Pastor Roy's Sermons

September 2018

Sept. 30 Faith Questions II

Last week I spoke of the Scriptures, by the leading of the Spirit, giving birth to our faith. And the Bible as the agreed upon beginning of our conversations about faith, about God, about Love, about justice in our relationships. As we are reminded weekly in the confession, Grace comes first from God to all of us through every means so that we become light houses of grace for those around us. This is not work, this is the gift of our lives. We each have gifts for sharing this grace as individuals, families, and congregations.
As Christians our central focus is on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ--the ultimate sign of how God’s grace continues to act and bless. Jesus’ willingness to consecrate himself for his own crucifixion is an invitation for us to prayerfully practice. . .the way of the cross. After pain and suffering he entered into joy in God’s glory. With his death he did not raise walls of judgment, but in dying he drew ever wider the circles of friendship and mercy as he followed God’s call each step of the way.
The early Christians called themselves followers of the Way. The Way of Christ. The way of friendship and compassionate welcome. Grace, Peace, Forgiveness, Love. By nature we usually try to avoid pain and suffering, especially the mental and emotional kind. But those who love, in fear and trembling, embrace their own pain and that of others. Love is an oasis of peace. Grief, loss, illness, relationships which are strained, become more bearable in the presence of love, welcome, friendship. Welcoming friendship is why the early church took hold, grew, and could not be crushed or persecuted out of existence. Trouble transformed by love.
Resurrection is our life in God which begins when we give our lives over to the way of the cross. The things we would run from, we come to accept—even embrace with time. As love grows we are more concerned about those we love than about ourselves. This is the message of the cross. This is the way of the cross. The way of healthy, suffering, love.
For example: 1. The way of love allows Moses in today’s first reading to resist jealousy and share the prophetic role and wish that all of Israel were passionate prophets of the Spirit.
2. In the Psalm today, it is the way of faithful love that allows us to pray, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”
3. James reminds us that love invites us to pray while suffering, to sing songs of praise, to pray for the sick, to remind all--of God’s forgiveness.
4. Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel that we have fellowship with all who share the common cause of proclaiming God’s love. “Whoever is not against us, is for us.” And whoever offers a cool cup of water because we are followers of Christ, they will be rewarded. He also reminds us to spare nothing for love’s sake. Let nothing get in the way of lifting up, of helping the little ones. There are many little ones among us. In fact, we are all little ones. God’s little children. We must work hard to be at peace with one another. To share the peace. To practice love. In the congregation. In the community. In politics. In care for our neighbor. “Whoever is not against us, is with us.”
Finally, faith is a verb—an action. For Christians, faith is actively leaning in the direction of the cross of Jesus Christ. Every aspect of our faith is a gift of the Spirit. We do nothing because of ourselves. The Gospel, good news of Christ, is that we are beloved first, then we are invited to love, to serve, to practice justice and mercy and peace. To feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to provide for the homeless, to share our freedom with those in bondage.
Faith is much more than thoughts and beliefs about God in our heads. Faith is the direct experience of receiving the love of God in every way conceivable so that we can share that love and watch it grow. The Love of Christ pushes us beyond what is comfortable into what is truly faithful. But our souls never depend on what we do. Our souls are welcome in the presence of God for all eternity which most importantly is right now. The presence of God is an eternal now, in this moment. That is the essence of our faith. May we grow in it, may we be beacons of hope and peace and love to all around us, today, right now. Thanks be to God for this grace.

