Lectionary Sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 2:1-7   Doing What is REALLY Important!

Wow, September is upon us. I am already planning (or I should say, my helpmate is planning and I am supporting) what we are going to do this Thanksgiving. There is a practice that is gaining in popularity on Thanksgiving.   The practice is having people at a family gathering state for what they are thankful. Now a story of how that can go wrong.

At one family gathering, a husband stated that he was thankful for how his wife forgave him when he acted like a jerk, which was quite often.  He stated that he didn’t know how she did it.  He said to his wife, I say so many hurtful and mean things to you, but you just take it and go on.  How do you deal with it?  The rest of the family pressed her, how do you deal with it?  She stated, I go and clean the bathroom.  “You go and clean the bathroom, how does that help”, the husband retorted in a condescending tone.  The wife looked at him and said, “I use your toothbrush to do the cleaning.”

The Lord we worship is a God who puts up with a lot from us.  Have you ever wondered how God deals with it?  God responds to our many misgivings with love and grace.  This is the true essence of thanksgiving, that our God gives us love and grace.

In the Scripture, we just heard or read, the statement “I ask” means more than simply asking.  “I ask” is a translation of a word centered on personal involvement in what the request desires. 

The translated word should indicate deep concern and desire.  Used here in the Word of God, we dare not ignore the request due to the results and consequences implied.

The writer of this passage urges first (meaning of first importance) that we pray for all people. We do that. Really, do we really pray for people? Now let this sink in for a moment.  If we are believers, people of faith, and part of God’s family the church, we have an obligation, a duty that we are urged to perform. It is not something that is forced or commanded because to do so would go completely against the nature of God. 

Now, wait a minute.  If we are supposed to do something asked of us by the One who gave his life so that we might have life, why would we need to be urged (with deep compassion) to do this?  Why would we need to be told, “first of all?” 

These are good questions.  Why, we may ask, because too many of us who believe have allowed the world to stunt our spiritual growth.  Far too many believers have lost the vision for God and have grown complacent about responsibilities God gives us.” This is likely the biggest enemy of believers today.

We are called to care.  A call to care is a call to prayer.  It is also a call to share, with others, what we know is true about Jesus.  We are instructed to tell what he means to us. 

In this, we find one of our most important responsibilities we have as disciples, prey. In this, we do what is important. In this, we honor our Lord.

This passage of Scripture is most likely written to the church at Ephesus.  The church at Ephesus started as an outreach to the members of the synagogue but quickly became a gentile-dominated church.  The church at Ephesus became an influential church, a wealthy church.  However, its success became its undoing.  It became a church that thought of itself as special in an elitist manner.  It was a church that became judgmental.

The Apostle John pastored this church after Timothy.  The church’s failure to do what was important took center stage when John sends a letter to the church recorded in the second chapter of the book of Revelation:

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.  Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.  They had forsaken their first love. This is not a way to show gratitude.

I wonder how most of us church-going people would define our relationship with Jesus?  It is a relationship of familiarity?  Is it a relationship of culture (good people go to church bad people do not)?  Is it a relationship of habit? Is Jesus your make-believe friend?

God says it needs to be a relationship of love, of first importance.  A love expressed in caring, praying, and interceding for others. This is the way to show our gratitude.

If Jesus is active in our lives, then there will be evidence of love, or else there will be an emptiness.  A relationship with Jesus is established by faith, but it is sealed by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit will not let us ignore our responsibilities. However, we can stifle the Spirit, we can grieve the Spirit. We can ignore the discernment the Spirit seeks to give to us.

The Spirit will urge us to do what is of first importance, we will be urged to do what really matters.  We can resist the Spirit, we can learn to ignore the Holy inner voice.  We can hide behind religion and activities, or just make excuses or comparisons with others so that we don’t look as bad.

We can be like the Ephesians.  God’s grace is beyond measure, but we can reach the point where our love grows cold.  The cure, the prevention, and the recovery from a lack of love is to pray for others, actively lifting them up to God.  This brings us to the second thing that really matters that we are told we must do.  Look again at verse 2, “for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.”

