Proclaim Good News!

“Proclaim Good News!”

Luke 4:14-21 (4:18) and Romans 12:1-13 – January 20, 2019 – Ecumenical Prayer Service for Christian Unity, St. Martha’s Catholic Church, Morton Grove, Illinois

luke 4-18 proclaim good news

[The (Ecumenical) John 17 Fellowship is an informal group of Catholic and Protestant churches in the northwest Chicago suburbs. We celebrated the Week of Ecumenical Christian Unity with a prayer service for unity this afternoon, on Sunday, January 20. I was asked to preach. Here is my sermon.]

What do you want to be when you grow up? That is a familiar question to many children and young people. I dare say lots of people wonder what they will be as adults, today.

I wonder whether Jesus was asked that question while He was growing up? In our Gospel reading today from St. Luke, our Lord Jesus makes some bold statements while at worship with His fellow townsfolk in Nazareth. But first, we ought to set the scene.

Sure, this was the very beginning. Jesus was just starting to make a name for Himself as an itinerant rabbi. And, He came to His hometown, the place where He grew up. Maybe where the butcher and baker down the street were good friends with His parents from way back. Maybe the real estate agent across the square sold His parents their house some years before, the house where His mother Mary still lives. In other words—I suspect everyone in that town was there in the synagogue that day to hear what the Rabbi Jesus—their hometown boy!—had to say.

Jesus already had generated some buzz in the greater Nazareth area. “Have you heard the latest about that Jesus? The one who says He is a Rabbi? The one who was baptized in the River Jordan by that Baptizer fellow? And, there was something about the heavens cracking open, a dove flying out of a clear blue sky—and a voice from heaven! I’m not saying all this was for real or not, but that is what people are saying about this Jesus. You know, the guy from our town.”

Our Lord Jesus had hardly started to do His public ministry, and people were already talking about Him and what had happened in His life. Especially in Nazareth, the town where He had grown up.

In this scene from the synagogue in Luke chapter 4, the townsfolk did what they habitually did every week in worship. In addition to the prayers, the townsfolk read from the Bible, and then someone made an interpretation of the reading. Biblical exegesis, or midrash.

Isn’t that what we do in worship each week? In addition to the prayers, we also read from the Bible, and then someone (usually the priest or pastor or minister, but not always) makes an interpretation of the reading.

The Bible is so important, to all of us. Here in our Gospel reading today, the Rabbi Jesus reads from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Ecumenically, all of us here from different church traditions and even various places across the globe can agree that the Bible—the Word of God—is one important way that God communicates with us all.

When I was younger, a teenager and in my twenties, I memorized a number of verses from the Bible, from both the Hebrew Scriptures and from the New Testament. I have not kept up with my bible memorization, but I still remember a good deal. Like, for example, two verses from Psalm 119. Verse 11, “Your Word have I hid in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” And Verse 105, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

These verses are just two of the many places in the Bible that remind us of the importance of God’s Word, and what a central role the Bible ought to have in our lives. Our Lord Jesus tells us so. What’s more, He shows us what we are to do.

Our Lord Jesus was attending worship services—as was His custom. He was reading the Bible. What’s more, Jesus always lived out what the Bible said to do. Always.

Listen again to what our Lord Jesus read: “He found the place where it is written:  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because God has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In another sermon two and a half years ago, I preached on this same Gospel reading. I told my congregation that this was where our Lord Jesus preaches His first recorded sermon. It is quite a bit like political campaigns. The various candidates all have their position distilled down to a simple message. What they stand for. What they will strive to do. Just so, with Jesus. Jesus is here to proclaim the Gospel. Share the Good News, indeed!

The Apostle Paul was so moved and energized by the risen Jesus that he made it his life’s work to share that Good News. Paul went to endless places and preached the Gospel to just about everyone he met. What is more, he used his organizational skills to help the growing gatherings of believers, as we can see from our second reading from the book of Romans today.

These words from St. Paul not only tell his fellow believers about their gifts and how much God has blessed each of them, individually, but also to let them know how they ought to live together, and bless each other as a church community. We can take that one step further, and see how Paul’s fellow believers—that is all of us, as Christians—ought to live in love and justice in our neighborhoods, and with our fellow citizens.

Let’s go back to Luke chapter 4. My first thought is, I’m not poor! Or, a prisoner, or blind, or oppressed, either. I am not any of those things. Seriously, what is the Rabbi Jesus saying here? Does He have some kind of secret message? If these are the types of people Jesus says He is going to preach and minister to, I am not sure I would be comfortable with it.

All that talk about the poor and blind, grief-stricken and oppressed, that is giving me some hesitation about following this new Rabbi Jesus.

But, let’s take a closer, deeper look. Here Jesus is addressing the poor. Could that be the poor in spirit, as well as poor, materially-speaking? Next up, He addresses the prisoners. Perhaps, prisoners of sin? Then, speaking to the blind; blind to the love and gifts of God in their lives? And, our Lord Jesus came for the oppressed. Oppressed by anxiety, doubt, fear, anger, self-loathing, self-pity, self-righteousness. (I could go on, but I think you all have the idea.)

That is why Jesus has come to earth. That is His message. Our Lord gives His purpose statement, distilled down to the pure essence.  

Our Lord Jesus speaks to each one of us, as individuals. The Apostle Paul speaks to us as a group, to the church.

So—what do you want to be when you grow up? Do the words of Paul or the purpose statement of Jesus make a difference to you? Do these words change your life or your path? Following God’s Word can make all the difference in the world. It did for our Lord. It did for Paul. Will following God’s Word make a difference for you and me today?

            God willing, may it be so.

Alleluia, amen.

 

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The Lord Calls

“The Lord Calls”

1 Sam 3 speak-Lord-your-servant-is-listening

1 Samuel 3:1-20 (3:10) – January 14, 2018

When I was a young child growing up on the northwest side of Chicago, every once in a while I would hear my mother and my aunts talk about my great-aunt Bertha, my grandmother’s older sister. Sister Bertha. She was an actual “Sister.” She was a Catholic nun, from a local area convent in the Chicago suburbs.

Sister Bertha had taught school for all the years of her active service to God. She must have been a particularly stern teacher. I only remember seeing her one time, at the convent retirement home where she was living, on the occasion of her 90th birthday. She certainly had a commanding presence. I was about eight or nine years old, and I could definitely sense that sternness about her.

My great-aunt Bertha and the other nuns—and Catholic and Orthodox priests, and other Protestant ministers, for that matter—had a calling. They have been “called” by God. I know that I have been “called” by God, too. But, what exactly does that mean?

In both Scripture readings today, we hear about the call of God. From the Hebrew Scriptures in 1 Samuel, the young Samuel is called. In the Gospel of John, several disciples are called. Again, what is this “call” we are talking about?
We turn to our reading from 1 Samuel 3, starting with the first verse. “The boy Samuel was serving God under Eli’s direction. This was at a time when the revelation of God was rarely heard or seen.” There was little written down from God—only some laws handed down from Moses. You can’t just go home and pick up your personal copy of the Old Testament or Psalms and Proverbs to read. And God rarely—if ever—spoke to people at that time. God-sent visions were extremely rare, too. I love the Hebrew word for “rare.” It means “precious.”

“In biblical Hebrew, the descriptor of “rare/precious” is typically reserved for an item like jewelry, the idea of something extremely valuable due to pure lack of supply.” [1]

Do we begin to have some sort of idea how valuable—how rare and precious it was for anyone to hear from God, the Lord Almighty, who made heaven and earth? If we are abandoned to total silence from God, that must be a very sad time, indeed. And, what does this reading say about the boy Samuel? “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

Ah, now young Samuel enters the scene.  He works in the special tent where God’s special presence is located, where the special wooden Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments inside. Samuel is the High Priest’s assistant, serving in the Tabernacle.

Reading more from this passage: “and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Samuel still doesn’t know who is calling him—by name. Similarly, when God’s voice comes to us today, can we make it out through the roar? “There are many voices competing for our attention and how many of us can say that we really know God well enough to recognize a word as being from God or someone else?” [2] Can we recognize the voice of God calling us?

Let’s return to my initial question, the question I started this sermon with. What is a “calling?” We will turn to the dictionary. One definition is “a vocation, profession, or trade.” My husband is an editor. I have a friend who is a photo-journalist. Other people are nurses, or mechanics, or accountants, for example. That is their calling, their daily work in life.

However, in this sermon, the definition that is most important to us today is the second one: a call or summons, especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence. We turn to our Gospel lesson for today, from John, chapter 1.

“The next day John was back at his post with two disciples, who were watching. He looked up, saw Jesus walking nearby, and said, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb.” 37-38 The two disciples heard him and went after Jesus. Jesus looked over his shoulder and said to them, “What are you after?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” 39 He replied, “Come along and see for yourself.” They came, saw where he was living, and ended up staying with him for the day. It was late afternoon when this happened.”

John, his brother James, and their friend Andrew all followed Jesus, and they all acknowledged Him as Messiah. What do we have here? A call or summons, especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence. That is how the disciples started to follow Jesus! They received the call, the invitation. The summons.

That is how nuns, priests, ministers, and every other person follows Jesus, as well—especially when accompanied by repeated conviction of divine influence. They receive a call.

I’d like everyone to turn to the back page of today’s bulletin. See the listing of all the people who take part in ministry here at our church? What leads the listing? Who are the ministers at our church? All St. Luke’s members, that’s who. All of us are ministers of God. The Lord has called each one of us into God’s service.

Let us see what happens to Samuel. We see that the high priest Eli finally gets the message. It is the Lord calling in the night, not Eli himself. Wisely, Eli tells Samuel what to do and how to answer when the call comes again. And, the call does indeed come again. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Samuel’s response to God? “Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” We can all take comfort in the fact that God didn’t give up on Samuel.  The Lord called, called, and called again.  How many times has the Lord needed to call to us? God called until Samuel learned how to listen. How long has God been calling your name, and mine?

God doesn’t just call us to gather us in heavenly arms of comfort. Well, yes, we are God’s beloved children. The Lord greatly desires all to come, to follow. But, that is not all! God also calls us—we are offered the opportunity and experience to work for God. Not to get on the Lord’s “good side” or to gain “brownie points,” but we serve in gratitude and appreciation for all we have been given. Also important, we have the opportunity to respond to the goodness and love of the Lord for each one of us.

Since the late 1990’s, millions of people across the United States “have celebrated Dr. King’s legacy by turning their community concerns into volunteer service and ongoing citizen action on King Day and beyond.” Martin Luther King Jr. gave us an encouraging example. “Life’s most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

Global Citizen is “a non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting civic engagement, community volunteering, civic responsibility, and sustained active citizenship among diverse groups, particularly young people. Global Citizen promotes democracy building, voter education, and participation, locally and globally.” [3]

Houses of worship across the country have partnered with this organization in a day of service commemorating Dr. King—service where we reach out to others in need with a hand of assistance, support, and encouragement. What a marvelous way to reach out with the love of Christ. Have you heard God’s call? Yes, God’s call of love, and yes, God’s call to serve.

Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2305

Commentary, 1 Samuel 3:1-10, Roger Nam, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

[2] Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1185  Callie Plunket-Brewton

[3] http://mlkdayofservice.org/about-the-greater-philadelphia-martin-luther-king-day-of-service/

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

The Word Became Flesh

“The Word Became Flesh”

john-1-14-word-made-flesh-stained-glass

John 1:14 – December 25, 2016

Words, words, words, words!! Words of every kind, of every description. Words that tell, words that show, words that praise, words that criticize. Words separate and draw together. Words fill people with joy and peace as well as with suspicion and animosity. Words have power. Whether insightful words or divisive words, encouraging words or cajoling words, stirring words or capitulating words, words have the ability to shake emotions and to inflame passions for good or for evil.

How do people use words and language, anyway? People speaking a common language need to agree upon the sense of what they say. It helps to be bound together by social convention as well as language rules of practice and use. In fact, language provides the structure of our common experience, understanding and perspectives. But I don’t want to get all high-falutin’ and theoretical. I want to bring this home to where we live.

We all use language. Every day. In conversation at home, or on the telephone, or at work. Reading a newspaper or writing e-mail. Watching television or giving a sermon. All of these uses of language use words. Words communicate meaning, ideas, stories. Each one of us has a personal story, of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. Each story is individual and unique. Our stories are communicated using words and language, and each individual has a creative, unique way to tell his or her story.

The story of an individual’s own personal life makes sense because it is part of a larger story, the Story that has the story of Jesus Christ at its center. The Story of the Baby in Bethlehem that is so familiar to so many. It is a story of God’s initiative which calls for my gratitude and response, a Story some theologians have called ‘the history of salvation.’ It is the Story set forth in the Word of God that attracts, crossing boundaries and transcending lines of race, class, culture and age.

Our gospel text for today, the first verses of the Gospel of John, is a restatement of an old theme. Remember Genesis 1:1? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Most scholars today believe the apostle John was thinking of that introduction to the Greatest Story ever told when he wrote his own portion of it. John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word.” John reframed that Story, and gave it a new look from a different perspective.

In John, Chapter 1, we have God, the creative God who made heaven and earth. The almighty God wanted to communicate with us puny, limited human beings. But how was God supposed to communicate His Story?

I can remember when my children were younger, in first and second grades. Sometimes they would need help with their homework at night. Years before, I had taken several courses of math in college . . . college algebra, trigonometry, analytical geometry. But, after considering more advanced mathematical ideas, how was I supposed to explain simple addition and subtraction to my young children in language they would understand?

That’s the way I look at God’s problem sometimes. It’s sort of like God, able to do the most advanced mathematics possible—in God’s head!!—and God needed to be able to explain the simplest addition and subtraction problems to us ordinary, simple-minded human beings.

There was another problem, as if the simple-mindedness of humanity wasn’t enough. That problem was (and is!)  sin. Funny thing, how sin keeps cropping up in our lives and getting in the way. Sin divides people from one another as well as from God. Sin isolates and forces apart. Sin happens on a horizontal plane with other people as well as on a vertical plane with God. And sin causes humanity to walk in darkness and to run from God’s presence.

So here we have a loving God, a God of light, a God who wants so much to communicate with us sinful human beings. But how was God supposed to communicate God’s Story?

            The Gospel of John tells us how. In the beginning was the Word. The Word was God. The Word is God. Jesus is the Word. John 1:14 says that the Word, Jesus, became fleshand . . . the Word dwelt among us.

Let’s look at this verse more closely. The Word became flesh. The Greek word for “flesh” is sarx, the same word that the apostle Paul uses when he talks about the flesh. Except that Paul meant sinful flesh, and Jesus as God incarnate had sin-less flesh.

Think about it: the whole idea of God becoming a helpless baby, a human being, able to feel cold and heat, able to be hungry and thirsty, with blood and bones and a nervous system and a digestive system. So staggering was this idea that some of the people in John’s day could not believe it. God? the creative God who made heaven and earth? Coming to earth as a helpless, human baby? No way!!

And, that’s not all!! Not only did this Creator God make Himself appear in creation so that our eyes could see Him, this almighty God, after making Himself flesh and blood, has the crazy idea of dwelling among people. Becoming one of us limited human beings, sharing our food and living in our midst. Jesus became fully man. He didn’t just seem to be a man, and pretend to be human. He really and truly became man, living with us as one of us.

What a way for the almighty, eternal, creative God to communicate to us in a way that we limited human beings might possibly understand. God wanted humanity to understand His Story of good news, the Bible, but God also wanted humanity to understand His Word made flesh, the one called Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus (the Word incarnate) is the central principle of Scripture as well as the central character of the Greatest Story ever told. Reformed believers have throughout the centuries been finding new ways to confess their faith, using the fallible, limited resources of language that have been handed down to humanity throughout the generations. God helps us understand the Greatest Story ever told, and there is nothing God wants more than for us to want to understand His Story better and better.

A good many years ago, a bible translator went to a remote, mountainous region in the interior of Africa. He worked hard at turning an obscure oral language into a written language, which involved decoding the language, writing a grammar, learning extensive vocabulary, and finally translating a portion of the Bible into the heart language of that particular people-group.

After several years of intense work and language preparation, when he felt he was ready, the missionary made his first presentation of the Story of Jesus to a group of headmen from the tribe. He was surprised at their response, which was unlike any he had ever had before in all his years of being a missionary and telling people the Story of Jesus. The group of men just sat agthere in silence, and then the chief came forward.

The chief grasped the missionary’s hands and, with tears in his eyes, thanked him for coming to tell them the Story of Jesus. “This Story of good news is the one my people have waited for, all their lives long!!” And then came the clincher: the chief asked, “Your tribe has had this Story for many, many years. What took you so long to tell us?”

Communicating the Story of Jesus has power! Awesome power! This is a Story that can change people’s lives for eternity. Telling the Story in someone’s heart language is one of the best ways to communicate how much God loves us.

When Jesus came to this earth, He spoke the language of the people of His region, and He communicated ideas in ways people could understand. Yes, He was the Word become flesh, and yes, He showed us how to live this life that we have to live. Jesus, in the words of the Barmen Declaration, “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” [1]

Praise God that God sent the Son Jesus into this world, the Word incarnate, the Word that became a helpless baby in Bethlehem. Praise God that God has given us the right to repair that broken relationship with us, and to be called the children of God. And praise God that God loved us so much that—as John 3:16 says—God gave His only begotten Son on our behalf, to reconcile us to God for eternity.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.

 

[1] 8.11, The Barmen Declaration, The Book of Confessions, (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Distribution Services, 2014) 283.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Preach the Word!

“Preach the Word!”

2-tim-4-2-preach-the-word-water

2 Timothy 4:2 – October 16, 2016

For those who have had a mentor relationship—either as a mentor or a ment-ee—this kind of relationship can be so rewarding. This is the kind of relationship I had with Pastor Gordon, when we worked together years ago for almost a year at another UCC church. He was the mentor, I was the ment-ee. Paul and Timothy had this kind of relationship. Close, nurturing, and a blessing to both parties. In their case, this relationship was especially close. Paul even called Timothy “my true son in the faith.”

We get glimpses of the deep, nurturing relationship between Paul and Timothy in several of the New Testament letters. However, perhaps the deepest, most personal window into their relationship comes from this letter, the second letter to Timothy recorded in the New Testament.

Some backstory. Paul is in prison in Rome. This is nothing new for Paul. He had been imprisoned multiple times throughout his time as a follower of Jesus Christ. What is the most urgent thing on Paul’s mind? His direct command, his charge to his son in the faith: “Preach the Word! In season and out of season.” (In other words, all the time.)

Yes, Timothy was a pastor, and a preacher. We can take this command as something that Paul only meant for Timothy. Or, expand it a little further, and consider it a command for any pastor, for any preacher.

I would like to let everyone here know that I always—always—start with the Word of God. When I start preparing my sermons, I pray over the text. I ask God what the message is that God wants me to deliver to the congregation. I research the pertinent passage, and sometimes other, related passages from the Bible. Sometimes I take a closer look at the original languages, and at the nuances and the shades of meaning in the translations. Then, after all that, I write the sermon. And, I hope and pray I may faithfully proclaim God’s Word to the congregation. Always.

That is what I—personally—do as I bring the Word of God to you, each week. But, I believe Paul is talking to more than just his son in the faith. I believe Paul’s message can be taken to heart by all believers. Not only by me, or Pastor Gordon, or Pastor Kevin from Epiphany UCC, or Pastor Vertie Powers from the Chicago Metropolitan Association. But, Paul’s message is for all of us. Each of us, individually. At this church, and any every church.

As is so often the case with the Apostle Paul, he crammed a ton of ideas into a very small space. Let’s read his directions to Timothy, again, starting at 3:14: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it.” Paul had already praised Timothy for his careful learning from his grandmother and mother, Lois and Eunice, at the beginning of this letter. Here, he expands this idea.

Here, Paul ”refers to the people from whom Timothy has learned. (And it is ’people,’ more than Paul alone, but a collection of people, since the ‘whom’ in 3:14 is plural.)” [1] We know that Timothy learned from his mother and grandmother, because Paul said so. Perhaps Timothy also went to Hebrew school, or Torah classes, or studied with some rabbinic scholar as a teen. But, Paul said Timothy learned from a number of people. Mentors. Teachers. Coaches. Elders in the faith, people who had thorough, lived-or-demonstrated faith. Their faithfulness, which made Timothy who he was as an adult.

Go back in your mind and memory. Can you remember one or two special people who instructed you in the faith? People who lived out their Christian faith each day, every day?

I can remember one dear woman when I was in elementary school on the northwest side of Chicago at the Lutheran church. I vividly remember a senior, Mrs. Pabst (who died many years ago). She was faithful. She was kind. She had the spiritual gifts of helps and mercy and service to others in abundance. She was unfailingly loving and giving to others. Each day. Every day. She lived out the Christian life in front of me. I learned practical theology from Mrs. Pabst: how to make theology part of everyday life and apply it to the nuts and bolts of everyday living. She demonstrated the Christian faith as part of who she was.

That’s what Paul is talking about here. He praises Timothy for having absorbed practical theology from mentors, teachers, coaches. The Christian faith was part of who Timothy was.

Who have we learned from? Who showed us how to make practical theology part of our everyday lives? Great question! I’ll let us all ponder that for today.

Let’s get back to talking about the Word. Yes, Paul commanded Timothy to preach the Word. What else does Paul say about the Word? About Scripture? These verses are rich with meaning. Paul says that Timothy learned Scripture from the time he was very small. From his infancy Timothy had been exposed to God’s Word, which was—which is able to make all of us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

How about for us, today? Does that mean learning about Scripture in Sunday school? Memorizing verses in Confirmation classes? Sharing at bible study or at prayer time? Yes, yes, and yes. All of those, and so much more. What about decorating the sanctuary for Christmas? What about getting the fellowship hall ready for the Spaghetti Dinner or the Not-So-Lent Fish Fry? What about working at the Car Wash? Or praying for others with the email Prayer Chain?

Can those be times when we learn from each other how to be of service, and how to live Godly lives in a cheerful, faithful way? How to DO practical theology?

Just letting you all know: this final letter is bittersweet. More than sad. Paul is coming to the end of the road; he knows it. This time, he knew he had very little time left before he was executed. Beheaded. He has lost the final appeal, before the Emperor in Rome. Time is short—Paul desperately needs to give Timothy a final charge: “Preach the Word!”

We can all point to preachers on street corners or on television, or on the Internet. Preachers who give us lessons in how NOT to preach the Word. Preachers who use a boom box or a bullhorn, using guilt and shame as weapons to browbeat passersby into their “churches.” False preachers like these have no regard for those hearing the message. They do not deliver the Good News of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. God’s Word that transforms the life of every person who truly believes.

Communicating the transforming Word of God is the ministry of the Church. The main job of each and every believer. Just as Paul praised Timothy for having absorbed practical theology from mentors, teachers, coaches, just as Paul recognized that the Christian faith was part of who Timothy was, so each of us can live out the Christian faith each day. Every day. We can make theology part of our everyday lives, too.

We can have confidence and faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord, our Savior. We all can live lives that let everyone know we are Christians because we have love for one another. We can strive to be unfailingly loving and giving to others. Many others. Each day. Every day. And when we finally stand before Jesus Christ in glory, we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

St. Francis of Assisi made theology part of his everyday life, making the Christian faith part of who he was. He reminded us, “Preach the Gospel at all times. And when necessary, use words.” Let those with ears to hear, let them hear. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1836 ; Commentary, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Matt Skinner, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Powerful, Living Word

“Powerful, Living Word”

Heb 4-12 alive and active

Hebrews 4:12-13 – August 7, 2016

Words have power. Well-written words paint pictures in our brains, lift our spirits, or tug at our heartstrings.

Think of the vivid quote from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest: “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” And, the stirring words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Or, the heartstring tugs from A.A. Milne’s book Winnie the Pooh: “How do you spell ‘love’?” – Piglet “You don’t spell it…you feel it.” – Pooh”

This service today is all about words. Some very special words. Powerful words. God’s words. The Word of God, the Bible.

Our passage for this morning comes from the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 4. Reading verse 4:12 again: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Those words are pretty powerful! Sharp, penetrating, dividing, judging. The Word of God has great penetrating power, piercing incisively. This is an everyday picture: imagine a butcher with a very large, very sharp knife, cutting down to the bone.

“The word of God is not just sharp, but sharper than the sharpest doubled edged sword. In that sense the word of God can cut either way—in judgement or blessing.” [1] Plus, God’s Word, the Bible, is filled with God’s Spirit. That is important, too!

We are taking a closer look at the United Church of Christ’s Statement of Mission. Today’s sentence is: Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to preach and teach with the power of the living Word.

God’s words have been powerful since the beginning of time. And, even before. Think of the preincarnate Jesus, the eternal God the Son. The first chapter of the Gospel of John tells us “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” Jesus, the Logos, which is a Greek expression meaning “the Word.” He spoke, and the entire universe came into being. Jesus is equated with this powerful, living and active Word of God!

As a minister of the Gospel, it is my responsibility and joy to preach and teach the Word of God. To preach and teach the amazing, mighty, powerful, living Word. Yet, the Statement of Mission tells us plainly that we all—that is, everyone here—have that same responsibility.

Last Wednesday afternoon, I went with several people from Morton Grove to the south side of Chicago. My friend had been in touch with a mothers’ group called Mothers Against Senseless Killing (MASK). This group has a free meal outreach called Give Them a Meal.

The four of us went to the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. What a wonderful opportunity for people to come together, to share, to have fellowship and make community. We set up everything so the free meal could be offered to anyone who came up to the street corner.

We were there for several hours. Yes, it was a marvelous afternoon. We were of service to that community. However, I wanted to let you know that just before I left, I had a wonderful conversation with the senior pastor of a Missionary Baptist church that set up an outdoor worship service on that same street corner.

Complete with sound system and moveable pulpit, that church has a regular outreach to their community each Wednesday evening. Pastor Matthew told me of the burden on his heart to disciple the members of his church. He strives to teach them to share their faith. Just as the UCC Statement of Mission says, “be ready to teach and preach with the power of the living Word.”

That’s what Pastor Matthew and his congregation strive to do, week in and week out! I am not particularly skilled in evangelism. That is one area where I fall short. I can learn lots from him and the members of his church. Plus, this sentence from our Statement of Mission tells us that teaching and preaching with the power of the living Word is something that every believer in Christ ought to be doing, on a regular basis.

There is a problem, though. We humans have shortcomings. We miss the mark in so many ways. As I was preaching last week, natural humans have deceitful hearts. We hide and run away. Our thoughts, words and actions are cloaked in darkness and sin.

Does this word picture sound sadly familiar? Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and then repeatedly in the New Testament, we see over and over again how natural humans keep tripping up. How we sin “in thought, word, and deed,” The second part of Hebrews 4:12 lets us know that God’s word “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” I think that all of us here today acknowledge that we humans do sin. Miss the mark. Make mistakes. Say stupid things.

There is a famous picture, or icon, of Jesus.  Jesus the Judge. We are all familiar with pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, or Jesus with the little children. But here in these verses, we have a serious word-picture of the risen, exalted Jesus, Jesus the Judge. Yes, this is a very real part of our Lord Jesus, whom we know and love.

The other half of this pair of verses lets us know that “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Words of caution! Words telling us to take care. As one commentator mentions, “the Word of God can probe the innermost motives of the real self and bring them out into the open, and then, with the self exposed to the light, prompt repentance and forgiveness.” [2]

Serious stuff, the Word of God! The Bible.

Still, we need to look at the words of the statement from the UCC Statement of Mission. “be ready to teach and preach with the power of the living Word.”

When it comes to everyone—all of us being ready to preach and teach, God offers us help. Isn’t that wonderful? God lets us know that we have God coming alongside of us. Helping, coaching, cheering us on as we tell others about the tremendous God we serve.

I have mentioned Miss Rose before. Miss Rose was a loving, caring senior from a church I attended some thirty years ago. Imagine my surprise and pleasure to find her one of the residents at the senior citizen home I worked at while I attended seminary! Miss Rose had the gift of evangelism. She would ask practically everyone, “Do you know the Lord?” Then, she would tell about the wonderful things God was doing in her life.

Miss Rose did not have an easy time at the retirement home. She was in constant pain, among other health issues. However, she did not let that stop her. Practically every person knew that God was Miss Rose’s Helper, Refuge, Strength. Shepherd. Healer.

Just in case anyone is wondering how to be “ready to teach and preach with the power of the living Word,” We can follow Miss Rose’s excellent example. Tell others what God is doing for you, right now. Tell others about the Holy Spirit’s power in your life. And, tell others about the amazing Word of God, the Logos, God the Son, Jesus!

What an opportunity! Tell others, like Miss Rose. Tell others about God’s power in your life, today. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday28be.html “The Word of God,”  Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.  

[2] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday28be.html “The Word of God,”  Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

“We Must Obey God!”

“We Must Obey God!”

Acts 5-29 floral saying

Acts 5:12-29 – June 28, 2015

I remember an older documentary I saw on PBS about fifteen years ago, about classic comedy shorts. Tracing the history of comedy, I was introduced to a serious study of the silent comedy shorts of the teens and 1920’s. Including the Keystone Kops. I immediately recognized their wacky, incompetent ways as similar to other, more recent comedy acts I had seen. Running around, like chickens with their heads cut off. Bumbling, yet energetic, inevitably they would end up floundering around helplessly.

This reminded me so much of the Temple guards from our reading today.

You remember our Summer Sermon Series, from the book of Acts. Postcards from the Early Church. When last we left our intrepid heroes, Peter and the other apostles were regularly preaching in and around the Temple in Jerusalem. In the city center, getting lots of attention from all passersby. And especially getting negative attention from the Jewish leaders, the Sanhedrin.

Peter and his fellow apostles remind me of some modern-day radicals—I mean, street preachers. People like those calling for a living wage, or like those advocating for wider access to decent education for all people, or those clamoring for clergy accountability for hidden sexual abuse. Even though the Jewish authorities told Peter and company to pipe down! The disciples refused to do so. Just like the modern-day street preachers protesting today.

Remember, last week I talked about how those pesky, persistent disciples were like the carnival game Whack-a-Mole? How they kept popping up, all over the place, no matter how much the Jewish leaders whacked at them? Here they are again, those pesky, persistent preachers. This resistance was serious! This was major disruption!

Of course the Jewish leaders and Temple police needed to round up these pesky, disruptive upstarts!

We pick up the narrative at verse 17 of chapter 5 of Acts: “Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” the angel said, “and tell the people all about this new life.” 21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.”

You heard it again, right here. An angel of the Lord supernaturally went into the prison by night, and miraculously released this group of men. (They probably all were men, in prison. Although, there were women disciples of the Risen Jesus, too!)

Next thing you know, the angel of the Lord told the disciples to continue to preach, and to continue spreading the good news. If I had just had an angel perform a miracle especially for me, chances are that I would listen to that angel, too!

Moreover, the disciples did not hightail it for the hills. Instead, they stayed put, in Jerusalem, and got right back in the thick of things.

Even though the Sanhedrin specifically told them NOT to preach any more, what do you think they are doing? You guessed it. They are out in the Temple again, and on the downtown street corners, preaching away. Telling everyone who would listen about the Risen Lord Jesus, the resurrected miracle-working Rabbi who rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty.

Despite being sternly told not to say a word about what had happened in Jerusalem in the past few weeks.

Now, let’s look at the flip side. The side of the Jewish leaders. Starting at verse 21: “When the high priest and his associates arrived [in the morning], they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to. 25 Then someone came and said, ‘Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.’”

I can’t help but keep going back to the Keystone Kops! The Temple guards and Jewish leaders, who threw all these guys in prison. Even the bars and locked doors couldn’t hold the disciples! As one commentary said, the opposition—the priestly establishment—could not stop these determined preachers. The guards’ and leaders’ befuddled incompetence highlights how useless it is to oppose God and God’s purposes.

Rev. Daniel B. Clendenin preached a sermon on this text from Acts 5 a few years ago. He noted that “in July 2003, Dominican nuns Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson, members of a peace community in Baltimore called Jonah House, were sentenced to 34 months each in federal prison for sabotaging the national defense and damaging government property. They had protested nuclear weapons by smearing a cross on a Minuteman silo with their own blood and pounding on it with hammers.”

Regardless of what anyone’s personal feelings about national defense may be, I can palpably feel how deeply these women believed in what they were doing. How they said, like Peter and the other apostles, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” How strongly theses nuns felt that these deadly nuclear bombs killed innocent civilians as well as opposition soldiers. Not just “collateral damage,” but individuals. Women, children, seniors, clergy, medical personnel. All creations of God, and all much loved by God. Just like all of us. Each one of us.

Did you hear? “We must obey God rather than human beings!” That’s how Peter and the other disciples responded to the Sanhedrin! That was their answer, and then they kept on preaching! They kept on spreading the Word of God!

The Jewish leaders desperately wanted to get these disrupters out of the way. But the public response and reaction to the outspoken disciples and their preaching—plus their very public miracles!—was overwhelming! The guards knew it very well, and they didn’t want to get hurt, or even stoned! Popular opinion? Very much in the disciples’ favor.

Looking at the present day, what is our situation? If we were to stand before a modern-day group of civic leaders, if we were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us?

Are we telling people about the Risen Jesus? Are we witnessing to His mighty power? Are we telling people of Jesus’ awesome, affirming, welcoming acceptance? Do we let people know about Jesus’ all-inclusive love?

We can see, again and again in the Gospels, Jesus loves everyone! The loose-living Samaritan woman at the well. Nicodemus, member of the Sanhedrin. The thief on the cross. The chronically unclean woman with the flow of blood. That chiseling, tax collector-turncoat Zaccheus. I think that message of unconditional love and acceptance, told to each and every person the disciples met, changed people’s lives. Changed people’s hearts.

I ask again—what about you, and what about me? If we were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us? Yes, we answer to God. And, yes, we offer each person Jesus Christ. His loving, welcoming embrace is ready, today! Are you? His life-changing message is here and now. Do you offer it freely, to everyone you meet?

God willing, I can. God willing, you can, too! Let us pray for the power, for the openness, for the willingness to share God’s good news. The Risen Jesus loves you. The Risen Jesus loves me. And He is ready to welcome all those who would come to the Family of God. In Jesus’ blessed, powerful name we pray, Amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)