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!

A Prophetic Penitent Pope

“God seems to have disappeared from the horizon, and his word no longer seems a compass guiding our lives, our basic decisions, our human and social relationships,” he added.

Instead of trying to impose religion on the state or lamenting the bygone times when clergy swayed political power, the pope said, “secularization demands we reflect on the changes in society that have influenced the way in which people think about and organize their lives.”

It’s not the faith that is suffering a crisis, he continued, “but some of the forms and ways in which we present it.”

Pope Francis – Religious News Service 7/29/2022

Pope Francis trip to Canada for the purpose of offering a humble, sincere apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s involvement in the cultural genocide of Native America children in “boarding schools” I believe is to be applauded. The Pope did not have to do this. This action will likely not get the church more members. This action will bring the Pope criticism. So why should the Pope be applauded?

Pope Francis understands he cannot undue what has been done. The Pope grasps how horrible this and other moral outrages committed by the church are. The Pope knows he needs to set the example and do what is right. Accepting responsibility and desiring to make amends is a primary expectation of those who would follow Jesus. Hopefully such an apology and begging for forgiveness is a start to undoing so of the damage done.

The reality is that people do bad, unspeakable things whether they are religious people or not. Religion is a powerful tool evil uses to damage people. Sadly, in my case, I have met more evil people in church than any place else. The rise of Christian Nationalism is giving many of these people a desire for political power. I believe the Pope understands just how dangerous and coercive the merger of church and state can be. The above statement the Pope makes could have come from a Virginia Baptist. I am grateful that the Pope made this statement.

I do not believe God ever wanted religion to be a social control device. God wants us to develop faith, faith that comes through trust. God wants us to understand our need for God and wants to help us understand that our need is not political laws but with divine love. The path to such love is paved with the willingness to reflect on our collective behavior, a desire to obtain forgiveness if possible, and seeking the best for all, whether an individual is part of our “tribe” or not, religious or not. Maturing in our faith means we trust God to be faithful. It means understanding fight is not against flesh and blood. It means we grasp the truism that love cannot be forced, legislated, or codified in law. It means we look for the log in our own eye before looking for the splinter in someone else’s.

Thank you Pope Francis

The Move

I do not know how many of you have had to make relocation moves in your life, but I feel like a bit of a gypsy. I have moved, in my lifetime, 39 times (excluding the times I moved in the military). This averages out to a move every 1.8 years. I did not plan to move this much, in fact, to me, moving is hard, painful, and extremely emotionally tiring. I have found that our enemy can be very active during a personal relocation move as well.

We are all pilgrims. We are all on journeys comprised of different motives and purposes. While we are engaged in our moving, we are in a time of liminality, of leaving one place and arriving at another. In this time of liminality, we face challenges of preparation, adjustments of timetables, and adaption of practices.

The challenges of preparation include things like packing, notifying contacts, engaging help, obtaining supplies, and dealing with all the implications of Murphy’s Law. Yes, there is a devil in the details. The time of liminality can be filled with frustration, anxiety, despair, and for some, physical pain. Some of these challenges can push us to the point of exhaustion or at least procrastination. I countered these challenges by using repetend prayers and striving to maintain the morning and evening offices (times of verbal prayer).

Adjusting to timetables involves the action or inaction of others. We do not journey in isolation. Our moving involves others. Our deadlines are not necessarily the deadlines of others. Needless to say, this too can lead to frustration, anxiety, despair, anger, and depression. The enemy will use such times of emotional strain to push us toward behavior and thoughts that do not honor our Lord. Again, what helped my most through this time were repetend prayers. When I found myself being short, caustic, or angry I would pray the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner- this is a repetend prayer). I cannot express how often this prayer has brought centering and focus to my life during the move.

As far as the adaption of practices I found that if I was going to focus on grace and love I needed to take more breaks for times of prayer and reflection. Not only do we need to seek to maintain our regular spiritual disciplines, but we also need to intentionally plan to stop and give God time to refresh us and restore us. At least for me, I get more done when I take the breaks I need to care for my spiritual nature as well as my physical endurance.

Then the day arrives, the move is undertaken, and we pass from where we were to where we are going. We are tired, and stressed, but have a sense of peace because we intentionally included God in our move. I would really recommend such an inclusion. I can assure you the enemy will not like it.