I am aware that there may be some in this room that does not like the actions of our current President or are troubled by our former president. There are also those who love our past president and so who love our current president. There are probably some with very strong opinions for other politicians, local, state, and national among us.  There are those some like and some loathe.  That is fine. This is a country of rights and choices. They are trying to govern people in a fallen world. They need all the help they can get.

However, like or dislike we are told to pray for our leaders.  This has nothing to do with politics or power.  It has everything to do with peace. It has everything to do with what God says is important.

We should pray for our political leaders to have compassion.  We should pray for them to have a conscience.  We should pray for them to have conviction.  We should pray that they will be open to the leadership of Christ. This is our duty as thankful people. When we do this we are praying for peace.  We are praying for justice.  We are praying that evil will not prevail. 

When Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, Satan came to him and said, all the kingdoms of the world are mine.  Jesus did not dispute this. We need to pray that Satan’s influence is limited in how he moves to create chaos in the political systems of our world.

These are things that please God.  These are things that show that we not only talk the talk but walk the walk.  It means we have begun to awaken to the importance of every human soul.  And are thankful to God for every person.

Verse 3 tells us that when we are a people of true faith, a people of intercessory, caring, concerning prayer, and our hearts are in tune with the heart of God wanting everyone to know (that is not just right thinking but right thinking and doing) so that they can experience the growing presence of the Kingdom of God in their lives, then God sees this a being good.  This is not good as opposed to being bad, but good as in being spiritually beautiful, in being morally righteous, as being immersed in the best.  This is what pleases God. Is this not the least we can seek to give God in light of what God has done for us?  Is this not a good way of showing our thanks?

Look at verse 4, “who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” This verse states God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit’s desire for all of us.  God wants us safe in God’s Kingdom. Now some would say this is a one-time event.  If this is what you believe the Bible teaches, good. Who am I to disagree?

However, I have come to believe salvation is more than an event, but a process.  In our text, the word saved is an infinitive, its tense is expressed in a past action that is still ongoing.  What God desires is that we understand so that we can live a life of being saved and saved and saved and saved. 

Each day, each encounter of life is an opportunity to live in grace, grow in grace, depend on grace, and be blessed by grace. 

I also must believe and seek to help if a person is not being saved. If they are being saved they are in danger of being lost, separated, and ignorant of the truth of grace.  They are in need of our prayer and there are many in our community who face this threat as well.

2 Peter 3:9 explains this desire of God in the negative: not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. The word for want (desire) is tied to the event.  God’s desire is that this event, perishing, does not happen but that repentance will happen, restoration will happen, and community will happen.

Let’s think about this.  Who is going to perish if they do not enter and remain in the ongoing saving relationship with Jesus?  It will be someone’s child, mate, parent, or friend. 

Do you want someone praying for the people you know and love?  Do you want someone to be reaching out to them?  Would you not be thankful if they are?  Should we not do the same? This is doing what is really important! This is showing we are faithfully thankful to our Lord and our God.  This is the word of the Lord.

There is a song I sing in prayer.  It is a simple song.  I would like to end this sermon with you singing this song with me as a prayer if you know it.

In the Lord I am every thankful

In the Lord I will rejoice

Look to God

Do not be afraid

Lift up your voices the Lord is near

Lift up your voices the Lord is near.[1]

[1] Music from Taize. In The Lord

Sad but True Article

I copied this article from Microsoft news. The link is listed below

Black & White Christians Beware of Pulpit Money Changers and Con-Artists.

Staff – Yesterday 5:36 PM

React316 Comments|375

(ThyBlackMan.com) A few years back, Jesse Duplantis, fake Evangelist and Bible con man, stated God told him to pray for a new jet that just happened to cost $54 million. And guess who was suppose to pay for it? The unsuspecting, gullible followers of his false doctrine. But Jesse is only one of the fake money changers and con-artists who repeatedly twist the scriptures to further their own agenda. T.D. Jakes, Oral Roberts, Paula White and Kenneth Copeland are leading the way down the path of mammon, the love of money and the sliding board that will make people twice the sons of Hell as they were before.

Before some of you open your mouth in shock that I said T.D. Jakes, let me say this briefly. Who the Son sets free is free indeed (John 8:31-36) – not who Jakes sets free with his conferences, books and tapes that appear to “loose” you. That is why many of you keep coming back to these fakes to get free – because they offer a false dependent freedom on them and they never freed you in the first place.

