. He chose one that resisted violence and promoted a God of love and compassion. So his Way and the baptism initiation onto it becomes a call to the God of love and equality, and to an end with the God of peace. Baptism becomes a sign of the followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. It’s a sign of transformation and renewed life, of being born again.

 

Baptism is a sign that connects us with Jesus and all who have been baptized before us and all who will be baptized in the future. It’s a sign that connects us to the God of Love, Jesus’ God, Our God. And it’s a sign made with an indelible watermark. It’s indelible because God’s love has no strings attached, it’s a love that can’t be washed away or removed. The sign signifies stepping onto the path, The Way, that Jesus showed us and

 

The Way that brings Christians experiences of Christ, Christ within the self, Christ within the community, Christ within all of creation and beyond. Those experiences and promises of such experiences change a person forever.

 

The good news is that do they leave a permanent mark of love, they change our lives for the better. We are saved from our lesser selves, born anew.

 

Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday a day to be reminded not only that Jesus was baptized but to remind us as well of our own baptisms, that outward sign of the Grace of God that we know through thick and thin always rests within us, within our community and within creation and beyond. Ours is a God of love. Ours is a way of love.
Always !

AMEN.

 

END NOTES
* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2006
1 Quoting the World Council of Churches
2 Riggs, John, Baptism in the Reformed Movement, 24.
3 Ibid., at 29.
4 Ibid., at 34.
5 Isaak, Jon, “Baptism Among the Early Christians,” Direction, Vol. 33, Issue1, (2004),4.
6 Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 231. Crossan also notes that this end run around the temple was probably John’s unique invention.
7 Webb, 204.
8 Tatum, 124.
9 Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 159.
10 Ibid., 162-165.
11 Ibid., 231, 235.
12 Crossan, Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography, 48.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

 

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The text of Scott’s sermon from January 4, 2015

Jesus’ Political Table
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Luke 4: 14-21
January 4, 2015 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev Scott Elliott

A few years ago I read a story about a fellow who’s daughter’s second grade class was asked to write about their personal heros. The father was flattered to find out that she had chosen to write about him. When the father asked why she chose him, his daughter matter of factly replied: “Because I could not spell Arnold Schwartzenegger.” 1.

 

When January rolls around I always tend to think about the political heroes of this nation because a lot them were born in January. I know this because, well, I have always had this thing for history and it’s long stood out to me how many famous Americans have January birthdays, like: Paul Revere, Betsy Ross, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Daniel Webster, Franklin Roosevelt, and of course, Martin Luther King Jr.

 

The founders of this nation have always been of particular interest to me, both the well known and the unsung men and women who sacrificed so much to birth this truly amazing nation. Today is actually the birth date of Dr. Benjamin Rush one of our mostly unsung founding fathers. Born in 1746, two hundred-and-sixty-nine years ago, Dr. Rush founded Dickinson College, was Surgeon General in the Continental Army and while serving in the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Rush was also very involved in the Presbyterian church and was a staunch abolitionist and a very early advocate for the rights of Blacks and Women as America began.

 

Next Sunday, January 11, is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday as well as the day he was baptized three hundred and nine years ago in the most famous Congregational church in American history, Old South Church in Boston. Dr. Franklin is famous and most of us know his history, but we may not know much about Old South Church. Ben Franklin and Sam Adams were members, as was the 18th century slave and poet Phillis Wheatly.
The famous Old South Meeting House was a part of the church and many an important American Revolutionary meeting took place there. From gatherings in response to the Boston Massacre to Tea Tax debates to the original Tea Party formation, Old South Church housed many of the embers that sparked the Revolution. Indeed, that church played such an important role that, as Old South Church’s current website notes: when British troops occupied Boston they made sure to

 

gut[ ]the vast interior of the Old South Meeting House. They tore down the pews, the pulpit, and the galleries and burned them for fuel. Hundreds of loads of dirt and gravel were spread on the floor, and a bar was erected so the men could practice jumping their horses. In the east galleries, the officers enjoyed drinks while they watched the feats of horsemanship below. The British left the building unfit for occupancy. It took nearly 8 years for the congregation to restore the building. 2

 

Those types of political reprisals did not stop our founders from declaring independence including the famous wonderful self evident truth “that all . . . are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

 

Political reprisals against churches for revolutionary roles is not unusual, nor is their ineffectiveness to stop God’s call to a better world.

 

We – this church– come out of both the Presbyterian and the Congregational traditions that I’ve mentioned. In our small part of the world, this church has faced political opposition and has thrived and helped do its part to change the politics of this nation and of the world.

 

I love that we were an anti-slavery church in 1834 and that the stained glass windows in the back there remember that. And that people of color are held up not only as Bible characters in the windows, but look out over not only this worship space but the Main Street of this town reminding us and the community for 120 years that people of color matter, because every life matters . . . and equally so.

 

Last month Ron Meharry wrote a wonderful letter to the editor noting how in this church’s founding years we were anti-slavery and our building was the target of political protests including the pelting of our first church building on Mulberry with eggs and rocks. There were in fact riots and lynch mobs that sought to harm pastors and speakers at our church in its formative years, but still we talked and we worked on that political matter, and because of churches and others like this – THANK GOD– slavery ended.

 

Ron’s letter also reflected upon the recent Christmas Holiday Season protestors whose anti-Gay politics were expressed with offensive signs and comments as they gathered outside our church service. These, of course, were not the first political protestors at our church steps and I doubt then will be the last. We will keep talking and we will keep working and – THANK GOD– oppression of LGBT and others will also end because of churches like this and others.

 

Sometimes pastors hear church members claim that they don’t want politics preached from the pulpit. In fact both times that I have searched for a church to pastor at I encountered churches asserting they didn’t want politics preached from the pulpit. I gently let each of these churches know that that was the reason I would not consider their church and probably why they were having trouble in the search. God is political. The Bible is political. Preaching and church done right, necessarily have a political aspect to them.

 

Perhaps like the spelling of Arnold Schwartzenegger, some church folk decide to do what is easier to avoid political dictates in the Bible rather than face them. But that is not Christianity’s tradition. The idea of no politics from the pulpit or actions in church is un-Biblical. It could even be considered un-American. While the First Amendment to the Constitution requires a separation of church and state in virtually all levels of government matters, the rule of law stemming from the Constitution does not dictate that churches must also keep separate or stay away from issues of state. Indeed the opposite is true; the First Amendment does not just forbid government establishment of religion, but also forbids the government from prohibiting the exercise of religion, and protects free speech.

 

So while the government cannot generally question church affairs, churches have the right to question government affairs.

Stopping church discussion of politics is an un-Godly idea because in our scriptures God never stays out of politics, nor do God’s people. Jesus’ ministry was often about politics– matters pertaining to state and governance.

 

Politics are deeply spiritual matters in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament the prophets admonish and direct government and state conduct. Even the establishment of a religion worshiping Yahweh was about politics. The state sanctioned polytheistic gods who sided with the powers that be were replaced by Yahweh the One God who sides with justice and righteousness and the oppressed, not solely with the powers that be.

 

Moses owed his life to political actions by two mid-wives challenging government edicts to kill male infants. And Moses himself directly confronted the politics of enslavement and established with Yahweh a people governed by Divine laws and commandments. Politics fill the Exodus story.

 

And it does not stop at Moses, the Book of Judges is about the early governance of the Hebrew tribes. The Judges do more than solve civil disputes they lead and wrestle with war and communal misdeeds.

 

The stories of Saul and David and Solomon are about kings and kingdoms and the politics of governance and intrigue and God’s roll and response to political action by human leadership, and through the nation of Israel.

 

The proper political goals are even spelled out in Psalm 72 (our Lectionary reading today) where no less than Solomon is reported to pray these amazing words with God’s political instructions:

 

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. . . .
In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more. . .

 

Then, as we heard, Psalm 72 goes on to say this about political leaders who follow the Psalm’s political instructions:

 

May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight . . .

 

This Biblical text, this prayer of Solomon, is in no uncertain terms a political statement about, and to, national governance.

How marvelous it would be if we Christians spent our time protesting and criticizing the non-compliance with the political dictates of Psalm 72 which enshrines in Scripture a Divine call to political leaders to“judge [the] people with righteousness and [the] poor with justice.”

 

Our nation, our world, would change if Christians took to the streets and wrote to their politicians demanding that our nation does as Psalm 72 asserts to “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor;” and that “peace abound;” that a nation’s leaders must “deliver[] the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper,” that they are yo have “pity on the weak and the needy . . . save the lives of the needy [and] [f]rom oppression and violence . . .redeem their life.”

 

Those are not my political statements. Those are Biblical statements in a Lectionary lesson for churches across the world to consider today. And if Psalm 72 is not a political statement I don’t know what would be.

 

Banning politics from the pulpit would mean forgetting Psalm 72 and the Exodus story. It would mean excluding from worship Jesus’ inaugural speech from Luke that we also heard. The story where Jesus states in the political phrases of Isaiah that he, Jesus, came to proclaim what amounts to promises of equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Those American Revolutionary ideals are supported by Jesus first sermon in a synagogue when he preached these words:

 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free . . .”

 

That first recorded sermon of Jesus’ can be heard as played out by Jesus in all that he teaches and does. Politics mattered to Jesus and his followers and have been deeply a part of American church life since the start of this country. Its been a part of this church since it’s formation.

 

We can argue about whether liberal, moderate or conservative means can best accomplish equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, but we cannot ignore that we are to accomplish them as Americans or as Christians.

 

On January 1, 1802 President Thomas Jefferson received delivery at the White House of a 1200 pound round of cheese from a Baptist church in “respect[ ] of [Jefferson’s] defense of religious liberty.” “Painted on the crust [of the cheese] was the inscription “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”  3

 

The ugly truth is Jesus was crucified because of his political non-violent resistance to the politics of tyranny and oppression of Rome. He was killed because he was preaching politics, changes in the ways of state and governance.

 

I find it particularly interesting that a church sent 1200 pounds of cheese to President Jefferson at the start of a New Year with its very political theological message. I like that the not-so-cheesy message from a church came in the form of food because meals are a primary vehicle by which Jesus delivered and still delivers political messages.

 

See, in Rome the meal was a place of cultural significance. Who was invited and not invited, who you were seen with and not seen with at meals was very important in that patron based system. Usually only important adult males were invited; Women, children and other oppressed and expendables were left out. The table practices throughout the Roman Empire reflected the Roman power structure, meals were part and parcel of the system. Meals were political. Everyone knew their places and who was “head of the table.”

 

A part of Jesus’ genius was that he stood the Roman table practice on its head. He started counter-culture meals; a table where the self-evident truth that all were created equal reigned. At Jesus’ table those who were Rome’s culturally unacceptable sat as equals with Rome’s culturally acceptable. Outcasts, poor and sinners ate with the in-crowd, rich and religious.

 

And it was more than just sitting. The hungry got fed. The thirsty got drink. All were not just said to be created equal, but they were actually treated equal and so were in fact equal at Jesus’ table–and in His community.

 

Today we still remember those meals through this table up here. Unlike the Roman table with controls and boundaries establishing who could come and break bread and drink wine and in what order; to sit at Jesus’ table had the opposite effect. And it still has that effect. Jesus’ banquet, the Lord’s Supper “is a table without controls, a table without boundaries. It represents a community in which all are welcomed, into which all may come.” 4
It’s a table where all are known to be created equal. Where all are known to have undeniable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 

Communion is a political statement by Jesus, by God, by this church and by us. It says God loves everyone and Jesus loves everyone and they aim to include all at the table and in the community, whether anyone else likes it or not. This open table here in this church says that we understand that and that we strive to do that do too!

 

May our coming to this church always make that statement, not just at this table, not just on Sundays, but in our every Word and in our every deed.   AMEN.

Endnotes
* based in part on a sermon I originally wrote in 2008

1. Slightly modified version of a story in Rowell, Edward, ed., 1001 Quotes, Illustrations, and Humorous Stories for Preachers, Teachers and Writers, BakerBooks (Grand Rapids, 2008), 325.

2. http://www.bostonteapartyship.com/old-south-meeting-house-history

4. Christian Century, July 2008

4. Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1998), 86.

Scott Elliott Copyright © 2015

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The text of Cliff Davis’ December 28, 2014 sermon

Cliff Davis December 28, 2014

When I was growing up our church had some sort of Christmas pageant. I can’t remember a lot about it, but I remember that getting chosen to be one of the “three kings” was full of prestige – it was about the best role for which a young person could be chosen because you got all the fancy costuming AND you got to carry the precious present up to the manger. You were a king!

When I was much older and wiser – 18 – my college put together a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a clever adaptation of the Christmas story focused on the three kings, their journey towards Bethlehem, and their effect on a young boy with a lame leg. The kings were, of course, played by the best singers and were probably upperclassmen who had already paid their dues. As a freshman, I got to play a shepherd – just one in a flock of shepherds – and I envied those with the fancy costumes and big singing parts.

Now, when I really am older and wiser, I’ve had this chance to study the part of the Christmas story Larry just read for us and I find that my perspective about the story has really changed. I’d like to share some of that changed perspective with you this morning. I can’t bring a lot of theological study to my observations. Just as in previous times when I have stood in this pulpit, what I bring to this process is … me. One of my gifts is a pretty decent self-understanding and an ability to communicate it to you. I offer this gift this morning in hopes that I might stimulate a deeper self-understanding for some of you. Along the way I’ll offer three pieces of advice.

This story raises a number of questions, which I just have to ask, and then I want to take a look at gift-giving. First the questions: The verses Larry read this morning are the only Scriptural mention of the three kings, except it doesn’t say there were three and in this translation the name “Magi” is given to the gift-bringers. Luke doesn’t mention them in his Nativity story at all. And yet, in Christmas pageants throughout Christendom, these few verses always cause three kings to carry their precious gifts to the Holy family. Why has this little event become so prominent in our Christmas culture?

Why do we believe there were three? There are three named gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – so, three gifts, three gift bearers? Makes sense, even if Matthew doesn’t tell us that. And why do we call them kings? The term “Magi” leans more towards describing wise or educated men, and we certainly want our kings to be wise men. Whether royal or wise, or both, the point of this image in Matthew’s Gospel is undoubtedly to demonstrate Jesus’ importance. Even as a newborn baby, helpless and dependent, these wise kings already knew this was an important birth, worth recognizing.

The gifts we learn about in this story are gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why those three? And, a question that really bothers me, what happened to the gifts after the wise men went home? Joseph and Mary led a simple life and almost immediately after Jesus’ birth, according to Luke, they traveled, first from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and then to Nazareth. It’s about 75 miles all together, but that had to be a long way when walking, taking many days. Gold is heavy to carry; frankincense and myrrh, then as now, were expensive and might have been hard to protect from those who might want to steal it. Did they sell the last two? Did they use the gold to pay for their travels? It seems . . . sacrilegious to think they would have done anything except keep and treasure these important symbolic gifts, but that just seems highly unlikely. So many question we can’t answer.

What are we to make of this story? The Christmas story tells us that Jesus’ importance drove important people to bring him gifts. But it has to be more than that. We like to sing the song about the little drummer boy, who was poor and had no appropriate gift to give the king, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. The story of Amahl is the story of a little shepherd boy who uses a crutch because he is lame. When the kings, traveling to Bethlehem bearing gifts, stop at Amahl’s village, the only gift he can offer is his crutch. And in this feel-good story, the sincerity of his gift results in him being healed and able to walk without the crutch. These stories show that we idolize gift-giving; we hold it in high esteem.

Let’s delve into that more; let me focus for a few minutes on gift-giving more generally. Simplistically speaking, there are three parts to gift-giving: the gift itself, giving, and receiving. Let me start with the last of these, the easy part, gift receiving.

Receiving a gift is a wonderful experience! Someone gives us a gift and we accept it graciously and say “thank you.” We feel wonderful about it. . . . Speaking only for myself, I wish it were that easy. Secretly, I love getting gifts because somehow it validates me – I matter enough that someone is gifting me. But it is also embarrassing to admit that. Why do I need such validation? On the outside, receiving a gift makes me somewhat uneasy – “Do I deserve this gift? Do I deserve any gift? Does this gift mean now I have to give a gift in return? How do I react to best show my appreciation of this gift?” Neither Matthew, whose story we heard from today, nor Luke, from whom we hear the most detailed Christmas story, gives us any sense of how Mary or Joseph reacted to the gifts brought to their newborn son. Apart from the three Magi, we only have Mary’s reaction to the original news – Gabriel’s announcement of a great gift – when she said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it happen to me as you have said.”

It’s taken me a long time, but here is where I’ve come to in receiving gifts. When someone gives me a gift, they are giving me a part of themselves. I’ve come to believe there is only one possible appropriate response – “thank you.” It might sound like this – “Thank you for giving me such a special thing.” Or like this – “I am honored that you are giving me this part of yourself.” Any other words we say, any responses we offer other than “thank you,” are not appropriate, because anything else may demean the gift-giving. Even with Gabriel telling Mary she is about to receive such an extraordinary gift, she accepts graciously. Hers is a model from which we can all learn. My first piece of advice – accept gifts with grace.

What about the gift-giving side? We can make gift-giving really complicated. It is too often anything but straight-forward. Sometimes we give gifts because we think we should, because there is some debt to be paid or some sort of social convention to uphold. For example, we’re going to someone’s home for dinner and we have to take a gift because it is expected, or because they will judge us to be a poor guest if we do not bring a gift.

Sometimes we give gifts because we are trying to elicit some type of response from the recipient of our gift. Perhaps we want them to know we think they are important and want to get some similar affirmation back from them.

And yet, most often I think, people give gifts because we want to, because we are moved by some feeling to say, “You matter to me.” At times that can be a very important “you matter,” such as the Magi bringing gifts to Emmanuel, “God with us.” In the song, Little Drummer Boy, this little percussionist recognizes the importance of Jesus’ birth but all he can offer as a gift is the sound he draws from his drum, pa-rum-pa-pum pum. And in the story of Amahl, the selflessness of his gift-giving is rewarded by his leg being healed. Among many stories of Christian martyrs we have models of selfless giving and many of us strive to match that level of selflessness in our gifts.

I’ll come back to this in a moment, but I’ll finish the gift-giving side by simply saying this – Don’t overthink the giving of gifts. Don’t load it with all of your own baggage. If you are moved to give a gift, do so, looking for nothing in return. Simply take away the good feeling of giving such a gift in the same spirit that Amahl offers his crutch or the drummer boy his song – pah-rum-pa-pum pum. My second piece of advice – give gifts simply and with generosity.

Finally, to the gift itself. I wonder whether we all get too focused on giving the “perfect” gift? Amahl gives an idealized gift. His crutch had meaning, not because the Christ child needed it, but because he himself needed it – he had trouble walking without it. Giving it away was giving away an important part of himself. We have many models for that kind of giving – Jesus giving up his life on the cross for us is the pre-eminent model – and that reinforces the idea that a gift we give has to be that important. In this idealized model, giving away anything but our life isn’t ever enough.

Well, what about the gift I received from my nine-year-old granddaughter this week? It is a little tree ornament, a miniature chalkboard with a string attached for hanging. On it she wrote “Gpa” in chalk (for “Grandpa”) because there isn’t room for more letters. It came in a plain paper bag that she had carefully decorated with markers and glitter. Except for the letters on the chalkboard, it was similar to 12 other bags she passed out, each with the shortened names of family members. The ornament, the bag, and the chalk together maybe cost $.50. Not as expensive as frankincense or myrrh, and certainly not brought to our house by a king. Yet, as the receiver, it is one of the most precious gifts I received because I know that she invested herself into it – picking it out, deciding what to write, decorating the bag, and doing so in the context of a whole set of presents. Her effort and intent – those were the gifts she gave me.

How often have you stopped yourself from giving some small piece of yourself to someone else because you think it isn’t enough? How often have you stopped yourself because you’re not sure it’s the right gift? Because you’re not sure it will matter?

Maybe what you can give is to visit Leta Pealer, someone who used to sit in these pews with her husband every Sunday but now sits homebound, alone. Maybe what you can give is to finish quilting the pieces Marge Risko assembled years ago and never got to finish. Maybe what you can give is two hours every other week to help prepare and serve hot meals to those who are hungry. Maybe what you can give is cookies for fellowship because you are a talented cookie baker. And these are just church examples. In our wider lives beyond the church we have so many opportunities to give of ourselves to others, but the only gifts that matter are the ones we actually give. My third piece of advice – give gifts of yourself. Those things that seem easiest or most natural to you are the things that will matter most to others.

These are the simple gifts – gifts of ourselves, given freely, and accepted with grace. Amen.

 

 

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The transcript of Scott’s Christmas Eve Message:

CHRISTMAS PROMISE: PEACE ON EARTH*
a readers’ theatre sermon drama based on Luke 1, 2, 3 and Matthew 25
given at Mount Vernon, OH on December 24, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
This is a readers’ theatre type script intended to be read on Christmas Eve to a congregation or other Christian gathering celebrating the Holy Night. It is recommended that the actors read their parts together in rehearsal a number of times before reading it aloud at a Christmas Eve service. The actor should when possible dress the part in costume and be familiar enough with the script that there is a sense of the words being theirs.

MINSTER: This part was obviously written with a pastor in mind, but, could be read by non-clergy as The Narrator.

POOR CHRIST: Written with a female voice in mind, and should dress as one might expect a homeless person in your town to dress in late December.

SICK CHRIST: Written for a person who appears ill health.

PRISONER CHRIST: Written with the idea the person would appear in prison or jail issue clothes, an orange jumper or blues (stripes might seem a bit cartoony).

STRANGE CHRIST: Written with the idea that this person is a stranger, an alien or some “other” to the community (or a combination of “others”).
The service begins with a prelude and if used the choir or band on the chancel. All the

CHRIST actors are seated behind the pulpit or some other nearby but nearly out of sight place as the service begins.

GREETING Merry Christmas! Welcome, welcome one and all on this glorious night of all. On this very special night our choir is not only going to lead us in carols but provide special music as well, including this beautiful version of Silent Night:

CHOIR ANTHEM: SILENT NIGHT

PRAYER: Please join me in prayer. God of peace on earth, God of good will to all, God of love, we gather this great and Holy night to celebrate the birth of a child two thousand yeas ago; a child named Jesus who grew up to live and teach the Way to peace, good will and love to all. We are so grateful for the birth of that little baby long ago, for his earthly parents who raised and protected him, and for you who guided him to a live a life that lives on even now, even here tonight. On this Christmas Eve, God, we come before you thankful and humbled by the Christmas story and the promise it has provided humankind for thousands of years. Let us leave here tonight, not just merry, but also willing to be a part of the way to peace, good will and love to all. AMEN . . .

WELCOME: God is good. ALL THE TIME. All the time. GOD IS GOOD. Greet and turns and say “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” to all these good people…
INTRODUCTION:

CAROL: “O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL”

LESSON: The First Scripture reading this evening is Luke 1:46-55, Mary’s song in response to her conception of Christ alone with God. Mary sings:

 

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

SERMON DRAMA

 

MINISTER: To talk about this text and other narratives in the Bible that we will be considering this evening, we have a very special guest. Originally we tried to book Santa, but he said “Are you crazy? That’s the busiest night of my year! Besides I’m not in the Bible, I can give you the name of someone who is.”
We got a hold of the Biblical persona Santa suggested, who agreed to be here. You know this persona very well and so there is no need for an introduction. I am very pleased to announce that Christ has decided to join us for a short presentation.
So without further ado please give a warm welcome to Christ. (a few bars of Jesus Christ Superstar?)

POOR CHRIST (a homeless female): Thank you. It doesn’t surprise me that you tried to get Santa first, for a lot of people “he’s the man” for the season. But actually . . . “I’m the man.” . . . Well, actually I’m not “the MAN.” As you can see . . . It probably surprises many of you that when Christ was introduced a poor girl appeared. As you can see I’m in the form of a girl, and a homeless one at that.

Now before you get further confused or even offended, let me remind you to think back to your Bibles I told you in Matthew 25 that I am in those you care for. Remember? I said:

 

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Mat 25:31-36 NRS)

 

And when I was asked when it is that you all do this caring compassionate work, this love of such “others?” I noted in the story that “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mat 25:40 NRS). To me. See, Christ – I – am the poor . . .

PRISONER CHRIST: (steps forward in prison clothes), and the imprisoned . . .

SICK CHRIST: (steps forward with an illness) and the sick . . .

STRANGE CHRIST: (steps forward with an otherness) and the stranger.

POOR CHRIST: And this church, and many of you, have done a lot to care for the poor.

SICK CHRIST: And the sick.

PRISONER CHRIST: And the imprisoned.

STRANGE CHRIST: And the stranger. So here I am to thank you, to say:

ALL CHRISTS: Job well done faithful servants.

SICK CHRIST: If you will please pardon a holiday pun: your presence to my presence has been a present . . .

STRANGE CHRIST: Christmas is the season of peace.

SICK CHRIST: The angels proclaimed it that first Christmas. Right? It’s in Luke 2: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered . . .”

STRANGE CHRIST: “All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.”

POOR CHRIST: “He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

PRISON CHRIST: See . . . shepherds were considered rough, rowdy outlaw types when this story was written. It’s to them, not the elite, whom the angels appear: As the Bible most of us grew up with says “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”

STRANGE CHRIST: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

SICK CHRIST: “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

POOR CHRIST: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

ALL CHRISTS: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

POOR CHRIST: “On earth peace, good will toward men.” That “men” means all, women and men . . . If you turn to your bulletins the words to It Came Upon a Midnight Clear should be in there. Please join us in robustly (as an aside) I mean really belt it out! As we sing that great old carol.

CHRISTMAS CAROL: IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR.

STRANGE CHRIST: What a wonderful carol. One of my favorites. “[W]hen peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.” You know, the peace and good will the angels refer to in the story – and that we just sang about– is not just about the absence of war. . .

POOR CHRIST: But also the presence of justice and love, compassion and care for the well-being of everyone. Jesus’ birth brings the promise of peace. He showed us the Way to it by love for everyone. And so the multitude of the heavenly host sing “On earth peace, good will toward all.” That’s why Christmas was given to us. That is why it’s a blessing.

SICK CHRIST: Peace comes about when all have enough to be healthy, and all are respected as equal human beings.

POOR CHRIST: The poor.

SICK CHRIST: The sick.

PRISONER CHRIST: The imprisoned.

STRANGE CHRIST: The strangers are tended to.

SICK CHRIST: It’s no accident that Jesus proclaimed in Matthew 25 that those who inherit God’s Kingdom are those who take care of those in need. Christ isn’t just in a select set of people.

ALL CHRISTS: Christ is God incarnate and God resides within each of us . . . all humankind.

PRISONER CHRIST: Genesis tells us that the very breath of God is what animates humans, that man and woman are the very images of God. Remember those stories?

POOR CHRIST: And, see we, you, have a choice, we can let that Holy breath and image lie dormant, or even be hidden and tarnished.

SICK CHRIST: Or we can let Christ grow within us, let it become incarnate . . .

PRISONER CHRIST: And tend to Christ in others . . .

STRANGE CHRIST: As Mary, Jesus’ mom put it in the scripture reading, we . . . YOU . . . CAN “magnify the Lord!” And we can do this by being love in the world, by tending to the Christ, the God spark in others.

SICK CHRIST: And you all in America do that really well at Christmas. For a month every year Love is magnified in this culture. The poor and sick and imprisoned and stranger are on your radar and get more tending to than any other time of the year.

ALL CHRISTS: You see Christ, me, in the “other” and it matters.

STRANGE CHRIST: You can feel love in the air. Right?

ALL CHRISTS (looking at one another in agreement) It’s awesome.

PRISONER CHRIST: The Christmas story remembers Christ in Jesus, but it also remembers Christ – God incarnate– in Jesus’ mom, Mary, and the very first getting-ready-for-Christmas song she sings.

POOR CHRIST: Mary had Christ within her. And did you hear in the reading how she sings out before Christmas about magnifying God, serving God and the Holiness of the poor. The song is called the Magnificat, beautiful words Mary gave to us about the promise of Christmas. A promise we can hear unfolding in Luke’s recording of Jesus’ first public proclamation in a faith community, here’s how Luke wrote about it:

STRANGE CHRIST: “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written .

POOR CHRIST: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

PRISONER CHRIST: “‘He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives . . .”

SICK CHRIST: “‘And recovery of sight to the blind . . .

STRANGE CHRIST: “‘to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them,

PRISONER CHRIST: “(reading from a Bible)‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” . . .

SICK: The promise of Christmas is the Spirit of the Lord through the man we know as Jesus proclaiming the need to end all oppression. Captives are to be released. Sick are to be cared for. Oppressed are to go free. We sometimes forget that our Christmas carols often call us to this promise explicitly. We are going to consider two Christmas carols that capture this promise, O Holy Night, and O Little Town of Bethlehem. 1

PRISONER CHRIST: I’m told O Holy Night is your pastor’s favorite Christmas carol. It was written in 1847 by the French poet Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure who imagined what it would have been like to be present at Christ’s birth. His friend, Adolphe-Charles Adam, set it to music. Ten years later American abolitionist and Pastor John Sullivan Dwight translated it into the popular English version. Let’s listen to the choir sing it now.
O Holy Night

SICK CHRIST: What Jesus proclaimed, what his birth promised, what his mom sang about, it’s there in that song we just heard, especially in the third verse, “His law is love and His gospel is peace, Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, And in His name all oppression shall cease.”

POOR CHRIST: Episcopalian Pastor Phillips Brooks another abolitionist in 1868 wrote O Little Town of Bethlehem as he recalled a Christmas Eve horseback ride he’d taken three years earlier from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. His church organist, Lewis Redner, set it to music. Lets all sing it now.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

SICK CHRIST: Powerful words about the promise of the season. Where humans hear the call to care. Did you hear it, did you see it in the fourth verse? “[w]here misery cries out to thee, Son of the Mother mild; where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door, the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.”

PRISONER: The multitude of the heavenly host got it right, Jesus’s birth, his coming to earth is and was all about peace on earth good will to all.

ALL CHRIST: And it all begins with you.

SONG OF PEACE– song by the children’s choir.

A CHILDREN’S CHRISTMAS STORY : “The Christmas Guest” by Johnny Cash

POOR CHRIST: Peace

SICK CHRIST: Peace

STRANGE CHRIST: Peace

PRISONER CHRIST: Peace

ALL CHRIST: Peace. It all begins with you.

POOR CHRIST: You

SICK CHRIST: Are

STRANGE CHRIST: The

PRISONER CHRIST: Bearers

POOR CHRIST: Of

SICK CHRIST: Christ

STRANGE CHRIST: Today.

PRISONER CHRIST: No matter what we have done in the past.

SICK CHRIST: No matter where we are on live’s journey.

POOR CHRIST: Peace begins.

ALL CHRISTS: With you . . . with us.

STRANGE CHRIST: Please join in singing that wonderful modern Christmas song Let There Be Peace on Earth, It’s song we sing every Sunday in this church so let’s really sing it like we have been practicing it especially for this one night!

LET THERE BE PEACE ON EARTH

ALL CHRISTS: Peace on earth good will to all!

OFFERING: Knowing that God has been generous giving us life and all things let us in our turn now be generous.

CANDLE LIGHTING/CONGREGATION’S SILENT NIGHT: If you are able please stand and pray with me. God of light and love and peace. Thank you for these gifts and the gift of Christmas. Bless these gifts and each person here tonight and out in the rest of the world.

AMEN.

MINISTER: The Christs are going to light the Christ candle.

We are the light. (Light Christ candle) The Peace of Christ – the Spirit of Christmas– comes through us.

The choir is going to bring the Christ light out to each row please pass the light to your neighbor, remember that the lit candle points up and the unlit candle dips to get the flame.

Be careful. When all the candles are lit we will sing Silent Night.

CAROL: SILENT NIGHT

PRAYER

MINISTER: Please extinguish your candles and join me in prayer.
God of peace, good will and love, God of Christmas, we dedicated this night to you and your incarnation in our lives through Christ, Son of God, love’s pure light. Bless each person here tonight and their families and the gifts they offer to you on the way out the door and most especially to The YOU, the Christ in others: family, friends, strangers, prisoners, the sick and the poor. Guide each of us and the world, most especially leaders of nations, to seek peace, to offer good will, to aim toward love, to fulfill the promise of Christmas, peace on earth good will to all. May we magnify the Lord. Amen.

Now please sing with me our last Christmas carol for the night

CAROL: Joy to the World

BENEDICTION: Go in peace knowing that you are loved and matter much. And God bless us everyone. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

ENDNOTES

* This sermon drama was written in 2011 as part of peace oriented sabbatical sponsored by a Lilly Grant for pastors generously provided through the Lilly Foundation (to which I am very grateful).
1. Notes on these songs are derived from information on Jill Steneck’s website at http://www.wnd.com/2010/12/245029/
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Scott’s Christmas Sunday sermon on December 21, 2014

The Hug of God in the Blessings and Tug of Creation
a sermon based on Luke 2:11-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 21, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I’d like to begin this morning by talking a little about Christmas decorations. I love the Christmas wreathes we have in here, but I thought I’d ask if next year we could have one made out of Franklin Fir branches because Nancy told me she wants A-WREATH-OF-FRANKLIN FIR CHRISTMAS.

 

Also instead of buying new Christmas plants ever year I heard we could actually breed our own by crossing a setter and a pointer to get POINTSETTERS. When it comes to saving money a LITTER . . . bit can help CUR . . . TAIL costs.

 

I have one last Christmas present note. Nancy and I got an early gift – a board game, that one with pawns and knights and queens and such. We sit by the warm fireplace and play it every day . . . Just like the Christmas song we’ve become CHESS NUTS ROASTING BY AN OPEN FIRE.
Three weeks ago I started Advent by telling you how much I love Christmas. And I cannot believe it, but this is our last Sunday in Advent . . . and Christmas Eve and The Twelve Days of Christmas are almost here.

 

We’ve talked about peace and hope and joy and we lit candles for each of those parts of the Advent season. Today our candle is, as we heard, about the love aspect of the season.

 

Love of course was laced into the discussions about peace and hope and joy.
Love in Christianity is where the rubber meets the road and so the Bible and Jesus and Paul and you and me spend a lot of time (and not only in Advent) talking about love and a variety of its manifestations. From forgiveness to kindness to compassion and care to working toward the well being of creation and people and even those we do not like or consider enemies, we’ve discussed love and how when we manifest it we act as the hands and feet and the voice of Christ.

 

Because humans do not love as much as we should, and because truthfully we often think most of this love-the-other-folks stuff is a pipe dream, we’ve emphasized much of this year – and all of Advent– how actually WE CAN DO IT.

 

Christmas season evidences that Love is not some pie-in-the-sky dream. This time of year shows us how we can love more and how much better it makes the world – and how better the Love we give and center on makes us all feel and act. So that’s why we discuss love coming from humans a whole bunch.

 

Today I am going to shift our attention and talk about a different sort of love, God’s love for us . . . love coming from God. We talk about it – God’s love– here at this church, but it can be a tricky area to cover.

 

Some church folk assert that Christmas is when Jesus showed up because God wanted, demanded, required a sacrifice and so brought Jesus down as a part of a plan to sacrifice him on the cross, not unlike Abraham was to sacrifice his son on the altar – only for them in the Jesus story God actually carries through with the sacrifice because “He” required it. That gives me shivers. I get that some accept that theologically and believe that as somehow a part of their story of God, but it does not work for me at all. I don’t get it.
No one has to agree with me. But how could God whom we are told is love–and whose love for us we are repeatedly promised is steadfast and forever– require and do such a thing? No sane earthly parent could do that, how could a Heavenly Father who is love itself? Along same lines how could a forgiving God of love create a steadfast forever hell for those who do not believe this or that theological idea?

 

A few weeks ago I confused a number of us when we looked at Jesus’ sheep and goat story in Matthew 25. The confusion was not so much because symbolically cute little goats ended up on God’s bad side, but because I did not clarify that the eternal fire they are sent in the story can be heard as a metaphor for what WE create on earth with OUR choices. I essentially said that in that sermon, but not nearly strongly enough.

 

The notion of hell and eternal fire raises a lot of our hackles because it’s a big part of church life we experienced elsewhere and many of us come here because we are allowed to – and even encouraged to– understand that love and the God we know and experience as love could not have created hell, let alone send anyone to it.

 

So let me make it clear . . . or clearer: I do not think God created or sends wrongdoers to an eternal fire of hell. I strongly believe Love could not do such a thing. I strongly believe God does no such thing.

 

I am in fact strongly convinced that humankind creates hell– what I would call the absence of love in our acts and the presence of evil. We humans create hell when we choose – WE CHOOSE– to be without love and intentionally move away from God’s call to love. Human intentional movement away from God’s call is for me the very definition of evil.
And in my experience there is no such evil apart from human conduct. I’ve never witnessed intentional bad things occur except by human choice to make it or let it happen. There are many who disagree, but for me God’s love is – as God promises– steadfast and for eternity. Creating and sending anyone to an eternal fire to be tormented in hell would violate this promise of steadfast and eternal love. That promise means there has to be no strings attached to God’s love . . . none. Indeed grace means gift . . . gratias . . . something given without condition.

 

So it is fair to conclude there is no God-made-hell because there are no conditions or end to God’s love. That understanding is central to the theology of many of us.

 

But so far I’ve just stated sort of negative proof stuff, all that NOT stuff— there is NOT hell because in my experience God and love are NOT this or that. Because this is the season of goodness and love and celebration of God’s gifts and blessings to us, I want to spend the rest of the sermon lifting up God’s love in its very, very positive aspects. This may require a different way for some of us to understand or imagine God.

 

Paul preached (Acts 17:28) that we live and move and have our being in God. Psalm 139 tells us God’s absolutely everywhere. I mentioned a few weeks back that we live and move and have our being in God – who is love. . .and that at Christmas time we agree to act like it. This is kinda weird if we think of God as a separate humanoid or a super-human like being. So for a moment lets suspend any idea we have that God is a giant invisible being out there somewhere with legs and arms and a head of gray hair and such.

 

For the next ten minutes lets just let go of the idea that God is a guy with a beard in the sky on a throne. Set that image on a shelf in your head and pick it back up if you want at the end of sermon. For now lets instead picture God as what we have our being in.
What we have our being in is life itself– this whole existence thing we experience; this misty mixture of physical and spiritual, of past and present, of memory and hopes, of us and others, of light and dark and earthy and cosmic things, of here and there and everywhere. This swirling existence of ours has so much mixed into it, us and others and the universe. That’s what we live and move and have our being in . . . right? So basically let’s take Paul’s observation and Psalm 139 literally and think of God as this thing we call reality. I mean that’s really what we are talking about, this ocean of is-ness that we float in and are a part of, the reality we are interconnected with. 1.

 

Most debates about God are about a separate being who is sporadically – if at all– connected to us and others and the universe. Most of the points of such debates fall to the wayside when we focus on God as non-separate and non-disconnected, that which we are fully a part of – this real, actual, reality of life. It cannot seriously be argued there is no reality. So debates about God are really about the nature of this ocean of reality that soaks our lives and the universe.

 

We can choose to understand this ocean as disinterested or even menacing. And some folks do see God or reality in one of those two ways. 2 Atheists and deists tend to assert that reality is simply life in the universe in the space and time we inhabit. Supernatural theists tend to argue that reality is full of threatening, punishing and rewarding acts by a super natural (above nature) God.

 

But there is a third way to understand reality, if we objectively look at what is provided for our existence in this reality, we can see and experience it as life giving and life sustaining. 3. We can find reality beautiful and awesome with an amazing abundance of blessings (gifts) provided without strings attached for our well being, all of our well being.

 

 

There is an outstanding, magnificent splendor in our everyday lives that is always there: blue skies, clouds, replenishing precipitation; grass and trees and flowers that grow; babies and bees and puppies and all sorts of beautiful people that we know; marvels of science and history and languages and stories for us to study and know; care and compassion, food and clothes, warmth and shelter and medicine to help everyone thrive and grow.

 

Everything is here –in reality– that everyone needs, and it is wondrous! The ordinary world is bursting with God aglow. As Marcus Borg puts it the ordinary everyday universe “is suffused by a ‘more,’ a radiant and glorious more.” 3. Elizabeth Barret Browning’s observation is a bit more poetic, she writes “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes . . .” The take off our shoes part is in reference to Moses seeing the bush ablaze and taking off his shoes at the realization he was on Holy ground. Ms. Browning’s assertion being that it is all Holy ground. Earth, this reality of ours is crammed with heaven, with God. It is all Holy ground because God is incarnate in it all.

 

This stuff here, what we have our being in, has long seemed to most humankind beyond happenstance. Logically all of creation and its complex patterns, laws of nature and intricacy can be considered more than chance, more than physicality. It is intellectually fair to conclude that Holiness appears infused in every nook and cranny and science when we stop and look and notice how awesome and glorious it all is. Albert Einstein is reported to have said that “Anyone who is not lost in rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burned-out candle.” And that “mind behind the universe” provides all the beauty and all resources needed for us – all of us– for all of creation to thrive right here in reality. Creation is the bounty of God’s love.

 

And it is not just this gorgeous planet and food and air and water and warmth that God provides to keep us alive and help us thrive. God also provides bountiful constant love-infused calls to humans about what is needed for us all of us, for all of creation, to thrive. God lovingly tugs us down the path of righteousness. Genesis tells us God calls us to be good stewards of creation. Amos tells us God calls us to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Jesus tells us to love everybody, to forgive and to seek peace and to do to others what we’d want done to us.

 

The whole of the Bible is about experiences of God relating to humans providing the means and the help to make us better people. The truth is, reality evidences we have a relationship with it, whether we want to call it God or not. THE CREATOR’S desire for our well being and the gifts to make it possible are how God loves us always and forever.

 

We can label reality with scientific explanations, and that is fine, but we can also call it and its radiant glorious more-ness . . . God. And we can –either way– understand it as a being-ness that needs to be honored and awed and respected and loved–and that our own existence and all others’ existence are very precious parts honored and awed and respected and loved by reality itself . . . God.

 

A part of our Christian story is that God so loved the world he gave us Jesus as a gift that revealed what God’s love looks like incarnate. A part of our story is that that love has no strings attached, Jesus loves everyone and taught us to love everyone. A part of our story is that at Christmas we celebrate that God so loved the world that the gift of Jesus began all of this revelation for us with a humble birth two thousand years ago. It’s a revelation that we can see woven not only into our Bible stories, but also in the Creator’s creation with its life-giving and life-sustaining magnificence and it awe-inspiring, sensational beauty . . . and it constant beckoning to us toward righteousness and love.

 

You see reality – God – loves us . . . and calls us to love . . . that’s the nature of God. It is the nature of Christmas.

 

AMEN

ENDNOTES:
1 Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, 80; The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, 17:27-28.
2 Borg, Ibid. 80-83
3 Ibid. At 80
4. Borg, Marcus, Convictions, 45
4. Ibid.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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The text of Scott’s December 7, 2014 sermon”

An Ordinary Extraordinary Joe
a sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 7, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Before I applied to seminary I did not give Joseph Jesus’ dad too much thought. I’d see him in Nativity scenes or re-enactments. I knew he was Jesus’ dad and Mary’s husband and that he spoke to an angel. After I got into seminary my view of Joseph changed before I even arrived on campus.
Part of me hesitates to tell the story because I am such an intellectual giant in the world of theology I am afraid it will soil my reputation as such. See, we were having trouble selling our house in Oregon which needed to happen so we could move to Eden Seminary in St Louis. Well . . . somewhere along the line I heard the Catholic folklore that St Joseph could help sell your house. Joseph is the patron saint of home and family and tradition has it he can help you sell your home if you bury a little statue of him upside down in your front yard. There are different ideas about where in the yard and which way Joseph’s eyes need to face, but one thing is for sure he must be placed head down. I think the theory is that when he is upside down he works extra hard to get out with a sale instead of having to tunnel through the earth’s core to China. 1

 

You can actually buy little plastic St. Joseph statues with help-sell-your- house instructions at Catholic bookstores and even on line.

 

And here’s the hesitate-to-tell-you part, we went and bought such a little statue and had fun as a family burying him upside down in the front yard.

 

But that is not the funniest part. A day or so after he was buried some of us in the family went to peek at the little plastic bearded man with the robe in the ground and . . . he was gone! To our amazement we discovered St Joseph wasn’t where we buried him. So we dug around and eventually found him still underground a foot or so from where he’d been buried. Our St. Joseph had moved. That discovery felt a little weird. I mean how could a plastic statue navigate below ground?

 

It’d be fun to tell you it mystically moved as a part of Joe trying to dig to China, but I think the real story is almost as fun. I traced a little animal tunnel to the spot, some little critter digging its way through the earth helped ol’ Joe reposition himself. Creation moved Joe. And it must have worked because the house sold – and Holy MOLEly who would have thought that it’d GOPHER the asking price? But it did.

 

Over the centuries a lot of traditions have grown up around the Holy Family, including Joseph, like the house selling tradition. There are lots of legends and stories, but really we do not know have a lot of real hard fact kinda information about Jesus’ family especially his dad Joseph. He is mentioned in Matthew and Luke as a part of Jesus’ childhood and then we do not hear about him again.

 

And even from the Gospel accounts we can only say for sure a few snippets of facts. His name: Joseph. His town: Nazareth. His trade: a carpenter. His religious and ethnic upbringing: Jewish. His wife: Mary. His son: Jesus. We also know he was born in the last century of the B.C. era –and that he was man.

 

The Gospel accounts also relay stories that Joseph was related to King David and was from Bethlehem. And that Joseph was a righteous man who did not wish to follow religious mandates to punish Mary for being pregnant out of wedlock by someone other than him–her betrothed.

 

We also heard today the report of his mystical experience with an angel and his compliance with what he understood to be Divine commands to marry Mary and name and raise Jesus. Later Matthew tells us of another mystical dream where God directs Joseph to defy Herod to save Jesus’ life and escape with his family to Egypt until they could safely return to Nazareth– which Matthew reports they did.

 

Chronologically the last story we hear about Joseph is in Luke and it is about the family trip to Jerusalem where twelve-year old Jesus worries his parents by staying behind in the temple.

 

I’ve pretty much just summed up the facts and the gospel stories about Joseph.
What I especially like about today’s story from Matthew is that before Jesus is born an ordinary man –Joseph, Jesus’ earthly dad– behaves extraordinary in relation to the patriarchy and culture.

 

The first story in Matthew is about THIS role model dad, THIS ordinary Joe who gets the Matthew story going by following God’s call to be a loving good guy. Even before the angel shows up Joseph does this in what might seem an unlikely way. Joseph refuses to follow or impose the ugly oppressive scripture law against women. According to the Bible women pregnant by someone other than their betrothed are criminals who can be forced to have an abortion and/or punished with execution. 2

 

Thankfully Joseph is not a literalist, he just wants to let Mary go quietly. And God not only backs Joseph’s non-literalism, but once Joseph decides to not follow the oppressive scriptural mandates God THEN asks him to go a step further and love Mary and her child. Patriarchal rules be damned, Joseph does just that.

 

In Matthew Joseph at the behest of God repositions himself away from the hole that patriarchy put him, Mary and Jesus in. God moves Joseph into motion to be a male model of love and goodness. He starts a new patriarchy-less patriarchy (if you will) in the gospel. He begins what Jesus develops in His WAY that eschews the old patriarchal oppression.
And Joseph’s role model is followed by many others including males in the New Testament. Think about it, from John the Baptist to Jesus to the male Disciples to Paul to Phillip there’s a whole bunch of male role models working for justice and against the injustices of the patriarchy.

 

All year long we have discussed love and peace and justice and God’s calling over and over again to help the oppressed including the poor and sick, people of color, LGBT and women and others the patriarchy has sought to hold down and crush.

 

Most of us when we hear the word “patriarchy” think of men as oppressors, but throughout history it has mostly been a very exclusive elite set of men who have sought to oppress humans, women especially, but not just women, also non-elite males– which is almost every male who has lived.

 

Today we lit the Advent Candle representing hope. And the beginning of hope in the story today is represented by Joseph’s role model of rejecting cultural and Biblical oppression and loving the Christ within Mary, both metaphorically and in reality. That hope snowballs in the Gospels stories with heroes following suit and Jesus’ – Joseph’s son – perfecting the model. This is of course a model for both men and women, but it is important to note that in a very real sense both Joseph and Jesus – in a male preferring culture– use their male status to begin the snowball of hope rolling.

 

Women join the Jesus Movement as equals but it took both men AND women to make that happen. It’s like that with feminism today, the movement to create an equal world requires equal work. Men must reposition themselves and argue and work for equality for all not just for women and not just for men.

 

If men reject patriarchy’s oppression of women and other gender related inequality, if men, as well as women, teach and show by example how to work to oppose it, then as Paul later put it “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female . . .”

 

The same basic concept applies to racial injustices as well. Civil rights cannot come about unless both Whites and Blacks work together to oppose racial injustice and insist that Black Lives Matter equally with White lives. All lives matter. We are all made in the image of God.

 

The first patriarchs of Christianity rejected any sort of hierarchy in the new patriarchy, because as Paul goes on to put it we are all “one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28 NRS). So the new patriarchy is, of course, no patriarchy at all. No one is to be oppressed. All are to be equal. That’s what it means when “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” That’s the WAY God intended and intends us –men AND women, Blacks and Whites– to live and long and strive for.

 

I encounter critics of God who assert that God does not exist or is somehow bad because there is this mess or that mess in the world not getting fixed and if God intended us to be on the Way of equality why aren’t we? These critics envision God as some sort of super-hero who’s job is to swoop in and magically fix what we humans break or refuse or fail to fix. Since God the super-hero’s not doing this swooping in and fixing, the argument goes God does not exist or is not doing “His” job. But that argument only works if God is sitting in heaven deciding to answer prayers and then choosing to do magic or not back on earth. But the whole Gospel narrative, indeed the arc of all the Bible stories suggest God is incarnate in creation, not up and away, not taking calls and just slipping into creation now and then. The God of Jesus soaks this place from stem to stern.

 

Christianity is particularly about that incarnation of God being animated in humankind to solve human concerns and human-made messes. The Christmas story is about the awareness of that incarnation in the arrival of Jesus in all of us. In Luke it starts with a woman Mary, Jesus mom and a great female role model. In Matthew, the story starts with a man Joseph, Jesus dad who repositions righteousness from compliance with oppressive scriptural mandates to compliance with God’s call to love. Joseph sets the stage, gets the ball rolling in Matthew. Then his son, Jesus, models perfectly what the incarnation of God looks like in a human being – and he even instructs us how to do it.

 

God’s not up in the God-cave waiting for the God-phone to ring with our prayers from afar. God’s right here in the YOUs and the MEs getting God-calls all the time and responding to them in the hands and feet and voice of Christ acting in the YOUs and MEs. And if we stop hoping for supernatural instant fixes of the messes of world and blaming God when they don’t happen; if we stand back we can actually see that in very quick geological time –what the rest of creation seems to pace itself by– this incarnation of God thing is working; it is fixing messes and astoundingly quickly when we look at it that way.

 

When Jesus was born humankind was plagued by things the culture took for granted as the way of the world. Since the very first Christmas things have changed drastically. Everyday terrors and oppressions that were once acceptable as a matter of course in cultures have been challenged and diminished to great extent. Things like enslaving others, mass killings of peoples, child labor, poverty, lack of health-care and a whole slew of awful isms, class-ism, sex-ism, race-ism have long been on the decline to the point that their existence is not acceptable by the vast majority of people and are areas that humankind now works to find ways to thwart. This does not mean that any of these atrocities have been extinguished, it means we have come from allowing them as mainstays norms in our cultures, to virtually rejecting them across the board and fighting for their extinction.

 

I find that remarkable. God incarnate in humankind has tugged and pulled and pushed and shoved us to ask if such conduct is love and to answer that it is not and then to go about doing something about it. We have been repositioned to a remarkably better place than we were 2,000 years ago and that may seem like a long, long time ago to humans who barely live a twentieth of that time, but in the universe’s scheme of things it’s barely a clock tick of time.

 

There is so much hope in that. Our understanding that God is incarnate in us and others has mattered and matters. It has transformed and is transforming the world. Current events illustrate this. We can look at the events in Ferguson and New York and see this churning change happening. If we look we can see God incarnate in humans in action. The hew and cry that “Black Lives Matter” is a fundamental truth. All lives matter and we have not yet reached the point in this country where we live into that truth. But God incarnate in people is causing a stir, a repositioning, offering the hope of a transformation in our culture so that one day the death of unarmed children and teens and adults will be a thing of the past, where the color of a person’s skin or the location of their home and the lingering effects of the oppressive nature of the past will no longer create real or perceived threats to us whether we are police or citizens or aliens of any gender or color.

 

The events in Ferguson and New York and here in Ohio where unarmed Blacks have been killed are very, very upsetting. There was a whole lot of loving missing out there on the street when Darren Wilson and Michael Brown met, and no love at all when Eric Garner was killed in New York and when John Crawford was shot dead in a WalMart and when a child, 12 year old Tamir Rice, was killed . . . killed on a playground in Cleveland. Those awful things happened because of the lack of love and justice and the failure to heed the incarnation of God calling us to be Christ’s hands and feet and voice. And yes, the same can be argued of the violent looters and violent protesters too. But it cannot be argued that a good deal of the community and the nation has not heard God’s call and has not been responding with concerns and non-violent efforts including protests and marches to bring about change. The vast majority of Americans do not want racial injustice to happen. Think about how remarkable that is.

 

Sadly less than a hundred years ago Blacks being killed by police officers would not have raised nationwide debate let alone a movement of people from all walks of life for weeks on end to address injustices to our brothers and sisters and children of color.

 

At one point the rule of law in Missouri and elsewhere in this nation was that “Black Lives Don’t Matter,” at least not as much as white lives–and make no mistake about it that was not God’s law, but humankind’s law. Now the rule of law is that “Black Lives Do Matter” and it matches God’s law, and the protestors, many of them clergy friends of mine, are holding placards with that law for everyone to see and remember and act into.

 

Racism and fear and a failure to remedy wrongs that began with slavery hundreds of years ago; continued with Jim Crow and its ongoing vestiges some of which still exist today, must end. History evidences that it will end. There is great hope in that. But we cannot sit back, we must follow Joseph and Jesus’ model keeping the ball of hope rolling.

 

We must reject cultural oppression, teaching and showing by example that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female . . .” That we are all one. The new patriarchy must be no patriarchy at all. The “new elite” must be that all are elite. No one is to be oppressed. All are to be equal.

 

That’s the WAY God intended and intends us to live and it IS coming about. The Bible Nativity stories shows what happens when ordinary Joes and Marys of the world oppose oppression. We can see great progress in history, which in our story today began with Jesus’ dad Joseph and continued on in Jesus perfectly and it really does go on and on and on in the hands and feet and voice of Christ in all of us ordinary Joes and Marys.

 

The unfolding of the affect of the Christmas story in our history should give each and every person in this room, in the world, great hope. One day there will be no more events like those that killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice if we keep making sure that we listen to and follow God-incarnate by becoming Christ’s hands and feet and voice. When we do that, we help God fulfill the promise first offered in the Christmas stories.

 

Amen.

ENDNOTES:
1. Here’s site with more on the tradition: http://saint-josephstatue.com/Where_to_bury_a_St_Joseph_statue.html
2. Numbers 5: 11-31 (gut retching poison causing an abortion is to be given to women suspected of adultery); Deuteronomy 22:20-21 (Non-virgin brides are to be stoned).
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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Scott’s sermon from November 30, 2014

The Christmas Window is Open
a sermon based on Mark 1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 30, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
This is the first Sunday of Advent! Every Advent I begin by mentioning a pretty well known fact: . . . I love the Christmas Season. I start chomping-at-the-bit to talk about it around . . . well, July. I listen to carols at least once every summer and I read Christmas stories and start working on Advent and Christmas services way back then too. So I am all revved up by the time the holidays roll around. It’s not about some inner kid in me dazzled by tinsel and lights and presents that gets me going. Honest. It’s because for me Christianity is at its core about love and to me the holiday season is a grand time of year when we let love be at the core of our culture.

 

During the Christmas season most of us –maybe without even thinking about it– agree to live and move and have our being in love. It’s four weeks of watching out and caring for the well being of each other in a heightened fashion that we do not do the rest of the year.
My vocation, being a Christian pastor, done right IS – as far as I am concerned– about being a monger of peace and love. Monger means to deal or trade, to be a vender. My profession, my thing, is to be a pitchman for love and peace. Christmas is mostly about love and peace, it’s the time of year the wares I’m dealing in are most sought and bought into and brought about.

 

Oh sure, some folks complain, others try to take commercial advantage of the holidays or use it to try and pound their religious views home, but by and large most of us look for ways to spread love and peace around. We set out to give relatives, co-workers, friends, strangers and others goodness. We aim to tend to the well being of those we personally know, as well as strangers– people in general are the targets of our love at Christmas. It’s a pretty remarkable time of year.

 

I have long seen the Holiday Season as an annual window of time that we can stare through and see what life looks like with love at the center of our lives. In many ways life through that window looks the same. The sun still rises and sets, rain and snow fall–the world is still a beautiful awesome place. And, of course, truth be told at this time of year some relatives and acquaintances are still goofy and others self-centered and even abusive; and sadly illnesses and poverty and prisons exist, as does racism and sexism and other isms. But on this beautiful planet, at this beautiful time of year, we care for most everyone, we even focus on flawed and foibled and forgotten folks– this year we even see people across the nation addressing racism, standing up for justice – and the overwhelming majority are carefully using non-violent peaceful means.

 

At Christmas-time we not only amp up our love for loved ones, we dust off our love for humankind and we long for peace, even ache for it. We tell stories about love and peace and we sing songs about love and peace.

 

And it’s not just on Christmas Day that we do this. We sometimes forget that it is in anticipation of Christmas Day that our hearts grow bigger and that most of the good deeds take place. All Christmas Season long– the entire length of Advent– we get revved up for love and peace. In our preparation for Christmas Day we put more of Christ into our lives by acting lovingly.

 

To those that claim we need to keep Christ in Christmas, my response has long been get a grip! Look around you Christ is all about you, all that love that’s in that air . . . that’s Christ IN CHRISTMAS!

 

Christmas is not about jamming religious dogma and doctrine into others’ lives, it’s about love and it’s about peace – the very heart of Jesus’ Way.

 

The Advent Season Bible texts usually include what I like to think of as preparing-the-way texts. Many of us know that John the Baptist makes way in today’s text (we just learned this from the text Jene’ read) where John the Baptist is portrayed as the one prophesied in Isaiah to prepare the way of the Lord actually crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord make his paths straight.”

 

Elizabeth and Mary also make way in the Luke texts with their expectant mother songs and Sacred experiences with God. Joseph makes way in the Matthew text with his own Sacred experiences. But there are actually more than these named folks that get ready for Jesus, the Prince of Peace’s, coming on the scene. Angels and the Heavenly Host, lowly Shepherds watching their flock by night, and foreign Magi from afar get ready for Christ. It seems the cosmos far and wide prepares and anticipates. This is probably why we have non-Biblical stories of animals and drummer boys and such preparing and waiting too. It’s why we call this season Advent, which means “coming.” Advent is the time when we prepare for the coming, the birth, the Nativity of Jesus the Prince of Peace. And so on this first Sunday of Advent we lit a special candle for peace.

 

All of this preparatory stuff we do, all of this getting ready for Christmas, all of this anticipation for that one day, is more than about one holiday day, its about the promise of peace that Jesus’ conception begins. His birth promises the incarnation, the revelation of God in a human life.

 

And sure enough Jesus lives out such a life in a way that “discloses [] what can be seen of God in a human life” and he teaches and acts out how we can get to peace. 1.

 

In the story today Jesus can be heard at baptism to receive a message from God, to be the bearer of the Spirit of Peace from God. We are told that the Spirit descends upon him like a dove – the universal sign of peace throughout history and in many cultures. And I love this part, John the Baptist declared that while he (John) baptized with water, Jesus would “baptize . . . with the Holy Spirit.”

 

And sure enough it is the very Spirit of peace Jesus takes with him and lives out and is even remembered as giving and leaving his followers, Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit of peace: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you” he says in John 14 (27).
We can hear the Way of the Peace Spirit coming to Jesus in the very first story in the very first Gospel ever written–our lesson today. There is no Nativity, no baby Jesus story in the Book of Mark, but it does start off with the very same notion that Jesus came to bring peace . . . Peace . . . Peace. I chose to start off with peace on the First Sunday of Advent this year because peace is the ultimate goal and destination. It is God’s wish more than it is even our wish.

 

Innate in virtually all human beings is a sense, a call to best-ness. Think about it, everyone desires the best and to be the best. We may disagree on what best means, we may not act on the desire to be our best, but the desire is always there beckoning us. We are hardwired with a message –a command– to seek and achieve best-ness. As Christians we can hear that “hardwire beckoning” as God’s call to us all. And ultimately it is a call to shalom, to peace. The famous Isaiah Christmas prophesy (9:6) makes this claim about Jesus

 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

 

In Luke (1:78-79) Zechariah (Elizabeth’s dad) proclaims THIS prophesy about the coming of Jesus:

 

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

 

Then upon the arrival of Jesus, at his very birth in the Gospel of Luke, the angel of the Lord and a “multitude of host” proclaim Jesus arrival with the heavenly desire for “peace on earth good will to all.”

 

The term peace is used a lot at Christmas time and in our Christmas stories. While ‘peace” often means the absence of war in our secular use of the term, “peace” in the Bible stories – especially those related to Christmas– has a broader and more positive definition. The Hebrew term for peace is “Shalom” which simply put, means fullness and well being. (Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms). The Greek word for peace in the New Testament is “Eirene” and “[t]he Jewish concept of [shalom] undergirds the Christian view of peace. “ (Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. V, p 207). So Christmas peace is not just about the absence of war–it is about that, but also much, much more.

 

When Rome brought its peace, the Pax Romana, to Palestine an “absence of war” type “peace” was made and kept with brutality and violence, and it imposed terrible oppression upon the vast majority of people. That lack of war was not peace— and there sure as heck was not well being.

 

The gift God provided on the first Christmas was THE WAY to real bonafide peace, the shalom, eirene , peace of the Bible– the well being of the world. This is the thing God longs for and calls us to.

 

The Anchor Bible Dictionary say this about Biblical peace:

 

In one form or another the notions of wholeness, health and completeness inform all the variants of the word. Peace is not, then, simply a negative, the absence of war. Peace is a positive notion, a notion with its own content.

 

The Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms notes that peace

 

It is much more than the lack of war and points to full societal and personal well being, coupled with righteousness and possible only as a gift of God.

 

That gift of God for Christians arrived in a very humble family, in a very humble place in the form of a very humble baby on Christmas Day two thousand years ago. Through the baby Jesus the promise of peace is set before us every year swaddled. A Way a life – a Way to Peace– waiting to be unwrapped. It is a gift from God not because Jesus could snap his fingers or wave his wand and make peace – well being for all– to happen in an instant. The First Christmas gift of God incarnate was never meant to be that.

 

Jesus’ arrival was not the promise of magic in a minute, making peace in a form that requires no work from us. His arrival provided, and provides, a way to peace, a way to well being–well being for all. That’s a heck of a fine Christmas gift! But we, we humans, we have to unwrap it and fully see and use it and do our part to make it work.

 

Love, is another word we use a lot in church and it is important that we remember in the Bible it means, as the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms puts it
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 means desire and action for the well being of others. Peace means well being. In order to get peace (well being) we need love (the desire for it). . . makes sense.
I mentioned earlier that “ Innate in virtually all human beings is a sense, a call to best-ness. . .” and that “ We may disagree on what best means . . .” For Christians the call to best-ness is wanting well being for the world, that is another way of saying a desire for well-being, which we just heard means love.

 

Jesus taught us how to love so that we might achieve peace. And so coming full circle, all this Christmas stuff is about all of us in our culture acting on our call to best-ness, our desire for well being. The aim is peace but the energy drawing the bowstring back and letting it fly toward God’s target of peace, is love in action.

 

The reason your Rev gets so revved about Christmas season is because Advent undeniably evidences that we are capable of drawing that bowstring back and letting it – non-violently– fly toward the target of peace bringing the Reign of God to earth now. We do it to such a degree at Christmas time that we can feel – I can feel– heaven breaking in. It’s exhilarating! It’s love pulled back and shot like cupid’s love arrows at everyone and it’s not Valentines love, but God’s love and what a difference it makes!

 

I love this time of year! We consciously live and move and have our being in love, in God. I am quite certain God loves this time of year too, and longs for us to learn to do it all year long all life long.

Love is The Way that leads to peace.  AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
1. Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, 85. The section on Jesus in this book by Dr. Borg inspired much of the general incarnation theology in this sermon.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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The text of Scott’s November 23rd sermon:

The Reign of Christ is About What We Do – Not What We Believe
a sermon based on Matthew 25:31-46
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 23, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

Michelangelo (the famous Renaissance artist, not the Ninja Turtle) spent a lot of time dealing with Vatican bureaucrats. As a part of his masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel there is a section on the last judgement.  In the lower right corner is a political practical joke—there’s a figure portrayed as Minos, Master of Hell, but it is in reality a portrait of Biagio di Cesena, Master of Ceremonies to the pope and a Vatican bigwig who protested violently against Michelangelo’s painting [what Cesena called the] shameless nudes [in the chapel]. . . [S]o Michelangelo put Cesena into his own vision of Hell, giving him jackass ears and painting in a serpent eternally [tormenting Cesena in a not very nice way].
Furious, Cesena demanded that the pope order [Michelangelo] to paint his face out, to which [the] bemused pope . . . reportedly replied “I might have released you from Purgatory, but over Hell I have no power.” 1  . . . So to this day Cesena’s portrayed in hell.

 

This morning’s Gospel Lectionary text is meant to touch upon and relate to Reign of Christ Sunday which many churches around the world commemorate today. It’s the Sunday that wraps up the Christian liturgical year. See, Christians start their church new year with Advent, the promise of the coming of Christmas, and we end the year with the promise of the coming of the Reign of Christ.

 

The Bible text we heard from Matthew discusses the “Son of Man,” Christ, in images of the Shepherd and the King. It describes judgement day under that king. Matthew records it as one of the stories Jesus told, and in it Jesus tells us his understanding of the last judgement. Actually – and interestingly– this story is the only New Testament description of the last judgement. So we have to rely on Jesus alone if we want to hear the Gospel Truth about the last judgement under the Reign of Christ. I’m good with that.

 

We are going to consider this text again in a few weeks from another angle because it has so much to tell us, so many facets and a deep, deep Truth. This text, Matthew 25:31-46, is one of my favorite scriptures in all the Bible, and it is my go-to-text whenever the issue of judgement by God comes up. Much of Christianity seems to focus on that, “the judgement of God.” We hear and read and see movies and stories and books and sermons about God’s judgment at the end time, “HIS” last judgement. Mostly it’s portrayed as judgement and severe penalties for not believing in Jesus Christ in the manner the authors or movie makers or preachers tell us we must believe in their movies, stories, books and sermons.

 

From these sources the Reign of Christ would seem to be mostly about getting right with God through belief in Jesus as your personal savior in order to save yourself from what today’s text calls “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” We have all heard this stuff. The details may vary but the gist is we are going to suffer in hell like Michelangelo’s nemesis, Ceseno, if we don’t believe right.

 

Despite all those details and threats of hell for the wrong belief come judgement day, as Jesus’ tells it . . . that’s not how it works. Not at all. The Gospel Truth is far, far from all that believe this or go to hell stuff. Today’s story – and remember it is the only New Testament assertion of judgement day– tells us under the Reign of Christ our qualifications for inheriting the kingdom – or going to the eternal fire– is much more difficult than a belief, after all it doesn’t take much effort or sacrifice to claim beliefs alone.

 

But to do something like love those whom we consider the least among us, well that takes some effort. What effort? We might ask. Outward action to help those in need is actually the qualification Jesus claims as the litmus test for inheriting the kingdom of God. Come the last judgement the question is “Did we do this?” Did we tend to Christ in others, not just our friends and relatives, but to the outcasts? Even if they are the ne’er-do-wells of the culture. Even if we don’t like them – or what they do, or don’t do. According to Jesus – not me, but Jesus– the last judgement for people and nations is about doing or not doing good to the poor, the sick, the stranger and imprisoned. Why? Because Christ is in each one of those outcasts, those the culture considers ne’er-do-wells and lesser beings. The people we may not like individually or collectively.

 

According to Jesus doing for – or not for– the least of us is what it all boils down to on judgement day. Getting beliefs right –unless they help us get our doings right– means nothing.

