Lectionary Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

2 Timothy 1:1-14 An intimate letter

God calls us all into a relationship. There are some people God calls to give their lives to serving the people of God. We say that such individuals are called to ministry. I am one of those people. Paul was one of those people and so was Timothy. To be called to such service is both privilege and pain. Paul, the writer of this letter to Timothy says, “of which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,

which is why I suffer as I do.  (2 Tim. 1:11-12 ESV) Paul did suffer for his faith in the Lord and was eventually killed because of it. Of those who are called, (not those who have found religion to be a nice career or side gig) by God into service I am sure could verify how hard it is.

The truth is, the Christian life in this world is a hard life for many, many followers of Jesus. Why, why is this? First, this world is not how it is supposed to be. This is a world that is in pain and travail.  The Scripture tells us, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (Rom. 8:22 ESV) In such a world we will not find much mercy or grace. Secondly, we have a mortal enemy who hates God and hates us. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8 ESV) This enemy will use lies, deceptions, illusions, and anything else that can be used to hurt, tear down, and destroy. If you ignore this enemy’s existence, you set yourself up for tragedy.

The third reason this life is so hard is that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9 ESV) We have a natural tendency to contribute to the evil and corruption of this world. We are often our own worst enemy. Everyone here struggles with this. You know this. How many times have you committed the same thing you know is wrong? In both the book of Proverbs and the writings of Peter we are told we are like a dog. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” (2 Pet. 2:22 ESV) We continually either by omission or by commission sin. Sin has consequences. Sin produces suffering.

“Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Pet. 4:16 ESV) It is not if we will suffer but when. How we respond to our suffering and pain determines the power it has in our lives. If we believe, really believe, what the Scripture says then we know our destiny is beyond situations and circumstances of pain, suffering, and death. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

(Rom. 8:38-39 ESV)

This is a promise that should fill the faithful with joy and assurance. God’s love is with us, and this will not change unless we ourselves reject it. Paul had confidence that God had and would bless Timothy in his service.

There are two factors that Paul says have powerfully influenced Timothy’s faith. First, Paul makes it clear that Timothy’s family helps strengthen his faith. Secondly, God gave Timothy a gift, a gift of a spirit of power, love, and self-control.

Paul, in praising Timothy’s mother and Grandmother, speaks of the example they had set for Timothy. Paul states, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (2 Tim. 1:5 NRS) Notice the phrase, “a faith the lived (lives) in you.”  The word translated lived or lives is a word meaning, dwelling with, literally dwelling in this family.

Oh, it is so easy to miss this. Saving faith, sanctifying faith, renewal faith takes up dwelling in us. The faith is always there, always ready to strengthen and empower us as God’s called people. This faith isn’t dwelling some of the time, part of the time, but all of the time. It has started and it continues. When will we come to realize everything, we do, we include God in it. And when God is part of everything, then we will succeed even if the world thinks we have failed.

Paul tells Timothy to fan the flame of this faith. The fire of this faith is the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that takes the faith we have and works to shape it into the faith Jesus had. This Holy Spirit, Paul tells Timothy and us in verse fourteen, this Holy Spirit will, “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” (2 Tim. 1:14 NRS)

The Holy Spirit will bring the power of God to us in our time of need, the power to persevere, the power of patience, and the power of promise. This brings up the second factor that supported Timothy’s faith. The gift of God.

Paul says the gift God gave to Timothy was a Spirit. First, Paul brings up the spirit that would and at times does, cripple our faith. This would be a spirit of cowardice, in the face of challenges to believing or living. No, the Spirit God gives is one of a fearless, confident faith, a faith to be trusted in difficult times, a faith of power, love, and self-control. A faith to stand against all the forces, material and spiritual, trying to stop the Good News of Jesus Christ from being proclaimed and lived by all who would listen. God’s spirit, God’s gift are always given to guide all who will listen to the truth. This is the truth as, “it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Tim. 1:10 NRS)

Jesus entered our world fully human and fully God. Jesus died fully human and fully God. Jesus rose from the grave fully human and fully God. Jesus offers us his death on the cross to forgive us of all that has wronged God and others. Jesus gives us a purpose in life, a direction, and hope that can and will sustain the faithful when we need it. In this most intimate letter of a mentor to a student, Paul truly loved with the love only God can give. This same Jesus called Paul and now Paul understands.

