Monday, August 29, 2022

In the Sight of the Lord

God sees us and knows us as we are and loves us. 

We need to be mindful of both our strengths and our weaknesses.

 For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.     (Luke 14:11 KJV)

 For everyone who tries to honor himself shall be humbled; and he who humbles himself shall be honored. (Luke 14:11 TLB)

 The Parable of the Wedding Feast is partly a warning, partly a teaching, and partly a promise. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Clint Eastwood’s character Dirty Harry in “Magnum Force” expressed it as, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” We do not need to believe those who preach the total depravity and complete moral bankruptcy of humanity, but we do need to be cognizant of our frailties. 

Manuscript of the sermon preached on August 28, 2022, at Briensburg UMC   [Audio Podcast] 

12th Sunday after Pentecost  

Psalm 112; Proverbs 25:6-7; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

 The parable is partly a teaching. The Apostle James wrote,” Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.” (James 4:10 KJV) Christian humbleness is more about how God views us than how we are viewed by others. God views us as good. We have been created in the image of God. We have been created as companions with our Creator. From Genesis to Revelation, God wants to be in fellowship with us. More than that, we, like Abraham, were created to be friends with God, as Jesus assures us in John 15:15.

 Yet we are in need of redemption (and, thankfully, redeemable). God continues to send “rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 KJV). God sent Jesus to be our savior, and not just our savior but the savior of the whole world, as we frequently affirm in John 3:16-17. God sent the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.

 Seeing ourselves clearly and accurately is an important part of the love being perfected in us. As Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, Good News Translation, “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face” (1 Corinthians 13:12 GNT). James went on in his letter to instruct, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed” (James 5:16 KJV).

 Borrowing a phrase we hear on the news a lot lately, “settled precedent” says, “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 KJV). We’re not feeding the gossip mill and certainly not confessing each other’s sins. We don’t need to hear each other’s juicy details, but we do need to share a general realization and confession that, as the saying goes, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross” where we all stand in need of healing and salvation in all its forms.

 The parable is partly a promise – an amazingly great, eternal promise. Perhaps the most profound imagery of what Jesus was promising in this passage is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where he proposes that we do like Jesus did:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11 KJV).

Peter Scholtes wrote in his song:

 And we’ll guard each [other’s] dignity and save each [other’s] pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love (Peter Scholtes)

 

We are encouraged to maintain a right relationship with each other.

For better it is that it be said unto thee, Come up hither; than that thou shouldest be put lower in the presence of the prince whom thine eyes have seen.    (Proverbs 25:7 KJV)

It’s better to be promoted to a place of honor than face humiliation by being demoted.     (Proverbs 25:7 MSG)

 This same principle Solomon highlighted in his Proverbs is what Jesus was talking about in the Gospel of Luke. Paul reminds us in Romans to not think more highly of ourselves than we “ought” (Romans 12:2 KJV). We don’t need to think more lowly of ourselves either. We need to examine ourselves honestly in the presence of God and discover more about who we really are, so we can know what improvements we need to make in how we relate to God and our fellow creatures.

 Jesus told a parable of a man who “returned home justified” after praying humbly to God, as opposed to another who missed that reward because he only prayed self-righteously about how wonderful he was in comparison. There Jesus repeated what he had said earlier in today’s Lectionary reading, “for everyone one that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:14 KJV)

 It’s best if we see each other equally, but if we are unable to do that, then Paul urges in his letter to the Philippians, “in lowliness of mind let each esteem the other better than themselves” (Philippians 2:3 KJV). Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthians that “not many wise… not many mighty… not many noble, are called” (1 Corinthians 1:26 KJV).

 

Jesus was concerned most about how people treated each other.

 Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness: he is gracious, and full of compassion, and righteous.     (Psalm 112:4 KJV)

 Light shines in the darkness for good people, for those who are merciful, kind, and just. (Psalm 112:4 GNT)

This promise of a guiding light is universal, regardless of where a person is on their spiritual journey or relationship with God or what path they have taken to where they have so far arrived. Some would argue this only applies to those who have met some religious prerequisites specified by their particular sect. The example of Jesus demonstrated the opposite. Those who were “good people” in the sight of Jesus often were viewed as “bad people” in the sight of those who considered themselves to be the most religious and righteous. These will “go into the kingdom of God before you,” Jesus told the Pharisees (Matthew 21:31) -- not instead, but before.