 

And honest, while I sometimes get heat as a pastor for preaching this kind of stuff– as if its new fangled and recently made up as a part of some plot, this is basic Christianity (as you can hear it is literally in the reading!). Here’s how the mainstream Bible commentary Feasting on the Word puts it:

 

Students of the New Testament know that the only description of the last judgement is in Matthew 25. There is nothing in it about ecclesiastical connections or religious practices. There is not a word in the passage about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. There is only one criterion here, and that is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether you gave yourself away in love in his name. 2

 

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Jesus’ teachings can be summed up by these four shorthand ideas: (1) God is love; (2) Believe in love; (3) Love love; and (4) Be love.
I also mentioned that it is the fourth idea that matters most to Jesus. For him all that really matters come judgement day is being love– that is were we love in the world? Today’s text is about just that.

 

Being love is about desiring and tending to the well being of others– especially the least among us, and Jesus specifically lists the hungry, thirsty, stranger, poor, sick and imprisoned. When we take care of the least among us we take care of Christ. And according to Jesus we will be judged on whether we did that or not–and not just as individuals but as nations.

 

We may not like to hear that. We may not want to take care of these types of others. We may insist or want to believe it is how we believe that matters in the end, but that’s not how Jesus tells the story. That’s not the last judgement laid out in the New Testament. Jesus provides no opt out for those who don’t agree with the message. He provides no opt out for those who don’t want to do what needs to be done. He provides no opt out if you think any of these people deserve to be poor or sick or strangers or imprisoned. And he provides no opt out for right beliefs (whatever that might mean).

 

Conservative, moderate and liberal Christian beliefs – or conservative, moderate or liberal anythings for that matter– make not a whit of difference when in comes to inheriting God’s kingdom or going into the eternal fire. What matters is conservatively, moderately and liberally somehow, some way doing what needs to be done to tend to Christ in everyone.

 

An actual real literal reading of this texts means that theists, atheists and agnostics can each inherit God’s kingdom or can all go into the eternal fire depending on their actions – not their theological point of view. The make it or break it point is not belief. Belief – and unbelief– are not a part of Jesus’ criteria . . . at all.

 

Kinda startling isn’t it. Sounds heretical doesn’t it? But listen carefully to what Jesus says– I am going to read the verses again only this time from The Message to help us maybe better hear it:

 

“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’ “Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because— I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’ “Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’ “He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’ “Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”

 

Under the Reign of Christ, those who inherit the kingdom of God– those who get into the Reign of Christ, those who bring it into existence – are those who tend to Christ in the least of us.

 

Under the Reign of Christ, those who depart from the Reign are those who fail to tend to Christ in the least of us and cause hellish existence.

 

Under Christ, the Son of Man, the Shepherd, the King the criteria for judgement is as Jesus sums it up “just as you did it to one of the least . . . you did it to me.”’

 

That’s good news for a lot of us condemned by religious leaders for not getting our beliefs up to their snuff, in that the last judgement is not about beliefs at all. But it’s not so good news for those of us who have not taken care of the poor, sick, imprison and stranger because the last judgment IS all about that. For in each of them (the least among us) whether we or the culture like them or not, whether we or the culture think it is true or not, in each of them, is Christ. And so come the last judgement how we treat Christ in them is going to make all the difference whether in our existence we inherit the kingdom of God or the eternal fire.

 

We can hear this as applicable to existence in this life, bringing in the Reign of Christ on earth for the living, as well as bringing it about after life. Either way, the Reign of Christ’s existence for our souls now – and later- requires proper action, not proper beliefs. One way of living leads to doom. Another way – JESUS’ WAY!– leads to God’s Kingdom and the Reign of Christ. May we all be led to strive for the latter, JESUS WAY, the way of love tending not to just our needs, but to the needs of the least among us, any and all we and the culture put on the bottom rungs. Because to God no one is on a bottom rung, in every human being is Christ whether we like it, believe it, or want it to be so.

 

That’s the Gospel Truth.

 

AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
1. http://www.reidsitaly.com/destinations/lazio/rome/sights/vatican_sistine.html
2. Buchanan, John, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4, p. 336
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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The text of Scott’s November 16, 2014 message

YOU are Light– Ignite!
a sermon based on Matthew 5: 13-20
given at Mount Vernon, OH on November 16, 2014*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Today’s sermon focuses on two things from the reading: (1) Jesus’ observation that “You are the light of the world;” and (2) His command in the lesson to “Let your light shine . . .”
We covered this text way back in February looking at the “You are the salt of the earth” part. This scripture, like many in the Bible, is multifaceted and before our liturgical year ends next week I wanted to re-visit the reading and look at the “You are the light of the world part.”

 

For those of you who are wondering, being “the light of the world” has nothing to do with Lite beer or lighting cigarettes or even light bulbs. Jesus is talking about people being light in the world– a spark of God. Light in Jesus’ time and place was not taken for granted as it is today. Electricity did not exist. Candles and lamps were a bit of a luxury, cities and houses for the most part went dark with the dusk. Light’s important now too, but our ancient ancestors were much more aware and appreciative of it.

 

To be the light of the world carried a lot of meaning in a time when darkness was harder to overcome and foreboding and dangerous.

 

Often sermons on this part of the text are a call to be a shining example of goodness, and the text can certainly be fairly heard that way. It is also sometimes understood to be a call to Christians who hide their religious allegiance in order to avoid being persecuted– or uncomfortable. These are both fair ways to interpret the text.

 

For me one of the beauties of Bible verses and especially Jesus’ teachings are that they can have layered meanings not just multiple images like salt and light, but actually multiple meanings. More than one understanding is possible and intended. It’s good thing to be a shining example of goodness in the world. It is also a good thing to not hide your religion so others can see goodness and give glory to God. Those are meaningful teachings that can be found in the text. I want to suggest another meaningful teaching. A third option. Jesus can be heard to teach all of us that we have a light to shine in the metaphoric darkness of the world and especially in the darknesses of our own lives AND the lives of our neighbors and community.

 

As we discussed last week, regardless of what the culture or others may say, or even what we ourselves might even think, God sees us all for what we are, a great and good light–a spark of God– and we need to let that light shine– FAN THAT SPARK TO A BURNING FLAME! Jesus’ teaching “You are the light of the world” can be heard to make this point.

 

This sounds simpler to buy into than it is. Many people live in a metaphoric darkness, right? Many people do not understand themselves as being a light in the world– a spark of God. The culture and subcultures are often the root of this, telling folks they are lesser beings or making them aware they do not fit cultural constructed “norms.”

 

We see this with things like race and religion, gender and sexual orientation. Things that make a person seem different from the majority– or from those in power– are often used to dampen the light– or try to do so.

 

This is particularly true amongst adolescents. Over the past half dozen years there has been an emphasis on stories in the media of young adults who have taken their lives or had violence inflicted on them due to bullying, especially based on sexual orientation.
Here are some facts that keep LGBT teen lights from shining:

 

9 out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school.
LGBT teens are bullied 2 to 3 times as much as straight teens.
More than 1/3 of LGBT youth have attempted suicide.
LGBT teens are 4 times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
LGBT youth with “highly rejecting” families are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families accept them. 1

 

These type of statistics sadden me greatly, they have brought me to tears.
It is beyond reasonable doubt in the scientific and medical world, in the world of reason, that homosexuality is a natural part of creation. It is a fact that a percent of humanity has been created by God as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender, L. . . G . . . B . . . T. The Bible indicates that God has declared all of creation good. If that is true, then logically this includes all Godly made LGBT! So it is natural to be sad and shed tears about people being hurt over how God made them.

 

As a heterosexual male I get asked now and then why I am such an advocate for LGBT justice. My sadness and my tears and my advocacy are not just about statistics and reports of people being brutalized for being LGBT . . .though that would be enough.

 

It is not just that I know dear people in this and other congregations who have told me stories of such violence in their lives . . .that would be more than enough too.
But my sadness and my tears and my quest for justice for my LGBT sisters and brothers go much deeper than that, very personal experiences are involved.

 

The first two statistics I read about bullying reflect my own experience decades ago in college and high school and middle school. First of all, for most males of my generation being bullied was pretty much your lot in life as you moved into school as an underclassman. The small males endured taunting and brutality by the upperclassmen and bigger kids. Threats, hall gang violence, hitting, shoving, and lots of scary words were the norm. I know, I was small until I was a junior in high school and harassment was an all too common-place occurrence at my schools.

 

No one should have to undergo such bullying LGBT or Straight, Black or White, Christian or Muslim, Jew or Buddhist, Agnostic or Atheist, large or small, short or tall, Male or Female.

 

When I got involved in theatre as a youth the harassment increased. You know why? Because in the teen world of the 1970s to be an actor meant to a great many folks that you were a homosexual. There was no logic to this. It did not matter that tough guy heros of the culture, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, were all actors. In the teen world I occupied males like me who were in drama were, to use a legal term, ipso facto Gay. Period. You could have a note from your doctor saying otherwise, you could have lots of girlfriends, it did not matter, drama connections meant you were homosexual. It’s the craziest thing really.

 

I was not Gay, but that did not matter, I was perceived as Gay and became a part of some of the statistics we are talking about. I may not have been a bonafide LGBT teen, but, I was an honorary one. And so like 9 out of 10 LGBT students I experienced harassment at school. Like LGBT teens I was probably bullied 2 to 3 times as much as straight teens. Mean words, threats, assault and battery occurred.

 

The worse of this bullying took place when I was not only shoved around and harassed in the halls of my college dorm, but also received anonymous written death threats from a gang in that dorm. It was very ugly.

 

My best friend at that college had it even worse. When he went on to graduate school he was brutally beat up on campus by a bully who perceived him as Gay.

 

Both my friend and I are, however, not Gay. We are straight males, but, we were subjected to very real, very scary, senseless violence because some boys declared us to be Gay by our major– if you can believe that. But you know what? Even though our being straight did not prevent others from perceiving that we were Gay and trying to hurt us, it saved us from something else. The greater cultural’s sense of unworthiness. We had to wrestle with some bullies’ sense of our worth, but never our own or the culture as a whole. When you are really LGBT (not just honorary) much of the culture tries to snuff out the light of your LGBT-ness, who you are.

 

The culture’s preferred norm was heterosexuality. Anything outside the norm was suspect, and people were raised back then – and even still today– to think there is something wrong with you if you are not heterosexual. This is wrong of course, since all of God’s creation is not just good, but right . . . and frankly normal.

 

As straight men my drama pal and I did not have to wrestle every moment with the wrongheaded idea ingrained in our culture and into many people’s heads that there was something wrong with us. We knew that in reality we fit the heterosexual norm (even if we were actors).

 

I was not rejected by my family and I did not attempt suicide because of my sexuality. Oddly enough all I had to do to become acceptable to those who bullied me was change my major and not be an actor. But even as an actor I knew I fit the sexual norm of the culture.

 

But my friends who were LGBT could not walk away from who they were made to be by God in order to fit in a culturally constructed box that others wanted them in.

 

There are, by the way, a number of folks in drama who are Gay. So while I suffered side-by-side with them some types of harassment, my Gay friends suffered wherever they were Gay–which was, of course, everywhere.

 

My closest and dearest friend in high school was named Scott. (a good name, if I do say so myself.) Our friends and family called him Scotty so we’d know who was being spoken to. Scotty was a wonderful young man with a sweet loving disposition and a singing voice that was otherworldly good. We were in plays together and performed songs together and we spent many hours with one another as close friends are wont to do.

 

When I was a high school senior I received a call from Scotty after he had taken a bottle of pills in an attempt to kill himself. He was one of the more than 1/3 of LGBT kids that have attempted suicide. Thankfully we got him out of that attempt alive. But Scotty grew up to live his life recklessly with harmful, even near death events, as a not so uncommon feature.

 

Over the years I lost track of Scotty and a number of years ago I traced his family down in an effort to reconnect. I sadly discovered that Scotty had died in his forties of a combination of problems due to ill health. It may not have been suicide, but, he died way before his time.

 

LGBT kids are 4 times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. LGBT youth with “highly rejecting” families are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families accept them. Scotty’s father rejected him so he fit both of these categories. ///

 

So did Jeff. Jeff went to church youth group and high school with me. Jeff was in plays with me, he was Barnaby to my Cornelius in “Hello Dolly” so we even sang a duet and danced together. Jeff looked up to me like a younger brother might. He thought I was funny, so naturally I liked Jeff. He hung out at our house a lot.

 

Later when Nancy and I lived in LA Jeff was down there too and we met up once or twice. But Jeff did not call me in LA after he took his bottle of pills. I wish he had. They found him dead of an overdose thirty-four years ago. I still mourn that loss.

 

It was very hard to be bullied as a teen. I hated going to school. I hated being small and helpless. But I never tried to take my life. Because no one had taught me that a major core of my being was not a light.

 

My dear friends Scotty and Jeff, were taught otherwise. They were wonderful people and so full of light, but they could not see it. In many ways the culture hid their lights, even tried to put them out– and arguably succeeded. Both Jeff and Scotty could not see their own bright lights, they were hidden under the bushel of homophobia, because they were Gay they were told that to be that way was to have no light, to be that way was to be a dark AND sinful being going to hell. What nonsense! What a hateful-unGodliness. What harmful lies! God commands us to call no one profane or unclean. (Acts 10:28).

 

And Jesus puts absolutely no limits or exceptions on his statement in today’s text. He literally says “You are the light of the world.” He can be heard to be speaking to every single person – that means each one of us.

 

WE are the light of the world. You and me are all lights of the world Everyone needs to hear that. Teens need to hear that. Scotty and Jeff needed to hear that. Today’s Scottys and Jeffs need to hear that.

 

No matter where you have been, what you have done, what others may say, please take Jesus seriously: “YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.” And don’t be afraid to do as Jesus says and let your light shine!

 

Four years ago an online project began called the It Gets Better Project which shares videos and information with teens about a light at the end of the tunnel of teen bullying. It does get better, I can vouch for that, having not been harassed for being a perceived Gay since I was 20 (which I know does not look like it, but it was a long time ago).

 

The It Gets Better Project was created to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years. The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it WILL get better.

 

What a beautiful ministry. You can google “youtube” and ‘It Gets Better” and find the videos with that message.

 

Over 50,000 videos have been reported on the Its Gets Better website. I got over 500 hundred thousand videos on a Youtube search last week.

 

The It Gets Better videos are submitted with stories of grown ups telling LGBT teens that life gets better after high school that the bullies and bullying become much less important in life later on. The videos have been viewed a combined tens of millions of times. Tens of millions of views. This topic matters. It matters. A lot.

 

The videos I’ve seen are inspirational and touching, very powerful examples of God working in the lives and words of others.

 

A very popular mainline song from a few years ago touches upon this issue. You have probably heard it on the radio. It is called “Firework” by Katy Perry.  Ms. Perry has a very powerful video of the song that makes the very point of this sermon, that echos the teaching of Jesus in today’s text that “You are the light of the world” and his command to “let your light shine.”

 

I have no idea if Katy Perry knows that she is paraphrasing Jesus, but her song and video bring the very kind of hope we can hear in Jesus words. We are lights! And we are suppose to shine the light that we are. That’s what Jesus can be heard to say in our lesson today. And he is saying it to everyone. “You are the light of the world! . . . Let your light shine! “ Katy Perry’s song does the same thing. She calls upon those who are feeling less than light– perhaps even dark– to “ignite the light, And let it shine.”

 

We are gong to watch the video in just a minute but I want to read some of the lyrics, they are so uplifting.

 

You just gotta ignite the light/And let it shine/Just own the night/Like the Fourth of July/’Cause baby you’re a firework/Come on show ’em what your worth/Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”/As you shoot across the sky-y-y. 2

 

To every single one of you, not just LGBT teens, but all of you; LGBT, Straight, Disabled, Abused, Rich, Poor, Middle Class, Young, Old, Middle-age, Teen, Men, Women, Black, White, Red, Brown, Yellow, Conservatives, Moderate and Liberals, Theists, Agnostics and Atheists: hear –HEAR– what Jesus says: YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD! . . . LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE!

 

So that I know we all heard what Jesus said give me a loud and a clear “AMEN!”

(Click here to watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGJuMBdaqIw )
ENDNOTES

* This sermon is based in large part on a sermon I first gave in 2011 and again in 2013.

1. From the It Gets Better Project website at: http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project/

2. Katy Perry Firework lyrics found on http://www.directlyrics.com/katy-perry-firework-lyrics.html. They are surely copyrighted.

 

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of Scott’s message from November 9, 2014

You Are Worthy. Period.
a sermon based on Judges 4:1-23
given at Mount Vernon, OH on November 9, 2014 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A televangelist was called as a witness in a trial and after he was sworn in he was asked by the judge to introduce himself to the jury. The televangelist turned to the jury and said “Hi. I am the greatest preacher of my generation!” The judge leaned over and said “Surely, sir, you could give yourself a more modest introduction?” The televangelist replied “But, judge I am under Oath!”

 

Notwithstanding that joke, most people who are called to do God’s work by God often feel unworthy, not conceited, about their ability to answer the call. And truth be told most of this idea of unworthiness we get from our culture. Forget for a second about being called by God, often when we want to do things we don’t feel we are up to this or that, because of some cultural ideal or culturally set bar that’s either too high or just downright in the way. “You can’t do that because you aren’t big enough or little enough or smart enough or rich enough or old enough or young enough.” Or worse, “You can’t do that because you are Black or Brown or Red or Yellow or White or Gay or Straight or a man or a woman or have or don’t have this belief or that.”

 

All those bars the culture puts up that slow us down or prevent us or stop us from doing something, mean absolutely nothing when it comes to offering something to God. When it comes to answering God’s call we are fit to answer without regard to cultural bias or impediments. You and me are worthy in God’s eyes . . . We are worthy to God the greatest power and being in the universe. What more qualification could we want on our resume for offering to God what we hear God call us to do? We don’t need the culture’s approval of our worthiness. We are worthy. Period. You are worthy. Period.

 

There are very few heroes in the Bible whom the culture of our time (or anytime for that matter) would consider worthy of doing God’s work. Abraham is a homeless wanderer with no known background of any worth yet he is called by God, and even as he answers the call he messes up doubting God, abandoning a wife and child in the desert, deceiving kings and even marrying his half sister. Abraham would never be a cultural choice to do anything of worth. Think about it, would you vote for such a man in an election? I doubt that any of us would. Culturally Abraham’s unworthy. But God calls him and he answers and the result is God made the right call. The culture gets it wrong. God gets it right. The result is Abraham founded three religions that have shaped the world.

 

We see this type of thing over and over again in the Bible. Take Moses, when he was called he did not feel worthy – and he wasn’t by human standards either. He had a speech impediment. He was a runaway murderer. He was a nobody shepherd in the hills. We wouldn’t vote for Moses either but that did not stop God from electing him to save the Israelites. However, Moses, buying into the culture stuff (like we all tend to do), thought he was unworthy of the call. But it didn’t matter, God still called him. God knew his real worth. And God got it right again! Moses rescued the Israelites, gave laws, and became a hero of Israel and all of Christendom.

 

It’s not just Abraham and Moses, almost anyone you name in the Bible who is called by God seems unworthy by cultural standards. Humans don’t understand, over and over again, that when it comes to answering God’s call we are fit to answer without regard to cultural bias or impediments. We are worthy. Period. You are worthy. Period. Joseph, a misfit brother and imprisoned slave saves Egypt and Israel. David a nobody teenager shepherd defeats Goliath and becomes King. Ester, a teenage beauty queen saves her people. Rahab a foreign prostitute helps conquer the Promised Land. Mary an unmarried teen is called by God to conceive Christ and she does just that. Jesus is a homeless peasant who is later a convicted criminal, but God keeps calling him and he keeps answering. Peter is a bumbling grumpy combative fisherman, but God calls him and founds the church upon him. Paul persecutes Christianity but is called by God to spread it far and wide; and he does just that.When it comes to answering God’s call we are fit to answer without regard to cultural bias or impediments or even our own misgivings.

 

Today’s story, an extended version of the Lectionary text for next week (when I have chosen another text), is one of my favorite Old Testament stories, and it is a favorite for me precisely because cultural rejects are called by God and answer God’s call and are remembered as heroes.

 

The culture during Biblical times was unabashedly patriarchal and the very wealthy male elite by-and-large ruled. The power elites pushed and pushed the idea that women were nobody-second-class humans that were to be treated like property, and men were not to work with them or be ruled by them; and women certainly could not be God’s representatives. It’s only been in our time that this misogynistic cultural view has begun to change on a wide scale. But for thousands of years God has not cared a fig for following cultural views when it comes to being able to answer the call to do God’s work in the world. This is particularly true when it comes to women and those who dare to honor them and let them lead. And this thousands-of-years old story in the Bible about Deborah, Barak and Jael proves it.

 

And I love that the story is considered to probably be the oldest in the Bible. It means that despite what the patriarchal and elite powers pitched, the people clung to and remembered and held dear the story of women heros and a man who was willing to respect and honor and let a woman lead his army and be God’s representative for the people.

 

The Lectionary reading from Judges only covered a small part of the story leaving it hanging at Judges verse 7, which is really kinda crazy because the story is not complete without knowing how it ends. So I added the back in the good parts that you heard Steve read this morning.

 

Here’s a summary of the story: Deborah, a woman, is a judge and prophet, and a person understood to represent God’s presence on earth. Barak is a general whom Deborah asks to defend Israel from the army of King Jabin who ruled over them for 20 years with a powerful occupying army led by a great general, Sisera. Barak has such reverence for God and Deborah he agrees to lead the army against Sisera, but only if Deborah in turn agrees to lead them into battle bringing, as it were, God’s presence before them. Deborah agrees, but notes that if she does as Barak asks God will give the glory to a woman.
Barak is fine with all of that and so with Deborah leading the way they defeat all of Siseria’s army. All of it, except the great General Sisera who runs and hides in the tent of the wife of his ally which violates all kinds of hospitality rules and it threatens the wife, Jael, as well as continues to threaten Israel since Sisera has not been stopped. Jael answers God’s call to put an end to the threat his presence posed to herself, her family and Israel. As we heard Jael stabs Sisera in the head with a tent peg.

 

Old Testament story characters often have names that tell us something. Barak’s name means “lightening” he was fire from heaven. Deborah is the wife of Lappidoth, a phrase which means “woman of torches,” she was a woman of fire.

 

Deborah is not just the wife of Labbidoth she is Deborah and her name has two meanings in Hebrew “bee” (as in bumble) and “word” (as in Word of God). This woman of fire, this bee, stings God’s opponent with Barak, fire from the heaven. 1 And as a prophetess Deborah can also be heard as representing the “word” of God that leads the people of Israel like the Ark of the Covenant led the people of Israel in Moses’ and Joshua’s day like we heard last week.

 

Jael means “mountain goat” a common symbol in the Ancient Near East for the hunted. Jael can be heard to represent all those who are hunted by brutes like Sisera and his army. And who does Jael sting with a tent peg for the “bee” Deborah? There is a visual pun of sorts in that – metaphorically– the hunted spiked headed mountain goat puts a spike in the head of a hunter.

 

Sisera, the hunter’s name, means “battle array.” The great battle array of the enemy of Israel is remembered as being defeated by God through two women and a man who treated women with respect and honored God’s presence in them. To find that in the oldest story in all the Bible is remarkable, it’s awesome!

 

But perhaps even cooler is that the ultimate hero, Jael, whom Judges 5:24 remembers as the “most blessed of women,” is not just a lowly woman to the culture, she is cursed by the culture as a woman, a foreigner, a non-Jew, a non-elite and the wife of an ally of the enemy. This five cursed unworthy nobody is whom God calls to save the day along side the cultural rejects of the other woman Deborah and the General Barak who would dare to stoop to let a woman lead.

 

If this story tells us anything it is that whatever worth humans think they might be are lacking to offer something to God– to answer God’s call– they are mistaken. Forget what you hear the culture whispering or yelling in your ears, whatever God is calling you to, you are worthy of doing. And God would not call you if it weren’t so.

 

This sense of a lack of worth is rampant. If you are thinking you are the only one who feels unworthy at times, you are not alone. I often hear folks tell me they have a sense of low worth or that they feel called to do this or that but just don’t think they are worthy. Christianity is in great part about transforming our sense of can’t do to can do– our sense of a lack-worth to a sense of worth. And we can hear that as a part of the Hebrew Scriptures too.

 

The Old Testament (The Hebrew Scriptures) and the Gospel include the good news that we are worthy of love and we matter. We have a lot to offer God and the world . . . all of us.
I briefly mentioned some of the people in the Bible who felt unworthy but weren’t. People we’d think of as criminals, doers of wrong, misfits, the disabled, and outcasts. There’s nothing any of us in this room have done, there’s nothing any of us in this room are, that makes us unworthy to God. Just as you are, by God, you matter.

 

And God is good all the time and you matter all the time to that good God and what you offer to God can and does matter regardless of what the culture may tell you. You matter. You have great worth.

 

One of the things I was taught in law school as an arguing skill was that people remember best the first and the most recent thing said or read. It’s called the “primacy and recency effect.” That sounds fancy, but it just means what we hear first and last are best remembered.

 

When I became a pastor I prayed and thought about what the first and the last things I say in worship ought to be. If you think about it most of you will know what I decided. Every Sunday the first thing I say is “God is good” and the first thing you say is (“all the time”) and then I say “All the time” and you say (“God is good.”). We are taught in our culture that God does not-so-good-things as punishments and tests, and that is never true! God is love and love is always good. God IS good all the time. So that’s what we hear first on Sundays.

 

And the last thing I say every service is something I felt called by God to put together and say every week because of this unworthy thing we get pounded into our heads by the culture. I say “Go in peace knowing that you are loved and that you matter much.” And the last part “you are loved and that you matter much” is the ultimate Truth of the Gospel, it is the point of Jesus’ teachings and his life and his death and his resurrection. And it is the point of this oldest of the Old Testament stories we heard today about Deborah and Barak and Jael.

 

We are all of us worthy to do God’s work, to offer what we have for God to use in the world. It doesn’t matter what the culture says is worthy. What matters is that we know we are – all of us– worthy to offer to God what God wants.

 

And sure that applies to our pledges today on this Pledge Sunday, whether we feel we can offer five dollars or five hundred dollars, the culture’s sense of worth doesn’t matter. What matters is whether God calls us to provide and we decide to answer and then follow through and do it! But it’s so much more than the pledges of our dollars . . . so much more. It’s also about offering to do things at church and in the community for others for love of God and love of neighbor.

 

There are lots and lots and lots of things happening at the church and in the community, don’t not offer to do loving things because you feel unworthy–yes that was a triple negative . . . don’t not offer to do loving things because you feel unworthy. If you feel called to it, please prayerfully consider answering the call. You see you are loved and you matter much– and what you offer, big or small, counts a whole lot!

 

May we all hear our very good God’s callings . . . and know that we are worthy to answer them.

AMEN.

ENDNOTES
* This sermon is based on a sermon I first wrote in 2011.
1. McCann, J. Clinton, Judges, Interpretation, John Knox Press (2002), 49-55. Much of the information of names and meaning of Judges 4 in this sermon I derived from Dr. McCann’s wonderful essay on Judges 4. But don’t blame Dr. McCann for ideas I write about Jael’s name, I looked up the meaning on the internet, saw it was “Mountain Goat” and that mountain goats were ANE symbols of the hunted and I took it from there. Dr. McCann also notes that Deborah means “woman of torches” or “Torch Lady” I read that to mean a woman of fire and connected it Barak as “lightening” which I also claimed to fairly mean fire from heaven.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of Scott’s November 2 message:

Cross-Xing
a sermon based on Joshua 3:7-17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 2, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As I mentioned in the newsletter, this weekend marks the one year anniversary of the beginning of our ministry together. I started as your pastor on November 1, 2013 and hey the good news is that after a year and a day we are still standing– the church and I–you are obviously sitting.

 

In honor of this important anniversary –and I do I expect there to be many, many more anniversaries together– I wanted to start off, of course, with some jokes. Here’s the first one: Which area of Palestine was especially wealthy? The area around the Jordan River, where as we just heard in the reading, the banks are overflowing. You’re gonna love the second joke: When did the Jordan River get angry? Every time someone crossed it. And because we Christians like things in three, in honor of the Trinity here’s a third really bad joke: Which Bible character had no parents? Joshua, because we are told he was the son of Nun . . .

 

I hope “none” of you were wishing in this second year together that we’d not have any more terrible jokes. Because so far in this new year 100% of the sermons have begun with me “josh”-ing around. In fairness the three jokes I told do relate to the River Jordan and to Joshua who are both featured in the Bible story we just heard about the river’s waters parting so that the Hebrews could cross over to the Promised Land.

 

Most of us think there is only one parting-of-the-water story in the Bible, the one with the Red Sea, when Moses leads the Hebrews out of bondage and into freedom, out of Egypt and into the wilderness, out of chaos and into Yahweh the living God’s presence. But obviously today we heard another parting of a body of water story (There are actually two more in 2 Kings).

 

In today’s lesson Joshua leads the Hebrews out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land, out of nomadic wandering into a homeland, out of chaos and into heightened awareness of Yahweh – the living God’s– presence.

 

Each of these parting-of-the-water stories involve a transition, the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Each involves delivery – crossing– where there is a heightened awareness of the living God’s presence. God is present in both the end in Egypt and the beginning in the wilderness with Moses, and God is present in both the end in the wilderness and the beginning in the Promised Land in today’s story. And of course God is present in the story’s miracle of the crossing itself. In fact it is in that threshold time, the crossing, that our focus is most drawn.

 

God is in the troubled places of the past, and in the promised places of future for sure, but it is in the now-of-the-miracle of the transition that God’s presence resonates most strongly. We seem to see and experience it best there.

 

The spot we cross– and anachronistically inserting a symbolic play on Christian words into this Hebrew story – the cross itself – is where the miracle and the promise of new life for Christian’s begin, right? We are drawn to the hope of the demarcation of transitions, the cross-point because it is there that the promise of transformation begins to unfold.

 

The Ark in today’s story is taken into the Jordan by the priests and the water parts. The Ark represents the very presence of the living God. God’s presence when lifted up and put before the congregation makes it possible to go from the wilderness nomadic life, through the water into the Promised Land. As Joshua points out in the story the congregation knows the presence of the living God is among them. In the miracle of the parting of the water, the “make-way” for the Promised Land, God’s presence is most especially felt.

 

Whether we think this miracle is historic fact or symbolic metaphor, either way, the very basic truth to this story for the people of God is that when we know the presence of the Living God, when God is held up our lives individually and collectively begin to be transformed. The story is meant to show us God’s presence is so powerful even a nation can be transformed.

 

If we fast forward to the New Testament we find that the way for Jesus’ ministry is made by John the Baptist who is out in the very same Jordan River that God made way for Joshua and the Hebrews in our story. John is having folks come into the river to be baptized. A part of that is John calling people to reenact Joshua’s river crossing as a protest movement to re-take the Promised Land from the brutal Empire of Rome. 1. And baptism as a part of the protest was a way to circumvent Rome’s temple elites’ fees and monopoly on mediating God, repentance and forgiveness of sins.

 

So coming into the river, experiencing baptism, and re-crossing the river were seditious acts of protest meant to symbolize a re-taking of the Promised Land from Rome and its religious lackeys.

 

And I love this part, Jesus who’s real name was Yeshua – which in Hebrew actually means Joshua– can be heard as the new Joshua since in a sense Jesus takes the handoff from John mid-river leading us to the ultimate cross for Christians, his own crucifixion with a whole new Promised Land: which if we follow His Way is supposed to be heaven here on earth for everyone; where our love is so great everyone gets enough–their daily bread and love. Jesus for us becomes known as the living presence of God himself–God incarnate in humankind. Love personified as best in can be in human form. Kinda cosmic metaphoric stuff if you think about it.

 

When I sat down to write this sermon, in addition to a lot of bad joke telling, I was thinking about how great it was to have God opening a crossroad for Joshua and the Hebrews as our Lectionary text today.

 

“Liminal” is a word sometimes used in theological circles for thresholds. Liminal is a place or initial stage of a transition. This church worship service is meant to be a liminal space, a time and place that serves as a threshold from our everyday lives into an especial awareness of the presence of God. The music and words and silence and prayers are moments to help us cross over to the Promised Land of our salvation, not salvation from hell or damnation, but salvation from our lesser way of being. It’s meant to make us better people here and out there. This space and our order of service are meant to bring us over the threshold into the vibrations of God’s presence to better ourselves. In a sense worship is sort of an hour long Promised Land before we go back to the wilderness bringing that better being-ness to the rest of the week to the betterment, the salvation of not just us personally but all of the world from it’s lesser way of being too.This is so that one day here on earth heaven breaks out and all get enough.
I thought it was great – even mystical– that we had this text this morning because we are moving today from our first year together into the next one. Which is actually a bigger deal than it may sound. Common wisdom is new pastors and their congregation get to know one another the first year and from that threshold they tend to move into shaping and forming their ministry together.

 

In the liminal time of our first year, as the waters have parted for us to cross from one minister to the next, there has been a whole lot of love vibrating wonderfully in the air. The overwhelming majority of folks here have gone out of the way to be thoughtful and kind in this time of settling into ministry with me as the new pastor. I appreciate that– a lot. I am deeply grateful to you and to God for this church and this ministry. And we have accomplished so much together already in this threshold year!

 

In addition to getting used to one another we have had a whole year’s worth of dynamic worship services together– with beautiful music, wonderful readings, heartfelt prayers and sermons that have challenged all of us as the Holy Spirit has called us to consider a number of Bible texts anew.

 

We also welcomed and added a number of wonderful new members and hosted a slew of visitors, all of whom have added their bright lights to the glow of Christ in our midst each week. We’ve also continued our strong missions and ministries including an education program that has bloomed under capable leadership, great volunteers and our much needed new nursery attendants.The Children’s Sunday School and Adult Forum are going strong–it is quite impressive what Christian Education ’s done in a year.

 

Our dedicated Mission and Service folk have continued to oversee and guide our efforts to bring food and care to those in need, and they are already working on a Back Bay Mission trip in May and looking our church presence at festivals on the square and how we might help add to our compassion and care for the homeless. We also had a strong showing at the Pride Parade and in support of the GSA at the fairgrounds.

 

The Church and Ministry folk have helped us through a number of special worship services including Reign of Christ, Advent, Christmas, Pastor Installation, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Easter, Summer Breakfasts, 180th anniversary and a totally fun and special Pet Blessing. They have also been busy working on creating new art ministries and commissioning a much needed baptismal font.

 

The Diaconate has been gracious and present preparing and serving communion and tending to the needs of the membership as Shepherds and at memorial services. This can be difficult and demanding work, but the deacons have been hard at it.

 

As good stewards we’ve done a remarkable job tending to the care of the building with the Stewardship team has overseen all sorts of needed repairs and modifications including a new tile floor in the back parlor; Larry’s awesome painting in that parlor and the office and the nursery and the front doors; new concrete out back; a security system; a shed to hold gasoline powered equipment; coat pegs in the hallways; stair rails on the chancel; pamphlet holders; the phone system upgraded; roof slates replaced; drain pipes fixed; bricks re-mortared; a new sign; the bell repaired; a new front parlor sofa; stained glass windows maintained; and a complete inventory of all of the items in the building. It is remarkable what Stewardship’s been doing and overseeing! On top of which we have studied and sought help, and done preparatory work, for projects to come like fixing the roof over the education building and shoring up the bell tower and fixing the stucco and sidewalks. Of course Larry and Scott have also tended to the regular care of the building and grounds. All of this stuff needed to be done to keep the church campus in good order.

 

It is very impressive that so much has been done this year; and it got because of our leaders and dozens of volunteers were involved. All of this stuff it took oversight and plenty of meeting time and good hard work by your church council and its officers–with support from the church staff and many of you.

 

If you want to see the Living God’s presence, the God we call Love’s actions in the crossroads of our transition just consider not only all the things we’ve done but the loving way in which they got done. This place is soaked with love. The very basic truth to THIS story of the people of God is that we know the presence of the Living God. God – who is love– has been held up in our lives individually and collectively– we have mattered much.
Religion is about relationship, how we relate to one another here and in the rest of the world. Jesus’ message can be boiled down to this: God is love, believe in love, love love and be love. . . God is love, believe in love, love love and be love. In other words, relate to all that is with love.

 

That’s why when Jesus talks in the gospel about rewards it is for those who are choosing doing just that, those who are being love in the here and the now. For Jesus the parting of the chaos of the river of life (as it were) does not come about by victorious quibbles about God’s existence, who God is or what beliefs are correct. At the end of the day the liminal moments for Jesus are in the little miracles we accomplish by being love in the world. That’s where the Living God of Jesus is present . . . in love. That’s where the transformative work we do occurs . . . in love.

 

In the year ahead we have plans to consider expanding our transformative work even further through love. So we are looking into the possibilities of creating: a support ministry for parents, a worship service for developmentally disabled, a family and youth theatre project that connects youth to the community, a week of mission work repairing buildings in Mississippi, an inter-faith summer peace camp for children, a grandfriends project connecting children with older generations, an ecumenical youth group, a greater commitment to helping house homeless women in the winter, a senior citizen ministry and several art-based ministries.

 

This a lot of new stuff on top of all what we already have in place. We are looking at these love based ministries and missions because this is a church where love happens. The more of us who get involved, the more of the plans to consider these new ministries can become plans to do these new ministries.

 

It’s a small church following a big God, led by a lot of very capable leaders, and so we have been doing, and plan to continue doing, wonderful things in the community. And as we’ve been hearing for the past few weeks, we need pledges of help and resources. We need everybody’s involvement.

 

As a consequence of this church’s loving work since I’ve been here so far, children have been tended to; youth loved; people educated; needy fed; the building got repaired; justice championed for LGBTQ, women, people of color and economically hard hit; souls were spiritually nourished; all were welcomed; the Gospel was preached and people saw and heard the good news in our words and in what we do.

 

We are crossing over into the Promised Land of a new year together with our living God at the helm. If we follow God’s lead we will experience God’s presence. Indeed Christians are supposed to be love, a modern day Ark bringing God’s presence into the world and into the chaos of turbulent rivers of life, as well as into the Promised Land – which at its fullest potential is meant to be heaven on earth now. That is, heaven brought about by love for everyone ally and foe, stranger and friend, believer and unbeliever. It’s all about love!

 

May we continue to follow the God we know as Love’s lead into what I sure hope and pray are many, many years in ministry together! Thank you for our great first year together and for the promise of an even better year ahead. . . . AMEN!

ENDNOTES:
1. Tatum, Barnes, John The Baptist and Jesus: a Report of the Jesus Seminar, Sonoma: Polebridge Press, (1994), 36.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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Scott’s sermon from October 26, 2014″

Paul’s Good Vibes
a sermon based on 1st Thessalonians 2:1-8
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 26, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Paul has always seemed to me to be an enigma, a riddle. He is liked and disliked. He seems to believe beautiful, as well as confusing things. He’s on the mark in so many ways for me, yet also seems to me have missed the mark now and then. Paul is an enigma in part because the lengthily documentation in his seven genuine letters and much of the Book of Acts brings to relief his very humanness in the midst of the Sacredness of his endeavors and teachings. That humanness makes him admirable in many instances and at other times he seems (at least from our modern context) a bit stuffy, over the top or just plain odd, or confusing. Plus the truth is, even though we know more about Paul than most Biblical folk, there are still a lot of things not explained or things left unanswered. So at the end of the day he IS a riddle and a mystery… an enigma. But we do know more about him than almost any religious leader in the Bible since there are seven letters written by him and almost half of The Book of Acts is dedicated to stories about Paul.

 

Because Paul is an important part of the New Testament and talked about a lot still today we should know his story even if there is mystery. I mean, any way we cut it, Paul’s letters, teachings and theology have influenced Christianity; and his heroic efforts helped spread it about the world, and eventually changed the Jesus Following from a small Jewish sect to a thriving large religion.

 

Today’s short reading has Paul suffering shameful mistreatment, yet standing firm through courage in God, all the while advising followers of Christ that proclaiming the gospel is both “holy privilege” and a dangerous gift requiring courage and costs and character that is pure, selfless and longing to please God so that we develop a willingness to use the caring instincts of a nursing mother. That’s a powerful image. In my experience there is nothing closer or dearer than the love and relationship of a nursing mom to her child. That’s the image of love in action that Paul has backing his faith and wants it to be backing our faith. 1.

 

I read today’s passage and I found myself reflecting on who is this guy, this Paul fellow we know a bit about, but not enough? This Paul guy with a passion for facing religious tussles head on in a selfless and God oriented way, all the while trying and striving to be centered in love and care? The deepest and most powerful type of love and care. He is not afraid to want to love and hold others as dear as a nursing mother does.

 

As I considered today’s reading I kept thinking we need to know at least the highlights of Paul’s life. So here’s the sorta biographical highlight reel on Paul gleaned from a number of sources. 2 Paul was born in the first decade of the first century, maybe ten years or so after Jesus. While Paul never met the historical Jesus their life-spans overlapped for maybe twenty or so years. So for most of the second and third decades they were both alive in the flesh at the same time. Jesus was crucified somewhere around 30 A.D. “[E]arly Christian traditions . . . report [Paul] was executed in Rome around the year 64 [A.D.]. . .” 3.

 

Before he died Paul had one heck of a dynamic life by any standard. He was born in Tarsus, the thriving dynamic metropolitan capital city of a Roman province (Cilicia).
A very fine university was in Tarsus, and the city was at a great crossroads of the empire not far from the Mediterranean, so Paul’s hometown was an important city in his day.

 

While we know where Paul was born we do not know much about Paul’s upbringing. We can say, though, that his letters evidence he was very well educated. He’s not only literate in a day where that was not the norm, but he appears literate in both Greek and Hebrew. Moreover his letters do not just show he was an educated man, but a very intelligent one adept at using the complex rhetorical style and arguments of his day. Some think Paul’s writings suggest he had legal training (which even today we all know is a sign of pure brilliance).

 

Tarsus is not in Palestine, it’s located between the Greco-Roman homelands and the Mid-East in what today we call Turkey. See, Paul like most Jews of his day was from Diasporia– the name given to all the area of the world where Jews were dispersed beyond the homeland of Israel. This gave Paul the distinct advantage of understanding Gentiles –since he grew up among them– a people and culture the early church leadership in Jerusalem had a difficult time relating to because their homeland was occupied by foreign Gentile forces, it was more or less not a part of the Gentile world like Tarsus was.

 

Somewhere along the line, probably from his father, Paul learned the trade of tent and awning making, a valuable skill at the time which allowed him to earn a living in his mission travels.

 

Paul’s father was said to be a citizen of the Empire of Rome, a privileged status granted to only a few residents. As the son of a Roman citizen Paul would also have been given citizen status. Although Paul never mentions being a citizen in his letters The Book of Acts claims he was.

 

Paul does mention having a physical infirmity and there have been centuries of theories about what it was. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg speculate that since malaria was common in Tarsus, and Paul’s reoccurring weakness, stabbing pain, and ecstatic experiences match malaria symptoms they suggest that was probably Paul’s lifelong disability. 4
Paul’s dad was not only a citizen, but also said to be a Pharisee. So too is Paul. Pharisaic Judaism emphasized maintaining cultural practices so that Jewish identity and the religion would not be diluted by the Greco -Roman culture. Pharisees were a Jewish sect–what we might call a denomination. Pharisees emphasized obeying the laws of Moses and the tradition of the elders focusing on holiness. Some Pharisees were hostile to Jesus, while others were helpful. 5 Paul was initially of a Pharisaic vein that was hostile to the post-Easter Jesus Movement. Within a few years of Jesus’ crucifixion Paul by his own admission persecuted that small but growing sect of Jews who followed the risen Christ Jesus, a sect that later becomes Christianity.

 

So the adult Paul started out as a Jewish Pharisee, and as a young man he persecuted the Jewish Jesus Followers for heresy, trying to quell the Greco-Roman influence from diluting and corrupting Judaism. Paul must have been of the mind that Jesus Followers were doing just that by asserting that “Gentiles could become full members of the people of God without following Jewish conversion requirements . . .” 6.

 

Paul and some–but not all– Pharisees were trying to stop them from changing Judaism into something other than what he and those who thought like him believed it should be. (We see this kind of still going on in Christianity today, right?).  Paul sums what he was doing up like this in Galatians (1:13), “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” The Book of Acts claims Paul (who was then called Saul) was at the stoning of Stephen and approved of it (7:58-8:1) and that later Paul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1).
Paul was doing his persecution stuff in and around Damascus when something extraordinary happened in the mid-30s. Paul had an intense life altering vision. Marcus Borg puts it like this:

 

According to Acts, Paul saw a great light, and the light identified itself as Jesus. According to Paul’s letters, Paul saw Jesus . . .What he saw and experienced convinced him that we was wrong, that the Jesus who he had been persecuting was not only alive, but Lord. 7

 

From this mystical and marvelous event forward Paul becomes an apostle of Jesus. 8 An Apostle is someone sent. According to Paul he is an apostle sent directly by Christ to form new communities. First he goes to what we now call Jordan, we know almost nothing about what he did there. We do know that later in the 40s Paul traveled to a mission field in Turkey as a subordinate of Barnabas. Later Paul and Barnabas, split up with Paul going to Asia Minor and Greece spending a good deal of his time in Corinth and Ephesus. 9.
Paul traveled on foot and by boat. He walked over mountains and long dusty roads and he traveled over water by boat. A lot of it was dangerous journeying. Geography is not the only threat. Unlike our culture, free speech and religious choice are not legal rights. So Paul’s work leads to arrests, beatings and imprisonment.

 

Paul provides a summary of the dangers he experienced in 2 Corinthians (11:23-28). After generally asserting he’s had to experience great labors, imprisonment, countless floggings and near death he list these examples:

 

Five times I have received . . . the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked . . . In Damascus, the governor . . . guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands. (2Co 11:21-1 NRS) . .

. (THAT’s PAUL WRITING)

 

Whenever I get a mean or snarky comment about practicing, preaching and teaching Christ’s love-centered theology, I try to remember to compare them to Paul’s or Jesus’ list of abuses, and I smile with relief that my work has not exposed me to anything near the list of abuses they endured. Paul faces so much danger that he is nothing short of heroic by any standards in his mission work.

 

Paul experiences some hellish stuff in part because he starts doing what he once persecuting others for. Paul is now the one promoting a form of Judaism that allows Gentiles in without following long established Jewish rules. 10 So he’s persecuted like he persecuted. But another part of the turbulence Paul faces is likely due to his not corrupting Judaism, but going into synagogues and syphoning off Gentiles community members who were participating, but not converting because they found the Jewish rites and rituals unacceptable.

 

Paul goes in, offers a way to be Jewish without concern and requests to comply with the unacceptable rites and rituals. So Gentiles join the Jewish Jesus Movement and leave the synagogue taking their time, talent and treasures with them. The is understandably not cool with some of the local synagogues making Paul very unpopular.

 

On top of which Paul gets into tiffs with the early leaders of the church. They argue mostly over the same stuff that gets him in trouble elsewhere. It is the same stuff that got Jesus in trouble and still gets us in trouble: the practice, preaching and teaching of a wide open embrace for all, love for everyone, equality, egalitarism and a God who’s love has no strings attached regardless of what ancient scripture said or how others interpreted it.
Paul is NOT following a number of Biblical dictates in order to spread God’s love far and wide, in particular to the Gentiles. Paul is given charge over converting Gentiles, that’s his audience in the mission field–and he ignores scriptural edicts that are not core to the practice of loving neighbors.

 

Paul knows his audience and what will work. He argues with early church leaders that Gentile Jesus Followers do not have to follow Jewish ritual and dietary rules. The leaders on the other hand argue Gentiles do have to follow them. As we see in his letters Paul also argues with leaders and members in churches he’s founded or giving advice to. Plus Roman officials arrest and imprison and eventually kill him.

 

Paul can be understood as embroiled in conflict almost everywhere he turns. He experiences conflict with some Pharisees; synagogues; church leaders; church members; and with Romans too.

 

Paul’s conflicts and his life ends – it is believed– when Nero has him executed in 64 AD as a part of Nero falsely blaming Christians for a great fire that raged through Rome.

 

If you read Paul’s letters and The Book of Acts you can get a feel for a lot of the conflict Paul encounters, the scars and wounds and his strength and resolve in providing loving responses as a part of his theology. Paul sums up this core theology in Romans 13:10 like this, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
In today’s reading if we listen carefully we can hear some of this biographical stuff vibrating still in his words as he eludes to some of what he went through some wounds and scars affect him still. What I love best, though, is that he overlooks the wounds and scars we so that can experience in Paul’s writing even stronger vibrations of the light and love that he first encountered on the road to Emmaus– it still dances off the page and sings in the love song of his prose:

 

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.
For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.
As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ.
But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

(Paul of Tarsus. Paul an Apostle of Christ).

 

May we overlook our wounds and scars and learn to so deeply care for others that we become determined to share with them not only the gospel of God but our own selves through our loving acts and our loving words. May we aim to treat others as dearly and as precious as a nursing mom treats her child. And may the reason be that others actually become that dear and that precious to us. AMEN!
ENDNOTES:
1. Feasting on the Word commentary for year A, vol iv, p 208-210)
2. Including Borg, Marcus, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written; Crossan, John Dominic & Reed, Jonathan, In Search of Paul; Borg Marcus, Crossan Dominic, The First Paul.
3. Borg, “Evolution of the Word” at 24
4. The First Paul, at 63-65.
5. Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms
6. The First Paul, at 69
7. Evolution of the Word at 23
8 The First Paul at 72
9. Evolution of the Word at 23
10. Ibid.

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COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of Scott’s October 19 sermon:

Avoiding Traps and Giving God Everything
a sermon based on Matthew 22:15-22
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 19, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As you might imagine good lawyers show up well prepared for examination of witnesses in any legal proceeding. A prepared lawyer can usually tell if a witness is going to be easy to lead (or some like to say “trap”) into damaging testimony. The tell signs are the witness acting rude or condescending or playing games with the questions or facts signaling they are more interested in something other than the questions or accurate responses. Such distractions allow a prepared lawyer to kinda judo flip the mischief into the witness not seeing where questions are going until it is too late.

 

One time I was cross examining a deputy who treated me like I was stupid from the moment we were introduced. So, using my incredible acting skills, I made him think he was so much smarter than me that he focused on how he’d trap me and show me up, not on where my questions were leading. It was only after that deputy completely discredited a Breathilizer test– the lynch pin of the case against my client– that he paid attention. By then it was too late, and he lost the case for the state – and rightly so.

 

We have this sort of witness interrogation stuff going on in today’s story, Only one of the questioners is prepared, Jesus. While the disciples of the religious elite are wholly unprepared and so they lose the case, sorta speak.  Jesus had been challenging the unpopular Roman rule and it’s appointed religious elite since the start of what we now call Holy Week and the crowd was loving it, so much so Caesar’s henchmen, the religious elite could not just arrest him or what they had without upsetting the throng gathered for Passover. So they decided to try and trap Jesus into saying something to either upset the crowd–who did not want to pay taxes to Rome; or to blatantly upset Rome by illegally urging the crowd aloud to not pay the taxes, a treasonable and arrestable offense.

 

Perhaps thinking themselves beneath chatting with the likes of Jesus, the elite sent their arrogant and condescending agents to do the questioning. The agents thought they were smarter than Jesus and start with condescending flattery.

 

Here’s a free legal tip, if a lawyer ever starts a question by buttering you up, watch out.

 

The elite’s lackeys’ buttering up which was sure to please the crowd and not untrue, went like this:

 

Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think.

 

That’s set up stuff and it might work if the follow up questions are a bit more subtle. But the lackeys segue awkwardly, even humorously, trying to throw the trap, abruptly asking after the sugary sweet schmoosing, “You are super nifty Jesus” . . . “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

 

Jesus is one smart cookie. Not only is he “aware of their malice” as the text tells us, but he begins setting a counter trap by cleverly misdirecting their attention snapping at them “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” The questioners have now gotta be put off their guard thinking “Oh no he knows we are enemies likely to trap him!”
Jesus lets them know that he knows it’s a trick, but them misdirects them, easing their minds with what they must have been considered an unexpected easy simpleton like question– as if he’s such a poor rube, as if he’s never seen one before, he asks for a coin: “Show me the coin used for the tax.” Now the elite have to be thinking “Pfffft he’s so poor and stupid he doesn’t even know what’s on a coin, let alone have one.”

 

Since they had coins to show the crowd, and he didn’t, Jesus’ words show how much better these elite are than him– and most of the crowd for that matter.This misdirection would have suggested to them that Jesus didn’t understand they were trying to trap him after all because they had to be thinking he was going to stare at the coin and eventually answer either “Yes pay Caesar” or “No, don’t pay Caesar” and either answer “ Ha Ha!” was a trap.  “Yes” the crowd turns on him and they can arrest him for his disruptive conduct during Holy Week. “No,” Rome has all it needs to arrest him for rebelling in front o a crowd of witnesses against the Empire.

 

Jesus tells them to “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  Digging for the coins to show they have one – and know what one is– the elite don’t even give a second thought to Jesus setting them up to give evidence against themselves. They just do not see it coming. They fall right into his trap as we are told, “they brought him a denarius.”
A denarius was the smallest Roman silver coin of the realm. It represented, as I mentioned last month, a day’s wage. It is significant because it was a particular Roman coin with the image of Caesar on it. 1

 

See these elite lackeys sent by the Roman appointed religious leaders and Jewish king, are in one respect like Jesus and the crowd, they too are Jewish and Jewish law prohibited carrying coins bearing images. 2

 

In other words having the coins in violation of Jewish law discredits those elite in front of the crowd. They have abhorred contraband, tainted sacrilegious Roman coins. Who’s the traitor in the eyes of the crowd now? The religious elite.

 

The trap is closing. And Jesus goes out of his way to put teeth into the trap asking them to say aloud for all to hear in case they have never seen that particular coin, “Whose head is this, and whose title?’”   The image is, as I said, Caesar’s, and the title on THAT coin for Caesar is “Son of God.” When the elite describe Caesar’s head is on the coin, the trap is closed, the teeth set: they’ve just confessed that they are carrying and own the idol of a Roman deity. More than that, Caesar is in essence “the ruthless Pharaoh” of First Century Palestine. It is Caesar who now oppresses the Hebrew people. And these agents of the religious elite have in their pockets, not only a day’s wages while many starve, but that the coin they carry asserts that the one who oppresses them – Caesar– is divine in nature. It’s an outrage sure to further align the crowd with Jesus.
Pretty effective questioning. Jesus is a master at it.

 

To add to the wounds to the now trapped elite, Jesus then escapes what they must have considered a foolproof trap. As soon as “They answered that the emperor’s’ head and title are on the coin, Jesus “said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”

 

Over the years many religious elite have tried to read this answer to justify separating political and religious obligations, as if Jesus was teaching that we should be obedient to our emperors. That’s what the elite have pitched this story is about. That’s actually . . . poppycock– a word I actually learned from a federal judge I clerked for . . .poppycock. Jesus was not obedient to the state, that’s why Rome arrested, tried and executed him. Paul was also not obedient to state that’s why Rome arrested, tried and executed him. Indeed all the martyrs killed by Rome were like Jesus and Paul disobedient to Caesar by following the real Son of God. Jesus, Paul, early Christians and the early church challenged the state head on.
In fact if you think about it, this church with its anti-slavery beginnings was formed over the issue of challenging the government too. Our forebearers deliberately challenged and set out to not obey laws that helped slavery. We actively opposed them and worked to free slaves–a crime at the time!
Here’s the thing, what Jesus is doing in the story is “simultaneously evading a trap and turning the trap against hostile interrogators” 3 all the while making us think about human image not being in a coin, but how we are supposed to be God’s image. Regardless of class or status Genesis tells us we are all made in God’s image . . .

 

What Jesus meant in the context of the story by saying “Give . . . to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” with respect to the coin, was literally “it’s Caesar’s coin— give it back to him.” 4 That is Marcus Borg’s conclusion in his fantastic new book Convictions. Dr. Borg goes on to note that today’s story does not answer the obvious follow-up question “And what belongs to God?” He writes

The text does not answer this question, but the answer is obvious: everything belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” as Psalm 24 puts it. And if everything belongs to God, nothing belongs to Caesar.” 5

 

Everything belongs to God . . . if that is true –and surely it must be– then what is the meaning of Jesus’ statement “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s?”
It seems to me Jesus’ statement cleverly traps us all into a narrow conclusion of hearing that broadly all is God’s; and that we are to give God what is God’s. We must give our all to God and all back to God.

 

What’s really interesting is that a lot of us might think first of our money, our silver denarius, our day’s wages but Jesus doesn’t seem to care much about money in this or any other story. He traps the elite with the literal idiolatry in their purses (the face of Caesar and the claim he was the Son of God). They are caught with the idiolatry given to money and power, so much so it overrules their allegiance to, and reverence for, God and the scriptural calls to justice, fairness, love and peace.

 

Jesus’ answer “It’s Caesar’s coin give it back to him” is meant to completely diminish the huge place money takes on in day-to-day life, what we might call our living for the all mighty buck.

 

Jesus’ focus is on ALL that is God’s, which in the big scheme of things – in a universal or even an earthly sense– far, far outweighs, out shines, out values and certainly dwarfs any elite powers’ coinage or even personal behavior like backing the powerful and seeking to control behavior and beliefs like the religious elite do in the story. Or like they do today worrying about personal prosperity and trying to control sexuality, abortion, gay marriage, prayers in school, or their thoughts on Creationism, all issues that ARE NOT championed by Jesus or any other prophet in the Bible.  The issues Jesus and other prophets champion are about justice, fairness, love, and peace. 6 (see 152).

 

In the story today Jesus is trying to get everyone listening to not fret about money, not to revere it and to not only give all over to God and do it God’s way, but to also consider the vast sum of all the things that God has made and revere God in it all. You know . . . consider the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, a sunny day, a smiling face, the moon, fall leaves, children’s laughter, a loved one’s touch, rainbows, jokes, music, books, movies, grass, oceans, brooks, food, loved ones, the list goes on and on and on. All the glorious stuff that really ought to matter is God’s.

 

That, I think, is Marcus Borg’s point, that Jesus is teaching us that Empires’ coins and taxes and power mean nothing in comparison to that which is God’s. When we dedicate, pay homage, idolize, revere God in and through all that is then our lives are focused on what matters, God. God in lilies and children and birds and sunsets and such. And most especially God in justice and fairness and love and in peace too. That’s what the Bible is about, it’s what Jesus’ teachings are about– understanding all that matters is God’ and all that should matter to us is God. When we do that we do not just feel blessed, but become blessings. Indeed we become fully the image of God, what the Bible from the start tells us we really all, all, all are intended to be– GOD’S IMAGES IN CREATION.
It’s not the Caesars and religious elite who stand out and matter as they’d like us to believe, it is everybody and everything. Which is the point of Psalm 24 (1-6), the words I read earlier:

 

The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

 

The face of God is in everyone and is everywhere. May we revere God in it all.
AMEN!
ENDNOTES:
1.Borg, Marcus, Conversations with Scripture; the Gospel of Mark, p 96.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Borg, Marcus, Convictions p. 164.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid at 152.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The text of Scott’s October 12 message

Women Matter Equally
a sermon based on Philippians 4:1-9
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 12, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A few years ago when I was a pastor in Florida a stranger called the church one day and proceeded to make a big fuss, telling me in no uncertain terms that my church and I needed to mend our ways and condemn Gays. I listened politely and really rather gently suggested to the woman on the phone that we saw things differently, had different theologies and were not going to come to an agreement as to how to understand the Bible, God or our LGBT brothers and sisters. This only seemed to make the caller madder and quote the Bible more, telling me I had to take it literally. When I was allowed to get a word in, I calmly indicated that while I did not agree with the text I was about to cite and that I found it abhorrent, I wanted to know why if she believed in Biblical literalism she was calling and fussing at me when 1st Timothy 2 in essence says women should be seen and not heard in church matters? As it turns out, like me, she didn’t want literalism applied to ancient unloving texts when they oppressed her – I’ve found that, not surprisingly, that nobody does!

 

That was not the only time I’ve cited 1st Timothy in response to bullies, male and female. It’s an awful text that literalists need to explain in the context of their wanting to enforce oppressive Bible verses against anyone, because it is one of a number of ancient scriptural rules for living that we ignore in our culture by and large.

 

I think it is a very, very good thing that we do not follow the edict that women should be seen and not heard in church. I have long fought against that text–and it is a text that contradicts the teachings of Jesus and the early church.

 

The text I am referring to is 1st Timothy 2:11-12:

 

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1Ti 2:11-12 NRS)

 

Pretty ugly stuff, right? In considering today’s text I want to point out that at the start of 1st Timothy the author wrote claiming to be (quote)

 

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope . . . (1Ti 1:1 NRS)

 

So lots and lots of people blame Paul and make a fuss against him about the awful verse I read:

 

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1Ti 2:11-12 NRS)

 

But here is the thing, Paul DID NOT WRITE those verses, in fact serious Bible scholars have long thought that Paul the Apostle did not write any of 1st Timothy. Not a word. 1 The author of that book falsely claims his ugly misogynistic text was written by Paul.

 

Anyone wanting to refute the modern doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible just needs to go to 1st Timothy verse one and the claim that it is Paul’s letter, that claim is errant. You can also go to Paul’s other letters and Jesus teachings and practices to refute the terrible idea that woman are to be seen and not heard at church or anywhere else.

 

I am making a big fuss about this because a lot of us think Paul was anti-woman based on texts that many scholars think he did not pen. A study of Christianity actually reveals that the early church was quite egalitarian with respect to gender . . . and so was Paul. Honest!

 

See Jesus was egalitarian so it should not be surprising that Paul– who is writing much closer in time to Jesus than any other author in the New Testament– teaches more like Jesus and leads communities that act more like Jesus than the later pseudo-Pauline authors .

 

(Like whomever wrote that awful stuff in 1st Timothy that I tend to fuss about with literalists because many of them don’t apply anti-women verses for– like I indicated– the same reasons we don’t apply their anti-homosexual verses they are oppressive, unloving and un-Christ-like).

 

In today’s Lectionary reading – which scholars are as certain as can be was written by Paul– Paul IS making a fuss – a big fuss. It’s actually a fuss about a fuss. Two very important leaders in the church at Philippi are in some kind of disagreement and Paul is worried these important leaders will not reconcile and perhaps even pull the church apart into factions following one leader or the other. That is, Paul is worried Euodia and Syntyche’s dispute could split the church. 2 So important are these two leaders that Paul does not just name them and diplomatically suggest they resolve their differences, but he goes out of the way to show deep respect for them and link them to himself. He notes that they struggled together with him as teammates “in the ministry of the gospel.” He makes sure to point out Euodia (yoo-row-dia) and Syntyche (sin-tah-key) were such valuable coworkers with him in ministry that their names are in the scroll of life–the heavenly record of the righteous. It is very certain from the reading that Paul holds these two leaders in high esteem, they are his equals and valued and respected and he is trying to quell whatever storm has been building up between them because they matter not just to God and Paul, but to the survival of the church. That much seems clear from the reading.

 

What is often glossed over and sometimes not heard or understood or clear is that Eurodia  and Syntyche are powerful women, which means there were women leaders backed by Paul in what is Paul’s first established European church.
All of this illumination by Paul, and all of his gushing co-worker equal talk stuff is about two female leaders of one of the most important churches in the New Testament the church at Philippi. Acts 16:9-15 mentions what are believed to be some of the details of the founding of this important church. Listen to an excerpt of the story from Acts and note how important women are in the telling:

 

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” . . . [W]e immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail [for] . . . Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

 

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us . . . The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. (Excerpt of Act 16:9-15 NRS).

 

Later in verse 40 Lydia’s home appears as the Philippians’ church house where local Christians gathered. This Lydia person, of course, was a woman.

 

Women, you see, were without doubt instrumental in the formation and founding of early churches. The text today also evidences women were important church leaders.

 

No matter what we were raised believing about Paul or even the early church’s relegation of women to second class status as Christians, the true story is women were considered equal in the early church and held leadership positions. They were NOT expected to be submissive, silent and without authority!

 

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, one the most influential theologians of our time, noted in her masterpiece In Memory of Her that Paul’s references to women in his letters evidence that the early church knew women

 

as prominent leaders and missionaries who – in their own right– toiled for the gospel. These women were engaged in missionary and church leadership activity both before Paul and independently of Paul. Without question they were equal and sometimes even superior to Paul in their work for the gospel. 3

 

Prof. Fiorenza goes on to note that

 

The Pauline letters mention women as Paul’s coworkers, but these women were not “helpers of Paul or his “assistants.” . . .The genuine Pauline letters apply missionary titles and such characterizations as co-worker (Pricsca), brother/sister (Apphia), diankonos (Phoebe) and apostle (Junia) to women . . . 4 .

 

Dr. Fiorenza expressly points out that Phoebe’s role was as “a minister of the whole church.” 5. She notes that

 

Paul . . . affirms that women worked with him on an equal basis. Phil[ippians] 4:2-3 explicitly states that Euodia (yoo-row-dia) and Syhtyche (sin-tah-key) have “contended” side by side with him . . . Paul considers the authority of both women so great that he fears their dissension could do damage to the Christian mission. 6

 

See the real Paul did not hold women back as the author of 1st Timothy would have us believe.

In fact as we have heard over the past month following Christ is never about holding others down. It’s never about considering yourself better than others. In one of my favorite Pauline passages of all time, Galatians 3:27-28, Paul makes it abundantly clear that Christians are to look at each other as equals. He writes

 

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

 

No one is left out of that sweeping description by Paul. Everyone in the church is one in Christ and equal.
Baptism is the great equalizer of all Christians. This was true in the early church and to Paul and it still is – in the Bible.

 

The text I just read from Galatians is important says Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza because

 

the baptismal declaration . . . offered a new religious vision to women and slaves, it denied all male religious prerogatives in the Christian community based on gender roles . . . 7

 

The author of 1st Timothy in his ugly repressive text was trying to undo what the real Paul and the early church practiced. That non-Pauline letter was trying to silence women and put them back into the patriarchy’s confined place in the culture and the male dominated church leadership. 8 But, of course, the real Paul and the real early church are closer to what the original Jesus Followers were doing. They were taking their example from Jesus who had women disciples and leaders in his ranks. It is no accident that Mary Magdalene is remembered in gospel accounts as being the first to experience the risen Christ and is the first to bring that glorious message of Easter to others. It is no accident that other women are also recorded as having been among the first followers of Jesus to experience the resurrected Christ and understand his ministry was to continue on in a movement that became the church which is filled with not just men, but with women working side-by-side as equals just as Paul’s letter evidences. The New Testament remembers–despite the best efforts of some men – that women helped co-lead the church and were equals in it from day one. Today’s Lectionary lesson is one such recollection.

 

No matter what anyone told us growing up, or tells us now, women matter in the Jesus Movement before and after Easter and well into the development of what becomes known as the church. They are equals, they are leaders and they are followers of Jesus who established the Church – as did men.

 

The good news is that we have this very early egalitarian model for us as church. It’s one I am very happy to find thriving and being followed –and conserved– here at First Congregational Church. Here women matter, women are leaders, women can speak and be heard and women are equal not just before God, but before this congregation. That is as it should be. And it is Biblical! Here in this community “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.” Thank you all . . . and God and Jesus and Paul for that.

AMEN.

 

ENDNOTES:
1. Crossan, John Dominic & Reed, Jonathan, In Search of Paul, p xiii, 105-106; Krause, Deborah, 1 Timothy, p xiii, pps 1-8, Borg Marcus, Crossan Dominic, The First Paul, pps 14-15 , 54-58.
2. Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler, In Memory of Her, p 169
3. Ibid. at 161
4. Ibid. at 169
5. Ibid at at 170
6. Ibid at 169
7. Ibid at 217
8. See, Borg & Crossan at 54-58

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of Scott’s October 5th sermon:

Re-Reading the Ten Commandments Through a Lens of Love *
a sermon based on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9;12-20
October 5, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I recently read some amusing quotes by children about their recollection of Bible stories. Here are some of the best quotes:

 

-Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark.
-Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night . .
-The Egyptians were all drowned in the desert. Afterward Moses went up Mt. Cyanide to get the Ten Amendments.
-The First Commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple.
-The Fifth Commandment is to humor thy mother and father.
-The Seventh Commandment is thou shall not admit adultery.
-Moses dies before he ever reached Canada. Then Joshua led the Hebrews in the Battle of Geritol.
-Jesus enunciated the Golden Rule which says to do unto others before they do unto you .
-The epistles were the wives of the apostles . . .
-St Paul cavorted to Christianity. He preached holy acrimony, which is another name for marriage. 1

 

That is pretty funny stuff. Those misunderstandings by children make us smile.
There are adult misunderstandings of the Bible too, most of them are a little less amusing. One of the concerns I’ve long had is that we think the Old Testament is, well . . . old and not useful. I hear sometimes that we should just do away with it. Other times I hear that the Old Testament is all about an angry God while the New Testament is about a loving God.
This idea that the Old Testament is somehow old and moldy and only about an angry God– belies the fact that all of Jesus’ teachings and most of the rest of the New Testament are derived from the Old Testament AND the God depicted therein. Jesus and Paul, the preeminent human beings in the New Testament, were both Jewish, and they both worshiped and followed Yahweh the God of their religion, and the God of what we call the Old Testament, which really is best called the Hebrew Scriptures. And those scriptures, they lay the foundation– the underpinnings– for Christianity.
Not only is Yahweh Jesus, Paul and the early Church’s God, Yahweh is our God. Have you seen our new sign? It proclaims “God is love.” So like most Sundays we are going to talk about that God who is love using the Old Testament.
I had this wonderful comment a few weeks ago by a member of the church right after the service, on the way out the door he said “Love and peace, you can’t go wrong with that.” Not only is he right, but he pretty much summed up the focus of every church service here. Love, God, longs for and leads us to peace.

