Freedom

There has been a debate since at least the time of the Judges in Israel, more than three thousand years ago, as to where we should draw the line between Communal Faith and Personal Faith: Should our personal faith and practices take precedence? Or, should they be subservient to those of the community of which we are a part?

article-2544061-140565F4000005DC-472_634x667This morning’s reading from Luke is part of a sequence of parables that all have to do with how to live a life that reflects one’s devotion to the Torah; or, in other words, how to live faithfully.

At beginning of Luke 13 we read of Pilate murdering Jews at sacrifice and the deaths of others at the collapse of the Tower of Siloam; and the people ask “What sin did those who died need to repent of?” Jesus responds by teaching that we are not called to worry about others’ sins, just our own: and that repentance is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.

The remainder of this chapter contains the Parable of Mustard Seed, among other parables, in which we learn that the seeds of the Kingdom of God are all around us: hidden, but ready to spring forth in a wonderful way without warning, and that we cannot stop it.

All of these stories and parables are used here to show us how to live a faithful life – one that is conforms to the faith traditions, laws and customs of the community, or the Torah, which is far more than merely the Law. But, this morning’s story about the crippled woman, in the middle of this chapter, is unique in the Gospels, and presents a different lesson. …So, why is it here, in between these other two sequences of stories?

But first, let’s talk about Sabbath.

The Sabbath is a day of “Rest” although it’s hard to get agreement on what a “Sabbath Rest” actually is. All would agree that it is more than merely a day to not work. It is a break in the rhythm of our week, intended to get our minds and spirits off of the drudgery and challenges of life that we face each and every day. Sabbath is meant to give us room to reorient ourselves, to focus on what is really important rather than on what keeps us busy.

Many through the centuries have tried to enforce “Sabbath” practices through the law and stern teaching. The Puritans did so: forbidding all “nonreligious” activity on the Lord’s Day. Meals had to be prepared the day before; only the Bible and other religious texts could be read; and games and sports were banned.

The problem with this approach is that it enforces the appearance of Sabbath without necessarily making room for what is at its heart; and so for many, the Sabbath is a day of dread. Those who impose such rules, often even on those who are not of the same faith, are resented and sometimes even feared. Legalism supplants Grace; oppression overwhelms joy.

And, this is not just some long-ago quirk of our ancestors. Some of us may have ovens with a “Sabbath” setting, included so that observant Jews can have a hot meal without having to do the work of cooking on the Sabbath – it cooks itself. And, how many of us have been given a guilt trip at one time or another for not attending church on Sunday? Or worse yet, for going to a sports game, or even one of those godless rock concerts, instead?

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What is Faith?

Hebrews is unique, no other book in the Bible is quite like it. It reads like an old time evangelist’s sermon: full of color, movement, stirring imagery and ringing phrases that were meant to be memorable when spoken. We are familiar with many of those phrases, such as: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” – and – “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” – or – “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” So then, what is Hebrews 11 teaching us about what “Faith” is?

JoanOfArc-JohnEverettMillais-1865

What is Faith?

 

It’s not a simple question.  For us, the answer to that question begins with Genesis … and never really ends.

As I’ve said before, Faith defines how we see ourselves, who and what we choose to have relationships with, and what we envision our end (and the eventual end of all Creation) to be.  Faith helps us make sense of the events and circumstances that shape us and our world.  It lays out a path for us to follow into the future.  Faith enables us to gaze into the infinite and the unknowable and find a place there for ourselves.  It helps us make sense of the mystery of God and the vastness and beauty of Creation.  And, it enables us to exist in a world of uncertainty and change.

HarryPotterAndSnape

A lot has been written on the topic of Faith; not just the in Bible, but in everything from Hamlet or Pilgrim’s Progress, to Harry Potter and Star Trek. We admire those who have faith, and we honor those who die for their faith.  We seek to encourage faith in others, and our faith impels us to minister to those in need.  Faith is a powerful thing, and central to our existence, even though we may have a hard time defining exactly what it is.

 

The 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrews is a profound response to the question of “What is Faith?”  Hebrews is unique, no other book in the Bible is quite like it.  It reads like an old time evangelist’s sermon: full of color, movement, stirring imagery and ringing phrases that were meant to be memorable when spoken.  We are familiar with many of those phrases, such as: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” – and – “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” – or – “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith”.