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Sept. 23--Faith Questions I

When I read the passages for today, I felt as if I have been preaching on those topics quite a bit and my thoughts returned to the faith questions which I had invited earlier in the summer. Some of your responses I addressed in sermons, others I did not yet. This sermon is the foundation for my thoughts about the others. The topics were the problem of why children suffer, what can we look forward to after we die or how will our experience of eternity be affected by who we are when we die—age, gender, or previous relationships? Another topic was how people who have never been able to hear or understand about faith in Jesus Christ’s sacrificial love for us will be judged in eternity. I do apologize that it took so long to address these. I will try to address these by what I say today. My meditation today is more of a foundation, like I said, than a direct answer. Please let me know if my words today raise other questions. I’d be glad to talk 1:1 or address the issues in a future sermon.
Once we move beyond the simplicity and faith filled certainty of our core beliefs, I invite you to consider what I say, but keep in mind that no one knows, nor should they claim to know the answers to all the questions we ask. It’s important to be honest and ask lots of questions, but as you know we must sometimes be satisfied with uncertainty or silence when we seek answers to those questions. We must be humble about our answers. At their core, our questions and answers are life giving prayer and when we talk about them, we find fellowship. That might be more important than the answers.
Let’s start at the beginning. There are many denominations in the Protestant church and there are many historic geographic orthodox churches, one of them being the Roman Catholic Church, from which all of the Protestant churches came. The core of Christian faith is that the Spirit of God leads us to trust that Jesus Christ is our revelation of God with us—of God’s grace and love. Various churches use a variety of words to describe trusting and following Jesus Christ, but the essence of discipleship is the same for all of them regardless of the words. Jesus proclaimed love for all and compassion for the least and invites us to a life of prayer where we learn to trust and rest. That’s all we need. The Old Testament is the backstory, a context for the faith of the Old Testament people of God, into whom Jesus was born of Mary. The gospels and epistles fill in the details of Jesus as ‘God with us’ and how the early church understood him.
As we study the Scriptures they do not tell us what we want to know about God, faith, and the universe. They proclaim the faith of the writers. We celebrate their faith. We wait in the presence of the God they proclaim; not because we have it all figured out, but because we are walking in the presence of the God who speaks in many and various ways. The words of Scripture are humble attempts to speak the love and mercy and justice of God. They do not complete the puzzle, they simply invite us into the conversation, into the struggle of faith. And it is an ongoing struggle. We must be humble when we speak of our faith and accept the limits of our knowing. Our faith is full of truthful mystery, we must make friends with unknowing, with uncertainty, rather than fearfully replacing it with false substitutes for truth. I’ll add those are very personal decisions which no one can make for you.
So let me summarize. Our faith in Christ is the gift of the Spirit, and the most important matter of faith in Christ is God’s grace. As a result of God’s unconditional love, we can pray honestly, love, and be compassionate. The Bible invites us into the faith filled conversation about God’s grace in all our relationships, about love and justice. Our faith is not complicated, it is simple. But as soon as we move from the simplicity of our faith to the complexity of our lives and questions, we find less certainty about the details and have to use our discretion in what we choose and believe.
Clearly the Scriptures are less of an answer book for our specific questions and more a book of conversations and stories which invite us to find our story alongside the others. In other words, the Scriptures are the accepted Christian faith conversation starter.
From time to time questions arise about which parts of the Bible we take literally, and which ones less so? That’s an important question. But if we come to the Bible as the conversation starter rather than the end of the conversation, then the question of what to take literally becomes much less important. So, the Bible is the beginning of the conversation and our faith and faith filled responses are the end.
Many Christians agree that the goal of Christian faith is about living into the joy of God with us, right now--which doesn’t end when we die. This is where the grace of God makes so much sense and is full of love and mercy. The Spirit is calling humanity to live in the joy of Christ’s love rather than submit to a belief system that will save you in the end. Do you see the difference? The goal of faith is not what comes beyond the grave, but about beginning anew the walk of ‘God with us’ today, each day, and together as a community of faith. May we do so with courage.

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Sept. 16-Everybody Matters--No exceptions

[Children’s “sermon”: In today’s lesson Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is and then he asks them who do you say I am? They say he is God’s Messiah—that is, a very special leader. More than anything else, Jesus loved all the people and wanted them to be and do who and what God made them to be and do.
If Jesus were sitting here instead of me, He would want you also to be and do who and what God made you to be and do.
So who are you and what did God create to to do? What do you like? What are you good at? What do you find fun and interesting? Do you like to create? Do you enjoy reading? Are you curious about the way things work or why people do and say the things they do? What is your favorite part of school? What do you like to do when you are with a friend or when you have the choice to do what you want? We all have different abilities.
Genesis tells us we are made in the image of God. We are able to love. We can make choices that help the people, animals, and plants around us as much as they help us.
Our Baptism tells us we are a children of God. But we sometimes forget that God is with us, don’t we? Sometimes we forget to love.
But real love does not depend on what we do or think. It depends on who we are. Because you are, you are loved. It’s a freebie. God loves everyone. No one left out. Everyone here is important. At school, all the other kids are important. No one left out.
That’s what it means that Jesus is the Messiah and that is what he wanted his disciples to remember. Everybody matters—no exceptions.]
Jesus’ message of the kingdom, the reign of God is that it is grounded in God’s gifts of justice and mercy. If we live in the reign of God, we have nothing to fear and we have courage to live. There are no substitutions for a life grounded in God’s gifts. Such a life in God is about mutual relationships not just with a few people but with every living thing. The reign of God is about sharing, not grasping. It’s about courageous self-giving love—offering ourselves freely as best as we are able. Sometimes we can give a lot. Sometimes we just can’t. I imagine the foundation of it all is compassionate humility.
Peter reveals one poor substitute for being grounded in God’s mercy and justice in today’s gospel lesson. He rebukes Jesus who has just been telling the disciples he will suffer and die rather than call it quits. Peter had some alternate ideas for Jesus to consider but Jesus knew that the way of love and peace for him would be the way of sacrifice. Jesus rebukes Peter and tells him to remember the priorities of the reign of God (love, everybody matters—no exceptions). The ultimate goal is God’s justice and mercy, not Jesus’ or Peter’s personal gratification or comfort. Peter is confused, just like the rest of us. Then Jesus tells everyone, us included, that if anyone wants to follow him they need to also take up the difficult, painful way of sacrificial love rather than settle for just looking out for their own wellbeing, which really doesn’t work in the end anyway.
James reminds us of another substitute for living in God’s justice and mercy--to use conversations not for building up others, but ourselves. It is easy to forget the cause of love as we fearfully shore up our own inadequacies and anxieties. We do it without even thinking. We live in our own world of concerns and we forget about the difficulty of those around us. Humble compassion draws us to love our neighbor by listening to their concerns, fears, and griefs. Conversation can build community and serve to comfort our neighbor as well as ourselves. But only if we are mindful of the need to remember the other first, to be mindful of our tendency to follow Peter’s way rather than Jesus’ way.
God give us courage to love, in our words, our thoughts, as we set aside our forgetful ways and find the path of freedom. Amen.

