Sermon: Betrayed

In the end, everyone betrays Jesus the Son of God, even God. Why?

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The Flagellation of Christ (Rubens, 1607)

There is a whole lot of betrayal going on in this morning’s dramatic reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Let’s count the ways…

First is Judas, The Betrayer, who sells Jesus out to the Chief Priests for 30 pieces of silver. And then there are Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, who fail to stay awake while Jesus is praying; and then all the disciples desert him and flee. Caiaphas and the Council stage a trial, using false witnesses and evidence to condemn him to death. And, Peter betrays Jesus again – three more times, before the Cock crows; just as Jesus foretold.

And then, Pilate ignores the plea of his wife, betraying her. And, the Chief Priests betray Jesus again, inciting the crowd to ask for the release of Barabbas. – Which means all the people (and our pamphlet reading makes it clear we are among those people) betrayed Jesus, too, Matthew has us saying “let his Blood be upon us and on our children…!” They knew what they were doing. Even the bandits hanging on crosses on either side of Jesus taunted him.

And finally, Jesus calls out “Eli Eli Lema sabachthani!” meaning “My God My God, why have you betrayed me!?”

In the end, everyone betrays Jesus the Son of God, even God.

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Sermon: Lent

Lent helps us see that we are the root of the problem; but also that God intends us to be part of the solution as well.

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Did you know that the word “Lent” comes from an ancient Germanic word that means “To Lengthen”? (Lenten -> Lengthen) It was originally used as a term for the season of Spring– referring to the lengthening days of the season.

Lent is not mentioned at all in the Bible. So, it is not really “Biblical” in the strictest sense. Which is why many Protestants, such as the Puritans and their descendants (including us) did not observe it until just the last few decades.

And yet, Lent is deeply rooted in the Bible. Its 40 day duration is very deliberate, consistent with how the number 40 is used throughout the Bible. (Well actually, Lent is 46 days long, if you count Sundays. But, Sundays are already devoted to our relationship with God. So, Lent is about finding God is in the rest of our week as well!)

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we read of the 40 days and nights it rained during Noah’s great flood, cleansing the Earth. We are told Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai, seeking God’s will and direction for his people. We know the Jews wandered for 40 years in the desert to free themselves from the presumption that they knew better than God. And, Elijah spent 40 days wandering in the desert before reaching that little cave on Mt Horeb where he encountered God. In this morning’s story from Matthew, Jesus fasts and prays in the desert for 40 days before his encounter with the Tempter.

In the Bible, the number 40 is used to represent times of contemplation, judgment and preparation. Its metaphorical significance thought to originate in the 40 weeks of a human pregnancy. And this is why the 40 days of Lent are devoted to fasting, to meditation and to other acts denying us of things we are used-to. It’s devoted to transformation. Lent breaks us out of our normal routines.   By doing so, by breaking away from our normal lives, we open ourselves to God’s Word and the working of the Holy Spirit within us.

So, Lent was a very intentional creation by the Early Church. It is intended to help us to examine ourselves, and our relationship with God. It is meant to give us the space and time we need to discern what is really important in our lives, and in our faith. Lent challenges us to grow.

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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!)

Sermon: The Right Thing To Do

The Crowd, Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, and Peter: They all try to do the right thing, and we can see ourselves in them; because they are us in this story.

One central lesson of Palm Sunday is that that no matter how powerful we may be, no matter how well intentioned we are, no matter how wise, or how foolish, or how rich, or how poor, we all constantly make choices that widen the chasm that lies between us and God. We can’t help it, we can’t change it: … it’s part of being human. That is what Sin is: Sin with a Capital “S”; the Sin that has been passed down to us as our share in the brokenness of all existence, the Sin that began with Adam.

…But, God knew this all along…

"The Last Supper" (1494-98); Leonardo Da Vinci
“The Last Supper” (1494-98); Leonardo Da Vinci

How does it feel?

How does it feel to be one of those shouting “Crucify Him!” during our dramatic reading of the Passion from the Gospel of Mark this morning?

How does it feel to be one of them, one of the mob, one of those calling for His death?  To turn on him in his hour of need?

How does it feel?

Let us pray…

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s message.  May it touch our hearts, may it speak clearly to our souls.  We believe your word and your love will rescue us from the depths of our doubt, unbelief, and Sin.  Speak to us now, Lord.  Help us to know you in the way you have wanted us to know you since the beginning. Amen.

Peter really tried to do the right thing.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, he really tried to stay awake while Jesus prayed, but failed. We’ve all been there: like many of you, I have a hard time staying awake for my son after a long day of work, let alone during a sermon. Peter was no different!

But then, when Jesus was arrested, Peter ran away, just like everyone else.  He tried again, tried to be there for his friend, the man he knew to be God’s anointed: stumbling along in the dark behind that mob, following their torches to the house of Caiaphas. He then sat in the courtyard, wondering what to do, listening to the voices coming through the window above him, hoping to hear his master speak, hoping that – somehow – Jesus would escape the fate they’d all feared for him.  But, Peter also feared for his own safety, fearing he would be recognized as he warmed himself beside that fire.

He did his best, but it was too much for him.  When the test came, when that servant girl called him out, he did the only thing he could do: he lied.

And then, when he heard the cock crow the second time, he wept.  His failure was complete, his weakness contributed to the death of the man he loved. But Jesus had known this all along, and out of an abundance of compassion and love, had warned Peter this would happen.

We all know how this feels.  We’ve all been confronted by situations we could not overcome.  How many of us are Peters?

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An Advent Prayer

534100_445597948860210_865607878_nLord, Advent and Christmas are a dark time for many, a time when the pain of past and present injuries and losses become almost unbearable.  A time we’d rather not face all over again.

And yet, the purpose of Advent is to remind us of our brokenness and sin, of our need for the grace and healing touch of a God who loves us fiercely and compassionately. Further, Christmas teaches us that God knows our pain because God has lived it: walking among us as one of us, as a human being.  Jesus experienced birth, the love of a devoted mother, the pain of losing those dear to him.  He knew rejection, hunger, despair and fear.  He was betrayed by those he loved, and he experienced a painful and humiliating death.  God knows what it means to be human.  God knows our deepest, greatest, most deeply hidden fears, failures and weaknesses.

And so, our faith tells us, Jesus is Emmanuel – the God who walks with us.  God and the Kingdom of Heaven are near us at the hardest of moments, and for every moment of our lives, including now.

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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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Static Faith?

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In some ways (and perhaps oddly, for a Progressive Christian like me), I admire Joel Osteen.  I like his preaching, even though I often disagree with his Theology, because he presents a clear and simple message that is grounded in God’s love.

This particular tweet of his is, however, a little bit problematic for me: mostly but not entirely because of Osteen’s main point, “choose faith over facts.”  Even though this is, in fact, a theme that often appears in my own preaching and teaching, including my recent sermon entitled “Risky Business.”

But with regards to this tweet, the heart of my concern lies in how that statement is modified by the statements that precede it: “The facts may tell you one thing” and “God is not limited by facts.”

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Reflections on the Passion (Palm Sunday, 2012)

Presented at West Boylston First Congregational Church, UCC, April 1, 2012 (Palm Sunday).

(NB: This message was preceded by a dramatic reading of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus from Mark 14 & 15, which included the Congregation participating as the mob that shouted out [to Pilate] “Crucify Him!.”  The reading is available as a Pamphlet from St. Gregory’s Church of Muskegon, MI.)

How does it feel?

How does it feel to be here this morning, to be one of those shouting “Crucify Him” during our dramatic reading from Mark?

How does it feel to be one of them, one of the mob, one of those calling for His death?  To turn on him in his hour of need?  How does it feel?

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Thoughts on Ecclesiastes, the Second Great Commandment, and Homosexuality

I lived in the mid 1980’s with a man who – unknown to me at the time – was gay.  “John” was a broken, hurting, hiding individual – filled with conflict and deeply buried anger over who he was vs. who his church and his family and society as a whole expected him to be.  His own sense of self and self-worth was so deeply hidden under layers of self-deception, self-loathing and fear that it never surfaced in the time I knew him.  Compulsive and self-destructive behaviors filled his life: a vicious circle of turmoil and pain that he could not escape.

Conservative Christians focus on the Old Testament’s condemnations of homosexuality, especially verses like Leviticus 18:22  – “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable (NIV).”  Yet, Leviticus also condemns the eating of shellfish as “detestable” (Lev 11:10).  So, should we stone to death everyone coming out of “Red Lobster”?

Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures condemn homosexuality to some extent.  Many argue this was because the ancient Jews lived in a world that had no room to care for (or even tolerate) people that we would have labelled as “unproductive members of society”, though the ancient Jews did not think in those terms (nor am I suggesting homosexuality falls into that category).  In that ancient time, homosexuality may have been seen as a behavior that was unproductive in terms of the critical need to sustain the culture through procreation.  It might also have been seen as an activity that threatened the status quo /or and gender roles within the culture.  Who knows?  Whatever the reasoning, it was seen as a threat to the community’s ability to survive in a world where the margin of survival was very thin.  Such threats therefore had to be dealt with firmly, if not harshly – since that same slim margin made less harsh punishments – such as prisons – impractical, if not impossible.

Homosexuality in the early Christian era was apparently not condemned of itself.  But, it is clear that it was often an expression of power and dominance or lust, not of love.  The New Testament has much to say in its condemnation of the misuse of power and wealth in many different dimensions and venues of life at that time.  So, is homosexuality itself being condemned by Paul and others, or its use as to express dominance?

Progressive Christians therefore question whether laws against homosexuality have a place in the modern world, a world where the challenge is not that of making sure enough children are born to carry on the culture, but is one of having too many: leading to the destruction of resources critical to our survival as a species.  Yet, in throwing out some Biblical teachings as outmoded or irrelevant, we need to be very careful: it would be too easy to throw out everything we don’t like if we pursue such a path.

A friend of mine once encapsulated the issue by asking me this question: “If someone close to you said they were planning to marry someone of the same gender, what would you do?”  My natural inclination and Jesus’ “Second Great Commandment” (in Matthew 22:36, where he quotes Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) both tell me I should take the approach of love: accept them for who they are and wish them and their partner happiness in their life together.

Although homosexuality was only one of the factors contributing to his problems, if “John” had seen such love in his life, perhaps he would have had the inner peace he needed to build a meaningful and productive life for himself.  His inner torment and outward pain are evidence that we (as a society, as well as individually) failed to treat him as the Bible teaches us.

Another challenge is the teaching of “hate the sin but love the sinner” that many have adopted as their attitude towards homosexuality.  To me, this is hypocritical: if we criticize someone’s lifestyle or sexual orientation as a “sin,” how can we say that we “love” them unless we’re saying we accept them with a hidden agenda: that we want to change them into something they’re not?

We need to remember the conclusion to book of Ecclesiastes’ in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”  This verse has two messages relevant to this discussion:

First, we all have a duty to keep the commandments as best we can, realizing – as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes did – that we can never fully succeed.  Also, Jesus taught us to not judge one another, and it was for this very reason: we all do the best we can, and have no right, nor sufficient wisdom or knowledge, to judge others in God’s place.  Since I know that I am not perfect, and will never be so (in this life, anyway), this plus Jesus’ Second Great Commandment teaches me I need to accept my neighbor for who they are, someone just as imperfect as myself: both of us trying to make sense of the world in which we live, and our place in it.

Second, hidden sin is no different than visible sin: a hidden agenda is hurtful, as it requires you to be false to another – requiring the relationship to be built on a false foundation.  I am certain God will judge such behavior more harshly than homosexuality, which, in the modern context of being a behavior shared by two consenting adults, hurts no one.  (Some will question this statement, noting that the Christian Scripture’s Book of Romans makes clear that God judges all “sin” equally.  But, what I’m saying is that homosexuality is not necessarily a sin at all.)

In fact, since Jesus constantly taught about how we are called to love one another across gaps that others claim cannot be bridged, why would homosexuality be any different? If anything, it would seem that being brave and caring enough to love another in the face of the judgment of the world around you is right up Jesus’ alley.  Some will say “Jesus was not talking about sex!”  Hmmm, maybe.  But, do not forget that sex is but one component of the many facets of the deep and healthy and loving relationship that can exist between two people.  Why are we trying to separate one aspect of that type of relationship out as “wrong” when approving of all the others?  Especially since Jesus never spoke against homosexuality himself?

Therefore, I know that I am being consistent with the teachings and spirit of the Bible when I conclude that I am to be concerned only about whether someone is living a productive and balanced life; and what I should (or can) do to support them in that regard.  A person’s sexual orientation is an issue only if they are not at peace with it themselves, or if it harms others.

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).