Much of its Theology is subtle, but the delivery isn’t, nor was it intended to be. The author was addressing a community in crisis.  The people had lost their faith, and had no hope in their future.  The author intended to stir them up; re-awaken their faith; and help them reclaim God’s hope and plan for themselves, their community, and their future.

Chapter 11 is where the evangelist reaches the crescendo of their message.  I imagine them preaching it: arms waving in the air, voice thundering, starting each new thought with the ringing phrase “By Faith” …

By Faith Abraham obeyed when he was called … (and)

By Faith he and his descendants dwelt in the land God promised them, even though they did not yet possess it… (and)

By Faith Abraham believed God’s promise of descendants, despite he and Sarah being far too old to procreate…

By Faith!

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A Message for All Ages: Faith with a Capital “F”

This example using a Dollar Bill shows how and why Christianity is a communal faith and not an individual one: that we are called to work together to make a difference in the world.

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Show a one dollar bill to your audience…

Question: What is it?

Possible Answers: A Dollar, Paper Money, etc.

Question: What is it worth?

Possible Answers: One Dollar!

Question: But it is just a piece of paper with some printing on it!  Why is it worth a Dollar?

…Your audience will (hopefully) get stumped on this one, because there is really no reason why a dollar is worth a dollar other than because everyone agrees that it is worth a dollar.

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Sermon: The Great Bargain

The Abrahamic Covenant requires us to obey God, but the story of Abraham’s Bargaining with God in Genesis 18 tells us that there is a great deal more to the Covenant than we think.

Abraham and the angels - He Qi
Abraham and the Angels by Chinese Artist He Qi

Our reading from the Book of Genesis this morning is part of major turning point in the Biblical narrative: a fundamental redefinition of the nature of God’s relationship with us.

In the first 17 chapters of Genesis, we read about the classic Judgmental and often distant God of the Old Testament. The God we read about in the Creation, the Fall, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. But then we arrive here, at the story of Abraham, whom all the great monotheistic faiths claim as their forebear.

Abraham’s story begins with this distant God commanding him to leave his ancestral home in Harran, which he does: taking along his wife Sarah; his nephew, Lot; and all of their goods and possessions. They eventually settle in Canaan.

And there, Lot and Abraham part ways. And soon after, Abraham rescues Lot when Lot and his family are kidnapped in a raid by the enemies of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Then we read about the declaration of God’s new Covenant with Abraham, which we examined in a sermon here over a year ago. At that time we learned how Abraham’s Covenant demonstrates that God hears all of us and sees all of us. That we are all included in this Covenant with God; and that it is one from which none of us shall ever be rejected. But now we will see how Abraham’s Covenant changes the nature of our relationship with God.

The sticking point is that up until this moment, it has been a one-way relationship: God tells Abraham what to do; Abraham does it. We even see this in the Covenant’s requirement that Abraham and all of his household be circumcised. Abraham immediately does this not only to himself and his son Ishmael, but “all of the men of the house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner.”

But, this is no longer a one-way relationship. So, how does the other direction of this relationship work? By virtue of the Covenant, God must be responding to us in some way. This also means that God must be open to being changed by us. And, that is exactly what seems to be happening in this morning’s reading.

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What Does Melania Trump’s Plagarism Say About Us?

160719021527-melania-trump-michelle-obama-plagiarized-manu-raju-sot-00003422-large-169I’ve just finished reading the controversial speech Melania Trump gave last night at the GOP Convention in Cleveland.

Was it a great speech?

No – but it seems to be a strong and reasonably well-crafted dose of the heartfelt, personal, fairly standard and unsurprising “Potential First Lady” fare you’d expect in this context.

What troubles me is the vehemence of the attacks against Melania for what appears to be plagiarism in two lines of her speech.

Yes, it may well be true that this is what happened. And, frankly, a good speech writing staff (which I’m sure is available to Trump and his family, if they want it) would have bent over backwards to avoid intentionally plagiarizing anyone, and then vetted the speech to ensure against unintentional plagiarism as well.

