Dec 26

In the Beginning was the Word

At Christmastime each year, Jesus’ story seems to sneak into our normal stories, to snuggle in between our stories about the warmth of love in the cold of winter and about the importance of giving and receiving gifts. In the same way, Jesus slides into the middle of our histories. His birth in 6 BC or so is thousands of years into civilized human history and thousands of years before our own modern times. Hold up a timeline, and Jesus would be just to the side of the midpoint between us and the Mesopotamians. “In the midst of life was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Except John doesn’t say, “In the midst of life”; he says, “In the beginning was the Word.” In the beginning?! The beginning of what? The beginning of John’s gospel? The beginning of the story of Jesus? No, no. In the beginning. That one! The beginning of the beginning. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That beginning. But how can that be? Jesus’ story comes in the middle; we just covered that. How can someone whose story nestles in the middle of so many of our stories be the one “in the beginning”?
Beginnings are so important, especially when we tell stories. A husband and wife—where is the beginning of their story? When they first meet and can’t stand each other—“In the beginning we couldn’t be in the same room!”? On that date when they both sense that something more is going—“It all started at this great little place down the street from…” ? On the wedding day, when they make their vows—“At first we were both a little nervous, having to talk in front of all those people…”? Along the way, new events—the birth of a child, maybe, or the discovery that a friend had secretly arranged for that first meeting—might make the couple revisit the beginning of their story together: “We thought it began at that restaurant, but really it was very different.”
The birth of Jesus, the entry of the Word of God, the Son of God, into the world—we call this event the Incarnation. Christmas is the celebration, the feast, of the Incarnation, of the moment in human history when the Son of God becomes the Son of Mary, fully human and fully divine. And the Incarnation does happen in the middle of things, in the midst of Israel’s long history, in the heart of human history. But Jesus’ birth, the Incarnation of the Son of God, is no ordinary event. Think about all the Christmas carols we sing. Sure, we’ll sing “It came upon the midnight clear” and “Angels we have heard on high,” but we never sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” or “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we saw thee lie!” More often we sing, “Hark! The herald angels sing,” “Silent night, holy night, all is calm,” and “What child is this.” Why do we do this? Because Jesus’ birth is an event that forces us to rethink all other events. The Incarnation is an event that makes us go back to the beginning, to retell how we’ve told all the stories we thought we knew. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Creation, the universe, this planet, Adam and Eve, you and me, everything begins with the Word.
The Son of God is the Word of God, but not entirely in the way that you and I have words. We learn our words from others, they always come from outside us, even if they eventually make a home in us. God’s Word is not like this. God’s Word comes from God, not from some other source: God from God, light from light. Our words make sense of our world. They help us to order our world, to give reasons for why things are the way they are or for why we do what we do. God’s Word also brings order, not just to this or that life or culture but to the entire creation. Jesus, the Word who is God, is God’s reason for why all things exist, God’s reason for why God does what God does. God’s Word exceeds every word that humans can utter, for John tells us that “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing has come into being.” God’s Word is like a wedding vow; husband and wife say, “I do,” and something new, a marriage, is created, just by their words. Only when God speaks his Word the new thing is not a relationship—it is the universe. “What has come into being in him was—life!”
The birth of Jesus Christ is such a monumental event that our story of the entire universe changes—in the beginning was the Word! And it doesn’t stop there. Once we learn the true beginning of all stories, we are invited to retell our own stories, too. “I used to struggle with alcohol” or “I said some pretty awful things” or “I grew up in the church” or “I never thought much about God until one day” or however else you might start—all need a new beginning: today Jesus is born, and I can live as a child of God. Today Christ is born, and we can walk in his light.
The gospel for us this Christmas Eve is that the story of our Savior’s birth is not meant simply to slip in among all the other stories we tell. His story takes us back to the beginning; his birth is the new beginning of the new creation, the restored creation of God’s salvation and redemption. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Thanks be to God! Amen.

Oct 23

Give to God the Things That Are God’s

Preached By Lynn Davis, Lay Servant at Centre UMC

  

Today, the Lord put it on my heart to expound on the New Testament reading of Matthew 22:15-22. The question the Pharisees tried to use to entrap Jesus…..the question about paying taxes.

The enemies of Christ (the Pharisee’s in this case) wanted to get rid of Jesus either by law or by force and up to this point neither was working.  The law of the land in Jesus’ day was the Roman government and the force of the Jewish people ……came through the hands of its people.

The Romans didn’t concern themselves with the laws of the Jews – they had no respect for the people of Israel, no believe in the One True God or any interest in upholding Israel’s religious laws.

To deal with Jesus by force the Pharisees needed to bring the people of Israel to a place of hatred and contempt – they would be the force needed….the hands that would carry out the acts of violence – they were the ones who administered the beatings of those who rebelled against its religious leaders – they were the force that carried out the stoning deaths – but the problem for the Pharisee’s was that the people saw Jesus as a Prophet and they were unable raise the mob against him.

Up to this point in the gospel of Matthew mostly the chief priests and the elders – men in authority had tried to discredit and put an end to Jesus’ ministry. Now the Pharisees send out their disciples in hopes of tripping Jesus up. They were hoping to catch him with his guard down – they knew he would be suspicious if they themselves addressed him, so they come up with a plan to send their disciples – thinking perhaps… that the disciples would look more like students.  Students asking a question with the intent to learn from the sincere teacher, the way of God in accordance with truth showing no deference or partiality – these is exactly how they greeted him and addressed him in verse 16.

Another important fact that should not go unnoticed is that along with the disciples the Pharisees send along the Herodians. The Herodians were a group among the Jews who supported whole heartedly and were in favor of the ruling power of the Roman Empire.