 

Jesus message, like this church’s, over and over again is that we are to love. Jesus got that core message from the Old Testament, it is Leviticus 19:18 that first commands love your neighbor as yourself.  And like the Old Testament book of Leviticus, the New Testament books of Matthew (22:39) , Mark (12:31), Luke (10:27), Romans (13:9), Galatians (5:14) and James (2:8) all contain that command that we are to love our neighbors as our self.  Both Jesus and Paul assert this Old Testament commandment, along with love God, is the sum all the Old Testament commandments.   See to them, to Jesus and Paul, the Old Testament– the Hebrew Scriptures– mattered. They mattered enough that both Jesus and Paul tried to capture the essence in their teaching and preaching and actions.   Not only that, but the New Testament writers and compilers thought those teachings important enough to record and remember and pass down for generations in what we have come to call the Word of God, the Bible.
So this morning I want to invite us all to consider opening our minds up about the Old Testament. Lets erase any pre-conceived notions we have about the Hebrew Scriptures and look at this morning’s very famous text anew, and lets look for love in the message ‘cause it’s there . . . I promise.   Thinking openly about the Ten Commandments (and any Bible story actually) can help us reclaim their rich meanings. See our reclamation and open thinking about the Bible ought not to be limited to just stories and metaphor. We can also often choose to reclaim the meaning of the law.

 

We don’t have to hear the Ten Commandments as stodgy outdated oppressive laws that some politicians and religious elites rarely seem to follow, but still try and stick in everyone’s face out in the public market place.  While many of us may bristle at the notion of having the Ten Commandments zealously hung about town by the government, the truth is that those Ten Commandments can be read and heard as one heck of a set of rules requiring love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. The Ten commandments are radical, subversive, love-centered texts.
Now I suspect most of us grew up hearing the Ten Commandments as law from an angry, wrathful, punishing God, the type of god many of those who loudly advocate imposing the Ten Commandments in the market place seem to tend to believe in and peddle. But here’s what we need to do, we need to shift our thinking and consider what those ten commandments might mean if we take instead Paul and Jesus’s spin on the law and hear the Ten Commandments as they both did, based on love, from the God of Love, Yahweh.
When we do this something amazing happens: the harsh laws are transformed into loving laws that reflect a call to love God and love neighbor.

Check it out:
First some background: Traditionally the Ten Commandments have been “commonly understood as divided into ‘two tablets’: one concerning relations to God . . .and one concerning [relations to] neighbor.” 2.  This division is very interesting because – as I promised– it matches up squarely with Jesus’s assertion that all the law and the prophets hang on two commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.

 

With that in mind, with that love filter on, if you will, let’s look at the four commandments on the tablets that pertain to our relationship with God, the ones that command us not to have other gods, not have idols, not use God’s name in vain and to keep the Sabbath holy.

 

The first Commandment is, like all but one, specifically aimed at the Hebrew people. God, speaking to the Hebrews through Moses, proclaims “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.”   The word translated as “Lord” is Yahweh and the word God comes from the Hebrew word for gods, Elohyim. Yahweh is the Hebrew’s god among other choices for gods, and is recognized as the Hebrew people’s God because Yahweh sided with them in their oppressions and rescued them.

 

This Commandment asks that those – the Hebrews– who follow God, Yahweh, recognize Yahweh from experiences of saving-liberating acts. God is known as the one who sides with the oppressed and frees them, liberates them, looks after their well being. This is the very same God we know as the God of Love, right?

 

And note that this First Commandment while issued to the followers of Yahweh also recognizes other god choices.   The First Commandment does not demand that those who follow other gods must follow Yahweh, the God of Love, only that the people of Yahweh must. “I am the Lord your God . . .”

 

The God we understand and try and place before us is love. The god others have before them is often something all together different.   So this Commandment does not have to be heard as a dictate that only the angry god of the religious elite can be worshiped! Rather it can be heard anew as a dictate that those who follow Yahweh, which Christians are supposed to do, are to have no god, but the God of Love.

 

In fact the part of the Commandment that reads “no other gods before me” can be translated as no other gods “at my altar,” “in my house,” “during worship.” 3
In other words, as a people of Yahweh we are not to compromise our worship services, our prayers, this holy sacred place with any other god, we must at all time keep before us the God of Love, the One who saves and liberates us and delivers the oppressed and downtrodden to safety –the God who loves and is love.

 

Now imagine for a moment what a difference it would make if all of Christendom had no other God but the God of Love in church on Sundays!  Racism and its hate could never be promoted in church with only the God of Love before congregations.  Sexism and its hate could never be promoted in church with only the God of Love before congregations.
Xenophobia and its hate could never be promoted in church with only the God of Love before congregations.  Homophobia and its hate could never be promoted in church with only the God of Love before congregations.   Hearing the First Commandment in this way gives us a very different Way to hear the law. It promotes the God of love; a Way of love; a Way away from hate.
The Second Commandment reads “you shall not make yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”   Hearing this through the Love God/Love-others filter that the Jewish Rabbi Jesus established for his followers, “You shall not make for yourself an idol” does not mean don’t worship images of the loving god that offends religious elites, but, rather don’t idolize anything other than the God of Love.   This means don’t idolize anything including not only images from creation, but also money, wealth, power and I dare say the Bible; or unloving church traditions, dogmas, dictates or creeds.   Nothing, absolutely nothing (no matter where it comes from), is to stand between us and the God of Love.
Think how things might look if there was no idolatry in our houses of worship. No idols of man-made doctrines, phobias, hatreds, riches or religious pronouncements. Instead we’s only gaze upon the God of Love!
The Third Commandment is “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” If we hear this as a prohibition against misusing the God of Love’s name it’s no longer about swearing or cursing, it is about misusing the name of God (who is Love) for things that are not loving. God’s name is not to be used as an instrument of hate or hurt or oppression or injustice, or other violence.
Pretty cool stuff this rehearing the commandments.

 

The last love God related Commandment is “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” this is not a prohibition, but, rather calls us to positive action– and it’s the one commandment intended to apply to everyone. We are to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Stop all distractions, dedicate a day to the God of Love and keep it holy . . .
This benefits us not only by keeping us in touch with God but by letting our body and mind rest and focus on that which is holy: the God of Love. One day of the week, the whole day, being all about Love ought to work for all of us.

 

The rest of the commandments are on the tablet for relations with others, our neighbors. They are quite easy to hear as love oriented when we think about it. I’ll just run through them quickly.  Honor your father and your mother is not about kids doing as parents tell them or accepting abuse by a parent, rather it is, treat with respect, provide for and care for all mothers and fathers, the elders in the family of Christ, the elders down the street and the elders from coast to coast. Love these neighbors as yourself.

 

The other commandments follow this Yahweh’s-followers-are-to-love neighbors line. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet your neighbor’s things or spouse. These commandments are about honoring your neighbors, acting respectfully and lovingly toward them.

 

So there we have it. Heard anew all ten commandments are about love of God and love of neighbor. Imagine that! Jesus got it right! The law is about loving God and about loving others.  When understood as being about love, the Ten Commandments are not stodgy prohibitions or outdated rules that favor the religious elites’ way of understanding God, rather they are a Way for us Christians to stay focused on the God of Jesus, Yahweh, the God of Love and to spread that love about.

 

So here’s the thing, if anyone asks what today’s sermon was about the simple answer is: it was about The Ten Commandments being read as requiring love of God and the love of others, the same stuff Jesus and Paul and the New Testament teach. . .

 

AMEN.

 

 

 

 

ENDNOTES
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2008.
1. I got this quote out of 1001 Quotes, Illustrations, and Humorous Stories, Grand Rapids, Baker Books, (2008), 298 attributed to Roger Moberg.
2. New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol I, p. 839.
3. Ibid. at 841.
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2014

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The text of the September 28 sermon:

Emptying Himself Jesus Became Full of Humanity
a sermon based on Philippians 2:1-13
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 28, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A kindergarten teacher was walking around her classroom while her students drew pictures. One little girl was scribbling so intently that the teacher asked what she was drawing. The little girl replied, “I’m drawing a picture of Jesus.” The teacher said, “Oh honey, nobody really knows for sure what Jesus looked like.” The little girl responded, “Well they will in a minute.”

 

Paul draws a picture for us of Jesus in the reading today. I wish we’d know it in a minute –and we should since it’s been around for two thousand years in the Bible– but Paul’s picture seems to me to defy the general picture of Jesus most of us grew up with and still quite often hear about.  Paul’s depiction in the text to day clearly defies depictions of Jesus as some sort of all powerful supernatural being who donned a human body exploiting his divinity to pull off miracles and intentionally planning his crucifixion in order to save an exclusive better-than-everyone-else elite few who agree with this or that select denomination, church or pastor’s theological views.
And it is not just the picture of Jesus that Paul provides which contradicts a lot of our idea of who Jesus is– perhaps even more profound, is how much Paul’s description of what Christians are supposed to do is in opposition to what we’ve often been taught to do, and what we see or hear Christian leaders in the media doing and telling us Christians must do. Listen to verses 1 to 9 again where Paul describes what Christians are to do –and that we are to do it because of the Jesus Paul describes. Here’s what Paul wrote
I

 

f then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality
with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

 

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name . . .

 

Looking at this Bible text, a Lectionary reading for today, I find myself asking a number of questions about the Christianity we were raised with and still hear about from many quarters of the tradition, a Christianity many of us may still have lingering in our minds.
I am talking about, one: the general notion that Jesus lived his life on earth as an unnatural Divine-infused super man wielding super powers that we can never hope to have. And I am also talking about, two: the general notion that followers of Jesus act like an exclusive elite bunch because we’ve got the “right” religion and so we are better than everyone else– better than other people who go to other types of churches, better than those of other faiths, and certainly better than atheists, agnostics and those we deem to be sinners or other enemies of the faith or of us.

 

How does a supernatural Jesus and an exclusive elite Christianity jibe with the lesson today? Do they line up at all with what Paul calls the church to be and who Paul tells us Jesus is in our lesson today?

 

Paul meant this stuff to be taken seriously. Overlaying what he wrote onto modern portrayals of Jesus as a supernatural being and Christianity as blessing Christians as better than everyone I am in a word, stupefied. How is exclusive Christianity loving, sharing in the Spirit, compassionate or sympathetic? How is it being of the same mind as Paul, early Christians and Jesus the Christ? Indeed, if we are using Christianity in any way to think of ourselves as superior to any other person because of faith; non-faith; color; gender; age; political party; sexuality; nationality; physical or mental make-up; or income bracket, how is that complying with Paul’s very clear and quite literal commands?
I mean his command is pretty concise: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

 

As a teen I left the church over experiences of the exclusive self-centered side of the Christianity and did not return for twenty years. In those years of wandering without a faith community I would have come running back in heartbeat if I had heard a preacher tell me Paul said we are to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Indeed I joyfully came back to church precisely because I found a United Church of Christ in Oregon with a preacher teaching the very heart of the reading today and a congregation striving to live into those teachings.

 

Does that make the UCC better than other churches? For me, and many others, it does. It’s a lens that works for us – especially with respect to getting Paul’s commandments done. But – and this is important it– that does not mean I regard myself as better than other Christians, preachers or anyone else for that matter.

 

The New Revised Standard translation indicates Paul instructs Christians to “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” The phrase “regard others as better than yourselves” is a bit tricky to translate from the Greek. It is not meant to suggest there is a requirement of low self esteem, but rather as The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary puts it, it is meant “to encourage a recognition of the rights and achievements of others.” See, it’s not about putting your self down, but about putting others first. Modern Christianity in the media with its frequent “me first” approach (as we discussed a few weeks ago) seems very far away from Paul’s requirement– in the Bible– to put others first.
Paul ends any confusion in the translation in the next verse (verse 4) where he sums it all up commanding in the part that resonates so well for me: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” . . . “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Those words are really there. We may have never heard that scriptural command on the airwaves or even in church before, but Paul does not soft peddle this point. [L]ook not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”– it’s so hard to do, but we are supposed to do it, not ignore it or gloss over it. According to Paul a Christian’s duty is to look out for the interest of others.

 

There’s a popular song from 1972 by Bill Withers called “Lean on Me”that speaks to this idea of putting others first. Remember that song? I am not sure Mr. Withers drew his inspiration from scripture, but his lyrics nail the concept of what we are supposed to do. The refrain is “Lean on me when you’re not strong/And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.” The last verse goes “If there is a load/ You have to bear that you can’t carry/ I’m right up the road, I’ll share your load/If you just call me . . . /Call me . . .” That’s how we are supposed to be, right up the road ready to carry others’ loads–with no prerequisites, no believe this or believe that’s. Our call, our vocation, our undertaking as Christians, is to really, really care about the well being of everyone, we are to desire and act toward others’ well being, that’s what love is.

 

Paul tells us why we are supposed to act like this, to put others interests above ours. And he tells us by also quoting a song–which is where I got the idea. In the middle of the reading today we cannot see or hear it in the English prose, but Paul is quoting a Christian hymn. What’s especially cool about that is this hymn may be some of the earliest written Christian theology known. See, Paul is our earliest writer in the New Testament so a writing he quotes would be even earlier getting closer and closer to the beginnings of the church. I love that verses 6-11 echo one of our faith founders’ first known songs.
Here are the words, notice how they do not describe the magical supernatural God-like Jesus on earth that we grew up with, notice how Paul writes about the opposite sort of presence. The early church song says this about Christ :

 

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Vs 6-11)

 

Paul understood Jesus the Christ to have been fully in the form of God before arriving at birth, but upon arrival Paul indicates – unequivocally– that Christ, GOD, did not exploit this divine nature while in the human form of Jesus. Paul tells us Jesus “emptied himself” and took the form of a slave or servant. Christ came here as Paul puts it “born in human likeness” to be “found in human form.” To make certain we get the point Jesus did not act with God-like powers, the hymn points out that Jesus was so humble he was put to death on a cross as a human being. What this meant in First Century Palestine, to Paul’s audience, was that Jesus became the lowest of the low, a criminal condemned and suffering the most scandalized form of death, crucifixion.

 

Jesus so emptied himself of divine form, acted so humble as a servant to humankind that he reached the lowest class of personhood on the planet a crucified criminal. To Paul, Jesus’ strength is his un-superpower. Nonetheless Jesus of Nazareth– whose power for Paul was clearly a non-superpower– is nowadays credited and lauded for having superpowers.

 

Almost as ironic are claims that Christians derive an elite salvation and better-ness and holier than thou-ness by being Christian. The irony being Paul instructs us it is to mean the very opposite. For Paul, following Jesus means striving to have love and accord, aiming toward doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves. Taking Paul’s writing seriously and literally would mean that we Christians have to get off our high horses, empty ourselves of whatever divine supernatural blessings we think we have, and assume the form of servant to others. It is only when we do so that we can fully do as we are charged and look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Imagine what the world would be like if all Christians did this.

 

Even better, imagine what the world would be like if we thought that Jesus acted as a fully human being when Jesus did what he did before he was crucified. It makes sense of Paul’s admonition to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” It means that we don’t have to be a superman or superwoman to be like Jesus. If he was human, then what he did is within our grasp. We can be of the same mind in our very mortal bodies and we can do as Jesus did. For Paul it is not about turning water into wine, healing the sick, walking on water or raising the dead with magical mystical super power; it’s about humbling ourselves and serving others. Just as Jesus did. And if we do that we too will be exalted by God.

 

The good news in Paul’s writing that we have considered this morning is that all of this is within our reach. We can strive to have love and accord, aim toward doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, and in humility regard others as better than ourselves; looking not to our interests but the interests of others. We can strive to do it and we can do it. Jesus proved it. Paul promoted it . . . The good news is, we can be like Jesus– Love incarnate on earth.

 

AMEN!
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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Here’s the text of Scott’s September 21 sermon:

Peace is Providing What’s Needed
a sermon based on Matthew 20:1-16
given at Mount Vernon, OH on September 21, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Most of you probably know I was a lawyer, but what you probably don’t know is that before and during law school I worked in and managed – believe it or not– pizza restaurants. Seriously, I could pull beer like nobody’s business; change a keg in less than a minute, make fifty pounds of dough, twenty gallons of sauce, make and toss pizzas, and cook ‘em and dozens of other pies without burning any of them.
Over the years that I worked in restaurants I came to respect all the work that needs to be done and the workers. See I started out as a dishwasher. I also bussed, I prepped food. I even delivered pizza. And this is kinda a fun side note, one year Nancy and I even served food at the Emmy Awards in Hollywood!  . . .  I know how hard it is to do restaurant work. It may not pay well, and it generally doesn’t, but it is hard work, deserving respect so I tend to tip well and leave notes that say “Great service” and “Thank you” on my restaurant bills.
And you know most people working in your average restaurant, if they are lucky, make just enough to cover the cost of living. For most they pray that their day’s wage will be enough to survive. I fought hard as a manager for employee raises and I made sure that people living off their job were scheduled as often could be. I knew that they needed the day’s pay to live day-to-day.

 

Jesus’ parable from the Lectionary reading has a landowner paying all the workers (regardless of hours worked) a denaruis, which is correctly translated in the reading as a day’s wage. This is important– the landowner makes sure to provide the cost of living; to give the workers that day their daily bread. Any less and the worker would not have had enough to survive on. 1  To those workers in the story that pay would have been a necessity. It quelled hunger. It meant survival for another day. We can hear the story as calling listeners to imagine a world where every worker is given their daily bread. It doesn’t matter how much work was done, luck plays no role, enough for survival is just provided–that’s justice in the story.

 

And did you catch how in the story those last hired workers are not slackers, they want to work a full day for a full wage. Jesus himself tells us that the only reason they did not work was “because no one has hired [them].” We don’t know why these willing-to-work-last-hired-workers had not previously been hired. As day laborers in ancient Palestine we can be sure they were pretty much expendable to the upper classes and the government. They were the peasant poor that the elite could and did just toss aside. They were folks just barely hanging on; no land; no steady work; no one willing to hire them– Not much hope. Without work there is no pay. Without pay there is no food for the day.

 

Today is International Day of Peace. The word “peace” – shalom– in the Bible means more than the ceasing of physical violence, peace means well being . . . Shalom. 2
God is what we live and move and have our being in, so it makes sense that God wants well being for all in God’s being-ness. It also makes sense the Bible claims God is love, and that love in the Bible means desire for well being. God is love, the desire for well being.
The word justice in the Bible means providing that which is due. 3 We . . . all of us. . .everywhere, are, according to the Bible, due a desire for well being from each other (love). We are to love – you see– so that we can obtain peace on earth good will to all.
So God’s ultimate aim is peace, well being for all. All means everyone whether we like them or not, whether we think it is fair or not, or whether this or that political pundit or party wants it or not.

 

Justice is how well being comes about, it’s the desire for love in action. It’s the prerequisite to peace.

 

Today’s Lectionary text is very much about peace, about well being. We can understand these folks in Jesus’ story as on the threshold of being lost, truly down and out. Their well being is very much at risk. In the ordinary way of the world it is highly unlikely most of them would be given their daily bread.  In the story though the risk is overcome by the extraordinary actions of someone with resources and the ability to make a difference in a heavenly way– even if just for one day, even if just for a few workers on the edge.

 

The first out-of-work workers are offered a full day’s wage those approached later in the day are offered work for unknown wages, what Jesus calls “whatever is right.” The laborers have no choice, so they work what hours they can trusting they will get some crumb of pay. So the landowner offers the full day laborers a full day’s pay and to the later in the day workers the landowner offers paying what is right.

 

In the system back then– not unlike today– workers worked to get paid. That was what was considered fair. The more work, the more pay. The less work, the less pay. 4 That’s what WE expect would be the right pay.  “That’s the way the world works, if it is fair. But is it fair?” 5 We all sort of agree that what’s fair for a day’s wage is a day’s work. But we all know that life is not really fair. I mean some people don’t do much work at all and make loads of money. Others work hard and don’t make nearly the value of their work to the culture.

 

Indeed many hardworking laborers are lucky if they make the modern equivalent of a denarius. Often retail and restaurant and laborers– who work hard– barely, if at all, making a living wage. And there are, of course, those who want to work but are either unemployed or day laborers –just hoping to find a few hours of work.  A day’s wage for a day’s work is sometimes only a dream. People do fall short all over the world – and even in this nation– of what is needed to live.

 

And if we think this shortfall doesn’t happen in Ohio we need to think again. Here’s the saddest statistic I can think of (and I just saw it on Monday): pockets of poverty lead to increases in infant death. This happens in Ohio, so much so that African-American “babies in Ohio are more likely to die before their first birthdays than anywhere else in the nation.” 6 Ohio, not the deep south, leads the nation in African-American infant mortality. And we are among the bottom 7th in total infant mortality. 7

 

And nationwide the numbers are also disturbing, our own government rates Serbia, Croatia, and Cuba among the 55 countries ahead of our Nation in making sure to adequately care for all OUR babies so they live. 8

 

The United States is a good and wonderful country and I love it dearly, but we do not take care of our newborns nearly as well as we should given our vast resources and blessings. Babies, babies are dying when they should not be, because we don’t provide the bottom line necessities to human beings. That may seem dramatic, and it does because it is.
Sadly as a culture we tend to see the lack of necessities as the baby’s family’s problem not ours. And so infants die. Jesus’ parable today asks us to imagine a world that considers every single human being’s income problem as our problem. He asserts the Kingdom of Heaven– the Empire of God– is like that, not like it is. And it should not just trouble us that our babies are not surviving as they should, it should matter that people are not getting what is due, enough to have well being. That’s Jesus point. And this is a matter of peace, a matter of well being, a matter of shalom.

 

It may seem fair to us that our citizens are to sink or swim on their own fortune or misfortune since that is the set of the rules we purportedly live and work and get paid by. But Jesus’ parable is not about earthly ideas of rules of fairness, he’s asking listeners (us!) to consider what the world might look like when the Kingdom of Heaven’s rule are applied on earth. Are people getting their due, their daily living portions of resources? Is everybody being allocated what is needed to live? Have we created an economic reality – liberal, moderate, conservative or libertarian– where all are they getting enough? Or to put it in the very real unacceptable negative of my example, are babies dying because under our present system of living the well being of all is not paramount . . . so that peace is not our objective?

 

Our culture’s way of doing things doesn’t insure to provide adequate income, education, health care and nutrition for all. And the consequences are real. The richest nation in the world is on the 56th rung for infant mortality rates. The state we live in has the 7th highest infant mortality rate in the nation. The color of a baby’s skin leads her to face a higher risk of dying in this state than any other. I am not an economist. I am not a politician. I am a Christian clergyman and theologically speaking, letting families go without enough is sinful, it leads to shameful, heartbreaking realities. It leads to injustices. It leads away from peace.

 

Like I said justice is about getting what is due. And while the human economic rules that we live and breathe by may say that what is due is what you or your money have worked for, Jesus and God’s idea of what is due is something altogether different. It’s about peace, well being FOR EVERYONE.

 

Jesus told the story we heard today because his listeners were often nobodies, poor worthless-to-the-culture beings; expendables who did not have well being, their being was not well. Jesus’ story offers hope to those who can barely, if at all, find work, and it offers instruction to everyone else: God’s way is not about human rules of fairness in the workplace, but about justice – everyone getting what is due– in our day-to-day living. Ultimately it is about all getting what they need to survive, babies and children, and teens and adults.

 

Stephen Patterson, in his book remarkable book The God of Jesus has these questions and observations about the Parable of the Vineyard Workers:

 

What does a human being have a right to expect from life? Fairness? Hardly. What is fair depends on the rules by which we agree to play, whether in fact the rules are followed. A days wage for a day’s work. You’re paid what you’re worth. If you don’ work, you don’t eat. It all seems fair enough. But it really never works. The rules are not consistently applied. Does everyone really work a day for a day’s wage? And what are you worth? And how do you eat if there is not work? This parable is about work, worth and eating. If one still labors under the illusion that the workaday world is a fair and just way of making sure that all have the basic means to life then this story will be deeply disturbing. It is unfair. But more than that, if taken seriously, it deeply undermines the quid pro quo system of human relationships that govern our economy. Who among the workers will show up the next morning at the first hour? Everyone gets the same, regardless of how much they work. Will anyone show up at all?
But what if we define the question differently: In the Empire of God, what does a human being have the right to expect? A denarius a day. That is, enough to eat on for one day. You get what you need– what everyone needs– no more no less. In the Empire of God, it’s not what a person earns , but what a person needs that is due. Is that, could that be the basis for an economy? Yes, but only if one is willing to reimagine radically the basis for human relationships. Jesus imagined an Empire of God in which the basis for human relationship would be the mutual assurance that all would have what they needed, not what they could earn. Human worth is a given. It does not depend on one’s ability to offer something of value to someone else, to secure one’s own existence in a rough-and-tumble world of brokerage and competition. In the Empire of God, the means to life are offered to all freely, as a gift, regardless of what has been earned. 9

 

This is radical stuff. Usually today’s Bible text is used to preach about how God’s grace is doled out equally in heaven to those who come to Christ, whether they come along in the morning of life or come along just before night falls. There may be truth in that understanding, but it misses Jesus’ point in the parable, that the Kingdom of Heaven’s way of doing things on earth – God’s justice– is that all get what they need to make it through each day, whether they have earned it by human standards of fairness or not.

 

Jesus’ point is that we are all to have enough, no matter what. That may not be our standard and we may choose to dislike it, hate it, reject it and/or fight against it, but justice – fairness– by Jesus’ heavenly standards is that no one is supposed to worry about having enough work, having enough pay, having enough worth, having enough health care, having enough to eat.

 

God’s justice means basic necessities are provided to all humans. For most in the world throughout history and today, for many even here in Ohio that is about as good a news as could ever be hoped for. But imagining God’s justice, heaven on earth is not easy. Hearing Jesus call is not easy. Figuring out how to do it is difficult. Following it is hard stuff.

 

Our task –regardless of whether we accept it or like it– is to find a way to do as Jesus’ landowner does, give us all this day, and every day, our daily bread, enough to survive. May we one day accept that task, figure out how to pull it off together, and bring about peace– shalom– well being on earth to all.

AMEN!

ENDNOTES
1. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, Harrisburg, Trinity Press International (1998), 144. This book greatly influenced this entire sermon.
2. .McKim Donald, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (1996)
3. Ibid.
4. Patterson, p 144-145.
5. Ibid at 144.
6. http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/public/2014/09/alarming-losses-infant-mortality.html
7. I added the whole section on infant mortality late in the process and in preparing this final draft I realized I did not make note of the source. I tried to trace my steps but could not locate it. I found sites showing Ohio as 4th in 2010 at these two links: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/states/INFANT_MORTALITY_RATES_STATE_2010.pdf ; http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/ki-infant-mortality.pdf). I found other sites with other numbers (as high as 14th), but, as of finalizing this draft I could not find the one claiming 7th. I remember 43rd (7th from the bottom) as the rating in the source I found on line. I regret the oversight in not noting its location. This is how I preached the sermon and left it at seventh from the bottom.
8. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html
9. Patterson at 144-145.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014

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Here’s the t4ext of Scott September 14th message:

Forgetting is Not Part of Forgiveness
a sermon based on: Matthew 18:21-35
given at Mount Vernon, OH, September 14, 2014 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A mother put two children to bed and then got ready for bed herself. She put on some old clothes, washed her hair and wrapped a towel around her head. Then she removed her make-up and then treated herself to a special facial cream putting on one of those soothing greenish looking masks. Just then (of course) she heard the children squabbling in their bedroom over a stuffed animal and she ran in, and with kind words surprisingly quickly got them to settle the dispute and even got them to say “sorry” and forgive one another. After she left the room one of the kids whispered “Who was that scary green lady with the turban?”

 

Many moms –and dads– try to be purveyors of forgiveness. Their children often seek and long for it too. There’s a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read:

 

Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.

 

On that Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers. 1
Jesus was a teacher of conflict resolution and a purveyor of forgiveness. These gifts are a big part of the peace he left and gave to us. John records the resurrected Christ breathed on the disciples saying “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven . . .”

 

If we are honest about it we may ask our kids to practice forgiveness but as adults we really do not use the gift of forgiveness that Jesus imparts nearly enough, as the “Paco I Forgive You” story illustrates. Neither Jesus, nor admonitions from parents, nor desires of children have set us on a path to regularly pursue forgiveness.

 

We need only look at our civil court system for evidence of a nation brimming with conflict. I don’t just mean civil rights infringements we’ve been hearing about all summer. Americans have a great many smoldering struggles at the personal level. Millions and millions of lawsuits are filed annually in American civil courts to try and resolve them. 2
While the courts serve to adjudicate disputes, award damages and declare legal rights, they are traditionally not fashioned to facilitate forgiveness or bring about an actual reconciliation of the litigants. “Their operative premise is that someone will win.” 3 Which means someone also loses. Indeed, the acrimony generated by the adversarial approach utilized in our court system can actually serve to “fuel the fire of conflict and impede resolution.” 4 Consequently court cases don’t necessarily serve to reconcile or fully resolve disputes, but rather declare a winner of the contest and that victor’s award.

 

The cost of suing others in court can be very high. Hiring a lawyer and paying the costs of a court battle is an expensive proposition which can easily run into thousands and thousands of dollars – costs that even the victor is not always able to recover. In addition to out-of-pocket expenses there is also the very real economic cost of lost work by litigants as they attend to meetings, depositions, discovery, trial preparation and the trial itself. Moreover, there is the additional cost of litigation which society pays. Our civil courts exceed $17 billion a year in operating costs. 5

 

In addition to the tangible economic costs, courtroom battles take an emotional toll. Litigation often consists of claims and counterclaims, accusations and counter-accusations all of which not only further exacerbate a victims’ harm (and costs), but also create a climate of hostility and stress that can make forgiveness all the more complicated and difficult.

 

The overwhelming economics of litigation make access to the justice system outside of small claims court impractical for many, limiting justice in court to those with the means to finance a case. And so for many justice through the civil courts is often only a pipe dream. As a consequence of the high costs of litigation, many conflicts and injustices are left by the wayside unadjudicated, with the costs of the injuries usually unwillingly absorbed by either the victim or society.

 

Interestingly, when the New Testament mentions courts and lawsuits between individuals it is generally trying to dissuade litigation. For instance in Matthew Jesus urges his followers to avoid it by “com[ing] to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court. . .” (Matt 5:25). Jesus goes so far as to advise his followers to generously settle suits, saying “if anyone wants to sue and take your coat, give him your cloak as well”(Matt 5:40). Paul agreed with this idea or avoiding litigation, noting that to “have lawsuits at all with one another is already defeat for you”(1 Cor 6: 1-7). In short, the New Testament suggests an ethic for the followers of Christ to avoid litigation as a means to obtain a secular victory over a neighbor or enemy.

 

Now it is true that the justice system in Jesus’ day was not like the American court system. There was no Constitution or law created by elected representatives (as we know them). There were no juries of peers nor a modern sense rules of evidence, nor our sense of justice and fairness.

 

While modern courts can also be used – and have been used– to oppress the poor, the poor and the oppressed today at least on occasion can gain and do gain access to adjudication through contingent fee agreements, statutory attorney fees, Legal Aid or sometimes special interest financing. Civil rights are a case in point, through access to the courts in the last sixty-years much change has occurred and promises to continue to occur in the areas of race, gender, age and disability discrimination. In the past few years we have finally even seen our LGBTQ brothers and sisters get traction through civil rights action. And thankfully the civil rights violations in Ferguson, MO will also likely find their way into the courts for adjudication with the promise of racial justice.

 

These are good things that happen in courts, and I am not arguing that people should be dissuaded by scripture from challenging injustices in court. What I want to point out is there’s a whole lot of disputes going on and resolutions in national, and even worldwide, justice systems are NOT the same as forgiveness. I want to suggest we dust off the gift of forgiveness Jesus left us, and use it.  I am advocating for following scripture lessons that we not use court based civil resolutions as a substitute answer to God’s call to address and resolve conflict and harm and broken relations with anyone – even our enemies– using forgiveness. Following Christ’s call to forgive could lead to more reconciliation, less litigation, less costs, maybe even less war.

 

Jesus repeatedly calls us to forgive and has in fact empowered us with the Holy Spirit specifically to forgive (Matt 6:12-15; 18:35; Mk 11:26; Lk 6:36; John 20:23). The forgiveness Jesus calls and empowers us to is multifaceted, that is, we receive forgiveness for our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us (Ibid.).And as we heard in the Lectionary reading today, it not just once or twice, or even a few times that we are to forgive; we are to forgive as often as others sin against us (Matt 18:19). The writer of Ephesians points out that since “God in Christ has forgiven [us]” (Eph 5:1), we have a duty to “be kind to one another tender heartedly forgiving one another” (Eph 4:32). Simply put, Christians in any sort of broken relationship are called to begin the process of forgiveness. It is when we forgive and move onto the path of forgiveness and love for our neighbors and enemies modeled by Jesus that we become blessed peacemakers

 

Scriptural witnesses to the model of forgiveness can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. Jacob and Esau provide perhaps the best example in the Old Testament of a human ethic of forgiveness and reconciliation. After conniving to wrest Esau’s inheritance and spending years in exile far away, Jacob finally returns home where he humbly seeks Esau’s favor in order to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation (Gen 27-33). Jacob realized that he needed Esau’s forgiveness, so he offers humble apologies and gifts of reparation, which Esau gratefully accepts. After deep emotional embraces of reconciliation, the wounds of past family conflict were healed. And we are told Jacob actually experienced the face of God in the forgiveness process. It’s a beautiful Old Testament story we considered a few weeks ago.
In the New Testament Jesus models and teaches forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus powerfully demonstrates forgiveness by practicing what he preached in an extraordinary way. During his crucifixion he prayed for his torturers and executioners saying: “Father, forgive them . . . ”(Lk 23:34).  On the cross Jesus did not seek revenge or retribution– and neither did God. Jesus did not claim or reserve a right to try in heaven the evil doers who put him on the cross. He asked that they be forgiven. “Father forgive them . . .” He says “Father forgive them . . .”

 

That’s our model. We need to forgive even the worse things done to us. We resist this on personal level for lots of slights. And we seem to think we are particularly exempt from trying to forgive when facing egregious harm. Collectively I sometimes think we are even worse regarding nations that oppose us and evil acting groups like Nazis, KKK, al-Qaeda and ISIS.
I am guessing it makes a number of us bristle to think of forgiving people we think are acting like monsters. (I for one am very angry at ISIS right now!). But according to Jesus we are to forgive and love even evil acting enemies, like those who terrorized and murdered him and countless others in Ancient Palestine. Rome was an occupying evil who’s agents and henchmen Jesus forgave even while unrelentingly resisting and experiencing their terror.

 

We may not want to hear or like or agree with Jesus’ non-violent love-your-enemy-forgive-everyone-all-the-time approach. We may even think it sounds impossible, to forgive personal or worldwide harms, but that’s because most of us do not have a good grasp on what it means to forgive.

 

Forgive is a word that we hear lot in churches. We mostly hear it as something we want to have happen for OUR transgressions, OUR mistakes, OUR foibles. We all long to have OUR sins let go. But that is often about as far as we get. We know that we are supposed to also forgive sins of others, even as our sins are forgiven, but like I said it just seems impossible. Mostly it seems impossible because we misunderstand forgiveness as meaning we forget a wrong done against us. But forgetting is not what forgiveness is about. We are NOT called to forget, as if we could just erase our mind of traumatic events or harms or wrongdoings. It is important that we understand this. Sins against us can be huge and they can be small and everywhere in between. We may forget trivial matters like being cut off in traffic, but the bigger things? They are going to be impossible to forget.

 

If someone, say, assaults or abuse us, we just are not going to forget that. If a person is involved in an evil doing group like ISIS we are not going to forget that. That stuff is there in our head and our hearts and so if we equate forgiveness of a transgression with forgetting a transgression, it will necessarily seem impossible, because in our experience, it IS impossible!

 

Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It’s not about accepting a wrong as okay. It is about seeking the restoration of a healthy relationship with God and others. And it is needed whenever a relationship with another being is broken and in need of repair. Forgiveness is not usually an instant happening, it is rather a process that begins with either, or both, the victim and wrongdoer taking a step or steps toward forgiveness.

 

Forgiving is a not about forgetting or accepting a wrong. It’s about continuous efforts at love and reconciliation. It’s about moving as best we can toward repairing harm and seeing one another as fully human and worthy of God’s love. Jesus tells us to do this. It’s one of our tasks.

 

Victims can do their part by taking steps to work on disclosing their harm, abandoning the right to retribution, and coming to understand the wrongdoer as a person still worthy of God’s love– as opposed to hate. Those are steps the victim needs to work on: Disclosing harm; Giving up on retribution; understanding the wrongdoer as worthy of God’s love. (When we reach the point that we can pray or wish the best for that person that’s the idea seeing them as human beings!) These are hard things to do and they do not all happen at once. Often they take time . . . years even . . . a lifetime even. And they do not mean the victim is supposed to expose herself or himself to harm or toxic people or environments. This work can be done from afar for safety’s sake. Forgiveness does not mean we don’t try and stop wronging or that wrongdoers don’t face justice. It means we see them as humans.

 

And of course, the wrongdoer has work to do, often a lot of it. The wrongdoer needs to takes steps to confess the act; repent for having done it; express sincere regret and apologies to the victim; and repair as best can be any harm done. Those are the steps the wrongdoer must work on. Confession; repentance; express regret and apologies; and work on repairing harms.

 

Any one of these forgiveness steps I’ve mentioned, or any combination of them in any order – by either the wrongdoer or the victim– moves the conflict further down the path, the process, of forgiveness, closer to love, closer to God. And although the process can be short and lead to actual complete reconciliation and forgiveness, often forgiveness is a long, long process. It can take a lot of time. Ideally both the victim and the wrongdoer should be involved but either the victim or the wrongdoer can move toward forgiveness– toward love– alone by simply taking one or more steps. In fact this unilateral option empowers victims to move toward forgiveness and healing without the wrongdoer causing further harm by not participating in the process or by continuing to be a threat. We don’t need the bully or the evildoers involved in order for us to work on forgiveness.
Communities and God help provide accountability, encouragement, love and support for the parties. And God and the communities share in the harm, and they share in the healing too.

 

Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is not about accepting a wrong as okay. It is about doing our part, often times very hard work, toward the restoration of a healthy relationship with God and others. It is needed whenever a relationship with another being is broken and in need of repair. We know it is needed because we feel the need– and that’s God and Christ and the Holy Spirit calling us to forgiveness. And we must do it, not just once but over and over and over again. And not just for family and friends or people we like, but enemies and evil doers too. That’s the lesson in the reading. We are not to count the times we forgive as Peter suggests, we are to forgive every time there is a need for it. Forgiveness is not forgetting it is a part of love and loving and it leads to peace. It leads to God. AMEN.
ENDNOTES
* This sermon is based on my studies of forgiveness in a wonderful course taught by Dr Joretta Marshall at Eden Seminary in 2004, and in an ethics course taught by Enoch Oglesby in 2005, along with subsequent classes, papers and sermons I have put together since.
1. Bits & Pieces, October 15, 1992, pp. 13.
2. National Center for State Courts (www.nsconline.org), statistics FAQ.
3. Levine, Stewart, Getting to Resolution, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., (1998), 13-14.
4. Ibid.,14.
5. National Center for State Courts (www.nsconline.org), latest figures posted were for 1990.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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The text of Scott’s September 7th sermon:

Love Does No Wrong
a sermon based on Romans 13:8-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 7, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
One day a lawyer was riding down the road in a limousine when he saw two men on the side of the road eating grass. Bewildered by the sight, he just had to stop. As his driver pulled over, the lawyer called out the window, “Hey, why are you guys eating grass?” “We’re very poor,” one of them said, “and we have nothing to eat. So we’re eating grass on the side of the road to stay alive.” The lawyer was aghast. “That’s terrible!” he said. “You jump in this limousine, and I’ll take you to my house to eat.” “That’s great sir,” the man replied, “but I have a wife and three children. I can’t leave them behind.” “Bring them along. And bring your friend, too!” The man was amazed and grateful, but the second man said, “I have a family too, sir, and I have four children.” “Bring them all,” the lawyer said. “We’ll fit them in the limo.” The men were amazed, and they rushed off to get their families. “You won’t believe it,” they told their wives. “We found a kind lawyer!” They returned and all crammed into the large limousine. The men were profuse with praise. “I can’t believe you’re doing this for us!” they said. “It’s no problem,” the lawyer replied. “You are going to love my house. We’ve been on vacation, the grass is over a foot tall there!” 1

 

It is safe to assume all of us in this room understand that taking neighbors in need in a limo to mow our grass by eating it is not what it means to love your neighbor in need or more to the point of today’s Lectionary text from Romans, to do no harm to a neighbor. I’d argue that is the heart of the humor in the story. Yes it is nonsensical, but what makes it especially nonsensical is that the lawyer’s conduct not only fails to tend to the neighbor’s need for food and adds to their harm, but tends to his own need all the while acting like he is doing a good thing. It’s outrageous and a pseudo act of kindness for someone blessed with abundance to take starving people from roadside-grass-eating to a rich-estate-grass-eating. It’s not helpful. It’s harmful.

 

Leave it to me to ruin a perfectly good lawyer joke with a detailed analysis of it’s disturbing darker side!

 

We hear all this stuff in the media that is supposed to be about Christianity that is itself really rather disturbing: We all have to believe this or that or go to hell; The Bible is inerrant; God’s goodly created homosexuals are an evil; We’ve got to despise all other faiths; The rich are rich because they’ve earned God’s blessings and the poor are poor because they’ve haven’t earned it or worse have earned God’s curse. None of these things are teachings of Jesus.’ None. Of. Them.

 

Darlene and I were talking a few weeks ago about what I have decided to call pseudo-Christianity. Pseudo means fake, not genuine, pretended or put on. Christianity according to my Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms means “the religion founded on the life, teachings and actions of Jesus Christ.” 2. Pseudo-Christianity by definition is that which is not genuinely founded on the life, teachings or actions of Jesus Christ.

 

There’s a whole industry out there claiming to be Christian and Gospel oriented that sure doesn’t seem founded on any sort of Jesus Christ stuff. They tack the label Christianity onto their desired way of being and prejudices, they weave it into what they want to do and see and then use religion to ignore or hurt or pummel people different from them.

 

Frankly, and I know it sounds harsh, but such stuff is not genuine Christianity, it’s not essential to faith in God, it’s not a part of Jesus’ Way. It’s not in the Gospels. An example of this is the last thing on the list I named, that the rich are rich because they’ve earned God’s blessings and the poor are poor because they’ve haven’t earned it or worse have earned God’s curse.

 

There is a very popular religious following these days called “The Prosperity Gospel” that pushes this non-Jesus idea, this not-in-the-real-Gospels stuff about getting monetary wealth for self through Jesus. You can see it being touted on TV by evangelists like Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyers and Joel and Victoria Osteen these days, but Oral Roberts and Jim Bakker were pitching it back in the day too. The movement claims it has a basis in Christianity, in Jesus’ Way but if you look in the gospels, in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, you’ll not find it there.

 

It is a religious movement based on self need and a creed of greed that puts on the back burner the real Gospels’ teachings to tend to everyone’s need. It removes from “Love your neighbor as yourself” the “your neighbor as” part. It becomes just love yourself. Yet in both the Old Testament and New Testament the commandment is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The prosperity gospel changes that and it figuratively changes Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer that we petition God to “give US our daily bread” to be a teaching that we instead petition God to “give me MY daily bread.” It’s about self. Victoria Osteen recently preached it like this “When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself because that’s what makes God happy.”

 

The prosperity gospel erases the real Gospel’s faithful concern for all, rewriting it as a concern only for me and mine. It becomes about doing it for yourself.

 

Marcus Borg discusses this religious movement in his newest Book Convictions. He notes that prosperity gospel

 

claims that being a Christian leads to a prosperous life here on earth. A blatant form is inscribed over the door of a mega-church with more than twenty-thousand members: “The Word of God is the Way to Wealth.” 3 Borg at p 11

 

“The Word of God is the Way to Wealth?” Seriously? By any objective analysis seeking a religious way toward monetary prosperity– wealth– “founded on the life, teachings and actions of Jesus Christ” is pseudo-Christianity. Folks can believe it all they like, but it is not Gospel based. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t come anywhere near mentioning it, nor does Paul for that matter.

 

Jesus did not live, teach or act on a way or toward a way to material riches. Accordingly the way of the prosperity gospel to the extent it claims to be Christian in the theological-dictionary-sort-of-way-is, fakery. It’s pseudo Christianity. Jesus did not say the greatest commandment is love God and the second is like it, love material wealth as yourself. The truth is The Word of God is not the way to individual earthly wealth. What it is, is the heavenly way to peace on earth through love for everyone.

 

It is not that being rich is wrong, please hear me clearly, that is not what I am saying, what I am saying is that the Prosperity Gospel is not the Way of Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus in order to get material riches completely misses the point of following Jesus. And part and parcel of that is this, while being rich is not wrong, substituting the actual messages of Jesus and the point of the Gospels for a religious based personal hunt for wealth as we enter a purportedly Christ-based church door is sinful, especially when we rank it above loving our neighbors! Indeed it is an evil because it is an intentional movement away from where God clearly calls us. It is purposefully missing the mark God aims us at.

 

Sin means missing the mark. The mark, as Jesus summed it up, is love of God and self and neighbor. Most of us get the love God and the love self thing, what we don’t get is love neighbor, and so Jesus tells us to do that because it is the sum of God’s laws.
Paul agrees. As Paul put it this morning’s lesson:

 

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Rom 13:8-9 NRS)

 

And then– as we heard– Paul writes this “ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:10 NRS). The phrase “No wrong” means what you think, it has no wriggle room for claiming you didn’t harm them they were already eating grass so we just ignored them or just moved them to our lawn. Or more realistically, “I was just discriminating against them and calling them names because they are poor, criminals, illegals, homosexuals, or non-Christians and I was told or read or I heard that it is okay.” It is not okay. The word translated as “wrong” in Paul’s text from Romans is “kakos” it means of a bad nature or acts that are ‘troublesome, injurious, pernicious, destructive, baneful.” 2. We are to do NONE of that, according the Bible . . . NONE OF THAT.
Love as we have discussed a lot here means desiring the well being of others. We can fuss and parse the words of Paul and Jesus all we like, but literally love your neighbor and do no harm to your neighbor are pretty straight forward commands. There is no wriggle room.
We cannot follow Jesus’ teachings by making the word “love” or “wrong” mean what we want them to mean. Jesus and Paul meant that we are to desire the well being of everyone and not participate in any way in harm to any neighbor.

 

The bottom line is, it is pseudo-Christianity and disingenuous at best to sum the gospel up, to claim the Word of God, is something other than loving everyone, like loving wealth or self more.

 

Jesus Christ is not the way to material wealth. Jesus Christ is the Way to everyone getting enough daily bread and good health. Pursuing anything but love as Jesus Way is more than fakery, it’s downright sinful because it fails to shoot for the target of love God’s got us aimed at and hurts those we do not love while chasing down personal wealth as a purported Christian goal.

 

This analysis works on the other items I mentioned earlier too:

 

We all have to believe this or that or go to hell, Jesus indicates in Matthew 25 that it is those who care for others, those who put love into action for neighbors, that inherit the Kingdom God has prepared for us. Jesus mentions nothing about the need to have this or that Christian belief.
The Bible as an inerrant work written by God was a notion that didn’t exist until the late 1800s. Jesus says nothing about it and neither do the Gospels.
God’s goodly created homosexuals being an evil or sin is certainly not something ever stated by Jesus, nor is it otherwise recorded in the Gospels.
And Jesus does not claim we are to despise those of other faiths.

 

Indeed what Jesus and the Old Testament and the New Testament tell us is that we are to love all others. Jesus actually claims this means we are to even love our enemies! Love them, not find reasons to hate or exclude them. As Paul said, love does no harm to a neighbor. No. Harm.

 

Any, any, any church practice which is not aimed at the target of love is pseudo-Christianity because it is a practice not founded upon the life, teachings or actions of Jesus, nor is it aimed toward love.

 

So here’s the thing, we are about to have communion. In many churches the Lord’s Table has what theologians call fences around it, that is there are bars to whom is invited and to who may partake. In some churches you have to believe this or that or be this or that to even have communion. Jesus had and has no such bar to his table or to His community. His meal practice was open to all. It IS open to all.

 

This is Jesus’ table and here in this church Jesus’ table remains as Jesus of the Gospels started it, open as open can be. There are no fences to communion here. None. Not a member of this church, you are invited and welcome. Poor? Rich? Sick? Healthy? Hungry? Fed? Criminal? Law Abiding? Stranger? Local? Old? Young? Non-Christian? Christian? You are invited and welcome just as you are. Why? because we take very seriously God’s aiming us toward love. We aim toward doing no harm to a neighbor. We aim toward loving God and our neighbors and ourselves. This is no pseudo-Christian table. It is the Lord of inclusive, no strings attached Love’s table.

 

And always anywhere, everywhere there is a Lord’s Table, Jesus meant it to be open to you, to me, to us, to EVERYONE. God’s love has NO strings attached and worship and communion in this Sacred and Holy place are meant to reflect just that. May our daily living reflect that as well. AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
1. http://www.informationdojo.com/bored/clean-jokes.html
2. Bibleworks 9, Strongs 2556 –kakos– defined.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Here is the text of our guest preacher Dr. Jene Schoenfled who delivered this sermon on August 31:

 

Chosen?

(a guest sermon delivered by Jené Schoenfeld on August 31, 2014)

 

In the first of the lectionary readings for today (Exodus 3:1-5), Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flock and notices that a bush is burning, but is not being consumed. He decides to investigate. God calls to him, he answers, “Here I am,” and God bids him to stop and remove his sandals, because he is on holy ground. Just after this selection, God announces God’s intention to “rescue my people in Egypt” and tells Moses that he has chosen him as his emissary to Pharoah (Exodus 3:7). Moses, by the way, is not at all sure he’s the man for the job. Like many who are called, he does not really want to do the job. Who is he to turn the tide against oppression? Moses does not think he is special, but God makes him special. God empowers him to do God’s work. Like Moses, we may not feel up to the task of dismantling oppression. But like Moses, I think we are called to do so, and empowered to do so.

 

The heading for the Psalm we read for today (Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c) says it’s about “God’s Faithfulness to Israel” and it is, but it’s also a celebration from the perspective of Israel about how wonderful it is to be God’s chosen people. Let me read you a selection from this Psalm that wasn’t in the lectionary selection: “He brought his people out with rejoicing, his chosen ones with shouts of joy; [sounds good so far, I know] he gave them the lands of the nations, and they fell heir to what others had toiled for—that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws” (Psalm 105: 43-45). These verses echo a verse shortly after the Exodus reading we had for today. It’s Exodus 3:8, in which we learn that part of God’s promise to the people of Israel is to give them “into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites” (Exodus 3:8). In both of these passages, doing “right” by the Israelites, means not only freeing them from oppression, but disempowering others, in this case by taking away their land. (Americans like to think of the United States as a sort of Promised Land also, but we, too, typically gloss right over the fact that it was taken from its original inhabitants and developed, in large part, by coerced labor.) It appears that for God to fulfill God’s promise to the chosen, others have to be “less than,” and their wellbeing is sacrificed for the sake of the chosen.
This does not sound like the God I believe in, but it does sound a lot like the world I know well. (Perhaps this is one of those instances where the text is shaped by the men with the pens, and not just the guiding Spirit.) I see this phenomenon of inclusion/ exclusion beginning already in the tales from the elementary schoolyard, and I remember it well from my own school days. For some kids to be “in” other kids have to be “out.”

 

This also applies to the situation in our present moment, regarding race in the United States. Tomorrow, in my “Introduction to African Diaspora Studies” class, I’ll be teaching an article called, “America is Not for Black People.” This article is not written from the perspective of extremist whites who think that we need, somehow, to cleanse the U.S. of black people. It’s written from the perspective of blacks, who, despite our 400+-year-long presence on this continent, feel that this place is not ours. In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, my Facebook feed has been full of stories and articles that explain and expand on that sentiment.

 

From the cradle to the too-early grave, black life is devalued and imperiled. I remember, when I was pregnant with Anna, reading about a study that showed that black women—regardless of social class or geographic region—were statistically more likely to have premature babies.” It suggested that the simple stress of being a black woman, again, even controlling for class and living situation, negatively impacted pregnancy outcomes. (I’m happy to say that both of my girls were full term and then some.) Just yesterday, I read an article about a study that showed that breastfeeding—which can improve all kinds of health-outcomes for children—is significantly less likely to be promoted in hospitals in predominantly African American communities. The conclusion was that comparatively low rates of breastfeeding by African American women may not be solely, or even primarily the result of cultural differences, but rather the result of hospital staff failing to adopt practices that promote and support breastfeeding for African American women. Instead, hospital staff were more likely to give formula or pacifiers to newborns and their parents, both of which discourage breastfeeding.

 

Then there’s what is now being called the preschool-to-prison pipeline. It is becoming increasingly clear that zero-tolerance behavioral policies disproportionately affect black and brown children. One mom wrote her story for the Washington Post. Her son had been suspended from preschool five times by age 3. In conversation with the parents of white children at her kids’ school, it was clear that their children had committed infractions at least as serious, but the white children had not been suspended. There’s a relationship between this and the death of young black men like Michael Brown. People who would never think of uttering a racial epithet, simply see black and brown children as different, less than, even dangerous.

 

Michael Brown is only the latest in a much-too-long series of these events. Not quite two years ago, Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old football player sought help from a stranger in Charlotte, North Carolina. Instead of helping, the stranger called police—not to come to his aid, but to report him as a possible burglar. The police responded, and Mr. Ferrell, apparently thinking that the officer had come to help him (as, perhaps, his mother taught him, just as I’ve begun to teach my girls), ran toward the officer. The officer shot him 10 times, killing him. Is it any wonder that many people of color don’t trust the police? Friends of mine raising brown-skinned boys, both here and elsewhere, have described to me their fear of sending their sons out into the world. They have shared some of the limitations they feel they have to impose on the behavior of their young sons—some as young as Lily—in the hope of keeping them safe. The story of Trayvon Martin, in 2012, showed us that even letting your son walk to the store for candy can put one’s life at risk. To return to the present moment, the devaluing of black life was starkly evident in an encounter between supporters of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown, and supporters of Brown. The Brown supporters showed up at a rally in support of Wilson. The Brown supporters chanted, “Hands up, Don’t Shoot!,” which has become a rallying cry connected to the Brown incident. The Wilson supporters responded by chanting, “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!”

 

You may be wondering right about now, “What does this have to do with me, with this place?” You may also be wondering, “What does this have to do with Christ’s message and the work of the church?” Praying your patience, I’m coming to that.

 

Not quite Mount Vernon, but a bit closer to home, there’s the story of John Crawford who was shot and killed in a Walmart in a suburb of Dayton because he was holding a nonlethal air gun meant for children. The real irony of that story, is that Ohio is an open carry state, so even if Crawford had been carrying a real, loaded weapon, he would have had the legal right to do so. This occurred less than a week before the Mike Brown shooting.

 

I have been really fortunate. I do not fear for the life of my daughters based on their race. I’ve never felt that they were discriminated against at any of their schools. I have felt welcomed and respected in this church, at Kenyon, and in the community for the most part. But I know that while I have been both privileged and lucky, I am not immune from the effects of racism. I remember about 5 years ago, when Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor, and one of the nation’s most prominent scholars of African American literature and culture was arrested at his Cambridge home for becoming angry when a police officer entered his home without permission and demanded proof that he lived there, after someone called in a report of a possible “breaking and entering.” My class privilege and my accomplishments will not protect me.

 

Even here in Knox County, one encounters the occasional case of bias. A couple of years ago, I was walking along Chase Avenue in Gambier, when a couple of women (admittedly, apparently from out of town), pulled over to ask directions. Their first question, however, was “Do you speak English?” I only wish I had been a quick enough thinker to respond, “Actually, I teach it here at the college.” These women were not trying to be insulting or to hurt my feelings, but they saw a brown-skinned woman and while they must have hoped that I knew this place better than they did—they were, after all, asking for directions—their question also showed that on some level they assumed that I did not belong here.

 

In the 15-20 minutes that I have this morning, all I can do is provide the merest glimpse of why some people of color may feel like they don’t belong in their own communities, even in their own nation. Though, historically, especially during slavery, many African Americans have felt some kinship with the Jews as people who were oppressed, but who looked forward to the promise of a better day as God’s chosen people, today many African Americans do not feel like they are chosen, at least not for anything good.

 

You may be thinking, “But that’s not me. I would never discriminate like those people.” That may well be true, but according to a colleague of mine in the psychology department, we may not all be racist, but we are all biased in some way. Bias is very subtle, often unconscious. For example, in doing some research for this sermon, I ran across an article of a woman who noticed a pattern in her Facebook feed. While pictures of her siblings’ multiracial children were frequently “liked” and given positive comments about those children’s beauty, pictures of her own dark-skinned girl did not receive the same level of praise. Sure, that’s not really a life or death matter, but it speaks to a culture that still doesn’t appreciate brown-skinned beauty and that culture will probably impact that girl’s self-image growing up.

 

Let’s assume, however, for the sake of argument, that you really are, in no way, part of the problem. My question then is, “Are you part of the solution?” A few years ago, Lily used to love a show called Ni Hao Kai Lan. In the episode, “The Dinosaur Balloon,” (Season 2, Episode 2), the title character, a little girl named Kai Lan, accidentally breaks apart the dinosaur balloon. She asks her friend Stompy (an elephant) to help her fix it. He’s taller than she is, and she can’t reach to fix the top part of the balloon. Stompy’s answer is, “I didn’t break it, I don’t have to fix it.” Eventually, Kai Lan and her friends persuade Stompy to help. The message of the episode is that it doesn’t matter whether you are responsible for a problem, what matters is whether you choose to help.

 

What might that look like, for us, as people of faith? Surely a kids’ show is not more filled with love and compassion than our own Bible? The passage from Romans gives us some guidance, from a Biblical perspective. [Read Romans 12:9-21.] There’s still rather a lot of “us” vs. “them” going on here, but within this passage is also a message of equality, of unity: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12: 15-17). The edition I was working with at home, New International Version, says this even more clearly, I think: “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” I like that because it is not simply about thinking, but doing, and not about what is “noble,” but about what is “right.”

 

Of course, “everybody” never agrees about what is “right.” I believe our church is doing some fine work in what is right in terms of advocating for the rights of and being welcoming to people of all genders and sexual orientations. (Certainly, many in Knox County and elsewhere would disagree with us about that.) I wonder, though, if we might find ways to reconnect with our roots, and become more actively involved also in the work of racial justice. Our denomination is involved in all kinds of justice work, including racial justice. On the day of Mike Brown’s funeral, they held a peaceful vigil, captured in a powerful image (that some of you may have seen on Facebook), of church members and leaders with their hands up bearing signs and bearing witness.

 

It’s not enough simply to do no harm and enjoy the feeling of being chosen. I believe we are called to extend that chosenness to those around us. Looking for resources for this sermon, I came across the following (on the UCC justice website) from John 15:12-17:

 

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.– John 15:12-17

 

We are all God’s chosen people. What are we chosen to do? To love each other. Amen.

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Here is Scott’s Pet Blessing Homily form August 24, 2014:

To Jesus Animals Matter *
a sermon based on Luke 12:22-31
given at Mount Vernon, OH on August 24, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

From our service of animal blessings

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On animal blessing Sundays preachers tend to preach short sermons. While that may make Pet Blessing services a little more popular, I like to think the presence of animals and our love for them is what makes them popular. God’s creation and spirit in such a variety of beings is touching and fun to be around (Plus they are all so cute!).

 

A long, long time ago when I was a wee lad there used to be a television show with Art Linkletter called “Kids Say the Darndest Things!” I have a book that captured some of the sayings of the children on that show. And every once in awhile when I want to have a smile I read a page or two.  I decided to turn to that ancient text to see if I could find some words of wisdom on animals. I was not disappointed. I discovered that one boy [on the show] had a ready answer when . . . asked what breed of dog he had.: “Half male and the other half airmail.”
Actually Art Linkletter found that the subject of pedigree puzzled children in a way that led to other imaginative answers. Like the time [he] asked a boy if he had any brothers or sisters.
“One brother but he’s a cat.
“What’s his name?”
“Socrates.”
“Does he have a pedigree?”
“No. It died last year.”

 

 

Another exchange went:
“You have a pet dog; is it pedigreed?”
“I think she lost her pedigreed last week.”

 

One girl was sure her dog didn’t not have a pedigree. When . . . asked why, she said:“Cause he’s had his shots.”

 

Perhaps the answer that brought the biggest laugh . . .on the pedigree question was this exchange:
“Do you have any pets?”
“Yes– a cat and a dog.”
“Do they have a pedigree?”
“No we took them out!” 1

 

The book of Genesis indicates that pedigree is not a prerequisite to being a valued creation. In Genesis we are told that on the fifth and sixth day God made ALL the animals and saw that they were very good. In fact Psalm 145 (9) tells us that God is good to all and that God has compassion over all that God has made.   So know this: ALL these critters here with us and everywhere else – as well as each of us– have God’s very own personal compassion and care.

 

Jesus, of course, had no earthly pedigree. To the powerful Jesus was nothing but an itinerant, homeless, expendable peasant; he matters not a wit to the powerful in the Bible stories.   But Jesus mattered to God and to his followers and to the people whose lives he touched then and all those lives he has touched since.

 

We tend to think of Jesus’ dealings in life relating to only to people. While people were clearly important to him, it is also remarkable how many animals are remembered in one way or another connected to Jesus’ story in the Gospels.  Some of the animals in the stories of Jesus’ are implicitly there. For example, most of us cannot think about his birth narrative – the Christmas story– without animals in the picture.  Before Jesus was even born we imagine his mother riding a humble donkey to Bethlehem with him in her womb.

 

We picture camels carrying the Magi and their treasures as they follow a star to Jesus and kneel before him in the manger when they found him. We know that the host of angels appeared to shepherds while they were watching their flocks of sheep by night and shone the glory of God on shepherd, ram, ewe and lamb. And the perhaps one of the most endearing Christmas images we have is of Jesus in that blessed lowly manger surrounded by the camels, the sheep and the other animals in the stable where he was born.  In other words, before Jesus was even a day old animals of all sorts are remembered as having already helped bring him to Bethlehem and then shared in the birth and celebration of the newborn king, the very Prince of Peace, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Christ.

 

God made sure to include animals in preparation for the arrival and the birth of Jesus. They were important enough to be there with Christ since the beginning.  Most of us have the animal images in our head for Christmas, but after that we seem to forget that animals were part of the rest of Jesus’ life too. We tend to forget that as Jesus prepared for his ministry animals are also in the picture.   On the day of his baptism God comes to Jesus in the form of an animal. The Holy Spirit descends like a dove and it is through the image of that gentle bird, a universal symbol of peace, that God speaks to Jesus “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Afterwards Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days. Satan tempts him there and angels wait on him, but no other human is there. He does have company, though, Mark specifically tells us wild beasts kept Jesus company in the wilderness. Animals intentionally kept company with Jesus – and he with them– as he prepared for his ministry, how cool is that?

 

The Gospels report too that the first humans Jesus recruits into his ministry are those who spent a lot of time with, and made their living through, animals. Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen.   And Jesus calls them to be fishers of men. His first metaphor and pun relate not just to humans but fish, both of whom he symbolically compares to one another: Fishermen and Fishers of men.  Jesus himself is shown to be an expert on fish, he knows how to locate and catch them when other experts cannot.   Jesus,you see, had intimate encounters and knowledge of animals in the wild.

 

We learn in the Gospels too that Jesus understood and believed that God values animals. He tells stories with God as a shepherd valuing the life of each sheep, and God as a mother hen protecting her chicks.  In Matthew 10 (29) Jesus specifically notes that while humans may undervalue animals God values them and they are a very part of God. Jesus claims this saying, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”  The God of Jesus cares about animals!  As we heard in the reading from Luke Jesus also pointed out that animals are of value to God, as well as under Divine care. Jesus said: “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.”

 

Throughout the Gospels Jesus is described as having encounters with, or making references to, quite a number of animals, including wild beasts, donkeys, doves, fish, ravens, foxes, sheep, goats, camels, dogs, wolves, sparrows. moths and gnats.
The last type of animal –besides humans– that Jesus touched outside of Jerusalem, and the first to touch him inside Jerusalem is the same type of animal we imagine that carried him into Bethlehem while in his mother’s womb and later carried Jesus safely to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempt to kill him as a child. That animal is a donkey.  Every year on Palm Sunday we remember that Jesus needed a donkey, an ass. Jesus, THE LORD, needed a donkey and told the disciples how to get one and what to say. And sure enough they get it and he is seated upon it and rides it into Jerusalem as the crowds cheer him on that first Palm Sunday.

 

In the week that follows that ride Jesus encounters what we might call asses of another kind; mean and cruel power-elites, vicious human animals, who take his life.   In the Gospels the only animal that mistreats Jesus in the man kind, the non-human animals in the Jesus narratives are blessings to Jesus and powerful images in his teaching and stories.

 

It is also no accident that two of the most powerful images that we have of Jesus are as shepherd and as lamb. In one, the shepherd, we imagine him watching over humankind with the care of herdsman or herdswoman who protects the flock.  In the other, the lamb, we imagine him as sacrificed by human powers for his efforts to watch over us with that care.
All of these references to animals in the stories about Jesus evidence that animals were a big part of Jesus’ life and that they matter not just to God, but to Jesus.  They surrounded him at his birth and the birth of his ministry.  They are remembered as carrying him on two of the most important trips in the Bible, to Bethlehem for the start of his life at Christmas, and to Jerusalem for end of his life and his resurrection to a new life during that first Holy Week that leads to Easter.  A dove swooped in and announced Jesus ministry; and other animals soon after kept him company as he prepared for that ministry in the desert.
Perhaps the most telling verses on animals in the Gospels are those that indicate that Jesus knew and taught that God values animals, from sparrows to ravens to sheep to human beings.
The bottom line is that Jesus experienced and understood that all animals matter to God, and that they are a blessing from God.  May we all experience and understand that too because animals have ever been just that, and are, and always will, be blessings to us– and from God.
AMEN

 

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ENDNOTES
* This sermon is based on a pet blessing homily I first preached in 2010.
1. Linkletter, Art, Kids Say the Darndest Things! Pocket Books, Inc. New York, (1957), 117-118.

The text of Scott’s August 17 message:

God Loves Each and Every Stranger and We Are Commanded to Too*
a sermon based on Matthew 15:21-28
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 17, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A new customer went to a travel agent about booking a trip to upstate New York. “By Buffalo?” the agent asked? “I guess that is okay,” the customer replied. “If the saddle is comfortable.” 1

 

There are a lot of traveling people in the Bible. Adam and Eve traveled out of the Garden of Eden. There is a joke that the Adam and Eve story has the first mention of an automobile, since they were driven from the garden in a FURY. . .  During the flood Noah and his family had to travel, and they too begin life anew in a new place . . . And after that voyage I doubt Noah wanted anything to do with eating pairs . . . Abraham and Sarah left their home too, and as far as we know, did not travel by buffalo. (That’s it for puns today….I think) . . .
The point I am trying to make is that there is a traveling stranger in a strange land theme that plays out over and over in the Bible.
We can think of the Bible as comprised of stories woven like threads to form a tapestry of sacred words. Like any good tapestry some of the threads are repeated so that patterns develop. These patterns are themes that are repeated again and again, they evidence theological points that Biblical authors and their communities considered important enough to highlight by repeating. They are over arching themes in the Bible.

 

One repeated theme is that God saves people from oppression and delivers them.  The Exodus story is one of the best known of this theme, but we can hear that pattern again and again in other Bible stories.  God saves by liberating the oppressed from exile and bondage when they are captured and enslaved by Babylon.  God sends Jesus to save the oppressed and let them go free.
As a part of this God-Saves-and-Delivers-the-Oppressed theme we learn over and over again that God’s love is steadfast and never ending.  God IS experienced as acting with Steadfast Love in opposition to oppression.  People reading or watching or listening to the American news media might get the impression that major Bible themes are the opposite of that.