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A Message for All Ages: “Plumb Line”

The metaphor of a Plumb Line in Amos 7:7 tells us that God is not a distant, uninvolved god, but is right beside us: involved in our lives at every moment.

plumblineReference Scripture: Amos 7:7-17

In this morning’s reading from Amos, we find that Amos uses the concept of a Plumb Line as a metaphor for how God interacts with his people – and all of Creation for that matter.

What is a Plumb Line?

A Plumb line is simply a string with a weight on the end.  As shown in the photo here.  It is used to determine if something is perfectly vertical, or not.  Without a Plumb Line, or something to do the same sort of job, you cannot build a structure of any size, because you will have no way of determining if your walls and pillars or columns are perfectly straight, or leaning.  If they are not perfectly vertical, the structure will be weak and likely to fall down.  The Sumerians, Egyptians and Jews all used Plumb Lines in the construction of buildings of all types, including their temples.  Without them, structures of any size would not be possible.

The thing about a plumb line is that you don’t use it just once.  Measuring a wall once it is complete doesn’t do much good because if the wall is “out of plumb,” then you’d need to tear it down and start over.  Instead, you constantly use the Plumb Line throughout your construction project, to ensure that the wall is “plumb” as you build it.

Likewise, God is constantly beside us, guiding us, measuring our progress, speaking to us, so that we are “plumb” in our own lives.  In Amos’ metaphor, God isn’t a distant, uninvolved god, but a god that is right beside us: involved in our lives at every moment.

Bonus question: So, we know that the Plumb Line is used to make sure walls are built perfectly vertically; but how did the ancients make sure that their foundations, such as the foundation for a temple or pyramid, were perfectly level?  (Because if they weren’t, you’d be in trouble even before the first brick or stone was put in place!)

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Sermon: Don’t Stop There!

The Bible is fundamentally a message of Hope. It acknowledges and warns us of pain and loss and evil and hate here in the present; but encourages us to look within ourselves to find the love and grace and hope that God planted there, and which will (eventually) bear fruit within our lives – if we give it a chance.

He Qi Good Samaritan
“The Good Samaritan” by He Qi (2001)

I thought we should begin with some backstory for this morning’s Old Testament reading.

The prophet Amos of Tekoa is the earliest of the so-called 12 minor prophets grouped together at the end of the “Old Testament”. He sets the model for prophetic ministry that is followed by all of his successors, including John the Baptist and Jesus.

Amos began his ministry around 750 BC: shortly after the first Olympics were held in Greece, and about when the legend says Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus. It was a time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were both at the height of their power, wealth and influence. Things were good – the borders are secure; people are getting rich; the land is at peace.

But then there’s Amos: a really gloomy guy, not someone you’d invite to a party! He was the first to prophesy what at the time seemed unthinkable: that the Northern Kingdom would be conquered and laid waste by the Assyrians, the survivors forced into exile.

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“They take a bribe and turn aside the poor at the Gate.” (Amos 5:12)

Tekoa, which is we where are told Amos is from, is a Hebrew word that means “trumpet.” “Amos” means “brave” or “strong;” and that is what he was, a brave trumpet: proclaiming the word of God for all to hear, particularly those in power. (Even though they were too busy with the good life to want to hear it!)

Now, the entire Book of Amos is basically two long series of prophesies, with almost no other dialog or prose. The first set of prophecies ends in chapter 7, verse 9 from today’s reading. Then we have this short vignette where the King’s High Priest, Amaziah, misrepresents Amos’s words to the King. Amaziah then demands Amos return home to Judah, which he refuses to do. Instead, Amos defends himself and then launches into his final two chapters of prophetic gloom and doom.

And yet… Amos’s prophecies do not end in despair, but with hope. At the end of his book we read…

I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God.
(Amos 9:14-15)

Like Amos, all of the prophets end on a note of hope for the future, despite all of the catastrophic events and dire pronouncements that fill their prophecies. This pattern is also seen in the Book of Revelation and in the Gospels. The Bible never leaves us in the midst of loss, failure and pain. So, don’t stop there! …As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: “If you’re going through Hell, keep going!”