In Matthew 25, the Judgement of the Nations is based on how they treated the most vulnerable among their populations, “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 24:40). After a scathing rebuke of much of what we do in church, in an oracle that has been phrased in a variety of very pointed ways through the centuries, the prophet Amos preached, “But let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24 NRSVUE).

 

We are invited to cultivate an attitude of mercy, not sacrifice

But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. (Hebrews 13:16 KJV)

Do not forget to do good and to help one another, because these are the sacrifices that please God.     (Hebrews 13:16 GNT)

When Jesus was criticized for including forgiveness along with healing and for eating with sinners, he referenced the oracle delivered by the prophet Hosea (Hosea 2:6) and said, “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13 KJV).

Historically, superstitious humanity seems to always have felt a need to appease an imaginary, tyrannical cosmic diety with all manner of sacrifices. Even though modern humanity mostly rejects blood sacrifices, we still have a compulsion to think of service to God and each other as the sacrifices of wretched creatures such as Jonathan Edwards imagined in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But if we think of justice and kindness as love offerings to the God who loves us unconditionally from eternity to eternity, the drudgery of appeasement is transformed into the joy of salvation and healing.

We’ve been studying the prophet Micah in our Wednesday evening Bible Study. The tone of the book is largely gloom and doom. Micah’s contemporaries chastised him for prophesying against them, especially in such vivid and foreboding terms. But this week’s chapter includes the famous verse that stands out right in the middle of all the intense tragedies described. It is the verse that clearly summarizes what God expects of humanity. The verse is preceded by asking what kind of sacrifices we could make that would be pleasing to God. Would it be burnt offerings, or calves, or rams? Would it be “ten thousands of rivers of oil?” What if we sacrificed our children? These are the kinds of things people used to think they had to do to please God. Perhaps many have replaced those gruesome ancient sacrifices with more palatable modern counterparts. But Micah proclaims, in the Good News Translation,

No, the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God. (Micah 6:8 GNT).

In the Name of Jesus, Amen.


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Look for the Healing

One thing stands out above all the rest in today’s Lectionary readings.

 And when Jesus saw her, he called her to him, and said unto her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.    (Luke 13:12 KJV)

 He healed her. He saw her, stopped what he was doing, and healed her. There, amid the flurry of everything else going on – the teaching, the gathering, the fellowship, and the Sabbath activities in the synagogue – He healed her.

 Yet all some people saw was a reason to denounce and criticize. They criticized Jesus for offering healing and the woman for accepting the healing. What is wrong with some people?  Why do some people have to look for the worst in every situation, even if they must completely fabricate some imaginary evil? Such people display symptoms of spiritual diseases that need to be healed. They cannot experience the joy of their salvation because they are focused on all the bad they can conjure instead of the good right in front of them. An African-American Spiritual includes the verse:

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul  (African-American Spiritual)

 Those who were blessed were those who saw through the cloud of distractions and thereby became a part of the rejoicing. Her healing became their healing, and her joy became their joy. Those who participate in the recovery from the margins experience wholeness alongside those at the center.  Look for the various types of healing moments throughout the Bible.  In current news events, look for how the world’s problems are being addressed to bring healing, wholeness, solutions, and salvation.  

Manuscript of the sermon preached on August 21, 2022, at Briensburg UMC  [Video] 

11th Sunday after Pentecost  

Psalm 103:1-8; Isaiah 58:9b-14; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

 God forgives us and heals us.

 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases;    (Psalm 103:2-3 KJV)

 God invites us to join in the work of bringing wholeness wherever there is brokenness, even if it is only the proverbial cup of water given in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). Forgiveness is the heart of the Gospel because forgiveness brings reconciliation and wholeness to everyone involved with whatever brokenness and heartache they share.

