Sermon: Redeemed

…our flaws and our failures are not counted in God’s judgment of us. What counts is our willingness to do what is right, even if we don’t succeed. … It’s the Heart that matters, not the Head…. God judges our hearts.

gettyimages-660179780-1024x566This morning, I thought we should tie up some of the loose ends I’ve left from our last two sermons.

Two weeks ago, in the sermon “Very Good” we learned that God sees only the goodness that is an inescapable part of who we are; and which God deliberately put into us at the very beginning. All are just as loved by God as we are; and all anyone needs is a revelation of this Love; a love which heals us from all of our iniquities.

Last week, on Palm Sunday we remembered that we’ve all betrayed Jesus, even God betrayed him. And that we cannot help but muck things up, because muckiness is also a part of who we are.

In other messages I’ve given here, we’ve talked about how – because we are conscious of ourselves, and have the freedom to choose right from wrong.  Then we must have the right to fail. This is also part of who we are. And, we not only can fail, we must. We must  have the freedom to fail, and will, even though we don’t want to.

These messages are somewhat at odds with each other. Two weeks ago, we talked about how we are all, in our heart of hearts, “Very Good” and that God sees the goodness in us, and is determined to save us for that reason.

But last week I said we are creatures of sin, we are always making choices that increase our separation from God. This seed of corruption is buried deep within us: and is a very necessary seed.  If we are to be worthy of Love, and not simply puppets of the Almighty, then God must allow us to be able to distance ourselves from God. We must have the right to fail. We must have the right and power to betray others, even betraying the Son of God himself.

So, how do we reconcile all this? Yes, we are, ultimately, Very Good: beloved children of God. And yet, we killed the Son of God through the sin that is part of who we are.

And, how does this all tie into our hope for redemption, for our salvation which is promised by virtue of Jesus’ Resurrection?

First, let’s begin by talking about sin.   When we refer to “sin”, what are we talking about?

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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!)

An All Saints Day Homily, “Destiny”

To Christians, the veil of Death, that dark, impenetrable horizon that marks the end of the journey of all of our lives, is not a fearful boundary between the worlds of the living and of the dead. It isn’t the end. Yes, the dead do not return – yet, but there is nothing to fear – as Christians we know that our journey will require us to travel through the valley of the Shadow of Death during our lives, and then beyond – into the realm of death itself. But, Jesus has returned, has shown us that God’s love – the undying and uncompromising love of our Creator, the creator of all that is, including Time itself, is a love that is more than sufficient to pierce the veil that separates these two worlds.

celticHalloween is a very ancient festival, known as Samhain by the Celts. It was the Festival of the Dead. Cattle were brought back from their summer pastures and livestock slaughtered for the winter. Bonfires and lanterns would be lit; and the spirits had to be propitiated so that the people and their livestock would survive the winter.

Like most major feasts in ancient calendars, Samhain was a day of transition: in this case marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the season of darkness: a time of concern. In these ancient communities, which did not have the safety nets or resources we have now, a bad winter, or a bad harvest, or a delayed Spring, could be catastrophic. They knew something had to be done to calm supernatural anger. It was necessary to seek help from friendly spirits and from one’ ancestors who were already in that realm.

Many ancients, not just the Celts, believed that at this time of year the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest, making it easier for us to communicate with those – the spirits of the dead and supernatural entities – who are part of that realm, but it also made it easier for them to trouble us if we didn’t treat them right! Halloween and All Saints Day both recall these beliefs, which have persisted for thousands of years, or more.

All Saints Day was originally part of a three day Medieval Christian festival that began with All Hallows Eve (which we now know as Halloween); and ended with All Souls Day on Nov 2.

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24) by Fra Angelico.
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24) by Fra Angelico.

All Saints Day was a joint celebration for all the Saints of the Church – since there were far too many to each have their own feast day, and All Souls Day was a day to remember the faithful who died in the previous year.