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The Great Divide

Let us not mince words, as a country we have a starker choice than we’ve ever had before: to choose hate, or to choose love. Which path does our faith call us to pursue?

A year ago today our souls were still filled with the words of President Obama’s Eulogy in Charleston for nine Christians murdered in their own church: in that speech his words were filled with calls for forgiveness, love, tolerance, and social justice.  And then, a year ago today, the Supreme Court passed down a decision that made it legal for everyone in this nation to marry whomever they love.
How have these two great events impacted us now, a year later?
On the one side we have a political party that talks about respect and care and social justice. Now, admittedly, they don’t always live up to the ideals they hold, but the intent is there: a determination to love others as God love us.
On the other hand, we have a political party that talks about alienation, about deportation, building walls, embracing hate for all who are different from them in any way, claiming that the threat of deadly violence against another as the first and best defense against injustice. And, it is clear that the presumptive nominee of that party has no concern for anyone but himself: in his mind, people are tools to be used, not creatures of God to be loved as God loves us.
Let us not mince words, as a country we have a starker choice than we’ve ever had before: to choose hate, or to choose love.

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Sermon: Evil

It is easy to find people and groups to blame for what happened in Orlando, but is that what our faith calls us to do?

220px-Baal_thunderbolt_Louvre_AO15775
A 14 century BCE stele showing the Sidonian God Baal (with Thunderbolt)

NB: This video by Amaryllis Fox was shown before the start of the sermon, and is referred-to during the course of it.

You know – with regards to the recent events in Orlando, we have once again resorted to the same old game of accusation and counter-accusation: “Who’s fault is it?”

Is it the Muslims?  ISIS?  Gays?  The NRA? (Well …)  Maybe Mr. Trump?

Blaming assumes we can have winners and losers; but nobody ever wins. How long will we continue this mindless charade?

Look: 50 people died, and another 53 were hospitalized.  Uncounted others lost loved ones, many more will be dealing for the rest of their lives with the physical and emotional trauma they experienced that night, or caring for others forever scarred by that attack.

We see pain erupting from within the LGBTQ community because of this. You can understand why: places like Pulse are a refuge from the painful judgmental world they deal with every other moment of every day.  Such refuges are now no longer safe.  LGBTQ people have become a new target of domestic terrorism just when we finally seemed to be on the verge of forever setting aside homophobia.

For an LGBTQ person, this attack was very personal, and very scary: a very real threat to their own individual and communal existence, carried out against them purely because of who they are.  I can’t imagine feeling like I’m living with a target painted on my back, but I’m sure many of our kindred within the LGBTQ community feel exactly that way right now.

50 people died.  Thousands more will never escape the pain and fear planted within their souls that night.

Let’s focus on that.

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Fuzzball’s Run

This is a true story from my own life that I’ve used a couple of times for Sermon illustrations.  Here it is presented as a longish “Message for All Ages”, but would also be suitable for a  youth group session, or a Bible Study.  The scripture reading is 1 Kings 19:1-15a, which is about Elijah’s fleeing Jezebel’s wrath and then being confronted by God while hiding in the cave on Mt. Horeb.

A helpful prop for this story would be a 6 foot tall aluminum stepladder, or perhaps a good sized photo of one.


I once had a home with a huge backyard.  Since I didn’t want to spend all my time mowing the fenced back yard (and couldn’t afford a bigger mower), I bought some sheep to eat the grass.  The male of the three was named Fuzzball by my daughter.

One Sunday, I decided to trim the some dead branches on trees near the house; but quickly realized that my ladder [just like this one] was far too short for the job. It was getting late, so I left the ladder leaning against a tree and went in for the night.

The next morning I opened my bedroom window a bit as I got ready for work, I liked hearing the sheep bleating to each other as they grazed on the grass.

Suddenly, a rather surprised bleat sounded through the window.  No big deal – I figured one of them had gotten themselves in trouble again, which they always seemed to be doing. I figured I’d check into it when I fed them before leaving for work, and so kept tying my tie.

Then came a tremendous clatter.  Running to the window, I looked out just in time to see Fuzzball running at top speed from the near corner of the yard, where the trees were, to the far corner, where his shed was.