The truth being in you via He who is the truth is what will set you free.

And if you think you have to wait until these conferences and camp meetings come to town in order to be free, you do not overstand the Gospel and what it does for the “believer” at all. Yet thousands upon thousands of gullible people pile into JT.D. Jakes conferences, buy his books and tapes in order to find out how to get free. Wake up. The Bible sufficiently covers how you are to be and stay free and Jakes writing a book only markets a Gospel for sale that he does not own. He changes your money to his and that is why I call him a “money-changer”.

Lectionary Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 1:12-17 Too Religious

Believe it or not, there is a great danger of being too religious. What do I mean by that? I mean, we can become so focused on our religion that it can become a shield that blocks out the light of God.

Being religious has to do with what we believe and practice. The word is a descriptive word from the Latin “religio” meaning respect for what is sacred, conscientiousness, sense of right, and moral obligation. It is a word that describes what we think is important. A person may do something habitually and we say they do it religiously because it is so important to them. Every human being is religious, even atheists. They are religious in their belief that God does not exist.

When religion is taken to excess it becomes fanatic. It can produce a myopic vision that can be destructive. We see this in the suicide bombers, political idealization, and in the cults and fundamentalism that is intolerant of any variance from the dogma, teachings, and rituals they adhere.

Paul, when he went by the name Saul, was such a person.  Paul says of himself in Philippians 3:5-6, “I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.

Paul did more than harass the church.  He hunted down followers of Jesus.  In the book of Acts, chapter 9, of the Scripture, we are told, “he [Paul] has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.” (Acts 9:13-14 CEB)

Paul thought he was doing good in persecuting Christians.  He thought he was doing what was right.  He thought his actions were moral and just.  Paul was defending what he religiously believed was the truth. However, in these verses today we find that Paul discovered he was wrong. This is what it means to be too religious.

But how was that behavior different from the religious faith Paul embraces now? Is he still not a fanatic for the faith?  Isn’t this the guy who said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Yes, it is the same Saul who became Paul.  Ok, what is the difference between the religion Paul had and the one he professes now? The difference is found in a faith grounded in humility rather than pride.  It is the difference between a relationship founded upon experience rather than pronouncements. It is the difference between grace and entitlement.

Paul understood that the only way he escaped the darkness of his ignorance what through the grace of Jesus. He knew that grace was not what he deserved. He had done things that haunted him. He had acted in ways he now believes were shameful. He did not defend God but betrayed God in the name of doing what he thought was right.

But this is the mistake of humanity, doing what we think is right. This is why there are wars, violence, crime, hatred, prejudice, abuse, and neglect because people think they are right, religiously right.

Let me give you a hypothetical example of what I mean. A young man went to work for a company that manufactured very expensive precision parts for medical equipment.  His job was to monitor a special machine that fashioned these precision parts. The machine was very sensitive and needed constant monitoring. The young man was trained to monitor the machine and notify the supervisor if the machine needed adjusting. The young man did his job well. He would call the supervisor if an adjustment was needed.

However, as he watched the supervisor, he began to understand how the machine worked. One day, while the supervisor was on the phone, the young man noticed the machine needed an adjustment. He thought to himself, my boss is busy, I can make this adjustment, and so he did. 

Within seconds, the machine began to shake, smoke, and then destroy the parts it was fashioning. Alarms went off and the machine shut down. The supervisor came running up and said, what did you do? The young man said, “I did what I thought was right because you were on your cell phone.

Did the young man do right? Did he think he was doing right? It does not matter if we think we are right when what we do is wrong.

Our current fallen situation is because humanity was tempted to have the power of God to decide what was right and wrong.

When what we do is what we think is right can lead us into the worst kind of wrongs.

So much of being religious is about pride. Grace is about humility. Pride focuses on what the self can do, grace is about understanding what Jesus has done. Pride focuses on what we think we know. Grace focuses on our being known by a God who knows us and loves us anyway. Pride judges, grace embraces.

Pride and religiousness focus on our means. Grace depends on Jesus’s mercy. Mercy is Jesus entering into our chaos, our darkness so that we can see God’s light. 