Most Protestant Churches have either merged these three days into a one day celebration that recognizes all saints of the church – known and unknown (meaning us, when we pass, too); or else they ignore the Festival completely – like the old Calvanists did – disdaining the Holiday, as they did all Holidays, as being too “Popish” in nature.

The tie that links Halloween, All Souls Day and All Saints Day together is the same ancient belief the Celts had, that the veil between this world and the next is thinnest at this time of year. It was a day very appropriate for seeking to calm our fears and uncertainties in this world by reaching out to the next, as the three days in the Medieval Christian Festival each did in their own ways.

I want to reflect for a moment on my last sermon, given on October 4th, where I spoke on the concept of Belief. I pointed out that as Christians, we often think that “believing” is a goal – of having a firm, unshakeable commitment to the absolute truth of God. But, I argued that belief is actually a process – a journey with God, not a journey to God. Belief is not something we achieve, not a goal. Belief is something we do. We don’t know where Belief will take us in our journey through life, but we know where we’re going to end up.

The point of this morning’s reading from The Revelation of John is similar: we’re not certain what road we’ll follow to get to the end, but that we’ll get to the end is certain.

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The Magnificat

Third Isaiah is a text that deals with disappointment, of a restoration gone wrong, of a reality that does not match up with the image that hope had inspired in the minds of the people. They thought the future was here, but now realize it will take much longer to realize the vision. So, we are forced to admit, with disappointment and frustration, that the future is still not here, yet! We are also facing doubt and division over the way forward, and finding that our vision for the future does not match that of others. The future is much cloudier than we thought. Things are not going well, and we are struggling to figure out who is responsible for failing to implement the dream. We are coming to realize that bringing the dream into reality is far harder than we we ever imagined.

Janvier_2014__La_Visitation_de_Champaign_4ce186db1bThis week we will be celebrating the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday.  Tradition tells us it is “…a day to be joyful even in the midst of long waiting and keen awareness of suffering.”   

Advent begins with a focus on the future: “The reign of God is coming. Prepare!”  And ends a little over a week from now with a focus on the past: “The Messiah is about to be born in Bethlehem. Rejoice!”  Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is named using a Latin word meaning “to rejoice” in the imperative – meaning we are commanded to rejoice.

Last week’s reading from Isaiah 40:1-11 was the Second Isaiah’s comforting of Jerusalem because the restoration from exile of both God and the people was at hand.  That morning’s sermon focused on the need to prepare in anticipation of that return, to reflect upon our own failings and sin, and admit to ourselves that we needed God to heal (or fill) the gaps and holes in our own lives.

This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is from the third set of prophesies in the Hebrew Testament’s book of Isaiah: prophesies that mainly concern themselves with the situation in Jerusalem after the exiles have returned from the Babylonian exile.  Just as the second set (chapters 40-54) are referred to as “Second Isaiah,” scholars refer to these writings (chapters 55 through 66) as “Third Isaiah.”  Like the second set, those who compiled the Book of Isaiah felt it important to include the prophesies of “Third Isaiah,” along with those of “Second Isaiah” to follow the complete (three generation long) narrative arc of exile of Judah to Babylon: from the First Isaiah’s prophesies of future doom and destruction for Judah’s distancing itself from God; to Second Isaiah’s call for compassion and redemption in the present as the seemingly impossible dream of restoration comes to pass; to Third Isaiah’s focus on the disappointment, discord and disillusionment that followed the return of the exiles to Jerusalem a generation earlier.

The story of Advent follows a similar arc: our emphasis on the future declines as our emphasis on the past increases.  Our readings for Advent begin with a mature Jesus teaching us about the reign of God, and they close with the unborn Christ Child in Mary’s womb.