Lectionary Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 11:29-12:2 Why Us?

I have spent a lot of time studying the book of Ecclesiastes.  It can seem a rather cynical book.   To give you an example, the second verse of the book in the translation I use states, “Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless.” (Eccl. 1:2 CEB)

The NIV translates the book, “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl. 1:2 NIV)

Why in the world would someone say this?  They must really have a dim view of our human life. Our lives have meaning, correct?  Our lives are significant, aren’t they?  Our existence does matter, doesn’t it? 

Of course, we matter.  The question is, why do we matter?  We matter to those who love us.  We matter to the functioning of society.  We matter because we need each other.  But what does this mean?  It means the human species can survive.  But why does that matter? 

If the scientists are right, someday our sun will burn out.  Will humanity matter then?  We dream of our continuation through our ability to use knowledge and technology. But for what purpose?  Does it all come down to survival?  Is that the ultimate purpose? 

I don’t believe we exist just to survive.  I believe we exist for a much better reason.  The most important reason for our existence is that we exist for our creator. We exist because of love.  And love, true love, exists because of faith. 

What in the world do I mean by that?  I mean for love, true love, to be shared, there must be faith.  Faith that is built upon a relationship of trust, commitment, value, and hope. 

I have a question, “How do you know you are loved?”  We know when we are cared for, and told we are important and valuable.  This is why it is so painful when people violate love.  We call this being unfaithful.  Unfaithfulness is a violation of trust, a breaking of commitment, and a dashing of hope by violating love. God loves us.  God is never unfaithful.  God has made us for love.  Faith is the way we come to know this is true.

The lectionary passage in Hebrews is a history of the power of faith that includes individuals from all walks of life and situations.  People who believed God, love God and depended upon God in faith.

In their lives, faith persevered no matter what happened, no matter what circumstance or situation.  They tied their lives to their belief in the faithfulness of God despite the challenges that came their way.  The promise they most sought was beyond this existence, beyond mere survival.  In fact, many times their faith caused them not to survive.  Many of them died because of their faith.

Listen again to verse 39, “All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith.” (Heb. 11:39 CEB)

Now if God was faithful, why did they not receive what was promised?  Isn’t breaking a promise being unfaithful? 

Let’s look a little closer.  Note, that it does not say they did not ever receive their promise.  It does not say God broke a promise.  What is said is that the people of faith in the Old Testament did not base their faith on what they perceived they could get.  It was not a faith based on reward.  It was a faith based on trust.  A faith based on hope.  A faith that would bring them into God’s love, not just a promise, but the ultimate purpose for which we were created.

Look at verse 40.  God provides something better.  Not a rigid law that condemned.  Not a rigid religion that judges and labels.  God provided Jesus.  Jesus descended into death so that faith would produce life.  True life, eternal life, from which we were made; not existence, not survival, not chasing after things, not being misled by lies, but life as it was intended.  A life that leads us to perfection. 

Perfection is not free from mistakes, failings, fallings, foolishness, and choices made in ignorance and arrogance, but by perfection in love.  That perfection in love will lead us to be wiser and have a deeper understanding of life. 

Perfection in a faith born of love.  God’s love. 

In the book of Ecclesiastes, the writer of this book tells us, “I have observed the task that God has given human beings. God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in their hearts, without enabling them to discover what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccl. 3:10-11 CEB)

It is important we pay attention to that.  They were not able to discover.  This was the mystery.  It is a mystery of love.  It is the mystery of why God cares about us.  It is the mystery fulfilled in Jesus.  Now we can know what God has been doing. Without question, the mystery of godliness is great. Jesus was revealed as a human, declared righteous by the Spirit, seen by angels, preached throughout the nations, believed in around the world, and taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16 CEB)

This is the mystery, the mystery that touches human hearts so deeply.  The mystery proclaimed in John 3:16, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. (Jn. 3:16 CEB).  This is the foundation of faith.  God is love and we exist of love and know this love, experience this love, grow in this love through faith, faith in a God who became one of us because God loves us.

Look again at verse 2.  This is how we can know our lives are not meaningless, not pointless.  This is how we can be forgiven for the wrongs we do and the ignorance we too often embrace.  Turn your eyes on Jesus.  Know Jesus is the one who perfects our faith.  Know that he died for you.  He endured the cross.  He endured the shame for us. Why did Jesus do this?  The answer is right here, “for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him.” (Heb. 12:2 CEB)

And what was the joy?  The joy of Jesus is us! 

Listen to what he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. (Jn. 15:11 CEB).

Listen to what the scripture tells us, “What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy can be complete. (1 Jn. 1:3-4)

As we grow older, we learn just how important relationships are to us.  They are our treasure.  Broken relationships are often the most painful experiences of our lives.  Loving relationships are our greatest treasure.  Why is this so?  Because for this reason we were created.  This is where faith will lead us.  This is where faith finds its strength. 

We exist because of love.  And love, true love, exists because of faith.  Is your journey of faith one that is leading you to the power of faith, the truth of faith, the hope of faith, the love of faith. 

God does not force faith.  Love cannot be forced.  But God is calling, Jesus is calling, the Holy Spirit is calling, calling you in grace to faith.  What will be your reply?

Lectionary Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16  The Promise of Faith

Jesus said some pretty amazing things.  One of the more incredible things Jesus said was, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Lk. 17:6 CEB)

If that was not amazing enough he went on to say in the story of Jesus known as Matthew, “I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do.” (Matt. 17:20 CEB)

Now did Jesus really mean this, or was he just exaggerating?  I believe that he meant it.  I understand some would say, “You can’t be serious!” 

“You actually believe a human being could make a tree obey their voice or a mountain follow their command?”

I believe that Jesus does not deceive. I also that our Lord would not exaggerate about something so important to God the Father. But if you focus on simply moving a tree or a mountain, you miss the point.  Faith is much more powerful than that. 

Faith is nothing in isolation.  It is simply a word describing the belief of something for which there is incomplete evidence.  It is a word we use as a defense of our inability to attain certainty.  Example:  I have faith that the Cowboys will win the Super Bowl this year or I have faith I am going to win the lottery even if I don’t buy a ticket.

These are examples of blind faith or having a vivid imagination.

The faith that Jesus speaks about, the faith of power, the faith of promises, is the faith we find in our passage today. 

Verse one is an incredible verse. Listen to it again. Faith is the reality hoped for, proof of what we don’t see.

The reality hoped for, what does that mean?   What kind of a reality do we want?  One without fear?  One with pain and suffering?  One without boredom or limitations?  One filled with love and life?  One without loss and death? 

The reality hoped for is the reality for which we were created.  It is the reality that sin blinds us too and to which hopelessness tries to bind us. 

That world is impossible.  That reality cannot exist. 

Not according to Jesus who said, “It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.” (Matt. 19:26 CEB).  This statement is found in three of the four accounts of the life of our Lord.

Faith is the means through which God is known.  Faith is the prelude to a growing relationship of trust, confidence, and ultimately perfected love.  Faith is the proof of what we don’t see. 

Proof, that is a strong word.  Yes, it is.  It is a word meaning evidence, reliability, truth, and confidence.  Proof is what makes faith in God not a blind faith, but a relational faith. 

Yes, Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so, but so does my heart, and so does my experience of my encounters with God in my own life and in the lives of others.  I know my faith is real because of the evidence of Jesus, the evidence of the resurrection, and the reality of the joy, and completeness, which comes from the experience of a growing love for God and others.

Listen again to verse 3.  Faith is the means by which we come to understand God.  We human beings are finite creatures.  We have no control over time.  We have no power over creation.  Even when we seek knowledge we can only understand with our own experiential limitations.  Our only understanding of why we even exist is either to believe we are a strange singularity in an incomprehensible universe or else we are a creation of a God who is beyond the incomprehensible universe that at best we can merely speculate and imagine. 

No, the only way we can understand is if God chooses to give us understanding through faith.  And what God has chosen to give us understanding is that God does love us.  God does care about us and God has plans for us that are revealed through the promises of faith.

In verses 8-16, the writer of Hebrews calls our attention to the history of Abraham.  It is a remarkable history of God’s relationship with a man called Abraham and God’s choice of Abraham to be a means of revealing an understanding of faith.

In verse 8 we are told Abraham was called and he went.  He when because of a promise.  A promise made by God.  A promise Abraham trusted.  How does one develop this type of trust?  This type of trust only comes through the experience of a relationship.  This was not an “I have faith I am going to win the lottery” type faith, but a faith filled with an understanding of God’s reliability.

Look again at verse 10. 

Along with Abraham, Sarah, his wife also had faith.  In verse 11 we are told that for Sarah have a child was impossible, but with God, all things are possible.  So Sarah had faith “because she believed that the one who promised was faithful.” (Heb. 11:11 CEB)

Note what it says in verse 13, “but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them. They look at the future with eyes of faith.  They confessed that they were strangers and immigrants on earth. (Heb. 11:13 CEB)

They understood.  They grasp the reality.  They were able to comprehend what God wanted for them.  And what did God want for them?  A reality, the reality we were created for in the first place.  One without fear.  One with pain and suffering.  One without boredom or limitations.  One filled with love and life.  One without loss and death.   They believed that the one who promised was faithful. 

Now, all of these people died in faith without receiving the promises. (Heb. 11:13 CEB) They know the promises of God transcend time and space.  The promises of God are not limited by human finiteness and mortality. 

These people lived in faith of promises coming, a faith we are now called to live by the promise of the one who has come.  The one who brings the promises of God to us now and forever.  The one who grows the promises of faith in us. 

And what promises are those?  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 Jn. 1:9 CEB)

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn. 6:51 CEB)

God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. (Eph. 1:5-6 CEB)

I will never leave you or abandon you (Heb. 13:5 CEB) “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you (Jn. 14:27 CEB) Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age. (Matt. 28:20 CEB)

This is the power of the promises of faith.  Promises we can begin to experience now through a growing, loving, grace-giving, relational faith in Jesus Christ. 

This is faith that will be with you in the good times and the bad.  It will sustain you in the emergency room or at the side of a grave. 

We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. (2 Cor. 4:8-9 CEB)

Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison.

We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.

 (2 Cor. 4:17-18 CEB)

Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see. (Heb. 11:1 CEB)

Lectionary Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Colossians 3:1-11 Where Your Mind is Your Heart will likely Follow

I want to begin with a psychological reality.  I want you to think of the number 4.  Get a picture of the number 4 in your mind.  Can you see it?  Imagine it, see it, now, don’t think of the number 4.  It is hard.  Our minds have a hard time with vacuums.  When we think of something it usually must be replaced with something else before our thinking changes.

Now, listen to these verses from Ephesians 4:17-19 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.  Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. 

This is not a good place to be.  These verses warn us of futility in our thinking (my version calls it pointless thinking- the old KJV states vanity of their minds.)  The word translated “futility” means useless, pointless, no chance, or hope.  This is a terrible place to be.  What makes it even worse, this futility in thinking leads to a spiritual hardness of the heart. This can be a spiritually terminal condition.

What is spiritual hardness of the heart?  It is a sickness of the soul that prevents us from perceiving God’s grace and love and makes us unable to grasp how much danger we are in from within and from without. 

This is the danger that the members of the church at Colossae were facing.  They were being influenced by the thinking of their social culture.  This thinking was opening them up to deception, opening them up to manipulation, and pushing them to live for things that are dead. 

What do I mean by the term dead?  I mean dead as in separated and separating from God.  Notice the things listed in verse 5.  These things seem to bring pleasure but in fact, they usually cause great pain.  They cheapen, tarnish, wound, crush, isolate, produce fear, and hate.  They can never satisfy but do lead us to have the continual lust for more.

You know, as I read this list, I realize I could be reading a news story about the events that surround us.  I could be reading the plots of many of the TV shows that fill our homes.  I could have been reading about the activities of celebrities, athletes, or politicians.  It seems like the old dangers of this world that push death has not changed.  They are still there. 

What is sad is that people still believe these things are worth the price of their perceived pleasure.  People believe they can find meaning in life living with these bringers of death. This is a lie.

A man was seen on his knees in his neighbor’s yard.   The neighbor came out and asked him what he was doing.  The man said, “I am looking for my keys.”  The neighbor came over and joined the search.  How did you lose your keys in my yard the neighbor asked the man?  The man replied, “Oh, I didn’t lose them in your yard. I lost them in mine.”  “Then why are you looking for them here?” asked the neighbor.  Because the light is brighter over here. 

Is the search going to be futile? Yes, but not any more futile than living the lies of seduction of our culture as if these lies would lead us to the truth.

Paul tells us there is a better way.  Paul tells us here in verses 1 & 2 and also in Romans 12:2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will. In other words, replace the bad with the good.  Replace that which is futile with that which is faithful.  Seek what is better.  Think on what is true. 

How, how do we think about things that are true?  By replacing, renewing, and transforming what is there with a new image, the image of our Lord.  The image of him at his resurrection, the image of him at the right hand of God.  We gain this image when we follow Jesus as Jesus followed the will of the Father.  Set your mind on reaching out to those you love.  Seek their welfare before your own.  Seek to spend time in God’s word.  Find yourself in the stories.  Find guidance in the behaviors, learn what brings joy, peace, love, hope, and builds faith.  Seek to spend time talking with God in prayer.  Seek to gather as the church.  Let your mind be filled with hope. 

But what about the bad things we must face?  What are we to do about difficulties, pressures, and problems?  We have weaknesses, handicaps, and limitations.  How do we set our minds on the things above? 

Story of a religious traveler who was walking down a path when a monkey through a coconut and hit him in the back.  The traveler took the coconut and ate the meat, drank the milk, and made the shell into a bowl. He then thanked the monkey for giving him the opportunity to turn a painful event into a useful encounter. It is a matter of perspective.

In WWII in the Nazi death camps, a young doctor named Victor Frankl observed that even during evil, torture, misery, and death there were those people who still chose to find happiness.  They found their happiness in the songs of their faith, in the prayers they had learned, and in actions of love rather than fear and hate.  How could they do this in such an evil place? What Frankl observed was what Paul is talking about in these passages.  It is the power of choice given us by our Lord.  We can put off the old nature and seek the holy nature, the nature of perfection in our desire to live lives that conform to the image of Jesus. 

You have heard the saying, “practice what you preach?”  Let me tell you a better way, the way of our Lord: “Preach what you practice!”   Preach the value of a moral life because you have benefited from a moral life.  Preach forgiveness because you have experience forgiveness.  Preach love because you love and have been loved.  Preach Jesus as a relationship rather than a religion because you live in a relationship with Jesus.  Preach the things above because you think about those things, desire those things, you live for those things. 

We were not made for futility.  We do not have to be ruled by lies, deceit, violence, crudeness, cruelty, corruption, and consumption.  We can be surprised by joy.

Paul writes: if you were raised.  This is the question, the big “if.”  This determines if you can set your mind on the things of God.  To be raised you must be called. NIV John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It’s a calling to discipleship.  It is a calling that comes from God. Set your mind to hear, to think, and to seek to be conformed to the image our creator made us to have!

Where Your Mind is Your Heart will likely Follow!

Sermon for Seventh Sunday of Pentecost

Colossians 2:6-19 Don’t Get Scammed

This is not an easy passage. This is a Scripture passage that can be hard to accept.  These words may cause an emotional response. These words can convict.  I understand that these words may be out and out rejected and maybe even cause a response in which they are angrily completely rejected.  Still, these are words that fit in the context of this passage and speak to an issue that weigh on me so heavily that it made me physically sick.  What I have to say here today I say not as a legalist, not as a denominational loyalist, and the only personal agenda attached to my words is my desire to see each of us walking closer to our God.  Please be patient with me.  Please weigh these words and pray about how you will respond.

First, let us be reminded of what is happening in this passage.  Paul is writing to a church he has never met. Paul is writing this letter from his prison cell.  He has been incarcerated because of his proclaiming of the Gospel.  Even though Paul only knows of this church from reports and encounters with individuals who do know the church, Paul loves them and desires only the best for them. I know some would question how Paul could love them, but as one grows in the Lord one does come to understand and even practice such compassion.

For two Sundays the lectionary has focused on this letter to the Colossians.  This letter to the church has focused on the dangers (spiritual dangers) they face and that we face as well.  

In this passage, the purpose remains the same.  First, there is the positive.  Look again at verses 6-7.  This is what our faith is about.  This is the reason for the church.  We are here because of Jesus.  We are here because God does love us and (2 Peter 3:9) “It is a God’s desire is in not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

Jesus came to this world to offer an example of the desire of God, a desire to journey with us.  In the reality of the certainty of death, Jesus came to offer life.  In John 10:28 Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” 

But Paul brings up a point about this encounter with God that we should understand well.  If we are given life by Jesus, if we are indwelt by Jesus, if we are being transformed by Jesus then we should see evidence of that life.  Our perspective should change.  Our wants and desires should be moving away from living for the world and instead living by the Word. 

If not, then either we are not children of God or else we have allowed ourselves to be so deceived, to be so totally scammed by this world that hates Jesus, despises God, and enjoys using us that we are living a lie.  This is a real danger.

Verse eight states, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Col. 2:8 NIV) This was the real spiritual danger the Colossians faced.  We are warned of the real dangers to our spiritual lives. 

The Scripture warns us about developing, accepting, or even tolerating certain forms of philosophy.  Philosophy literally means Philo (love) of Sophia (wisdom).  It is the love of wisdom.  What is wrong with that? Why do we need to be warned about the love of wisdom? 

Everyone consciously or subconsciously develops a philosophy of life, an order of thinking that has a great determining influence on our actions and behaviors.  Your philosophy determines what you think is important.  Your philosophy determines what you think is true.  The philosophy or philosophies we are warned about are those that mix foolish deception and our own fallen reason. (Other translations might have vain deceit or empty deception). 

The word translated “foolish” (vain, empty) is a word meaning the sense of being without effect, without reaching its goal.  It is the same word used in James 2:20: You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?

The word for deception (deceit) is one that has to do with the seduction which comes from wealth.  It is the same word in Matt. 13:22 in the parable of the Sower in which Jesus says, “The one who received the seed (the Gospel) that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” 

The Scripture goes on to tell us that this philosophy comes from human tradition, influences hostile to God, and the way the world thinks rather than what Jesus has taught.

Then in verses 10 through 19 Paul reminds the Colossians and us about the true philosophy, the true wisdom upon which we should be basing our lives.  He sets out the truth revealed in Scripture and in the words and actions of Jesus as a reminder of the core principles the Colossians (and we) need to challenge the philosophies of this world.  In the time this was written, the Colossians (the world) time, the philosophy was one of magic and prosperity.  Magic in believing that we can (through actions or knowledge) control God.   The philosophy of prosperity is one in which we believe money and God are equal and with enough money, I really don’t need God.

It seems that not much changes. The predominant religious philosophy of our day is called therapeutic-moral-deism. God is only important when we need Him.   

Here is when this passage intersects with a very prominent problem in the church. Here is where we face the same danger as the Colossians.  We too are in danger of being taken captive if not captive already. How can we know? How can we avoid being deceived, mislead, and end up being enemies of God’s will instead of examples of God’s guidance and hope?

As one who has been called by God to serve the church, I operate under the authority given to me by the Scripture to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  In the 13th chapter of the book of Hebrews, I am warned that I will give an account to God for my work (Hebrews 13:17 They keep watch over you as men who must give an account).  But the question is, “How does one called by God accomplish this?” A minister has no special magical instrument, no scientific tool to tell how a person is doing spiritually.  There is no thermometer to measure the fervency of one’s faith. There are no x-rays that can be taken to indicate what may be broken in a person’s soul. All one can do is bring the Scripture to God’s people and pray they will respond. This is the faithfulness God expects from those he calls.

In other words, no pastor has the power to diagnose the situation or condition of your soul. All a pastor can do is faithful to God and transparent to those whom they shepherd. A pastor can look for evidence of God working in one’s life. You cannot be touched by our Lord and not be changed. However, our spiritual lives can grow cold. Our spiritual lives can become corrupt. We can be scammed by the enemy of God and thus become instruments of evil. Many, many people with shallow faith and deceived hearts are not living the life we are called to live.

God calls us to transcend, overcome, transform, and be salt and light to this world. If we are not living as people who are an example of light, we will be a people of darkness. We must choose. We must decide. We must have commitment. We must depend on Christ and the Holy Spirit every day, hour, and minute. It is not easy. It is hard, but it is worth it. Don’t be scammed by the enemy. God is counting on you.