 

You’d think from the messages promoted by many prominent Christian leaders in the mainstream media that “real Christians” are called by the Bible to oppress and oppose all non-Fundamentalist religious views, especially those relating to other faiths, human sexuality, childbearing choices, AND strangers.  People get the impression these are Bible themes because there’s a lot of preaching and Bible thumping about them, but, ironically not one of these is a theme in the Bible. There isn’t even a theme of Christian Fundamentalism in the Bible. It’s a religious point of view created by a few men only a hundred years or so ago.  In case you are wondering there are also no Bible verses which specifically oppose abortion; nor is there a theme opposing marriages that are not between one man and one woman. (Just read about Solomon’s numerous wives).
In short, despite what we might hear, the Bible is not even close to an air tight source for oppressing or opposing non-Fundamentalist religious views, let alone those that relate to modern child bearing choices and marriage rights for lawful couples in America.

 

All this modern day religious thundering about rather hurtful non-Biblical themes, not only causes people to avoid Christianity, but it also causes important ACTUAL major Bible themes to get short shrift in the media, in our churches and in our day-to-day living.
We may not hear it in the secular news, but we ARE called by God and Jesus in the Bible to side with the oppressed to help them in their Exoduses and Exiles; to do what we can to deliver people from oppression, as we desire their well being, provide necessities, and otherwise steadfastly love them like God does.

 

Christian leaders need to talk a whole lot more about things like feeding and clothing the poor and visiting the sick and the imprisoned. We’d do a lot better toward achieving heaven on earth if we focused on these type of things– which is why they are such prominent themes in the Bible.
Which brings me back to the huge theme in the Bible about strangers in strange lands that I eluded to a moment ago. It’s one that we rarely ever hear about in America. It’s all over the Bible, yet not discussed much at all. It’s the theme of treating aliens and strangers, well.  There are at least three dozen warnings in the Bible– threads that form a pattern– that God’s people have moral obligations to justly treat aliens and those they consider strangers.  Jesus’ teaching “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” nicely sums up why.” Even better is His command to love your neighbor as yourself. Then there is, of course, his specific assertion in Matthew 25 that we are to welcome the stranger.

 

Long before Jesus– a Jewish Rabbi– issued those commands, Torah the law Jesus would have studied covered the topic in no uncertain terms at Leviticus 19(33-34):

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Those are pretty powerful words from the Bible all of which sure seem literal in their meaning. And they are words we do not hear in the media or from the lips of most of the prominent church leaders sounding off on other Bible texts.
And it is not like the issue of treatment of aliens and strangers is not in the forefront of the news giving Christian leaders a chance to show their knowledge of how the Bible instructs us to act justly toward those we consider “others.”

Such commandments may not be what some of the public wants to hear. It may not be what some church leaders want to hear. It may not be what some of us want to hear. But there it is big as life in Leviticus 19– the text I just read.
And it is not just Leviticus 19. Here is just a quick sampling of a few of the other commandments about aliens and strangers in the Bible :

Exodus 22(:21) You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 23(:22) When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien. . .

Numbers 15(:15-16) As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the LORD. You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.

Deuteronomy 24(:17) You shall not deprive a resident alien . . . of justice.
Jeremiah 22(:3) Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness . . . do no wrong or violence to the alien . . .

 

With all the controversies at our boarders and all the misconduct towards aliens, I know of no Bible thumping religious leader in the media spotlight that has made a ruckus that we must follow God’s commandments to treat the alien well and equal and like a citizen.

We can disagree all we like about what should be done in the secular reality, but we cannot fairly claim there are not Biblical edicts requiring un-oppressive and equal treatment of aliens and strangers. We simple can’t.  Nor can we ignore that while many claim we are a Christian nation we blatantly ignore those commandments, even while the vast majority of us have not so distant ancestors who arrived here as strangers in THIS strange land.
Just as there are battles today about treating non-Americans and even minority “strangers” in the culture as equal, there were battles in first century Palestine about treating non-Jews as equal.  The Jesus Movement at the time that Matthew was written was still a sect of Judaism and there was battle within the Movement about whether non-Jews could join, whether Gentiles within and without the Promised land were entitled to the blessings that Jesus provided Christians.  Could they experience His healing presence without converting to Judaism? Was the church, the early Jesus Movement open to non-Jews, to those strangers considered racially different people, to those Gentiles?
Today’s Lectionary story can be heard to answer that question.
It has Jesus traveling to the further most portion of the Promised Land to towns on its boarder called Tyre and Sidon. 2  It’s there at that boarder that Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman, a non-Israelite, a racially different “other” –and his initial reaction to her cries for help startles us.   Like the American protesters on our southern boarder, like present day racists in Missouri and America, it seems unimaginable that a person could be that callus and dismissive toward a worried mom or any child.  But we are told, Jesus at first ignores, and then he is hostile to this stranger and her child. Referring to the people of Israel as children Jesus tells her that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Sounds a lot like the ugly protests against the children in need coming over our boarders, doesn’t it? It also brings to mind the racial tension in the news all week long with another unarmed black teen killed and the hostility toward those that a sad number of people want to see and treat as different . . . as strangers even within the borders of this Promised Land that we share.

 

Jesus’ initial words in the story today certainly don’t match up with Jesus’ commands to love neighbors, to do to others as we want done to us, or to welcome strangers.
Today’s text doesn’t seem to comport with other Gospel stories where Jesus treats culturally “others” as equals and with compassion, care, kindness and love. Like when he helps the Samaritan woman at the well, or when he heals a Roman Officer’s child or when he holds up a Samaritan as a good neighbor tending to a stranger in The Good Samaritan.

 

The Canaanite woman was considered a being of another lesser race, nationality and ethnicity. She is an alien. She is a stranger. She is considered different. She is an other in Jesus’ culture. Her child is in dire need and she comes to Jesus and asks for help and he refuses and insults her to boot.  But the insult does not phase this unnamed heroic mother. She is desperate to help her child, so she pleads further: “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
This plea works. Jesus exclaims “Woman great is your faith! Let it be done as you wish.” And we are told then that “her daughter was healed instantly.”

 

This little story can be used to argue all kinds of theological points. The right
of women to teach and lead in the church. The acceptance of other faiths. The humanness of Jesus. The ability of humans to have an affect on God incarnate, Christ in the world.

 

I love this story, so much I have to admit that for fun in seminary when folks pontificated on something I thought was a bit off I’d take the Canaanite woman out and put her on the table just to see what would happen:

 

“We can see that the plan from day one was for Jesus to save Gentiles.” “Interesting. Why does he tell the Canaanite woman he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel?”

 

“The Christian faith is the One way!” Really? Why is it that Jesus glorifies the Canaanite woman’s faith when she was neither Christian nor Jewish?”

 

“Jesus in the Bible was perfect and unchanging from the start.” “Really? Why is it that he called the Canaanite woman a dog, refused to help her, and then changed his mind?”

 

This little story, you see, befuddles people. It puts down self-righteousness and speaks to many other subjects. It knocks down barriers like those we see in the border clashes and injustices that have led to riots that have filled the news this summer.
This story is packed full of wisdom and meaning.

 

Although I sometimes had fun with the Canaanite Woman I take her story very seriously. That amazing strong and courageous mom is the only person in the Bible who teaches Jesus something and changes his mind.  She was a member of a race considered subordinate to Him and was of a gender considered subordinate to men, yet that lowly Canaanite woman packs more power than even Jesus himself in this story. And she does it non-violently, metaphorically she is like Martin Luther King, she is like Gandhi, she is like the Christ we love and experience.  Pretty cool stuff, even if unsettling.

 

For those of us who want an easy out for this story we can take a sigh of relief as the Jesus Scholars deemed the words placed in Jesus’ mouth in this story as too unreliable to trace back to the historic Jesus. 3.  While it may have some echos of the truth of Jesus aiding Gentiles, it is not likely an accurate account of history.   In other words, reputable scholars don’t believe that Jesus actually mistreated a Canaanite woman and her child.
I find it interesting, though, that about twenty percent of the Jesus Scholars “took the view that the story was a Christian invention to justify the church’s mission to the Gentiles.”4.
In fact I understood a seminary professor to indicate that he thought that Jesus in this story was meant to symbolize the Church and it’s move from being the Body of Christ that ministered only in Israel to being the Body of Christ that ministered to the ends of the earth – to Gentiles and Jews. 5.  Like last week’s story with a boat symbolizing the Church, this week we can hear it is Christ in the story who symbolizes the Church.  That would explain the story’s existence in the Gospels. We can hear it as a summary of that historic battle. Some of the leaders of the early Church, the Body of Christ, at one time did not want to waste resources on the Gentiles, but rather focus on the lost sheep of Israel, not on the dogs of other races.  Seen this way our discomfort is shifted to the exclusionary ways of the culture being wrestled with by the Church, not the historic Jesus.

 

But there is also good news about the Church in the story, it gets its act together, it ends up offering its blessings to strangers, to alien parents and children and those considered of another race.   The Church, the Body of Christ, in the story symbolically can be heard choose to do the right thing, to help the Canaanite woman and her child. This means that early on the Church made the mistake of excluding folks on the basis of race, but, when the error was pointed out the Church fixed it.  The Body of Christ, the Church, when all is said and done, relatively quickly, willingly, and lovingly answers the call to help strangers, those considered of another race.  That’s not disturbing. That’s a lesson in Love.
That’s a lesson in how Church ought to act when it makes mistakes, when it has excluded others from Jesus’ open-to-all community and table, when it has withheld loving acts from “others” in the world.

 

This way of hearing the text pulls the story into line with a main theme in the Bible of God incarnate being experienced as acting in with Steadfast Love in opposition to oppression.
Helping those in need and stand against oppression is a primary theme woven into our Bible tapestry. That’s good news!  And we, like Jesus, and the early Church, need to make sure we apply it to aliens and strangers, to immigrant children at our boarders, and to all races within them.
God’s love has NO strings attached . . . and neither should our love!
AMEN.

 

 

ENDNOTES
* Based in part on two previous sermons of mine, one written in 2008 the other in 2009.
1. Hodgin, Michael, 1001 Humorous Illustrations For Public Speaking p. 351
2. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/01/26/the-biblical-cities-of-tyre-and-sidon.aspx
3. The Acts of Jesus, p. 96-97
4. Ibid.
5. This is at least how I interpreted Dr. John Rigg’s musings one day in a course on Baptism and Communion.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of Scott’s August 10th sermon

Christ Floats Our Boat
a sermon based on Matthew 14:22-36
August 10, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

One day – that I’m know they will claim not to recall– the Mullendores took me out on a boat in a lake Erie. Steve pulled into this nice spot and we were having a great time bobbing about talking and enjoying the scenery.  It got kinda hot out there and we got thirsty, so Jeanne got up, folded her arms and snapped them down then got out of the boat, and walked on the water over to a store on shore to get some sodas. Then she returned walking on the water with those cold drinks.  At first I thought it was the heat and being with a “genie” that caused my mind to play tricks, but when we ran out of cold drinks Jeanne turned to Steve and said with the same folded arm snap “Your turn, Mullendore.” Steve got up, stepped outside the boat, walked across the water and returned with more drinks.  A little later it was getting really hot, the sodas were warm and we were hungry. Steve said: “Come on, Scott, your turn to go get some more drinks and a few burgers.”
With a more than slight tremor in my knees, I got up, stepped out of the boat, and sunk like a stone. Drenched I climbed back in the boat. Steve turned to Jeanne and said: “Do you think we should have told him where the stepping stones are?”

 

I have had nightmares about that day ever since. I am here to tell you that that adventure has given me a whole other reason to say “I dream of Jeanne-ee.”

 

Just in case some of you are wondering, the story I just told was, well, not really an actual event. I thought about using a number of your names, but, settled on the Mullendores because it allowed those awful “Genie” puns.  And, of course, I also like that the story automatically conjures in our minds the Lectionary reading from Matthew, reminding us how strange a miracle it is in that story.  Walking on water is quite an oddity.

 

When I really think about it, I wonder what’s up with that in this story?I mean, if you have power to do that kinda stuff why not just fly over? Or better yet, be like a genie and just appear or apparate into the boat?  Jesus doesn’t just appear in the dead of night in the boat. First he walks over the sea, and a stormy sea at that. And you know what? Whether we think this story actually happened or is meant as metaphor we are still left with trying to decide its meaning.

 

And like many Bible stories the best answers require a contextual understanding of the story.  You know how Jesus appears after the resurrection in many forms to many people and is not recognized at first?  Well, many scholars think that this story originally was about the resurrected Jesus being mistaken for a ghost. Did you catch how we are not told the disciples are afraid of the storm, but that they are terrified of the image of Jesus coming at them in the dark on top of the sea. So it is thought the story may have first been told as a post-resurrection story– an Easter story.

 

Jesus as a scary ghost was not a good image even back then and so somewhere along the line the theory is it got refashioned to an experience of the living Christ appearing amidst troubled waters. 1   So the story originally may have been an eerie Easter story which is interesting (and no, the eerie-ness is not why we have the long “eared” rabbits at Easter).

 

I find it even more interesting that in the ancient world bodies of water were considered deep, dark, scary places of unknown fate and swirling danger.  Forget ghosts, a very real horror to the ancients was a body of water. They were untamable, wild and life threatening, a topsy-turvy-hurly-burly uncontrollable place where terrible things could and did happen.
Lakes, rivers, seas and oceans did not just represent chaos to ancient listeners, but were understood AND experienced as chaos. 2  Knowing this, we can find new meaning in Bible stories with bodies of water, and not just today’s Lectionary text.
At the very start of the Bible this applies. In Genesis God creates a good world out of the formless chaotic darkness of the deep water that covered the earth.  The good news in the Bible from the beginning is that God has power over chaos and has created good things out of it.   And it is no accident that this creation story was written during the darkness and chaos of Babylon’s horrifying conquest and enslavement of the Hebrew people. God offers the hope of making good out of chaos.
We can see this in the Exodus story too where God causes Moses to part a body of water so the Hebrews could escape the chaos of slavery and a battle and wander toward the Promised Land.  And when Joshua finally walks into the Promised Land he too is God’s means of parting water, the chaos, to get there.
In the Bible bodies of water are often chaotic, not unlike life is often chaotic. In the Bible stories we can hear God not just controlling such chaos but even making something good of it.
With all this in mind, let’s see how this chaos theory might apply to the Jesus-walking-on-the-stormy-sea story.  Jesus told stories in parables, so, it seems, did the authors of the gospels. So it is fair for us to look for and consider metaphoric meanings in THIS Gospel story.  As we heard the disciples are surrounded by sea water, which as I’ve indicated we can hear to represent chaos. It’s important to note that while the sea – the chaos– surrounds Jesus’ followers, they are out of immediate danger in a boat. 3 This is meant to be true even in the scariest of times. The story takes place in the darkest hour –the scariest time– of the night.
So the disciples are afloat in a threatening stormy sea in the darkest part of the dark.
And who shows up as chaos threatens at the darkest hour?  Christ shows up!
Christ has such complete control over chaos as to calmly walk on top of it, and even though it is as dark as dark can be Christ can be seen, can be experienced above the fray, and a light in the dark.  Magically apparating or appearing into the boat would not allow this powerful image of control and presence in troubled waters.

 

Christ is not troubled by chaos, nor by the darkest hours, Christ conquers it. And best of all, Christ can be experienced in it. Christ calmly walks right over it to get to the Jesus Followers.  And we need to also keep in mind that Jesus Followers are (as I said) also on top of the water. They are in a boat above the chaos even as Matthew has them amidst it.
The boat is battered by the waves, far from land and the wind is against them, but they are not afraid of the chaos. Nor are they actually touched by the chaos–the boat floats in the middle of it buffeted by it, but those in the raft are not down in it.
The boat in this story has long been understood by Biblical scholars to symbolize the church struggling in the commotion of life, the utter chaos of reality. 4
As community in church, even in the midst of the struggle, we are safe. Safe together. Christ can be experienced even in the darkest and stormiest of times – as long as we stay in the boat, in community helping one another and bringing God–love– out into the world.
And as the story ends with Christ on board in the church with us, we hear how the church is able to move forward as the wind dies down.

 

Together we are able to float above the chaos and move ahead together in this boat we call Church, what we name amongst THIS loving band of Jesus Followers, as First Congregational United Church of Christ.  Just like the disciples in today’s story. Christ comes to us, love fills this place, even as we gather in storms that batter the boat and blow against us . . . even when dark hours beset us. We miraculously remain safe in the chaos of the events that unfold.
Today’s reading can also be heard to be about one of Jesus’ followers getting out of the boat, leaving the church.   No other gospel, except Matthew reports Peter getting out of the boat. So we need to ask why Matthew has Peter leave the boat? The reason is that Peter symbolizes those who try to go at it alone without the boat, those who leave the church community and step out into the sea of life trying to stay above the chaos as individuals. As Peter sinks he’s not relating to community– those of us in modern American have this problem as a people we tend to relate less and less as community and we are sinking.
Community matters. Without the support of the ship of the church what happens in the story?   Peter is safe only for a few steps even with Jesus in plain sight. Alone chaos quickly becomes too much for him. He could not help but be distracted. He could not help but take his eyes off of Christ, and when that happened Peter (who’s name means rock) does what? Just a few steps away from the boat he sinks like a stone (like I did on lake Erie).   And what does Jesus do? He grabs Peter’s hand and brings him back to the boat and the safety of Christ’s community. And for all who are in the boat– the full affect of the stormy chaos ceases.  When we all remain together we are safe in the turmoil with Jesus by our side and chaos’s blustery affects cease to hold us back so that we can move ahead.
In Christ’s presence, in any faith community, Christ words in the text should have full effect “Take heart, do not be afraid!” We are meant to be safe together in this ship of church.  First Congregational United Church of Christ is full, full to the brim with Spirit-filled people. It is also full, full to the brim with Christ’s presence. We are all in this boat together so-to-speak. And while it’s not always going to be smooth sailing, as long as we remain together we can weather any storm, survive any crisis and stay afloat in the chaos of life. Here, we know this to be true.   Why? Because we are together and Christ is here with us! As Christians we cannot be above trouble on water; we cannot survive being amidst and in the chaos alone, without a community of faith, church and Christ’s presence when two or more are gathered in His name.  It is here – together– that Jesus does the impossible and walks over whatever storm there is, shines in any darkness and comes to us.
Christ floats our boat, is the rudder of our ship and the wind in our sails.
Christ, pardon the boat puns, is no OAR-dinary presence, but for us, the HULL story. CANOE agree with that?   It is not like the Erie Lake tale I told. In the eerie sea lesson today the good news is that in the eeriness of life, Christ is here and with us.
And together we CAN float above whatever storms and darkness we encounter.
In Christ’s presence, in this community “Take heart, do not be afraid!” we are safe together in this ship of church.
Here through Christ’s presence God always offers the hope of making good out of any chaos. That is the good news of the Gospel and the whole of the Bible!
Together with Christ we can a make a difference!

AMEN!

ENDNOTES
* based on a sermon I first preached in 2008
1..Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, (1998), 233 (see note 46)
2. See New Interpreter’s Bible (NIB), Vol 2, p 600; NIB vol 8, p. 327-328.
3. NIB, Vol 8, 327
4. Ibid., p 327
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2014

The text of Scott’s August 3, 2014 sermon:

Struggling with God
a sermon based on Genesis 32:22-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 3, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
When I was a kid I was taught and encouraged and sometimes even pushed to fight with other boys. And I got into a number of physical altercations until I was12 when I decided one day to purposefully avoid them.
Until I decided “no mas,” in that era of being raised toward macho-might I fantasized about going into boxing or wrestling. I am pretty sure that if I’d followed one of those paths my nickname in a ring would’ve been something like “Kid Candle” one little blow I’d go out . . .
Actually, forget the ring, I’m pretty sure I’d’ve been the only fighter in history knocked out while shadow boxing. 1 ///

 

In our Lectionary lesson for the morning Jacob’s got the macho fight thing going. He is so good that he lasts through a nightlong fight with God, and that struggle earns him a blessing and a new name. Because the fight is with God we need to look beyond the literal champion or co-champion of a bout kinda thing, and names in the story help– they are a good place to start.
Names tell us a lot in the Old Testament. Today the name Jacob is honorable and heroic based. But the name Jacob in the story has a few literal meanings in Hebrew that are meant to be there for the story’s sake. Jacob means “the one who grabs the heel” because Jacob and his twin Esau struggled in the womb and Jacob came out of the womb second holding Esau’s heel.
Jacob is a name that commentators also report means “underminer,” “supplanter” and even “trickster” – and these meanings also fit well because Jacob deceitfully usurped his brother’s birthright making himself the primary heir of their father Isaac’s titles and estate. 2.  While no “Kid Candle” as a fighter, Jacob comes into the fight in today’s story with a name meant to suggest he was a nefarious trickster sort. And it is no small thing that such a man finally struggles with God and leaves that struggle with a new name, Israel, which commentators suggest means both, “struggles with God” and “God rules.” 3

There is a powerful message in this new name as the Hebrew nation ends up adopting it as their name as well. The people of God, those of “Israel,” admit and name themselves as those who struggle with God even as God rules over them.

 

Actually in the news all summer long we hear this struggle going on, God’s call for peace, God’s call to love neighbor and to treat aliens as equal citizens is in conflict with political and military decisions to bomb and retaliate against actions and threats. The struggle with God keeps Israel questioning its own actions and cease firing and thinking about peace talks. We can argue about Israel’s decisions and actions but it is plain to see it’s struggling with God.

 

Many Christians in our country assert a frightening certainty as to who God is and what God wants. But one Biblical lesson for children of God from today’s lesson is to understand that we actually collectively struggle with God, even as we claim God rules.

 

Our way as a nation and a people is often in conflict with God, we struggle with God as community and as individuals. Whether they’d admit it or not, even those with claims of certainty, have struggled with God.  For example, the late televangelist Jerry Falwell claimed that God ordained racism and segregation, yet in his struggle with God he was eventually forced to concede and recant those claims. 4 The reason racism lost the struggle, I submit, is because God is love and loves everyone.
It sounds all nice and sweet and somewhat easy to claim God is love and loves everyone, but Christians are not supposed to just say it but to live to bring that very God – LOVE– into everything.  This requires the hard work of not just loving God, but loving God and neighbors and enemies and doing to others what we want done to us. We have to give up our ways that wound the world and others, like racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism, and just plain being uncaring about, well, anyone. This is all summed in in Micah 6 (8) and on the wall hangings behind me as seeking justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God. Micah notes that is ALL that God requires. It may not sound like much, but we wrestle and wrestle with God on this stuff.
Jacob did not act loving toward his brother prior to his night alone with God waiting to enter the Promised Land. But when he was done wrestling with God that night, he did act lovingly, and kindly and justly and only then does he get to the Promised Land.  All of this occurred at twilight on the dawning of a new day while Jacob is alone with God. Jacob gets a new day, a rebirth. He is transformed and because of it in the next part of the story, Jacob finally experiences God’s face in his enemy, his brother’s, face.
As we heard Jacob also walks away wounded. Metaphorically he feels the wounds caused by the vibrations of his previous misdeeds. He knows now to get to the Promised Land he needs to remedy them as best he can– which works toward doing.
All of us in our struggles with God always metaphorically walk away wounded once we face God and the consequences of our past wrongdoings. When God does not prevail in our lives we are struck with the pain of our conduct that fought off God. This is not just at the human level, it’s at the national level too.
Slavery in this country is one of the examples I often name. Even as our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, declared the equality of men, we enslaved millions and participated in the enslavement and vicious brutality of many more until we reached a point that we could stand it no longer and we struggled and fought with one another in a horrific civil war that, while ending slavery, vibrates still in history lessons and monuments to our nation’s scars; AND in the still open wound of racism and poverty we have subjected our equal African American brothers and sisters to.  We will limp long from this struggle with God (who calls us to love, to equality, to kindness, and to justice), we limp because we fought bloody and hard not to listen or follow that call.
I’ve mentioned other struggles we’ve encounter too. The oppression of the Poor and Women and Aliens; Native Americans and LGBTQ. In each of these struggles with God we have changed and we will come out of the fight a new people, better for sure, but the scars and wounds we inflict cause pain.
Here’s the thing, it is when we do not struggle with God that we hurt ourselves most, it is only when we face the fact we are in conflict with God in the dark of our evils that we finally come to grips not only with God, but with the wounds we have caused and experienced. In our struggles with God we do experience the pain of our sins–those failures to hit the target God aims us at (that is actually what “sin” means).

 

This works on an individual basis too. Jacob created a huge mess with his deceit and trickery. He’s about to meet his brother and expected a battle of another sort, not with God, but a violent-to-arms war with Esau.  He sent his family over to the Promise Land and he stayed on the other side alone to prepare himself for what he expected to be a bloody conflict with his brother. Instead, he encounters God. Jacob did not apparently previously struggle with God.

 

And, see, here’s the thing, when you encounter God, when you conceive the Divine, you are usually alone. Like the Virgin Mary Story and the Moses’ Burning Bush story, getting that God exists is a solo human project at the outset.  On an individual basis it’s always between you and God – and it is a struggle. Mary struggles a bit doesn’t she? She is perplexed and frightened and ponders and asks how it could be. Moses struggles too, he argues with God’s plan to use him and questions who God is.  So here is Jacob a conniving tricky fellow and he is heading off to see his brother and alone he finds himself wrestling with God all night long. That’s kinda the way it works right? We stay up all night with our struggles.
If we are attentive we find God pushing and pulling us, holding us tight making us face what we are and what we need to become to get to the Promised land. The ‘what we are” shows us our wounds and gives us our limps.  The “who we need to become” thankfully transforms us from the way we used to be. Like Jacob we are no longer the trickster, underminer, surplanter, or whatever, we are one who struggles with God . . . “Israel.” . . .
Like Jacob at the end of the night we face our pains and end up trying to hang onto a bit of blessing from God and move into the Promised land as a transformed person. The truth is that coming face-to-face with God means struggling to follow God as we limp along in our human frailty and foible-nesses.
A few weeks ago in our Talking About God discussion we were considering things that concerns us about Christianity. We listed a lot of troubling aspects like hypocrisy and hate, dogma and doctrine and self- righteousness, but one of the most poignant things we addressed was the fact that following Jesus’ Way is not easy.
It is hard work to get to the Promised land. It requires wrestling with doing what God calls us to – not what we want, or what earthly ways call us to. And so “Israel” can be understood not just as a name reflecting Jacob’s first tussle with God, or even the Hebrew people’s continual struggles with God, but the name for the truth of a big part of the journey into the Promised Land for all of us, it’s a struggle!  The folks in the pews beside you and in other churches, the pastor who is preaching and all the others you may see or hear, all of us who have conceived God alone, struggle our whole lives with the wounds our stray arrows inflict when they fail to hit the target God aims us at.

 

Once we struggle with God, like Jacob, we do not swagger in the place God promises us, we limp carrying our wounds. This is true as a nation, as a people, as a church, and as individuals. Humans are on an imperfect walk to the Promised Land, to heaven. We need to walk humbly with God.

 

The Communion table we are about to share actually reflects this truth. We remember that humankind wrestled, struggled with God incarnate in the form of Jesus. As a result the body of Christ was broken and the blood of Christ was spilt. We– humankind– did that!
The most loving fully human person whom we celebrate and worship as God incarnate, was legally declared a criminal, beaten, broken stabbed and executed. Out of that struggle, out of that wounded and broken-ness, arose an even more powerful version of Christ, one who cannot be destroyed and gives us all hope and new life. Yet, as the Bible instructs, the wounds remain on the risen Christ’s body. We do not forget the wounds humanity caused God incarnate. Christ showed them to Thomas as evidence, and shows them to us too. They are not as just as evidence of Jesus’ past life, but as remnants of having been broken and executed, yet still alive, still positively affecting life and the world.
We share this table today in memory of the wonderful life and resurrection of Christ, and we take into us the broken-ness too. Christians, like Jacob, struggle with God. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of that.
And like Jacob we don’t let go. We hold tight and we hope and pray in so doing we can better experience the face, the presence of God in the ritual and in the wrestling as we travel into the Promise Land, hoping to see God’s face in our brother and sisters, our neighbors and our enemies.  Because when we do that, the Promised Land comes to be, heaven breaks in and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

The Promise Land is the place where ALL love, and ALL seek justice and ALL love kindness and ALL walk humbly with God.  It’s a doable, real place, and it takes a struggle to get there and to see God’s face.
AMEN.

 

ENDNOTES:
1. These jokes and many others can be found at http://www.sportsjokes.co.uk/jokes/boxing/index.shtml

2. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol 1, p 521; Bruggemann, Walter, Interpretation Bible Commentary, p268; Anchor Bible Dictionary “Jacob Narrative” at p 599
3. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol 1, p 566; Telushkin, Joseph, Jewish Literacy, p 40.
4. See, http://www.georgecurry.com/columns/jerry-falwells-racist-past-;
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Falwell#Civil_rights

 

 

 

Scott’s July 20th sermon:

Abraham Answering God’s Call to be a Good Loving Father*
A sermon based on Genesis 22: 1-14, Ps 145:8-9
Given on July 20, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Scott Elliott

 

The story we just heard used to haunt me, so I have no jokes in the sermon today.
Having been raised in a house with an abusive parent and having walked into church as an adolescent with the promise of experiencing a loving God, I instead sometimes heard preachers and teachers interpret this story in ways that lauded a parent’s faithful following of a divine request to abuse a child with the intent to kill him. This disturbed me greatly.

 

I’m know that interpretation has disturbed others here today, probably all of us.
Such an interpretation means that Isaac was actually tied up and prepared for a gruesome and violent sacrificial death by his own father, Abraham; and Abraham does the dirty prep deeds and plans to kill his son because he believed God’s voice told him to do so.
While preachers and teachers have long lauded this interpretation as showing the value of unquestioning faith, I find it appalling and I want nothing to do with it, either as an abused child, a survivor of abuse, a parent myself, or as a member of a culture with far too much child abuse that Christianity has woefully failed to adequately speak out against and prevent it.

 

My first desire as an adult returning back to church in my forties was to reject the whole text as invalid. But it gnawed at me that a pivotal Bible story would be about an abusive God and an abusive man who turns out to influence and found three major faiths of the world. Since this reading didn’t sit right with me, and very likely doesn’t sit right with most of us, I have spent a lot of hours dissecting and de-constructing it.  My efforts have led me to preach and teach on the text as I believe it is very important that we come to grips with this story as Christians.
The traditional interpretation flies in the face of “love your neighbor” an Old and New Testament edict. Teaching God’s people that faith should be so blind as to follow a voice from god telling us to inflict abuse on a child is not in any way about love. Child abuse never, ever is!
While other scholars may not agree, I have come to the conclusion that this text can fairly be understood to be portraying the good and loving God we know, and showing Abraham as a good and loving father.  I believe, if we just hear the story again, as if for the first time without the awful tradition carrying the day, it can have love, not blind faith that calls for child abuse, as its core message. So today’s sermon is an invitation to wipe the slate clean of pre-conceived notions about this story and hear it anew in a whole new way.

 

Hearing the Bible as promoting a loving father and a loving God does not, of course, conflict with other Bible images of either dads or God.  King David loves his son Absalom even as Absalom leads a revolt against the kingdom. When David hears Absalom’s been killed his cry is that of a loving, grieving father: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I have died instead of you, O Absalom my son, my son.” (2 Sam 18:33).

 

Joseph– Jesus’ earthly dad– lovingly tends to Jesus’ pregnant mother, attends Jesus’ birth, protects Jesus from Herod and raises Jesus with Mary, even teaching him his carpenter trade.

 

The father in the parable of “The Prodigal Son” welcomes back his wayward son with undying love. (Luke 15:11-32).

 

And there is the image of God as Father, experienced as so loving by Jesus, that Jesus refers to God as “Abba,” an Aramaic word that means “daddy.”

 

In my many years of experience working with children and helping to raise four I have observed that most fathers love their children –deeply and devoutly. Most fathers would do anything to protect their children and provide for them, not unlike the Biblical fatherly images I just referred to.
The traditional reading of the today’s story, often gruesomely referred to as “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” to say the least, does not lead us to consider Abraham as a good parent, he’s not a loving Biblical dad.  The traditional reading also conflicts with hearing and understanding God as the loving God we often find in scripture and in Jesus’ and our experiences of the Divine. In fact, as we heard, Psalm 145 (vs 8- 9) claims God is loving:

 

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

 

The bottom-line is nothing Biblically requires us to buy into the idea God wanted, and a dad was willing, to abuse and sacrifice a child.   Yet traditionally “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” is interpreted as God testing Abraham by cavalierly demanding to ritually take the life of his son, Isaac; and Abraham passing the test through a faithful cavalier intent to comply with this awful, abusive, bloodthirsty, supposedly Divine demand. In the traditional reading the gracious and merciful God with abounding compassion and steadfast love is hardly to be found.  The Lord is not good to all in the usual rendering of this story which depicts Isaac as an expendable pawn in a game of chicken between God and Abraham, two monstrous figures willing to mistreat a child. God and Abraham are father figures we’d rightly remove from the family, have arrested and jailed–and hopefully provide much needed psychiatric care.
So, what do we do when traditional meanings given to scripture are in conflict with God-as-love; in conflict with models of loving parents?  We can look at such a tradition with suspicion, and explore other meanings– which is what we are doing this morning.
We don’t necessarily have to give up on the text, just reexamine it to see if we can find our loving God lurking in or behind or between the text.  In other words a choice we have with any scripture tradition that portrays an unloving God is to scour the text for the loving God even if finding it means subverting tradition. As theologian, Letty Russell puts it, the Bible

 

needs liberation from the privatized and spiritualized interpretations that avoid God’s concern for justice, human wholeness, and ecological responsibility. It needs liberation from abstract, doctrinal interpretations that remove the biblical narrative from its concrete social and political context in order to change it into timeless truth. 1.

 

This type of theology, of course, is not new.   Jesus looked to God’s Word to find radical love and Jesus turned traditions of his day on their head for the oppressed people of the world.   Jesus gave us a precedent for purposefully looking within and around scripture to find the gracious, merciful, loving God who is good to all– the God who promotes loving relationships. So, lets see if we can find a good and loving God and even a heroic loving parent too.  Let’s look and see if we can fairly read the Bible as portraying God and Abraham as loving the child Isaac instead of abusing him.

 

I’ve already mentioned positive images of fathers and God’s steadfast love.  There is also precedence in the Bible for loving and honoring children.  The Bible is packed full of proof that children and youth are honored, loved, and trusted by God. Teenaged Joseph is abused and enslaved in the Old Testament, but God rescues, honors and loves him.

 

As a youthful lowly shepherd David is loved and honored by God.

 

Mary an oppressed teenaged girl is asked to conceive God, and in partnership with God, give birth to a new Way to God through her son Jesus.

 

And as an adult Jesus not only tends to ailing children but embraces a child at one point declaring that “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. . .” (Mark 9:37)

 

Given these stories can Genesis 22– our text today– be read to find a loving God and loving parent –– can we hear it as a story showing love for children, not abuse, disdain or disregard for them.

 

In addition to looking to find Bible stories showing God and fathers love their children we can also look to history for help in reinterpreting the story. This part is not on the surface of the English translations, but we can easily find it echoing in the story as it has been handed down trough the ages. Religions in the Ancient Near East at the time of Abraham practiced both polytheism and child sacrifice. Our text today can –believe it or not– be heard to directly challenge both. 2.

 

The child sacrifice part actually echos in God’s request for it. We can’t tell in the English translation, but the Hebrew word for the divinity that tested Abraham in the first verse is “elohim,” which is a plural term for God, so one way to read that verse is that the plural, polytheistic gods – the Elohim– are testing Abraham.

 

See it’s his culture’s gods that tell him and others to abuse and sacrifice children. 3
And wonderfully, magnificently, gratefully it is “Yahweh,” in verse 11, God in the singular form, who demands that the abuse and sacrifice be stopped. 4  In other words, we can read the text to say it is the polytheistic gods– the Elohim– who instruct Abraham to offer Isaac “as a burnt offering” (Gen 1-2) and it is loving One God we know– Yahweh– who instructs Abraham not to do it.  I loved discovering this. Abraham hears two voices, the elohim who tell him to follow the culture’s ritual custom of child sacrifice, and Yahweh who tells him to stop that abuse.
Abraham’s God– our God, Yahweh– shows steadfast love and emerges as Abraham and his progeny’s one true God: “[w]hereas Elohim tests Abraham it is YHWH who stops him.”5.  So Genesis 22 can be fairly read as an admonishment of the old way of the elohim, the gods of the culture who treated children as things to abuse and dispose of as sacrificial symbols.

 

By just scratching the surface to get to the Hebrew we can her echos of the human understanding of God evolving from the bloodthirsty elohim to the loving Yahweh who longs for justice, righteousness and shalom. This allows us to hold up Yahweh as loving and Abraham as a hero who honors Yahweh’s loving message and turns humans away from child sacrifice. Abraham stops the sacrifice of children based on Yahweh’s calling him to love and his willingness to follow that call. This way of hearing the story, then, is more than an admonishment against child sacrifice, and more than evidence of the emergence of the One God, Yahweh, it’s a lesson in revolutionary Love.
Although the story is traditionally seen as Abraham acting in faithful compliance and God as testing that faith, when read as a subversive text, both Abraham and God’s motives are no longer based on a testing, but instead are based on radical love. The good news in this understanding of the story is that Love means children must not be abused and that we are called by God to stop such abuse.  What looks like a story promoting child abuse is instead a story about stopping abuse, and both children and fatherly love holding an honored place in the estimation of God, Abraham and scripture.
It gets even better, a closer deeper reading of the text we heard bears all this out. From the beginning we know that Abraham loves his child, God tells us that.  And Abraham acts like he does. He speaks as lovingly to Isaac in the story, as he does to God.  In addition Abraham, like any good parent, is careful to ensure the safety of his child. Like any other good parent he makes sure to carry both the fire and the knife up the mountain.  But perhaps the most powerful clue to Abraham’s love for Isaac is that his words on the way up the mountain indicate a premeditated plan to not comply with the elohim’s and culture’s demand for sacrifice.

 

Think about it: as Isaac and Abraham prepare to depart to the offering site Abraham clearly instructs his servants that both he and Isaac will return. (quote) “the boy and I will go over there; we will worship and then we will come back to you” (end quote) (v. 5). We can hear this as truth, not trickery. Abraham’s reference to “we” even suggests Isaac was nearby and let in on the plan.   Tradition suggests Abraham is deceitful by not disclosing to the servants or Isaac the plan to sacrifice his child; but if we assume that Abraham is not lying, the text indicates Abraham is not tricking anyone but declaring precisely what he and Yahweh have in mind.

 

Even when Isaac asks where the lamb for the offering will come from Abraham can heard to be honestly, not deceitfully suggesting God’s going to provide some thing to sacrifice. Abraham tells Isaac the truth that “God . . . (sic) will provide the lamb . . .”(v. 8). Which is what happens, so it’s not a psychic prediction– but what God and Abraham had planned.
By taking Abraham’s words as honest utterances his actions are ennobled.

 

So not only can we see that Abraham is not going to sacrifice Isaac, but that Isaac is in on the plan, that a lamb will be the offering, and that Abraham from the start intended that Isaac would be coming off the mountain with his loving father.  In a day and age when the norm was for followers of elohim to sacrifice children, Abraham’s words to the servants and to his son evidence his and Yahweh’s plan to buck the norm. From the git-go we can hear Abraham planned to bring his son off the mountain and sacrifice a lamb.

 

And isn’t that what we want Abraham to do?

 

Isn’t that what we’d do with our faith in the God of love?

 

Isn’t that what we’d expect God to want any parent to do?

 

Genesis 22 can be read to show that a father so loved his son that he planned from the start to challenge the culture and gods-of-old’s demands for that son’s sacrifice, and so he let Isaac and community members in on the plan and then followed through with it.

 

So, there we are. When we look beyond the traditional view of Genesis 22 we can choose to hear that it reveals on numerous levels a caring Yahewh who lures a loving father to successfully plan to stop child abuse.  Consequently the God of love, Jesus’ “daddy-God” can be found lurking and luring from within and between that text. The true loving God and loving father of the story can be experienced and brought to the surface. With this love centered reading Genesis 22 is no longer a story about “The Sacrifice of Isaac.”
Liberated, it is the story of “Abraham Answering God’s Call to Be a Good Loving Father.”
AMEN!
ENDNOTES
* This sermon is based on a body of work I did in Seminary and on sermons I have preached in the past, as well as some teaching I have done along the way.
1. McKim, Donald, The Bible in Theology & Preaching, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1999), 173 (quoting Russell, Letty).
2. Smith, Mark, The Early History of God, Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Co.(2002), 171-181; see also, Psalms 106:34-38; Jer 7:31, 19:5, 32:35; Lev 18:21, 20:3; Eze 20:25-26.
3. Lowen, Jacob, “Translating the Names of God” The Bible Translator, V. 35, No. 2 (1984), 201.
4. Plaut, Gunther, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1981), 149. Note: The convention in Judaism is not to use the word “Yahweh,” but to replace it with “Adonai,” the author is following this convention.
5. See, Mills, Mary, Biblical Morality: Moral Perspectives in Old Testament Narratives, Burlington: Ashgate (2001), 36.

—————————————————————-

The text of Scott’s short narrative message during a musical presentation by The Heritage Singers

A Message of Music
a sermon based on Col 3: 12-16; Psalm 95:1-3
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 13, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott (with beautiful music provided by The Heritage Singers)
SCOTT: Over the past few months we’ve talked a quite a bit about God’s presence in all that is.
We’ve looked at Paul’s claim that God is what we live and move and have our being in.

We’ve considered Psalm 139’s suggestion that everywhere we go there is God.
There is a wonderful truth and awe to this Everywhere-God who’s near . . . yet fills the universe.
The prophet Jeremiah (23:23-24) recorded these words that sum it up nicely
“Am I a God who is near,” declares the LORD, “And not a God far off? “Can a man hide himself in hiding places So I do not see him?” declares the LORD. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the LORD.
If you’ve been outside in nature, you know how true this declaration by God is. God fills the earth. Humans have noticed this for a long, long, time – and some have blessed us with songs about it.
The Heritage Singers are going to start us off with two such songs, a hauntingly beautiful old anthem called SAVOR SO, and a famous favorite, FOR THE BEAUTY OF THE EARTH.

HERITAGE SINGERS:

SAVOR SO (3 min)
FOR THE BEAUTY OF THE EARTH (3:5 min)

SCOTT: Even though God is everywhere, we’ve also discussed how life can be hard. It can be messy.

We can feel alienated from God by terrible, difficult and bad things. It can feel as if we are all alone with no one by our side.

But God IS there with us providing love and care and a guiding hand– and a loving embrace.

As Jesus put it in Matthew 28 “remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Here’s an anthem about the consequences of that truth— it’s a beautiful Spiritual called NEVER GOING TO WALK THIS JOURNEY ALONE.

 

HERITAGE SINGERS:
NEVER GOING TO WALK THIS JOURNEY ALONE (3:3 min)

 

SCOTT: Some of the hard and messy things in life are caused by natural events occurring, but often it is humans choosing to do wrong.

 

Jesus’ Way is about how we relate to God in creation, and in others and ourselves.
It’s about making the right choices. Choosing the Heavenly Way over earthly ways, picking Love over non-love.
The next song is based on a Native American story that goes like this:
One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said “my son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies, false pride, and ego.

“The other wolf inside people is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

 

The grandson thought about it for a moment and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?…”

 

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.”

 

Here is the powerful song, FEED THE RIGHT WOLF, written by Sarah Goslee Reed. And arranged by Cliff Davis

 

HERITAGE SINGERS:
FEED THE RIGHT WOLF (4:40 min)

 

SCOTT: When we find and accept grace, we get –we understand– that WE are loved.
But see, here’s the thing, Jesus’ Way is not just getting what WE need . . . getting that WE are loved. It’s about taking that love and finding every way we can to shine it out in the dark shadows of the world bringing the light of love into others’ lives, as well as our own.
It just so happens that we are going to end The Musical Message part of this service with The Heritage Singers’ awesome rendition of a song that touches on this topic of doing as Jesus taught, shining our light in the world: THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE

 

HERITAGE SINGERS:
THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE (3:4 min)

 

SCOTT: Amen!
Thank you Heritage Singers who need to leave to bless the Mulberry Street Methodist congregation at their service.

——————————————————————–

The text of Scott’s July 6th sermon:

What Does this Church, the Bible and the 4th of July Have in Common?
a sermon based on Acts 10:30-36 (The Message)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 6 , 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
There is a very funny video on Youtube taken at a family firework party. A Roman Candle is in the ground shooting off hot glowing flares when all of a sudden a little dachshund runs into the picture and grabs the Roman candle in his mouth and runs with it back to the crowd as it fires flares left and right.  With each firing the little dog’s body recoils to the side and each phosphorous flare comes dangerously close to the crowd as it both rushes to get away AND laughs at the little loaded hot dog with a lighted firework shooting off. It is quite a sight! It’ll make you smile.  I guess it is a good thing I did not see anything like that this 4th of July.

 

It was a year ago this very weekend that I preached my first sermon here in this very Holy space in front of this very Holy congregation.  And, among other things, I mentioned how I love the Fourth of July, and what a blessing it is each year to read words from the Declaration of Independence and preach about God’s presence in it and the holiday and the events and history that surround it– and our country.
There are a lot of words in the Declaration, but one sentence stands out each year and rings with truth and justice and the God who is love. The sentence reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I sometimes think that sentence may be my favorite sentence in all of Western Civilization. Elite men, power brokers of a new nation, dared to not only challenge the most powerful empire in the world, but did so with lofty ideals that included the egalitarian notion that we are created with innate equality and God-given rights.

 

It never ceases to amaze me that those words were meant to acknowledge rights and equality not just for the elite, but for everyone. That one sentence and genuine belief in it by our founders, and many Americans ever since, have sent this nation on a series of hard hikes toward the goal of equality for all. And walking with the flares of freedom for all going off is not easy. . .
We have all been raised believing in the goal of equality for all, but at the time, on July 4th 1776, the notion of equality for all and unalienable rights for everybody was virtually unimaginable as a reason to create a new nation, let alone the basis for the running of it.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, it’s been a hard hike at times, kinda like that little dachshund we’ve recoiling side to side by the fireworks that real freedom and real equality set off.
We have always had those who do not want rights expanded to everyone. There have always been those who do not believe all of us are created equal, and they have tried to knock us out of kilter and off course from the goals in Declaration of Independence.
And, so, we’ve had a long hard hike out of the low, low desert of slavery. We’ve had a long hard hike out of the wilderness trail of tears and genocide of Native Americans. We’ve had a long hard hike through the drowning sea of Jim Crow laws.  We’ve had a long hard hike up a huge mountain to get to women’s suffrage.  It’s not been an easy journey, or easy roads, or easy trails to trail blaze, to hike, but we have hiked hard.

 

And of course we are actually still on hard hikes trying to journey over and away from sexism and racism and class-ism and heterosexism and religious fanaticism.
While it is sad that we still have “isms” to traverse, it does my heart good to know that we ARE on the hard hikes to overcome them. We have not accepted them as natural law. Wonderfully, beautifully, the natural law that we have accepted is the self evident truth that all are created equal and entitled to rights that cannot be taken away.

 

Once we declared that in our Declaration of Independence it became a truth we could not ignore. It has, in fact, haunted us, and motivated and moved us, for two-hundred-and-thirty-eight years. See since the start the ethos of America has always included a deep sense of – and a pull toward– equality and trying to provide and protect rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 

It’s in most Americans’ blood to believe everyone is entitled to equal treatment and certain God-given rights.  Equality may not yet play out as a reality for every one, but at the end of the day – despite set-backs in our courts and other political arenas– we seem aimed and hiking toward everyone getting just that, equality and rights that are due . . . long overdue!
And the reality is we have had to take a great many hard hikes getting knocked astray along the way to get to where we are today as the U.S.A. . . . It’s a beautiful story and one worthy of celebration.
What always fascinates me is that this wonderful story has its counter-part in the story of our faith. The Bible is also about people getting what is due under the Creator’s laws.
It’s about equality and God-given rights and a whole series of hard hikes, walks in the dessert and the wilderness, up mountains, across seas and toward a cross and out of a tomb to try and bring it about.
The notion of equality runs deep in the Bible. In the very first chapter we are told that ALL men and ALL women are made in God’s image. All of us are made in the very same Divine image.  In the New Testament Paul puts it like this in Colossians (3:9-11) “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian (sythe-e-an), slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”  The Bible has us pegged as equals–all of us made in God’s image, and “Christ is all and in all.”  In Galatians 3(28) Paul famously asserted God’s natural law that everyone is equal. He beautifully wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”   Peter gets this too as we heard in The Message version of Acts 10:34. Peter says “It is God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites!”

 

What is due to all of us equally made, equally images of God, is called “Justice” a word the Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms defines as:

 

Classically, the concept of each person receiving what is due. Biblically, the emphasis is on right relationships and persons receiving a share of the resources of society. Concern is expressed for the oppressed and their right treatment. Justice is related to love and grace.

 

According to the same theological dictionary the term “social justice,” a term that Kim and I both mentioned in the July church newsletter, means:

 

The recognition of the rights and obligation of individuals and society. Full participation in the institutions and processes of society is a goal. Exclusion and marginalization become forms of injustice.

 

The point at which our Bible and our Declaration of Independence intersect is at social justice. Jesus states in Luke that he came  “to bring good news to the poor. . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free . . . ” (Luk 4:18-19 NRS).   All the things Jesus came to do can be understood as being about equality and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  To use the language of social justice, Jesus came to give “recognition of the rights and obligation of individuals and society.”   Jesus came to help everyone have “[f]ull participation in the institutions and processes of society . . .”  See, to Jesus “[e]xclusion and marginalization become forms of injustice.”
This is the stuff of our Bible. And it is the stuff of our Declaration of Independence – Thomas Jefferson’s point is equality and fairness.  This July we are celebrating not just the birth of our nation 238 years ago, but the birth of this incredible church community 180 years ago.   On July 26, 1834 we began as a Christ-centered, justice oriented church strongly in support of doing away with the enslavement, genocide and brutality imposed by our nation’s horrible institution of slavery.  We began striving for social justice against the exclusion and marginalization of Africans and African-Americans, who by men’s law were unjustly not given right relationships or right treatment. Nor did those laws recognize their rights, or provide meaningful participation in the institutions and processes of society that were afforded to others.
As Kim pointed out in her wonderful newsletter article,

the church’s founders experienced
difficult times of violent disagreement over slavery, with riots, mobs, and persecution of ministers and members. It was downright dangerous to be an abolitionist, but the congregation never wavered in its commitment; in fact, it was the only area church that openly and actively advocated abolition.

 

What a remarkable cloud of saints we follow– gutsy, brave and unrelentingly social justice oriented.
And the church did not just opposed the injustice of slavery. The unequal status of women has also long been opposed. It’s reported that pioneer feminist, Amelia Bloomer, attended this church and invited that another famous pioneer feminist, Lucy Stone, to give a lecture in this church on women in the workplace. 1 This took place in 1854, over a hundred years before I was born! How cool is that?   A good many other members of this church community were also involved in the women’s suffrage movement. And many of us still stand up for, and work toward, equality for women in the world today.
We also had members and pastors involved in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, some of us even went down south 50 years ago during Freedom Summer to help register voters.

 

Most of us know that this church is involved in civil rights and fair treatment for our LGBT sisters and brothers too.

 

And we have, of course, also long been a part of community efforts to provide food and necessities to those in need.

 

All of these efforts for slaves, women, people of color, LGBT, the poor and frankly for all the rest of us, are about social justice. Each fits in well with Jesus’ commandments to love our neighbors and to do to others as we would want done to us.  They also fit well with the self evidence truths set out in the Declaration of Independence.
May we as a church, and may we as a nation never set aside the core beliefs of our founders that have sent us and kept us on quests for social justice, even as the journey has been difficult, even as the fireworks along the way have sent us off kilter on the hard hikes toward social justice for all.  May we never forget the self-evident truths
that all . . . are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .
AMEN.

 

 

ENDNOTES:
1. See,1. See, Lorle Porter, Politics & Peril: Mount Vernon, Ohio in the Nineteenth Century, p 87-88; Amelia Bloomer’s biography on line at: http://www.fofweb.com/History/HistRefMain.asp?iPin=AHBio0338&SID=2&DatabaseName=American+History+Online&InputText=%22Lucy+Stone%22&SearchStyle=&dTitle=Bloomer%2C+Amelia&TabRecordType=All+Records&BioCountPass=23&SubCountPass=25&DocCountPass=5&ImgCountPass=2&MapCountPass=0&FedCountPass=&MedCountPass=2&NewsCountPass=0&RecPosition=31&AmericanData=Set&WomenData=&AFHCData=&IndianData=&WorldData=&AncientData=&GovernmentData=
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of Scott’s sermon from June 29, 2014

A Table Without Boundaries
a sermon based on Mark 6:17-29
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 29, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
At the end of a semester in seminary things can get a little tense. In our second year, with a week left to go, my class was looking at the text that Tom just read and we had to break into small groups during the class and then return at the end of the hour and do an oral report. When we got back for the oral report I was called on first. Sensing the tension in the air as I walked forward to give our group report I said to the professor in the back of the classroom that it took us a while to figure out a deeper meaning to the text because some of us thought it was just a story about two parents helping their child to get a-head.

 

When I first heard about the breakfast services at our church someone mentioned how novel they are. And sure enough, this is the first meal service I can remember being at in church.  But you know what’s ironic? The Jesus movement and the early church had meals as a central part of their ministry. This table gathering is not unlike how it all began.
And this may sound odd, but, it all began as a protest movement. See First Century Palestine was ruled by the Roman Empire and its locally appointed elite. The elite were few in number and controlled the wealth and power while the vast majority were very, very poor and considered nobodies and often even expendable.
The Biblical meal story of Herod’s Birthday Banquet depicts how the drastic inequality of the Roman Empire played out. It illustrates that under Roman rule the ruling elite were understood to have the power to imprison someone (John the Baptist) for criticizing their marriage and even execute him as a whimsical reward for a daughter’s entertaining dance.

 

Jesus was at one time a follower and probably a disciple of John. 1 John taught not just repentance, but resistance in hopes of an apocalyptic end to Rome’s rule. And John foresaw a Coming One who would wrest Israel from Rome with divine vengeance, and violence with chopping ax and burning fire (Matt 3:10).  At some point Jesus parted company with John’s movement. Indeed, John’s execution itself “may have convinced Jesus of a different type of God– the non-violent God of a non-violent kingdom, a God of non-violent resistence to structural as well as individual evil” as John Dominic Crossan put it…. 2

 

Jesus’ break with John’s movement resulted in the rise of the non-violent resistance movement that Jesus founded. Jesus did not focus on the use of baptism nor preach a message of apocalyptic eschatology as John did. He chose instead to challenge the inequities of the Roman Empire in other ways including flipping an exclusive Greco-Roman meal tradition on its head.  In Jesus’ day and age meals hosted by a patron were a way to maintain networks and loyalty with underlings, so-called “clients.” The banquet meal was an important social institution constructed around formalities.3

 

Except for wedding banquets these meals were usually only for male guests old enough and important enough to fall within the sphere of influence of someone sufficiently wealthy to afford to host such a meal. 4  The meal banquet was typically tended to by servants and when guests arrived they were brought to a dinning room where their feet were washed before they sat by social rank at an assigned couch where they would recline during the meal (with dogs beneath their feet to eat the scraps). 5

 

If you think about it, many of the meal traditions I’ve just mentioned can be found in New Testament discussions about invitations, exclusive guests, foot washing, hand washing, scraps for dogs, things like that. Herod’s Birthday Banquet is, I think, one of the best examples. Herod, the patron, is having a birthday banquet with his clients– elite “courtiers and officers and . . . leaders of Galilee.”

 

The only female at the party is the entertainer, Herod’s daughter, who has to come in to dance and go out to speak to her mother, Herod’s wife, who as a non-servant, non-entertainer, non-male is not allowed at the banquet. Inequality was part and parcel of the meal tradition. Consequently those on the margins – women, untouchables, poor and expendables – were not welcomed at the typical Greco-Roman banquet table.///

 

Jesus’ movement challenged the drastic inequalities of the Roman Empire as a whole, and included an emphasis on table practices.
At Jesus’ banquets cultural status and hierarchy were completely set aside. Jesus made his table open to all regardless of a person’s class or purity status. 6 It was a meal where outcasts and sinners were welcomed to break bread as equals with everyone else.
And Jesus further equalized the table by acting as host, guest, and servant, and setting aside rules.  Brilliantly, Jesus took the exclusive table practices of his culture, replaced exclusivity with inclusivity and brought it to the poor and other outcasts so that they might eat, and build and belong to community.  The promise of a meal certainly drew the hungry peasants in, and to those who were unclean Jesus cleverly granted clean status.

 

In the process Jesus provided experiences of a just God; for hungry peasants “food is about justice and justice is about God . . .” 7 For outcasts inclusion is about justice, and justice is about God. Jesus’ table practices created experiences of the Empire of God where all were equally loved and entitled to food and community, where justice, as well as food was served.   At Jesus’ table the Roman Empire’s exclusionary oppression was invalidated and superceded through the presence and experience of the Empire of God where “God is a god who shares.” 8  Jesus’ table gave food, community and new clean status to outcasts, all really were invited. We can hear this in Jesus’ Heavenly Banquet story where he has the royal image of God instruct, “‘Go therefore into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the . . . banquet” (Matt 22:9; Cf., Lk 14:23). Jesus’ table “is a table without controls, a table without boundaries. It represents a community in which all are welcomed, into which all may come.”9

 

Jesus’ table represents God’s Empire breaking in, an empire quite different from the earthly empires, at a table quite different from theirs too.  At God’s table in the here and now “[n]o one is exempted. Everyone is invited. Women as well as men, prostitutes as well as Pharisees.”10  At Jesus table unmediated access to God, justice, community and food is available to anyone.

 

Jesus’ struggle against inequality included transformation of a common meal practice in a way that shattered boundaries and helped feed people and mediate God’s loving presence. In the end it cost Jesus, His body was broken and His blood was spilt over his loving inclusive ways and resistance movement.  His followers remembered this and his meal practice. Jesus followers continued the meals and did not forget the great cost involved. We can hear it echoing in our two thousand year old communion practice.

 

See the Last Supper ritual has its very roots in Jesus’ God centered resistance movement, a movement that involved meals like this, where all are invited and welcome and equal. Where love abounds.  That’s why communion in this faith community is open to absolutely everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a member or a non-member. It doesn’t matter if you are poor or rich, or an elite or outcast in the culture. It doesn’t even matter what you believe or don’t believe. If you want to partake you can.

. . . COMMUNION

 

I know it’s not the first of the month, but we thought we’d try and add communion to this meal service since it fits well with all we are doing. We’ll do communion a bit different, a little less formal. Loaves and juice will be brought to the tables and passed around by you all at your table. Please tear off a goodly size of bread hold it and wait for the juice and for everyone else to be served and then we will all mindfully partake together in silence.

And remember wherever you are on life’s journey you may eat the bread of life and drink the cup of blessing here at the Lord’s table.

We remember this morning that on the night Jesus was handed over to the authorities he gathered his disciples for one last meal. Jesus took bread and after giving thanks broke it and gave it to his followers saying “Take eat this is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And in the same manner he took the cup also saying to his followers “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink of it in remembrance of me.”

Please pray with me: God of forgiveness and love pour your Spirit into this bread and into this cup and into all who are gathered here today so that we might know your love and remember Christ’s call to love and to include all at the table and into our community.

Amen.

The gifts of God for all the people of God. Come for all things are ready.

ENDNOTES:
1. Crossan, John Dominic, Jesus a Revolutionary Biography, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1989), 151.
2. Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, 287.
3.Smith, Dennis, The Greco-Roman Banquet: Defining a Common Meal Tradition, Philadelphia: Trinity Press Int’l, (1990), 13, 21.
4. Women might serve as entertainers and courtesans, but typically were not guests, except at wedding banquets. Smith, 35, 40, 42.
5.Ibid., 17, 27.
6. Ibid., 66-70.
7. Crossan, Birth of Christianity, 422.
8. Ibid., 430.
9.Ibid., 86.
10. Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler, In Memory of Her, 121.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of Scott’s sermon from June 22

Hagar, a Cultural Nobody, is Very Much a Somebody to God
a sermon based on Genesis 21:1-21
June 22, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A middle-aged pastor searched his closet for his collar before church one Sunday morning. In the back of the closet, he found a small box containing 3 eggs and one hundred $1 bills. He called his spouse over to the closet to ask about the box and its contents–embarrassed, she admitted having hidden the box for their entire 25 years of marriage. The pastor asked “WHY?”  The wife replied that she hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings. Then he asked her how the box could have hurt his feelings. She said that every time he delivered a poor sermon, she placed an egg in the box.
The pastor felt that 3 poor sermons in 25 years was certainly nothing to feel bad about. Then he asked her what the $100 was for.  She replied, “Well, umm, see, each time I got a dozen eggs I sold them to a neighbor for a dollar.” . . .
I’m not sure how many eggs my wife might have collected if she kept track of all my mistakes, but I am guessing we’d be wealthy egg merchants by now.
Imagine if both of Abraham’s wives had such a collection for the mistakes he made, he’d no doubt be yoked by a real – and perhaps egg-xaggerated– shelling of scrabbled complaints that would surely come home to roost.

 

It is pretty easy to find mistakes in someone else’s life, your spouses’ or neighbors’ or pastors’ or anyone else’s. it is easy to keep a secret mistake-counting collection closeted without airing concerns too. That happens all the time in our families, communities, churches and even in Bible stories.  Dealing with the concerns in a reasonable, non-bullying, out-of-the-closet-into-the-sunlight way is what makes for healthy relationships. The early Hebrew people got this and were not afraid to let leadership’s mistakes be recounted and aired–even if the leadership did not air their concerns at the time.
Sarah and Abraham are the matriarch and patriarch, the leaders of the Hebrew people and they are remembered as the founders of the faith, yet their mistakes are not hidden but told in our lessen today in a way that we not only see the errors of the hierarchy, but we sympathize with a lowly-to-them slave. Hagar is the human hero in this story, not the cultural elites.  The story is remarkable in that she is the hero and that the mistakes the culture leads its elite to commit are NOT whitewashed away or hidden in a closet.
Since the elites mistakes are by- products of cultural rules I want to focus a bit on those systemic mistakes, they have meaning for us even today.  And by “mistakes” I mean sins, a word that traces its meaning to the Hebrew archery term for missing the mark.
How does the cultural system cause the players in Hagar’s story to miss the mark God aims them – and us– toward? And where is God in it all?
To put it another way, we are all called to hit the target of loving others, why is that target missed in this story? And what’s God doing about it?
We know from the Bible that Hagar, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael are all good people. These are not evil folks with wicked hearts. They are good folks, but something goes awry.  What happens is culturally expected conduct creates injustices carried out by the actions of some otherwise good people. As a consequence the target of love for one or more is clearly missed.

 

In this week’s lesson God saves Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael in the desert through the acts of Hagar. Within the month I expect we will also consider the story in Genesis 22 where God saves Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac on a mountain top through the acts of Abraham.  Both of these are difficult stories to wrestle with and are often avoided in church. Preaching on them can be a bit tricky. So it may very well be the sermon will cause eggs to be added to any collections based on my errors, but I am going to give it a try any way.

 

So let’s look at today’s lesson:

 

I want to start with a little background. Earlier in Genesis Sarah appeared to be barren; and as was the custom of her day she gave Abraham Hagar-the-slave to be his second wife.
She did this so Abraham’s family, her family could have a child through the surrogate Hagar. And with no indication that Hagar consented to the marriage or intimate relations, Abraham gets Hagar pregnant and she has Abraham’s first son, Ishmael.
Trouble in today’s text really starts brewing when Sarah gives birth to her own first son, Isaac. Trouble boils over when Isaac is weaned and considered a viable heir to Abraham’s power and wealth.  The Old Testament has a whole bunch of stories where primogeniture, the right of the eldest son to inherit, is in the backdrop of conflicts that arise. Jacob tricks first born son Esau. Joseph the first born son in his maternal line is sold into slavery.
Ishmael, the first born son to Hagar in today’s lesson gets cast off in favor of Isaac, the first born son to Sarah.

 

For the record, female children did not have rights to their father’s estate. At best their birth primacy put them in line to be married off first (Gen. 29:16ff.; I Sam. 18:17ff.).  Moreover, once a woman was married– first daughter or not– in Abraham and Sarah’s patriarchal culture wives were property, owned by the husband. Sarah may have been the family matriarch, but she did not have ownership rights to Abrahams’ estate.  What she did have was a position of privilege as the first wife, as a Hebrew, and as a non-slave and she used that privilege to manipulate Hagar and Ishmael out of the family.  And to be fair, that manipulation may have been for survival purposes, because if Abraham dies it matters very much to Sarah who inherits the wealth. Because as a woman in this patriarchy she would then need to be taken care of by the next male in line – which she needs to be her son.
I want to take a few moments and summarize the patriarchal cultural failures to hit the mark of love in what we have covered so far. Primogeniture is a rule that places more value on first born sons and denigrates the value of all later born children, most especially the daughters.  Women were born into a world where they had very little rights and were often pitted against one another for not only their survival, but their children’s survival.
From our vantage point, Love, the desire for the well being of another is not fostered by this patriarchal male-first-born-privilege thing that is going on. It is not fostered by the patriarchal way of oppressing women and other lowly-to-the-culture people, like children, foreigners and slaves. Given all of this, the amazing thing about today’s story is that the patriarchy remembered and passed it down through generations at all.
If you follow where God is and whom God rescues and sides with in the story, it is those the patriarchy oppresses. God’s siding with justice and love outweighs patriarchal interests.  In this story, and other Bible stories, the trick is to keep our eye on what God is up to. In our lesson today God sides with Hagar, a foreign female child slave who’s being oppressed.
As I mentioned, not only did females have less rights but so did foreigners, especially the hated Egyptians. Children also had less rights. And of course, slaves, had way less rights than non-slaves. This story very purposefully makes the hero – and the one God sides with– a combination of all the lowly people in the patriarchy that the storyteller could muster. See, as a foreign Egyptian female slave child, Hagar is culturally the lowest or low.
And what transpires and is recorded is that the cultural elite, Abraham and Sarah, buy into the cultural norms, not the norm of love for others that God aims humans toward.
Although we may find what Abraham and Sarah did to Hagar reprehensible it was nonetheless culturally proper, justified by the law, and certainly expected conduct by slave owners.
So Hagar – whose name means “stranger” or “alien”– has a whole world of hurt put upon her by a system of living that sees her in so may ways as a lesser being. To the system Hagar is not worthy of love and justice.  The mistakes –the sins– in the story are ultimately relational and are traced to Ancient Near East norms dictating how members of this particular tribe are to relate to one another and others. Thankfully we do not live in a culture with those oppressive norms, but the lessons regarding oppressions can be heard to have a universal application to all oppressions–like those that do exist in the world today.
That universal application has served to make Hagar a symbol for all sorts of people who are oppressed–most especially women. Theologian Phyllis Trimble lists the stunning flexibility of Hagar’s story like this:

 

As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others. 1

 

All of these women that Prof Trimble lists are the very type of oppressed people God sides with and helps wants us to side with and help. God wants all people to have justice and love, to have enough respect and necessities to obtain the state of well being that they and all the rest of us deserve and are aimed toward.
The cultural elite can appear to be villains in the story, but it is the culture’s rules that they follow without much resistance that create the injustices. God does not side against people, but against oppression and injustice.  And we see this earlier in Genesis 16 where God, ignoring cultural rules, rescues the then pregnant runaway slave Hagar. In that chapter God has Hagar go back to slavery to save her son and herself promising her and her child justice in the end. Today’s reading lets us know how that promise unfolds.

 

Because Abraham and Sarah have been such a poor witness to God and God’s way of love, Hagar does not convert to their faith path, but instead names God El-roi “the one who sees me.”  Hagar this nobody to the world girl is the only person in the entire Bible who gets to give a name to God. In a culture where names mean everything Hagar is never called by name by Abraham or by Sarah, yet God honors her, not only by calling her name, but letting her give a new name to God.  The list of other honors for Hagar go on and on. God sees to it that she and her son gain freedom.  As Prof. Trimble notes she is also

 

the first person in scripture whom a divine messenger visits and . . . [w]ithin the historical memories of Israel, she is the first woman to bear a child. This conception and birth make her an extraordinary figure in the story of faith: the first woman to hear the annunciation, the only one to receive a divine promise of descendants, and the first to weep for her dying child. Truly, Hagar the Egyptian is the prototype of not only special but of all mothers in Israel. 2

How remarkable is that? An enemy Egyptian slave girl is loved by God in the same way that every other person is loved by God. And according to the Bible, and especially to Jesus, this is what we are to do too, right? To love our enemies! To love everyone!