 With the Psalmist, we bless the Lord from deep within our souls as we remind each other of all the ways God has provided for us and helped us and strengthened us, and healed us in all kinds of difficult circumstances. John Newton expressed his praise in the hymn “Amazing Grace:”

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home. (John Newton)

 

God invites us to participate in the forgiving and healing process.

 And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day.   (Isaiah 58:10 KJV)

 There are many forms of affliction and infinite forms of healing.  Whatever the hurt, God’s love addresses the solution with wholeness. We may not recognize the good if we only let ourselves see what we want. We pray with Jesus, “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42 KJV). We trust God with the methods and outcomes. We say with Isaiah, “Here am I send me,” as we offer “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness” (UM Baptismal Covenant). We watch with anticipation to see not whether but how God is answering our prayers and not whether but how God is empowering us to be part of the solution.

 When we encounter a situation where healing is needed, let us pray that God will show us our part in the process. Our part may only be the prayer itself, or perhaps a word or an action that comes to us during our prayer or later in our reflection. We are empowered to look for an opportunity to minister our spiritual gifts to bring improvement to the situations we encounter, no matter how insignificant our role may seem. The tiniest act of goodness and generosity contributes to the whole of the healing process when combined with everything else God and other people are also doing.

 The Message translates the last half of this verse, “Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way” (Isaiah 58:10 MSG). It’s the pathway to Heaven and the pathway to joy.  When we look for good where others only see bad, the proverbial light shines on our path and makes our whole lives brighter.

 

Today’s Bible readings encourage us to focus on the healing in every situation.

 But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just people made perfect,  And to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant… (Hebrews 12:22-24 KJV)

 Some people may prefer to walk in the darkness and murkiness of conspiracy theories, gossip, and smoke screens of fear, hatred, and misinformation. But we are invited and called and challenged to the “Higher Ground” Johnson Oatman, Jr. wrote about in his hymn:

 
My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where these abound,
My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.

I want to live above the world,
Though Satan’s darts at me are hurled;
For faith has caught a joyful sound,
The song of saints on higher ground       (Johnson Oatman, Jr.)

 This passage in Hebrews assures us that we have “not come unto the mount that might be touched, and burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest” (Hebrews 12:18 KJV).  We have come to a spiritual place, a heavenly place, full of goodness to be shared with all those who have come to see the good in everyone (even those who have yet to realize the good in themselves).

 The Cokesbury Hymnal has this song by Thoro Harris:

Look for the beautiful, look for the true;
Look for the beautiful, life’s journey thro’.
Seeking true loveliness, joy you will know,
As to the home above onward you go.

Think of the beautiful, think of the pure;
Only the beautiful long can endure.
God to His lowly ones “giveth more grace”;
None but the pure in heart look on His face.

Speak of the beautiful, speak of the pure;
These to eternity fadeless endure.
Error shall vanish soon, evil decay;
God and the beautiful pass not away.

Look to the stars of light (not down to earth);
All that is beautiful there had its birth.
Upward and forward go, looking above;
There is the dwelling-place of perfect love.

Look for the beautiful, seek to find the true,
God and the beautiful will dwell with you;
Look for the beautiful, seek to find the true,
You shall be beautiful, beautiful within.     (Thoro Harris)

 Wherever we encounter any form of brokenness, let us minister some form of wholeness. We may not realize how much good we are doing. Let us always look for the good in every person and every situation. Let us see in the world what God saw each day of creation and called good – “very good” in the King James Version (Genesis 1:31 KJV).  Let us see in ourselves what God sees in us that motivated God to send Jesus to be our Savior.  Let us see in each other what Christ saw in the people whose lives he touched with forgiveness and salvation and healing.

 I close with these words from St. Paul to all of us through his Letter to the Philippians:

 Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8 KJV).

 In the Name of Jesus, Amen.


Friday, August 19, 2022

Divided Over Unity


Humanity is divided between those who embrace and those who oppose the unity and harmony and peace of Christ.  

 Division begins where love breaks down.

Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division. (Luke 12:51 KJV).