Now here is the key, the main way to avoid becoming too religious. It is found in verse 15, “This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”– and I’m the biggest sinner of all.”

Here we need to be careful not to let the darkness keep us in ignorance. Paul says Jesus came to save sinners. The word for save is a word indicating an ongoing event, a process. It is not something we do, but something we need to let Jesus do. It is not a singular act, not an imagined ritual, but an action in which our lives can be restored to what God wants and longs for rather than what we think God wants and desires. 

Paul says he is an example. Ultimately, we all are going to be examples.  Either we will be examples of grace, mercy, and love or examples of ignorance, arrogance, and stubbornness.  What kind of example do you want to be?

In order to be saved, we must let God be God. We must Jesus become more important to us than our desires, and we must let the Holy Spirit convict, convince, cleanse, convert and create in us a relationship of humility and love to take the place of the darkness, distance, and deception that comes when we think we are right. 

There is a prayer that helps me. Perhaps it can help you as well. It is the Serenity prayer. Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

When Instruction is Badly Needed

After my last quasi-depressing post, I wish to add an addendum. Part of my understanding of how God works in our midst is that sometimes, when we really need our attention to be focused, God allows (not causes) desolation to arise. I believe what I experienced was such an experience.

I am writing a book on repetend prayer. I do not want it simply to be an academic venture, but a work that can lead people to a deeper dependence in all aspects of their lives. Then came the darkness, the deception, and my defeat. How did my repetend prayers help me?

Conviction and contrition, I needed to spend time with these prayers in times of practice (because that is what we will preach) and make sure I am living what I am writing about.

So far, these repetend prayers have become part of an Anglican rosary I use. They fit together well in such a prayer and provide situational meditation on the darkness these prayers can confront.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Speak Lord, for your servant hears.

Lectionary Sermon for the Thirteen Sunday after Pentecost

Philemon 1-21 What is so important about Philemon?

The stakes could not be higher.  If Onesimus returned home, Philemon could have him punished by having him whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. If he lived, he would be branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus.

Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. Unlike Roman citizens, they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation, torture, and execution depending entirely on the will of their master.  It was an abhorrent system, a morally repugnant system, but it was embraced, accepted, and supported by Roman law.

We are not told why Onesimus ran away from his master Philemon.  We don’t know if it was because Philemon was a cruel master or whether Onesimus just decided the adventure was worth the risk, a kind of first-century adrenalin junkie.  Whatever the reason, Onesimus knew he was risking death by running away. 

But now Onesimus is going to return to Philemon.  Again, we are not told why.    All we are told is that somewhere, somehow, Onesimus and Paul came together. We are told that Onesimus has become a believer in Jesus Christ, a follower in the faith.  We are told it was Paul who lead him to be a Christian as Paul states, “I became his father in the faith during my time in prison.” 

Paul had also been the person who brought the Good News to Philemon. Now Paul is pleading with Philemon to either let Onesimus stay with Paul or else accept the escaped slave back not as a slave but as a brother in Christ.  We are not told how this story ends.  We do not know what Philemon’s reaction was or what his answer was.  We are just left hanging.

So what in the world does this story have to do with us and the world we live in?  How does this text help us to work out our own salvation or offer us a way of becoming better disciples of our Lord?  In fact, why is this book in the Bible in the first place? Why has this letter been preserved as Scripture and made authoritative by the Church? 

I had to ask myself these questions. What would God have me say to you about this passage?   Certainly, God didn’t just want me to go over this story like some historical drama played out by actors who have very little relevance to our lives.  What is so important about Philemon?

First, this letter tells us how an encounter with Jesus can transform a person. Both Philemon and Onesimus have been changed by the Good News.  Philemon is called a co-worker by Paul and has a church meeting in his home.  Onesimus, a person on the run, a slave, puts himself in danger by being a caring, physical presence, and support for Paul while Paul is in prison.  This was taking a big chance.  This would be like a person with a wanted poster on the wall visiting a friend in the police station. 

Both of these individuals are giving of themselves to the work of God.  Onesimus had found true freedom in Jesus even though he is a slave and Philemon has found something much more valuable than his earthly wealth.  But that is not all this passage is about.

You see, this passage is also about the struggle Christians face in this world that is fallen and deceptive. It is a reminder this world will put us in situations where living out our faith can be difficult. 

Paul is struggling with the issue of sending Onesimus back to Philemon even though Paul knows this is the law.  Paul has developed a dependence upon Onesimus.  Paul has developed a caring paternal-like relationship with the runaway slave.  Paul understands he could be sending Onesimus back to a very unpleasant reception or even death.

How often do we have to struggle between doing what we know is right and doing what we want even if we know it is wrong?  How easy it can be to find some way to justify what we want in order to not feel guilty.  Still, all the justifications and excuses in the world cannot make a wrong into a right. 

Now, the account seems to indicate that Onesimus is willing to go back even though he knows he risks an uncertain fate.  He knows he has broken the law.  As a believer, he understands that God will be with him, but he also knows what happened to Jesus, many of the disciples, and others who faced the reality of this world. He does not know how Philemon will react.

It is very Pollyannaish and foolish not to believe that bad things can happen to us.  You can know you are in the right, confident what you are doing is good, and still have situations turn against you.  I know this well from experience.  A few years, well more than a few now, I found out about a huge fraud.  I report it, was vilified and sued for $10 million dollars.  The case was dropped after the statute of limitations had run out on the individual who committed the act, but when I questioned the lawyer about where the justice was, he told me, “If I wanted justice to watch TV.”

Then there is Philemon.  Philemon has to struggle with his own feelings, does he forgive and embrace or does he exercise his rights under Roman law?  Is Philemon’s faith strong enough, real enough, to make a decision that goes against his culture, a decision that likely would be considered both foolish and dangerous by Roman authorities?  If Philemon forgives and embraces Onesimus after he had broken the law and run away, is he not setting a dangerous precedent and example that could influence the behavior of other slaves?

There will always be those situations in life where there are no easy sure answers.  Times that we are not sure of what we must do.  Even though Paul is pleading and using every possible argument he can think of, the decision lies not with Paul but with Philemon. 

Human beings, even faithful, committed, and spiritual human beings, can still make wrong choices and even believe they can justify their choices as God’s will.  God does not force human responses.

A Sunday school teacher was asking her students some questions after a series of lessons on God’s omnipotence. She asked, “Is there anything God can’t do?”  All was silent. Finally, one boy held up his hand.  The teacher, on seeing this, was disappointed that this child had missed the point of the lesson. She sighed and asked, “Well, what is it you think God can’t do?”  The boy replied, “He can’t please everybody.”

God cannot please everybody and God does not will God try to control everybody.  Faith is about our trusting God and seeking to do what is best knowing we can and will make mistakes.  However, faith is also knowing, that whatever the outcome, God is with us.

This leads us to the third thing this passage should teach us.  Sometimes walking in faith and trusting God, requires us to put our lives in God’s hands even though we do not know what the immediate results will be.  God never promises we will not have trouble.  God never guarantees that the outcome will always be favorably determined by how our culture interprets favorable. There are times when we must just do what we know we should do.  Times when we must trust God in the long run over the short run.  Times when we have to hold on to our Lord’s promise that he will never leave us or forsake us whatever we face. 

We don’t know how this story turns out.  But we do know that all things work toward good for those who love the Lord.  We do know God is with us in the easy times and the hard times.  We know what is important is our faith, for our faith will determine how our story ends.

It’s Sunday, Red Alert

I do not believe in the advice, “Fake it till you make it.” I feel following this advice would be an act of hypocrisy and that it can create a false path preventing one from achieving true illumination.

I did not go to church this morning. Let me correct this statement. I got up, went to church, and then left because I was tempted to, “fake it till I hopefully could make it.” Such a temptation would have only increased the emotional and spiritual challenges I face, increased my sense of isolation and guilt, and (in my thought) been insulting to God. True worship beings in the Spirit and I was not being led by the Spirit of God but the spirit of the world.

I did not sleep well (this is not an excuse for bad behavior). When I finally woke up, I found I had less than an hour to get ready for church. This is where I made my first mistake, I got in a hurry. All being in a hurry accomplishes is to set one up for frustration, impatience, and anger. It did not take long for all three of these hindrances to a healthy soul’s preparation for worship to take control of my emotions and behavior. This “being in a hurry” also produced a relational tension of my own creation that only made things worse.