 

Interestingly this Egyptian nobody Hagar has a story that reflects the Exodus story. The Hebrews flee the iniquities of Egyptian enslavement into a wilderness exile; The Egyptian Hagar flees the iniquities of Hebrew enslavement into a wilderness exile. God rescues them both out of oppressions, out of mistakes, out of sins caused by oppressive cultural norms.

The Old Testament is primarily about how God rescues and relates to the Hebrew people, but stories like this are reminders that God rescues and relates to anyone regardless of faith, religion, race, gender or any other cultural status.  Indeed this story makes it very, very clear that no matter what status the culture doles out, God loves everyone from the lowest to the highest. See there is no patriarchy– or any other hierarchy, when God orders our value.  We are all of us loved. And that is the Truth echoing in this remarkable story of an outcast down-trodden slave girl whom God loves and rescues and honors. Hagar is loved steadfastly and forever by God. So are we all. So are all our enemies.  That’s good news . . . and a reminder that all are precious in God’s sight and they all need to be precious in our sight too . . . 3    AMEN.
ENDNOTES:
1.Trimble, Phyllis, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (London: SCM Press, 1984), pp. 27-29 found on the internet at this link: theconnexion.net/wp/?p=11141#ixzz34Gl2vPdl)
2. Ibid.
3. This sermon was inspired by a wonderful course I took at Eden Theological Seminary in 2004 called “Feminist Biblical Interpretation” taught by Rev. Dr. Deb Krause.
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2014

 

 

 

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The text of Scott’s June 15, 2014 sermon

Do Science and Religion Have to Be in Conflict?
a sermon based on Genesis 1:1-5
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 15, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
One day a zoo-keeper noticed that one of the apes, a gorilla, was reading two books – “The Bible” and Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Surprised, the zoo-keeper asked, “Why are you reading both those books?” “Well,” said the ape, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”1.

 

I like that joke. It’s got an ape seeking answers to religious and scientific questions with a fun bit of word play.  The ape’s statement “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother” humorously pits the two types of questions against each other as a one-or-the-other-choice, as if we cannot both be our brothers keepers as Genesis suggests AND related to other creatures as “The Origin of the Species” suggests. This little joke in a nutshell captures the essence of a conflict a part of our culture is engaged in. It’s a conflict that seems to ask us to choose religion or science. It’s a conflict that does not seem to appreciate that we can actually choose both.  Mostly the conflict heats up on the topic of creation. The result is that the question of how creation came about seems to have two competing disciplines, science and religion, at each others throats.  In fact, even including Biblical texts on sexuality, I am not sure there is a set of scripture in our day and age that causes more debate and dissension than the creation story.

 

I said that it “seems” science and religion are at each other throats because that’s the impression we are often left with, but I don’t really think that is necessarily the case. And I certainly don’t think it should be the case. Perhaps it is just my perspective. I did not grow up in a religious home, but I was encouraged to have an interest in science and I did.
As a kid I explored the world from tiny bugs and babbling brooks to furry mammals and the horizon-stretching day and night skies. In those awe-filled days of childhood exploration of the wonders of creation I learned to love not just science and nature, but much of existence itself.

 

When I took the time to stop and look and notice – really notice– the physical world around me I experienced a deep and Sacred spiritual presence.  Looking back now I understand that it was then that I fell in love with the physical and spiritual parts of creation. It was then that I first found love of existence and love of God through the portal of science. Later as a Christian – and now as a pastor and student of religion– I find religion bolsters, even boosts, my love for creation and existence and God.

 

Through the portal of religion I have found the validity of science as a good and Godly blessing. So my personal religious experiences and beliefs are NOT in conflict with science, but rather work well with it.

 

Today’s creation story is a good example which is why we are looking at it again this morning. I hear the big bang theory fitting nicely with God’s loud voice beginning creation with Light.  I hear the Bible story as metaphor and poetry, which is what I think it was meant to be heard as, not as a literal historical accounting of creation.

 

Big Bang is just an example . . . Science and religion don’t have to clash and don’t necessarily clash. Both seek truth about creation.   Science seeks to understand beings (the existence of things – the whats, wheres and hows of them).  And religion seeks to understand being (existence itself, the whys of it) and human response to it.  To my way of thinking science uses empirical evidence and reason to explain the workings of the universe. And religion uses metaphor and poetry to explain the mystery, awe and the relationships we exist to have with it. At the end of the day both seek truth and provide meaning about existence. The ape joke actually sums up the two quests, one is about the taking care of, relating to our brothers and sisters in creation– “are we our brother’s keeper?” One is about the physical relationships to them – “are creatures and creation our brothers?” Since these are different quests for truth they need not clash.
But with all that said, we do seem to see them clashing and arguing–often vehemently so! What are these clashes and arguments over the creation story really about?  They are if you think about it not so much about the true meaning of life, but a dispute over the meaning of a literal reading of the creation story. Theistic Fundamentalists, the Creationists, argue the literal reading provides ultimate truth, while a number of Atheistic fundamentalists argue a literal reading provides ultimate falsehoods.

 

In our day and age Creationists have come to claim the literal reading as the basis for their version of “science.”  Creationism’s fundamental core facts are derived from the words of the story, and observations in the world are then made to bend and conform to what they understand is written. The literal meaning they derive from The Bible is the center of their “science.”
Likewise in our day and age many Atheists have (and I think ironically so) also come to claim a literal reading of The Bible as the basis for their rejection of the texts as untruths and the God depicted in their literal meaning as a fairy tale. Like the Creationists, many Atheists point to a form of science to prove their and the Creationist’s literal readings of The Bible as full of untruths.  The science that the Atheists rely upon is not Creationism, but hard science, real science, the science of empirical evidence and proof and reason that most of us in this room trust and believe and utilize in our daily living. Now it’s not this science that we tend to have trouble with, but its application to non-science. See fundamental Atheists are applying science to the poetry and metaphor of a Sacred story and science isn’t a tool meant for that, nor is poetry and metaphor intended to withstand such misuse.

Interestingly what most of us have in common with Creationists, is that we too find meaning in the creation story.  And what most of us have in common with Atheists is that we too find meaning in hard science.  However many of us reject Creationism as a science and we reject fundamentalist Atheism’s application of science to literal meanings of the creation story to prove the absence of God.
Perhaps most interesting of all is that we differ with both on the conclusion that the creation story only has their literal meanings, and so it’s not surprising that we disagree with both of their conclusions about what or who God is or isn’t.

 

 

This can all sound quite complicated. But here is the bottom line, most of us do not share Creationists and fundamentalist Atheists’ definition of God as supernatural interventionist deity who wrote the Bible word for word and wields supernatural power to cause disasters, disease, death and miracles as “HE” metes out punishment and rewards. Frankly if that is the definition of God, I don’t believe in that God–and I never could.

 

And I find it quite ironic that finding the United Church of Christ caused me to deny that that definition of God is true, perhaps it is as ironic as the fact that science helped me experience God.

 

 

But what or who is this God that I experience? And is the God I experience provable? . . .
I actually came across a question and thread on an online T.E.D. site asking whether it’s possible to create an experiment to prove God exists? People have been trying to prove God exists for awhile– some with logic; some with experiments. But here’s the thing, you pretty much have to have a definition of God to know what you are trying to prove and how to determine if you have succeeded.

 

 

I just mentioned that I do not believe in the Creationists and fundamentalist Atheists’ definition of God as a supernatural interventionist deity who wields supernatural power to not only create and love, but to cause catastrophes and supernatural miracles while meting out punishment and rewards. I do not understand God to be a volatile King who we need to appease to garner love. The God I believe in is the Great Being we live and move and have our being in; the Great Being that who calls each part of creation into being and towards its best being-ness; the Great Being we hear about every week, the One who is love, who seeks justice and peace in creation– and calls and beckons us in each moment to do the same in our being-ness.

 

 

This God, if we think about it, is the reality – the beingness– we are immersed it. The beauty of this reality is all this happens whether we believe it or not. With or without a belief in God we experience this call and desire for creation – and our– best-ness and well being.
So, see, we do not need to prove reality exists, we only need to decide the nature of its meaning. If we understand God as our reality, or reality as God, then we don’t need to set up an experiment to prove it. Reality is self evident. 2

 

 

I get that there is a debate about God, but it’s not about the existence of reality, it’s about the nature of it, how to understand it, how to relate to it, and how to name it. What does it mean?

 

Even if God’s rejected as the nature of reality, science still seeks to understand the meaning of the whats, wheres and hows of it. And religion still seeks to understand the meaning of the why of the reality and human response to it. From this perspective it can be more than a little frustrating to have God simplified to an assumption that in the there-is-a-God -there-isn’t-a-God debate that the only form of God at issue is a separate transcendent “supernatural” being with powers imagined by humankind. The debate for me is more properly phrased as how we understand the immanent and transcendent nature of reality and how we choose to respond to “IT” , the great “I Am” . . . to the Great Being; the Supreme Being.

 

 

The existence of reality is pretty much a given. And while science explores truths about physical parts of reality, it’s not in the business of deciding how to respond to it, nor is it in the business of providing metaphor and poetic answers to the human whys of reality . . . our being-ness.  Nor is science aptly applied to describe reality’s transcendent nature, it’s mysteries and wonders; the awes within and beyond scientific experiments and explanations.  Albert Einstein noted science’s mathematical equations had limits in describing reality, he wrote: ““As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

 

 

There is a wonderful book by Barbara Brown Taylor called The Luminous Web. Mother Taylor is a remarkable Episcopal Priest known for her preaching and amazing sermons — from her work one can glean she is an exceptional Spirit Person and intellect.The Luminous Web is one of her more obscure books. It addresses science and religion as she explores in fascinating detail and thought the point of truth at which science and religion meet in reality.  I am particularly fascinated by her emphasis on what I’d call the touch point of relational aspects of quantum physics and religion. Both look inside and out, and they seem to meet at an interconnected oneness, in what Rev. Taylor calls the “luminous web.”

 

 

Subatomic particles and the laws gleaned from their existence and behavior suggest the presence and need for relational aspects in the reality of things, just as our Sacred texts suggest the relational aspects are present and needed for humans in reality. In that sense there is a meld in my mind of science and religious findings. Relationships make up reality at both the science and religious levels.

 

 

It is fair to say that how we relate to God in creation and others is the whole point of Jesus’ message and Way. It is also fair to say that God can be understood as the name or metaphor or an explanation of the forces science detects holding and connecting things together– and the synergistic reality that stems from the combination of it all.

 

God can be understood as that unexplainable thing that science has discovered called the “strange attractor” a force that guides creation with provable patterns in chaos, and the force observed at the quantum level that defies the laws of physics that seem to apply in space, but apparently not to space itself.

 

 

Endless mind blowing questions arise when religion lets science help it consider the mysteries of reality.  Is God the reality that both occupies space plus space itself?
Is God the reality that includes and holds together this and every other universe referred to in string theory?  Is God the reality of all that is happening, has happened and will happen in this and any other universe? Is God the reality and synergism of all that is and has been and will be?

 

Anselm, an 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, in his very famous “Ontological Argument” asserted that God is proven if God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Anselm was not focusing on science-based questions, but I keep coming back to his phrasing and find it helpful to take it out of his context and place it into ours.
If one were to accept God defined as all that is in reality and it’s synergistic effect (“reality plus”/”creation plus”) God would then be that than which nothing greater can be conceived. This makes the proof in the acceptance of the definition, of course, which is always the case when discussing God’s existence or not.

 

If we accept that God is that than which is greater than what a mind, some minds, or all of our collective minds can yet name or conceive, God’s existence would necessarily be a given.

 

 

Definition matters. “What is your definition of God?” is a question I often ask in discussions . . . and it is sometimes asked of me.  God is “reality -plus” is not very detailed. My slightly more detailed definition of God has evolved and will no doubt evolve some more. To sum up where I am today, I understand God to be that greater than all, incomprehensible creating, present and hopeful power thatand soaks reality with love while endlessly persuading all that is to the best it can be in each given moment.

 

In short, “God” is the name and the meaning given to the reality – the being-ness– we live in . . . and the Supreme Being-ness we are called by and strive toward.  No one has to believe in this God to make it true, but belief in this God helps many of us answer that call and make the strive toward our Supreme Being. That is, I think, why we gather in faith communities. I think that is the ultimate good news of the Bible and Jesus’ amazing Way that we follow.

 

AMEN.

 

ENDNOTES:
1. I found the original version of this joke (I have slightly modified it) at this link: http://www.jokes4us.com/religiousjokes/atheistjokes.html
2. I got this idea from Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, p.70-71.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Here is Scott’s Pentecost sermon in two voices with hymns

Wind and Fire and God*
a sermon in parts with music, based on Acts 2:1-21
given at Mount Vernon, OH on June 8, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
SCOTT: The scripture readings today are from the Lectionary text, Acts chapter 2: verses 1 to 21. I will provide a little commentary and here and there we will all sing some songs. So think of this as a kinda Pentecost Hymn-sing. Charlotte is going to read the scripture passage a little bit a time and let us know what and when to sing. We are using Eugene Patterson’s The Message a paraphrase of the Bible for our readings. (Patterson, Eugene The Message, NavPress (2003) COPYRIGHT WORK).
CHARLOTTE: Here is what Acts 2:1-5 tells us: “When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.”
SCOTT : Wind and fire are often images for God in the Bible. As we just heard, they both appear in the Pentecost story, which is how they became symbols for this The Day of Pentecost.
Pentecost is a word that means “fifty.” It represents the fifty days from Easter to this day when we celebrate the appearance of the Holy Spirit among Jesus’ followers, and the beginnings, the birthday if you will, of the church.

 

On Pentecost the Holy Spirit came down to Jesus’ followers and filled them up, motivating them– and now US!– to continue the work Jesus began. It’s the work of bringing God’s unconditional love to everyone in need of it.

 

As Charlotte just read, God is reported in the Book of Acts as having been experienced in the Pentecost story like wind and fire.

 

One way to hear this is that the flame of love – God– in each of us is stoked by the Spirit breathing on us. God’s breath causes our God-spark– Christ– to burst into flames of Love, which we then we spread like wild fire.

 

CHARLOTTE: There’s a Christian camp song from the 1960s and 70s some of you may remember that captures this spreading the warmth of the fire of love image. It’s called “Pass It On” You can remain seated as we sing it. The song can be found in the red hymnal, at number 557.

 

Pass It On by Kurt Kaiser
Red # 557

 

SCOTT: The glowing spark of God, fanned by the flames of the Spirit . . . That’s why we come here each Sunday in hopes of getting that God glow going right?
The New Testament has flames in stories of “God appearances,” obviously in today’s text, but there’s a more subtle one. One of the Easter stories the one with Jesus on the beach by a fire that he uses to gather and teach and feed the disciples.

 

I really like that image of Jesus. If you have ever sat around a camp fire you know how meditative they can feel. Fire can often be a portal to Sacred, carrying us to a “thin place” a place where we are more aware of God’s presence.

 

Fire is a thing that can inspire awe and fascination. And that is, in part, why it is a really good metaphor for how we experience love. Love is Sacred and inspires awe and fascination. The writer of the song, Pass It On, got that.

 

Fire though a thing can, like love, provide comfort when we are cold or in the dark. Fire like love warms us.

 

And love like fire heats up our passion for individuals, and also causes us to help others. The flames of love motivate us to not only be enamored with a spouse or partner, but, to have compassion for others, those who are in need of care or protection or freedom from oppression or bondage.

 

We know the flames and wind are metaphors in today’s reading because the Bible indicates “a sound like the rush of a violent wind . . .[and] . . . Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them . . . “

 

If we think about it, wind and flames are common images and symbols in the Bible for God’s appearances on earth. Theologians call an appearance of God a “theophany” it’s a Greek word that translates as “God appears.”

 

And God does often appear in the Bible as wind and fire. Indeed creation begins in Genesis with a theophany of God as wind, the breath of God, “ruah” a feminine part of Yahweh, sweeping over the dark void and birthing the world.

 

CHARLOTTE: All of creation is not just birthed by God but soaked through and through with God. All things are bright and beautiful . . . which just happens to be the name of the next song we are going to sing. It is also in the red hymnal, number 30 and we can again remain seated:

 

All Things Bright and Beautiful , by Cecil Alexander
Red # 30

 

SCOTT: God is soaking all of creation. But sometimes we have trouble seeing God, or we take God’s presence for granted. Theophanies shake that up with spectacular experiences. Wind roaring and fire burning are good metaphors for such God’s experiences. . . Sometimes the experiences are so spectacular, that others share our God experiences.

 

The Lectionary text explains that after the strong wind and fire of the Spirit were experienced on Pentecost and the Jesus followers “started speaking in . . . different languages . ..” and others took notice.

 

CHARLOTTE: Here is how Acts 2:5-11 puts it:

 

“There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, ‘Aren’t these all  Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene; Immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes;

Even Cretans and Arabs! They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!’”

 

SCOTT: The disciples talking made others stop and think of God’s great works. Which is still one of the goals of the church. And it’s not just for others but for ourselves that we do this. God soaks everything. If we all just stop and look we will notice that Creation is crammed full of God and we’ll notice how Great God is in it all, and in our lives.

 

CHARLOTTE: Creation is truly awesome. And we are a part of creation. As Scott reminds us every week, we matter. Please grab the red hymnal again and turn to number 51 and join in singing that great old song “How Great thou Art”

 

HOW GREAT THOU ART by Carl Bobert
Red # 51

 

SCOTT: The disciples got their neighbors thinking about God. But God-talk and miracles can also cause neighbors consternation and confusion. This can lead to mockery. Which is what happens in the text Charlotte is about to read. Peter responds by letting the neighbors know that Jesus’ Way that they follow is about equality for all and salvation for anyone who wants it.

 

CHARLOTTE: In Acts 2:12-21 we are told that: “Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?” Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.”

 

That’s when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning.

 

This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:

 

‘In the Last Days,’ God says,
‘I will pour out my Spirit
on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they’ll prophesy.
I’ll set wonders in the sky above
and signs on the earth below,
Blood and fire and billowing smoke,
the sun turning black and the moon blood-red,
Before the Day of the Lord arrives,
the Day tremendous and marvelous;
And whoever calls out for help
to me, God, will be saved.’”

 

 

SCOTT: Saved. The Spirit like wind and fire swirls down from heaven to save us humans . . . all of us humans.

 

And remember that the Spirit of God has come to God’s people before in fire. . . to save.
Indeed, the most famous theophany in the Bible may just be when God appears to Moses in the flames of a burning bush to save him and all of God’s people.

 

And the flame theophany motif continues in the Exodus story with God appearing as a pillar of fire at night before the Hebrews as they roam through the desert.

 

 

God is also experienced a number of times on mountaintops in fire and smoke.
Fire symbolizes the Light that God is in our lives. The light of fire – like the Light of God– glows and attracts, it can show us a pathway, and make our way safe. It can be a beacon on a hill for both warning us and guiding us. And we are, of course, supposed to be shining lights ourselves, lights that are not kept under a bushel.

 

And fire can temper, that is make strong, love does that to our faith. Love can also burn away that which troubles us in the faith, even hate we may arrive with or have been taught. Jesus tells us that all of scripture hangs upon the commandments to love God and others.

 

God is everywhere and in all things. The loud noise and bright flames of God are everywhere, but sometimes we need to stop and listen. To be quiet and pay attention to see it– to experience it. To get the message, to learn we are all loved and need to be love, that God is in all of us.

 

CHARLOTTE: Here’s a song along those lines. It may be new to some of us. It’s called Hush and the words and music can be found in our bulletins.
HUSH by James F.D.Martin

 

SCOTT: This Pentecost, may we all burn like a flame in the wind;

 

CHARLOTTE: and feel the power of God

 

SCOTT & CHARLOTTE: and know that the Spirit calls each of our names. AMEN!
* This script comes almost entirely from a script I wrote for Pentecost in 2013.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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Here is the text of Scott’s Ascension Sunday sermon

Ascension Leads to Descension Leads to Ascension *
a sermon based on Acts 1:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, OH on June 1, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I recently read that the great silent film star Charlie Chaplin stopped in a town one day and discovered a “Walk-Like-Charlie-Chaplin” contest was going on. On a whim Mr. Chaplin decided to enter the contest under a false name. A most interesting thing happened, at the end of the competition the judges placed the real Charlie Chaplin walk in the “Walk-Like-Charlie-Chaplin” contest not in first or second or even third place, but – get this– in twentieth place. 1

 

I am pretty sure that if Jesus who ascended into heaven in our reading today were to return and enter a “Who’s-Walking-the-Walk-the- Most-Like-Jesus” contest in most of our towns he probably wouldn’t even place at all. Our culture tends to picture the returning Jesus as a warrior who will take out and destroy our enemies, especially those the religious and political elite consider evil or sinners.

 

In fairness to those in our culture who picture and dream and long for such a returning warrior Jesus, the disciples in the story today pretty much thought the same sort of Jesus was coming back. After all that Jesus had done and taught about peace and love the disciples still expected a returning warrior Messiah who would give them the earthly kingdom they longed for.

 

“Lord, is this time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” the disciples ask. It’s like they have not been listening or watching or paying attention. The Jesus of peace and love walked with them and taught them to walk that walk, but even they indicate they might not recognize the walk of Jesus when he returns. Even after all they have witnessed, they want Jesus’ walk to be like a legendary Davidic warrior king of old.

 

Sadly the imagined returning Jesus has to this day often been expected to come back with an earthly kingdom walk using earthly ways of violence to gain temporary human coerced peace through domination of their opponents. Their imagined returning Jesus does not have the heavenly kingdom walk he had before he ascended. His steady walk of non-violence to bring permanent Divine peace is missing.

 

Charlie Chaplin is supposed to have said to a reporter after he lost the Walk-Like-Charlie Chaplin contest “that he was ‘tempted to give lessons in the Chaplin walk, out of pity as well as in the desire to see the thing done correctly.’”2

 

Jesus, of course, gives lessons to us, and gave lessons to the disciples, about how to walk the walk not just talk the talk of non-violent Divine peace. In the story today Jesus tries again to set his followers straight. He tells them – and by extension us– to quit worrying about when an earthly kingdom will be restored, and instead to get ready to “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” and to be His, Jesus,’ witnesses “to the ends of the earth.”

 

The Book of Acts witnessing to the Apostles’ acts was written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke which witnesses to Jesus’ acts. The witness in the Book of Luke is about Jesus acting and living to bring in the Reign of God, a Heavenly Reign using non-violence to bring permanent Divine peace– where all are loved and have enough to live.

 

Think about it, the Gospel of Luke – like the other Gospels– is a written witnesses to a Jesus who teaches, advocates and acts in ways that the poor and the sick and the alien and the imprisoned are actually taken care of as if they are Christ. It’s a witness to Jesus’ lessons about a Holy Way where those on the margins, where all who are cultural outcasts are affirmatively welcomed, embraced, respected and loved–and everyone else too.

 

Luke witnesses a Jesus for whom every human matters much. So much so, even violence is met with love, even criminals are met with love, even enemies are met with love. The author of Luke’s written witness is of a Jesus who walked the walk of love as the norm.

 

At the end of Luke just before the scene in today’s reading the resurrected Jesus appears and gives a salutation that can also be heard as a command Jesus tells his followers, “Peace be with you.” As Jesus is about to go he adds it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luk 24:46-47 NRS)

 

And then as we heard in the lesson today from Acts in the moment he is about to ascend, Jesus tells the disciples that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And they respond by asking an almost comical question about bringing about restoration of an earthly kingdom. It’s as if Jesus never preached and lived toward bringing about the heavenly kingdom of radical love and compassion for all. It’s as if Jesus never commanded peace be with them or to proclaim forgiveness of sins and repentance.

 

See, the disciples left on their own don’t ask about love or peace or forgiveness, instead they ask about the restoration of their favorite earthly kingdom: “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” Jesus had lived and died and even been resurrected to bring in the Reign of God, and they are stuck on the old way of a dreamed for macho Messiah who reestablish an earthly reign of a kingdom. While they may not like Rome’s earthly kingdom, the disciples desire an earthly kingdom of their own!

 

Rev. Sean White in the Feasting on the Word commentary on the Ascension text puts it like this:

[the disciples] loyalty drifts back to the world they knew before the rabbi appeared. As for the Lukan account in Acts, the sociopolitical lens shaping messianic hopes remains firm “Lord” they ask, “is this the time when you restore the kingdom to Israel?” 3

 

Others agree. The Texts for Preaching commentator writes:

[The disciples’] question about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel betrays that not even the events of Easter and succeeding forty days had disabused them of a comfortable stereotype, that is, that God’s Messiah would reinstate the political fortunes of the old Davidic monarchy.” 4

 

Jesus’ amazing lessons and doings in life, his sacrificial death for the cause of love for all the world, even his miraculous resurrection on Easter, all these things, do not get the message (the Good News) straight in the disciples’ heads.
You’d think by this point the message would be clear and very memorable– sticking in their heads– but, it isn’t. With Jesus still around the disciples keep hoping he’ll be what they want, what they dream about. That is, someone who will bring about their ideal earthly ways of earthly kingdoms; power through traditional means. Of course, many of Jesus’ followers ever since have been just like that. There’s a saying that “There are many in the church who can be described as like a farm mule that is awfully backward about going forward.” 5 We can trace that type of backwardness to today’s lesson.

 

Conserving what is – the avoidance of change– is a part of human nature. Jesus’ Way flies in the face of that nature. Jesus’ since the start – and ever since– calls us to Heaven’s Way not an earthly one. When we on Heaven’s Way, Jesus’ Way, what we are to see and act and hope for is not a way to get another kingdom of earthly power where our side gets to be in charge of stuff and dominate so that human ways are flipped to our advantage.

 

If the Gospel is about anything it is that the God of Jesus does not want for us – and that Jesus did not teach us to try and achieve– a new earthly warrior led empire to replace the Roman Empire. What God wants and what Jesus teaches is that a heavenly empire needs to replace earthly ones. To do this Jesus’ disciples way back when and today, must be willing to follow the Way Jesus set out. As 1 John (3:6) puts it “whoever says I abide in [Jesus Christ] ought to walk just as he walked.”

 

Up to this point in the Lukean accounts, what goes on before Jesus’ ascension is that he does most of the walking, people let the human physical being Jesus carry them to what needs to be done and walk them down the way. They are so busy being carried that they don’t understand or don’t want to walk the walk at all.

 

To the disciples the Way at this point in the story seems to be about thinking Jesus’ resurrection alone is all that’s needed for the salvation of the world; that it’s still about Jesus doing the grunt work and carrying them. But they are wrong! And it seems to take Jesus physical body leaving the earth for them to get that “The Way” is about Jesus’ followers’ themselves teaching and doing as Jesus did; walking as he walked– to get on the Way of Love, Jesus’ Way. Followers of Jesus must act like Jesus did in the world in order to bring about the Reign of God . . . in order to save the world.

 

Jesus followers must be the ones who replace Jesus as the teachers, doers, leaders, and even if needed, outcasts and martyrs for love. We must get on, be on, Jesus Way and walk as he walked. Jesus’ Followers must love others. We must elevate the least among us. We must work toward a world where all are loved and have enough. We must strive to make the world God’s Reign. We must do so using non-violence to bring about permanent Divine peace.

 

Jesus leaves in the story with the promise that in ten days the Holy Spirit is going to baptize those he leaves behind. And sure enough given a little bit of time with Jesus-the-man gone, the disciples finally get it. The result is what we now call “Pentecost, ” the day we celebrate next week commemorating when the Holy Spirit came down (in the same way Jesus went up) and filled Jesus’ followers with an amazing power to go forward and begin transforming the world. We are the legacy of all of this.

 

We are not to bring in a new earthly kingdom, but the Kingdom of God. God’s Realm breaks in with us inch by inch, moment by moment, person by person, community by community.

 

God’s realm is a real place that we can – with God– bring about. It’s a possible place. It’s the world where Heaven’s Way, God’s Way, Jesus’ Way plays out. A transformed world where “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” is the motto of the realm– where doing unto others as you would have done to you is the ethos of all peoples and states; where daily living is about being merciful and loving; where we do not judge, and do not condemn. It’s a world where we forgive, and are forgiven.

 

On Jesus’ Way through human action – walking as Jesus walked– love is to prevail . . . and when it does God’s realm will fully be here. It’s not about the restoration of Israel. It’s not about the restoration of any earthly realm. It’s about transforming the world into the Realm of God and having the peace of Eden, the peace God has always intended for us and has made possible through Jesus showing us The Way – Jesus ascended so the Holy Spirit could descend, and so we in turn would ascend to The Way of Love.

 

AMEN
ENDNOTES
* This sermon is based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2011.
1. See, #16 on this web page for this antidote: http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/9423/did-charlie-chaplin-lose-a-charlie-chaplin-look-alike-contest
2. Ibid.
3. White, Sean, Feasting on the Word commentary for year A at p 498
4. Texts for Preaching, p. 310-311
5. White at p 500

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Here is the text of the May 25th sermon:

If God is Good and Everywhere Why Isn’t Everything Godly and Good?
a sermon based on Acts 17:22-31
May 25, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A pair of mischievous eight-year-old twins got into a lot of trouble in their neighborhood. When things got damaged or went missing the neighbors called their parents. Exasperated their mom asked the pastor across the street to tell the kids God’s watching when no one is looking. The pastor agreed to meet the boys one at a time. When the first one arrived the pastor sat the boy on the front stoop and asked, “Son, where is God?” The little boy’s mouth dropped open, but he said nothing. So, the pastor asked again “Where is God, son?” The twin just sat and stared. The pastor started to again ask “WHERE IS GOD?” but the boy jumped up, ran home and hid under his bed. His brother peeked under the bed and whispered “What happened?” The frightened twin replied, “We are in BIG trouble! God is missing and they think WE took him!”

 

Where is God? is a question that comes up a lot in my vocation. Often it is asked in frustration or disappointment, as in, “Where was God when we needed God to stop a war or a death or an illness or a misfortune of one kind or another?” Memorial weekend seems a good time as any to address this question and the Lectionary text we heard Cliff read helps . . . I think.

 

I try and preach and teach a wide variety of messages, but you may have noticed I tend to repeat the central themes that God is good, God is everywhere, God is love and that we are, all of us, loved and matter much and that we need to be love in the world. This isn’t new stuff. It’s thousands of years old and Bible based.

 

But here’s the thing, these core messages run against a cold hard fact that seems to conflict with them. The fact is bad things happen in the world. If God is good and everywhere why do bad things happen? If we are soaking in God, why don’t we always experience this always good, always love, always everywhere God’s presence?
Where is God? Part of the problem is an assumption that God is all powerful and uses on earth all the power we humans have come to imagine that God wields.

 

You may have noticed that I did not, and I do not, preach and teach that God is all powerful, omnipotent. I do not assume that is a true, at least not in the sense we are taught to. By that I mean, the evidence before us suggests that God does not use instance supernatural fixing, powers to stop bad things. If “all powerful” means wielding the power to immediately end all bad occurrences in creation whether natural or human-made, well God’s not doing that in day-to-day reality.

 

The troubling question boiled down is basically this: If God is love and all powerful then why doesn’t God lovingly use all that power to stop bad things immediately; or why does God let them happen at all?  This has been a theological conundrum for eons. How is God just and loving in light of the existence of suffering and evil?

 

This is tough stuff. More than a few people have walked away from church or God when bad things happen, because they’ve thought that God didn’t stop them, or worse, that God caused them. If we are soaking in God, why isn’t God rescuing us? Some argue it’s a mystery. Some argue it’s a lesson. Some argue it’s payback for sins we or others commit–that’s a real popular one in the televangelist circles and most pastor’s that capture the media’s attention.

 

There are other ways of answering the question. One way that I find particularly intriguing (and wanted to share in case some of us might find it helpful) is derived from a line of theological thought called “Process Theology.”

 

Professor Robert Mesle introduces process theology in his book An Introduction to Process Theology in this simple way: “‘Process theology’” he writes “‘is the name of an effort to make sense, in the modern world, of the basic Christian faith that God is love.’” 1.
Making sense in the modern world of the basic Christian faith that God is love, that’s one of the main reasons many (if not all) of us are here today. It’s why we belong to this faith and this church. As fully as possible we want to know, we want to understand, we want to experience and be a part of this God of Love that we talk about and worship and pray to–  Right?

 

Parts of Christian faith, as it has been handed down to us does not always make sense to us. It’s complicated. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. Sometimes it is even very hard to believe, to have faith, that God is love as we consider ideas and doctrines and preachings that make no sense in the modern world, at least not if God is really truly love and all powerful.
The Bible’s repeated declarations that God’s love is steadfast and endures forever clashes with theological claims which declare God causes plagues and diseases and deaths and disasters– and hell and damnation. There are so many competing theologies, discourses within our tradition about God. We hear not only that God is love, but, also never changing, all powerful and all knowing and everywhere.
And hardest of all – for me anyways– is that popular notion of a vengeful, punishing God; this idea of a loving God meting out harsh punishment in life and eternally afterlife. The punishment we are told is especially imposed on those who cannot grasp or accept an often fuzzy, complicated and – dare I say– at times unbelievable way of Love.
The idea of Christianity that we seem to most often hear about in the culture makes God so fearsome that we become too afraid to ask questions about God. Yet, the truth is no amount of Bible thumping and fear-mongering about God can chase away the nagging questions about how a God of Love who is all knowing with unlimited power and omnipresence does not stop violence or save lives or prevent disease or accidents or death or other calamity and suffering.
How could Love not stop – or worse, cause– harms in the world? How could love create an everlasting hell to put anyone in?
Professor Mesle addresses the dilemma like this:

I find the ethics of the traditional God quite appallingly erratic and often demonic. In the Bible and in much of Christian thought, God has been described as directly willing and causing great evils: war, slavery, plague, famine, and even hardness of human hearts. At the very best God has been depicted as standing by and allowing needless suffering that “He” could easily have prevented. 2.

 

Although many in Christianity’s history have tried to stop this type of questioning and observation, they are nonetheless fair and natural questions and observations. Here at this church we encourage such questions and observations, we do not hide from them or bury them or try to scare us away from them.
This line of questioning and observation about God’s existence in the face of bad things happening actually has a theological fancy name. It’s called “theodicy” which means justifying God’s “justice and goodness in light of suffering and evil.” 3.

 

Traditional church answers to the dilemma of theodicy have included almost anything, from insisting on the unquestioning belief in the infallibility of the Bible and the God depicted therein, to claims that the ways of God are too complex for humans to comprehend and so we should not trouble ourselves with contradictions but live with them. Boiled down their answer seems to be: We are not to question this depiction of God.

 

A lot of people have wound their way through the morass of contradictions and concerns raised by the clash of God as love and the not so loving things we hear about God. That is great! If you are one of those folks: hold on to what you have found that helps you. Truly. Just because a pastor preaches and explores a way different than yours does not mean it’s a better way than what is working for you. In the end you should decide after careful prayer and consideration what works best to help you understand and experience God and follow Jesus’ Way of love.

 

If you are not one of those who has arrived at a comfortable theology, and a way of understanding how awful things exist in light of the God who is Love you are not alone. This conflict between the God of love and the reality of the harshness of life, hangs in the air for a lot of people, and traditional views and the relatively new idea of Fundamentalism do not seem to be all of our-cup-of-tea. They don’t answer our questions and concerns. In particular the idea of God as a male super-being above creation (but not part and parcel of it) doesn’t fit with all of our experiences.

 

But there is a way to understand God called panentheism. Pan means “all.” En means “in.” Panentheism: All-is-in-God. Panentheists understand the universe – all– to be in God, but that God is more than that all-ness. God is creation-plus.
Panentheism is how process theology (and others like Marcus Borg and Barbara Brown Taylor) understand God. There is Biblical warrant for this. As we heard, Paul claims God is what we live and move and have our being in. We also heard, Psalm 139 asserts that God is everywhere from Sheol to the ends of the earth. I also like 1 John’s claim that we “abide in God and God abides in [us].” These verses give a sense that we are soaked through and through with God. God is love. God is everywhere and then some. It’s these core ideas that Process Theology springs from.

 

Because God is love and everywhere then God must be at and in the location of all events good and bad. It’s not hard for us to picture God in the good, because God is good (all the time).

 

It’s hard though to picture God in the bad precisely because of that. But if God is everywhere then God has to be present in the bad. If that is true, then logically God has to share in the bad experience; and be limited in power to stop the bad. This is so because love at the human level would stop bad things from happening if it could, pure love itself would surely stop it if it could.

 

If God is love and all powerful then God logically should have instantly stopped –for example– things like the torture and killings in Nazi Germany. We know that did not happen, so Process Theology assumes that God is either not all powerful or God’s omnipotence as humans imagine it has otherwise been limited. God is not tossing down lightening bolts or otherwise instantly stopping evil and suffering. That’s reality. This is hard to accept for those of us brought up thinking of God as wielding any and all power that we humans imagine.

 

Process Theology understands that God does not coerce creation in any way, God does not overrule our freedom or nature’s laws. While God’s power is not coercive. In this way of thinking, Process Theology understands God does have power; the power of self-revelation and the persuasion of Love which causes creation and us, to react and respond.

 

So, for example, while God did not stop Nazi Germany with instant supernatural intervention, amazingly God’s Love – present in all that was happening– called and beckoned us from within to stop it, to be persuaded by Love away from what was hate and toward what is Love, what is God! And although it was not relatively instantly stopped, Nazi Germany was stopped.

 

See, Process Theology understands that moment-by-moment God aims us toward Love and calls us, persuades us toward that aim unceasingly. We in turn respond by either moving toward or away from God’s aim and call. God then adapts to our response and in the very next moment re-aims and calls us again toward Love; toward the best we can be.
Humans have two choices in response to God’s aim and call through the persuasion of love: accept it or reject it. The consequences of our choices are that all of creation and God is affected.

 

Since we are living and moving in God, since we abide in God and God abides in us, God’s self is included in all that happens and has been since the beginning of creation. While God’s work in creation is always good, there is a big difference between God’s aim and what happens. Bad things happen through human choice that resists God’s call. In addition to evil choices by humanity, bad things also happen as part of living; the laws of nature bring about accidents and disease, destruction, injury and death. Bad things happen by human choice or cause of nature, not because God causes them. What God does is call us to Love in each happening . . . in each moment.

 

If we understand God as not welding all human imagined power to alter our choices or render the laws of nature void. If we instead understand God as always in everything pulling us toward Love such understanding can take away the confusion and contradiction inherent in much of Christianity’s traditional way of understanding God as having the power to do anything we might imagine– it helps infuse reality into the answers to theodicy. That’s why I find it intriguing and am sharing it today. It’s something for us to think about.

 

Here’s Process Theology in a nutshell: God is love. We abide in God. God abides in us. God creates. God aims creation toward its best– which for us humans is toward Love. The power God wields is the power is to persuade, to call creation to move toward its best and us toward Love. Humans respond to God’s call choosing to follow it or not. God adapts and responds to each moment’s choices and events calling us anew to our best and to love in each and every moment that follows. That’s the process. God is always about love. We are always called to love.

 

Christianity can be understood to be about the process of Christ’s Way of Love; about responding “Yes!” to God’s unceasing call and aim to be our best, and to move toward love.

 

God is good and God is love. And where is God? God is everywhere. AMEN.

ENDNOTES
1. Mesle, Robert, Process Theology: An Introduction, p. 1.
2. Mesle at 5
3. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms p. 279

 

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Here is the text of Scott’s Earth Day sermon from April 27, 2014

How Are We Doing With That Taking Care of Earth Thing?
a sermon based on Genesis 1:1- 30
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 27, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

 

I love the creation story. For one thing it reminds me of baseball which I also love, and why does it remind me of baseball? Because it takes place in the big inning.  Then Eve stole first, Adam stole second and then they acted like Dodgers – from God – in the garden . . . and what San Francisco Giants fan doesn’t like to hear Dodgers at home, getting thrown out?

So, see, the creation story gives me an excuse to do baseball jokes.
To be honest, the reason I like the part of the creation story we heard today is not punny at all.

The first part – what we read today– was written later than the Adam and Eve part, probably during the Babylonian Exile, when things were in chaos for the people of Israel.  This part of the story is about God speaking sense into the chaos of the whirly-swirly formless void and darkness of the cosmos. In this story The Word of God turns chaos to order and creation and life.  I find it very poetic. I think, at least with regards to metaphor and imagery, that is what the original author intended.  God’s Word creates. God speaks and chaos turns to order, the cosmos is formed. God speaks and sky and ocean and land are created. God speaks and sun and moon and stars and night and day are created. God speaks and life, plants and animals and humankind, are created.

In this story all of creation is comprised of the breath and words of God. It’s all Sacred. It’s all Divine in origin and in make-up.  As a consequence God soaks all that is.  To stretch a metaphor a bit, God is in the DNA of creation, and actually when we look at the New Testament we can hear that Christ is also in creation’s DNA.

Listen carefully to how the Gospel of John, referring to Christ as the Word of God, nods to our Genesis story, John 1: 1-3 reads:

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

So in John, and this is very important to note, Christ is understood as the very Word of God that God speaks to create. In short, for John’s community Christ is the very Word of God that created us, that we soak in, that creation soaks in.

All of this means to us, when we take Genesis and John at their word (so to speak), Creation is both God and Christ drenched. It is no wonder that everything created by God–everything– is called and treated as very good in Genesis . . . and we ought to be calling and treating it good too! Right?

Earth Day was commemorated this past week. And so it is right and good that we take an hour or so this Sunday to lift up this planet, this tiny portion of creation and consider its goodness and the vast wonder of it– and especially our responsibility to care for it.

This little sphere is so full of much that is dear, or ought to be dear.  I mean strictly from a theological standpoint from a literal – not even a metaphoric reading– of today’s creation text how can we not deeply honor and revere this world of ours?  We are told that God  – God– took the time to painstakingly create all of this and set in motion all that we know in life. And even with all the power God has it took more than a finger snap or a nose wiggle or a wand wave or a lightening bolt to put it all together. Slowly carefully like an artist the writer of Genesis 1 describes God’s handiwork.  God, the busy deity of the universe stops and sculpts with word, speaks into being this magnificent work of art which we call world and earth and home.

As we also heard Genesis states that once God created humans God speaks to them. The Word of God shifts from just creating the world to words of blessing and instruction. First God

blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over every living thing than moves upon the earth.”

In typical modern human fashion to most of us that might sound like the granting of a wish to do as we please with the earth. We get to subdue it and have dominion over it. Some folks have argued that and argue it still– but that is not at all what the words meant in the context in which they were written. To begin, it stands to reason that God did not create a good world for us to do bad things to it and pillage it so that any part of its goodness is depleted. We are not to take any God soaked thing and wring the Holiness out it! This is especially so since the story tells us we are made in the image of God and that God carefully made creation and thinks highly of all of it.

Walter Brueggemann, the world’s leading Old Testament scholar notes that this part of the text, most especially the subdue and have dominion over portions,  are about caring for and tending to creation, not dominating it as we wish.

Dr. Bruggemann writes:

 the task of dominion does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition.

Dr. Bruggemann notes that the dominion language relates only to animals and so gives us shepherd-like duties which to “ a Christian understanding of dominion, ” he notes:

  Must be discerned in the way of Jesus of Nazareth. The one who rules is the one who serves. Lordship means servanthood. It is the task of the shepherd not to control but to lay down his life for the sheep. The human person is ordained over the remainder of his creation but for its profit, well being and enhancement. The role of the human person is to see to it that the creation becomes fully the creation willed by God.  1

As I’ve mentioned before, creation is called by God to be the best it can be, just as humans are. Walter Bruggemann is asserting that Biblically speaking a part of human best-ness is to help the rest of creation to it’s best-ness. This makes sense. If we are made in the image of God then as God’s image we, like God, ought to want the best for creation too.

Dr. Bruggemann and I are not alone in this regard. Terrence Fretheim points out that in the Genesis reading (quote):

 subduing involves development in the created order. The process offers to the human being the task of inter-creational development, of bringing the world along to it’s fullest potential. 2

 

Simply put, God created creation and put us here to protect it and help marshal it to its fullest potential.

Almost every day there is news that suggests we have failed in this task. God blessed us and blesses us with an amazing biosphere, and place to live and multiple and fill, and instead of shepherding it to its best-ness, we have, it would seem, put it into the worse shape it has ever been in since humankind arrived.

From seemingly small things like reckless tossing of cigarette butts and fast food containers out our car windows, to not recycling on up to giant oil spills and clear cutting forests and putting off so many carbon emissions we’ve hurt the protective ozone layer , we’ve made quite a mess. Entire animal species have disappeared forever, and more are endangered and threatened.

In Ohio right now there are endangered or threatened bats, warblers, plovers, snakes, fish, shellfish, beetles, butterflies, flowers, clovers and other plants. It’s scary. These good creations of God may no longer exist if we don’t figure out how to be good shepherds of this beautiful state. If this does not seem like a real threat consider that we have already lost forever a number of species, real life forms that humans have caused to become extinct right here in Ohio including:  The Eastern Elk; the Carolina parakeet; the Heath Hen, the Passenger Pigeon, the Blue pike; the Harelip sucker; four types of ciscos, five types of clams; and at least two types of plants. The begs the question:      Did we in our role of the “human person . . . see to it that [these] creations [became] fully the creation willed by God?”  The answer is obvious.

Let me ask another question.  If God and Christ are a part of all creation what does it mean when we have destroyed a part of creation?  In the eight century a priest, St. John of Damascus, wrote that “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.”  Are the wounds we inflict on nature leaving scars on the iconic face of God?  Now there’s a sobering theological thought.

While I personally do not believe that God creates hell, I wonder if humankind creates hell for us all. If so, we sure seem to be on the brink of leaving a hellish mess for our children and grandchildren.

Here’s the thing, we are called in this moment to make the best of it no matter what has transpired in the past, by the Grace of God we can be saved from a lesser way of being.

That’s the promise of Easter, it’s the promise of Christianity. We can be saved from a lesser existence.   We tend to hear salvation meaning individually we can transform our lives and move forward saved from the lesser self we might have been. And that is true, very true, but the idea of transformative salvation applies collectively as well.

We can – indeed we must– transform our collective way of treating God’s creation. It is not ours to deplete and pollute and utterly ruin.  It is God’s creation. We must transform our collective way of treating God’s creation so that we treat it as the God soaked, God owned world that it is. We need to act like caretakers of creation. That’s the call in Genesis.

We need to transform into good caring shepherds in this moment, not only because God calls us to be good caring shepherds of creation, but even if we did not believe in God or in that call, the truth is we only have a few years left before reversing our damage will be much, much harder to accomplish.

The global warming and other environmental threats are not tree-hugger crazy talk, they are a matter of mainstream science. While some ballyhoo global warming and environmental concerns, a great many people with training and knowledge and education in the field are convinced we need to not only be concerned, but we need to do something about it right away.

Stop littering. Start recycling. Start being greener as individuals, but we also have to act together in a big way.

On Easter the New York Times editorial Board wrote a column on three reports recently issued by the worldwide Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, panel composed of “the world’s leading climate scientists.  The experts’ “first report ‘confirmed . . . global warming is caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels . . . and, to a lesser extent, by deforestation.’” “The second [report] . . . said that profound effects were already being felt around the world, including mounting damage to coral reefs, shrinking glaciers and more persistent droughts, and warned of worse to come — rising seas, species loss and dwindling agricultural yields.”

The Times’ Editorial Panel pointed out that

 

The third report . . . may be the most ominous . . . annual emissions of greenhouse gases have risen almost twice as fast in the first decade of this century as they did in the last decades of the 20th century. This places in serious jeopardy the emissions target agreed upon . . . to no more than 2 degrees Celsius . . . above the preindustrial level.  Beyond that increase, the world could face truly alarming consequences. . .
[B]ut here’s the key finding: The world has only about 15 years left in which to begin to bend the emissions curve downward. Otherwise, the costs of last-minute fixes will be overwhelming. “We cannot afford to lose another decade,” says Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist and co-chairman of the committee that wrote the report. “If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”  3

While this is bleak news, there is good news within it. Did you hear it?  There is the promise of a window, a light in the looming darkness.  We, the human race, can be good shepherds and work hard in this new moment and the ones that follow to do our job and “bend the emissions curve downward.”  God’s put the opportunity there.

I am pretty sure the New York Times Editorial Board did not mean to make an Easter statement with their column, however, it was written on Easter and we are still in Eastertide – the time of the promise of Light in every darkness.

But see, we have to be willing to open our eyes and take in the Light and to move toward it.  This is serious stuff. This requires us to take what lawful actions we can to start our community and nation and world to collectively transform humankind’s global impact on the earth from devastating it, to rescuing it.   What better time to begin than the month with Earth Day and Easter in it? God and Christ are in every atom and molecule, both deserve our respect in all that is.

Earth Day and today’s reading have a common theme of taking care of this planet. We’d do well to listen, it’s the only planet that we’ve got.

AMEN

ENDNOTES:
1. Bruggemann, Walter, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,  32-33
2.  Freitheim, Terrance, The New Interpreter’s Bible vol, 1, p 346 commentary on Genesis.
3. New York Times Apirl 20th on line Editorial Bord column “Running Out of Time” Staff  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/21/opinion/running-out-of-time.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0
COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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Here is Scott’s Easter Sermon

Easter Lights
a sermon based on John 20:1-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on Easter April 20, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I woke up early this morning to a secular radio station. I had one on in the car on the way over here too. I did not hear a single Easter carol all morning on mainstream radio. And on the way over as I looked around at the houses and the roundabout circle that we call the town square I also did not see any Easter decorations or lights.  Easter in the human secular world is just not as festive as Christmas. It doesn’t permeate our cultural’s collective conscience for months like Christmas does.  Oh I’ve seen some Easter candy aisles at stores and a few garden flags that proclaim Easter here and there, but really it’s only the local churches that have signs of Easter over the past weeks and this morning.

 

As a rule Easter does not hang in visual representations upon the porches and the windows of our neighborhoods. Easter doesn’t seem to excite Americans like Christmas does. I have not read any studies indicating why Christmas gets us all excited as a culture, but Easter is a considerably less exciting holiday for most of America.  My theory –and it is only MY theory– is that culturally it is easy to perceive as good news a baby’s arrival and angels’ promises of peace on earth good will to all.

 

We like births and we like angels and we at least like the idea of peace. What’s not to like about those things? They are like puppies and apple pie, easy and simple to like, simple to market too.  Easter is an all together different thing. The concept is difficult. The story is necessarily associated with death and tombs and sorrow. The truth is Easter only comes at the end of a terrible tragedy, the killing of a loving non-violent human being whose crime was to rebel against a violent world with words and acts of compassion and care and love.

 

Jesus plays the God-of-Love card to the harsh cruelties of the world and in order to understand his victory we have to face the fact of those cruelties.  Earthly power’s response to playing the God-of-Love card is to trump it with hate and violence. That’s somber stuff.  Our secular holiday festivals as a rule do not play out as somber. So, my theory goes we have no Easter carols because the back story is not an innocent devoted mom and dad seeing to the birth of child and the promise of peace with angels singing out good news.

 

The back story to Easter is an innocent man targeted by the governing power for a horrific, almost unspeakable, death. It’s a downer of a back story. In fact without the Easter ending you can’t get more of a downer of a story. Evil forces hurt a good and Godly being for being just that, good and Godly.

 

Actually evil forces crush that good and Godly being.  Long before I was a pastor one of our children came home from a church Sunday School class crying one Easter because someone detailed to her the horrors of that crushing force. I am not going to set out those the details, but generally speaking, under Rome’s criminal law Jesus was arrested, charged, tried and convicted as criminal. He was sentenced to capital punishment and Rome carried out the sentence.

 

Rome’s purpose and thinking, that one cruel Friday, was it had to – and did– end Jesus’ life – and most importantly his rebellion.   Most criminals executed by crucifixion in Rome were stopped . . . dead. Rome rolled over them and moved on to the next bit of trouble.  Of course we are all here because we know that the story does not end with Jesus being crushed and killed and stopped. It’s the most remarkable ending to a true story that we will ever hear. Jesus died. His wracked and wretched body was taken down and put away like so many other bodies in a grave, a tomb.

 

The best his followers thought they could ever hope for was to hide until the storm blew over and then heal from the sorrow of their loss, and cling to the good memories and a continuation of the ripples of love Jesus had set off before Rome cut his young life short.

 

As we heard in the reading that best hope is bested on the first Easter morn.  Somehow, some way, Mary experienced Jesus’ presence in the garden, in a gardener. Mary’s tears of deep sadness turn to tears of great joy like the dark of the night turns to the Light of sunrise. To use a really word play, Mary experienced a new kind of Son rise, as the Son of God arose. See, for all its considerable earthly power Rome did not stop Jesus. A homeless, penniless peasant Rabbi filled to the brim with love defeated defeat.  He beat death. God vindicated Jesus’ life of loving words and practices, his life of devotion and dedication to love, to God. Jesus’ life, his very being, was soaked with God!

 

These are truths that are hard to put in a pleasant carol or Nativity-like scene or other decorations like we see at Christmas. These are truths that are very hard to wrestle with.  Not only does Rome not get the last word, but neither did death get it. The God-of-Love card could not be trumped by anything. Darkness did not rule the day. Light existed even in darkness. Love won!

 

And make no mistake about it, the resurrection of Jesus is a truth. He lives. He is risen. . . The assertion that “‘God raised Jesus’ was central to Christianity from the beginning.” 1.  It is a great and wonderful mystical event for sure, but even from an intellectual standpoint it is hard to dispute that Jesus has lived on. Some may not believe the literal re-animation of the physical body of Jesus, but Jesus was experienced and still is experienced as vibrating not only in history, but in the present, and with the promise to be there in the future too.

 

We can, but we do not have to, believe in a RESUSCITATION of Jesus’ earthly body to believe in the resurrection of Jesus as Christ.  In fact, I’d argue that there is no denying that Jesus’ life and message and death and the countless  post-tomb experiences of Jesus, have profoundly affected humankind for two thousand years. Jesus has undeniably lived on–vibrating throughout time– ever since Mary first encountered him in the garden on Easter.

 

For many of us Christians Jesus’ continuation has been more than memories of a life well lived and a death that could not stop the affects of that life.  It is that and more, including for many of us a very dynamic present experiential reality in our own lives. In the here and now we can–  and many of us have– experienced Jesus as a reality, a palpable presence.   Since the first Easter it has been like that. Jesus did not die with his execution.  As Marcus Borg puts it, “the meaning of the first Easter is that Jesus was not simply a figure of the past, but one who continued to be experienced as an abiding reality in the present.” 2.

 

Each of the recorded experiences of the resurrected Jesus in the Bible remember such experiences of Jesus in a new and different way. Jesus is not experienced in the same way from Easter onward– after the resurrection.  As we heard, Mary – arguably Jesus’ closest disciple– at first experienced a kind man in the garden. He is unrecognized as Jesus until Mary hears him call out her name.  On the road to Emmaus two Jesus followers also first experience an unrecognizable Jesus. He is not recognized as Jesus until he breaks bread with them. Peter and others also experience an unrecognizable Jesus standing on the beach. He is not recognized as Jesus until he helps provide food and earnings with their abundant catch of fish.

 

Of course Jesus is also experienced in an immediately recognizable form in some reported Easter accounts, but he arrives in an unrecognizable fashion. He came to his followers through locked doors just appearing before them, his healthy spirit showing them his wounded physical body.

 

After Easter Jesus is still experienced. Actually even after Pentecost he is still experienced. The Apostle Paul experiences him in a blinding vision of light.  Many, many, many Christians have experienced Jesus ever since.

 

All of these experiences of Jesus are very personal. Indeed the perception that it is Jesus whom they experience does not seem to happen until it IS very personal. Jesus calls out their name as they grieve; breaks bread as they missed a loved one; solves a problem of locating food and livelihood; visits with them while they are frightened and doubting; and comes in a moments of debilitating anger and blindness.  We can hear each appearance as Light in the darkness. These are dark times that Jesus appears. not just for Paul who’s blind, but for all of them, sad, scared, doubting, hungry, angry.
It is no accident that every year Easter arrives as Spring heralds the end of the darkness of winter.  The first Easter was about a light arriving in the great darkness of the three days for Jesus’ followers . . . for all of humanity and creation.  See,  Easter is about a dark tomb not just being opened to the light, but filled with the light that it overflows out into the world, capable of lighting each human life, and all of creation.
Easter is about Light appearing in Jesus’ followers’ darknesses. And not just the followers who were there that first Easter morning, but every follower ever since.  That’s why we are called an Easter People. In every dark thing – from loss of love, to loss of limb, to loss of life– Christians know that Easter offers the wondrous promise of a marvelous mystical material Light.
And that light is God experienced through the very real, very now presence of Jesus. Jesus may come to us in visions or dreams in the darkness of a night or in our darkest hours.  Jesus may come to us in the shadowy times of trouble. When we need Light Jesus is there.
Sometimes we find the light of Jesus in a stranger when we are sorrowful like Mary and Cleopas; or are hungry like Peter.
Sometimes we find the recognizable light of Jesus as we huddle frightened or in doubt, like Thomas and other disciples.
Sometimes we even find the light of Jesus as we travel down a road doing wrong things in the name of God blinded by hate like Paul.

 

In darkness there is always, always light.  We don’t celebrate the darkness of the cross on Good Friday, we celebrate the Light on Easter morn, a Light that has brightly shone ever since. In the dark voids of the universe there is light. Go out and look up at a clear night sky in the country. There’s a lot of dark up there, but there are not just a few pin pricks of light like we might see in the city sky.  Put up a telescope and we discover that there, in the dark, are billions and billions of sources of light.  I have mentioned a few times since Ash Wednesday that we are made of the stuff of those stars. Carl Sagan taught that.

 

 

To paraphrase the Dr. Sagan and one of our Ash Wednesday scriptures we are made from stardust and to stardust we shall return. But right now we are – all of us–  in between the making and the returning time and here in the midst of reality sometimes we cannot see the light.  Dark things like crushing brutal empires, or sorrow or hunger or fear or doubt can seem to overwhelm us with dark things. But the promise of the resurrection is that love can flood all things with it’s brightness, with its Divinity. GOD IS LOVE.

 

 

Metaphorically we can feel this in the warm spring that has finally arrived after our long, long, long cold winter. Martin Luther wrote that “ Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in spring-time.” So spring has long been a good image of how the Light of God’s love arrives, it always does. No matter the source of darkness God is there waiting to shine.

 

 

 

And it’s not just darkness God shows up in, right? Everywhere there is light there – there is God. Baby’s and children and loving families and couples. Flowers and green grass. Birds and sunsets. Rainbows and babbling brooks. Good people and good and kind acts and memories of such blessings. The list goes on and on. God’s light is abundantly present in the world like the billions and billions of sources of light present in the dark of the night sky.
And a huge part of the Easter story is that God’s light is not just for us personally. It is for us, but it also must be shared. Jesus tells us that we are the Light of the world. See our job is to shine God’s light.

 

 

We need to be the Light of Christ like the gardener who comforts those in sorrow.

 

We need to be the light of Christ like the stranger who eases the distraught with caring presence and the breaking of the bread.

 

 

We need to be the light of the Christ who feeds those in need.

 

We need to go into places where people are afraid and insecure and bring the light of Christ there too.

 

We need to be light whenever and where ever we can. Living in Christ and finding the resurrected Christ within us allows us to participate in the salvation of the world.  That’s the Christian story . . . that’s the Easter story.

 

That first Easter still does – and always will– bring us light.

 

Easter promises that in all darkness there is light. It promises and shows us how we can be the light of the world. The Easter light is especially illuminated in fully human beings acting like Jesus did and as he taught us to do.

 

Christ mystically, marvelously, magnificently lives. Christ is and ever shall be the light of the world! And we have the great honor and opportunity of letting that light shine in and through us.

 

Christ is Risen, Risen indeed! AMEN!

 

ENDNOTES:
1. Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, 107
2. Ibid. at 111
COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of Scott’s Palm Sunday sermon (4/13/14)

-Palms, Pilate and Protest By The Prince of Peace- *
a Palm Sunday Sermon based on Matthew 21:1-11
April 13, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Staying seated, those of you who are able are invited to raise your hands  and move them about your head. Put them down. Thank you. I wanted to make sure we all got a chance to waive “palms” on Palm Sunday!
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner makes the claim that “religion without humor is blasphemy.” 1  I don’t think the good Rabbi was referring to preachers making fools out of themselves by tripping on the way up to the pulpit, over scripture, over goofy theologies or even over bad puns.

 

What I think he meant was that God is in all of life and shines most particularly in the good and the joyful and if we stifle humor in our religion we do a great disservice to God and ourselves. Humor is a good and Godly gift, and to deny it is to deny a part of God’s creation and a blessing.

 

Those of you who have been here before have probably figured out by now that I love humor. I look for it and embrace it whenever I can.

 

I used to read the Bible and privately laugh at the humor that is embedded in a surprising number of places. I did this in private for years out of fear we were not supposed to guffaw while contemplating the Sacred stories of our faith. But in seminary I decided to come out of that comedic canonical closet. Mainly because in seminary I kept seeing more and more humor in the Bible and I began to wonder about a theology of humor being laced in it.  “Theology” is the study of  “divine things or religious truth.” Humor is a “comic [or] absurd situation causing amusement.” 2  So, if you will, a theology of humor amounts to the study of divine things or religious truth in comic and absurd situations.

 

Not all of the Bible is funny of course, but there quite a bit of humor placed in there, however, as a whole churches don’t often consider the Bible as containing both religious truths and humor. But it does.

 

It is sad to me that our cultural ethos of piety seems to keep us from seeing or acknowledging the Biblical humor. We’ve been taught to  to check our sense of humor at the church door.  Oh, we laugh at little jokes, but churches by and large usually stick with serious views of the Bible. By doing so we miss out on some fun stuff in there. This leads me to ask, if God and the authors did not put it in there for us to use, what’s it doing there?
Think about it, humans in the Bible are often involved in the comic or the absurd. From a talking serpent in Eden to David donning an over sized suit of armor (1 Sam 17:38) to Balaam’s arguing with a talking donkey (Num 22:28) to Jesus asking how we can see a speck in our neighbor’s eye when we have a log in our own (Matt 7:4), the absurd and the comedic are woven into parts of the Bible.

 

In fact a number of stories in Bible use humor to teach, not just to amuse. A good example is Jesus who uses humor to teach, preach and protest.  Humor is a great teaching too it can help us see ourselves better sometimes in laughable situations than through direct criticism.

 

But it is more than just teaching, laughter is good for us and apparently for God. Psalm 2 (4) states that the God who “sits in the heavens will laugh.” As images of God we also laugh. It is a gift from God. As Job 8(21) notes, “God fills our mouth with laughter.” 3
And indeed there is much power in humor. Science has long reported that laughter is healthy. Friends, families and life-long mates share humor together. And so do communities. It helps teach. It helps in our bonding, relieves stress and allows us to share in common a good laugh.

 

I think God laughs with us, and Jesus as well as we gather two or more in his name.  And humor does more than make us feel good and teach. Humor can be subversive, if it is used to point out the absurdity of oppressor’s positions, to make the oppressors less than the lofty gods of power they or we might imagine that they are and to give us new vision to alter standards of what is truly powerful.

 

We know that God acts in ways that are subversive.  4  From the Exodus to the Cross God subverts the status quo, and calls us to do so too. God and God’s people often use humor to subvert the status quo in the Bible.

 

In the Old Testament mighty Pharaoh’s family unknowingly rescues adopts and raises a poor Hebrew child who ironically ends up as Moses the leader of liberation and law.
In the New Testament mighty Herod is driven nuts in his unsuccessful hunt for a weak poor little baby born to be a king in a stinking stable.

 

The powerful and oppressive rich of Jesus’ day have as good a chance of getting to heaven as – now really picture this– stuffing a camel through the eye of a needle.
It’s not just people, the powerful reign of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, not a golden palaces on high. It is like yeast spreading in flour, not like having more wealth or armies than others.

 

All of the images I just listed have an ironic humorous edge to them.
Just like a bad Hell’s Angels-like Samaritan can be a better neighbor than religious leaders.    The story of The Good Samaritan is more than just humorous it calls us to see the world differently, Samaritans were known to be bad hombres in Jesus’ culture, they were loathed enemies. Jesus uses irony to flip that notion around. Those we loath are not only as human as us, but capable of being God’s agent for good and even better than culturally exalted religious elites. Putting it in today’s context: a story titled something like “The Good Hell’s Angel,” has got a cognitive dissonance sort of humor to it.

 

If you have ever seen the Musical Godspell you have experienced a good deal of humor straight from the Gospels.  Properly done the first act of that Broadway show is virtually one punch line after another mostly from the book of Matthew, and if properly done it is also very Love centered and spiritual, as well as scriptural and full of teaching moments.  If we ignore our culture’s piety it really does not take much to see the humor in Jesus’ stories. For example, in Godspell  the story of Lazarus and the rich man plays out just like it can when we read it, with the selfish non-neighbor-loving rich guy haughty as all get out before death, and then in death just as haughty, only more foolishly so. Through Jesus’ humor we see that rich man’s selfish conduct is foolish not only in Hades, but in life as well. There’s humor in Jesus’ stories.

 

And that brings me to today’s reading. I have to give you some background to understand why the Palm Sunday story is not just poignant, and powerful, but, can also be heard as laced with humor.

 

It’s the start of Passover week. Everybody who is anybody is arriving in Jerusalem for the celebration. Not just devout celebrants, mind you but rabble rousers and rebels.  Not just Jews, but, Roman legions. Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine, arrives from Caesarea to oversee the added troops and volatile multitudes.  Pilate’s procession into Jerusalem was no doubt in a stately fashion, mounted on a well groomed horse leading an entourage of spiffed up legions with all the pomp and circumstance and shiny gleaming metal befit a man of worldly power and wealth. Pilate comes into Jerusalem from the west in an imperial pageantry representing not just imperial power, but, imperial theology. In Rome Emperor Augustus was understood to be the son of god and so were his successors.

 

Augustus’ successor in Jesus’ day was Tiberius who bore the same divine titles as Augustus. So Pilate embodied not only the power of Rome in the worldly reality of the very-few-wealthy-oppress-the-rest social order, but he also represented a rival theology to Judaism, and rival gods to Yahweh. 5.

 

Pilate’s entry to Jerusalem is met – is countered by– Jesus’s supremely ironic and symbolic entry as the representative of a reign in conflict with Rome: the Reign of God. God v. Human Power. Peace v. War. Non-violence v. Violence.  Christ v. Caesar.  Pilate’s parade is met in every way with opposite visual splendors by a parade of Jesus and his multitude of adoring followers.

 

Think about it. How does Jesus come marching in in today’s story? Matthew tells it a little different than the children’s version I read. In Matthew we are told that the disciples (quote) “brought [him] the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them!”   . . . According to Matthew Jesus sat astride a big and small donkey! Lot’s of folks see the description of Jesus riding two animals at once as an oversight or lack of care by Matthew. But see, I am like Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins, I love to laugh and it seems to me a fair read that Matthew is bright enough to get the absurdity of the visual image his words paint. Jesus humbly seated simultaneously somehow astride both a grown donkey and a smaller colt.  It’s like a circus clown parody, a first century Saturday Night Live lampoon.

 

Jesus’ arrives from the east in opposite fashion than the pompous promenade with  Pilate parading in on a prancing over-preened pony.  T his is an image of Jesus having fun with the over-the-top opulence of the pomp and circumstance of Pilate, by being over the top in his own way, an OPPOSITE WAY to Caesar’s show of authority. Like a lot of comedy it is humor used to carry a serious message: God’s reign is not anything like earthly power’s reign. That’s Jesus message over and over again in the Gospels.

 

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in their remarkable book, The Last Week, suggest that Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem was a staged a political demonstration.  What could Jesus have been demonstrating against? How about the notion that might makes right, that wealth rules the world and that God supports such injustices?  Jesus’ statement seems to be God’s leaders, God’s Son, are not in Rome’s power, are not in Caesar. God does not does not reign with worldly ways of military might and oppressive wealth.  God’s chosen are way, way different than the men who lead Rome.

 

The real Son of God comes from the opposite direction as Pilate and He protests with scorn, even a fun sort of mocking of the ways of oppression and violence.  That’s why in Matthew Jesus comes all goofy looking, humble and poor (not mighty) and awkward to boot on two animals, inexpensive ordinary beasts of burden, a donkey and a colt whom someone else owns. Understanding this helps us understand Jesus comes to people full of fun and life and care– and love. This is a fun and compassionate King willing to stand up to Rome. He’s got guts!