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Sept. 9 Generosity and Abundance

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
To whom is Isaiah talking? The verse before reads, “Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.” Isaiah also names them, “the redeemed, the ransomed.”
We often think of redemption and ransom in spiritual terms, in terms of forgiveness for sins. Isaiah took forgiveness seriously, but he is not talking mainly about forgiveness of individual sins in these verses. Isaiah 32 speaks of the day in which local and regional political leaders will lead with justice. He claims in 32:5 and following: “A fool will no longer be called noble, nor a villain be said to be honorable. For fools speak folly, and their minds plot iniquity; to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the Lord, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink. The villainies of villains are evil; they devise wicked devices to ruin the poor with lying words, even when the plea of the needy is right. But those who are noble plan noble things; and by noble things they stand.” He then goes on to warn the local women of nobility and wealth that the days of plenty are numbered and the social order they enjoy is about to be turned upside down.
We hear redemption and ransom and we think, “Ah, yes, God forgives us for our sins and all is well. That’s all we need, we simply need the forgiveness of God.” If that were the case, Isaiah would tell the nobles and their wives to ask forgiveness for their petty sins and mistakes and then go on enjoying their lives, but instead, he focuses on their actions in society and especially toward the poor. As people of means he calls them to take care of their poor neighbors instead of stockpiling wealth for some future need which may never arise.
Remember, Jesus was very aware of what Isaiah proclaimed. He quotes Isaiah regularly and had Isaiah’s scroll close by at the local synagogue. Isaiah proclaims that the hungry should be fed. That the poor should be cared for. Isaiah’s society was not a society in which the poor could pull themselves up by their own strength and resolve. If you were born poor, you would die poor. Period. Unless you were an outright thief. I’m not sure things have changed so much. If a child is born in poverty today, with all the social, sometimes racial, cultural, economic issues related to being poor, chances are much better that unless someone who is not in poverty mentors them, if that child is not raised with hope, and opportunity to have a meaningful career and given self-esteem and self-discipline along the way, that child will die poor. There is a bit more hope for the poor today but the deck is stacked against them, all things considered.
Isaiah speaks in chapter 33 of a coming day in which justice will dwell in the wilderness, righteousness in a fruitful field, there will be peace and quietness and trust forever. Those who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil—they will live on the heights; their refuge will be the fortresses of rocks; their food will be supplied, their water assured.
Isaiah is not speaking of a spiritual salvation, of heaven and hell, of being set free from the penalty of sin. He is talking about economic realities. His words are clear that unless Israel repents of its fixed economy where the rich stay rich and the poor suffer and die, all of Israel will go down. All of Israel will suffer, but especially the elite, because they are not accustomed to being hungry, or thirsty or in abject misery. The plight of the poor will not change, but those with plenty will be joining them because they refused to live into God’s justice. It’s as if Isaiah is saying that if a portion of the community is left out of economic hope, that eventually all will pay the price. For Isaiah it was Assyria and Babylon, later it was Greece and the Roman Empire. Because all of the society was not working together for peace, they were quite vulnerable to major powers outside their boundaries. They would have been vulnerable even if they were all united and working together without mistrust and infighting, but clearly didn’t stand a chance with a few haves and a whole bunch of have nots.
In our world, we think of justice as “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours. If you happen to not have enough, that is your problem. I have no responsibility to help you. I am free to enjoy my abundance without any concern for you.” If I have plenty, then the poverty of the poor does not affect me except that it makes me feel sorry for them. Isaiah is going beyond sympathy here. He is suggesting that unless the folks with plenty share and work toward a more just society, then they are doomed. Not just spiritually, but economically. Perhaps this is Isaiah’s version of “What goes around, comes around.”
If we listen to the Bible, especially the Old Testament law and prophets, we will learn a different kind of justice. Biblical justice is that we are all responsible for each other. Those with the ability to help are wise and truly blessed as they lift up the poor and bring them hope.
Back to Isaiah 35. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, then the lame shall leap like deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.
There will be healing and the earth will provide enough. Perhaps in the gospel lesson, Jesus learns a lesson, or maybe he helps his disciples learn a lesson when the Gentile woman pushes the limits of his test. Her daughter is set free because she thinks there is enough healing in the mercy of God for Gentile child to be set free. Jesus heals the deaf mute man despite Jesus’ exhaustion.
The message is clear, if we have the courage to act as if there is enough, there will be enough and we will be part of the justice of God, which is not about holding on to what is rightfully mine, but learning that joy only comes when we learn to share. We find gifts and hope that we never dreamed we could know. Because we act. Believing might come first, but only by acting on behalf of those God places before us, will we ever know joy.
Isaiah and Jesus are not talking about faith as believing or being mainly concerned about our own physical or spiritual welfare. This world with limited resources works best when we all work together for a bountiful whole and the giving and receiving of God’s abundance. The prophets and Jesus are talking about faith as action which will make us complete and whole and full of joy—not happy, but full of a deep contentment that flows from the abundant care and mercy of God.
Perhaps the best way to approach the invitation of Isaiah and Jesus today is that there is room for us to stretch in our sharing of the abundance which God has given us. So God grant us courage to stretch in our generosity. You are an ongoing example to me of generosity, not just in money, but in time, and love and taking part in the life of the greater community which surrounds us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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September 2, A God so Near

Think. . .Old Testament. What comes to mind when you think of the Old Testament? Do you think of the people of Israel in the Old Testament as having a God who was near to them as the writer of Deuteronomy says? (For what other nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to God?) When we read the Old Testament, we meet many people who felt near to or distant from God. Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Tamar, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, Hannah, Samuel, Saul, David, Elijah and Elisha, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel and others—they all thought of God and faith in very personal terms. [pause]
Do you find God to be near when you call? . . .Or distant? Do you sense God’s presence especially in the good times or more in times of trouble and uncertainty? Have you found that your faith has grown more when you were hard pressed? When the comforts of the familiar have been traded for loss and unwanted newness?
I’ve found that to be the case. Perhaps when we are forced to act in new ways and find ourselves thinking new thoughts, we realize some of the old ways and habits hadn’t been working that well anyway. All of this takes time and can be very unpleasant. Wisdom and spiritual growth seem to come at a great price.
The writer of Deuteronomy says that the (1)wisdom of the law and (2)God’s closeness to Israel will draw the nations to Israel. The Jews’ faith in the law and sense of the nearness of God came to them in desperate times. Their faith became their faith when they could no longer coast, when they needed their faith to preserve them from totally losing their identity and any sense of purpose. It is so strange that the Jews find God’s nearness in a foreign land. Their faith was “whatever!” in the comfort of easy times, but after their losses in battle, exile, and return to an uncertain home they clung to their faith.
The stories of their ancestors being freed from slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert became their story of hope and salvation. Their faith was in a God who would never, ever disappoint. Yes, the deliverance and freedom was amazing but the journey was treacherous. The faith stories remind us that our hope is not built on triumph and success, but on the rock of God’s mercy which raises us up from the ashes of pain and loss. The mercy of God flows from the mess of our failure to pull it off on our own. It’s anything but pleasant, but our lives provide plenty of opportunity for God’s gift of faith is to be nurtured. We despair of trouble, but it is the only path to freedom.
It’s just unfortunate that we often assume that trouble means we are doing something wrong. We sometimes assume that if we had faith, we would not struggle so much. But without the struggle, there is no faith. It is like a muscle. If we never use the muscle, it will break down and not be useful.
Deuteronomy and the story of the Jews' faith also reminds us that faith is not my faith and your faith, but our faith. We are in this together. We are a community of faith. Our relationships with one another build our faith as much as Bible study and prayer.
The love and mercy of Christ was born out of the faith of the Jews, as it was reborn in exile. Jesus struggled mightily as he led his followers. His death was painful. He gave up his life in many ways. When we receive it at this table, it is a gift to strengthen our faith in our struggles and losses. It is the gift of life. May we partake of it with gratitude for the life and willing death of our Lord for the sake of mercy and justice. God is gracious. Mercy is free. May our faith grow with patient endurance. Amen.

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