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Blame

You know – with regards to the recent massacre in Orlando, we are sliding back into the same old same old set of accusations and counter-accusations we see every time: “Who’s fault is it?”

Is it the Muslims?

The Gays?

Bigots?

Obama?

The GOP?

The NRA? (Well …)

Trump?

Blaming is an old game: based on the idea that we must have winners and losers. And yet, nobody ever wins.

How long must we keep up this mindless charade?

And then we have the next layer of this old game, that of hitching one’s own cause (and/or -ism) to the issue…

Gun Control

Lifting the ban on allowing Gays to donate blood

Immigration

Racism

All of these causes are important and worthwhile, and many of them do intersect with what happened in Orlando this past weekend.  But, by linking a cause dear to us with the terror in Orlando, are we obscuring what happened?  …Obscuring what happened by insisting the event be viewed only through a lens of our choosing?

Look: 50 people died, and and another 53 were physically injured.  Uncounted others have lost loved ones, many more will be dealing for the rest of their own lives with the trauma they experienced that night, and others will spend a lifetime caring for those who have been forever scarred by this attack.

And, we see pain erupting from many in the LGBTQ community because of this, and you can understand why: clubs such as Pulse were a refuge from the judgment and pain they experienced in the outside world.  Those refuges are now no longer safe.  LGBTQ people have become a new target of domestic terrorism just when the laws and society here in the U.S. finally seemed to be on the verge of forever setting aside homophobia.  The newly blossoming reality of being able to live their lives unmolested and free from fear has been taken away from them, perhaps forever.  For an LGBTQ person, this attack was very personal, and very scary: a very real threat to their very existence, carried out against them purely because of who they are.  I can’t imagine feeling like I’m living with a target painted on my back, but I’m sure many in the LGBTQ community feel exactly that way right now.

50 people have died.  Hundreds if not thousands more will never escape the pain and fear planted within their souls that night.

Let’s focus on that.

As a Christian, I see the Bible, particularly Jesus own teachings in the Gospels, as making it very, very, clear that we must take responsibility for our own actions and attitudes, and not seek to escape such responsibility.  Laying blame on others is exactly that: an attempt to say “it’s somebody else’s problem, not mine.”

So, instead of trying to figure out who to blame, ask instead “What have I not done that I should be doing, to keep such things from happening?”  Because, our own attitudes and prejudices and fears definitely played a part – however small – in causing this to happen.

And, instead of hitching one’s own cause to the pain of others, respect the pain and loss that has occurred.  Embrace those who have lost loved ones.  Walk at the side of those who cannot stop the pain of this trauma from leaking out of their souls.  We cannot directly feel their pain, nor can we (nor should we) try to minimize it.  Instead, we must allow them to work through their pain – and be there for them when they need help, or need someone to listen to what they have to say.

Jesus’  taught that we must love God without limit, and love one another in the same way.

The world can be a cruel, hard place.  Bad things will happen.  As Christians, we are called not to judge, but to heal.  So in the end, ask how you can help bring healing.  Ask how you must change in response to what has happened.

Love is the answer, not blame.

Amen.

 

Hell

A meditation written upon hearing of the shootings at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida on the morning of June 12, 2016.

O God.

When we demonize others, when we condemn others for simply being who they are: seeing them as less then human, we create Hell here on earth; welcoming the demons of darkness and eternal fire into our own souls.

Hell is not some netherous place in the afterlife. Hell is right here, right now.

In Sandy Hook.

In Boulder.

In Oak Creek.

In Charleston.

In San Diego.

In Chicago.

Paris. Tel Aviv. Deir El Zour.

And now, in Orlando.

Hell takes root when we believe the threat of deadly force is our first defense against the transgressions, or faults, of those around us.

Hell thrives when we encourage violence or injustice against another for simply being “Other” than we.

Hell cannot die if we do not accept that the presence of evil in this world depends upon our own sin, not upon the sins of others.

Hell is in every city and town. Hell is in every one of us.

And yet, our unconditionally loving God forgives the evil we create.

My prayer is that we learn to forgive in return: rejecting and healing ourselves from the Hell we’re creating for ourselves and others here on God’s Earth.

We free ourselves from Hell through embracing love, not hate.

– Pastor Allen

 

Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)