In this bond, this time of confession and struggle, Paul shows us the source of his strength, his hope, “for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” (2 Tim. 1:12 NRS).

There is an old hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” in which there is a stanza that goes, “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,

strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!” I believe these word capture what Paul is sharing. I think such intimacy, such caring, such love, such disciple in the face of the enemy.

This Epistle, letter, is offered to us as a witness to where faith can take us. We can learn and be mentored ourselves. We can find help in our community of faith and be of help ourselves. We can begin living the Kingdom now.

We close with these words Paul shares from his heart with Timothy, “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 1:13 NRS) This is our challenge. This is an opportunity. We must decide.

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Lectionary Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 6:6-19 Spiritual Economics

Over the last few months, many of us have experienced what economic inflation can do. I do our family grocery shopping and so I have noticed the increase in prices, sometimes as much as double. We are told by the news media that inflation will be a big issue as to whom people will choose to hold public office. Not who is the most moral, ethical, intelligent, and courageous, but who can help us have more money.

Money is the most sought-after element of human living. The pursuit of money is what drives people in what has been called “the first world countries.” And whereas money might give a person the means to get the material things they want or think that they want, ultimately our wealth will be meaningless, as Paul writes, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out.” Still, for many, many people the desire to obtain and have money is the driving force of their lives.

Jesus told a parable about the desire for wealth and the foolishness of making it life’s priority, “A rich man’s land was very productive. He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool!1 This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared– whose will they be?  “(Lk. 12:20 CSB)

In this passage of Scripture, Paul indicates that wanting more and more, allowing the desire for more, is not a positive influence on our spiritual lives. Paul indicates that a better path to pursue is one of contentment. If you are pursuing contentment as your goal with the material side of your existence rather than desire will live a more satisfying life.

Any person who has gone from a comfortable, seemingly secure life supported by economic means to someone who is not always sure where the money will come from knows that contentment is much more valuable than desire or sorrow for what was lost. This is what Paul gives as a solution in dealing with the insecurity and finiteness of any economic order, seek contentment with what we have been blessed with.

When I hear the word contentment, I think of the feeling I get from a good satisfying meal. I think of the feeling I have after waking from a good restful nap, and the warm feeling I get from a meaningful hug from a loved one. I can only equate the word contentment with good things. Not so much with desire.

Paul says to Timothy and to us, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” What is interesting is that the phrase, “for the love of money” is a single word that has selfish intent and an evil foundation. And what does this love of money do? It will produce a misleading desire that will likely lead to one’s spiritual bankruptcy.

To help avoid this trap we must remember our primary desire should be to seek God. Our primary desire, which if not sought will be replaced by desires that can never bring contentment, must be on grounded in faith and trust. Jesus makes us a promise, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. (Matt. 6:33 CSB)

In verses 11 and 12, Paul exhorts Timothy on what he must do for his own spiritual survival in a world obsessed and dominated by material economic desires. Paul gives Timothy a list of pursuits he should take instead of giving in to the draw of the material. Paul instructs Timothy to seek righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.” (1 Tim. 6:11 CSB)

Why do we have to pursue anything? Why not just go with the flow of life? Well, to do so would be to make a very foolish choice. First, we live in a world hostile to our existence (I believe global warming and the recent pandemic gives this statement credence).

Second, the flow is the easier path Jesus warned his followers not to choose. Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. (Matt. 7:13 CSB) and third, if we just go with the flow, we will miss the opportunities and blessings seeking the will of God brings.