 

Jesus comes to people who lay before him the very coats off their backs and natural limbs – palms fronds–  from God’s creation, a traditional first century Palestine red carpet, if you will .

 

We are told as Jesus entered the city

 

 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed [him] were shouting,‘‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’’

 

I guarantee you no crowd in Jerusalem greeted Pilate with that type of genuine fervor! Genuine fear perhaps, but not fervor.

 

“Hosanna” is a joyful sound, a word that means “O save now.” 6.  Jesus on his humble and humourous gutsy ride into Jerusalem is understood to be one who can save. Jesus’s Way of love and non-violence and inclusivity is radically in opposition to Rome’s show of crushing human power and opulence, Jesus’ extremely different Way is understood as the Way of salvation.

 

On that first Palm Sunday there was a choice, the same choice we have today. The way of unjust imperial violence offered by the Pilates of the world who dominate by exclusivity, elitism and force; or the radical way of God’s inclusivity, the God who reigns through non-violent justice and love. Who aims us toward a peace where all have well being. 7. . . . All. Have. Well being!

 

Jesus can be understood to have made a seriously funny entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, so funny we can smile at it still, so effective in its underlying serious message that it caused the oppressed multitude to yell out “Hosanna!” O SAVE NOW.
Jesus’s humorous protest made his point: choose Caesar or choose God. This are two  very, very different choices.  Caesar’s peace through violence or God’s peace through non-violence. Those yelling “Hosanna” made the joyful sound of choosing God’s peace.

 

We can make that choice and choose to yell out Hosanna too! In fact lets do it. Humor me. Hold your palms up and wave them! Now on three shout “Hosanna!”  1….2….3    HOSANNA !!!! I don’t know about you, but I can think of no better prayer than “O save now!” HOSANNA! AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
* This sermon is based in good part on a sermon that I preached in 2008.
1. Kushner, Harold,  I recall Rabbi Lawrence Kushner stating this during an interview in Corvallis, Oregon at the “God at 2000″ conference in the winter of 2000.
2.  Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (2001),“theology” and ‘humor.”
3. I got the ideas and the cites and/or quotes in this paragraph from Lee van Rensburg’s book The Sense of Humor in Scripture, Theology and Worship, (Lima, Ohio:Fairway Press, 1991) 21, 33-34.
4. I got this idea primarily from Yehuda Raddy and Athalya Bremmer’s book On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990), 100.
5. Borg, Marcus, Crossan, Dominic John, The Last Week, (HarperCollins, 2006 ). This book’s chapter on Palm Sunday, (along with Matthew 21:1-11) is the source of the descriptions in this sermon of the parade at either end of Jerusalem. This book gave me the insight and inspiration for a sermon that compared the two contrasting parades and the protest angle to Jesus’s ride. This made me think of Rabbi Kushner’s quote about religion and humor and basically the whole idea that Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’s cleverly ironic and humorous entry into Jerusalem.
6. Westminister Dictionary of Theological terms “Hosanna.”
7. The Last Week, 215-216.

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

 

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Here is the text of Scott’s Palm Sunday Sermon:

God Reanimates Even Skeleton Lives *
A sermon based on Ezekiel 37:1-14
April 6, 2014 at Mount Vernon, Ohio
by Rev. Scott Elliott

We just heard Ezekiel’s very strange vision of a valley full of bones. That, of course, leads me to some strange puns. Did you notice how Ezekiel’s pretty intense in the story, but, the skeletons are calm? I suspect that’s because nothing can get under their skin. Also they don’t speak because they had no body to speak with.  And they could not get up because they lacked the guts to do so. Actually although they can’t get up, it’s not because they are lazy bones –  to flesh the story out– they can’t get up (and this is real) because they represent Israel in exile where truly only a skeleton of the once powerful community remained.
In addition to my mining the story for strange puns, there are actually a lot of metaphors in the text that we heard Greg read.  Babylon conquered Israel and took its culture’s elite into captivity for nearly 50 years.  In the valley of captivity the hopes of those captured were dashed and dried up; they thought they’d never get home. They thought Israel was lost forever.The scattered bones of the nation in a foreign land were all that seemed to remain. There was no meat, or muscle; no sinews or skin; no guts. The people of Israel really did feel that they had no body of a community left. Ezekiel knows this. God shows him a valley filled with the symbolic bones of the once proud leaders and elite of the nation of Israel and God asks  “Mortal can these bones live?  And Ezekiel is smart. He doesn’t say the obvious “That there’s no way those dried up old things will live!” He does not even hem or haw or take a wild guess. He defers to God when facing the impossible. He responds “O Lord God, you know.”

 

And what God alone knows is remarkable. The answer God gives is incredible. It is in essence: “Yes, the bones can live. Yes, newness is possible”1 God’s answer defies human logic. It is virtually inconceivable, but God claims that those hopeless, dried up bones of the spirit in that valley of despair can live. In fact God promises their spirit will be reanimated – that they will live– through God’s actions, actions which profoundly reverse the ordinary order of natural decay. God promises to cause sinews to appear, to cause flesh to appear, to cause skin to appear and to cause breath that will bring them to life.
Like the creation story, the Word of God, the breath of God is essential to animate human life in this story. But in this story the Word of God, the breath of God comes out of the act of a human, Ezekiel.  This fits with the Lenten theme we’ve got going that God works through us!  We can hear in this, hope. Hope that humanity has the God-given power to initiate the re-animation the life of even those with nothing left, but bare bones of life.  Even if it is just dead dry bones of our spiritual life scattered and in pieces. No matter what there is always the promise that our spiritual life can be re-animated! 2  Amazingly it is through humans that God works this miracle!

 

To tie into another theme we’ve touched upon, like the story of the phoenix rising, there’s the promise of transformation from the ashes of our lives. Whatever has happened in any moment before, can be overcome to make a better us. We can be saved from the lesser life we have had– no matter what! This is true in every given moment.  From dry bones, from heaps of ashes, from anything, even from a torturous death on a cross, God can transform the negative into the positive. How? For us it is through God’s incarnation in humanity.

 

Ezekiel works God’s miracle by prophesying to the bones, teaching them to “hear the word of the Lord.”  God’s Word is the breath that begins creation and life in our Bible stories. Once they have learned to hear the word, God then builds the body back up bit by bit. And Ezekiel, a human is involved. He’s a part of God’s very own breath being breathed upon them so that they can live. And live they do!

 

This is a very hopeful story. And it is not just one for history. It is one for the present. Indeed it speaks to us now. A number of folks in this church grew up in the United Church of Christ or one of the traditions that formed it. But many of us are amongst the scattered. Some from other denominations. Some from other religions. Some from no prior religion at all.  Many of us have even lain in a desolate spiritual valley with hopes dashed and dried up. Nothing but bare bones to our spirituality. No meat or muscle. No sinews or skin. No guts left, bones, ashes, crosses of one sort or another have emptied us. The good news of this story – of the whole Bible, in fact– is that God can re-animate our lives from the valley of the shadow of even death.

 

All of us at one time or another have experienced or will experience feeling dried up with no body left to our spirit, no spiritual body at all. Whether individually or communally, we just have bare bones left. It would not surprise me if there are some folks here today that maybe feel that way now. It’s getting easier and easier to feel dried up spiritually and scattered to the wind. We not only move around a lot – often far from our families and hometowns– but, more and more it seems that neighbors barely talk to one another.  We often live our lives in isolation, feeling alone in big cities bustling with people; feeling powerless in the machinery of a culture pushing us to work, to move, to do, do, do for ourselves, for our family, for the economy, for the boss, for the country, for what we called in my youth “The Man.”

 

This can lead us to feel like we are in a valley of captivity too, where hopes feel dashed and dried up. It can feel like we’ll never get back on the track to the promised land.  It can feel like our sense of being is lost forever. It feels like our spirituality is dried up.  Like the lyrics from a famous song in the 70’s we feel like “all we are is dust in the wind.” Scattered bones with no meat, no muscles, no sinews, no skin, no breath left. Today there can be, and often is, a sense of spiritual death, not only of self, but, of community.  Captivity can come in the form of a conquering nation or too many hours at work or isolation. It can also come in the form of bullying or oppression or physiological concerns or psychological concerns, loss of loved ones or loss of relationships, or just the daily grind.

 

The Lectionary reading today ends with these words:

 

Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.

 

We can choose to hear this as more than a promise to Ezekiel and the banished elite of Israel. It is a promise to all whose bones are dried up, whose hope is lost, who feel cut off. God’s promise is to raise us up, to put God’s own Spirit in us, to place us on our own soil, to bring us home to give us a resurrection so that like a phoenix we arise out of what ash heap of life we feel burnt up by.  All we need do is hear, really hear, the word of the Lord, to know that God is Lord and to act on it.

 

What is really quite amazing is that this church is like Ezekiel. We prophesy, that is, we herald the Good News of the Word of God to all who enter this space and even beyond. I don’t mean just here in the pulpit. I mean this whole church. You can feel God is Lord right down to the bones in this place.  God has taken the dry bones and hopelessness we have felt in our lives and built a throng here of those who know God is Lord. Not “Lord” as in one to cow-tow and kiss up to like “The Man,” but, “Lord” as in the One we joyfully follow and let lead. The Lord of the Dance, the Lord of Love, not the lord of the manor or the company we work for, or even the leaders of the state or country.  God is our one and our only Lord – a loving, caring compassionate LORD at that.

 

Through First Congregational United Church of Christ that loving caring compassionate Lord is building a community, adding sinews to the dry bones. How? First of all like the banner outside says we are a “heart and brains church.” We are not afraid to question and think and apply the gifts of reason in our understanding of God, Jesus, the Bible or how to love.

 

We are also not afraid to love and let our heart lead our understanding of how to relate to each other and creation. Indeed love is the center of our faith, our brain thinks critically to make sure we come back to the heart the place where  God – love– is. Jesus teaches us by his word and deed and continuing experiential presence to make this our relentless quest.

 

It may sound kinda crazy to some for a church to think critically in order to (pun intended) get to the heart of the matter. But crazy or not that’s how it works.  The United Church of Christ’s motto is “God is Still Speaking.”  In order to see a comma instead of a period, a full stop to the Word of God once the Bible was finished two thousand years ago, we need to have an open mind to help us find the heart of the matter, the Word of God speaking in our world today.  The two, heart and mind, work together.   We have to question whether what we are doing or being asked to do is loving; and then we have to figure out how to best do the loving. To be the Word of God in the world.

 

What I say up here is meant to open up thinking and dialog, to provoke thought and most especially, I hope, love.  My sermons are not the final word on anything in this church.  The traditions of the Church are not the final word on anything in this church.  Even the words in the Bible do not close the discussion in this church. Through this church God helps us help others, adding sinews to bare bones, by encouraging use of our brains and thinking here. We do not check our brains at the door. By allowing ourselves to be open in our thinking we hope to hear what comes after the comma, what God is still speaking– what the Word of God is saying to today.

 

And that leads us to where God is calling us to the heart of the matter which is, of course, to love– really, really love. First Congregational United Church of Christ God is building a community, adding flesh to the sinews with a passion for love and justice and kindness and God. There can be no dryness to our faith when the blood of our passion for the love of God, self and neighbor runs through our veins pumped by our heart.

 

This is a very dedicated church. There are so many of you who give of your time and other gifts to make this place and our missions and ministries run. It’s truly remarkable.  The support needed to make it through a week of all this church does is huge.  Have you ever thought about it? With passion for love, justice, kindness and God, brothers and sisters from this church do an amazing amount of work.   Volunteer hours are spent administering the non-profit corporate functions as council and officers and committee members.  Folks come and share their open thinking at Book Study, Adult Forum and Lenten studies helping us all to grow. Our wonderful free Chi Gong class exercises our body and our spirit. Progressive, loving, open-to-all worship services are provided and supported and attended.  Prayers are prayed for joys and concerns all week long.  Members in the hospital and their families are visited, as are the homebound through the pastor, deacons and others.  Talented musicians show up and spend precious hours singing and preparing for our children, chancel, bell choir and special music offerings.   People in need are provided hot meals week in and week out. People are provided for through our active involvement and support of Interchurch, Crop Walk, Back Bay, Habitat of Humanity, Christian Star Academy, Gay Straight Alliance, Fair Trade Sales, Can-Do, Winter Sanctuary  and other mission and ministry work, with new ones in the works. Things are fixed and built and taken down and gussied-up all over the  building and campus. The place is cleaned up, essentials for the services are brought in and arranged, filled and put in place. Infants are cared for in the nursery. Children and youth and adults are lovingly taught.  There are many saintly loving Spirit-filled folks here whose very presence provides peace and love. You also bring much needed gifts in the form of offerings, spending hard earned resources spent not on yourselves, but gladly on God.  Lots of passion fills this place, let me tell you.  Week in and week out you all bring gifts of “love in action” to this place, to God, to others.
And a lot of organizations  do things and are active. The difference is that love part. Our efforts to do things with love bring God’s breath into the mix.  Putting it sort of in a backwards to today’s text: We enflesh God when we love. Love animates Spiritual life. It is God’s very being we exude when we Love.  God’s there always, but, we have to bring God to the fore to animate, to help cause God’s breath to be breathed into bones that have dried up. Bones that are in the valley of despair.

 

So here is the thing, we have to always strive to think openly with an aim toward Love. We have to always strive to whole heartedly believe in Love. We have to always strive to animate our lives and the lives of others with actions, breaths of Love. When we do those things, which we do a lot here, then we help God accomplish what Ezekiel helped God do, the seemingly impossible. We help God resurrect the spiritually dead from the dry spiritual bones of life. God gives life to those whose hope is lost, who feel cut off completely, through love-centered communities like this church and people like us.  This is happening here all the time. God is still speaking to and even through us.

 

First Congregational is a God soaked, Christ drenched, Spirit-filled place and old and new bones are coming to life all the time and finding help and even family here, and they–we– in turn keep the cycle going as this family of God’s helps the world out there to be spiritually re-animated.

 

As we help God help enflesh bare bones, we enflesh God. As I mentioned a few weeks ago St Augustine said: “God without us will not as we without God cannot”     That’s powerful stuff. And it is good news indeed that this Holy community strives to be with God as we work for God! The Word of the Lord is what God speaks to animate life in Genesis and in the world. May we hear the Word of the Lord– and spread it far and wide.  AMEN!

ENDNOTES:

* This sermon is based in part on a sermon I preached in 2008.

1. Texts For Preaching (Westminster John Knox, (2007))  p. 219 of CD ROM
2. Ibid.

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

The text of Scott’s sermon from March 30, 2014:

The Lord as Shepherd Means More Than We May Think
a sermon based on Psalm 23
given at Mount Vernon, OH on March 30,  2014 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As a Lenten practice a few years ago I rode my bike four miles to a Florida beach for sunrise prayer and meditation.  Lots of people walked the causeway– a long, steep bridge over a huge river– that I rode on and  I went out of my way to cheerily greet others with a “Hi” or a “Good morning” during my rides.   One day I left the beach after my prayers, I put my helmet on, hopped on my bike and I cheerily greeted folks going home. I noticed that the responses seemed much more enthusiastic and smiley on the way back that morning.  I was particularly impressed as I was peddling hard up the causeway when a very attractive co-ed looked up from her run and gave me a huge smile. To my amazement right after her greeting four teenage boys also responded with a unison  “Good Morning” and big smiles.  As I was passing the teens I thought “Wow! this cheery greeting thing for Lent sure brightens folks up, especially after prayer!” As I went by the last teen I had to change my thinking because he kindly whispered to me “Your helmet is on backwards.”

All of a sudden the uplifting responses on my way home that day took on a whole new meaning. It was not about my being rather cheery, looking but, about my being rather goofy looking that cheered folks up. Sometimes a little nudge can make us see things in a new light. “Your helmet is on backwards.” was such a humorous epiphany that I slammed on my brakes, pulled over, had a good laugh and fixed my helmet.  And I had a whole different way of understanding what was going on during my bike ride that morning – some details got filled in.

 

This morning we are taking a look at Psalm 23. We are going to look at it in a different way by filling in some details. I appreciate that it can be kinda touchy to hold beloved text up to a new light, but, I am not doing it to take away old meaning, I am doing it to suggest that we can add deeper meaning to this beautiful and hallowed text.

 

The 23rd Psalm may be the most beloved text in all the Bible, it is the one that most of our neighbors know. We especially turn to it in times of trouble and sorrow and despair, it is used in funerals more than any other text.

 

I love reading Psalm 23 and I love preaching on it. Our usual interpretation – perspective–  is that it has a very calming, serene, hopeful and helpful nature. I believe that interpretation  and I love it, so any of you who are worried that I am going to deconstruct Psalm 23 and destroy its comforting affect, you can relax. The Psalm is fairly interpreted that way. It’s a good and time honored way to hear it and use it.  But – and I think this is a good thing– like looking through a diamond we can turn the Psalm over in our palm  and look at it from another angle. We can add more meaning to it, and we may be pleasantly surprised that something so familiar to us can have more meaning.

 

Psalm 23, no matter what angle we look at it from, is of course focused on God. The first line makes that clear. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  In modern America we mostly hear this to mean that God’s tending to us as we picture a shepherd tends to a flock – in this case out in a rolling serene green pasture beside calm waters of a lake.  That is a nice picture and good image and, like I said, a fair meaning for us to derive today. But that is not the only image that was likely intended when it was written and it is not the only image that other cultures get when they hear Psalm 23 today. At the time the Psalm was written “shepherd” was a well known metaphor for kings. Royal leaders like the kings of Israel and Judah, were known as shepherds. 2. So we can hear God in Psalm 23 as more than just a shepherd in a pasture, we can hear it saying God is our sovereign, the preeminent leader of us as devout people.

 

And unlike most earthly royalty and other governments in history, God is into taking care of the basic necessities of life for all God’s people. God wants that no one wants. God’s sheep are to be fed and watered and guarded and secure as they should be when God is the Shepherd. The first verse in fact can be heard to say this when it notes that with God as our shepherd we shall not want.  “Want” means be in lack of. So the psalm tells us that with God we shall not lack. This does not mean that we get everything we want when God’s ruling our lives, it means that we get what is needed. God is a ruler who does not just tend to sheep, but leads them to necessities. In short with God’s in charge none of God’s sheep are to want for essentials.
Verses two and three are about this need tending.  “He maketh me to lie  down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the  paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”  These two verses in our culture provide a great sense of comfort. We picture sweet cool grass to sit on and a soothing body of water to look at. A lake near a pasture where we can go and experience peace and quiet. It’s great image.
And we do experience God as a calming presence, so this image helps. It’s a good and a right way to hear the words. And hearing that certainly seem to be a part of the psalmist’s intent. Sheep need rest. And God as our shepherd leads us to places of rest and comfort and a sense of serenity.  But the words and images were meant to have more meaning than we modern folks, especially city dwellers, hear.     Those green pastures that the shepherd leads us to are not just idyllic and good for needed rest, but to sheep, and people who know about sheep (like the ancients), green pastures provide the necessity of food. Sheep eat the grass that makes the pastures green!  So one thing we tend to miss in the line about the green pasture is that with God as our Shepherd it is not just about a peaceful place to rest, but that we shall not want for either rest or food. God is a ruler who does not just tend to sheep, but as our leader leads humans to necessities so that no sheep are in want.
The Shepherd in Psalm 23 also leads his sheep to “still waters.”  Still waters are, of course, idyllic. But they serve another function too. Sheep are afraid to drink from moving water, they need their water to be smooth and calm. It is still water that quenches their thirst.  See with God as our shepherd we shall not want for what we need, rest, food and water.  God is a ruler who does not just tend to sheep, but if they will follow, God leads all the sheep to a place with all the necessities so on one wants.   3
Pretty cool stuff. How many years have we heard Psalm 23 and not known these meanings of God getting all sheep in God’s care all  necessities? Those meanings have been there for thousands of years.

 

Most of the factual information and a lot of the ideas I’m discussing can be found in a wonderful book by Clint McCann. The book is called Great Psalms of the Bible it covers way more than I can today, but I am touching on some highlights.  For instance, Dr. McCaan has this interesting observation about the end of verse three, about the restoration of our souls. He writes:

 

  the shepherd provides the two basic necessities that support animal life– food and water. It is the provision of these basic necessities that, from the sheep’s perspective, “restores my soul,” or better translated, “keeps me alive”. . . 4

 

God as our sovereign leads humans to what is needed to keep us alive; food and water and rest. But that is not all we find in these initial verses, verse 3 ends by noting that God leads us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  We tend to picture this as God showing us some nice trails out there in the park by the green grass and calm lake which is nice, but as Dr. McCaan goes on to note, the words also mean that God leads us in right paths and (I am quoting)

 

For sheep, right paths literally mean the difference between life and death. To take the wrong path means to be separated from the shepherd and the flock and thus subject to being lost or attacked by predators . . . To be led in “right paths” means safety, security, shelter.  5

 

That is an awesome Shepherd. That’s an awesome God!

 

And here is the best part: the ending words of verse 3, indicating that this is done “for His name sake,” mean God provides all these necessities because that is the nature of God.  For God’s sake we get taken care of– we do not want.  When we let God watch over us, when God is in charge we will all have what we need and we will all be guided down safe paths. 6  That is a broader, deeper meaning Psalm 23 can be heard to be about. In fact, that is what the Bible can be heard to by and large be about.  Letting God be in charge and take care of creation, including humanity– so that no one wants!

 

And this holds true even when we are in rough and bad times. Verse 4 shifts the conversation from being about God, to a conversation with God– a prayer.   “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the  shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” In those times when we, like sheep, wander out of the calm pastures to dark places, the valleys of the shadow of death, the shepherd never leaves us– the shepherd never leaves us. God is with us always.

 

A shepherd’s staff is for use on sheep to guide and prod and rescue them. A shepherd’s rod on the other hand is a club used to ward off predators. It is to defend the sheep from harm. Interestingly a rod was also the nickname for a royal scepter, so it has a double meaning, the shepherd wields the rod so no sheep get hurt and the king wields the scepter (the rod of state) so no subject gets hurt. 7 That’s the hope of God.

 

From these rich images of the Lord as shepherd, the psalm moves next to images of guest and host, at a royal banquet. “Thou preparest a  table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”  God in this part is understood in the image of a host and humanity are all  God’s invited guests.  And did we all hear what happens at God’s table when we accept God’s invitation? We sit with our enemies. At God’s table all are invited and served. We can hear Psalm 23’s table taking place in the presence of our enemies as a parallel to Jesus’ later teaching to love our enemies. At God’s and Jesus’ table we sit in the presence of our enemies. They too are at the table with us, and that all of God’s invited guests are not just nourished at that table but honored by God at a banquet. In short, it is a grand banquet for all of humanity. There’s a table so large all fit, all need for food is met and, those of us who thirst, have got great news at God’s table our cup runs over, it’s filled beyond the brim.

 

And God not only feeds and fills us, but honors us by anointing each of our heads. All are God’s special guests!From these images of the Shepherd’s care, and the host’s honoring and meeting everyone’s needs, we can hear that all are respected, no one is in want.  That is how God wills it!

 

Psalm 23 concludes with the wonderful words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the  house of the LORD for ever.”  The phrase “surely goodness and mercy will follow me” is actually better translated as “‘surely goodness and steadfast love will pursue me all the days of my life.” 8 See God is not only good, but God’s steadfast love is so big and so awesome and so vibrant and enduring and dynamic, it follows and hunts us. God’s love hones in on us wherever we are and pursues us. It follows us everywhere– all the time . . . relentlessly.  God soaks the universe– including us– that means we dwell in the house of the Lord forever. To paraphrase Paul, we live and move and have our being in God!

 

And Christianity has at it’s heart the amazing Truth that our being-ness can incarnate God in the world.  Not just in Jesus the Christ, but in each of us as Christ’ actors on earth in both the giving and the taking of necessities. As we discussed last week, Christ is in our hands as we give and Christ is in our hands as we accept from those who give.  In that respect we can hear that our role in Psalm 23 is not just as sheep being taking care of, but as the Shepherd’s helper helping to provide necessities and protection to everyone.
It can be the God in us who helps leads the God in others to green pastures and still waters for food and drink and respite.

 

It can be the God in us who helps shepherd folks to good paths in God’s name, who makes it so no one wants.

 

It can be the God in us who protects the God in others from the dark things in the valleys of the shadow of death.

 

It can be the God in us who helps the Host prepares  tables with food and drink for the God in others.

 

It can be the God in us who honors God in others helping to anoint their heads with oil and ensuring that their cups runneth over.

 

When we do these things as God’s actors we help God become incarnate and we become living proof that goodness and mercy have not just followed us all the days of our life, but that we have let them catch us that we have let God know we know that we dwell in the  house of the LORD and that we intend to act like it – forever.    AMEN
ENDNOTES
* This sermon is based in large part on a sermon I originally preached in 2011.
1. McCann, Clint, Great Psalms of the Bible, 2009, p 45. This wonderful book on the most popular psalms of the Bible inspired many of the ideas in this sermon. (But not the incorrect wearing of my bike helmet).  If you are interested in studying the Psalms I heartily recommend that you consider checking out this book, obviously I think it is a great book to preach from too!
2. Ibid., 47-48.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.,  47.
5. Ibid.,  48.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., 50
8. Ibid., 51

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

————————————————————————————————–

The text of Scott’s sermon from March 30, 2014:

Is the LORD Among Us or Not?
a sermon based on Exodus 17:1-7
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 23, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A law professor at Michigan told his evidence class he could prove there was no God.  He dramatically stood on the edge of the lecture stage and prayed out loud “God if you are real, then knock me off this platform in the next 15 minutes!”  Ten minutes went by and nothing happened. So the law professor prayed again “God, I’m waiting for evidence you exist, you’ve got five minutes to knock me off this platform !”   A visiting Ohio State softball player passing by in hall (to get a drink of water before a game) heard the professor’s last prayer. She walked into the classroom and up to the professor and gently pushed him off the platform. The professor said, “Hey, why did you do that?” She replied, “God was busy; and sent me!” The class stood up and cheered. Of course OSU won the softball game.

 

That story was made up. I found the basic premise on line and gussied it up a bit.  It’s meant to be funny and make the point that God’s presence and action in our lives often depends on human action.  Plus it ties into the Lectionary text that we are looking at from Exodus where God and God’ presence are doubted and questioned.
The Hebrews in the Exodus text are in a crisis over thirst. The crisis makes them doubtful God’s in what Moses was doing, and they even doubted God was leading them. So we are told God shows Moses how to act out a miracle to quench the thirst that the people have as well as to prove God’s presence.

 

We are told Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”” Masssah means temptation. Meribah means strife. The people of God were quarreling over who God was with and where God was present.

 

Is the LORD among us or not? Of course, unlike the ancient Hebrews Christians as a people of God never quarrel or question God’s presence, do we? I say that tongue very much in cheek.  A day does not go by that quarrels and questions about God are not amongst Christians. We see it on the news, on Facebook, even in our local paper.
So the question in today’s reading. “Is the Lord among us or not?” is still very much relevant to us today. It creates temptation to doubt and it creates strife over who is right and where is God. We quarrel about God. We question God.

 

Do our quarrels and questions about God’s existence or presence cause God to show up and prove it?   If someone came and shoved another who prayed to be shoved by God, would that prove anything? If, like Moses, my actions could get water from a rock would that really solve all serious questions and doubts about God?

 

On one level this all sounds esoteric and complicated. So in fairness, given the nuances and acrimony in our debates, who can blame good and smart people for throwing up their hands and deciding the answer to the question “Is the Lord among us Christians or not?”,  is “No.”  Who can blame people –like the law professor in the story– for even being cynical about God given our own misgivings about one another?

 

Moses told the Hebrews that God was with him and them and so they followed him out of Egypt and into the desert. The hardships and complications of life they encountered out there made them question whether it was true that God was with them. That was a fair question. Modern people also encounter hardships and questions in our own wilderness journeys, and we still ask that question. Is God among us or not?

 

To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker from the late 1980s “Bad  Stuff happens.”
Why does “bad stuff” have to happen? If God’s all powerful can’t God just shove professors off the stage without using another human?  Couldn’t God just provide food and water and good health out in the desert to the people of God? Why does God need people like Moses to act on God’s behalf? Or better yet, can’t God just provide what we need without all the shhhh stuff happening? Or couldn’t God at the very least just provide simple easy proof in the Bible that doesn’t cause people to quarrel over who God is and what God wants?  Or as a sort of follow up question to my suggestion last week that  all are saved and there is no eternal hell or damnation, what’s to motivate us to behave or even care what God wants? Why does it matter.?

 

I suspect that most folks, from trained theologians to atheists to lay people and everyone in between ask these types of questions at one time or another. If they don’t ask them aloud, they at least ask them to themselves or to God. Is the Lord among us or not?

 

I don’t know if you have been following the exchanges in the Mount Vernon News over a letter to the editor I wrote in mid-January. To catch you up, my letter noted my secular and theological opposition to an anti-homosexual advertisement by a church. I felt the ad was an injustice promoting oppression and bullying.  The church whose ad I challenged responded with two ads challenging me and my theology. Two weeks ago a letter to the editor was sent further challenging me and this church. Another letter by Ron was sent in thoughtful response to the letter that opposed the church. It’s been quite the brouhaha.      I feel I owe you an explanation.

Now in fairness to all the writers involved, to one extent or another we appear to each believe we’ve expressed God’s will in the paper. My opposition, and their opposition to my opposition, and opposition to their opposition of my opposition by the looks of it have been motivated by expressions of faith in word and action. Each of us as Christian writers believes and claims we are following Christ.  Each of us believes that our positions are supported by words in the Bible – and some of us have quoted or cited Bible verses to prove it.

So it’s fair to conclude we are each serious about our faith and God and Jesus and the Bible. Yet it is obvious we are seriously on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to who God is and the Bible’s interpretation and application to our lives, at least when it comes to how we go about loving our neighbors.   So there’s a quarrel and contention. There’s temptation to bully or temptation to promote what others deem “sin” depending on which side of the discussion that you are on. Massah and Meribah – temptation and strife.
All of this has raised eyebrows with some folks no doubt asking of one or all of us “Is the Lord among us or not?” I cannot presume to know the other writers’ points of view, but, I can tell you where I am coming from, how I think God’s involved, what the motivation to follow God ought to it is not fear of an afterlife in hell.

 

I’ve been your pastor only since November, but even in that short amount of time it has probably become clear that mostly what I preach about is love.  Oh I preach about all sorts of stories and ideas, with of course fantastic jokes and brilliant and humble analysis, but I always seem to circle back to some shade of love for God– for God in creation, for God in our neighbors, for God in our self.

 

And usually, not always, but usually, my preaching and teaching is how to lovingly relate to others, our neighbors.  I try to take it seriously in my day-to-day life too. I do this because I take very, very seriously Jesus’ claim that there is no greater commandment than love of God and neighbors.   Here is how Mark the oldest Gospel records it:

 

One of the scribes came near and . . . asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mar 12:28-31)

The scribe, that is a lawyer, agreed with Jesus and Jesus told him “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mar 12:34).   I hear this to mean that the commandment to love is more important than any other rule, law or commandment in the Bible. Love trumps – wins– over anything. It. Is. Paramount. I am not alone in this. Paul claimed out of hope, faith and love, love is the greatest (I Cor 13:13). Paul also believed that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the sum of other commandments. Here is how Paul put it

 

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Romans 13:9-10

 

I mentioned last week that Paul goes on to note that this means “Love does no wrong to a neighbor . . .” (Romans 13:10). When I hear and read this, and Jesus’ love commandment I see no wriggle room that allows us to claim love lets us do some harm to a neighbor.  No wrong, to me, means NO wrong.

Jesus commands us to not judge others, he put it in clear concise words “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”  Do not judge. This would included calling another profane or unclean– FOR ANY REASON! Which explains why Acts (10:28) – which I also mentioned last week and in the letter to the editor– reports that God commanded Peter “to not call anyone profane or unclean.”   Prohibitions against homosexuality arise in Israel’s purity laws, so this commandment is particularly applicable to the type of ad I opposed– a type of ad that I might add has yet to reappear in the local paper (so three cheers for the local paper!).

 

Knowing Jesus’ love commandment, like the lawyer in Mark, brings us as Jesus notes, close to God’s Kingdom, God’s Realm. Close is good, but here’s the thing, ACTING the commandment out brings God’s realm to earth . . . it makes God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. See we are God’s agents on earth, how we act matters, it is in fact essential. Hell may not exist as an eternal punishment, but it sure can exist on earth as consequence of our actions or inactions.

 

We need to do ALL that we can to stop hell from coming to earth for anyone. Christ showed us how to do this and how to bring in the realm of God, as well as how much just one person’s efforts can matter. The consequences of Christ’s work on earth – through us– leads to heaven on earth.  A lot of work to stop hellish experiences and bring heaven to earth remains to be done.  Our motivation to do good is the same as Christ’s, to stop hellish experiences and bring heaven to earth. And we are all that’s Christ has got to do it.
St. Teresa of Avila in the 16th century said it so well. She wrote:

 

 Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.

Bishop Despond Tutu more recently put it like this:

 

Extraordinarily, God the omnipotent One depends on us, puny, fragile, vulnerable as we may be, to accomplish God’s purposes for good, for justice, for forgiveness and healing and wholeness. God has no one but us. St. Augustine of Hippo has said, “God without us will not as we without God cannot” 1

 

Bishop Tutu also teaches that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

 

Throughout the Bible God is not neutral in situations of injustice and
neither is Jesus. They both oppose oppression over and over again. See not only did Jesus not oppress anyone, he advocated against every form of oppression that he encountered. The oppressed, like the alien,  adulterer, tax collector,  imprisoned, sick, poor, ostracized, Jew, Gentile, women, children, enemies, even the insane and convicted were (and are still) targets of his love and compassion and advocacy.

 

Jesus does not tell the men about to throw rocks at a convicted sinful woman they can toss them later if she sins again. He gets between them and the woman –in danger’s way– and says the person without sin can cast the stones. They all walked away.
We can learn from this that loving your neighbor means not casting stones at anyone, and it also means standing in between those who threaten to cast stones at anyone. I understand that “Stones” to metaphorically include barbed words and harsh messages that call others profane or unclean for the way God created them.

 

Others may argue that loving your neighbor is getting them ready for afterlife regardless of how antiquated, hurtful or irrational their idea of the preparation that they judge others need is. That’s how I see it.

 

We need to leave it to God to judge such judgement. That’s not to say we cannot decide if their conduct has hellish consequences now on earth for others, and stand up to stop it.  We can decide if oppressing another for how God created them is an injustice and, if so, how to best be Christ’s hands and feet and ears and mouth in response.

 

On issues surrounding oppression we must ask would Jesus of the Gospels oppress anyone? The answer I get is “No, never.”

 

The next question we must ask is would Jesus of the Gospels advocate against oppression. The answer I get is “Yes. Always.”

 

From this way of understanding the Gospel and Christian theology, God is present in such opposition. This helps answers the question “Is the LORD among us or not?” How do we know?  Well, doing as Jesus did, opposing oppression was, and still is, a form of love.
And God is love, right?  So whenever there is love there is God. That is why God was experienced and present so profoundly with Jesus.

 

We are not God, but we are God’s actors. When loving opposition to oppression is needed, we must act. The motivation is that it, and all good behavior, helps stop hell on earth –and it helps heaven break in. It brings God’s realm to earth.

 

Our motivation is there’s no one else to do it but us little frail finite humans. “God without us will not as we without God cannot” 3

 

I pray that this church never ever gives up it long and loved-filled  tradition of being God’s hands and feet and ears and mouth in each others’ lives, in the community and in the world– most especially when the injustice of oppression is being done.
Is the Lord among us or not? The answer needs to always be a loud and sure “Yes! The Lord is among us!”

 

How will we know that? As the chorus in the song we are about to sing says, “they will know we are Christians by our love.”

 

AMEN!

 

ENDNOTES:
1.  Tutu, Desmond,  No Future Without Forgiveness, New York: Doubleday, (1997), 158.

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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The text of Scott’s sermon from March 16, 2014:

Something to Jump and Shout About
a sermon based on Genesis12:1-4a
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 16, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
On an annual cruise through a small island cluster a ship’s entertainment director handed out binoculars to passengers wanting to get a closer look at the little clumps of land. As they zoomed in on the beach of one island a number of them detected a bearded man in tattered clothes jumping up and down, frantically waving and shouting. “Who is that on the beach on that little island over there?” the passengers asked. The director replied “I don’t know. Every year when we pass by he goes crazy  like that.” 1

 

Today’s Lectionary reading from Genesis that we just heard Cliff read is pretty famous. It’s Abram’s call story and there’s lots of focus on his faith and dedication, and rightfully so because God asks him to up and leave his country and people and family and home, and Abram we learn “went as the Lord told him.” Every time I zoom in on this little island of verses, there’s one part I’ve noticed the Spirit in– jumping up and down, frantically waving and shouting. It’s a part we Christians often seem to ignore ever time we pass by the story. It’s a part that actually a great many verses in the Bible can be heard to echo, and the Spirit’s notice-me presence in them also tends to get passed by.

 

So lets zoom in a bit so we can see and hear the Spirit’s call that I am talking about. The Lectionary reading is short so I am going to read it again:

 

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him . . .

 

It’s the part that reads “and in you ALL the families of the earth shall be blessed” that I see and hear the Spirit waving and shouting to be found and noticed, maybe even rescued– “in you ALL the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Yahweh’s first recorded call story culminates with a declaration that God’s intent is to bless all people, not just Abram’s kin, not just his clan, not just his country, not just his religion, but the entire world, ALL families shall–not might– shall be blessed.

 

From a literal and contextual perspective it’s pretty hard to read the world “ALL” out of the call. ALL means ALL, just as shall means shall. Zoomed in we can see a recording of a divine promise of universal blessing. In other words, we can see there are no exclusions to Yahweh’s promised blessing, it is as inclusive as it can get.

 

Through Abram God’s shall bless– that is, favor– all families. Abram, later renamed Abraham, is the father of Judaism, and so Jews and Christians all trace their beginnings back to this call, and this promise.“All the families on earth shall be blessed.” This is a theme we can find the Holy Spirit jumping up and down and flagging throughout the Bible.

 

As we heard in the children’s story, before Jesus is born an angel announces to the Shepherds that the good news of the Christmas story is great joy for everyone, not just specially selected people. Here’s how Luke actually put it:

 

  an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people (Luk 2:9-10 NRS).

 

According to God’s angel and the Bible all the people get good news and great joy from Jesus arrival.
In case you are wondering where I am going with all of this, I’m going to suggest there is universal salvation today. Put another way, I’m going to suggest that if ALL are to have blessings, good news and great joy no one can be damned to hell.  If ALL families are to be blessed by Abraham, and if Jesus’ birth is good news and great joy for all people, how can it be that God’s plan and Jesus’ arrival would have anything to do with an afterlife of hell for anyone?  There’s no blessing; there’s no good news; there’s no joy for ALL if anyone is damned or going to hell.

 

Logically since all are blessed and Jesus’ arrival is good news and cause for great joy for all people; if we take the promise of these texts seriously, ALL means noone gets the bad news and sorrow they or someone they love is going to hell.   I suggest that that reasoning is solid. If hell and damnation is for those who do not believe this way or that about Jesus or the Bible, how could that in any way shape or form be a blessing or a source of good news and great joy for ALL?  The answer would seem to be, it can’t.

 

I know a number of theologians, pastors and Christians (perhaps some of you) may not agree with me, and that is okay, but the notions of damnation and hell for anyone sure seem to fly in the face of the good news of the Gospel and the whole point of the call to Abram that started the religious journey recorded in the Bible.

 

I see and hear the Spirit waving to us to notice that ALL people SHALL be blessed and that the good news and great joy of Jesus’ birth are for ALL people. We can think of the Spirit as a crazy looking to others form of God stranded and waving hoping to get noticed as we leaf though the texts.

 

It makes me want to shout out that in neither of these texts can the word “ALL” be read away. “All” means “all.” Blessings and joy SHALL come to ALL.  It’s good news for ALL! It’s great joy for ALL! That’s the promise through both of these Old and New Testaments’ texts.  There are no exceptions spelled out to God’s all inclusive promise.

 

The literal and contextual readings of the two texts I’ve mentioned so far are about ALL . . . ALL being blessed and joyful recipients of the good news!The good news in the New Testament is meant to be good news for everyone, not just for the elite few who figure it out the way some denomination or church or pastor says it has to be . . .

 

And it’s not just those two texts that buttress that the promises of God’s blessings and good news are universal in intent.  And they are not the only texts with the Spirit jumping up and down trying to get noticed that ALL get God’s love. There’s quite a crowd of texts in the Bible out there with the Spirit in them stranded and waving ignored as many readers pass by the texts. In Genesis (22:18) after Abraham – at Yahweh’s insistence– gives up the sacrificing of the first born that the polytheistic Elohim had called for, God explains again that (and I quote)

 

by your offspring shall ALL the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.

All nations, not just Jewish and Christian ones gain blessings (God’s favor).
Psalm 145 backs this up, profoundly! As we heard verse 9 proclaims that God “is good to ALL and his compassion is over ALL that he has made.”  This statement follows a very clear and concise declaration in verse 8 that ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful and, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The Psalmist goes on to assert in verse 14 that “The Lord upholds ALL who are falling. . .”

 

If ALL means ALL in Psalm 145 then God is good and compassionate to ALL, God is gracious and merciful to ALL, and God has steadfast love for ALL. Moreover, God upholds ALL who are falling.    Put another way, God does not shove those who fall down to hell or everlasting punishment, instead God upholds them and loves them and is gracious and merciful to them. Why? Because God loves ALL unconditionally. That’s Biblical. Can you hear the Spirit shouting out “Notice this stuff, please!”

 

This whole line of inclusive scripture sure seems to make it clear that God’s love has no strings attached. The Bible tells us one way or another a multitude of times that God’s love is steadfast and endures forever, that means it never lets go, it never ends. No one can lose God’s love. It’s all inclusive for all time and for all people. There are texts that suggest otherwise, but one has to ignore or limit the inclusivity texts to follow such suggestions. Well, why not ignore or limit the non-inclusive texts? Why ignore these beautiful all- are-loved texts? I mean all being loved fits in with God being love itself doesn’t it? It also fits in with the notion God is interested in saving everyone. Why would God the Almighty not be able to love everyone and uphold everyone and save everyone? There’s no limit to God’s saving power.

 

Isaiah (49:6) states the obvious logical answer and conclusion of this all- inclusive-blessing-and-love-from-God thread running throughout the Bible.  Isaiah records that God long ago proclaimed  “I will give you a light to the nations that my salvation shall reach the ends of the earth.”  In other words, the light God gives is the salvation for everyone, not a select few, not just for those who figure things out this church’s way or that church’s way. God’s salvation reaches to the ends of the earth, not to the ends of a televangelist’s airwaves, not to the ends of a church’s membership rolls and not even to the ends of Bible distribution and readership. All are loved. All the time. All will be saved. ALL SHALL BE SAVED! . . .

 

The book of Luke (3: 5,6) has John the Baptist quoting another part of Isaiah which notes this truth too. John emphatically proclaims  that “ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ALL flesh SHALL see the salvation of God. All. Shall. See. Salvation . . .

 

This church has latched onto the sayings from Micah about seeking justice and loving kindness. Those beautiful verses begin (in the NRSV) with the wonderful phrase “O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you . . . but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8). There is not a word in there about a requirement to believe this or believe that. All that God requires of us is to do justice and to love kindness and walk humbly with our God.  That’s Old Testament stuff and although it’s not an ALL ARE SAVED text, it sure dove-tails nicely with that thread of the Bible. I see the Spirit also jumping up and down and waving in the midst of churches cruising by claiming God requires more than what Micah tells us God tells us is required: “ What does the LORD require . . . but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”

 

And all of this matches up nicely with the Fourth Gospel’s claim that when John the Baptist saw Jesus he declared Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  John didn’t say Jesus was the lamb would will only take away the sins of the Catholic’s or Methodist’s or Episcopalians or Presbyterian’s or Church of Christ’s or United Church of Christ’s or Pat Robertson’s followers. “The Lamb of God . . . takes away the sins of the world” Accordingly ALL of the world’s sin are taken away by Jesus.
Later in that same Gospel Jesus himself claims “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw ALL people to myself.” (John 12:32 NRS). ALL. PEOPLE.

 

I am pounding on this “ALL” drum today because Christianity and the Bible have been used to claim an exclusive salvation by many who want things believed their way.   But the Bible can be heard to have not been about a way of exclusivity, but about God’s way and Jesus’ Way of a huge wide open embrace.

 

The earliest writings in the New Testament are from Paul. And Paul can be heard to laud the truth of inclusive salvation. In Romans (5:19) comparing Adam’s mistake that condemned all, to Jesus’ righteousness that saves all,  Paul writes “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”  By justification Paul literally means acquittal of all sins. 3 According to Paul Jesus’ made it right for all. ALL! At the end of the day, cosmically speaking, ALL have been acquitted of wrongdoing by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection . . .

 

We hear a lot about God’s grace in Christianity. Grace is basically another way of saying God’s love has no strings attached. See Grace means “unmerited favor.” 2 Grace being unmerited means we don’t have to do anything to merit it. Grace is a gift given without strings attached. Grace is not something we have to do anything to get. It’s ours. And here is the hard part, it is everyone else’s too unconditionally. As Paul puts it in Romans 3 (23-24), “since ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift . . .” ALL are justified by grace!

 

So we can understand the Bible to claim ALL are justified, ALL are acquitted of sin and ALL HAVE GRACE! Sure enough, Paul’s wonderful words in Romans 8 (38:1) also indicate we cannot lose God’s love:

 

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Nothing can separate us from God, God’s love is steadfast forever.     We can read 1 Timothy (4:10) to back this up when it states that “God . . . is the savior of ALL people.” We can read 1 John (2:2) to back this up when it states Jesus atones “ the sins of the whole world” and that God “the Father sent his Son as the Savior of the world.” We can hear this ALL-are-loved stuff echoed in Acts (10:28) where God commands Peter –and by extension us– to “not call anyone profane or unclean.” In any context this command means don’t call ANYONE profane or unclean! There’s no wriggle room. Why? Because all are loved by God!

 

We can hear this all-are-loved stuff echoed again when Paul tells the church in Rome (13:9) that “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” That’s why all families are blessed and the Gospels are good news and joy for all. Love does no harm. No harm. And this makes sense. God is love. Love does not harm. Love saves, it does not damn or destroy.  As Jesus put it while speaking of salvation, “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10). Surely Christ can accomplish that seeking and that salvation– a salvation of all which fulfills the promise of God to Abram and the promise of the angels to the Shepherds that all will be blessed, all will have good news and be joyful about it.

 

The Spirit is jumping up and down waving frantically about this good news and joy and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that ALL the families of the earth SHALL be blessed.

 

AMEN!

ENDNOTES:
1. This is a modified version of joke I found in Healing Through Humor (p 4) by Charles Frances Hunter.
2. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms
3. Laughlin, Paul, Remedial Christianity, p. 179

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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The text of Scott’s sermon from March 9, 2014:

Only Humans Choose to Miss the Mark
a sermon based on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 9, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I love the story of Adam and Eve. It’s seems so simple– simple folks.
There’ a bit of simple fun too.

Now don’t blame me, but punning is intentionally in the story.  Adam’s made from earth and Adam in Hebrew means earth, so it’s like naming him Rocky . . .or  Clay . . . or  Sandy . . . or  Dusty . . . or maybe Mud. And speaking of humor, if we think about it, what’s not funny about a talking animal? Or naked people scurrying to get fig leaves on and hide from God?

 

The story was not intended to be as serious as we’ve sometimes been led to believe. There’s fun stuff in it. Maybe that’s why almost from the start God’s ribbing Eve . . . okay that pun was me.
On one level this is a fun story. That’s not to say the story isn’t also packed with meaning and multiple meanings that we might learn from– and it is important to note that the lessons are there regardless of whether we come at the story from a literal or non-literal understanding.

 

I know that there are lots of people who understand the story as an actual recording of an historic event, as literally a real event in time– that’s alright, but I am not one of those people.   Although anyone here is free to disagree with me, I do not understand the story to be written history of a literally real happening, with that said, I find it a story nonetheless soaked in truth and poetic meaning.

 

As I mentioned on Ash Wednesday, how the earlier part of the story where Adam is made of dust and God’s breath matches nicely with Carl Sagan’s observation that were are made from the stuff of stars– stardust. I love the poetic truth of that image.

 

But the story is not all pleasant truth. Most scholars think that today’s part of the creation story (this section on Adam and Eve) was originally written when King David, or maybe King Solomon was in power.  At that time things in Israel were relatively good and calm and peaceful . . . or should have been. Israel was united, relatively wealthy and well protected at the time.  As far as peace in the Kingdom goes, outside enemies had been put down or were held at bay. But it was inside trouble in David’s reign and then in Solomon’s reign, that brings about an end to the peace of the “garden of Israel.”  The sins of the royals led to adultery and murder and warring between dad and son with David; and then with Solomon there were the sins of enslavement, over taxation, gathering women as prizes and property, further opulence and the worship of false idols.

 

The stories of David and Solomon, although often told as stories of great glory, include stories of great sin by great men. Sin and men that brought disharmony to the peace of the kingdom, their kingdom . . .  But not really, it’s God’s people’s kingdom . . .  But not really, it’s God’s kingdom, the place where God calls humans to nurture and grow in relationship to one another, a place where, as Psalm 72, puts it  “the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.” And they are supposed to yield prosperity and righteousness because kings, the leader of nations – all nations– are supposed to (and I am quoting the Psalm)

defend  the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. . . (3-4) For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.(Psalm 72:3-4, 12-14)

 

 

King David and King Solomon did not do this. That is their biggest sin. And it has remained most nations’ leaders biggest sin ever since.

 

I don’t know if we’ve all caught on yet, but, see, the story of the sins of the kings and nations’ leaders can be heard echoing in the symbols of the Adam and Eve story of actions that brought disharmony to the peace of the Garden of Eden. 1.

 

And if we think about it, it is not just David and Solomon’s sins that can now be symbolized, but the sins of any of us be can related to the story. See there is a universal application of the Adam and Eve story, that’s one of the reasons it’s so compelling. Knowledge of good and evil is a precursor to sin.  This is a story not just about the symbolic onset of knowledge that leads to sin with God’s first people or even Israel’s royalty, it’s about the onset of all sin, ours too. We all sin. It’s not like David and Solomon and Adam and Eve are unlike the rest of us humans, and human sin always disturbs the peace and brings disharmony.

 

We tend to come to the Adam and Eve story missing the humor and simplicity because we come to it jaded by centuries of it being used to blame Adam, and especially Eve, for all sin in the world.   The story’s been that the story’s about those two forever tainting humankind and the world with sin, as if they sullied the gene pool by somehow putting it into our DNA forever. Paul and Augustine sort of give us that spin and countless other theologians have followed suit.  But we don’t have to read or hear it about sin being innate in the human DNA or souls. At one level we can hear it being about the choice we have to sin or not. Adam and Eve chose to do as they did, so did King David and King Solomon. So the leaders of our nations’ leaders. So do we.

 

But truthfully sin does not have to be a part of the moment we are in, regardless of what Adam and Eve did, or more to the point, regardless of what we’ve done before the moment we are in, we can choose to be sin-free at least for a moment.  Everyone in the world could just agree that now at this very moment, at this very hour here on March 9 we won’t sin.   And we could agree on this the next moment and the next.
So sin is a choice.

 

I can sense that a whole bunch of you are worried that your new-ish pastor is gonna cut loose and preach a fire and brimstone sermon about sin.  I can sense the squirming from up here.  I am preaching about sin, but you can stop squirming, I’ve got no fire and brimstone planned. However, I do want to explain one sort of different idea of understanding sin from this story.  The word sin is not actually in the story of Adam and Eve as I indicated this story is more of a precursor to the onset of sin outside of Eden by Cain’s murder of Abel. So we need to understand sin, as its what the story points to.

 

There are over fifty words in Biblical Hebrew for “sin.” 2. By far the most used word is derived from “ht” (cha-taw)  it is a Hebrew archery term that means to miss the mark. 3      Sin can be heard as meaning “we miss the mark.” God aims us at the target of being our best, of loving and . . . well, you may have noticed we don’t always hit where God’s aimed us.  We may not be born to sin, but all who are born do sin in this respect, we miss God’s mark for us, individually and corporately. . . we do that more than a bit of the time.
The theological dictionary defines sin as “failing to do God’s will.” 4. We can hear that as the same thing as “ht” (cha-taw). Said another way, we fail to do what God wants us to do.  Post Eden what God wants us to do is our best as individuals and as a collective whole. In a sort of over-arching archery summary of Jesus’ love commandments, God wants well being for all which is peace and the way we pull that off is aim for (desire) the well being of all, which is love. Love for God, love for self, love for neighbor and love for creation.

 

 

See, love is what is best for us. Despite that truth, we all know we miss the target of love individually and as a collective whole. Sometimes we miss because we intentionally shoot to hurt.    A lot of times we fall short of the effort needed to hit the target because apathetically or lazily or greedily we don’t make the effort to do what’s best or loving.    Whatever it is, humans on the archery range of love and life – as a whole– are often not very good marksmen and women. We can be, we just choose to not work hard enough at it, or we get sidetracked, or we let self interest rule the moment.

 

The story of Adam and Eve can be heard in many different ways, but one thing is for sure they fail to miss a target set for them at the time by God, and they disrupt the peace God has aimed humanity at since the start.   So, how is eating of the fruit of the tree of good and evil disrupting peace? Theologians have been talking about that for almost four millennia. Scott Casebeer and John Ryerson and I even heard John Dominic Crossan speak on the topic this weekend.

 

There are all sorts of theological ideas, too numerous and complex to list here. But I would like for us to consider one idea inspired at a recent Adult Forum. The question of evil came up in our discussion and I asked a question I often ask when discussing evil: If there were no humans in the world would the world have any evil?  It’s a scary thought. I submit the answer is “We’d have no evil if there were no humans.”

 

 

Animals do not commit evil, which is defined in the theological dictionary as “that which opposes the will of God.” 5.  Or as I like to put it “Evil is  intentionally turning from God’s will and defiantly heading in the other direction.”  Animals do not do that.

 

 

Shortly after the Adult Forum where we discussed this, I started work on this sermon rolling around thoughts in my head. And it dawned on me to think of the other creatures in the garden. They did not take and eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, did they?  Animals do not have the knowledge of good and evil, and I thought, animals do not do evil because animals do not choose to miss God’s aim for them. The Garden of Eden programing remains in their system. Not so Adam and Eve, as humans we choose.  And we have to, our original Garden of Eden programing is gone. In this sense that is the curse of the story, not sin.   In modern terms, when we humans evolved to the point that we became cognizant that we could choose between good and evil, the old programing was deleted,  and we installed a beta version, that – like a lot of beta versions– it’s hard to adjust to. In the six thousand years since the onset of civilization we still haven’t learned to use it right yet.

 

We do not NOT choose any more, we always choose. Our choice between good and evil.   This is why God’s commandments in the Bible are not to the other animals, they have their gig and it does not involved choosing and so they live in the Garden of Eden mode still.    We, however, do not. Our job ever since Adam and Eve is to get our choosing skills honed –like a video game player– to be able without pre-programing to always choose good.   And not just alone, but together– notably the failure in the garden is not just one of the humans, but all of the humans, individually and collectively.   From this perspective sin in the story of Adam and Eve is not knowing good and evil, it’s choosing wrongly. God always calls us to good no matter what has happened in the past.

 

That’s ultimately what Lent is about. Like a phoenix we arise from the ashes of the past born anew. Or to use another sort of ash-like dirt-like metaphor: from lumps of coal God makes diamonds of us when we repent, that is turn around and answer God’s call to goodness.    We don’t always answer the call. This is symbolized by Adam and Eve not obeying God in the first place, though ironically at the time they had yet to eat of tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so arguably they could not know that what they did was NOT GOOD until after they did it. I hear that to suggest that metaphorically Adam and Eve are not culpable for being made with a conscience, something evolutionists (like me) assert are a result of the process of evolution, at some point we became aware that we could relate goodly, or badly.  I call this conscience a number of days ago and was pleased to hear Dr. Crossan call it that too.

 

 

What Adam and Eve are responsible for is their conscience – every choice for good, and every choice for evil they make or not make.  Once they partake of the fruit they (pardon the pun) learned the naked truth. They are exposed to the harsh reality that humans choose to sin . . . or not; to do evil . . . or not; to do good . . . or not.

 

 

I already mentioned the bit of humor in Adam and Eve’s response of trying to cover up quickly making fig leaf loin cloths. In a bit of ironic humor in the next part of the story, their covering up reveals their true evolved nature to God.

 

Dr. Ken Smail asked at the end of a recent Adult Forum class on anthropology, when was it that humans reached a point in their culture development that they understood there to be a God or gods?  I imagine it was when humans began to understand that three forces exist: (1) a force that compels a continuation of creating;  (2) a force that calls all of creation to its best; and (3) a force that calls us into relationship with creation – especially with each other. The way I see it, humans have come to explain and understand and name these forces as God or gods.

 

We have also experienced that despite the force– God’s– call to be our best, humans have a choice in the matter, we know good and evil and we can, and we do, pick good or evil ways to relate.  Religions it seems to me are sets of practices about how humans do that relating.  As Christians we understand and experience all these forces as emanating from one divine being, GOD, which we believe also calls us to relate to creation and others in a goodly fashion, which in Jesus’ teachings always boils down to relating with love, that is a dynamic desire for the well being of others – and actions to make that well being come about.  Seeking justice and loving kindness are the actions God requires. . . the only actions besides walking humbly with God.

 

So here’s the thing, whether we think the story of Adam and Eve is real or metaphor, the truth in the story is that humans have evolved to a stage where we have to choose to do good or to do evil. As humans that’s our choice.  As Christians we claim to – as Jesus did– always try to choose to do good, not evil. Lent is about “getting” that, it’s about arising from the ashes of our past like a phoenix to begin again to do God’s will, which is to love.

 

At Lent we take seriously God’s aim for us. We try and get our head together so we can better aim and hit the mark, the target of love.  May we all learn to do just that!

 

AMEN!

Endnotes:
1.  I am not sure where I read or heard that in seminary, but it has stuck with me.
2.  The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol 6, p 30
3. Ibid., 32.
4.  Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms  p 260.
5. Ibid., p 97.
COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of Scott’s March 2 sermon

One God, Three Roles Transforming the World
a sermon based on Matthew 17:1-9 *
March 2, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I attended a great play last night, The Marvelous Wonderettes. The play reminded me that I have not always been middle-aged and gray-haired for that matter. I have photographic proof that back in the days of polyester plaid pants, sideburns, huge Afros and platform shoes I was an undergraduate student studying drama at a small college in California called Stanislaus State.

As a drama major I had the opportunity to be in a lot of plays. In fact thirty-five years ago one Winter term I was simultaneously in three very different plays.  Nancy was there she can tell you it was pretty crazy. One production was Shakespeare’s Scottish Play. I played the role of MacDuff, a father who lost his family to Macbeth’s reign of terror sets out to end that awful reign.

In stark contrast to the evening rehearsals of that dark Shakespearean tragedy, during the day I was in a children’s play. I had the delightful role of Christopher Robin, the precious precocious son of A.A. Milne whose gentle words and compassionate example demonstrate to Winnie-the-Pooh and others who enter the Hundred Acre Wood how to live and play.

And just to make matters even more interesting on the weekends I was in a little known  musical called The Boccaccio Rhythm Theatre. This play was a series of short bawdy sketches. To give you an idea why you may never have heard of this show, in one scene I sang a ballad to a beautiful queen that began with these memorable words: “You haven’t been riding since Tuesday. I haven’t even seen you since then.”  The show was a series of stories, the actors were a whirlwind ensemble that blew in and out of scenes in a rather fast paced play.

Like most actors . . . I can only recall how great I was in each of these plays. I have no recollection of being confused during the rehearsals or performances about my roles. In other words, I will deny any stories you may hear suggesting I appeared on stage mistakenly cooing “Oh Pooh” to Macbeth, or accosting Eeyore with the blood curdling Shakespeare line “Turn, hell hound, turn.”

Today is what is known as Transfiguration Sunday. The Lectionary text tells the story of Jesus transforming before the disciples very eyes into a sort of preview of what he would become after the crucifixion– after the resurrection.  Our tradition tends to consider this story the Sunday before Lent as precursor to that journey to Palm Sunday, the handing over of Jesus to Rome, the torturous death on the Cross on Good Friday and the glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday.

For other traditions, like the Orthodox churches, a feast is celebrated in August with emphasis on this text and the revelation of the Trinity.This text, you see, is pretty unusual in that it has long been understood to refer to all three parts of what we call the Holy Trinity. God the Father calls out to Jesus the Son from the Holy Spirit appearing in the form of a cloud.

Most folks are not aware that ‘the Trinity” is a doctrine that is not really in the Bible, but rather has its origins with (wouldn’t you know it) a lawyer in the third century lawyer named Tertullian who put together the initial Trinity concept as an argument to defeat claims that Christian could not be monotheists and believe in Christ as God and the Father as God at the same time. Tertullian’s point was to show that Christians were not polytheistic, and to preserve monotheism in the Christian tradition. His argument has evolved into a rather esoteric sounding doctrine that there is One God made up of three separate persons, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

We talked a little bit about this in Adult Forum a few weeks ago. It often seems that we are asked to imagine a three-headed divinity and that’s hard to conceptualize.    People have come up with a lot of complicated, even mind bending ways, to think about the Trinity and its impossible sounding 3-in-1 nature; but today I going to suggest some practical ways of conceptualizing the Trinity.

Marcus Borg argues in his wonderful book, The God We Never Knew, that to understand the Trinity (and I quote):

 we need to realize that the Latin and Greek words translated as ‘person’ do not mean what ‘person’ commonly means in modern English. For us “person” suggests a separate being (and thus suggests to many people that the Trinity is like a committee of three separate beings). But ‘persona’ the word used by Tertullian referred to the mask worn by actors in Greek and Roman theaters. Masks were not for concealment, but corresponded to roles.”1

In other words, the persons in the Trinity originally were meant to be thought of as three roles; sort of like that Winter Term three decades ago at Stanislaus when this one person standing here before you literally had three very different roles, a father, a son and a really bad ballad singer  – which to make the analogy work you’ll just have to use your imagination and pretend was a Spirit of some sort.

Or to make it fit our everyday lives, it’s like being an employee, a parent, and a spouse, those are three different roles that many of us act in our daily lives, as one person.

So if we consider the Trinitarian roles how Dr. Borg suggests they were created to be considered, in today’s verses we can see how God acts as the One in the role of Father –the Creator–  who claims Jesus as Son. We can also hear how God acts as the One who is Jesus, the Christ,  the very embodiment of God in humanity on that mountain top; an example in the Gospels of how to live and love and be. And we can hear God appearing on earth outside of Jesus, in an immanent, present form of God acting on earth as the Holy Spirit, in this story perceived as a cloud. Today’s scripture can be read to justify Tertullian’s model of experiencing God as a Trinity of roles. Father/Creator; Son/Christ Human embodiment; and Holy Spirit/ vehicle for God to otherwise be active on earth.   But notice how God’s being is present all at once, acting as the voice, the cloud and through Jesus. All three roles are experiences of  One God.

In the Christian tradition the three general roles by which we name our experiences of God’s thinking, feeling and acting in relation to the world are generally referred to along the lines of Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit and are collectively known as the Trinity or The Trinitarian God.

We need to remember, however, that Trinity was designed as a model, a way, of picturing how our One God does things, it’s Tertullian’s clever  metaphor for explaining the otherwise unexplainable. The model can be applied in a myriad of different ways: For example, a traditional way to think of the Trinity is expressed by Daniel Migliore: “[t]he love of God comes originally from the one called ‘Father,’ is humanly enacted for the world in the sacrificial love of the one called ‘Son,’ and becomes a present and vital reality in Christian life by the one called ‘Spirit.’”2

That is fine, but there are other ways to consider the Triune nature of God,  for instance our Puritan ancestors thought of God the Father as choosing who would be saved; God the Son as accomplishing their redemption; and God as Spirit making it effective. 3
Another example is modern theologian John Cobb’s view that one could think of God as being experienced as the Creator who has made all things; Christ as the embodiment of God in creation; and the Holy Spirit as God’s future Reign on earth that we are aimed to bring about. 4

Or as I suggested in Adult Forum another way is to simply think of the Trinity as God experienced in the past (Creator), present (Christ) and future (Holy Spirit). 5

There are many ideas and symbols and ways to use the metaphor and model of the Trinity to understand God and how we experience God. But what is most important when thinking of the Trinity is to never forget that any experience of what we might call one or more members of the Trinity is always an experience of the One we call God. 6

Today on Transfiguration Sunday we fittingly celebrate communion. Where we pray to God the Creator in thanks for the life and lessons and love of Jesus –God’s embodied example given to show us The Way. At this table we call upon the Holy Spirit to be active in the bread and cup and in each of us, so that we might experience the loving Christ as we remember and reenact Jesus’ loving, open and inclusive table, The Way that he started in response to the call from the Creator to love all creation – and in particular all humans. The bread and cup through each member of the Trinity can be in a sense experienced as transfigured from ordinary food and drink to  vehicles that let us mindfully celebrate, honor and remember, through the power of the Holy Spirit working to transfigure us. We remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us by laying his life down in such a powerful way that he lives on even today; his life of love and broken body and spilt blood long vindicated by God. The bread, body, cup, wine, blood become for us mindful metaphors: The Bread of Life. The Body of God. The Cup of Christ’s Blessing. The Spirit of God. The Life-blood of Creation.
We experience Communion as a meal, a re-enactment and presentation of God’s open table first given to us by Christ where today through the Holy Spirit’s magnificent works anyone – anyone– is welcome just as they are.This table provides a sacrament that mediates experiences of God’s presence; even as we are reminded this morning of experiences of Jesus mediating God’s presence through his transfiguration and a life lived in communion with God.

In fact this table reminds us not just of actions by Jesus two thousand years ago, but that humanity is capable of great things though a life transfigured and lived focused on God now, here in the present.

We remember that when we are mindful of God, when we answer God’s call to righteousness, justice and love that amazing things can and do still happen, through us, and through our predecessors– saints of the church.

Of course there have been many great saints in history some are remembered by name in books, but, most are unnamed continuing ripples in time, waves on the ocean of history moving through generation to generation to generation. In a very real sense transfiguring the future through words and deeds in the past and in today. Jesus certainly did this. St Francis, Martin Luther, Harriet Tubman, Sister Teresa, Martin Luther King all did this too. But most waves of affect that are passed on through the generations have been started with lesser known saints. People like us acting in our communities in response to God’s call to righteousness, justice and love on earth; people living and working to transfigure the world one step, one person, one moment at a time.

I have no doubt God is saying of such folks– like God said of Jesus in today’s story–  “These are my Daughters and my Sons, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!”  May we all be such children of the living God, God of the past, present and  future – our Trinity of hope– that can transfigure, and is transfiguring, the world.  AMEN.

— ENDNOTES—
* This manuscript is based on a sermon I originally preached in 2008.
1.  Borg, Marcus, The God We Never Knew, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, (1997), 98.
2.   Migliore, Daniel, Faith Seeking Understanding, (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 69.
3. Noll, Mark, The Old Religion in a New World, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans (2002), 38
4 This interesting view of the Trinity was culled from John Cobb’s Christ in a Pluralistic Age, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, (1975) 259, 261-262.
5 .This notion finds support from Christian theologian John Riggs, whom I understood in 2005 to explain in a course on Baptism and Supper at Eden Theological Seminary that the Trinity boils down to explaining Christian understandings of the One God in the past, present and future.
6.Cf., Borg, 98. Prof. Borg asserts that the “persons” of the Trinity in the ancient Greek and Latin texts refers to masks worn by actors to “correspond to roles,” not to individual persons. “To speak of God and three persons is to say that God is known to us wearing three different ‘masks’  – in other words three different roles.”