 The angels sang at the birth of Jesus, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward [humanity] (Luke 2:14 KJV). To us through the apostles on his way to the Garden where he would be arrested, Jesus offered this promise of his peace:

 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27 KJV).

 The division Jesus talked about in today’s lectionary reading is between those who want the unity and peace and harmony Christ offers, and those who prefer segregation and confusion and dissonance.

Manuscript of the sermon preached on August 14, 2022, at Briensburg UMC  [Audio Podcast] 

10th Sunday after Pentecost  

Psalm 82; Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

 We see clearly the political polarization between those who want to build and those who want to destroy. We are acutely aware of the religious polarization between those who want to unite and those who want to divide. We are personally affected by the polarization between those who want to be friends in Christ with everyone for whom Jesus gave his life at Calvary, and those who choose to be at enmity with everyone whose faith and practice does not submit in conformity to theirs.

  Dreams in the Bible are expected to relate to their context in the pure Word of God.

 The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully.     (Jeremiah 23:28 KJV).

 Throughout the Bible dreams are a part of prophecy.  Joseph famously interpreted Pharoah’s dream, prophecying the coming drought. Angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder continue to capture us in the hymn, “Blessed Assurance.” Peter in a dream was told to eat various foods forbidden in the Old Testament, communicating that God was expanding the church to include all humanity.

 Dreams have played an important role for interpreting God’s Word on social justice from Moses to Micah, from Isaiah to Amos, from John Wesley to Martin Luther King, Jr. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter explained:

 This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:16-18 KJV)

 

 Every person is created in the image of God.

 I have said, Ye are gods, and all of you are children of the most High.     (Psalm 82:6 KJV)

 Jesus quoted this verse when threatened with being stoned for saying, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30 KJV). He continued, “If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?” (John 10:35-36 KJV).

 Jesus taught and the church invites the world to pray, “Our Father,” regardless of whatever differences we may identify. In every language, the Lord’s Prayer is a collective and inclusive “our.” We are “one in the unity of the Holy Spirit.” Paul wrote, “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Corinthians 12:27 KJV) as he described how we are incomplete without each other.

  

Our task as the royal priesthood of believers is to build proverbial bridges wherever we can.

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.     (Hebrews 12:1 KJV)

 Let us for a moment break down these compound subjects into two sentences.  First the secondary phrase, “Let us lay aside the sin which doth so easily beset us…” We do that by repenting of our own sins and forgiving the sins of others. The more we hold on to sin, ours or those of others, the more we get bogged down and unable to move forward into the spiritual unity Christ invites us to enjoy. Paul reminds us in Romans 3:23 that “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 KJV).

 Now, consider the primary phrase partially enclosing the laying aside of sin, “Let us lay aside every weight…” Most of the weight we carry is not sin, but some of it might still be holding us back. Thoreau wrote,

 “How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn… acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot.” He continued, “The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden & Civil Disobedience).

 Like the Parable of the Sower, some of the seed lands among the tares and is choked out. Jesus explained that this illustrates the cares of the world choking out our spiritual growth.

 This verse in Hebrews begins, “Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.”

It refers to all those who have sacrificed in order that we, each and every one of us, might be included in the family of God. The reference is not only to those in ancient times but to those in our lifetimes, even recently, even here in this consecrated place of worship, even now to us gathered in this room. Now we are the ones who are accepting the baton to pass on to others the message of love and unity that overrides their fears and discord.

 “Let us run with patience,” Hebrews urges us. We extend the olive branch to those being pulled in opposing directions. We continue to find ways, in word and in deed, to include everyone in the body of Christ. We trust God to eventually succeed in God’s own stated intention of winning the hearts and minds of all humanity, “for it is not God’s will that any should perish” as Peter affirmed (2 Peter 3:9 KJV). This is the whole reason why God, in loving the world so much, sent Jesus to be our savior, as Jesus declared repeatedly, “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:15-16 KJV).

 “Let us run the race that is set before us,” as opposed to some other race that is not ours to run.