This movement reflects our Christian understanding that the sacred story, to be understood fully and correctly, has to be told backwards.  The birth and ministry of Jesus are incomprehensible until we know of his death and resurrection.  To put it another way, our understanding of the past is muddled and incomplete until we grasp the nature of the future and purpose of History.  Christianity sees History as having a definite start, a definite end, and that it reflects the plan and purpose of God, reaching its crescendo in Christ.  In other words, while we have (incomplete) knowledge of the past and present, we cannot make sense of what we know of them until we know the whole story, including the end.

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Just the Facts

Advent encourages us to choose God BECAUSE of the facts, not in spite of them; and to remember that it is God who writes our story, a story that always ends in the embrace of God’s eternal, fierce, and unrelenting love for us.

rays-of-light-shining-throug-dark-cloudsSermon: “Just the Facts”

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, December 7, 2014; (Second Sunday in Advent).

Scripture Readings:
Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)
Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

The year is about 540 BC. The place is Babylon, capitol of the Babylonian Empire.

Only a generation ago, in the year 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed the Nation of Judah, the City of Jerusalem, and Solomon’s Temple. Much of the surviving population, including most of the upper classes of Judah – priests, nobility, scholars and their families – are imprisoned and then exiled here, in an alien land totally unlike the isolated mountaintop fortress of Jerusalem. Their new home is perhaps the greatest city on earth, containing people of many cultures, languages and faiths. Strange people, strange ideas, and strange gods are all around them, challenging the Jews and their faith in ways they never imagined.

They are strangers in that strange land. The fact is, they have lost everything – friends, family, home, possessions, status, and even – or so they think – their God. And even if God is not lost, what good is God, since the strange gods of this strange land are clearly more powerful? And besides, how can they hear from God, even if God still lives? God’s home among them was destroyed, too.

The news from back home is just as troubling: the prophet Obadiah tells us that marauders and armies from nearby lands, such as Edom, are sweeping through the ruined land, murdering those left behind, and plundering what little of value remains.

The People of God see themselves as the walking dead, soon to forever vanish and be forgotten. All is darkness. All is lost. They are lost: whether they are scrabbling to survive among the ruins of Judah, or living in exile in the all too alluring and exciting materialism and corruption of cosmopolitan Babylon.

The facts are indisputable: the future holds no hope at all for them, nor for their faith.

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Muffin’s Love

Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean.

In 2000 my then-wife and daughter went to a SPCA animal shelter in nearby Lancaster County, PA and adopted a gray and black poodle that had been found and brought to the shelter nearly a month before. She appeared to have been a stray for quite a while. She had no name, so, after some discussion, my daughter named her “Muffin”. I must confess that I was a bit skeptical: Muffin was not a young dog. The veterinarians who looked at her thought she must be at least ten years old, perhaps older.

When we adopted her, she stank, she was weak, and her bones were painfully obvious to the touch underneath all of her very long and incredibly tangled hair. (Her hair was so tangled and matted that she didn’t like being touched over much of her body, especially her legs and underside. She was unable to wag her tail or move her rear legs due to the pain caused by the tangled hairs pulling on her skin. Feces were embedded in the mats of hair under her tail and between her rear legs as well.) To put it mildly, she was a weak, smelly, unlovable mess.

Despite it all, we loved her anyway: we immediately clipped off as much matted hair as Muffin would let us remove. She obviously liked the attention, stretching out and letting us work on her for several hours. we slowly worked through each mat of hair (and dulling a new pair of scissors in the process). She ate a huge amount of food that evening. Her teeth appeared to cause her pain, so we provided softer food for her.

We gave her a bath the next morning, which she relished. We spent a fair amount of time each day working away at the matted hair, slowly gaining her trust, and patiently working our way through the mats under her body, between her legs, and on her feet. Muffin ate good solid meals each day, and slept most of the time. She quickly put on weight, and her energy got better each day.

She was a sweet dog. She had obviously been well cared-for at one point. It appears that she was once in a home where she had been trained, and was allowed to sleep on her master’s (or mistress’s) bed, she begged to be allowed to get up on our bed the first time she saw it, and tried to jump-up, though her hind legs were too weak to do so. She was obviously much loved by her previous owner: she loved to be cuddled, and had no fear of people (which we thought might be a problem, given that many dogs in pounds come from neglective or abusive environments). We often wondered how she came to be a stray, and if her former owner missed her.

At first, Muffin always stayed near us as we moved about the house, and loved to be cuddled. Her presence in our family had a very positive impact on our lives. We loved her, and she obviously loved us, and returned that love. We, and especially my daughter, poured love into her from the minute they first met at the pound.

Through her whole life with us, she was a happy, joyful dog, but was definitely a tough old lady when she needed to be. In 2001 she developed into some major health problems including a severe infection of her oil glands, and so we took her to the vet: my daughter assisted in the operating room while Muffin was put under general anesthetic to have the infected area cleaned and some abscessed teeth removed. Despite her great age at the time, Muffin came through with flying colors, and I’m sure my daughter’s hard work and love had a lot to do with her successful recovery.

As another dog (Cappuccino) and then cats (starting with Misty) came into the home, and despite fading eyesight and arthritic legs, Muffin remained the queen of the roost: she was definitely the dominant personality. She lived with us until the summer of 2004: but then began to rapidly lose weight, was incontinent, and was growing significantly weaker every day. When it was clear the end was near, and rather than allow her to suffer, we put her to sleep. I held her in my arms and cried while the doctor gave her the injection. We buried her in the backyard of the townhouse we lived in at the time in Woodbridge, VA.

Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean. While healing us, He never does more than we can handle at one time, and He loves us unconditionally, no matter what condition we are in, or where we’ve been, or what we’ve done. All He wants us to do is return His love.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Thoughts on Job

God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan…

One message of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Job is that God’s view of what our best interests are is based on His perspective, which is universal and all-encompassing; unlike our perspective, which is inherently limited and focused on our personal needs.

We all go through “dark tunnels” from time to time. It’s an unavoidable part of life. In my case, the estrangement from my daughter has been the most heart wrenching.  A separation that I still do not fully understand why or how it happened, and one so complete that I have had no significant knowledge of anything that has been happening in her life for almost four years.  In any such experience, we have an immediate desire to have the situation resolved.  Unfortunately, Job teaches us that God does not think that way.

One thing I’ve learned from this experience is that when these things happen, God always seems to open up new doors for us as a result of it. If the relationship between my daughter and I had not been destroyed, I would still be sacrificing my own needs and life goals in the face of my desire to be the perfect Dad – as I’d been doing since she was born. In fact, I would have been working at it harder than ever.   It was only through losing her that I slowed down enough to realize there were big holes in my own life, and eventually learn what I needed to do to fill them. Because of this I found my wife, who I firmly believe is truly the perfect life companion for me, and also because of this I am now going back to school. None of this would have happened if my daughter was still in the picture, and I would never have worked on what I needed to fulfill my own potential as a person or to pursue my goals and dreams.

Does this mean that I’m glad my daughter is estranged from me? No. But, I’ve come to see that God is using the situation to help me grow and become a better, happier person than I would otherwise have been. If He is doing this for me, then I can be certain he is doing the same for her: He is not worrying about how our relationship was twisted and destroyed.  To God, what matters most is that we each acheive His plan for each of our lives within the context of His Great Plan for all.  This enables me to forgive and forget the fear, misconceptions and perhaps even lies that led to our separation, and enables me to hope that someday she will be able to share in the joy, peace and happiness that is in my life now.  But, even if she never does, he will take care of her, too – just as He has done for me.

Job’s message for me is that God is looking out for our interests, but is doing so in the context of the best interests for all of His Creation, and in the long term.  That is not a terribly comforting thought when you’re in the middle of gutwrenching crisis.  On the other hand, I’d rather have a God that does that, than one that caters to my own personal, immediate needs – or to the personal, immediate needs of others.  God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan, as does my daughter.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).