 

 

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Here is the text from Scott’s sermon from February 23, 2014:

PEACE WORKS
a sermon drama in three voices based on Matthew 5:38-48
given at Mount Vernon, OH on February 23, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
VOICE 1: If you pull out an English translation of the New Testament you will find that it reports Jesus  said a number of things about peace.  For Jesus, peace works. Jesus said . . .
VOICE 2: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called [schildren] of God.” (Mt 5:9)
VOICE 3: “Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mk 9:50)
VOICE 1: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”(Jn 14:27)
VOICE 2: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (Jn 16:33)
VOICE 3: “ On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were . . . Jesus came and stood among them and said to them,  “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19)
VOICE 1: Later followers of Jesus also talk of peace, in 1 Corinthians (7:15) the Apostle Paul tells Christians that “God has called you to peace.”
VOICE 2 And in Philippians (4:6-7) Paul writes: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
VOICE 3 And in Romans (14: 17-19) Paul points out that “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
VOICE 2 The author of James (3:18) puts it like this “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
VOICE 3: In 2 Corinthians (13:11) Paul gives us this good news: “rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
VOICE 1: The word “peace” in the Bible is derived from the Hebrew word “shalom” which literally means fullness and well being.
VOICE 2: As one theological dictionary puts it “It’s more than the lack of war and points to full societal and personal well being, coupled with righteousness.” 1
VOICE 3: In that sense peace is when all have enough and are treated justly and with respect.
VOICE 2: The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia puts it like this, peace is  “a condition of freedom from disturbance, whether outwardly . . . or inwardly, within the soul. The Hebrew word is shalom . . . meaning, primarily, ‘soundness,’[and] ‘health,’ but coming also to signify ‘prosperity,’ well-being in general, all good in relation to both man and God.” 2
VOICE 3: It is interesting to note that Love is defined along the lines of well being as well.  The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines love as a “Strong feeling of personal affection, care and desire for the well being of others . . . [a] “primary characteristic of God’s nature and a Supreme expression of Christian faith and action.” 3
VOICE 1: Peace and love are at the very heart of the Gospel, indeed of the entire Bible.
VOICE 2: Jesus takes the heart of the Bible to heart in his teachings.
VOICE 3: Jesus tells us – in no uncertain terms– to Love.
VOICE 1: “I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Lk 6:27)
VOICE 2: “Love your enemies.”
VOICE 3: “Do good to those who hate you”
ALL VOICES: LOVE!
VOICE 1: Jesus’ love centered-ness is permeated by a “Strong feeling of personal affection, care and desire for the well being of others. . .” Even enemies.
VOICE 2: Even Enemies
VOICE 3: Are to be loved.
ALL VOICES: LOVED!
VOICE 1: The Love and Peace center of the Bible, and his relationship with God, led Jesus to  follow a Way of non-violence.
VOICE 2: Non-violence is not the absence of action, it is the intentional absence of physical injury, neglect or abuse to others.
VOICE 3: Jesus takes action, but he does so without physical injury, neglect or abuse of others.
VOICE 1: When one of his disciples attempted to defend Jesus with violence, Jesus admonished “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (MT 26:52)
VOICE 2: The early followers of Jesus refused to participate in violence. We have some trouble with that idea in our culture. Indeed we often hear people quoting the eye for an eye Bible verse  to justify violence.
VOICE3: But Jesus expressly rejected that notion. As we heard in the reading today Jesus  addressed the eye for an eye text the very opposite way of violence. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Mt 5:38-41)
ALL VOICES: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
VOICE 1: Whether we like it or not. Jesus’ Way to peace and love was and remains a path of non-violence.
VOICE 3: Paul got this. He puts it like this in Romans (12:17): “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”
VOICE 2: Non-violence does not mean letting evil happen without resistence.
VOICE 1: Non-violence does not mean non-resistence.
VOICE 3: Non-violence does not mean inaction.
VOICE 2: Jesus took action.
VOICE 3: He argued.
VOICE 1: He protested.
VOICE 2: He took stands.
VOICE 3: He got angry.
VOICE 1: He taught.
VOICE 2: He helped.
VOICE 3: He opposed oppression.
VOICE 2: He demonstrated.
ALL VOICES: But did no violence.
VOICE 3: He caused no physical injury.
VOICE 2: He caused no neglect.
VOICE 1: He did not abuse others.
ALL VOICES: He loved everyone, even enemies.
VOICE 3: On the cross he prayed this for those who nailed him there:
ALL VOICES: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  (Lk 23:34)
VOICE 2: Non-violence is a power to be reckoned with. Indeed it may be the most powerful force known to humankind.
VOICE 1: Jesus taught and used a Way of non-violent activism to oppose the brutal and oppressive ways of Rome and the Temple it controlled in first century Palestine. He cared for the poor and the sick and others who were oppressed and cast aside as unworthy.
VOICE 2: To Jesus’s Way of being and seeing, no person is unworthy.
VOICE 3: All are loved, even enemies.
VOICE 1: Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by Jesus’ teachings to use non-violence activism in opposition and resistance to racism in South Africa and discrimination in India, as well as the violent, oppressive, occupation of India.
VOICE 2: Mahatma Gandhi was not only successful in pursuing non-violent activism, but, is remembered and highly revered because of it. Mahatma was not Mohandas Gandhi’s name but a title of Spiritual reverence meaning “Great Soul.”
VOICE 3: Mahatma Gandhi developed nine basic steps toward decreasing or ending violence in conflicts.
VOICE 1: Number 1: Define the conflict, clarify what’s at issue so what needs to be solved is known.
VOICE 2: Number 2: Focus on the problem, don’t focus on and blame people, focus on the  problem.
VOICE 3: Number 3: Identify shared concerns between those in conflict, find what common ground there is.
VOICE 1: Number 4: Determine and look to facts, not opinions.
VOICE 2: Number 5: Listen carefully to what is being told
VOICE 3: Number 6: Hold resolution efforts with the parties in a safe, neutral place
VOICE 1: Number 7: Start with what is doable. Take small steps and solve the simple things first.
VOICE 2: Number 8: Work toward the future with forgiveness, work to set the past behind.
VOICE 3: Number 9: Set your personal ways toward non-violence, purify your heart.
VOICE 1: Mahatma Gandhi’s nine steps to non-violent conflict resolution: (1) define the conflict, (2) focus on the problem, (3) find common ground, (4) look to facts, (5) listen carefully, (6) meet in a safe place, (7) start with what’s doable, (8) forgive and (9) purify your heart to non-violence. 4
VOICE 2: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King took Jesus’ teachings and Mahatma Gandhi’s method and used both examples to oppose racial discrimination, brutal violence and oppression right here in America. And it worked.
VOICE 1: Rev. King boiled down Gandhi’s nine steps to four steps to use when engaging in activism. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he writes: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”
VOICE 2: Non-violence, of course, was the modus operandi of the civil rights campaign Rev. King led. Its action was by non-violent protest through marches, civil disobedience, demonstrations and boycotts.
VOICE 3: The problem, not the perpetrators, were the targets of the protest and the focus of change.
VOICE 2: And in the end the love center led by Rev. King transformed not just the history of African-Americans, and not just African- Americans, but all of history and the people of this nation.
VOICE 3: Lord Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. King’s efforts all vibrate still in our lives and throughout the world. We have a deep reverence and awe for what they accomplished. Their victories over oppression, over violence itself through non-violence is not just impressive, it has a deep sense of the Divine to it.
VOICE 1: And the reason goes back to Jesus. He worshiped and followed and understood God as Love.
VOICE 2:  Jesus’ love centered-ness is permeated by a “Strong feeling of personal affection, care and desire for the well being of others. . .” Even enemies.
VOICE 3: He taught and practiced love, including non-violence and it has made all the difference. We can feel that difference in the efforts of not just Lord Jesus, but Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. King’s efforts that were derived from it.
VOICE 1: Non-violence is God’s way. It’s the loving way to peace
VOICE 2: Peace is “more than the lack of war . . .”
VOICE 3: “Peace points to full societal and personal well being, coupled with righteousness.” 1
VOICE 1: Love is a “Strong feeling of personal affection, care and desire for the well being of others . . .
VOICE 2: Love is a “primary characteristic of God’s nature.”
VOICE 3: Love is a “Supreme expression of Christian faith and action.” 3
ALL VOICES: May it be our expression,
VOICE 3: Love
VOICE 2: And peace.
VOICE 1: Some might argue that Jesus and Gandhi and King’s efforts are all fine and good when protesting domestic issues, but have no application in times of war.
VOICE 2: Usually the argument is that the response to Nazi-like aggressors of the world has to be violence.
VOICE 3: Many believe that non-violence is ineffective in the landscape of war.
VOICE 1: But it can actually work in war.
VOICE 2: It actually worked against the Nazis.
VOICE 3: It actually worked in Denmark during World War 2.
VOICE 1: Thomas Merton wrote that “Denmark was one of the only nations which offered explicit, formal and successful non-violent resistence to Nazi power. The adjectives are important.”
VOICE 2: Merton notes that “The resistence was successful because it was explicit and      formal . . .
VOICE 3: “[A]nd because it was practically speaking unanimous . . .
VOICE 1: “The entire Danish nation simply refused to cooperate with the Nazis . . .
VOICE 2: “[A]nd resisted every move of the Nazis against the Jews with non-violent protest of the highest and most effective caliber . . .
VOICE 3: “[Y]et without any need organization, training, or specailized activism . . .
VOICE 1: “[S]imply by unanimously . . .
VOICE 2: “[A]nd effectively expressing in word . . .
VOICE 3: [A]nd action . . .
VOICE 1: “[T]he force. . .
VOICE 2: “[O]f their . . .
VOICE 3: “[D]eeply held . . .
ALL VOICES: “[M]oral convictions.” 5
VOICE 1: The Danes non-violent action was done “By strikes . . .
VOICE 2: “[W]ork slow downs . . .
VOICE 3: “[Refusals to repair German ships in their shipyards . . .
VOICE 2: “[A]nd hiding or helping Jews to flee . . .
VOICE 1: “[T]hey calmly and efficiently defied the Nazi invaders.” 6.
VOICE 2: “In September [1943], word leaks out that the Nazis are about to round up Danish Jews for exportation.
VOICE 3: This galvanize[d] Danish citizens into active and potentially life-threatening resistance.
VOICE 1: To evade their pursuers, most Jews [were] funneled to neutral Sweden by Danish resisters.
VOICE 2: In a testament to human determination, only 472 out of roughly 8,000 Danish Jews are lost to Hitler’s ‘final solution.’” 7.
VOICE 3: Now that’s some powerful stuff.
VOICE 1: “Non-violent resistence saved the country [and more than 7,500 Jews,] and contributed more to the Allied victory than Danish arms could ever have done. ” 8.
VOICE 2: Nonviolence is not non-action.
VOICE 3: It’s not about being unarmed either.
VOICE 1: “People in non-violent struggles are not unarmed.
VOICE 2: “They are simply not armed with violent weapons . . .
VOICE 3: “ [M]ake no mistake they, they have formidable resources that flow from the fabric of their society.” 9 . . .
ALL VOICES: Non-violent resistence.
VOICE 1: The type of resistence taught and used by Jesus . . .
VOICE 2: By Gandhi . . .
VOICE 3: By King . . .
VOICE 1: We all know that armed response to the Nazis was successful in ending the war.
VOICE 2: Thank goodness the war was ended and the Axis nations were stopped.
VOICE 3: But armed response was not the only successful response. Non-violence worked too.
VOICE 1: Non-violent resistence is a formidable resource that flows from the fabric of our religion’s first and foremost leader, Jesus and his teachings.
VOICE 2: Jesus not only taught it, but let loose it’s power in his protests,
VOICE 3: And practices, proving love of all – even enemies
ALL VOICES: Is the very force of God.
VOICE 1: If you pull out an English translation of the New Testament you will find that Jesus  said a number of things about peace and love.
VOICE 2: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called [children] of God.”
VOICE 3: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
VOICE 1: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
VOICE 2: “I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.
VOICE 3: “[I]f anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
ALL VOICES: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
VOICE 1: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
VOICE 2: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.”
VOICE 3: “ On the evening of the,
VOICE 1: “First day of the week,
VOICE 2: “Jesus came and stood among them and said to them,
ALL VOICES: “Peace be with you.”
VOICE 1: Non-violence is a power to be reckoned with. Indeed it may be the most powerful force known to humankind.
VOICE 2: It’s a tool of love.
VOICE 3: It’s a tool for peace.
VOICE 1: “Jesus came and stood among them and said to them,
ALL VOICES: “Peace be with you.” . . . AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
1. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, “Peace”
2. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, http://www.bible-history.com/isbe/P/PEACE/
3. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, “Love”
4. These nine steps are summarized from the list set out in Colman McCarthy’s dynamic book on peace and non-violence called I’d Rather Teach Peace (pages 39-43).
5. The quote from Merton that the voices refer to is from Merton, Thomas, Danish Non-violent Resistence to Hitler, quoted in Coleman McCarthy’s book I’d Rather Teach Peace (pages 82-83).
6. McCarthy, at 83.
7. Figures are from “A Force More Powerful,” by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, published by St. Martin’s Press, 2000 found at this great website: http://www.aforcemorepowerful.org/films/afmp/stories/denmark.php
8. McCarthy, at 85.
9. Ibid.
COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2012 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Here is the text of the sermon form February 16:

Love is not Hostile, Love is in Marriage and Love is in Truth.
a sermon based on Matthew 5:21-37
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 16, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

As you might imagine I hear a lot of Bible humor in my vocation.  Many  of the jokes are about misunderstandings, and puns are often at play.  I recently came across some new-to-me Bible punning riddles and lucky for all of us I just happened to bring them with me. Due to all the groaning last week, I whittled it down to only three:

Did Eve ever have a date with Adam? No, just an apple.

Where was Solomon’s temple located? On the side of his head.

Who was the smartest man in the Bible? Abraham. He knew a Lot. 1

The word-confusion in those riddles is intended to be fun. In my experience the Bible, though, actually does create a lot of confusion for us all on it’s own. I’d venture to guess most of us have found that so at one time or another.  We might be afraid to admit it, because we think we should be able to read the Bible and easily understand it, but the truth is its words and stories can be hard to comprehend– which may be why the Bible is the best selling book in history, but surveys show Bible owners rarely read all or even a good portion of it.

Part of the problem these days is that the Bible is misunderstood because  as Professor Timothy Beal at Case Western puts it, it’s become an  “iconic ideal . . . the answer book to all of life’s problems.” 2. I think Prof. Beal is right, consumers buy Bibles expecting answers all easily laid out, but then when they open it up the reality of the confusing texts from an ancient book formed over a period of a thousand years in an ancient culture over two thousand years ago hits.

I mean just that description I just gave can cause our eyes glaze over. See the time line of the Bible alone is complicated to understand. One of the creation stories in Genesis may go back as far as 900 BC. 3 Yet the Old Testament itself was not completed until about 100 AD. 4. And the first time all the books of the New Testament are listed as having special status together is not until 367 AD. 5

Lots of writers contributed to the books in the Bible over lots of time in a land very far away in a culture quite foreign to us.  So rationally speaking it should not be a surprise that the contents are not always easy to understand.

I Like to think of the Bible as more like a series of long classic poems, rather than a quick reference book on how to live.

Many Bible users, Christians and atheists alike approach the text as something to just go in and try to comprehend from the words they select to read. It can be intimidating and frustrating when we find out that doesn’t work for us, that our experience is in-depth understanding of much of the texts can elude instant understanding and have layers of meanings.

Approaching the Bible as a quick reference book ignores the deep meaning of the experiences of God that the authors struggled mightily to put into their own words, it ignores the cultural context of the text and it belies the multiple meanings one can fairly glean from the poetry and the poetic-like images found throughout the Bible.

Although all Christians agree that God at the end of the day is mostly beyond our words, lots of us have trouble appreciating that the only way to describe that which is beyond our words is with poetry and metaphor. In our every day life we accept that the experience of love cannot be justly described by literal descriptions, so we sing and write and read about what love is like, we use metaphors. Well, God is love, right?So it makes sense to consider the Bible as akin to a poem about love, one that took dozens of authors a thousand years to construct in cultures and times and languages unknown to us. When we think of the Bible like that, it is no wonder that we can’t just open to every page and expect to instantly understand what’s there or glean answers to life. It takes study, reflection and prayer and openness.

Seeing the Bible as poetry-like speaks to the richness of the writing and it’s deep meaning in our quest for comprehending parts of God and how to live well and right.  Answers are in the Bible, but mostly they’re not there like we’d find in an ordinary reference book. It is not Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica!
The word “Bible” means “books,” and it is a remarkable collection of books reporting wonderful stories and ideas from a number of men over a great deal of time in different eras and cultures.

Although we sometimes seem to have this idea that God wrote the Bible, sealed it in a baggie and dropped it from the sky for humans to find, clearly that’s not what happened. The words of the Bible were recorded and then transmitted by generations of humans, often first orally and then later by writings.  Often those who recorded the original books of the Bible had no first hand knowledge of the events that they recorded. For example the Gospels were penned four or more decades after the first Easter. Four decades is a lot, especially back then with no with no mass media  and a mostly illiterate population. Four decades though can’t beat the creation stories, which were obviously written well after the world began.  And that’s just the original putting of the stories down in writing. Since paper is fragile there’s not one extant original page of the Bible. We only have hand copies of hand copies far removed in time from the original.

And so far I am only talking about the copies in the original languages–  Hebrew and Greek with some Aramaic.    When the words get translated, the translators are even further removed in time and have even less knowledge of what it was like in the Bible’s times, making the job of turning foreign words and concepts into understandable English very difficult.

Because of the different meanings of words in other languages and foreign contexts often we cannot just pick up a Bible and understand what it means by applying our general understanding to the words. This works sometimes, but not always.

Brian turned me onto a great book called The Rise and Fall of the Bible by Timothy Beal the professor I quoted earlier.  Dr. Beal observes that there isn’t just one version of the Bible, but over six-thousand versions with thirty-five different (English) translations. 6.

Steve just read a text from a popular Bible translation, the New Revised Standard Version and although it reads in straight forward English terms I’d venture to guess some, or a lot of it, is hard for us to comprehend what it might mean for us today.

So let’s examine it and see if we can find experiences of God or lessons for good living that we can apply to our lives from the text. The text records a number of statements by Jesus a peasant Jewish rabbi in Roman occupied First Century context. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, so we have Aramaic statements made around 30 AD, written in Greek probably around 80 AD, and passed along by hand written copies for centuries and then translated from Greek to modern American English.

And we heard in plain American English, Jesus appears to have claimed that those who are angry will be judged, those who insult will be liable and that those who even say “You fool” are liable to the hell fire. We also heard Jesus apparently condemn adultery, divorce and remarriage  as adultery and lust as adultery.Then in the last part of the text Jesus appears to disapprove of swearing an oath (“I swear to tell the whole truth” kinda stuff.”)
Glancing at the American English translation of the words of Jesus sure seem to literally say angry, insulting people go to hell, divorced remarried people and lustful people are  adulterers, and we should not swear to the truth of matters in court or on paper. That’s what it sounds like first blush.

We’ve all seen angry and insulting Christians, especially in the media. We know a lot of good people who have been divorced and remarried. Most of us have probably sworn to the truth of a matter in court or in an affidavit.   I doubt in the past twenty years any of us have heard a televangelist try and enforce this text in public. They seem to be our nation’s self appointed Bible enforcers, but these words of Jesus certainly don’t get the press we hear others get these days.  All of this begs the question, Does any of today’s text apply to anyone?  Or better yet, to put it theologically, can this text speak to us of experiences of God or how to relate to God and God in others?

“Hermeneutic” is fancy-schmancy theological speak for what method or principle we apply to interpretation of Bible texts. Since Jesus claimed that the greatest commandment is love, since the Bible claims that God is love, progressive Christians often interpret the Bible by filtering verses through love. That is, we ask: How can we fairly read this lovingly?  Does it speak about love?  Can it be heard and applied as love-centered? Where can love – God– be found in the text?

To help answer those questions we consider the context the verse was reported to have been said in, and the context we now live in. Basically to put it all in UCC language, we ask: How is God still speaking in these verses?

The Way that Jesus created is about how we relate to God in creation, in ourselves, in one another and in the mystery of life.  The first part of today’s reading – even on it’s surface– seems to be about relationship, about good relationship with others, actually the whole text is about relationship.In both ancient and present contexts the first part is about keeping our anger from leading us to hostility, not only do we not murder others as the 10 Commandments require, we also keep our anger from leading to our insulting others, and our not reconciling with them.

The reading can fairly be heard to mean that angry actions do not lead to love, they lead away from it.  I think most of us in this room can hear how this fits in our context.  No one wants to have another angry at them or insulting them– no one in Jesus’ day wanted that either. So if we follow this teaching we are doing to others as we would have them do to us and we are acting out love. So sure, Jesus’ teaching in the text about anger can be understood to have meaning for us. The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary sums these verses up with the title “Love Shows No Hostility.” 7. I like that. Wouldn’t it be great if Christians took that to heart?  What a difference it would make even if just clergy avoided being hostile.

The next part of the reading about divorce and remarriage being adulterous strikes us as a lot  harder to apply. We want to ignore it. Most of us agree that divorce is a valid decision when the relationship is irreconcilable. While we are saddened by divorce we allow it and nowadays; most of us do not stigmatize the divorced and certainly not remarriage. Marriage and divorce and remarriage were very different things in Jesus’ day. A wife was the husband’s property. Only men could divorce and they could do so with little care. Ex-wives and children could end up on the street, poor, beggars or prostitutes or dead. 8 A woman had few rights in marriage. Even affairs by her husband did not violate her rights. Jesus can be heard to even things up in the text. The word “lust” in Greek is “epitumeo” and it might better be translated here as covet which means to yearn to possess.
Jesus can be heard to make it impermissible for men to covet anothers wife(which is also in the 10 Commandments) and he makes it impermissible to willy-nilly get a divorce to toss wives aside like property. So we can fairly read this part of scripture as intended to protect women and children from being hurt or discarded by patriarchal laws of Jesus’ time. It’s about men relating to their wives in a much more compassionate manner. While divorce in our day is not like the divorce Jesus was addressing, and so the prohibition need not apply, the principals of compassion and non-coveting and non-cheating on spouses and fair treatment of women sure ought to. Love and fairness in marital relations is at the center of this teaching, that’s important– always. 9

In the last part of the text about swearing, Jesus takes another of the 10 Commandments, the one to not swear falsely, and stretches it to claim we shouldn’t have to swear to truth at all. Jesus can be heard to be teaching us to always tell the truth. If we always tell the truth then we ought not to have to swear something is true when we say it. There should not be levels of trustworthiness to our speech. The Feasting on the Word commentary put is like this

 Insofar as the followers of Jesus are living out a higher righteousness that is evidenced by truthfulness, there is no need for oaths. This does not mean that oaths are never used, but that truth telling is its own validation. 10

Telling the truth was a good thing in Jesus’ day and age. It’s a good thing in this day and age. “Love is truthful” as the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary puts it. 11.

Given all I’ve just said considering the context of today’s reading in Jesus time, and the context we now live in, can we fairly read the whole of today’s text as loving?  Does it speak about love? Can it be heard and applied as love-centered? Is God still speaking in these verses? I get the answer: “You bet!” Despite its age God can be found dynamically vibrating in the nooks and crannies of the verses calling us to love. Not being hostile was important to Jesus, and led – and still leads– to more love. Fairness and compassionate treatment of spouses in marriage was important to Jesus, and led–and still leads– to more love. Love by truth telling was important to Jesus, and led– and still leads- to more love.

And more love is always more God, because God is love! Right?

The Bible is a great and Sacred text that we take very seriously, but need not take literally. We can understand it like poetry with much meaning and deep, deep truth. Although it sometimes takes work to understand scripture, God’s always there in the nooks and crannies call us toward love, which is always GOD! . . . RIGHT?

Amen.

ENDNOTES:
1. http://margaretfeinberg.com/23-of-the-best-bible-jokes-riddles/
2. Beal, Timothy, The Rise and Fall of the Bible, p. 46
3. Borg, Marcus, Evolution of the Word, p 63.
4. Ibid., 29.
5. Ibid.
6. Beal at 22, 49, 59
7. The New Interpreters Bible, Vol VIII, p 189
8. Crossan, John Dominic,  The Historical Jesus, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1992),
9. The New Interpreters Bible, Vol VIII, p 191
10. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 1, p 360
COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Here is the text of Scott’s sermon from February 9

Salting Lives with Love, Despite Anyone’s Sin.
a sermon based on Matthew 5:13-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 9, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
My plan this morning is to focus on Jesus’ declaration that we just heard from today’s Lectionary reading “You are the salt of the earth. . .”. Nowadays we tend to hear being called “a salt of the earth” person as a nice thing. It suggests to us modern folks a reliable, good sort of person. And nowadays salt itself has a sort a blandness attached to it, so being the salt of the earth isn’t necessarily a big deal, it’s okay and nice.
I think that may be one reason popular hymns have us singing Jesus’ saying from today’s reading that “you are the light of the world,” but rarely “you are the salt of the earth, ” You may have noticed that songs like “I am the Salt of the word”and  “This Little Salt of Mine” aren’t usual Sunday fare– though today we’ll be singing a salty hymn.

In order to appreciate what Jesus is getting at by calling us salt we need to – puns intended– SPICE up our understanding of his message. If you will, SALT needs to be PEPPERED up a bit. So I’m gonna take Jesus’ idea of SALT, SHAKE ‘ER out a bit with so many spice puns during this introduction that some may feel . . . well . . . A-SALTED. Or maybe in-SALTED because I’m SPICING the morning with so many puns that some might get the CHIVES. Some may even be thinking “It’s reckless, that pastor doesn’t CARAWAY he should about too many puns.” And that might be SAGE advice, but I can’t GINGERly raise the topic. It’s not that I’m a careless NUT, MEG-a THYME  went into this introduction . . . at least SESAME.

That’s the puns for bit, but I must warn you, the rest of the sermon still has SALTY language .  . . (Oops. Sorry.)

Okay. Salt. Sodium Chloride. A necessary spice of life. For you scientists and teachers and smarty pants, I know salt is not a technically a spice, but, we gotta think of it that way, and more,  today.  We cannot think of it as bland or ordinary to understand what Jesus means. We have to think of it as a molecule of utmost importance, a commodity that’s both ubiquitous and valuable, common and needed, ordinary, yet extraordinary.

Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth. We don’t get a choice. And yes it is okay and a good thing to be a salt of the earth kinda person as we know that term to indicate. I mean who wouldn’t like to be a salt of the earth kinda person, you know a reliable good sort. But, see that may be what the term has come to mean, it’s not what Jesus likely just meant it to mean.

Now don’t get me wrong Jesus’ use of the word “salt” in the text likely included good and reliable, but his meaning included so much more back in his day. And we need to hear it that way too. See back in the first century SALT wasn’t just a spice-like-thing you put on your food. Indeed until, maybe, two hundred years or so ago salt was a much more valuable staple item of everyday human life.

And I don’t just mean we had to have it in our system to live, which we do (every cell in our body contains salt), but salt had a multitude of important purposes and meanings, many of which were indispensable in Jesus’ culture.     Salt was used not only to flavor food, but was an essential preservative to keep precious food from spoiling. We have refrigerators now, but salt was how people preserved food for thousands of years. It’s how food was kept from being corrupted by bad things, germs and decay.

Salt also had medicinal purposes as a disinfectant and salve, even today we still gargle with warm salt water to sooth a sore throat and saline is common in hospital IVs. Salt has also been used for centuries for sprains and earaches and things like poison ivy. 1
Believe it or not in Jesus’ day salt was also used as a form of currency. Roman soldiers were paid in weights of salt. The money was called “salarium,” simply because the Latin word for salt is “salarium.” Our modern word “salary” comes from this.  Salt as salary is also the origin of the phrase “not worth his salt,” meaning not worth his pay.  2

Romans also put salt on lettuce and greens and so “salarium” is also the root of the word we still use to describe a mix of greens . . .“salad.”  3

Salt was so important that wars were fought over it. And sometimes war was fought with it, as salt is a powerful destroyer of plants and so the enemy’s fields were salted and laid to waste so they could do evil no more to their enemy. 4

Flavoring. Preservative. Medicine. Wages. War.  Salt was so important in the day-to-day life and economy of the ancient world that towns were developed around it’s discovery, mining and processing. 5  Salt was an incredibly important economic commodity, so much so, it was referred to as “white gold.”   6

In addition to the practical and material uses I’ve already mentioned, salt also had mystical and symbolic uses in the ancient world.   HarperCollins’ Bible Dictionary (p 959) notes that salt in Bible times had

        preservative powers that made it an absolute necessity of life and a virtual synonym for essential life-giving forces and, not surprisingly, endowed it with religious purposes.

In the ancient world salt’s power came to bear in sealing a bargain and as a sign of friendship.  7. The Bible reflects this custom in Numbers (18:19) where God tells Aaron:

 All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the LORD I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever . . .

In Exodus (30:35) we can find salt as a part of what goes into a formula for religious incense. We find it used in religious sacrifices too, Levicitus (2:13) states

 You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.

In Ezekiel (16:4) we learn newborns are rubbed with salt.  “The significance of rubbing a newborn with salt is to indicate that the child would be raised to have integrity, to always be truthful.”  8
I’ve gone on and on about salt this morning because Jesus’ said “You are the salt of the earth.” And we need to hear salt as more than an everyday food enhancing sprinkle, we need to hear it as  something extraordinary. It’s common and valuable, spicy and useful. It preserves, flavors, and salves what ails, and salt heals.Salt can sting and irritate, but mostly it spreads out and permeates in every human life not only spreading in food or water, but actually soaking our body by it’s presence in every cell. 9In our bodies science has determined salt is essential in our nerve synapses and digestion. Salt is one heck of a useful ingredient in life.

In a booklet put out by a salt company in the 1920s, the list of uses include keeping the colors bright on boiled vegetables; making ice cream freeze; whipping cream rapidly; getting more heat out of boiled water; removing rust; sealing cracks; removing spots on clothes; putting out grease fires; killing poison ivy; and treating sprains, sore throats, and earaches. The salt industry goes still further, claiming 14,000 different uses for this [now] under-appreciated substance! 10

This week I read in both the local paper and the New York Times how valuable salt on the roads has been in this freezing weather, and concern about a shortage.  So yes, salt has a been and is good reliable stuff, but, oh so much more !

Jesus’ statement “You are the salt of the earth” is a declaration about us being of great worth and value, and in the text he means “you” as “us,” as church. “You” is not singular, but plural in the text. It’s not a compliment to us as a single being, it’s a statement as to Jesus’ Followers function as a corporate whole. 11.

We, the followers of Jesus, the Church is whom Jesus is talking about serving as the salt of the earth. Again, this is not an optional purpose. “You are the salt of the earth” is a declaration by Jesus, not a request. As a corporate body, if we follow Jesus, we are necessarily required to be the salt of the earth. We’ve got to understand this!

The “salt” Jesus references is valuable, permeating, enhancing, and essential workhorse of the mineral world. That’s what we are to be like. We’re not gold,  a mostly pretty ornamental mineral, we are instead. salt an essential-useful-to-Christ mineral.

We need to be healing, we need to be affecting all human cells, we even need to salt the earth so that evil cannot grow, so that we lay waste to that which is un-Godly, not violently either, but by our mere salty presence that keeps at bay the weeds of violence and oppression.  We need to be preservatives of Jesus’ loving way by fighting against corruption by the germs of apathy and inaction, greed and ignorance, arrogance and hate.

We need to add flavor to lives dulled by seasons of despair and poverty, of brutality and abuse.

Church must be like salt, the essential element of life, we must provide the saline solution of love to the aching ill body of humanity.

And we need to be irritants too, irritating for justice and righteousness, for care and compassion in our community until there really truly is as our secular nation dreams “liberty and justice for all,” so that the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not pipe dreams for the poor and down trodden, but living realities in their lives, and everyone else’s lives.  We need to dissipate all about the world with a salting of love in the river of life so it spreads and reaches all, so that the molecules of Christ’s salt permeate the world and every human being.

How do we do this preserving, this healing, this flavoring? How do we become salty and useful in the Way that makes us the valuable extraordinary salt of the earth that Jesus meant us to be?

Jesus simplified the Way for us. He taught the greatest commandments are love God and love neighbor. He taught us to do to others as we want done to us. This means, as Jesus also made clear in his teachings, that even our enemies must be loved.

As I was working on putting this sermon together I got a Divine gift from Laura, a poem by Edwin Markham. Here’s the poem “Outwitted.”

        He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in. . .

I’m going to read that again . . .

He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.

When I first read that, I thought this poem sums up the whole meaning of Jesus’ declaration that “you are the salt of the earth.”  Jesus’ Way is about God as love; and our loving love; and our being love. And the love we must be is so powerful and extraordinary that – like salt in Jesus’ day–  it flavors and heals and enhances everyone’s lives – even our enemies’–  so that when they shut us out as “heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.” Then  love and we must have the wit to win, salting lives with love despite anyone’s sin.
We, we are the salt of the earth. We have no choice as church.

That is the truth.

And it is good news.

AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
1. History of Salt by Saltworks at http://www.saltworks.us/salt_info/si_HistoryOfSalt.asp
2. Ibid.; Goldberg, Ron, You Are the Salt of the Earth, http://www.jewishjesus.org/Article21.html
3. History of Salt
4. I was reminded of this by “Salt in the Bible,” a Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_in_the_Bible
5.  History of Salt
6. Goldberg
7.  Mesulam, Shelia, “Salt: Everything you wanted to know about this ancient, essential mineral” http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2008/jan/30/salt-everything-you-wanted-know-about-ancient-esse/.
8. “Salt in the Bible”
9. Mesulam
10. Goldberg
11. Hare, Douglas, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary, on Matthew, p. 44
COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

 

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The sermon text from February 2, 2014:

The Blessing of the Promise of a Reordering of Things
a sermon based on Matthew 5:1-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 2,  2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

One of our family traditions is to watch the movie Groundhog Day on this auspicious holiday, Groundhog Day. I really like that movie and have actually used it in discussions about  movies with Spiritual meaning. Most folks don’t think of it as a Spiritual movie, but I think it is, and very much so.

Have you seen it? A self centered weatherman is begrudgingly sent from Pittsburgh to cover the Groundhog Day events in little  Punxsutawney, PA. His conduct from the git-go is selfish and arrogant and just plain mean at times. His name is Phil and he’s played by Bill Murray, so as you might imagine he’s also grotesque in his the-world-revolves-around-me approach to life. It’s also very funny.

Accompanying Phil on the trip is a meek, peace loving new producer named Rita who’s played by Andie McDowell. Phil is smitten with her. At the start of the movie he acts boorish in his feeble attempts to woo her. What’s worse, though, is his conduct is awful towards others especially the poor, sick and outcasts he encounters during the day. By the end of the day he’s behaved like a real jerk. And then something mystical happens, Phil awakes to find he has to live through the same Groundhog Day in the same place with the same people and noone knows it but him. It’s a zany time loop. Phil wakes up hundreds, maybe thousands, of times reliving that one Groundhog Day.

Very quickly Phil concludes since there are no consequences to messing up in his do-over day, he can die, get arrested, eat junk food, it doesn’t seem to matter, because he awakes to a do-it-over day. So at first Phil does more self-centered things stealing, conniving, killing. But he also spends a lot of time trying to get better at wooing Rita, but day after day his self-centeredness causes him to fail.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Phil begins to take an interest in relating to all the people he’s stuck in this time loop with.  In his awkward pursuit of Rita he gradually learns how to love all his neighbors and he learns appreciation of the world. He learns to have compassion and the desire for well being of everyone he is stuck in the time loop with. He learns their names, their troubles and all the little accidents and needs and illnesses they face in the day, and eventually he goes about saving everyone he can in that one little community in the only life he seems to now have.

By the end of the movie Phil blesses the poor, needy and outcasts with kindness and compassion. He is transformed. People he treated as expendable now matter very much to him. In the final segment of the film Phil is Christ-like, a man who lives for love, not just love of Rita, but love of every single person in the community.  It’s a remarkable story of reincarnation and resurrection . . . and the power of love. It’s a story of one man’s transformation through the pursuit of love, from a way of lust and selfishness, to a way of love and selflessness, a way of being Christ in the world. It’s a story with a message that no matter what we have done we can make this moment, and the ones that follow, about bringing heaven to earth. We can transform the world we live in, write a new script, change roles, and bring heaven to earth. 2.

Jesus’ teachings are about doing just that, they are about bringing heaven to earth. For Jesus heaven is about making life good for all, in life, not after life. Phil ends up doing just that in Groundhog Day for all of Punxsutawney.

The text we heard Dick read is Jesus’ way of describing what the new world will look like when we do our work and heaven finally fully breaks in. It’s a big portion of of Jesus’ roadmap to heaven.“Beatitude” is the Latin word for blessing. Today’s teachings from the Sermon on the Mount are called, “The Beatitudes” because (as we heard) they’re  about blessings.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on [Jesus’] account.

Most of us have heard and read these words so often that sometimes I think we have become a little numb to them. We have trouble hearing what they are saying. They are like lyrics to a song that we tend to just hum along and hear in our head, but not really pay attention to.

And even if we do pay attention we may not actually understand them. We’re usually taught they are telling us how we are to be in life, if we want to get the stated rewards.  But understanding “The Beatitudes” that way doesn’t mesh with our experiences. The truth is the poor in spirit, those in mourning, the  meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted and the reviled by and large DO NOT get rewarded in this life. The earthly way, as a whole, does not doll out rewards to us when we are any of those things.  And certainly no one longs to be or strives to be, or wants to be, poor in spirit or in mourning or persecuted. While it is a good thing to be meek, merciful and pure in heart those things are generally also not rewarded in the worldly way of doing things. Even peacemakers as a whole usually go unrewarded, at least in earthly ways.

 

So what the heck is Jesus teaching us in The Beatitudes? We need to consider the context they were preached in to answer that.  As first century Palestinian Jews, Jesus and his followers had two great calamities that weighed heavy on their minds.  One was the existing occupation and oppression by the Roman Empire which had the Jewish people’s spirits down. The other was the Babylonian Exile, the story from hundreds of years earlier that set the bench mark for Jewish homeland calamity, but also led to Scriptural instruction and wisdom and a theology from which all future generations could turn to during calamities.
In both the Roman and Babylonian occupations, oppressive overwhelming military forces captured the homeland and caused the Jewish people to mourn the losses that came with the brutal violence that brought them into meek submission.
As a people of the-God-of-love-and-justice, they hungered and thirsted for righteousness. Jesus’ teachings called them to this by loving God and neighbor, by being merciful and pure of heart, and by being peacemakers.
In keeping those teachings, and following Jesus, Matthew’s community had experienced being reviled and persecuted, just as Jesus did.
So we have Rome crushing Jesus contemporaries, and the memory of Babylon crushing them in the past, and the lessons learned and passed on. This is the context in which Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus, we are also told, in the reading went up a mountain, sat down and his disciples came to him.  Matthew’s community would have heard this as an echo of Moses giving the law out on Mount Sinai, as well as the usual image of the day of a revered rabbi whose followers gathered round as they all sat and the rabbi taught.
So the context sets up this other thing WE don’t tend to hear, that Jesus is the new Moses and a revered rabbi who is teaching. And what he  teaches in today’s text echos Isaiah who wrote during the Babylonian exile. Listen to this excerpt from Isaiah 61 and see if you can discern its echos in the Beatitudes, Isaiah wrote:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor . . .; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness . . .
Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs.
For I the LORD love justice . . .I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
. . . [A]ll who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. (Isa 61:1-9 NRS).

 

Hear how Isaiah – and Jesus– address the realities of brutal occupation very similarly? The occupation and oppression has people broken and poor in spirit; mourning and subdued by oppressors.

Brilliantly both Isaiah and Jesus offer the promise of a reordering all of this. They propose a new script where all the parts being played are transformed, they are re-written and the lowly are blessed on earth. See when heaven comes about, when we are in God’s domain here, the tables are turned, and not just later, but now, and not just now and later, but before too.  The message is all who have been broken and poor in spirit, those who have been in mourning and subdued by oppressors have had God with them. God always has, and always will be, at the side of those in sorrow, those who are distressed, those who are reviled, those who are oppressed. And God is, always has been, and always will be with – and in– those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers. These declarations serve to comfort and honor those in the past and the present who have, by their oppressors, been made meek, broken in spirit, and set to mourning. And they also comfort and honor those who oppose oppression and find ways to be merciful, pure in heart and peacemakers even in the face of persecution and revilement.

See, The Beatitudes announce the blessing of those who have been oppressed and those who non-violently oppose that oppression. They call humanity to a time and a place in the future where heaven is on earth precisely because humanity reorders things to God’s way, a way that already exists in God’s realm.

The good news is– borrowing the metaphor in the movie Groundhog Day–  humanity keeps living in this loop that seems unending, but it will end when we learn as a whole to bless with love and compassion those who are broken in spirit;  those who are mourning; those who are meek and subdued and outcasts. It’s heaven on earth because the honoring of powerful oppressors is replaced by the honoring of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; those who are merciful; and those who are peacemakers.

To Isaiah and Jesus, God already blesses the broken and those who are responding to God’s call to mercy, justice, righteousness and peace.  In other words God’s way exists and it needs to come to earth and be our way. Jesus is not just teaching the oppressed and the opposers of oppression having God’s blessing, Jesus is teaching that humans – not just God– need to dare to also bless the oppressed and the opposers of oppression, thus bringing heaven to earth.

People, most especially the powerful, have tried to make the Beatitudes about being docile and getting a rewards from God in the end, for submission to oppression.  But the Beatitudes are NOT about that, they are about a radical transformation from the earthly way of accepting oppression and its results, to the heavenly way of compassion and caring and honoring ALL, so that oppression is ended and we are ALL blessed by humanity, the way God blesses us ALL now and always.

AMEN
ENDNOTES
1. Hodgin, Michael 1001 More Humorous Illustrations for Public Speaking, p.158
2. I got this idea from the wonderful book by Stephen Patterson, The God of Jesus, p. 95-97.

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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The text of the sermon from January 26, 2014

Love for All May Be Foolish to Some, but it is God’s Wisdom
a sermon based on 1 Cor. 1:10-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 26, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
There’s a story that is supposed to be true about a city dweller who moved to a rural area and called the county road supervisor with a request they remove a “Deer Crossing” sign on her road. When asked why? she earnestly replied “Because too many deer are being hit by cars and if you take the sign down maybe the deer will stop crossing there.” 1

Now that’s a bit of foolishness. and it does relate to a “deer cross,” but that is not the foolishness about the “dear cross” that Paul is talking about in today’s lesson from 1 Corinthians.

Paul writes “ For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” What Paul is talking about is how Jesus’ Way, the Jesus Movement, was seen by others as foolish.

See, following a man who taught the radical idea of loving everyone and responding to violence with non-violence; a man who was convicted and executed in the most humiliating manner – on a cross–  was seen as a fool and teaching foolishness. Simply put, Jesus’ Way was crazy talk and Jesus was executed because of it.

And the early church that Paul was a part of was following that very Jesus– and his crazy talk– even after he had been killed, heck even because he had been killed, and Jesus’ followers were calling it all good news! The thing of it is, this good news was not (as Paul puts it) the “wisdom of the world,” nor was following Jesus and doing such things.

Jesus told people – and WE think tells us still– that those who tend to the least amongst us inherit God’s empire, that is how we help bring heaven to earth. We are called to love everyone – everyone– and act upon that call working for justice and peace.

In the parable of the Goats and Sheep Jesus asserts that NATIONS are held accountable for how they tend to those in need, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned and the stranger.

And Jesus notes in the telling of that story that Christ is in those in need and the cultural misfits. Now, even today making the claim that God, the superpower of the universe, is in the needy and misfits is going to be regarded by a whole lot of people as foolishness.

Recently the Pope was criticized for daring to suggest we are supposed do just that, to use our resources to help just such folks. That turned out to be crazy talk to some pundits and radio talk show hosts. If it is, it’s crazy talk that originated with Jesus. I guess the world could call it Divine foolishness.

See, all that lovely-dovey-give-a-darn-for-the -poor-and-sick-and-aliens-and-prisoners stuff is foolishness to the worldly wisdom of Jesus’ and Paul’s day . . . and even still in today.

And it wasn’t just love-those-in-need that Jesus was preaching, he was preaching and practicing love of every one, even enemies. In Jesus’ first sermon he preached that he came to let the oppressed go free, and in his life’s work he showed that love is the key to let the oppressed free. He taught that God loves everyone, you, others and me. And he taught we are to love like that, unconditionally.

The message of the cross is that this love wins! Love takes the victory.

This church’s embrace of these notions that love wins, that God loves everyone and we are to too, has got folks in this church in trouble since the start, because it’s foolishness to the wisdom of the world.  Over the years we’ve been called fools and worse.

On July 26th of this year– exactly six months from today two great birthdays occur, the church’s 180th and, of course, you all have the other birthday on your calendar, my 37th. . .okay 57th.

In preparation for our 180th birthday I’ve been doing some research with Janet in the achieves. One thing is for sure since our church has been around it’s been promoting the message of the cross that we are to love and love wins, and so, the church has over the years been seen as foolishness by many of this world.

The clergy and members of this church started out being harassed since we began in 1834 fighting for the foolish-to-the-world-Christ-like idea of ending of slavery.

We were, as one of our early church historians put it, “conceived by abolitionists, born in the throes of anti-slavery and cradled in conflict.” (1904, Church Manual, p 52).  That’s an honorable heritage nowadays, but it was violently opposed at the time even though it is unmistakably in line with the Gospels.

Our anti-slavery message was so loathed in town back in the day that mobs stormed our church meetings, and night vigils were held at the church to protect the building. (Ibid. , p 48, 49). This was very scary stuff.

In 1837 a professor from Oberlin was leading an anti-slavery meeting at church and was chased out by a mob known around town as the “Mount Vernon Meat Axe Club.”

A year earlier a minister was chased by a local lynch mob and only avoided being lynched only because women from the church encircled and protected him. Groups of church teens were formed to also routinely encircle and escort the minister to and from church for his safety.

This wonderful community of the loving God has long sought to surround and embrace and protect not only ministers and the building, but most especially the oppressed, knowing all the while that living the “message about the cross is foolishness,” except to those working for salvation from the lesser way we could all be.

As we put in our new brochure in our 180 year history

We have never shied away from doing what is right for Christ’s love. We’ve opposed slavery and helped free slaves.
We’ve marched for civil rights.
We’ve stood up for peace.
We’ve fought for equality of women.
We are – and have been– at the forefront of LGBTQ rights in the county.
We help those in need.

We have done all of this because we take very seriously the message of the cross that love wins, that God is love, and that we are to be God’s love. So we try to act according to Jesus’ supreme commandment to love God and to love our neighbors. And we know the good news as, God loving everyone, no strings attached. As the Bible repeatedly puts it, God’s love is steadfast and endures forever.

We have over our 180 year history believed and proclaimed that steadfast forever love.

We believe and proclaim that we all get steadfast forever love no matter how God created us, whether, black, white, brown, disabled, male, female, Straight or LGBTQ. We are all loved equally and entitled to just and fair treatment, not just in this church, but out in the world.

Sadly, some folks–including other churches and clergy– think this is foolish and sinful.

The Bible proclaims all of God’s creation is very good (Gen 1:31). But  people get angry about this love-for-all-whom-God-has-made stuff. And so like our predecessors, we will still hear that we are fools for Jesus’ all-embracing-no-strings-attached love.

This church’s 180 years of being foolish to the world for love is in a grand tradition, as the New Testament records that the early church itself took this foolish-love-for-all stuff to the extremes Jesus’ teachings logically lead to.

Peter is remembered as having received no less than a command from God to call no one profane or unclean. Acts 10: 28 records in no uncertain terms that Peter reported to the early church leaders (and I am quoting) “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” That’s kinda hard to literally read any way but as a command – a command– to not “dis” people for how God created them.

So it should really come as no surprise, but it does, that earlier in Acts 8 (26–40) Phillip is led by God to baptize and bring into the church a Ethiopian Eunuch (a eunuch is a non-heterosexual male).

The word “eunuch” in the Bible has gained some scholarly attention in recent years. We tend to hear it as a meaning someone who’s been physically altered to be non-heterosexual, but it’s thought by some scholars to include a more general reference to any male who did not have intimate relations with women, not just those made physically unable, but also those who choose to be celibate, as well as those born without a desire for women.

References to men born without that desire, it’s argued, meant Gay men.

It’s interesting to apply this understanding to a text in Matthew 19:12 where Jesus notes the three types of eunuchs, starting off with the phrase (and I’m quoting Jesus here) “there are eunuchs who have been so from birth…”  That would mean Jesus, without recrimination, observed that some men are born not desiring women.

If that is what Jesus meant, then we can also hear this as meaning such men are created by God. And being a part of creation means not only that God made Gays, but it also means they are ipso facto very good part of creation. Which we know is the truth about our LGBTQ brothers and sisters!

This actually lines up with modern science which has for decades concluded that non-heterosexuality is a natural part of creation, so it also makes sense that the early church would welcome all whom God made– and that we should too.

That would also explain why Jesus seems to have mentioned these non-heterosexuals as a matter of fact without a hint of the chastisement that we hear coming from some modern quarters of Christianity.

Now we don’t know if the Ethiopian Eunuch was a natural born eunuch or not, but we do know either way he was non-heterosexual and so it cannot be denied that one of the first, if not the first person, the Holy Spirit causes a church leader to bring into the fold, was a non-heterosexual. How cool is that?

In fact one can argue he was the very first outsider, non-Jewish person, that the church lovingly brought into its fold.

See the early church, like Jesus, had a wide embrace and inclusiveness–   they let in and embraced every type of person God made.  And make no mistake about it they were thought foolish too.

Now it’s my experience that a lot of Christians, especially clergy, tend  not to admit that the Bible has conflicting thoughts on a myriad of topics and has been used to support un-Godly conduct. It wasn’t that long ago that the Bible was used to support genocide, slavery, segregation, misogyny.

Jennifer sent me an article listing examples of the Bible being used to support un-Godly conduct.( It’s a blog by Rachel Held Evans at http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/bible-clear )

In 1637  Captain John Underhill, defending the Puritan decimation of a an entire Native American tribe claimed:

 Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.
in 1846  Rev. Leonard Bacon in defense of American slavery claimed.

The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.

In 1869 Rev. Justin Dewey Fulton in his treatise against women’s suffrage wrote

 The Bible is the revealed will of God, and it declares the God-given sphere of woman. The Bible is, then, our authority for saying woman must content herself with this sphere…Who demand the ballot for woman? They are not the lovers of God, nor are they believers in Christ, as a class. There may be exceptions, but the majority prefer an infidel’s cheer to the favor of God and the love of the Christian community.

In 1960– 1960– Bob Jones Sr. in a treatise against integration wrote

 

Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in the country . . .  They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them.
They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray.  But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God.”

The ugly truth is that we can, if we want, find and interpret passages in the Bible that support just about any kind of hate. We can find verses that oppose the “foolishness” of Jesus’ Way, of love– real love– for all.  But we have to ignore a lot of the Bible to hate or defile others.

We have to ignore God’s command to call no one profane or unclean and Jesus’ commandments to love others and do to others as we want done to us.

Claiming God wants less than the well being of the one YOU want to oppress is a mistake Christians often can be heard thumping the Bible for.

You can tell it’s who the claimer wants to oppress because they don’t have the same passion for Biblical rules that apply to them. You don’t hear anti-LGBTQ clergy insisting that clergy should only marry their virgin kin (Lev. 21:14),  or that they have to kill non-virgin brides (Deut 22:20), or they need to cause abortions for suspected cheaters (Num 5:11-31. These are Bible edicts!

I am glad they let go of those old rules, but they are literally in the Bible, at least as literally as the ones they claim allow them to bully and oppress our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
Jesus taught and practiced a Way that understood God loves everyone and that we were to have the same compassion and desire for the well being of everyone that God has. We are supposed to love all people. We’re not supposed to call anyone profane or unclean. We are supposed to love everyone. We are supposed to do to others as we want done to us.
Here’s the thing loving our LGBTQ brothers and sisters fits right in with Jesus’ Way and the early church tradition of following that Way.

Rome and the ancient world thought this Way was nonsense, was foolishness. Most in Rome thought it was ridiculous to live and move and have our being as if all humans matter, as if all were in, and a part of, God. Rome reacted violently against followers of the Way.

This church’s following of Jesus’ Way has caused in our 180 years some to react with acts of violence and mean words aimed our way.

I’m so sorry to report that is true. I wish it were otherwise, but Jesus’ Way of all encompassing love is foolish to much of the world.

We of course cannot give up on that call just because others think it is foolish. But we also need to make sure that we respond with love, not hate in return.

Let us pray that we have the strength to be fools for God’s love.

Let us pray that we have the strength to love those who oppose God’s unconditional love.

Let us pray for those who oppose Jesus’ Way of love for all.

Let us pray for those who revile and persecute us.

Let us pray for their well being.

As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King taught, let us not loath the hateful actor, when we loath their hateful deeds.

Finally, let us continue to embrace the message about the cross, that love wins, that God is love and that we are to be love in the world.
That message may be foolishness to those perishing with hate but to those of us working for salvation from the lesser way we could all be it is the power of God!

AMEN!

ENDNOTES
1. http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art17703.asp

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Here is the text from Scott’s sermon on July 19, 2014:

Taking Over Where a King Left Off
A sermon based on Amos 5:21-27 and Luke 6:27-31 given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 19, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

As I remember it, one spring day when I was in fifth grade our family gathered around the TV to watch a special news report with Walter Cronkite. The report went on and on about this man I’d never heard of. So I turned to my father and asked “Dad, who’s this Martin Luther King guy they’re talking about and why did someone shoot him?”

My dad’s response, with a surprisingly somber reverence, was something like “You never heard of Martin Luther King? He was a civil rights leader. They don’t teach about him at school? He was killed fighting for rights for people. ”

Now I was all of ten at the time, and I doubt my parents had mentioned Dr. King to me, so I am not sure the school system had failed me, but there’s much power in telling of this story because my father was and is politically very conservative, but back in the day Martin Luther King Jr.’s work transcended politics.

The whole civil rights movement by1968 had a way of transcending politics. Dogs and water hoses, police batons and bombs, bloodying and beating up, maiming and killing non-violent protestors seeking merely rights that others took for granted had a way of superseding conservative, moderate and liberal boundaries. Only those invested in racism and segregation, only those unwilling to see all humans treated as equal could not empathize with the victims of racial oppression that had long been an ugly hallmark of our nation.

I know it sounds harsh, but, by 1968 only the misguided and ignorant were unable to see that God’s love was calling us as a nation to stop that oppression. God and the world had long ached for an end to segregation and in 1968 we could see it coming about.

And Martin Luther King Jr. was a brave and eloquent leader, one of the heroic faces that brought this nation to that point, where we were finally as a whole listening and hearing that call from God, and we were acting upon it. Powerful stuff.

There’s even more personal power in the telling of my experience of that sad April day, something profound happened to me the day. I learned of Martin Luther King’s assignation and I heard about civil rights.  A seed was planted and watered and began to sprout.  I became quite curious about the civil rights movement, and over time I became captivated by it.

Over the years I learned more and more about civil rights.  Early on one thing I remember standing out, something that clicked in my young mind, was that the word’s of the Pledge of Allegiance we said ever day at school were a solemn pledge not just to a flag but to this republic “with liberty and justice for all.” And it was simply obvious to me as a child that ideal was not fully played out in our nation’s day-to-day activities. Liberty and justice for all was an ideal, a promise, that I could not let go of, and I have never been able to let go of.  It has influenced my life ever since.

That ideal is part and parcel of the Bible. It’s part of our Hebrew Scripture reading from Amos, a text Rev. King was quite fond of quoting, you may recall in his “I Have a Dream Speech” one of the most passionate lines is “we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” Rev. King was referring to African Americans stripped of selfhood, denied votes and subjected to brutality and grave awful injustices, but his use of Amos summarizes God’s call for all of us. None of us should be “satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” Indeed as the Gospel reading illustrates Jesus commands his followers to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  We all want to be provided justice and righteousness. In America we are taught it is due to us, and we pledge that it is due to all . . . “Liberty and justice for all.”

The civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s that Rev. King led– indeed every civil rights movement – has been about just that. But Rev. King ministry was not just about advocating for Jesus’ command in the Gospel reading that we “Do to others as [we] would have them do to [us].” Amazingly he used the rest of Jesus’ commands in Luke 6: 27-30 as the means by which to accomplish it.  Hear again the words of Jesus in those verses:

 I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luk 6:27-31 NRS)

 

If we think about it,  Rev. King used the first set of commands as a means to bring about the last command to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Simply put, he used non-violence, pacifism to resist the violence of oppression and the violence of brutality, and ultimately end a system of terrorism for African Americans in this country.
As Rev. King put it “True pacifism is not non-resistence to evil, but non-violent resistence to evil.” 1  You see, and this is a critical point of Jesus’ commands and Rev. King’s work, non-violence resistence to evil and oppression and violence is NOT submission to evil or oppression or violence.
What it is, is love oriented resistence with great power. To quote Martin Luther King again “Love is the most durable power in the world.” 2 For both Jesus and Martin the bottom-line  is that “We must pursue peace through peaceful means.” 3 There is no other option to bring about peace. None.  Rev. King’s voice continues to cry out to us this truth. And for us as Christians it is of utmost importance that we understand that Rev. King’s reverberating voice from the 50s and 60s is an echo of the voice of Christ. In one of my favorite quotes from Rev. King, he preached:

 through the vista of time a voice still cries out to every potential Peter. “Put up your sword!” The shores of history are white with the bleached bones of nations and communities that failed to follow this command. 4

And again, let me stress that doing as Jesus commanded and putting up the sword does not mean dropping resistence. It means resisting with the durable strength of love. And that strikes us as odd . . . I know. We think love means we have to like, but that is not the case. Rev. King had to wrestle with this mistaken notion by folks questioning how we can love enemies, especially the ones who do egregious wrongs.

He explained in his book The Strength to Love that

The meaning of love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring. Love is something much deeper than emotional bosh.  Perhaps the Greek language can clear our confusion at this point. In the Greek New Testament there are three words for love. The word eros is a sort of aesthetic or romantic love. . . The second word is philia, a reciprocal love and the intimate affection and friendship between friends. We love those whom we like, and we love because we are loved. The third word is agape, understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all [ ]. An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. At this level, we love [others] not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some type of divine spark; we love every [one] because God loves [them]. At this level, we love the person who does an evil deed, although we hate the deed that he [or she] does. 5

Rev. King was actually known for having a sense of humor, and we can hear a bit of it in what he writes next:

 Now we can see what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies.” We should be happy that he did not say, “Like your enemies.” It is almost impossible to like some people. “Like” is a sentimental and affectionate word. How can we be affectionate toward a person whose avowed aim is to crush our very being and place innumerable stumbling blocks in our path? How can we like a person who is threatening our children and bombing our homes? That is impossible. But Jesus recognized that love is greater than like. When Jesus bids us to love our enemies, he is speaking neither of eros nor philia; he is speaking of agape, understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all [ ]. Only by following this way and responding with this type of love are we able to be children of our Father who is in heaven. 6

Rev. King was brilliant. He was right, we cannot like some folks, but we can love everyone.  We can desire the well being of even the awful-est acting people we know, if for no other reason than their well being – physically and mentally–  makes for our well being. . . for the world’s well being. Moreover. Practically speaking – and I am quoting Martin Luther King again:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Dark- ness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multi- plies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. 7

Rev. King goes on to note that hate not only hurts the one being hated but

 Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys [ones] sense of values and [ ] objectivity.” 8

Finally Rev. King notes that

 A third reason why we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power. 9

First quoting Abraham Lincoln’s “ do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” King points out that “This is the power of redemptive love.” 10

Tomorrow is a day set aside to remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only individual born as an American citizen for whom we have a national holiday. It speaks volumes of this nation, and gives me great hope, that we honor a man who both headed a movement for civil rights and did it as a Spiritual leader, a Christian pastor dedicated to the most powerful, most durable, most redemptive, most transformative force in the universe, love.
The end of 1968 saw us sending Apollo 8 around the moon. The very first view and photos were sent back of an earth rise, there in space hung our small, fragile beautiful planet.
Earlier that year, here in America, although it was violently and tragically cut short, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. finished his work of taking the Bible, Jesus’ teachings and Gandhi’s practices of unconditional love and using them to alter our world– that little sphere suspended in space. And the entire planet– the entire planet– is better off for it.

What we need to do is not only remember that, but take up where Rev. Dr. King left off and spread the practice of unconditional love to alter the world through non-violent peaceful resistance for the better. We must love our enemies. We must put up our swords. We must turn the other cheek. When we do these things heaven itself breaks in. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proved this is not just talk, but truth. Let us remember that tomorrow too.

AMEN

ENDNOTES:
1.  Hoskins, Lotte, ed. “I Have a Dream” The Quotations of Martin Luther King Jr., 1968, p 103
2. Ibid., p 70
3. Ibid., p 255
4. Ibid., p 104
5. King, Jr.,  Martin Luther Strength to Love, (1st ed.) Harper Row (1963), p 36
6. Ibid., p 37.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., p. 38
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., p 38-39

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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Here is the text from Scott’s sermon on January 12, 2014:

God’s Baptism
as sermon based on Matthew 3: 13-17 *
January 12, 2014 at Mount Vernon, Ohio
by Rev. Scott Elliott
My kids mostly grew up in Oregon where it rained a lot. Puddles would form everywhere and stay around for days on our property.  Kids are innately attracted to puddles and our kids were no exception to the puddles’ come hither call.

Somewhere along the line we gave in and let them play in those puddles to their hearts’ content. By the end of their play you could barely tell the kids from the puddle, let alone from each other. They were saturated from head to foot with wet oozing Oregon mud. It was a sight to see.

The deal we struck with the kids was that when the play was over they had to endure being throughly hosed off outside.  We had wonderful fresh – very cold– well water. So every time the kids played in mud at the end, the ritual was that they would run in and out of the spray and spin around as long as they could endure it. Eventually, like magic, our clay-covered  unclean kids the color and texture of dirt were transformed into clean children in colorful shorts and soaking wet shirts. It was a baptism of sorts that ended when they’d lay in the sun and dry.

We don’t tend to think of baptism today so much as a symbol of cleansing, as we do a ritual of initiation into the family of Christ and a visible outward sign of the inward grace of God, but John the Baptist’s “baptizing activities should be viewed in relation to Jewish ablution practices – the use of water to cleanse for religious purposes.” 1.

The Bible has many references to bathing rituals. Like hand-washing, cleansing and immersion rituals for priests and those who touch unclean things, and even for those with skin ailments. (Ex 29:4, 30:18-21; Deut 21:1-9; Num 8:7, 19:18-19; Lev 8.6, 16:4, 24; 2 Kings 5:9-14.) . And historically we know that “ within the Judaism of [John the Baptist’s] day, ablutions [took] the [form] of sprinkling, washing, or immersion.” 2  These cleansing rituals indicated transformation, the symbolic washing of the unclean provided a visual sign of cleanliness.

John the Baptist called folks to the desert wilderness to confess their sins and come into the River Jordan to be immersed as a baptism of repentance of sins, as a cleansing initiation into his movement in anticipation of a Coming One whom he expected would bring about the end time.

Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday and the Lectionary selection from Matthew that Greg read gives us a glimpse of most of what John the Baptist is believed to have been doing and preaching at the time Jesus was baptized.

The Jesus Seminar took an extensive look at all New Testament sources and extra canonical writings about John and concluded John’s

baptism [w]as probably a form of a Jewish immersion rite and  . . . [and that] No doubt John’s baptism was understood to be an expression of repentance by those who accepted it. His baptism was also probably understood to mediate God’s forgiveness, to purify from uncleanness, and to serve as an initiation into a sectarian movement. By implication, therefore, John’s baptism – in all likelihood– was understood to be a protest against the temple in Jerusalem, for his baptisms provided an alternative to functions of the temple.3

 

Those who came to John included peasants, expendables and outcasts – like Jesus. 4 & 5. And unlike the temple’s route of forgiveness and access to God, John’s way was a “free” alternative route to cleanliness. 7 See, the temple had been corrupted by Rome, and its leaders helpedoppress the Jewish peasantry. 8 John’s offer and practice of forgiveness by baptism side-stepped the temple, its rites and its expensive temple fees. 9

Consequently,  “[a]s John grew in popularity, he [was] probably . . . perceived as a real threat to those whose authority was grounded in the temple.” 10 His movement was a direct protest against the temple. 11

Jesus’ baptism by John meant Jesus at one point joined John’s movement as a direct challenge to the temple’s monopoly on who receives forgiveness and purification. And here’s the thing, John was not only offering an end-run of the temple, he was stridently inviting followers to come into the desert wilderness and cross the Jordan in protest of Rome. See it was a symbolic reconquering of the Promised Land for Israel.  12 It was a re-enactment of Joshua’s river crossing and conquest of the Promised Land.

John was doing all of this in anticipation of the Coming One’s intercession, on behalf of Israel. In short  “John’s message was an announcement of imminent apocalyptic intervention by God . . .” 13 John’s movement itself was non-violent, but it was nonetheless a highly explosive challenge with overtones of political subversion. 14 John indicted the governing system of Rome and called for the “Coming One” to overthrow those in power and he even symbolically re-enacted it. 15  This was a threat to Herod’s rule and to the Roman Empire. Consequently John was executed. 16

Jesus was initially a part of John’s movement that taught not just repentance, but resistence of Rome in hope of an apocalyptic end to Rome’s rule of Palestine. 17
New Testament Scholar John Dominic Crossan thinks that John’s execution itself “may have convinced Jesus of a different type of God– the non-violent God of a non-violent kingdom, a God of non-violent resistence to structural as well as individual evil” as Crossan puts it. 18  In other words while Jesus started out as a follower of John the Baptist Crossan contends

        Jesus changed his view of John’s mission and message. John’s vision of awaiting the apocalyptic God, the Coming One, as a repentant sinner, which Jesus had accepted and even defended in the crisis of John’s death, was no longer deemed adequate. It was not enough to await a future kingdom; one must enter a present one here and now. By the time Jesus emerged from John’s shadow with his own vision and program, they were quite different from John’s, but  it may well have been John’s own execution that led Jesus to understand a God who did not and would not operate through imminent apocalyptic restoration.” 19

 

Jesus’ connection to John can be seen in his baptism and in his resistence against the temple and Rome, but it is clear Jesus broke away from John’s movement and headed on a very different Way. John saw God as one who punishes and initiate acts of violence. John preached “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees, every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit shall be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt 3: 10) And John expected some one to follow him who would baptize, not with water, but “with the Holy Spirit and with fire!”(Matt 3: 11). This is not the Pentecost Light-of the world-fire that John expects or hopes for, we can hear it as a vengeful, destructive fire.
John is not the only one in the Bible who sees God as a vengeful violent God. In some of the Bible God is understood as a warrior or destroyer or deliverer of punishments. Jewish rebels throughout first century Palestine used and advocated violence to oppose Rome on God’s behalf. This vein of warring for God, committing acts of violence in the name of God in attempts to gain peace, of course, still exists today. John’s notion of a vengeful punishing God can be found touted by some  churches and tele-evangelists . They, like John, seem to understand the Holy as a Spirit like destructive fire, but that’s not the Spirit that alights on Jesus. Listen again to verse sixteen from today’s reading:

        And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Spirit is not like a destructive fire, it is like a warm fire, a light of the world fire. It is like a dove. The dove, a symbol since the story of the Flood in Noah’s time, that stands for peace. Jesus and his movement, his Way, was and is all about peace. Jesus rejected all notion of God being a warrior, or vengeful or violent or,  anything, but the God of Love and peace.Jesus’ movement was – and is– about bringing peace to earth through non-violent justice.  Equality and fairness and food and love for all. That’s what Jesus’ Movement is about.

Jesus’ life and death and experiences of him after death were so vibrant that people remembered him as God incarnate. People experienced him as Christ, the very presence of God on the earth. The Prince of Peace.

The Bible has these conflicting views of God. Some passages have God as angry and violent. Some have God as peaceful and loving. Humans had soiled the image of God, had muddied God’s image by claiming God condoned violence and backed victory through violence. For those with ears to hear,  Jesus’ ministry washed those human imposed layers of violence away – and off– from the image of God.

The cleansing of Christ in baptismal waters with a dove alighting on his purified body can be heard as a metaphor for Jesus’ ministry focused on efforts to free the image of God of the impurities of violence. Through Jesus we experience God as pure love and pure peace. The human way, the Roman way of brutality and oppression, the rebel’s ways of violent upheaval, is rejected.

Peace through victory is not God’s way. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it like this in the book the Adult Forum just finished studying (it’s from my favorite page of the book):

The Roman vision incarnated in the divine Augustus was peace through victory. The Christian vision incarnated in the divine Jesus was peace through Justice . .  The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that esacalator violence that then endangers our world. . .  20

See the question is: Do we think peace “comes through violent victory or non-violent justice?” 21. Jesus claimed it comes through non-violent justice. It comes through letting everyone– everyone– into your community and at your table. It comes through loving everyone– everyone.   It comes through caring for everyone–   everyone.

In both Biblical and non-Biblical Jewish texts “justice as equality” in Jesus’ day had long been understood as demanded by both divine decree and God’s very own character. 22 Jesus understood this. Jesus taught it. Jesus embodied it.  And Jesus’ baptism symbolizes just that. The One whom the Spirit landed on like a dove, like peace, and stayed with him throughout his ministry was God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom the Great I Am was well pleased.