To choose to follow Jesus is not easy. It is a fight of faith. We will fall, not might but will. Get back up. We will fail.

Again, we will not we might. Start again.

Paul writes, “Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy.” And then this warning given by Paul that is as counter-cultural as any statement could ever be, “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Tim. 6:9 CSB)

If one of your goals in life is to be rich, be warned. Seeking this path you are likely setting yourself up for pain, disappointment, fear, and all the struggles a rich person goes through to try to increase wealth or preserve it.

Wealth is not a means of hope. Wealth is responsibility. If a person becomes wealthy without pursuing wealth but as a result of “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness,” then one should have the spiritual maturity to use wealth as a tool in seeking to bring salt and light to others. This is why Paul tells Timothy to, “Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share. Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. (1 Tim. 6:17 CSB)

Money can appear to be a source of hope when our vision is materialistically myopic. Our only real hope lies in, “the only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him, to Him be honor and eternal might.” (1 Tim. 6:16 CSB) Our only hope is in Jesus.

The material economic status of this world will rise and fall. Some of us will make money and some of us will lose money. Some of us will be financially successful and some will not. However, if our focus is not on material economics but on spiritual economics we are those who are “working for storing up for themselves (ourselves) a good reserve for the age to come, so that they may take hold of life that is real. (1 Tim. 6:19 CSB). Yes, the spiritual life is the life that will ultimately determine our eternity.

Imagine if you could know the success Apple or Microsoft were going to have when they first began to sell stock. How rich would you be now? But that is silly. We cannot know the future.

Oh yes, we can. A day is coming, not might be coming but is coming when the material will give be transformed into the eternal. God gives us knowledge. It is up to us if we desire God’s promise or not. How is your eternal portfolio?

Politics and the Pew

“I stop going to church because of the evangelical Christian Church. It is no longer a church of Christ but a political Party.” This is a comment found on a blog I read. How many times have I heard this recently! Why do we not understand, “Again, the Devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” (Matt. 4:8 CSB) Notice that Jesus does not disagree. Political power is a tool of the devil.

Not all politicians are agents of Satan. God has allowed humanity the ability to order communities, to establish rules of order, and God blesses individuals who are called to be like Daniel in this world making it a better place to live in spite of the evil that works against us. I have not met many politicians who demonstrate the love of God and the desire to make life better for others. I am thankful for such people though such people are few and far between.

Seeking power is an aspect of pride. It is also a form of practical atheism. The idea being, “God won’t bring about the change we want then we will do it for God!” So much evil is carried out in this world in the pursuit of power. So many people suffer because of the actions of a few. Yet the temptation to desire to have power resides in all fallen humanity.  

There is a form of idolatry that I am sure Satan loves, political idolatry. There is an evil possibility inside the soul of every human being to want to be like God, to want absolute control. There is in each of us a potential to believe life is about the survival of the fittest and whoever has the most material things in life wins. Do we ever ask ourselves, wins what?

We want to be winners. We want to have our way. We will often elevate a person who fits the worldly mold of success to a leader to be idolized, like one of our former presidents who could be the Messiah of the material. We put people on a pedestal if they become rich, even if their wealth, their economic influence, has hurt others and likely was built on very unethical grounds. Make America great again sounds very egotistic, prideful, and insults the work of those who view greatness other than obtaining the material things we think we want.

When this type of mindset, of this cultural milieu, infects the church as it has seemed to have done with the Christian Nationalism movement, evil rejoices. Evil knows the Scripture as well, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mk. 3:25 CSB) If the church seeks political power, we will lose our ability to minister out of love and faith. We will instead see our fellowship based on political affiliations and upon perceived certainty, we are right only and only we are right in our perspectives and interpretations.

In these last days, it is the wise believer who seeks the path of the humble and compassionate. We cannot let political parties, politicians, or popular political issues dictate or dominate our call to live out our lives in faithful obedience to Jesus.

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)