It is not that God was not trying to help me. Several times during this episode of foolishness I felt the tug of the Spirit to choose differently, but I did not listen. I chose not to be discerning. This is never a good choice. Even when I got to church and was surrounded by others who wanted to worship God, I was too busy having my own “poor me” party to allow the energy of other worshippers to lift me up. So I left.

My loss.

Jesus told us several times to be alert. Jesus did not do this just to hear himself talk. Jesus was serious. I know this, yet I was not alert to circumstances and situations that should have set off a warning that the enemy was gaining ground in my life. While serving as a pastor I usually was prepared for challenges on a Sunday, why should that change now that I am a church member?

My takeaway, always be alert. We are engaged in spiritual warfare. Our enemy does not honor truces. Our enemy is always trying to deceive, delude, or defeat. If our enemy can damage our ability to worship all means at the enemy’s disposal will be used.

Be serious! Be alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. Resist him 1 and be firm in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are being experienced by your fellow believers throughout the world. (1 Pet. 5:8-9 CSB)

Lectionary Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

I have a t-shirt that has lettering that reads, “Believe there is good.” However, there is a second message in which the white colored letters spell out, “Be the good.”

In a conversation with a rich young man who had sought out Jesus, the young man calls Jesus, “Good teacher.” Jesus answered, “Why do you call Me good?” Then Jesus states, “No one is good but One– God. (Mk. 10:18 CSB) Only God is truly good. Therefore, to be good, we need to do what God considers important. The writer of Hebrews gives us some insights on what these good things are and how we can offer God an offering of good.

First, the writer tells us to, “Let brotherly love continue.” If there is one thing that defines the Christian faith it is that God loves us, and God expects us to love each other. When we love (not lust, not like, or not a sense of pleasure that comes from our will, but a commitment, connection, and confidence in the way God loves) we come closest to God. This growth in love, and this maturity in our relationship with the Lord is the greatest good we can be involved in.

Loving as God loves is a very difficult thing to do. Why is it so hard? It is hard because our nature tends to pervert love to the way we want rather than the way God intends. We tend to use love as a tool for getting what we want. We use love as a means of control and possession. This is not love. Jesus gives us the best definition of love in the incarnation and in the crucifixion. Here are four verses of Scripture I believe head us in the right direction of “the good.”

This is how we have come to know love: He laid down His life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers. (1 Jn. 3:16 CSB)

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (Jn. 15:13 ESV)

For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life! (Rom. 5:10 CSB)

So what should we do?

“But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Lk. 6:27-28 CSB)

This is an offering of good.

Next, we are told by the writer, “Don’t neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it. Remember the prisoners, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily.” This too is an opportunity to bring to God an offering of good.

What is the greatest commandment? Jesus was asked this and said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39 CSB)

Hospitality is about loving other people. It is about seeking to be a community, a gathering, by opening our doors and tables, sometimes a place to sleep, with those we are fortunate enough to begin building the trust, compassion, transparency, care, and support needed for the relationship to grow in depth and understanding. Hospitality can create God moments in our lives. And as for prisoners, I feel certain the writer was referring to those in physical prisons. It was not safe to be a first-century Christian.

However, I have been physically incarcerated, and I can assure you that such a physical incident was not pleasant. And while it was unpleasant, I have experienced some other prisons of the soul, conscious, circumstances, and situations of my own making and those made by others that were far worse in comparison. What these situations did was to guide me to understand my need of community, of contact, of a connection that assures me I am not forgotten.

And, again, hospitality offers us an opportunity and confirms the reality of being able to commune with angels unaware. What an honor and humbling such an experience would be. How much better if those angels would reveal to God our love for others because of our love for God?

Would this not be a true offering of good to God?

The next offering listed is a controversial one, “Marriage must be respected by all, and the marriage bed kept undefiled, because God will judge immoral people and adulterers.” These words do not mix with the message our culture sends out about sex and marriage. The culture views marriage as a simple contract and looks at sex as “whatever you want goes.” Marriage is not often viewed as a lifelong commitment, but as a consumer option that can be returned if dissatisfied. Again, we see a perversion of love leading to a state of temptation and deception. In my forty years of pastoral ministry, the worse pain and suffering I saw people in was in people who were going through marital conflicts in which an affair had been discovered or people whose spouse had left them without notice.

I have also watched marriages that were living hell for one or both partners. Even though these marriages had a commitment to say together through better and worse, there was the worse without any better. The institution of marriage was a gift from God that has social, legal, and hopefully romantic aspects. It is the first stand against the powers and principalities of this world. It is two people helping each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The last, spirituality, being the one most neglected. God gave us marriage as a means of joining with God in the only ongoing aspect of creation, the creation of humans’ souls. Marriage should be the base for a healthy environment to bring new life into the world.

When we seek to honor what God has given, to understand the commitment that is required as well as the mindset and spiritual endurance and patience, we submit to God’s authority and design. When we seek to love our mates with all our hearts and souls, and they seek to do the same for us, God is honored as well.

Out of a solid, committed, loving marriage, we give God an offering of good.

Now another difficult task. The writer of Hebrews, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, says to us, “Your life should be free from the love of money. Be satisfied with what you have, for He Himself has said, I will never leave you or forsake you. Therefore, we may boldly say: The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”

I have learned what it is like to be poor. I do truly pray for my daily bread. I am too old for a church to call me, to physically damaged to do physical work for more than a short period of time. I cannot find a job. I have little retirement and less than $5k in savings. But I must tell you I am happier now than at any other time in my life. I must depend on God and “Where God guides, God provides.” (Isa. 58:11) I am finding deep satisfaction in what I have. And, for the first time in my life, I am beginning to like and love myself.

I deeply love my wife. I also deeply love to do things for her. I love to cook for her, care for her when she is sick, and just finding things I hope will make her happy. I cannot verbally express just how much joy this brings me.

It is hard for many human beings, especially in our culture, to understand just how much joy we bring to God by letting God be God to us. God knows how money can hurt us. God knows how money can corrupt us. God knows just how easily we can be deceived, deluded, damaged, depraved, and dark we can become. God seeks to protect us, rescue us, strengthen us, and preserve us. To allow God to be God to us is to give God an offering of good.

And then, we read, “Remember your leaders who have spoken God’s word to you. As you carefully observe the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith.”

Please, please, be careful of who your leaders are. First and foremost, as was just stated, “Let God be God.” Let the Holy Spirit guide you in discerning the good, the perceived good, and the bad. Remember, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. (Matt. 7:15 CSB)

Do not put your trust in men, or women, without first comparing their acts and lives to that of Jesus. Are they loving, caring, humble, serving, quick to forgive, and not judge? Does their lifestyle show a dependence on God or on money? It is not hard to tell if you are willing to let the Holy Spirit rather than some other spirit be your guide. To do so will place one in the right place to offer an offering of good to God.

 To conclude, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Love does not change. Thankfully we can. These are verses needing contemplation. Hopefully, they will lead us to say, “Therefore, through Him let us continually offer up to God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of our lips that confess His name. Don’t neglect to do what is good and to share, for God is pleased with such sacrifices. (Heb. 13:15-16 CSB)

Lectionary Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 12: 18-29    Would We but Listen

The last few weeks have been very difficult and tragic for many people in many parts of our country (including Death Valley) who have experience flooding and fires. I cannot imagine how horrible it must feel to have a wall of fire or fast-rising water headed your way.  Thankfully many were able to escape with their lives.  Sadly, some did not. 

How can we prepare for this? I am sure many of the people caught up in these disasters never imagined they would be in such a situation.  The uncertainty about our world, our lives, is that circumstances and situations can change almost in an instant.

Some of the people in the path of advancing threats almost had to be forced to move.  There are all kinds of stories about those who almost waited too long.  It is a strange thing about human nature.  We tend to deny the danger.  We think we have the time.  We can find ourselves in serious trouble when we discover we don’t.

The passage today is a concise, complete, compressed collection of the realities human beings have faced, are facing, and will most certainly face in the future.  The writer is speaking specifically to those connected to the history and heritage of the Hebrew people, the chosen of God, who have encountered the incredible revelation of Jesus of Nazareth.  If only they would have listened.