Jesus’ image of the non-violent, loving God we now know and embrace, cleaned the muck of violence off the manmade image of God. Through Jesus’ Way Christians can  know the clean and pure God of peace, the God of justice, the God of steadfast love. When Jesus entered the ministry –which we remember as beginning with his baptism– he started a movement that – in the end– gave us a clear clean picture of the God of peace. The God who is love.Our job is to keep that picture in our mind, to remember always Christ’s call to peace through love . . . which is God. When we think of Jesus, we’d do well to think of the dove, and think of love.

AMEN

– ENDNOTES–
* This sermon is based on a sermon I originally wrote in 2008.
1. Tatum, Barnes, John The Baptist and Jesus: a Report of the Jesus Seminar, Sonoma: Polebridge Press, (1994) 119.
2. Ibid., 120.
3. Ibid.
4. Webb, John, John the Baptizer and Prophet, Sheffield:JSOT Press, (1991), 377.
5. John Dominic Crossan and Stephen Patterson both note that Jesus’ ministry included healing outcasts by declaring them clean, that is giving them status in his community. Crossan, Jesus a Revolutionary Biography,  San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1989) 77-84; idem,  The Birth of Christianity, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1998),  293-304; Patterson, The God of Jesus, Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, (1998), 71-75, 83. Perhaps as a follower of John Jesus borrowed from him the idea that someone outside the temple elite could mediate a process to change the unclean to clean and then expanded it from baptism to healing and meal sharing. Cf., Tatum, 164 (where a side box indicates that Paul Hollenbeck’s work suggests Jesus abandoned baptism for healing when he discovered he could do exorcisms).
6. Ibid., 172 (“we may conclude that the NT description of John’s baptism as ‘baptism of repentance of the forgiveness of sins’ probably reflects the significance of John’s baptism as John proclaimed it . . .”).
7. Ibid., 203.
8. Ibid., 203-205.
9. Crossan,  San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1992), 231. Crossan also notes that this end run around the temple was probably John’s unique invention.
10. Webb, 204.
11. Tatum, 124.
12. Ibid., 162-165
13.Ibid., 231, 235; Joshua 3.
14.Ibid., 231, 2359
15.Tatum. 160.
16. Ibid., 153.
17. Ibid., 151.
18. Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, 287.
19. Crossan, Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography, 48.
20. Borg, Crossan, The First Christmas p. 166.
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid., 184.

Scott Elliott Copyright © 2014

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The text of the sermon from January 5, 2014:

Stop Opening Presents and Listen
a sermon based on Matthew 2:1-12 *
given at Mount Vernon, OH on January 5, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I have early memories of the Magi. No, I did not see the original ones.  I am talking about some other almost-as-sacred-to-me Magi. When I was growing up our nearest relative was our great aunt “Tante” who lived in my hometown of San Jose.

There are four children in my family and we took turns on adventures with Tante. On a few Christmases it was my turn to go with Tante to the big and mysterious city north of us formally called “San Francisco,” but known to us locals as “The City” (and never, ever, referred by us as “Frisco,” a name that for some reason is akin to swearing in the Bay Area).

Tante would take me to “The City” on the train and we would travel all over town from Fishermen’s Warf to Giradelli Square to the cable cars and wonderful shops. But the end point, the focal point, the primary point was to get to Macy’s.

The City’s downtown Macy’s, by the standards of the day, was the Taj Mahal of all stores. And at Christmas it was probably as close to heaven as a small boy could ever hope to get on earth. There was so much going on. Santa and lights and chocolates and toys and toys and toys and the granddaddy of all holiday treats a huge multi-storied Christmas tree gussied up like a glittering jewelry box with a huge glowing star on top. It was a tree that you could see from anywhere on their giant escalator.

These were grand sights and usually most everyone else’s quest at Macy’s (along with merchandise, I suppose). Tante and I, however, had two other no less important, objectives. One was for me to get to ride on that humongous escalator passing story after story of Christmas goodies and that tree while going up and then while going down and back up and down again and again. (It was better than a roller coaster. I loved that escalator).
San Jose is a big place now, but, back in the day it had no escalators that I know of, so it was a real treat to ride the one at Macy’s– especially with Tante who’s mere presence kept at bay any employees hoping to stop my joy riding those endlessly moving glimmering clickity-clacking hypnotic re-folding stairs.
The second unusual quest was less fun, but much more sacred and perhaps even more interesting and rewarding. Tante, you see, was an artist. Her art was Christmas crafts.  From ornaments to elves to snowmen and gingerbread houses Tante was a blessed craftswoman the likes of which I have never seen since. Tante was good at every holiday craft she did, but she had a specialty niche. She  excelled at making two foot-tall Christmas Magi. She was in fact the Michelangelo of such Magi.
Tante entered window display contests at Macy’s and naturally won. So when we arrived at Macy’s the first thing we did was go to all the display windows until we found her knee high Magi carefully displayed in a diorama depicting them on their journey to find Jesus – right there in Macy’s window for all of The City to see!
Once we found the Magi we’d stare and admire them and listen to passersby “Ooo” and “Aw” at her art. We’d talk about how great they looked in the window. I was so proud of Tante, I told more than one gawker who the artist was– my Tante, right here before them.
After we had our first visit with the Magi then we’d go into Macy’s and explore and ride (and ride!) the escalator; then on the way out we’d go and look at those beautiful wise men one more time to say good-bye.
My family was not much of a church going family. I doubt I ever made it to a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service as a kid, yet, the Magi have long held a very special place in my heart because Tante and I had marvelous journies to see them.That fondness makes me fond of this day because tomorrow is Epiphany, a day Christians have long celebrated the revelation of the incarnation of God in humanity, and more specifically it is the day we celebrate the Magi’s successful quest to locate the child who had been born the “King of the Jews,” the child who would one day be known as Jesus the Christ, the very incarnation of God on earth.
Today is not only Epiphany Eve but also the Twelfth Day of Christmas and this story of the Magi has long been a part of our Christmas celebration. We sort of mix all our Christmas stories up in our head and Luke’s story melds with Matthew’s.  Sometimes we even picture secular songs in the story too. There is, though, no known Bible story of a drummer boy or animals talking with Jesus at Christmas. And despite my wife’s annual singing of them there is no truth to the secular lyrics “We Three Kings of Orient Are, Tried to Smoke a Rubber Cigar.”But even from the words in the Bible it is hard to tell exactly what is going on in the story we heard today with the Magi.
For example, we cannot really tell when the Magi in today’s story arrive to see Jesus. They do not arrive at an inn or a stable, and there is no manger – the story indicates they arrived at a “house.” And Joseph is not there, only Mary and Jesus. Even though we do not know what day the Magi arrived, in modern tradition we celebrate their story as a part of Christmas.

Our tradition has three Magi, all of them kings and all of them men, wise men. There are traditionally three because of the three gifts and they are kings because of a prophetic verse in Isaiah (60:1-3).  But the number and gender and rank of the Magi are not actually stated in the story. Indeed the Magi may have been a reference to been more than three and both men and women– and the Magi were not kings but rather wise non-Jewish religious and spiritual leaders. 1

The word Magi comes from the Greek word “magos” referring to the priests of a Near East religion called Zoroastrianism. (Zoro-asstree-in-ism)The Magi were known to study the stars and have an expertise in astrology, highly regarded science at the time. They were also considered wise in Spiritual matters so “Wise Ones,” is a good translation that connotes the meaning that the word “Magi” would probably have had to Matthew’s community. 2

These Wise Ones come from afar, so they can be understood to symbolize the discovery of Jesus by the world outside of Israel.  And we can hear how God guides them first with that wonderful star, with enlightenment through exposure to scripture and then through a profound spiritual visit in their dreams.

We learn that the Magi are only able to get so far in their efforts through science and nature. They have to ask for directions in Jerusalem. And it is supposed to be funny and ironic that these Gentiles get the scripture and it’s meaning, as opposed to Herod’s religious elites who see the Word and understand it, but do not act on it. The Magi act on it. And they are led to where? Christ. God nudges them through nature, science, wisdom, and the law, but it is the willingness of the Magi to act on what God’s calling them to that makes all the difference in the end.

And let’s talk about that star. First of all, Matthew is brilliantly connecting the pagan Magi motif of star study and science with Jewish and Roman traditions relating to stars.In the book of Numbers another Magi, the sorcerer Balaam prophesied that “A star shall come forth out of Jacob. . .” and Jewish tradition at the time of Matthew had it that this was to be a sign of the Messiah. And the historian Josephus reported that a comet could be seen in the skies above Jerusalem for a year at the time of the temple’s fall around 70 A.D. Although this was long after Jesus walked the earth,  Matthew was written not long after that fall and the comet.
Moreover, the legend of the city state of Rome involved a star that Aneas followed to the place where Rome was founded. So stories of stars heralding events or being a part of events or leading to special places were not strange to Matthew’s community and they helped connect the foreign Magi to their own cultural experiences of star stories. Matthew’s star story validated Jesus under known star legends. Jesus was heralded like great things of the day: by a star!
Every year at Christmas we hear or read some explanation of celestial happenings that could account for the star. It’s usually supposed to be this comet or that comet or a clustering of planets or other natural occurrences in the sky. But no star in the known universe has ever behaved like it. The star rises in the east like most things in the sky with the rotations of the earth, but that’s about the only natural thing about it. It leads the Magi to a particular geographic locale, Jerusalem; and then hovers waiting for them to pick up directions from scripture.
Have you ever tried to follow a star to a particular location? It cannot be done. Stars do not hover in the sky over things, pointing down to houses, or even towns. And this star does not just hover over locales it turns south and leads the Magi a few miles away from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then right to a very particular spot–  the house where Jesus is. Stars in nature can give a compass direction (like North) but they did not and do not lead and point down to places. So this is no ordinary star that can be explained by comets or other known celestial occurrences. It’s a Light, God’s Light that enlightens the Wise Ones in the world– and always has.
Jesus’ birth is about the coming of a Light that draws the wise to its radiance. 2. Matthew’s point is that “Jesus is the light of the nations.” 3 Matthew is making the same point that the Gospel of John does: “Jesus is the light of the world.”
In the Christmas stories as soon as Joseph and Mary have the Light of Christ in their lives, God speaks to them in dreams, and they both act as God calls  them to in their dreams. The same thing happens to the Magi. Once they reach the Light of Christ, then God speaks to them in a dream, then they too do what God requests.

As we heard the past few weeks Joseph and Mary and the Magi are all called to acts for the Empire of God over and against the Empire of Rome and its minions, the religious elite. Mary and Joseph defy the earthly empire’s laws and the Magi do too by not following the order to disclose the location of the newborn King of the Jews.

See those who have the Light of Christ in their lives are not afraid to follow the edicts of God’s Empire. The en-Lightened actors in the story (Joseph; Mary and the Magi) set up role models of civil disobedience that places allegiance to Love of God and others far above obedience to the unloving and ungodly edicts of earthly empires. It’s a model we see Jesus play out more fully as his life unfolds in Matthew– everything Jesus does is in done in complete allegiance to Love, to God and the results are nothing sort of world altering!

And even today just the stories of his life full of Love still resonate, still vibrate with Love for us. I mean we can literally feel Love radiating off the pages of the Gospel. It’s quite remarkable.

The Magi are the first Gentiles to give homage to Jesus, to the Light of Christ. Once you’ve experienced that light you do not put Caesar’s Empire or the dictates of the religious elite first!

What you do is put Love first. Love of God, love of neighbor, love of self and love of creation, this is what God calls us to in this story, in the rest of Matthew and the New Testament–  and wherever and whenever God talks to us, even in our dreams; even in our memories of Christmas past.

There’s love in the Christmas story of the Wise Ones and Jesus’ parents. When we get past the commercialism the whole story and season is soaked with love. There’s love in my little memories of Tante holding hands and sharing the joy of the season with each other and passerbys we did not even know.  You probably have similar memories of love in the season.

On this last day of Christmas with the hustle and bustle over we can look at the holidays from a different perspective. One of my favorite Christmas saying is by a seven year old named Bobby. Bobby is reported to have said  “Love is what’s in the room at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” 4. I love that. We’ve opened our presents and can listen now on this last day of Christmas. We can hear love.

Love is what is in the air at Christmas if we just stop and listen; we can hear that love in Christmas memories. Memories of the Wise Ones acts, memories of Mary and Joseph’s acts, and in memories of other people’s Christmas acts, like loved one’s acts long ago, or maybe even just a fortnight ago.

And, of course, we can especially hear it and feel it in the memories of that Christmas baby that the Wise Ones sought and found.  That baby grew up to lead a life of words and acts that were and are all about love.

And God, God, is love.

AMEN

ENDNOTES
* This sermon is based on a sermon I first preached in 2009
1. Harper, Jennifer, The Washington Times, “A ‘Magi’ Makeover for Three Wise Men,” Nov. 2, 2004 article located on line at  www.washtimes.com/national/20040211-121228-7836r.htm.
2. Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic,  The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth, (New York: HarperOne, 2007) p. 182.
3. Ibid., at 184
4 This from one of those e-mail “forwards” about what children are supposed to have said about love. The e-mail did not have a listed author and credited this particular quote to “Bobby.”

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Here is The sermon text from December 29, 2014:

Dressing to the Nines for Christ
a sermon based on Colossians 3:12- 17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 29,  2013*
by Rev. Scott Elliott

There are twelve days of Christmas on our church calendar and so we are still in the Christmas season as we gather this morning on the 5th Day of Christmas. So let me wish you a Merry Christmas!

One our family’s favorite Christmas movies is “A Christmas Story.” It’s a delightful film about Ralph, a nine year old boy at Christmas time.    In one scene Ralph, who day-dreams of heroic grandeur with the gift of a Red Ryder BB gun, opens on Christmas morning not a BB gun, but a present his mother and aunt want him to have:  one piece pink fluffy bunny pajamas complete with huge ears and a cotton tail. Ralph, is to say the least, very disappointed with the suit and then much to his horror (and our delight as an audience) he has to try the pajamas on in front of his family.

I cannot recall a gift-incident that was that bad for me as a child, but I do remember as a kid especially not liking it when I opened a present that turned out to be clothes. I selfishly, and I must admit ungratefully, wanted a football or a toy or a flashlight, something fun!  At the time all I could think was “Ahh man, what fun are clothes?

As an adult I now very much appreciate the clothes I get at Christmas; and, of course looking back I also appreciate now the clothes I got when I was young, as well as those that relatives have sent our children.   Clothes are a good, reasonable, thoughtful and time-honored gift. They can be fun too.

As churches go UCCer’s are pretty informal regarding church attire.  Casual is as fine as “dressing to the nines,” after all Jesus wore sandals. I think that is great. It reflects not just a progressive theology and open door, but our cultures more lax dress codes.   I have noticed, though, that despite our casual approach to clothing, at Christmas more of us tend to “dress to the nines” when we go to church. It’s part of the holiday tradition, it’s not mandatory by any means, but it is for many of us fun.

I did a little research on where the saying “dressed to the nines” comes from. Apparently there is much debate on the topic and no one knows for sure. Some think it’s related to the nine yards of fabric needed to make a suit.  Others think it eludes to the nine Muses of Greek mythology, dressing to them, in a fashion suitable for the gods.

Another theory has it – and this is my favorite– that it’s called “dressing to the nines” because nine is the highest single-digit number, and so it symbolizes the best or highest one can achieve.  I like this idea because it fits nicely with Paul’s instruction in the reading this morning to put on our best, to metaphorically dress to the nines with the right bearing and approach to life.

Paul can be heard to basically ask us to put on nine things in today’s reading, nine things to make sure we go out into the world with each day garbed fully as Christians.      These are nine garments that the Christmas season already has us wearing most, if not all, of the past four weeks. Our wearing them  has made the world a different place over the Christmas Season, a world focusing on God’s call to peace on earth good will to all.

The trick, of course, is to not change out of those better garments we’ve had on, but to wear those nine things all year long. That is what Paul can be heard to instruct us to do in the text this morning.

The Fifth Day of Christmas is the gift in the “Days of Christmas” song that stands out the most in the song. . . “On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to (join in!) FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!”      The five golden rings are the only gift in the song that a person wears, so it seems fitting to discuss the nine things that Paul tells us to wear today.

As I list them consider how by and large at Christmas time WE WEAR THEM (!); but also keep in mind Paul is instructing us to wear them every day!  Here’s how Paul advises Christians are to dress to the nines: #1. Put on Compassion. #2. Put on Kindness. #3. Put on Humility. #4. Put on Meekness. #5. Put on Patience. #6. Put on Forgiveness. #7. Put on Peace of Christ. #8. Put on Thanks. And #9 above all, put on Love.
Dressing to those nines is the best we can dress to bring about the promise of humankind – the call to peace on earth good will to all. The promise of Christmas (and Easter and the Gospels for that matter), the promise of peace and hope and joy and love that comes from wearing those nine garments.

If we approached life with those nine things draped on our beings all year long (like we just did all month long) the very in-breaking of the Realm of God will be experienced all the more.  From January to December the world needs more Compassion, Kindness, Humility, Meekness, Patience, Forgiveness, Peace of Christ, Thanks and Love. Paul’s telling us that it is our job to get those bits of Christian apparel on for our sake, for the world’s sake, for Christ’s sake.
I liked the way Dan read the scripture today.

    I am going to re-read a couple of portions and some surrounding text from a different version of the Bible, a paraphrase I’ve read from before; THE MESSAGE by Eugene Patterson. Rev. Patterson’s words can help us understand what Colossians means for us today. He uses different words to describe the list of nine things but the gist is the same.  Here it is . . .

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides.
Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ–that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.
Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life–even though invisible to spectators–is with Christ in God. He is your life.
When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too–the real you, the glorious you. Meanwhile, be content with obscurity, like Christ.
And that means killing off everything connected with that way of death: sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy. That’s a life shaped by things and feelings instead of by God . . .
It wasn’t long ago that you were doing all that stuff and not knowing any better.
But you know better now, so make sure it’s all gone for good: bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk.
Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire.

Can you hear Paul telling Christians that before they can get dressed to the nines (as I have been calling it) they need to get out of their old clothes first?  Makes sense, right?   It doesn’t really work to put on a coat and tie or nice dress over dirty clothes, like soiled coveralls. So, Paul tells Christians to remove from their person the things of their old life that get in the way of the lovely new trappings they now don.
Paul suggests we discard our old duds that get in the way of the new ones. He lists some of these old things like: 1. Focusing on material goods. 2. Seeking fame.     3. Sexual improprieties.     4. Doing whatever we feel like whenever we feel like it.5. Grabbing whatever attracts our fancy.    6. Having a bad temper. 7. Irritability. 8. Meanness. 9. Profanity. 10. Dirty talk.11. Lying.

The reason Paul gives for getting rid of the old-in-the-way things is that Christians are (and I am quoting from The Message)  “done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire.”
In The Message Paul is reported to go on to say:

Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete.
Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, [meekness], [patience].
Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you.
And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness.
Let the Word of Christ–the Message–have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God!
Let every detail in your lives–words, actions, whatever–be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.  (“The Message”)

From January to December the world needs more of what the reading today calls Compassion, Kindness, Humility, Meekness, Patience, Forgiveness,  Peace of Christ, Thanks and Love. Paul’s telling us that it is our job to get those bits of Christian apparel on for our sake, for the world’s sake, for Christ’s sake.

This year as Christmas unwinds let’s not hide our Christian apparel in the closet until next year. Compassion, Kindness, Humility, Meekness, Patience, Forgiveness, Peace of Christ, Thanks and Love ought to be worn by us from now until next Christmas.   Let’s follow Paul’s advice and dress “to those nines” – our very best– all year long . . . all the rest of our lives.
Peace on earth good will to all!

And again I say, Merry Christmas!

AMEN
* This sermon is based on a sermon first given in 2010 and was inspired by a song and music video by Rev. Dr. Christopher Grundy. His song is called “Garments of Love” and here’s a link to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrwgUSLWBGw .  Of course Jesus and Paul inspired me too!

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Here’s the text of the sermon from December 22, 2013:

Love is in the Air
a sermon based on John 1:1-5
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 22, 2013
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I noticed over the years that there are a lot of questions about Christmas, so I’m going to take a moment and answer . . . some silly ones . . . The first question us “Were the Magi the first paparazzi?” The answer’s  “Yes because they were the first to relentlessly follow a star.”

The second question is  “How come we say Jesus’ mother’s name and wish people a “Merry Christmas?” The answer, “Because wishing a ‘Joseph Christmas’ makes no sense.”

Look, I made these for today, so you have to hear my last one: “Why don’t they call the small portions of Christmas giftbox cheddars “baby cheeses?” . . . The answer is because they aren’t gouda ‘nough.

On a day off at Sips I actually wrote down over forty Christmas pun ideas, so be thankful you got less than a fifteenth of what could’ve been.

I am so very happy to announce that my wife, Nancy and our two daughters, Tristan and Forest are here today . . . You can express pity to them later, as they may end up hearing all forty-something puns before they fly home.

Some of you – especially them since they are trapped in a house with me– might think that is evil . . . Which is the most jolting way I can think of to bring up an elephant in the room at Christmas, evil real evil, not pun evil.

Evil is jolting. It’s troubling. And I don’t think it will ruin the Christmas stories for anyone when I disclose the good news– what I have been saying all Advent– that evil doesn’t win in our Christmas stories . . . love wins.

Love wins in the Christmas stories. And the promise in the stories (actually the good news in the all Gospels) is that, whether evil’s present or not, love can win in each moment. That good news is a truth we can bank on.

But, it’s also true that the first Christmas came, Jesus showed up, and then lived to be an adult, and died and was resurrected to save humanity, yet, evil still remains in the world– real evil, what the theological dictionary defines as “that which opposes the will of God.” 1.

Evil is in essence an intentional turning a way from where God calls us. In order to understand Christmas and it’s good news we have to appreciate that there is evil in the story and its source.

Some try to blame it on a lesser deity named Satan or the devil. As monotheists though Christians are supposed to believe in one God (GOD). That means we understand there are no other deities– lesser or otherwise.  No one has to agree with me, but, logically this means that Satan as a supernatural being cannot exist. If that is true then where does evil come from?

Let me answer that question with another question, if we removed humans from creation would there be evil?  Think about that … It may be convenient to pass the blame to some deity named Satan, but the truth is evil arises in humankind. It’s a sobering thought.

We tend to focus on good at Christmas which you know I think is wonderful, but there is a lot of evil that has to be overpowered to get to that wonderful goodness. Love wins in the Christmas stories in the Bible. And what love wins over is the evil lurking in those stories.
Christmas is ultimately about choices. Human choices. It’s the same choices humans have had, and always will have. We get to choose good or choose evil.  Do as the Caesars and Herods of the world require, compel, want. Or do as God requires, compels, wants.

And it’s not just the Christmas story that considers this choice. The very first Bible story of humankind has it in that once humans are created the choice of good an evil comes into play. Adam and Eve eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they (humans) learn there are these two choices.

The Hebrew word for “good” in Genesis is “towb” and it means welfare, benefit, good. 2

The Hebrew word for evil is “ra” and it means misery, injury, broken-ness, dysfunction, wickedness, evil. 3

Good? Or evil? The whole of the Bible is about those two human choices, including the Christmas Story. The fruit’s been eaten. We know good; we know evil, that fruit was picked at the start. But we all still get to pick which to do in each moment of our existence.

This is a choice that’s about doing, acting toward good or evil. It’s not about the factual accuracy of the Bible stories. It’s not about belief.  It’s about action, doing.  In each Bible story, in our lives we face that choice, to do good or to do evil.

The good news is that even if we chose evil in the previous moment or moments, we can always choose good in the next moment. Always.Every moment offers salvation and resurrection through a choice toward good, toward what we theists call God. The God we Christians know as love.

Often times we hear people say we need to do the will of God and they often connect it to their belief system, so that God’s will is nothing more than their will. But the definition of the “will of God” may surprise them– and us. It’s not what televangelists seem to think it is, the theological dictionary states it is

The expression of God’s desire or intention. It may be considered the ‘highest good” of all things and is operative to defeat evil within the universe… 4.

Evil is harm. It is breaking. It is dysfunction. It is the opposite of welfare. It is in a word, unloving.
Good is a benefit. It is welfare. It is the opposite of evil. It is in a word, loving. Love is God’s will for all of creation.  It is the highest good.

And we get to choose to be loving, or not; to care for well being as God does, or not.  Once humans arrived in the world the choice arrived.

As I’ve mentioned a number times in my short tenure so far, love means desire for well being. 5 And Love is the primary attribute of God. 6

According to Scripture when love – the desire for well being– is played out to it’s fullest, then we have Shalom which is the Hebrew word we translate as peace, and I love that “shalom” means well being.

Love in action, love played out to it’s fullest brings peace, which is God’s will, the point of the Bible, and the very core of the Christmas story; Peace on earth good will to all is God’s choice, it’s Jesus’ choice, it’s the loving choice,  and we have the choice in each moment of our life, no matter what has happened before.

Frankly, we like Christmas because folks are making the choice more and more in each moment for love, for peace on earth good will to all this time of year. It’s our Christmas mantra. And so love is in the air, and the hope of peace hovers there too! We like

Christmas because it is about light in the darkness.  It’s a story about choices of evil losing to choices of good.

It’s no accident that Christmas, the coming of the light of the world, is celebrated in the deepest darkest time of year. Just when it seems dark may win, love’s light beams and we have hope that the light of love will win in our stories too.

It is my experience that the Christmas stories (indeed the whole of the Bible) are best understood as poetic symbols and sounds and words.

See the experiences of the wonder of creation and love, and the creation force that we call God, cannot be described by mere mortal words. They simply can’t. Neither can the salvific nature of any of those wonders.  And so humans resort to poetry. Song. Story. Parable. Words.

The Christmas story is such poetry. Like good poetry, the truth of life is revealed in the telling.

And the so the Christmas stories portray the darkness of evil, that elephant in the room. Jesus’ “parents-to-be” are treated terrible. The dominant culture and government of Rome and its local king Herod are so broken and dysfunctional that their way intentionally  causes peasants like the Holy family to be expendable to the culture. The powerful do not care for them, or any other peasants’, welfare. Indeed the powerful thrive and maintain power and wealth based on that expendabilty squeezing what they can out of vast majority who have so little, and they oppress them to keep them down.

The cultural elite also disrespect foreigners, like the Magi, who are treated as strangers and not as equal to citizens as the Bible commands (Lv. 19:34).

And the elite have it set up so they can even force a pregnant woman to travel by foot for three days to her husband’s hometown so they can be taxed to further feed the elite’s greed.

The cultural elite don’t even provide basic care needed so that no woman has to give birth– and no child has to be born– in a stable and no new born is put to sleep in an animal trough.

In the story the system is so evil, so in opposition to God’s way of love, that Herod – the head of the local government– is allowed to hunt an infant, and to carry a scheme out to kill countless infants.

There is much evil evidenced in the Christmas stories descriptions of the acts and inactions of the dysfunctional culture and governments.The darkness of the night can be heard to symbolize this in Joseph’s dream and the Shepherd’s field, and the night sky the Magi travel under.

But for all the darkness, symbolic and real evil, there is light. That light calls us to be repulsed by the evil and to root for the good. We can feel it vibrating in the story.

I chose what I call John’s Nativity text as our Christmas Sunday reading. We’ve heard much of the other Nativity texts already. I call it  John’s Nativity text because, although it is not a birth of a Christ child text, it is John’s story of Jesus’ beginning.

Jesus as John tells it IS the very word of God, that power which first spoke and still speaks

ALL creation into being. As we heard, John puts it like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Joh 1:1-5 NRS).

In that “Word” (which God is still speaking) is life, and that life is the light of all people. Such a light shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it. Darkness cannot win.
And even though John’s story of Jesus’ beginning is abstract, it nonetheless contains the same truth that Matthew and Luke’s stories contain, that “light shines in the darkness.” Goodness out-shines evil.  Love wins. This is what the Christmas story exemplifies, right?

Think of all the light-ness in the stories. It’s everywhere. In the darkness of life an angel of light appears to Mary and she bears the light into the world, THE light of the world.Pregnancy itself is a great light.  Mary’s brave acceptance of it is a light. God’ talk with her and her talk with Elizabeth and her song on behalf of the oppressed are great lights. Mary’s pregnancy put Joseph’s in darkness at first, and when he decides to be a light himself in that darkness, then light of an angel of the Lord appears. Joseph’s response is to bring more light into the situation and save Mary and their marriage and their child, Jesus. The Magi follow a light to Jesus and then they act as lights honoring and protecting him. The lowly expendable shepherds in the deep darkness of winter night experience the bright light of the heavenly host and in turn bring their lights to surround the baby.There are all these extraordinarily ordinary people who choose light, goodness over evil and their choices – the lowly people’s choices–  over-power and defeat the evil choices of the cultural elite.

The ultimate good news of the Christmas story is that ordinary people who are expendable and powerless to the cultural elites follow a way of doing things that defeats the evil choices of those elite.  The ordinary it turns out have an extraordinary power: LOVE!

Birth is given to a lowly-peasant-nobody baby, so worthless to the elite his execution is decreed by Herod. All the humans who surround that infant in the Christmas story are worthless to the culture elite too. But their choices of loving acts over-power all the evil choices by the supposedly more powerful elite.   LOVE WINS!

Love is always in the air– this time of year for sure. The other times of year we get to make choices for good too. And we get to decide if we want to choose it, if we want to be one of the extraordinary ordinary people who choose love. And when we do choose love, more good news arises, peace on earth good will to all becomes that much more an experiential reality. HEAVEN BREAKS IN!

The good, good news is that Jesus showed us all that when we choose love – good over evil– as often as possible it makes all the difference. It’s a power to be reckoned with. It’s a power that cannot lose. Ever.

All the good folks in the Christmas story do the loving things Jesus teaches in his ministry as an adult. They choose good – love– over evil. Consequently they saves themselves and the world from a lesser way of being.

We have that choice too in each moment of our lives. The Christmas stories demonstrate this. May we all make that choice in as many moments as possible.

AMEN.

ENDNOTES:
1. Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms,  p 97
2.  Bible Works 9, Strong’s Codes and definition for “good” in Genesis 2.
3. Ibid for “evil”
4 Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms,  p 303
5. Ibid., 164.
6 Ibid.
COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The text of the sermon given on December 15:

Christmas Moments That Last Forever
a sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 15, 2013
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Jesus was walking around heaven feeling nostalgic and decided to look for Joseph to catch up on old times. He saw an old man and went up to him and this conversation took place:

Jesus: “Excuse me, I’m looking for my father.”

Old Man: “What a coincidence. I’m looking for my son.”

Jesus: “Well, my father wasn’t really my biological father, but he loved me like a son anyway.”

Old Man: “What a coincidence! My son wasn’t my real son, either, but I loved him as my own.”

Jesus: “Well, my father was a carpenter.”

Old Man: “What a coincidence! I was a carpenter, too!”

Jesus: “Wow! Well, when I was a child, I left home for a long time, and when I finally came back, I experienced a mystical transformation and became something completely different from what I’d been before.”

Old Man: “Wow! The same thing happened to my son!”

Jesus: “Father!” . . .

Old Man: “Pinocchio!”1

After that I know most of us are thinking “What? Jesus wooden knows his own father?” The answer, of course, is: Jesus would knows.
Okay, sorry about that . . . I think most Protestants wouldn’t recognize Joseph by his story. He seems unknown, maybe even nondescript to us. But really his short presence in the Christmas story is a powerful one we’d do well to remember.

No matter how we understand the Gospel story today, one way or another we know that Joseph is Jesus’ father, at least by adoption. And adoption is actually what’s implied in the context of adoption traditions of Jesus’ time. “By naming the baby, Joseph acknowledges him as his son, in effect, Joseph adopts Jesus . . .”  2
And as we heard, Joseph is given God’s message from an angel that he, Joseph, is to name his son “Jesus.”  That’s the way we read and hear the story, but the name “Jesus” is actually a Greek translation of the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew name we know in English as Joshua. In Hebrew Jesus and Joshua come from one and the same name:  “Yeoshu’a.”
That’s all quite confusing I know, the bottom line is that Jesus’ name was Yeoshu’a, a name that means “Yahweh is Salvation” or simply put, “God Saves.” 3. Jesus’ name means “God Saves.”
The authors of the Bible and I have something in common besides being old, we use puns a lot.    And we have a Bible pun – actually delivered by an angel– in today’s Christmas story. It’s a pun that plays off of the meaning of Yeoshu’a,  Jesus’ name. The angel tells Joseph “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The word play is that Jesus means “God saves . ..” “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Get it?
Now you know I gotta love that a great one sentence Scriptural summary of who Jesus is includes a pun uttered by an angel speaking on behalf of God. I take that to mean in no uncertain terms that puns are heavenly and God likes them! This has inspired me for many a sermon (most especially next week’s).
But, of course, that one sentence is packed with much more meaning than a pun. Jesus, as the incarnation of God, does indeed save. For Christians Jesus is God saving us. And I purposefully did not couch that in the past tense. Jesus is God saving us.
We all usually head into the Christmas season expecting and hoping for a Hallmark Story glow to it. We tend to aim for a flawless holiday of warm fuzzy harmony with family and a rousing round of nothing but good cheer. 4  But truthfully the everyday messes of life do not usually suspend themselves for the holidays, and the holidays are rarely if ever flawless.

Indeed for some the stress and blues of life increase this time of year, often because we have disappointed expectations that the messiness will end and it doesn’t,  or we have it in our head that others have a holiday season without flaws and we are upset that ours don’t match up, or sometimes this time of year is just a mess for us. The messiness of life does not end this time of year. We still miss loved ones, and argue, and don’t do this or that the way we want. It’s unreasonable to expect otherwise.

This is not to say that Christmas time is not full of more love and more cheer than any other time of the year. Clearly it is! If you have heard me preach any of the other Advent sermons you know I love Advent precisely because we do crank up the love and cheer this time of year.

But that does not mean messiness as rule takes a vacation. The not so good and bad stuff still happens. Christmas is not about magically making messiness of life go away, but it is about how we respond to those messes and makes the best of this moment. It’s about loving acts saving us in the midst of those messes. God – who is love– saves.

How?

Well religion is at its heart about relationship. It is about how we relate to the Sacredness of all that is . . . and most especially how we relate to the Sacredness in one another.

For Progressive Christians  following Jesus creates an understanding that  there are three golden threads to a tapestry of righteous existence: The First thread is an understanding that there is a creative universal force. The second thread is grasping that we are in a relationship with the universal force– God. The third golden thread is understanding that we are beckoned to relate to others as we want to be related to.  The tapestry of Christian righteous living is created through our  experiences of Jesus – in the past and in the present– acting as a loom that weaves the three golden threads into our lives, the lives of others, into creation and into the future.

The result is a tapestry square which adds to the God’s quilted blanket of salvation for humanity, saving it – and us–  from our lesser way of being. When it all gets boiled down Jesus teachings are fundamentally about being a part of love, that is being one who aims to relate to people with love, bringing love to the world as we want it brought to us– especially in the mucky and mirky places of our lives.

Like I said,  Joseph is not talked about much in Protestant churches other than being Jesus’ adoptive dad – most wouldn’t recognize him from his story. But here’s the thing, Joseph exemplifies how humans should respond to life’s messiness. He personifies how to relate to others with love. And it makes all the difference in his life, Mary’s life and Jesus’ life, and actually our lives and all of humanity.

Joseph relates to others as we would want to be related to. He lives out the Golden Rule in a very untidy situation. Joseph is facing one of humanity’s biggest upsets, the loss of a relationship, a partnership break-up looms. And he’s facing it in a culture where men were considered to own their partner, their betrothed. And violation of that ownership allowed the man to cause the woman he owned disgrace, shunning or even death.

At the start of the Christmas story, there exists the pain and anguish that comes when the loss of a beloved looms, and it seems extra painful because in the case of adultery the deep hurt it causes compounds the loss. Joseph understandably thinks he is facing all of this. His response could have been jealous violence outside the law as sadly many men are wont to wrongly choose. His response could have been violence within the law, and actually the righteous at that time under the literal compliance with Torah were legally supposed to prosecute and obtain the ordained punishments.

But Joseph opts for something altogether different.  We are told he is righteous. And if we stop and think about he does what Micah 6:8 tell us God requires of us. He seeks justice and loves kindness and walks humbly with his God.  The justice Joseph seeks is providing that which is due to Mary, not under the ordained punishments of the law but under the supreme commandment of the law: love of neighbor as yourself; do to others as you would want done to you. He loves kindness over literal reading of the Scripture and enforcement of strict punishment. He is humble and quiet about it.

And what’s so beautiful about the reading today is that the instant Joseph decided to seek real justice and love real kindness and really walk humbly with God –at that very moment we are told (and I quote) “when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream . . .”

God soaks Joseph’s life. Joseph is righteous and he makes the decisions God requires in the toughest of times. The entire book of Job is about this, life is full of messiness, unpleasant and awful stuff happens. Our call is to be the best we can be in each given moment– most especially the dark ones. That is what Job, a righteous person in a mess, does and God appears to him. That’s what Joseph, a righteous person in a mess, does and God appears to him. See in those moments of making the right decisions, God is with us and working through us and it creates more experiences of God, and sometimes –even Divine revelations that can get us out of the muck.

Because Joseph makes the righteous choice he literally helps God bring Christ into the world.  The result is that his work for, and on behalf of Christ, saves. It saves Mary. It saves his marriage.  In the chapter that follows today’s reading in Matthew Joseph saves Christ by leading an exodus away from Herod’s plot to murder baby Jesus. And that means that Joseph’s acts served to save us too. Because without the baby Jesus’ survival we do not get Jesus’ ministry, teaching, healing, later death and resurrection.

We are told Joseph named the Christ child Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins.” And we are told that “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

“ God is with us.” And God is with us experientially through Jesus because of Mary as we discussed last week, and because of Joseph as we are discussing today. Both of them did not encounter and live through a warm fuzzy Hallmark season getting them to the first Christmas.  It was messy, as messy as life gets. But that first Christmas came, because they found a way to turn toward God, toward love, in the messiness of life.

We can pretend otherwise, but the truth is life is full of messiness, unpleasant and awful stuff happens, our call is to be the best we can be in each given moment, most especially in the messes. That is what Mary, a righteous person in a mess, does. That’s what Joseph, a righteous person in a mess, does.

How does all this relate to “joy,” the theme of the Third Sunday in Advent? The word “joy” is defined as

a. Intense and especially ecstatic or exultant happiness. b. The expression or manifestation of such feeling. 2. A source or an object of pleasure or satisfaction. 5.

Before Jesus is born, before the first Christmas, it is the remarkable efforts of Jesus’ parents – Mary, God and Joseph– out of the mess of life, which bring us the hope of peace through the love of God incarnate in Christ. This gives us deep personal joy, as well as collective joy!

That love incarnate is real and this time of year it is something we can feel deep down, and that love is “Intense and especially ecstatic and exultant happiness.” This is joyful news!

And our response is “The expression [and] manifestation of such feeling.”

The Nativity is a “source [and] an object of pleasure [and] satisfaction.” It is joy-filled for us because of Mary and Joseph’s choices to be loving in the ugliness of life they encounter.

The choices to be love which they make in the moment of their crisis provide Christmas moments that last forever.

The good news is the whole Christmas story gives us great joy–  and promises more joy when we also answer the call from God to be the best we can be in each given moment.

Love matters much. It saves the world for its lesser way if being,  bringing more and more joy to the world!

AMEN.
ENDNOTES:
1. I found this joke (which I have modified slightly) at a website called “Funworld/fun4you” located at http://www.hehe.at/funworld/archive/fun4you.php?joke=402
2. FOW A, vol 1, p95
3. http://www.behindthename.com/name/joshua  ; http://www.catholic.org/clife/jesus/jesusname.php
4. I got this idea and the imagery from FOW p 92.
5. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/joy

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Here is the text of the sermon given on December 8, 2013:

We Magnify and Rejoice in God’s Love
a sermon based on Luke 1:46-55
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 8, 2013
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I read a joke the other day about a pious soul who died, went to heaven, and met up with Mary. The visitor asked Mary why, for all her blessings, does she always appear in paintings as a bit sad, a bit wistful: “Is everything O.K.?” the visitor asked. Mary reassured her: “Oh, everything’s great. No problems. It’s just … it’s just that we . . . wanted a daughter.’” 1

Most of you know by now that I direct plays. On my bucket list is the dream to one day direct a production of the musical Godspell with a female Jesus. See God incarnate in our lives is not limited to one gender, nor is one gender better than the other as a vehicle for Christ’s work in the world and I think a female Jesus in Godspell would make that obvious.

Nancy and I tried very hard to raise our children to understand that male and females are equal and that, truly, girls and boys could choose to do anything in life, that there were no gender limitations of any import. That approach countermands some teaching in the Bible, like First Timothy wherein Paul purportedly laid down this rule “ Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1Ti 2:11-12 NRS). Similarly 1 Corinthians 14:34 provides that “ women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak . . .”

Let me be clear on this, I find those texts unloving and ungodly, and far from being the inspired word of God. They are vestiges of a misogamy laced patriarchal culture, they are not remnants of Jesus’ teachings and certainly are not God’s call to us. In fact, many scholars believe that it is unlikely Paul wrote either of those offensive texts. Both appear to have been written decades after Paul. In short, they are not the words of Paul, let alone the Word of God. 2 So why are they in the Bible? They were likely written later when a portion of the Jesus following had taken on the trappings of the Roman patriarchy.

But decades before those two texts were written the author of Luke penned what we know as the Gospel of Luke and in it he portrays the Jesus Movement in an entirely different light with respect to women. Women are remembered as mattering much in the movement and clearly matter much to Jesus.Women are reported as being followers– disciples– of Jesus and the Jesus movement and as respected and even powerful members of the Jesus movement.

One of the greatest example of this is the reading we heard Kathy read today. Unlike Matthew’s version of the Christmas story Mary, not Joseph, is whom God speaks to through an angel. And Mary, not Joseph, chooses to accept the conception of Jesus the Christ through her body. She is in control, she has a choice and she is whom God directly approaches and empowers. And because she makes the choice and claims the blessing offered by God, Mary conceives Christ.

That last sentence actually can apply to every Christian, because when we make the choice and claim the blessing offered by God, we conceive Christ. And therein lies at least one metaphoric universal truth in Luke’s story. See it is always between just God and us when it comes to the “conception” of Christ.

And it is really important that the first persons recorded to conceive Christ was not a royal or rich or powerful person. God instead chose to offer the first conception of Christ to an unmarried peasant teenaged girl, a lowly person to the culture, one of culture’s unworthiest expendables.

In Luke’s marvelous re-telling God did not follow the cultural ideas on worthiness– as we discussed couple of weeks ago, God never does. Simply put, earthly constructs that labeled anyone unworthy have no place in God’s realm, that’s why later in Acts (10:28) God issues the command that Christians “should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

So Mary-the-nobody to virtually the rest of the world, is Mary-the-somebody to God and the Jesus Movement. And Mary does the miraculous, she consents to, and then does, conceive and incubate the Christ child in her womb, and then she delivers him for all generations since to have the chance to also conceive him. It’s mind bending metaphor understood that way.

In a world where cultures often act disrespectful toward teenagers and women, God does the opposite and shows great respect for them. The Nativity story is a case in point. God chooses a teenaged woman to offer the opportunity to carry, birth and raise the Son of God.

And God, of course, makes the right choice. Mary is not passive about the whole thing, her affirmative decision not only changes her body, but her being– and the world. Like most teens she is smart and she gets the meanings conceiving God incarnate, God who is with us.

And like many teens today music was important to the teenager Mary, and she sings the awesome song we call “The Magnificat” which has taught and inspired generations of church goers. This teaching woman image flies in the face of the anti-women texts I read from First Timothy and First Corinthians, and so as a feminist I especially love that text.

The very first person to conceive Christ to experience the Jesus Movement (in more ways that one I might add), is a woman. And she is not stifled or silenced. She powerfully describes and teaches aloud what happens when we accept God’s offer to conceive Christ. Mary sings:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me
blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his
arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good
things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his
descendants forever. (Luk 1:46-55 NRS)

This song in some cultures inspires the Christmas revelry to include what’s called the “Feast of Fools” where Christians act out Mary’s teachings as comical, because the powers that be will not let it be acted out in reality. It’s comical because it’s not how the wolrd works in earthly powers’ ways, a peasant pregnant unwed girl is the one with the strength to first teach the prophetic Way of Jesus. It’s a way that envisions and proclaims a world stood on its head.

The song mocks the world as it is, because the world as it is opposes the Way of Jesus, a way where the oppressed are the honored and respected, lifted up and taken care of. The oppressors, who in Mary’s day were the only one’s honored and respected and lifted up and taken care of, those oppressors in Mary’s song and God’s realm, are removed from power. (FOW 96, 98)
Mary’s song is about turning the world upside down. The Feast of Fools was, as it sounds, a sort of Christmas season April Fool’s Day, silliness of all sorts in church and on the streets subverting the solemnity of power in the religious and the secular world.

The Feasting on the Word commentary on the today’s text notes the Feast of Fools

is a day to prepare for the incarnation by lampooning the “powers that be” (including the powers in the church) with the topsy turvy news of the gospel, which is first celebrated
by two pregnant women laughing and singing, and which enters the world through a young unwed mother and child laid in a manger because there was no room at the inn. 3

The words that Mary sings in The Magnificat are so brave and so bold and so brash. She’s a nobody to the culture, a nobody. But by God she’s a somebody. And she declares that by conceiving Christ, “[Her] soul magnifies the Lord . . .” That’s brave. She claims that God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of [her]” That’s brash. She notes that surely, from now on all generations will call [her] blessed…” That’s bold. ///

We can learn a lot from Mary teaching us, and thank God that whomever wrote the awful texts in First Timothy and First Corinthians did not have a say in God’s way so that Mary would have been silenced!

Mary knows that despite what the culture may think of her lowly estate that God loves her and that love and the knowledge of it empowers her. She not only takes on the task of bringing Christ into the world, but gets that she is blessed and that the sign of fully experiencing God’s steadfast and enduring love is to in turn magnify that love from the very depths of her soul.
Mary gets that God “has done great things for [her]. . .” And that God is holy and works to stop oppression.

Mary’s song is actually a summary of Jesus’ first sermon in Luke that we discussed two weeks ago. Remember? Jesus says these words

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:17-19)

Mary proclaims in song that she magnifies God and that God helps the oppressed. Jesus preaches that the Spirit of God is upon him and he is sent to help the oppressed. You see both Mary’s first song and Jesus’ first sermon are summaries of Jesus life and ministry and what it means to follow Jesus’ Way. 4

In our Advent stories Mary, a teenaged woman – disrespected by the culture, but highly regarded by God– is the very first to proclaim this even before the baby Jesus arrives.

I mentioned last week that the Christmas story is revolutionary and subversive. Mary’s song at the very beginning, makes this clear. Just as on the first Easter Sunday when women are chosen by God to herald the good news of the resurrection, at the first Christmas, women are God’s chosen heralds of the good news of Jesus’ arrival in both bodily and Spiritual forms. A woman heralds the good news that Jesus as God’s instrument is going to shake things up. And she teaches that so can we when we conceive Christ!

Mary’s song is about peace. Peace in the Bible means fullness and well being. It comes about when all are in a state of well being. When the oppressed are taken care of, when all have enough there will be well being, peace on earth good will to all will exist.

Christmas is, as Mary sings about, “ help[ing God’s] servant[s] . . . in remembrance of [God’s] mercy, according to the promise [God has] made . . .” That promise is peace on earth good will to all. Christians have been singing about it for 2,000 years, and working at bringing it about.

Thanks to Mary who was Jesus’ mom for sure, but also the first person in the Christian story who’s very soul magnified God and who’s spirit rejoiced in God’s love of her. And those two attributes, magnification of God and rejoicing in God’s love, are exactly what we are called to do this time of year, and all the rest of the time too! AMEN!

ENDNOTES:
1. I found this joke on line in a manuscript called “A Church Mary Can Love” by Nicholas Kristof at this link: http://forums.thenest.com/discussion/4642403/amusing-joke-about-virgin-mary-catholic-church
2. E.g., Borg, Marcus, Crossan, John Dominic The First Paul, 55-57.
3. Feasting on the Word, p 97
4. Borg, Marcus, Crossan, John Dominic The First Christmas, I got this idea from the book’s general premise is that the Christmas stories are overtures, and the texts I quote bear this out.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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And here’s the sermon text given on December 1:

What About a Nine Month Pregnant Pause for Peace?
a sermon based on Luke 1:31-45
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 1, 2013
by Rev. Scott Elliott

During Advent a Sunday school class drew pictures of the Nativity while listening to a CD of “Silent Night” and other Carols. One five year old brought his drawing up to the teacher. She was quite impressed. The baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph looked very nice, as did the animals and angels and three magi.
But then she noticed a plump bearded man beside the manger. “Jimmy,” the teacher said, “Santa wasn’t at the birth of Jesus.” “Oh that’s not Santa,” Jimmy replied, “that’s Round John Virgin.” . . .

In fairness to that little tyke I need to disclose that for the longest time I thought “Round yon Virgin” was “Round young virgin” in reference to Mary’s tummy.

I mention all of this to get more than a chuckle. In our collective minds around this time of year we begin to think of Mary in the final stage of her pregnancy, with just a few weeks left she would certainly be round and showing by now, so it would be eight or so months ago when the spark of Christ began to grow in her.

As today’s reading tells it, it was such a powerful spark that way back then, early on, both Elizabeth and her unborn son were deeply moved by the tiny embryo as it began to grow into the baby Jesus we celebrate this time of year.

In the verses that follow today’s reading, right after Elizabeth and John respond to the embryonic Christ, Mary sings aloud her amazing song that we call The Magnificat, which we will be talking about next week when we lift up Mary and that song.

A lot goes on months before Jesus is born! Interestingly counting back from Christmas nine months is gets us roughly around our Easter season, so if December is when Jesus was born, it’d be about Passover – now our Easter time– when Mary first learns she is pregnant.
And we can imagine that it is sometime around Pentecost when Elizabeth and her unborn son and Mary are each deeply moved by the being Mary has in her womb, and the promise just that little Christ spark offers.

Now, as far as I know we don’t have an earlier in the year “conception of Christ” or a “noticing Christ in the womb” holiday. We just sort of put it off to celebrate all at once, treating the pregnancy, the anticipation of Jesus’ birth as if it lasted only a month, when really in our story the hope of Jesus’ arrival was pending for months.

I’m bringing up all of this timing stuff because, if you haven’t heard by now, I love the Christmas season. I am even stranger than most about it because I actually like to see Christmas things arrive in the market place.In August I’ve been known to intentionally go to craft stores to sneak a peek at some early Christmas sparkle. And every year I begin to listen to snippets of Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. The thought of Christmas, the sights and smells and sounds delight me, because they remind me that humans can treat one another so much better– and do so with the compassion and care that come with the hope of this season.

I love the sensory recall of these holidays when we collectively unfetter the Spirit of love and it always comes galloping in and about, just as it’s doing now this Advent. This makes me happy. I find it very Spiritual.

So I like the early signs of Christmas. I know that may go against the grain as an applauding the commercialism of Christmas, but I cannot help it. I find much hope and promise in the harbingers of this season.

Advent is a time of year when communities and families and strangers turn to one another with greetings and gifts and good words. Folks focus on love and the world is better for it.

I am convinced that the Spirit of Christmas is a glimpse of what the world is supposed to be like all year long. Not the glitter and commercialism, but the kindness and love, the discussions and longings for peace on earth good will to all.

There is so much hope this time of year, on so many levels. We hope for peace. We hope for a new world. We hope for God’s will. We hope for close family connections. We hope for care and compassion for not just family, and not just friends, but even strangers and outcasts. We hope for peace on earth good will to all.

The hope the Holidays offer in our collective religious and secular stories become reality this month as hope turns into action. Care and compassion – love– the desire for the well being of others becomes magnified and much more of an experiential reality. For a month, for one twelfth of the year, we start acting in the Way that God calls us to act all year long in every aspect of our lives. So, in my opinion the sooner people start tuning toward the hopes of the season and focusing on care and compassion and the desire for the well being of others, the better.///

What would happen if we actually celebrated the hope and the promise of Christ’s arrival from the calendar time of Jesus’ conception until Christmas? Nine months of anticipation and focus on the love? How much more would be given to the needy and the imprisoned? How many more visits and songs would be shared with shut-in elderly folks? How more focused and important might family be nine months instead of one? How many wars, battles, conflicts and fights might be put off with Grace extended in the anticipation of the Prince of Peace’s arrival? Forgive the word play, but nine months of a pregnant pause for peace seems preferable to me.

I know we are all wondering would it be exhausting or exhilarating to be “up” for nine months like we are at Advent? That’s a fair question. By the tenor of what I’ve said so far, you know I’d be betting on exhilarating. And even if it was exhausting wouldn’t it be worth it? Love pouring in and filling the voids as it does at Advent. The promise and hope of peace unfolding. Why it’d be God’s will being done on earth nine times more than it is now. Imagine that! I have no doubt it’d be worth any extra work or hours or loss of sleep, or even resources for that matter.
I’m not suggesting we buy more things or give more presents, or even put up lights and trees for nine months. I’m suggesting we focus on God more and love more and long for peace more. I’m suggesting care and compassion and the desire for well being be our mantra the majority of the time, if not all the time (which is actually Jesus’ plan).

I know I’m in the minority of those who get all smiley and giddy when the orange and black of Halloween starts mixing with the green and red of Christmas. I really do not care that love piggy-backs in on un-pristine commercialism, and that the idea of peace hitchhikes in on it.

According to our Bible stories Jesus began in the womb of an unmarried and therefore criminal-at-the-time mom, he arrived in an un-pristine stable and spent his first moments in the feeding tough of animals. So why not let his message come in on un-pristine commercial greed if it gets the job done?

The point of the season, whenever it starts, of course, is not things, but rather the hope on wings that love and peace sings to our hearts and annually brings to our being-ness.
And here’s the thing, all this love and peace stuff is counter-culture the rest of the year. It’s a radical departure from our usual way of doing things and thinking. At Christmas time it’s okay to care about the needy and the sick, and to do something about it. It’s okay to want to help the poor and care for even those in jail and their families and do something about it. By golly it is even okay to say something cheerful to a stranger and do it. And we even think about calling or writing our estranged family members. At Christmas we even dare to long for real peace.
It’s all a bit revolutionary, what the book we will be studying in Adult Forum calls “subversive.” Truly the Holiday season subverts, disrupts and undermines our established system of doing things.

Love’s actually paramount, commercialism is there too for sure, but, it is there all the rest of the year, in fact one could argue eleven months of the year our culture’s paramount focus is commercialism. It’s just this one month that love’s the trump card. Love, one could think of as, like the tortoise sneaking past the cocky rabbit of commercialism. And at the end of the year, Love wins every year, again and again! So actually Christmas is what’s sneaking in, not commercialism. Christmas is what’s hitchhiking– hopping a ride– steadily winning the race in the usual way we do stuff.

We are all so used to the Christmas stories that it’s sort of hard to hear them as subversive.The Adult Forum will be looking at this type of stuff in-depth from now through the Twelve Days of Christmas, but we don’t have to dig too deep to see some of the radicalness of this season. 2

I just went on and on about how it makes love paramount and shakes us up each year to be a bit more like we are supposed to be the rest of the year.

This is not some modern liberal commie plot. The Christmas story began as a far more subversive text than it is today. It’s was more subversive because the world was an even harsher place. Today we almost take it for granted that the non-powerful have rights, that slavery is bad, that mistreating others because of the way God made them is awful. That was not the case in First Century Rome, a whole lot of folks were expendable to the powerful, and only a few were powerful. It was a much crueler world in many respects. See, the Christmas story was initially intended as a challenge to the powerful like Herod, Rome’s appointed King of the Jews. It’s no accident the Magi honor Jesus, not Herod. Or that Joseph and Mary with God’s help out smart Herod. Consequently the real King of the Jews (to Christians) is not only born, but lives to be the light of the world. In the Christmas story God opposes Rome’s appointed King and love wins.

The Christmas stories further challenge Caesar. Before Jesus Rome’s declared son of god, Caesar, was called “lord,” “prince of peace” and “savior of the world.” Those were names given to him. But in it is Jesus – a peasant baby– not Caesar, whom God and the people in the stories declare as the real Son of God, Lord, Prince of Peace and Savior of the world. 3
The Christmas stories in the Gospels pit God’s non-violent Way to peace through Jesus, against the violent way through Rome over and over again.

So, you see, the Christmas stories were revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. The Gospel writers and the early followers of Jesus were choosing and promoting God’s way of doing things over and above earthly power’s ways of doing things.

It is remarkable that every year we make the subversive choice to do stuff more God’s Way than Rome’s way. There’s so much hope in that. We celebrate, lift up and joyfully laud the Way of Jesus’ revolution of love and compassion, we walk on the road toward peace on earth good will to all. We hold up the wonderful, mystical, powerful Nativity stories and we embrace them and the result is that love flows and peace on earth good will to all becomes our expressed wish.

Like I said, I want it to last more than a month and I will take as much of it any way I can get it, even if it rides in early in stores and commercials. At any rate, I am delighted to declare that officially Advent is here! Advent that time of year where we can hear and taste and smell and touch and feel more of heaven breaking in. And it all started with the conception of Christ by a teenaged girl two thousand years ago, and comes to fruition with the birth, life, death and resurrection of her child and God’s child. The one we Christians know as King of the Jews, Son of God, Lord, Prince of Peace and Savior of the World. The one Mary and Joseph named Jesus. The one we name Christmas after and follow more closely in Advent, a very Holy-closer-to-God time of year.

Let us hope the Spirit of Christmas one day lasts all year long. AMEN.

ENDNOTES
1. Hodgen, Michael, 1001 Humorous Illustrations for Public Speaking, p 62
2 We are studying the remarkable book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan called The First Christmas (2007).
3 The First Christmas, p. 38
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Here’s sermon text from November 24, 2013

Jesus: Fully Human, Fully On
A sermon based on Luke 23:33-43
Given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 24, 2013 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

When my son Robin was a toddler he became obsessed with big machines. We’d drive along the rural roads of Oregon and every time he saw a tractor or a truck he’d say “Tractor on” if it was running and “Tractor not on “ if it was idle. It nearly drove us nuts. “Tractor on” “Tractor on” “Tractor not on.” One time Nancy and the kids drove to an out of town department store listening “Tractor on. Tractor not on.” When they got to the store and went in they walked by a mannequin. Two year old Robin pointed to it, shook his head and said “Person not on.”

If you look up the word “perfect” one of its meanings is to be without blemish, that’s usually how I think of the term. I grew up being taught that Jesus was that kind of perfect, and that humans could never be like Jesus– blemish-free perfect. But actually Jesus is supposed to have been fully human. How could a being without blemish be fully human? A human without blemish would seem to be (to borrow my son’s phrase) a “person not on,” a person not fully human. To be fully human is to err along the way, if not in the eyes of one’s self, then in the eyes of the world.

And sure enough, despite what I was taught, the Bible reports Jesus had what many in the world would call blemishes. Things like the reports in John and in Mark that Jesus’ family and others thought he was insane (Jn 10:20; Mk 3:21). Or Jesus’ reported reputation of being a glutton and a drunk (Matt 11:19). Or all those nerdowells Jesus hung around with– the prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, Samaritans, homeless people, and criminals.

Jesus, our sovereign, himself was, as the story makes clear, a criminal

Today any one of the “flaws” I just mentioned would keep the tabloids busy; and they ought to be enough to satisfy any skeptic that Jesus was far from being “a person not on.” That Jesus was clearly “on” living life fully – with critics pointing out perceived blemishes.
So make no mistake about it at the horrible place of crucifixion two thousand years ago there were real fully human beings on those crosses feeling pain and dying. All three were criminals.

Those criminals might be the most famous in history. We do not tend to consider Jesus, or for that matter other Bible heros, as criminals, but a lot of them committed what the world did, or does, call crimes. In the Old Testament:

Abraham abandons his wife and son Ishmael in the deadly desert, and later appears to plan to kill his other son Isaac.

Jacob fraudulently deceives his father and brother.

The founders of the tribes of Israel beat their brother Joseph, plan to murder him, sold him into slavery and covered up their crimes.

Joseph bears false witness against Benjamin and falsely imprisons him.

The midwives Shiporah and Puah, and Moses’ Mother and Pharaoh’s daughter all disobey edicts of Pharaoh.

Moses murdered an Egyptian.

Esther trespassed the King’s chamber and practiced an illegal religion.

Sampson committed arson, assault, battery and mass murder.

David committed adultery and premeditated murder.

Solomon enslaved thousands and threatened to cut a living baby in half.

In the New Testament:

The Magi disobeyed an edict of Herod.

Mary’s pregnant outside of betrothal, a capital offense.

John the Baptist seditiously challenged the authority of Rome and instigated others to do so.

Peter sliced off an officer’s ear.

Paul was convicted, jailed and executed.

These folks I’ve listed, these chosen by God Bible heroes, all committed criminal acts. One sort of has to conclude that while we may have trouble seeing good in those who commit crimes, God, does not have trouble finding their value, even their perfection for the task at hand.

Which brings us back to the criminals in today’s story. Those criminals are called “rebels” in the Gospels (1). The “rebel” label fits with what we know about Roman history. Lower class people convicted of sedition, that is rebellion, were the only ones crucified by Rome– we know that as a matter of history.

The two criminals crucified with Jesus were likely rebels caught trying to bring about peace to Palestine through violent means against Rome, attacking its people and properties. Palestine was rife with the violence of insurgents opposing Rome.

The surly criminal in the story is like the supposedly faceless criminals in our culture that we tend to loath. Luke notes his mean disposition as he derides Jesus “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” He is like the devil at the beginning of Luke who tells Jesus: “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down from here . . .[angels will protect you].” (Luke 4:9).
This first criminal has no chance in the story of winning us over. Like the portrait of criminals in our media he does not appear to be like us. He is devil-like. We don’t want to be like him.

But the second criminal? Oh man, he is so like we’d want be in his situation. He tells the bad guy to leave Jesus alone. He admits his crimes. He sees Jesus as having done nothing wrong and asks only to be remembered. The good criminal, what a guy! Criminal or not we feel we know him, we want to save him. And Jesus does just that saying “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” We have been raised to want to be like the good criminal. Flawed and blemished, but, remorseful. Of the criminals on the cross, at best we seem to set our aim to be like him.

But there is another choice, a much harder choice. Not the nice guy on the cross. Not the surly guy either, rather the third criminal on the cross, that extraordinary fully human being: Jesus.
Jesus was tried and convicted, sentenced and punished by law. We may not want to hear it, we may not like it– but Jesus died a criminal in his day. It is scandalous. Like the two men reported to be out there on the crosses with him, Jesus was a rebel. There is no getting around it, Rome only crucified those found guilty of rebellion. 2 The Gospels’ authors spin the story to suggest Jesus was framed, but scholars are convinced Jesus committed crimes. 3.

Indeed the Gospels suggest Jesus broke a number of laws, though they also make a strong case that Jesus’ crimes were of course done with divine purpose.

John Dear in his book The Sacrament of Civil Disobedience puts it like this:

Jesus was a peacemaker who time and time again broke the laws that oppressed people and kept them like slaves to injustice. Jesus was not just provocative; his actions were
illegal, civilly disobedient and divinely obedient. (4)

Mahatma Gandhi wrote that “Jesus was the most active resister known perhaps to history. This was nonviolence par excellence” (5).

According to Luke 4 (17-19) Jesus began his ministry by reading these words from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

With these words Jesus provocatively began his revolution of love in the Roman Empire. These were not the days of free speech, and challenges to Rome brought trouble, troops and brutal violence.
No wonder the people of Nazareth threw Jesus out (and almost off a cliff) when they heard him deliver that first talk of revolution. They had to be afraid Rome would come crushing down on them, which was how Rome crushed rebellions!

After Jesus’ first revolutionary sermon he then starts acts to brings about his revolution– God’s call for love and justice and peace. As a part of his action broke laws. He touches lepers and breaks the laws of cleanliness. He unlawfully plucks grain and heals on the Sabbath. He heals a possessed man and causes the drowning of a herd of pigs, and is once again chased out of town. (Lk 8:26-39).

Jesus challenges the temple as the-go-between for God. He calls folks to God through meals where all are invited, all are equal. He calls folks to God through the caring treatment of all neighbors (even enemies). Jesus’ message is: you don’t have to get to God through the Roman controlled temple, you can get to God through love– love of God, love of self and love of others.

The Temple was the center of Rome’s corruption of Judaism. Jews – the vast majority of whom were extremely poor– had to visit the temple and exchange (for a fee) coins bearing graven images for coins suitable for offerings. The temple claimed a monopoly on mediating God; and Rome and its elite profited by it.

Jesus entered the temple and in a public act of civil disobedience turned over money changing tables and blocked access to the temple. Even today we’d call this a pretty serious act of criminal trespass and mischief. If we read about such conduct at a place of worship in the Mount Vernon News we’d expect the perpetrator to be fully prosecuted and punished.

But two thousand years after Jesus committed his crimes we look at what Rome considered criminal conduct, high treason and insurrection and we don’t see them as blemishes, but signs of God, signs of perfection.

Jesus’ non-violent acts to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor are laudable, exemplary, Grace-full, heroic and Godly. In a word they are perfect.

In addition to meaning blemish free, the word “perfection” also means “Lacking nothing essential to the whole; . . . Thoroughly skilled in a certain field [and] . . . Completely suited for a particular purpose . . .” Those three definitions describe Jesus to a tee. He lacked nothing; he was as skilled as you could ever hope to be; and he was completely suited for the purpose of bringing about God’s shalom through non-violence and love, not just in his generation, but for all generations to come.

Jesus’ understandings, experiences and connections with God, and his acts on earth, are so amazing and so powerful that he not only shook his world, he has continued to shake the world ever since. You can feel the vibrations in the Gospels stories. You can hear it in his voice in today’s story. There on the cross, tortured and dying – fully human, . Jesus’ words are full of love: “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”

Fully human Jesus nonetheless magnified God within his very being. Jesus was a person so much “on” in his living – and dying– that he created what theologian John Cobb calls a “field of force,” which continues to exist today (6). Stepping into Jesus’ field of force we can find a path to the Sacred, to God. The Gospels call it “The Way.” Jesus open a Way, a portal if you will, through which God can be, and is, experienced. That’s amazing and certainly good news!

But that good news has some tough edges to it. As Christians we are called not to just step into Jesus’ field of force, but to actually try to be like Jesus. 1 John puts it like this “Whoever says ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” (2:6).

We may not walk exactly as Jesus walked, but, every step in that direction literally makes a world of difference. It changes the world and brings God’s way of peace and justice that much closer.
Gandhi and Rev. King walked many a non-violent step like Jesus did, each also had criminal arrest records and look how powerful their lives were. Those criminals legacies continue on decades after they passed away. They changed our world in our generations.

We don’t have to be arrested to walk like Jesus. The Amish who acted so forgivingly a few years ago when their school children were attacked certainly walked like Jesus, as did Mother Teresa and St. Francis and countless other saints who have lived in obscurity, many without arrest, but they loved others and God.

We too can take small steps and have powerful affects. The saints whose names we will read today and others in our lives that we will soon light a candle for are proof of this. Each one of them in their turn acted in kindness, cared for others and had powerful affects in the lives others touched even still by their love, compassion and care. That’s walking Jesus’ Way!

Proverbs (10:7) tells us that “the memory of a good person is a blessing . . .” It’s a blessing because that life continues to have positive meaning, to vibrate with Love even now.

Our lives may not create a field of force like Jesus’ did, but every step we take toward his Way, toward love can also change the world, can bring God’s shalom, Christ’s Reign of love and peace for all creation that much closer. We don’t need to be without blemish, all we need to be is a “person on” – and one who acts with love. We can be like Jesus, even if only for the moment and what a difference it makes.

For Christians, Jesus, (a man others saw as criminal), began that difference in a world-altering way some two thousand years ago by living life fully human, fully on, full of love, full of God. We can live full lives like that too! AMEN

ENDNOTES
* Based on a Reign of Christ sermon I originally wrote in 2008
1. Funk, Robert, The Acts of Jesus, p. 155.
2. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, 201.
3. Ibid.
4. Dear, John The Sacrament of Civil Disobedience, chapter excerpt on “Jesus and Civil Disobedience” found at: fatherjohndear.org/pdfs/jesus_and_civil_disobedience.pdf.4.
Much of the specifics on Jesus’s crimes that I list were inspired by this excerpt
5. Merton, Thomas. Gandhi on Nonviolence, (New York, New Directions, 1964), 40.
6. E.g., Cobb, John The Process Perspective, p. 41

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED