The King of Love

November 26, 2017               Christ the King

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24          Ephesians 1:15-23      Matthew 25:31-46

       Christ the King Sunday is the newest day in the liturgical year. Did you know that it was added to the calendar by the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, in response to increasing secularization movements worldwide? But it was most particularly in response to the plight of Mexican Christians who were being told by their government that people should only have allegiance to their government, and that the church shouldn’t have any allegiance in their lives. The Church in Mexico pushed back, holding public parades throughout the land (with significant governmental interference) with people marching and chanting, “Christ is King!” That declaration inspired Pope Pius XI to declare a new holy day, Christ the King Sunday. Originally it was celebrated in October but after Vatican II, Rome officially declared its observance would be on the final Sunday of the Christian Year. When Protestants adopted the Revised Common Lectionary and its calendar, we also adopted this Sunday as an observance.

It seems logical that we should acknowledge at the end of the Christian year the place that Christ occupies in our heart, because all through the year, as we examine the aspects of Christ’s life we try to become more like Christ. In this democratic society, some people might be put off by the title of “King,” but if you think about it you realize that by making Christ the ruler of our lives we are holding ourselves to a high ideal to be as Christ-like as we can.

Think of what an ideal king or ruler is. First of all, they dedicate themselves to the welfare of their people. They want to make sure that people are fed, clothed, and housed properly – that they have their basic needs met. That means that they create a kingdom where everyone can be productive and work for what they need.

Christ as the ideal king dedicated himself to our welfare. It’s true that except for the miraculous loaves and fish, he didn’t really provide food, clothing, and shelter, but he reminds us that all that we have ultimately comes from God and that we need to live in an attitude of gratitude for our blessings. He also continually told his disciples to share what they had with those who had less than they did. And we do know that the first disciples created a society among themselves that was dedicated to caring and providing for each other’s needs, and in which everyone could be productive and help each other.

Ideally in a perfect kingdom there would be no poor or sick people. Even if a person might fall on hard times and not be able to work, the king would make sure that the society would be structured to help them get back on their feet. I don’t think we’re going to eliminate disease in our world of bacteria and virus, but the king would make sure that treatment is available to everyone. Christ dedicated himself to healing others, both in body and in mind, and taught his disciples how to do the same.

Another aspect of a perfect king would be the equal respect that he would have for all of his people. A person with lesser means is not going to be treated differently under the law from someone who has money. The king, as final arbitrator, would enforce justice equally to everyone.

Christ treated everyone with equal respect, even those people who were his enemies. I am always struck at how respectful his discourse is, even with people who are trying to entrap him into saying something that would get him into trouble. One event that comes to my mind is when he rebukes the Pharisee who is treating the woman who washes his feet with contempt. He corrects the Pharisee with the truth, but also with a measure of respect, and then shows the woman respect by valuing the gift that she has given him. To Christ, everyone was equal, and what sets us apart from each other is not our economic or social power, but how fairly we treat each other as human beings.

Finally a king must be willing to defend his people. He must be willing to go out and battle the world when his kingdom is threatened. Christ was not a military leader, but he took on the biggest battle that we face everyday: The battle with ourselves, our abilities and the choices that we need to make. We go out everyday into the world and try to do the right thing and very often find ourselves doing the wrong thing. We make mistakes in the name of battling the evils of injustice, poverty, ignorance, power, and greed. We get caught up in temptations and distractions that wound ourselves and others. But we have a defense against all those evils in Christ. Christ was born in this world to be us, and battled all the evil that we battle. Then he died defending us against evil by giving us the assurance that if we keep Christ in our hearts that we will be forgiven, because God will see our true selves, and we will have a place with Him now and forever.

So as the just-king is the ideal ruler, Christ is our ideal role model for our own lives. We need to try to dedicate ourselves to our own and the welfare of others. We need to be grateful for what is in our lives and keep helping others become productive citizens who can provide for their needs. We need to help heal others in body, mind, and spirit. We need to treat others with equality, dignity, and respect. And we must be willing to engage in the battle against evil – the forces that create negativity and harm – rather than the force of goodness that creates renewing actions of compassion.

Think for a moment of the opposite of the ideal king – the evil forces that are epitomized in the tyrant. The tyrant doesn’t dedicate himself to enriching his people, only to enriching himself. He doesn’t care about their health or wellbeing, only about his own and maybe a close circle of friends who keep him in power. He doesn’t treat others with equality or respect; the value of a person is based on what they can do for the tyrant, not on the value of simply being a human being. And he is not interested in defending anyone else’s property or interest, unless it is related to the safety of his own. The tyrant’s actions lead only to him, not to his fellow humans, and not to God.

Underneath the tyrant and the ideal-king are their motivating emotions. The tyrant loves only himself, possibly others who can benefit him, and hates those who don’t benefit him. The ideal king however is motivated by love. Yes, he has a love for himself but it is connected to the love and compassion that he shows for all his fellow humans, because he sees that whatever positive action they do, is going to help everyone around them.

God’s motivation is Love.   Love for us is why he was willing to come to earth to be with us. By being incarnated as one of us he showed us that he was willing to live and work along side us to allow us to see that He understands us. Love is why Christ sacrificed himself on the cross for us, so that we would be free of the burden that sin weighs on our minds when we think that we can never undo or be free of the mistakes or even the evil that we have done. Love is why the Holy Spirit was given to us – to guide us through life when things become uncertain. Love is why we feel the presence of God when life is both good and bad.

If we want to be like Christ, our ideal king, our motivating emotion should be love. We don’t feed the hungry, heal the sick, do justice, and respect people just because we should. We do it because we love humanity, recognize the value of all people, and we want to show that love with action. And yes, humans can be annoying, and frustrating, and dim-witted at times but underneath that we are worthy of being loved, even when we don’t feel we’re worthy. We can all love – we just have to practice loving others. And if you find it particularly difficult to love someone don’t you worry about loving them – just give them to Christ to love first and he’ll take care of it while you practice and work on catching up.

Christ our ideal King begins with love. It’s something that we should remember as we start down into this crazy season of shopping, parties, families and friends. If we can practice living and being with love in our hearts – then Christ will truly become our king.

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Choose God

November 12, 2017               23rd Sunday of Pentecost

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25          1 Thessalonians 4:13-18        Matthew 25:1-13

        The time from All Saint’s Day until Christ the King Sunday is called the Season of Saints. It’s about 4-5 weeks long, depending on the calendar, and in pre-reformation days, it was the time for a church to celebrate the saints who meant something to the people of that particular church.   Most churches had a patron saint for their church, and then there was usually a saint or two from the area kicking around, and maybe a national saint, and maybe a saint from a “foreign land” would be celebrated to give a little flair to the season.

This isn’t a major biblical season, like Advent, so once the protestant reformation kicked in, with the emphasis on only God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the season of saints became irrelevant.   But this season has begun to have a bit of a comeback because there is always a need to look at what the characteristics are that make a good Christian, and a saint is the uber-type of Christian.

Today we heard the story of a public conversation between Joshua, the successor to Moses who brought the people into their promised homeland, and the leaders of the Israelites.  Joshua speaks as the representative of God, and tells the story of the beginning of their connection with God. He starts his story with Abraham, who was called out of his homeland, near the Euphrates River, by God.

Most of the Israelites knew that God had given Abraham the choice of serving God alone as his sole deity. This is a pretty big choice for someone to make who had grown up in a culture of multiple gods. I’m sure that Abraham was kind of blown away by the concept that there could be only one god. But there is something offered in this choice: if Abraham does follow God and worship only this one deity then God is going to watch over Abraham and help him find a permanent home to live in. Abraham doesn’t reject this idea – he listens to God, decides to follow God, and takes his wife and begins his travels towards the land of Canaan. He travels into Canaan and then is forced to go to Egypt because of a famine, and after a few more adventures around the Middle East finally makes it back to Canaan where he and God cement their covenant in a ritual that you can find in Genesis 15:7-19.

But before the choice that God gave to Abraham to follow Him there was another choice that was made: God chose Abraham as the person He was going to ask to be his follower.

First our God made a choice to call this man Abraham, and then offered it to Abraham, who chose to pay attention, accepted the offer and devote his life to following where God led him. God acted first. God called. Then Abraham choose to forsook all other allegiances and follow.

Joshua frames this narrative because God is giving the Israelites the same choice again. You see just as Abraham lived in a culture that worshiped multiple gods, the Israelites had also been living in a culture that worshipped multiple gods. As an oppressed people they had been exposed to the theology and worship of the Egyptian Gods and had been affected by them.   They had been the minority living in a country that was all-powerful in the region, and I am sure that many Israelites felt that perhaps their God wasn’t so important or powerful because their own culture was mostly enslaved to the dominate culture which had these beautiful temples and rituals. It is the nature of humans to be impressed with the bigger and the more beautiful and THINK that it is the better.

But now God is saying to them, you have the choice that your ancestor Abraham did. Before you enter the land that was promised to you, you have to decide if you are going to follow Me, or the other gods of Egypt that you grew up with, or even the gods that your ancestors served before Abraham, or even the gods of the region that you are going to walk into.

Joshua declares that he and his household are going to commit to serve God. And then the multitude says that they are going to commit to serve God. Understand they had a CHOICE to serve or not to serve God, and that day they chose to follow God.

God of course wants all of us to follow Him. God wants all of us to be a part of his family. God wants all of us to serve Him by loving everyone around us as if they are a part of our family. But God also has a personal relationship with each of us: He chooses us to be His child and then turns around and gives us a chance to choose Him as our God.

We can choose to be a part of God’s family or not. We can choose to worship and serve God or not. We have the choice to worship other things and make them into gods, like money and power. The greatest and scariest gift that God gave to us is our free will. God’s want us to come to Him, but he wants us freely and willingly, not as oppressed slaves like the Israelites were in Egypt, possibly worshiping something they didn’t believe in out of fear for their lives. When we come to him freely then our hearts and souls will be truly be His, because the giving of our hearts and souls will be an action of love in itself.

That moment of choice, when we say that we will follow God, is the first step we take to sainthood. The second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, etc. . . step is when we try to live it.

Sometimes that choice to follow God is easy. It is easy to be kind to people who you love you and who love you back. It is easy to give to charity when you have extra. It is easy to walk the path of righteousness when it is well lit. Now I don’t want to disparage the easy parts. I have heard people say, “Well yeah, she gave all that money to charity, but she’s got that big corporate job and is filthy rich, so she can afford to give it away.” Hey, check that at the door! Nobody ever has to give anything away – they do it because they want to, because they choose to. Maybe it’s not the widow’s mite, giving all they have, but it is giving, and it should never be snarled at. Any and all giving blesses the world and should be praised and rejoiced.

Sometimes the choice to follow God is not so easy. It is hard to be kind to people who don’t seem to care. It’s a little tough sometimes to be charitable when you’re on the edge of needing charity. Sometimes being right and fair is a couple of steps forward and one or two steps back. Sometimes when you are fair no one seems to get ahead. Sometimes we make a wrong turn, with the best intentions. We commit those negative actions that we don’t mean to do and hurt people. Sometimes the way forward is not well lit.

Well, that is when God’s love kicks in. The love that sent Himself incarnated to us in Jesus, to assure us that He understands us. God has walked this road with us and seen what we see, and understands that sometimes are choices are made with the best intentions but don’t work out. God is here to try to help us out if we choose to reach out and connect with him. We can take the time to pray, meditate, use our minds and hearts, and open them to the Holy Spirit to help us. We always have that choice to reach out to God. And unlike what some people might think, reaching out to God is not a sign of weakness, it is a path of strength that God gives to us that we can use.

And sometimes the choice to follow God is really hard. There are a lot of things in this world that can tempt us and get us away from the choice of God and get us to worship other things. And a lot of them are connected to fear. The fear of poverty can lead us to love and worship of money. The fear of being helpless can lead us to a desire for power and control. The fear of being alone can lead us into bad relationships. The fear of unhappiness can lead us into alcohol and drugs.   But God understands our fears and assures us that He will be with us always. There are a number of promises in the resurrection. First, that God will be with us always, second that all bad things can change and be made new, and third that, no matter what our situation, God is never going to abandon us. We do not need to live in fear, because God chose us, and when we choose God, God is going to help us through.

Remember, God offered to bring Abraham into a land “of milk and honey” that would be his own forever. That was going to be his reward for choosing to follow God. Well, God is going to bring us into a better place if we choose to follow Him. But we need to make the choice to follow, and then make the commitment to follow, even when it seems that following God is not an option in this world. That’s the enemy speaking – there is always an option with God

Abraham was given the choice to follow God. The Israelites were given the choice to follow God. As He liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, He also liberates us from slavery to sin and death through the faith that we have with His gift of free-will to accept His other gift of Christ’s salvation to us.

Choose God; act with God; love with God, and you will be led to your place that God has made ready for you.

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Witnessing to the Saints in Our Lives

November 5, 2017                 All Saints Day Celebration

Revelations 7:9-17      1 John 3:1-3               Matthew 5:1-12

Many of you know I was raised Presbyterian, and Presbyterians don’t celebrate any of the extra Christian holidays. Basically it was Advent without the candles (The only reason why I knew about advent candles was because my mother, who was raised Catholic-Episcopalian-Methodist had an advent candle tree!) Christmas, Lent (sort of), Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost.

We never celebrated the extra stuff like Ash Wednesday, or the Baptism of Jesus, or All Saints Day. Especially not All Saints Day, because those saints were those people who were all Catholic, and Pope connected. Presbyterians are Protestant efficient – You’re supposed to concentrate on God and Jesus, and maybe the Holy Ghost got mentioned once in a while. The Virgin Mary was Jesus’ mother, and she only got mentioned during the Christmas story.

Can you imagine what it was like for me when I started to attend the Methodist Church and it was announced that All Saint’s Day was coming up, so be sure to let Rev. Hawes know who you want to have remembered this year! WHAT! Methodists have saints?

Okay – then I found out that for Methodists the saints are NOT people who have been canonized by a higher church authority. Of course, if you want to you can incorporate the admiration of traditional saints into your life, but usually for us saints are ordinary people who have gone before us to God’s glory and given us an example of how we should live as Christians.  As a teacher I related to this because I had been trained in modeling as learning method. One of the ways to succeed at learning or mastering something is to find someone who had succeeded at what you want to do, find out how they became good at it, and then copy their technique. So it follows that a good way to become a good Christian is to copy the life of good Christians.

Let’s imagine that we are sitting in a circle and the leader says to us: Name an attribute that someone should have, which would mark them as a Christian. An attribute that you could take on for yourself.

The first word that comes to my mind is that a person should be loving to other people, because the active verb of the three great commandments is love: Love of God, love of ourselves and other people, and love of our actions in Christ. The last one is important – we don’t love others in the way that Christ loved us because we HAVE to, rather we love-to-love others – it’s an enjoyment because we are all sharing and plugging into the universal love of God.

Now if we move to the person on my right she might pick up the theme and say that a Christian is not only loving but respectful. Not only of other people but of people’s choices. For instance if a person needs to choose to spend time with their family rather than spend it with their friends, a Christian respects that choice and doesn’t feel slighted. Someone who is respectful attempts to understand where another person is coming from and what is important to them.

The next person might say that a Christian should be hard working or maybe even industrious. This a John Wesley point. Wesley didn’t think that a person should work so hard that they excluded their family or friends, or that a person shouldn’t take some time to relax and rejuvenate themselves, but he did feel that a good Christian examined his or her life and tried to make the most efficient and balanced use of their time.   Some time should be spent at work, some time with family, some relaxing, some with mission, and definitely some with worship, either publically or privately.

Another person might say that a Christian should have integrity. Integrity has two meanings: that you have strong, honest, moral principles, and that you have a whole or undivided character.   I think the basis of a good moral principle is a belief or action that moves away from the negativity of SIN and towards the rejuvenation of GRACE. A person who has a whole or undivided character is someone who is consistent in all their actions no matter what facet of life they are dealing with. They are not just Christians in one part of their lives and neglect being Christian in the others, like at work because being a Christian might not be convenient. Whether they are dealing with their relationships, their work, or their spiritual life they apply the principles of generous-renewing-actions-of-compassion to their lives. And finally a person who is honest, is honet with others and with themselves. An honest person is willing to examine their life, evaluate if the pieces are working well together, and repair what needs to be repaired.

And then another person might say that, besides being loving, a Christian should be joyous that they are alive and living on this world, which allows them to learn and to love God. I recently read an article about praising God. It talked about how people who were thankful for what they had were happier, but that people who praised God for their blessings as well as thanking God were more joyful. That was a light-bulb moment for me because I thought: Yes I am thankful to God, but I need to consciously praise God more when I thank Him. I’m actually trying to thank and praise God now.

It actually feels a little funny when you first start to do it. I sort of felt uncomfortable like I was equating God to puppy dog who was learning to sit or stay. (Oh what a good little puppy you are for sitting.) And I know that as New Englanders we aren’t always good with praise – I know I’m not. It sometimes makes me feel embarrassed, and then I forget to say “thank you” to someone who praises me. But I tried it the other day. I thanked God for something and then I praised Him. I said: Thank you God for my garden and all the beautiful flowers and vegetables that we get from it. You are such an awesome God to make these beautiful plants and these delicious foods that we eat.   And that actually deepened my thankfulness because by praising God I became connected to more than my garden – I become connected to all of God’s creation. Everybody try it sometime.

But getting back to our saints. There was a line in John’s letter that really struck me: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Hmmm. The world did not know God. I think that’s still true. I think the world, our society, our national and international order, is aware of God, but it doesn’t know God, and it doesn’t really actively seek to know God. Even though society might try to know God it gets tangled up in the politics of itself and the play of human power against human power.

But INDIVIDUALS are trying to know God, and a lot of individuals are really working at it, and some of us are even succeeding. Although, sometimes we might feel like the people in Jesus’ beatitudes: Poor in spirit; sad for our losses; lacking in power to do anything; and wanting more fairness in the world. But Jesus tells us that even though we might feel that way, we are still blessed by God. We just need to keep on trying to be compassionate; try to keep our hearts with God; try to keep on making peace; try to keep going when the world seems against us because God is with us and blessing us all the way.

So today we honor all those people in our lives who weren’t perfect but who taught us how to love; how to respect; how to work hard; how to have honesty and integrity; how to live with Grace; how to be joyous with God; and how to keep on being the best we can be, even though the world doesn’t seem to get our brand of love for each other. If our saints could keep on in this imperfect world so can we. And later we will meet them and we’ll get to tell them how much they influenced our lives in God’s Glory.

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Foundation of Faith

October 29, 2017       21st Sunday in Pentecost

Deuteronomy 34:1–12            1 Thessalonians 2:1–8                        Matthew 22:34–46

Happy 500th year anniversary of the Reformation! On October 31 Martin Luther posted 95 points of debate against the practice of indulgences on either the door of the church or on the wall of All Saint’s Church in Wittenburg, where he was serving as a priest – there is debate on which action it was. You know, when I learned about this action in school it was presented to me as an act of defiance against the church. In actuality Luther was just following local custom.

You see, besides being one of the resident priests and ministers of All Saint’s Church he was also a professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenburg. And it was customary for professors to post theological points of debate on church doors or walls for a few weeks each year, beginning on October 31 and ending in mid-November. This was how the university put out talking points that the teachers and students would participate in.   Most of those debates were contemporary issues. Today for instance we might post the issues about the pro and cons of having sports on Sunday, or whether one denomination should be in communion with another.

But back then the hot topic was the sale of indulgences. The sale came about because the Vatican was in a financial crisis. The last few Popes had spent more money on enriching themselves and their families than they had on maintaining the property that was the seat of the Catholic Church. The physical Vatican, known as St. Peter’s Basilica, had been terribly neglected over the years and was literally falling down. Bricks were coming loose from the buildings and hitting, or near missing, people on the heads.

Pope Leo X, who had inherited the mess, was desperate to save his living space. So he resurrected a practice that had been used, in a limited way, in the past: The sale of indulgences.

Indulgences actually started in the early church as prescribed prayers or works of charity, for the penitence of sins, which were supervised by a priest to validate them. Well, you might say – there is nothing wrong with that. An act of charity is a valid action of penitence. The problem was that over the centuries more people had used the act of donating to the church as the way to get an indulgence. A bell-tower for your local cathedral was an act of penitence and would help to get you a place in heaven.

Pope Leo took it to another level. He let it be known that your space in heaven was assured if you donated to the rebuilding of St. Peter’s. Since everyone believed back then that you would go to purgatory to be cleansed of your sins before you could go to heaven, then if you were willing to donate to the Vatican a certain sum of money, your sins would be forgiven, and your trip through purgatory wouldn’t take as long, or you would bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven.

Usually indulgences were used for the living and the wealthy. But Leo uberized indulgences. First of all, he made indulgences allowable not only for something that you did, but as insurance for something that you might do in the future. Second, he not only targeted the wealthy, he also targeted the middle class and the poor by allowing smaller pieces of indulgences: He priced them by year: so much money = so many years off the purgatory sentence. Third, not only could you buy an indulgence for yourself, but you could also buy an indulgence for a family member who had died.

It was one of the most diabolical marketing campaigns of history. It played on people’s fears of purgatory; it played on their desires of heaven; it was available to everyone; and it was affordable. Maybe you wouldn’t get mom and dad out of purgatory entirely, but hey, getting them five or ten years closer to those pearly gate – isn’t that what a good son or daughter does?

It is also interesting to note that Pope Leo was born a Medici, the richest and most powerful Italian family. This is why one of the debate points in Luther’s Theses is that since the Pope comes from one of the wealthiest families in the world, he should pay for the building himself, and not take the money out of the mouths of poor people through fear.

Now God might not like some of the real estate deals that we’ve done down here, but we’ve got license in this territory. God, however, does not like it though when we try to sell real estate in heaven. That is His territory, and we do not have license for that. And I am sure that God saw what was happening and said, “Oh no. This is not going down. Who shall I send? I’ve always worked well with lawyers. Paul was a lawyer; Augustine was a lawyer. We also need a theologian; a theologian who is also a lawyer. Hmmm. Can’t be too old – he’ll seem out of date. Can’t be too young – he’ll seem like an upstart. Needs to be established and respected enough so that people will take him seriously. Ah yes, there’s that moral theological professor in Wittenburg, trained in law before he became a priest.   Just the right establishment, just the right age, just the right stubbornness. And he knows that the main treasure of the Church should be the Gospels and the Grace of God.” (Theses number 62)

Martin Luther understood that we, as humans, stand between two conditions: The condition of SIN, which as you know I like to define as Systemic or Spontaneous Inflictions of Negativity, and the condition of GRACE. And for Grace I like to define it as Generous Renewing Actions of Compassion Everyday. God, I would say, operates with Generous Renewing Actions of Compassion ETERNALLY, but we’re human and stuck in time. So we have to plug ourselves into God on an everyday basis.

Participation in Sin takes us away from God; Participation in Grace moves us closer to God. We are justified, or made right in our lives, by our faith in God, because when we have faith in God, we accept his renewing actions of compassion that lead us away from sin.

Those actions can come from anywhere. Sometimes acts of compassion come from people we love. We kind of expect those, to the point that sometimes we aren’t as grateful as we should be for them. Sometimes they come from friends or acquaintances, which can be expected or surprising, depending on the circumstance. And we should also be thankful for them. Sometimes they come unexpectedly from the world. Those we don’t expect and sometimes I think that those are the ones we are most grateful for because they are so unexpected. We should be equally grateful for all of them, because all acts of compassion come from God’s love. No matter who gives you compassion it is a reflection of the ultimate love that God has for us.

And that love isn’t given to us because we paid for it. That was the problem with the system of indulgences. It set up the idea that before you even got to God’s love you had to pay for it. It was the reverse of how it actually is – God loves us to begin with. God loves us before we sin, while we sin, and even after we sin.

Now that doesn’t give us a free pass. We still have to repent, or turn ourselves around and move in a different direction, when we sin. The only thing that counters sin is grace. The only thing that is going to repair and heal an infliction of negativity is an action of generous, renewing, compassion. And it can’t be a quid pro quo: I insulted someone, now I’m going to buy them flowers, or I continually support an immoral company, so I’m going to send money to African orphans. That’s operating in a system of indulgences. That’s not what God wants.

What God wants is for us to change our hearts; to open our hearts; to love God with all our body, mind and soul and to love others, and to love ourselves. And finally to love others as Christ loved us – using Generous Renewing Actions of Compassion Every day, like Jesus did in our Gospel stories.

The good thing about remembering the reformation is that it celebrates the re-forming of ourselves as we make our journey of faith with Christ and the Grace of God. Martin Luther walked that road. It was a tough one when he walked it. We’ve kind of got it easy compared to him; we don’t need to change the entire paradigm of a system. We just need to uphold the reforming of ourselves everyday.

So today celebrate your re-forming with God’s love. Celebrate the GRACE in your life. Celebrate Gracious Renewing Actions of Compassion by thanking people and God for them and by giving them to others. When you do you will be living right with God.

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What “Taxes” Do We Need to Give to God?

October 22, 2017       20th Sunday of Pentecost     SUMC Stewardship Sunday

Exodus 33:12–23        1 Thessalonians 1:1–10          Matthew 22:15–22

Ouch! Taxes! No one likes that word, not in our day-and-age, and not in Jesus’ time. Taxes have always been contentious. Actually, part of me doesn’t mind paying taxes. I recognize that in a democracy there are certain community functions that we have all agreed to pay for: Good roads, schools for our children, community centers, our transfer station, our police force, our utilities — we could go on with the list. But our taxes are decided by the citizens of our town, state, and country. If we don’t like them we can protest them. But that was not the case in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus’ day there were three taxes that everyone had to pay: The Temple tax, the Herodian tax, and the Roman tax. The Temple tax maintained the Temple, the priests, the teachers, and the Jerusalem police force, and most Jewish people didn’t mind paying that tax because they wanted their Temple to continue functioning. The Herodian tax went to Herod’s building projects, his administration costs, his own and his family’s living expenses, and his own personal army, which he used to maintain the law in Palestine. Since Herod was not considered to be a legitimate Hebrew king, by the Jewish people, people didn’t like to pay that tax, but at least the money was staying in the area, and paying the salaries of people in the area.

The Roman tax was the one that no one wanted to pay since it supported the occupying Roman army in Palestine.  If you didn’t pay you were committing treason and you would be punished. If you couldn’t pay your property could be confiscated and your children could be forcibly conscripted into the army.   It was taxation without representation topped off by oppression. And often very poor people couldn’t pay the Temple Tax, which they wanted to pay, because they needed to pay the Roman and Herodian Taxes.

So when the Pharisees ask Jesus if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, it is not just a theological question about paying the Roman tax and forgoing the Temple Tax, they are asking a highly charged political question of Jesus. If he publically states that the Temple Tax should come first and the Roman tax second or third, then he is verbally maligning the Empire and committing treason. This would have been grounds for an arrest under Roman Law.

But then Jesus does that nice little philosophical-debate-judo-twist and says: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

That got the Pharisees off his case for a while, but it leaves us with a theological command: Give to God the things that are God’s.

Okay – what are those things, the tax, that we owe to God? I use the word TAX because the word is so imbedded in this story. I looked up the definition of TAX. (You know me, I can’t get away from being an English teacher.) It comes from the Latin and Greek words to censor, charge, compute, or fix, and it said: A compulsory contribution to state revenue, levied by the government on worker’s income and business profit, or added to the cost of goods and services, and transactions. Ideally used for the public good and administration.

Now compulsory means we have to do something. In Jesus’ day the government imposed taxes from the King: The ruler says: You owe this for the running of the country. In our democracy we decide taxes by vote: We agree to owe this for the running of the country. Ideally taxes are supposed to benefit the population; we put something in and we’re expecting to get a functioning system. But what is it that we owe God and why the heck should we pay it? What is the system that we are paying into, and what is the benefit that is coming out at us?

Let’s start with the system. God gives us this beautiful world to live in, with all of it’s magnificent nature, and all the air, water, materials, and animals and plants that keep us alive. We could not exist without this wonderful world. What an act of love that gift was. So the first thing that we owe to God is to take care of this beautiful creation. I’m not saying that we all need to become all organic tomorrow (Although if that’s how you want to serve God go do it!) but we do need to be more caring and less wasteful of our environment. Caring for the environment is an act of love for God, for ourselves and for the paying forward of love to future generations.

God gives us each other to love and care for. (For it is not good for a human to be alone.) Part of the problem with the Roman and Herodian taxes was that they were exploitative and used oppressively. We owe to God our dedication to try to get rid of exploitation and oppression, systemic or spontaneous acts of negativity, and create a world where people live in dignity and are able to be the best that they can be for themselves and each other.   We owe it to ourselves, others, and God, to be the most loving people that we can be for each other in our words and our actions. We need to try to live in God’s Grace by practicing Generous and Renewing Actions of Compassion Every chance we get.

God gives us the ability to learn and to create. We need to respect our minds and cultivate them with education. This doesn’t mean that we all need to achieve PhD’s, but we should never stop learning new things about this wonderful world and we should never stop trying to create, or put into place, new ideas that will help people live better lives. Our ability to grow and learn is one of our connections with God, and we need to continue to cultivate it, not say at some point of our lives: Well, I know enough now and I don’t have to learn anything beyond this point. As long as we are in this world, God isn’t done with us, and we owe it to Him to continue to learn, grow, and apply our gift of creativity in the name of His love.

Along with learning, God gave us free will. If you think about it, that’s the most wonderful and the scariest gift of all. God actually gave us the freedom to choose how we are going to live our lives. Do you realize that God loves us so much that He is willing to let us go out and mess up our own lives, and learn, and grow from those experiences? We owe it to God to try to make the best choices that we can make that will further His love on this earth, not waste it with choices that produce SIN and not GRACE.

Of course God knows that we are going to mess up sometimes, no matter how hard we try, so he gave us his final gift of salvation through Christ. God loves us so much that he sent Christ to show us that he understands us through Christ’s life; and forgives us through Christ’s death; and is going to allow us to participate in His eternal life through Christ’s resurrection. Because of God’s gift of His only son, we owe God our efforts to love others as Christ loved us, knowing that when we do that we show God that we have an inkling of how much He loves us.

So let’s look at the list:

We owe God care of our world, because of the gift of the world to us.

We owe God care of each other, since He gave us people to love and to be loved by them.

We owe God the cultivation of mind and our work to create, because he gave us the ability to think, reason, and apply. And we need to teach others how to learn so that they can reach their full potential.

We owe God our informed decisions in life, since he gives us the freewill to decide for ourselves.

We owe God the understanding of our fellow humans, the forgiveness of their mistakes, and the acceptance that everyone is God’s child, because God gave to everyone Christ and his love and forgiveness.

Can you imagine what our message of the Gospel would be and the power we would have in the Holy Spirit if we paid our taxes to God in full? Can you imagine what the full conviction of our lives would be like? Can you imagine what our communities, our nation, our world would be like if we paid our taxes of love in joy, and gladness, and faithfulness?

Let’s not just imagine it, let’s do it. Let’s give to God the things that are God’s.   When we do so, we will be his children now and forever.

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Keep on Going for Christ

October 15, 2017                   19th Sunday of Pentecost

Exodus: 32: 1-14        Philippians 4:1-9       Matthew 22:1-14

One of the techniques for writing a sermon is to read a Bible story and then to think: Who am I in the Bible story? For instance, for the story of the King’s Wedding Banquet you might feel, if you are the boss of a company, that you are the King. If you’re the type of person who has a very hectic life, you might feel that you are one of the wedding guests who refused to go in the first place. If you are not in a very good situation in life, you might feel or hope that you are one of the people invited the second time around. All of us might feel like all of those people, depending on our situation in our lives when we encounter the story.

But there is one odd character in this story: The character of the guest who didn’t have a wedding robe.

I was wondering why the wedding robe was so important, especially in an era when people didn’t have that many clothes to begin with. I have a few outfits in my closet that I only wear for special occasions like weddings. (And isn’t sort of silly of our culture that the stuff we wear the least is the stuff that costs the most?) But in Jesus’ day, the majority of people only had one or two sets of clothing – comprised of a tunic and an outer sleeveless, or short sleeved, robe that was your jacket – which you alternated wearing. If you were poor you only had one set and if you were REALLY poor you probably only had a tunic.

If the king had invited all the leftover people from the streets to come into the banquet, both the good and the bad (or the rich and the poor as it is said in the Gospel Luke) he couldn’t expect everyone to be at their best dressed for a wedding. But because Jesus didn’t throw out some obscure symbols in his teaching – he was dealing with stuff that people knew about – I did a little research into this wedding robe bit.

It turns out that just like we give little gifts to our wedding guests, they also did that back in Jesus’ time. Of course if you were an ordinary person you weren’t expected to do much more than serve a nice dinner. But if you had the money to give a gift to everyone invited you probably would; it was a status symbol thing. And if you were really wealthy you gave your guests one of those outer sleeveless robes. Apparently this served two purposes. First of all, it showed that you had the money in a time when material was not cheap and you were willing to pay to have all those robes made. And second, the servants would hand the robes out to the invited guests at the door, who would put on the robes, thereby indicating that they were approved guests. Apparently this cut down on gate-crashers. Those who didn’t have a robe would be thrown out.

Of course it makes sense that a king would be giving out robes for his son’s wedding, because he has all the wealth of the kingdom at his disposal. But while the king is walking through the banquet he notices a person who is not wearing a robe. Now this is odd because the servants went out into the street and gathered up everyone, and I can’t imagine a servant not giving this particular guest a wedding robe – everyone else was wearing one after all. The only explanation for the wedding robe not being worn is that the guest never put it on in the first place, might have taken it off because he didn’t like it, or it wasn’t convenient for him to wear it.

When the king confronts the man about not wearing the robe the man is speechless.

So now we have another set of questions to ask: Why did the man not wear the robe or take it off, and why is he unable to give a good answer to the king who gave him the robe in the first place? This is when we start to get into the parallels between the Kingdom of Heaven and the wedding banquet.

Who is admitted into the wedding banquet? Everyone, both good and bad. Who does Jesus admit into his Kingdom? Everyone, both people who are righteous AND people who are sinners, like prostitutes and tax collectors. (Socially and morally the prostitute was the lowest sort of female and the tax collector was the lowest sort of male.)   To get into the wedding feast you have to put on the new robe that the king gives you. To get into God’s Kingdom we are required to accept God’s commandments and to live a new life the way He wants us to live, not the way we want to live. This image is even stronger when you realize that a lot of religions at the time, expressed conversion as donning a new set of clothes. Changing clothes expressed the giving up of the old way of life and putting on the new life and a new identity.

We do this today. When you move from being a student to working in the world you no longer show up in your sweatpants and a rumpled T-shirt like you did when you were in university or high-school. You put on the uniform of your job, whether it’s a suit and tie, a nice dress, a chef’s jacket, a hospital lab coat, or a clerical collar. You assume the new visual identity so that people will identify you with your new internal identity.

But if you don’t take on the responsibilities and mindset of the new job, or a way of being, you are not going to be able to live up to and into your new identity. The wedding guest didn’t want to keep the new identity that the King had given him – he took off his robe, thinking that he could just enjoy the wedding without it. I’ve met a few people who say that they are Christian (or Buddhist or Jewish – you can throw any religion into this) who are not wearing the outer robes of their faith (i.e. behaving like a Christian) nor are they taking on the internal changes and challenges that God asks of us to grow in our faith. Hey, they got confirmed when they were 13 – there is no need for them to read the Bible or attend worship service, they’ve got the paper, so God is going to let them into the Kingdom.

Don’t be so sure of that.

But before you think that I’m getting all righteous on you, let me circle back to the beginning of this sermon. The person who I relate to the most in this story is the wedding guest without the robe. And sometimes, like him, I don’t have a good answer for my non-compliance.

None of us like to think that we are the wedding guest, but how many of us have moments of being convenient Christians? Now I’m not saying that we are like this all the time, I think that most of us are really trying to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves as Christ loved us and showed us. I think for the most part when it is comfortable we do our best. But there are times when I really wonder if I am doing the most that I can, to be the best that I can, for Christ.

Am I really trying to figure out who in our community needs my help? Or am I just waiting for people to have a crisis right in front of me before I do anything? Am I really dedicating myself to my prayer life? Or am I letting myself watch just a few more minutes of news in the morning, and: Oh dear, now I don’t have any time to pray – after all, I really need to work on that bulletin. When challenges come up in my life am I embracing them as a moment to grow in Christ, or am I just doing the careful minimum instead of that little extra stretch that might make all the difference?

Am I putting on the robe of Christ, am I acting with the heart of Christ, only when it is convenient or comfortable, and leaving it off when it gets a little challenging and I don’t feel that I have the courage? The thing is, I don’t need Christ when life is convenient or comfortable. That doesn’t mean that I don’t act in Christ’s love or heart when it’s convenient or comfortable, but there’s no need for me to call on him for help because: I got it, I can handle it. Praise God and give thanks for your blessings of being able to handle it when it’s convenient and comfortable.

It is when you get a challenge and you need courage – that’s when you call on Christ. And actually – that’s when he wants you to call on him – because that’s when he gets to show you that your faith is real. When things get scary and you call on Christ, and he gets down with you in the dirt and the muck, and the confusion and the uncertainty, and you are still calling for him, and working for him, and wearing that robe that you have put on proudly, that is when you truly find your faith and become a Christian deep in your soul. It is when you wear that robe in the outer darkness that you become a life-long guest of the wedding feast.

We’ve got to always remember to wear the robe that Christ has given us – the one that reminds us, and shows everyone, that we love our Heavenly Father, because he loves us. Our wedding robe, our salvation, is more than just a pretty garment. We accept it with our commitment to do our Father’s work in this world.

As Paul says: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen . . . and the God of peace will be with you. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. May we all wear our robes proudly.

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Being Caretakers of God’s Love

October 8, 2017         18th Sunday of Pentecost

Genesis 39:4-6            Philippians 3:4b-14         Matthew 21:33–46

Jesus told a lot of stories about tenant or stewards who were in charge of their master’s houses when the master was away, a common practice in the first century.

This story is actually rather gruesome and the most radical example of stewardship neglect in the Bible. The tenants lose no time trying to commandeer the farm from the rightful owner. They don’t even attempt to send to the owner his rightful produce for a year or two before they try to cheat him. You see, tenant farmers actually had the right to a negotiated percentage, usually ten percent, of the produce as their payment. In a good year the ten percent would be larger than in a bad year, so the better the tenants worked the better their pay. It was an incentive to maintain the farm and improve on it. But there were a lot of ways to cheat an absentee landlord that I am sure Jesus’ audience knew about – Everything from hiding a few bushels of produce for yourself, to selling stuff on the side, or even cooking the accounts. It would actually be in the best interest of the tenants to play the game of appearing honest while they cheated the landowner rather than cheating the landowner outright.

But these tenants don’t play that game. Over and over again they beat up the servants and finally get the brilliant idea to kill the son thinking that if they do so that the farm will be theirs free and clear. This is such a blatant disregard for the law that the Pharisees say right away that the landlord will execute the tenants and replace them with good tenants who will follow the rules. And they are not happy when Jesus equates them with the tenants and says, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

Stewards were very important people in ancient times. Property was industry and needed proper management. One of the most famous stewards was Joseph who, because of his honesty in administering first a nobleman’s house and then the Pharaoh’s household, eventually rose to become prime minister of Egypt. To take care of someone’s property and make sure that it prospered was a noble calling. A steward controlled not only the property, and was in charge of buying and selling his master’s goods, but he was also responsible for the management of the servants and setting their wages. If you hired people who were honest and fair and paid them decent wages you could expect that they would work for you with the motivation to bring a profit to the landowner, which would trickle down to everyone. The basic theory, expectations, and economics of stewardship are not that different from modern management.

But stewardship has a broader meaning than just an economic managerial one. It means in its base roots: to take care of the hall. The hall was the main part of the building that everyone lived out of. So stewardship can be expanded to mean that we take care of anything that we use.

We all exercise a stewardship of our bodies. If we do not take care of our health we can’t expect to be very productive people. I admit to being a bit of a health nut, and I apologize for all the before and future times that I bend people’s ear about a new health book that I have read. But that is because I know that I need to take care of my physical body in order to keep going at a decent pace, and I want you to do that too.

Stewardship is also about taking care of our physical surroundings. I know that when I get really busy and don’t take some time to straighten or clean my house that I start to get stressed out. It has been found that people function better and are happier in a cleaner, neater environment than they are in a dirty messy one. It doesn’t have to be military clean but it should be functional and comfortable clean.

The other big source of comfort or stress is our economic environment. If we regularly take care of our economics and know how our money is going in or out, even if we don’t have a lot of money, then we feel that we have a measure of control over our economic well being. Economic well-being is measured in terms of having enough money to be comfortable, but it’s also measured in knowing how to best manage it for now, and how to keep ourselves going into the future.

So if you think of stewardship as a combination of taking care of our physical bodies, our mental state, our physical environment, and our economic means, you realize that stewardship is a holistic management of how to best take care of our lives so that we can be better people for God’s love.

What about spiritual stewardship? John Wesley was really into that. In fact his general rules: Do Good, Do No Harm, and Attend on the Ordinances of God, were created so that if people became Methodist they had an outline to keep on developing and managing themselves.

But stewardship always comes back to property – it’s just the nature of it because we need to manage our physical world as we manage our spiritual selves. So now I would like to talk a bit about the management of our church.

Nearly all of Methodist societies started as house churches. For whatever reason the people who started them didn’t find answers or comfort in the Congregationalist or the Episcopalians, or any of the other area denominations. It has been said that in America we don’t join denominations we join congregations. The Methodist system of disciple development spoke to them. They got something out of the structure of the classes, and the prayers, and the discipline to stick with it, grow their societies, and eventually move from meeting in houses or barns, to putting up a church building that everyone could use for the purpose of developing their spirituality.

Church buildings aren’t meant to be social clubs – they are meant to be places where people can come to develop their spirituality. Specifically they are places where we should be setting up programs to be better disciples of Christ for ourselves, and to teach people outside of our church how to be better disciples of Christ. It has been shown that congregations who believe that their church is being used for that purpose will donate willingly to maintain the building.

But that puts a bit of a stress on a congregation to be more than just the Methodist (or any other denominational) social club. In order to keep any congregation alive the people of the church need to be always re-evaluating and themselves by asking if they are strengthening the people in the pews as Christians, and are they reaching out to people in the community to help them be better people emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, with our common Christian values. It has been shown time and time again that if the church claims that their purpose is to develop disciples both inward and outward then that church has a vital congregation. If it’s only concerned with taking care of the disciples in the church then it is classified as a chapel.

Is this building being used just as a chapel for ourselves, or is it being used also as a church that reaches out into the community with its values? That’s a question we need to ask about our church culture.

           I think that our churches can be proud of what we do in our communities.  But can we strengthen our spiritual culture to do more? And more importantly – do we want to keep this church going so that we can do more?  We have been talking in visioning meetings about revitalizing or merging, but we must be clear during either process that we are maintaining our churches for a purpose, not just because we’ve been maintaining them for two centuries.   We talk about the need and importance of giving to maintain our organizations of Lakeville UMC and Sharon UMC, but we must be clear that we are maintaining ourselves for a purpose, not just because we’ve been maintaining them for 225 in Lakeville or 182 years in Sharon.  We need to claim that we are a movement of God’s love, not just an organization of God’s love.

The tenants in the parable, and the Pharisees, never understood that they weren’t working for themselves – that they were ultimately working for God. Think about the fact that God loves us and trusts us to work in his vineyard – and He will pay us fair wages – but we need to treat Him fairly and respect His property as well. If we work on maintaining the foundations surrounding the cornerstone of God’s loving Grace we will be able to do great things that will be marvelous in our own and God’s eyes.

 

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