The writer, through the presence of God’s Spirit, is also speaking to us.  If only we would listen.

The writer begins with a contrast.  A contrast of two views of God.  The writer uses locations to make a point.  One location comes from the past.  The writer speaks about when the chosen people had been liberated as slaves in Egypt and had come to the mountain where God was waiting. 

This was an encounter with fear.  Fear of a God who they believed was a punishing God.  A God of laws and restrictions. Listen again to what the Scripture says, “The sight was so frightening that Moses said, “I’m terrified and shaking!” (Heb. 12:21 CEB) 

This is the view of God many people still have today, a God of laws and judgment.  A God who restricts and confines.  A God who says no, a God of the past.  So many people just turn this God off.  They know better.  They don’t need this kind of God, so they create their own.

The other viewpoint of the nature of God the writer gives begins in verse 22.  This is the place of the promise.  This is an encounter with acceptance.  This is a place where the focus is not on what was but what can be.  The people again come to this place as slaves who have been liberated, but the liberation is not from taskmasters but from the hopelessness of sin.  This is the place, the writer tells us, we can come to Jesus.

It is as if the writer is striving to bring the readers of the text to a fork in the road, telling us where each path leads.  One to a place of fear, the other to a place of faith. 

Why does the writer do this?  First, the writer knows which is the true nature of God.  The writer knows God is a God of caring, of helping, a God who loves us because the writer knows Jesus.  The writer wants the reader to understand just how important the revelation of God is to us.  The writer also wants to warn us.

Warn us?  That sounds a lot like fear.  No, it sounds a lot like care and compassion.  It sounds like love. 

The warnings God gives to humanity are not more a threat any more than a sign warning you of a bridge out is a threat or a sign warning against high voltage is a threat.  If a person chose to ignore the warning, whose fault is it?

Look at verse 25.  Here the writer brings back the past.  He reminds us that this world is a cause-effect world.  There are natural laws that have consequences when broken and there are spiritual laws that have consequences.  We are warned. Not because God is mean, but because God is loving.

Throughout the Old Testament, when people chose the wrong path, God would send individuals called prophets to warn them.  The Scripture if full of accounts of the consequence of the human response.

God does not enjoy human suffering.  God finds no pleasure even in the death of evil people.  God does not want any human being to perish.  As we are told in the letter written by Jesus’s disciple Peter, “God is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.” (2 Pet. 3:9 CEB) This is God’s hope. This is what God wants. This is how God loves.

What about all those verses about God’s anger?  Yes, God does get angry.  Yes, there is a limit to how far God will tolerate the things human beings do.  Sometimes God does let us bear the consequences of this fallen world.  But this is not God the kind of relationship God wants to have with us.

Jesus came to reveal the relationship God wants.  Jesus came to reveal the servant nature of God.  God made this world for us.  God made us able to love and be loved by God.  But this world has a limited time. 

As the writer of Hebrews warns, God shook the Earth to its foundations before and God will do so again.  This life is limited.  This life will end.  This life is our chance if we would but listen. 

God does not negotiate.  God does not make deals.  God makes promises.  God makes covenants.  God does what God says will be done.

In 1889, on May 31, the Johnstown Flood killed 2,209 people.  The flood was caused by the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles upstream from Johnstown, Penn. What is so sad about this disaster was that twice the telegraph office sent warnings to Johnstown explaining the critical nature of the eroding dam. But the warnings were not passed to the authorities in town, as there had been many false alarms in the past of the South Fork Dam not holding against flooding that no one believed it would happen.  The great wave measured 35-40 feet high and hit Johnstown at 40 miles per hour.

99 entire families died, including 396 children. 124 women and 198 men were left widowed. More than 750 victims were never identified.

The tragedy could have been avoided.  If only the warning would have been heeded.  If they would have but listened. 

God will not destroy this world with a flood.  This is a promise God has made.  The next shaking will be with fire.  This is not a message of fear, not a threat, but a certainty because God does what God says. 

We need to pay attention.  We need to prepare.  We need to take our spiritual state seriously.  Verse 28 is a vision of hope, but also a reminder of who it is that gives us this word.  Our God deserves our respect, our awe, but even more our gratitude, our service, and all our love.  Our God is a consuming fire.  Would we but listen!