This “race” pertains to our accomplishing everything that is most important for us to do to experience meaning and fulfillment in this life, and in preparation for our transition to the life of the world to come.

Emily Dickinson wrote,

 If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

 This passage from Hebrews, together with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, along with the whole wisdom of the Bible, highlights the importance of living this life with an attitude of doing “all the good we can” as Wesley put it, and with our hearts set on cultivating eternal heavenly relationships of ever-perfecting love, extending into the life of the world to come.

 The faith we have received from our spiritual ancestors invites us into the Kingdom of God – the kingdom of light and love – in this life, and to prepare for being reunited with our loved ones for an active eternal life of joy and peace in Heaven. Those who reject the invitation to love and peace are temporarily excluding themselves from the joy of unity and harmony, but only until the moment they “see the light” and choose the concord that was the hallmark of those on whom the Holy Ghost was poured out with a mighty rushing wind and flames of fire on the Day of Pentecost.

 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 KJV).

 Christ invites everyone into the prayerful universal conversation that transcends our divisions and unites us in divine love.

 In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Prepare for Answered Prayers

We usually will not know how or when our prayers will be answered, but we can always move forward in our preparation to receive the blessings we seek, trusting God’s promises. 

Get ready to receive what we are praying for.

Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning.    (Luke 12:35 KJV)

Be ready for whatever comes, dressed for action and with your lamps lit. (Luke 12:35 GNT)

We have a saying, “If you pray for rain, carry an umbrella.” As those who trust God’s love, we take this teaching and the parable it comes wrapped in as a promise, not a threat. Some people take it the other way around, and prepare themselves for God’s wrath, always afraid that any minute now they will be destroyed. Christ is actually inviting us to get ready to celebrate the wonderful surprises God has in store for us.

Paul wrote, But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. (1 Corinthians 2:9 KJV).

 Manuscript of the sermon preached on August 7 2022, at Briensburg UMC  [Audio Podcast] 

8th Sunday after Pentecost  

Psalm 33:12-22; Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Jesus challenges us to have our “Loins girded about” (KJV) – “Dressed for action” (GNT).

At the earlier end of my pastoral ministry, an older and wiser minister once told me “The call to preach is a call to prepare.” The same principle applies to all our callings, including the prayers God lays on our hearts. Dressed for action is a metaphor for establishing our priorities. “Study and show thyself approved,” the older and wiser Paul advised the younger Timothy in the early years of his ministry. Consider options and contingencies for how the answers to our prayers will come. “Let us lay aside every weight,” as Hebrews 12:1 puts it. Set aside the things that might prevent or distract us from being able to accept and receive the things we are praying for. 

Organize around the expectation that the answering of our prayers is already in progress. Prayerfully develop plans, structures, budgets, and schedules to be ready for implementation as the answers to our prayers unfold. Shore up our facilities and make decisions about the equipment needed to complete whatever projects we are praying God will help us with. Make the necessary connections with other people and organizations God is using to share the burdens and the blessings of the work we are called to do.

Keep those “Lights burning” (KJV) – “Lamps lit” (GNT). We light candles in our service as a reminder that God is present with us in the sanctuary.  Some churches maintain “sanctuary lights” burning 24/7 to communicate the same message.  We have our cross & flame insignia turned on 24/7/365 in our sanctuary to remind those who pass by on both the highways that run alongside our church that God is always present, always loving, always inviting, and always answering prayers.

Think of Christ as coming soon with all the help and answers we seek. God’s perception of time is more mature than ours, just as our perception of time changes as we age. Peter wrote, “Dearly beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord, as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8 KJV).  We have the saying, “Time flies when you’re having a good time.”  For the children, a promise we make about tomorrow often seems to them to be a lifetime away, but for us, it may be a rush to get ready.  When the time comes for just about anything, we often have realized we were not yet fully prepared for whatever it was.

“Expect a miracle” is another saying. We may miss out on a lot of what God is doing just because we aren’t paying attention or watching for how God will answer our prayers. Answers to prayers usually come at surprising times in surprising ways.  Sometimes we don’t even realize a prayer has been answered until we see it in retrospect. 

 

Faith itself is a sign of impending answers to prayer.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.   (Hebrews 11:1 KJV)

The Living Bible translates that verse:

What is faith? It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead. (Hebrews 11:1 TLB)

Faith is substance, or “confident assurance” as the Living Bible puts it. The NT Greek Lexicon definition includes “substructure, foundation, actual existence, firm trust.” Evidence is described in that same lexicon as proof or conviction. Things hoped for are things not yet seen, not yet visible, but coming.  The answers to our prayers started before we started praying but are yet to become finished enough to become manifest. Still in the abstract, they are gradually becoming crystalized, eventually to be completed


The Bible equates confidence in God with holiness.

And [Abraham] believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.     (Genesis 15:6 KJV)

Paul quoted this verse in Romans 4:3 and James referenced it in his letter when he wrote, “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.” (James 2:23 KJV)                                                    

Faith is about believing and is reflected as such throughout the Bible.  John 3:16 & 17 applies, not only to getting saved initially but also to continuously trusting God for the answering of our prayers for ongoing salvation for ourselves and for everyone else in whatever circumstances we find ourselves at any given time.  Let’s say that together:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:16-17 KJV).

Hebrews 11:6 says, “But without faith it is impossible to please [God]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6 KJV). In other words, when we pray, we have to at least have some confidence that God exists, and that God is responding to us. 

It may only be a mustard seed of faith in what we are praying about, even if we have a lot of faith in other ways. That too will grow as we keep on praying and developing a clearer understanding of what prayer is, and of what we are praying for, and of what our own part is in the answering of our prayers.

Faith is counted as it says in Genesis and Romans, or imputed as it says in James, as righteousness.

Our confidence in God is considered to be a matter of friendship as James points out in reminding us that Abraham was called “a Friend of God” because he believed God.  When we trust each other, we cultivate a relationship of love and friendship with each other.  Peter observed in his letter that “love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8 NIV).  Even though the Bible ascribes to Abraham what we may consider “a multitude of sins,” yet because Abraham loved and trusted God, he was still able to have a close loving, forgiving, developing friendship with God.  So it is with us and our relationship with God.

Faith is the entry-level point into a personal saving relationship with God.  It may be the tiniest and shakiest, most skeptical and unorthodox kind of faith there is, but it will grow from there into a full-blown friendship that will last throughout all eternity.

As faith grows, there is more to be imputed. Our growing faith gradually displaces our doubts and fears and replaces them with a growing love that reflects various facets of the perfect love God has for us and for everyone.

Some synonyms of righteousness include justice, holiness, piety, goodness, and virtue. Just as faith is the entry-level point into a friendship with God, faith is also the entry-level point to the justice and holiness God calls us to, and the entry-level point to experiencing the answers to our prayers. 

In all these ways, faith grows. Jesus described it in the Parable of the Mustard Seed as a tiny seed being planted, which then grows into a large enough bush for birds to make their nests in.  Likewise, our friendships with God and each other grow. Our sense of justice and holiness and righteousness grows. And our realization of how God is answering our prayers grows.  This growth does not stop when the bush gets a nest; it keeps growing throughout this life and on through the eternal life of the world to come. Think of the imagery in Revelation of the tree of life growing along the banks of the river of life as it flows through the city of New Jerusalem, bearing all kinds of fruit, “and its leaves are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2 KJV).

 

We praise God for how our prayers are answered

Let thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, according as we hope in thee.     (Psalm 33:22 KJV)

May your constant love be with us, Lord, as we put our hope in you.   (Psalm 33:22 GNT)

God’s mercy, or constant love, is like food and water for our faith.  The more we experience God’s love, the more confidence we have in the divine relationship with our Creator and with each other, and with all Creation. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter, as translated in the Good News Translation, “Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13 GNT).

Our hope in God includes joyful anticipation as we wait with expectation to discover how God, who loves us unconditionally, will answer our prayers.  We join Jesus in praying, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42 KJV).

Let us work with confidence based on the trust that our prayers are being answered in far better ways “than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20 RSV), as Paul expressed.  

In the name of Jesus, Amen.

 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Prayer is a Relationship

 

The Bible invites us to unite in prayer with our Heavenly Parent.

And it came to pass that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.    (Luke 11:1 KJV)

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. People of every faith realize our need to learn more about prayer.  We all have questions about how to pray more appropriately and effectively. Faith leaders in all traditions have provided guidance and training to encourage people to pray more faithfully and with growing confidence.

Manuscript of the sermon preached on July 24, 2022, at Briensburg UMC  [Audio Podcast] 

7th Sunday after Pentecost 

Psalm 138
2 Chronicles 7:12-16 (Alternate to the Hebrew Text lectionary readings)
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13

 

Jesus gave several examples, or categories, in the Lord’s Prayer of things to pray for. He highlighted:

  • Thy kingdom come
  • Thy will be done
  • Our daily bread
  • Forgiveness
  • Protection from temptation

 This was not intended to be a limited list because on the night he gave himself up for us, he said, “Ask anything in my name” (John 14:14 KJV). In this passage, we are introduced to the great promise and principle of prayer: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Luke 11:9 KJV).

The entire teaching of Jesus on prayer was predicated on the relationship Jesus highlighted in the very beginning of his teaching both here in Luke and in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 6: “When ye pray, say, Our Father” (Luke 11:2 KJV). In his letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, Paul explains that it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us in our spirits to experience this relationship (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6) and affirms that “the Spirit bears witness to our spirits that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:16 KJV).

Fanny J. Crosby wrote about this prayerful relationship with God in her hymn, “I am Thine, O Lord:”

Oh, the pure delight of a single hour
That before Thy throne I spend,
When I kneel in prayer, and with Thee, my God,
I commune as friend with friend!

 

We are encouraged to be protective of the divine relationship prayer enables us to share.

 Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind (2 Colossians 2:18 KJV)

The Revised Standard Version translates this verse: 
Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking (2 Colossians 2:18 RSV).

Paul warns us not to let anyone sidetrack our prayers with anything that takes away from the relationship we share with our Heavenly Parent, no matter how religious it may look or sound.

When he gave the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matthew 6:7 KJV).

Prayer is not about fulfilling superstitions or appeasing a tyrant. Prayer is about engaging in communication with God and with each other, and with those for whom we pray. Prayer is a caring family relationship of love and inclusion, uniting us in holy conversations that lead to wholeness.   

  

God answers prayer.

 In the day when I cried thou answeredst me, and strengthenedst me with strength in my soul.    (Psalm 138:3 KJV)

The psalmist leads us to praise God for answered prayers. In our praise, we are reminded that through prayer, we are strengthened to deal with the challenges we face. We are strengthened in our souls, the spiritual and eternal essence of our beings.

  

Through prayer, we accept God’s invitation to a personal relationship.

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.     (2 Chronicles 7:14 KJV)

The invitation God gave through Solomon was to a personal relationship, coupled with a promise of listening, forgiving, and healing. The Great Invitation of Jesus, “Come unto me” (Matthew 11:28 KJV), is an invitation to a relationship with God and each other that transcends our belief systems, philosophies, faith practices, religious communities, denominations, and traditions.

Even time and space give way to eternity during the moments we unite in what W.W. Walford called our “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”

Prayer is a universal relationship shared by humanity across all religions and cultures, connecting us in love as one spiritual family in communication with our Creator and each other.  Let us pray.

 In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, July 11, 2022

We Are All Each Other’s Neighbors

The command of love is meant to be inclusive, not exclusive.

 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.     (Luke 10:36-37 KJV)

 A lawyer, legal scholar, or law teacher, depending on the translation, wanted to test Jesus about the Scripture. He and Jesus agreed that the ultimate interpretation of all the Scriptures is summed up in these two verses from Leviticus and Deuteronomy:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself (Luke 10:27 KJV).

The issue raised in the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is similar to what Cain asked God after killing Able, “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9 KJV) The more narrowly we can categorize people -- neighbors or family members or friends or community or race or gender or orientation, or any other ways of dividing people into groups who are like or unlike us – the more easily we can justify neglecting and even mistreating whoever we want, just by arguing that they belong to “them” rather than to “us.”

The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates that we are all neighbors in a sense God’s commandments presuppose.  We are all the keepers of our brothers and sisters.  We are all each other’s neighbors in a way that transcends any distinctions we may fabricate.

 

Manuscript of the sermon preached on July 10, 2022, at Briensburg UMC | [Audio Podcast] 

5th Sunday after Pentecost 

Psalm 25:1-10
Deuteronomy 30:9-14 
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

 

God’s love encompasses all people.

We heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints    (Colossians 1:4 KJV).

There’s that word “all” again… “All means all y’all.” Most people love somebody, though some people seem to put even that thought to the test. Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount that we should love everyone, friend and foe alike, just like God loves everyone, “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven… Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:45-48 KJV). It isn’t enough to only love those who are easy to love, whether it is they or us who are hard-hearted. The perfect love to which the Bible calls us is to love our neighbor as ourselves, according to Moses, and then according to Jesus, to ratchet it up by loving everyone as Christ loves everyone.

Paul’s ministry took him through a variety of countries, cultures, races, religions, lifestyles, philosophies, and socio-economic conditions. In our Bible study on Romans 15 this week, we discussed this full rainbow spectrum of people with whom Paul adapted the teachings of Jesus in his missionary journeys to establish fellowships of believers among every demographic.

The narrowness of his love for neighbor at the beginning of his ministry was transformed over the course of his lifetime to the broadest possible vision and experience of love for all people. Perhaps we can see something of ourselves in his spiritual growth journey. This is the experience we want to share more bountifully and enjoy more perfectly:  to know how it feels to love everyone everywhere the way God in Christ has already loved them, and us, and me. We want to mature with Paul to the point we like him can say, as he wrote to the Corinthians in the Good News Translation,

So I become all things to all people, that I may save some of them by whatever means are possible. All this I do for the gospel's sake, in order to share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:22-23 GNT).

 

We are able to love if we are willing to love.

The word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.     (Deuteronomy 30:14 KJV)

The point of the Good Samaritan parable is summarized in the final instruction of Jesus at the close of the parable, “Go and do likewise.” In John 13, the same chapter where Jesus says his commandment is for us to love as we have been loved, Jesus said, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17 KJV). The expectation of Jesus in all his teachings is that we would implement them, not just memorize them or argue about whatever hairsplitting nuances we may be able to identify to water them down.

The reading from Deuteronomy reminds us that everything about God and love and heaven is not just somewhere in outer space or for another life than this one we are living today.  It is all as much for here and now as it is for then and there. 

Just as Jesus told Thomas, “whither I go ye know, and the way ye know” (John 14:4 KJV), so also do we know this word of love because it is already a part of our conversation and thinking and feeling.  The issue for us is not whether we know it but whether we do it.  We are fully capable of loving God and loving our neighbor if only we will.  We may not be as good at it as we should be, and we may need more practice and encouragement and training and experience to get better at it, but we can do what God’s word teaches. We can be living into the love that is already living in us by virtue of the breath of life we share in our creation.

 

All truth leads to perfect love.

All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.  (Psalm 25:10 KJV)

This verse in the Revised Standard Versions reads: All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.     (Psalm 25:10 RSV)

We acknowledge in our Communion ritual this very idea expressed by the psalmist that even though we have rebelled against God’s love, yet God’s love for us has always remained steadfast and sure.

The Bible repeatedly affirms that love is the entirety of everything God is teaching us and the ultimate final destination of everywhere God is leading us.  The covenant we share with each other is a relationship filled with growing knowledge of the grace and love of God.  The teachings we are working to apply in our relationships are the technical instructions on how to love the way God loves.

For those who are trying to learn of love and truth, all spiritual paths lead to Christ. The Holy Spirit will empower and guide them and us from where we are to where we need to be.  We are all each other’s neighbors, learning to love and encourage and support each other.

In the name of Jesus, Amen.