The question whether it was lawful to pay taxes voluntarily or whether they should insist upon the ancient liberty of their nation… they were the seed of Abraham after all ….God’s chosen people and therefore  should not consent to be in bondage to any man or government …. that included the ruling Roman Empire.

The Pharisee’s plan was to entangle Jesus with his own words and it seemed to be well a though out plan – The question was one that caused great tension between the Jewish nation of Israel and the Roman government, one that brought with it anger, hatred and contempt.

They believed there would be no way Jesus could answer the question without exposing him to the anger and force of the Jews or be in contempt of the laws set by the Roman Empire – but he perceived their wickedness.

Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites – Jesus instructs them to show him the coin – whose head is this, and whose title? The Emperor they respond – then give to the emperor the things that are the Emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.

The scripture tells us they were amazed at his answer – why, because no offense was given. Jesus choose not to Judge or bring division regarding the things of this world, why …..because his kingdom is not of this world.

Today the church is being tested more than ever and the enemy is out to trip us up, to entangle us in the things of this world. With all of the hurt, pain, anger, contempt and tension in our world, our nation, our state, our communities and yes even in our own families and in our own homes…the enemy is trying to ensnare us.  The enemy wants to entrap us into thinking the problems of our day are too big for us to get involved. The enemy who is of this world wants us to think these problems are too big for the church and wants us to believe we cannot make a meaningful impact for the kingdom of God.

Brothers and sisters when we allow our minds to succumb to this way of thinking we are allowing the enemy to defeat and entrap us.  We have taken our eyes off of Christ and we have lost sight of the Kingdom of God.

Some of us unwillingly or even willingly accept the lies from Satan that we are powerless to change or even impact the problems of this world. Some of us struggle with trying to figure out how we can make a difference, while the rest of us cry out to God and ask him to send revival. 

Brothers and sisters we are the revival, we are God’s agents in this world, we are his hands and feet.  How can we keep our eyes on Christ, how can we impact a hurting world for Christ….in Chapter 5 of Matthew, right after the sermon on the mount, Jesus teaches us to be Salt & Light.

You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father (Matt 5:13-16).

Jesus challenged the Chief Priests, the elders Israel, the Pharisees, the men of authority and yes the Church to be the Salt & Light of this earth. He taught his disciples and all those who believed what it meant to be the Light of the World – to not hide from fear and persecution but to set their eyes, their ears and their hearts on the Kingdom of God… not on the things of this world.

1.     To not be ashamed to be a follower of Jesus Christ

 
2.     To let go of the fear of being rejected or persecuted by friends, family, coworkers and even strangers because of our love for Jesus and our Father in Heaven who sent Him

3.     To hold steadfast in our faith…not only in the good times but in times of trials and temptations

4.     To love our enemies

5.     To pray to our Father in heaven in sincerity and in love

6.     To do for others – acts of love and mercy

7.     To not worry about the things of this world but to build up a store house of heavenly treasure where moths and rust cannot destroy.

Yesterday I had the blessing of attending Mt. Zion’s Women’s Conference, the title and theme of the conference was “Reaching for Eternity.”   I was reminded of the question posed to Jesus about paying taxes but  more importantly I had a greater appreciation for his response…..give to Caesar the things that are Caesars and give to God the things that are Gods.

The things of this world (the things of Caesar) very often distract us from an abundant life with God. It stands in the way of the race set before us, the prize found in reaching for eternity…..Brothers and Sisters it is the giving to God the things that are Gods that allows us to reach for eternity.

Beloved let us be the Salt that preserves and keeps this world from rotting away, let us be the Salt that leads to a thirst for Living Water….Let us be the Light that illuminates and rids the world of darkness, let our good deeds shine out for all to see so that everyone will praise our heavenly Father.

Closing Prayer: Father we join with all of heaven this morning…Great is your name and worthy of our praise – let your people tremble, let the earth quake let all of creation worship your Holy name  for you Lord God are Holy and worthy of all our praise!  Teach us your ways of Lord so that we might reach for eternity, and win the race set before us and take hold of the price for which Christ Jesus died for us to have.  Amen!

 Footnote:

I would like to offer a small note of praise and thanksgiving for the resources available when studying and seeking God’s heart. I would especially like to acknowledge Matthew Henry’s Commentary made available online, through www.biblegateway.com; and Mt. Zion Church in Churchville MD for their Reaching for Eternity Women’s Conference – guest speaker, Tracy Tiernan who inspired some of the content for this sermon.
Sep 29

Strike the Rock

            Two years ago I was in the mountains of Western Maryland for a week of vacation at my family’s stomping grounds just west of Deep Creek, near Oakland. My mom’s family is all from out that way, and we’ve made annual pilgrimages since I was a kid, but it was my first time back in years. A lot was familiar; the eighty-year-old cabins hadn’t changed much. Some things, however, were different. The biggest difference that I remember was stepping out to take in the mountain landscape and seeing, about 10 miles away, gigantic wind mills cluttering the skyline. New construction for cleaner energy. They were huge, and they were ugly.

            Now, I’m a fan of renewable energy, and I’m not going to play the “Not in My Backyard” card. I don’t want those turbines torn down. They’re better than the destruction wrought by the coal industry, which has blown the tops off mountains just to get to hidden deposits of anthracite. Still, I’m saddened that the price of this renewable energy source is damage to the beauty of this special place.

            I couldn’t help thinking about that place and those wind turbines when I read the lesson from Exodus 17. At first I couldn’t figure out why—the lesson is about water, not wind. Eventually I realized what it was: in Exodus 17, the Lord says to Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” The Israelites are thirsty. They need water. And God tells Moses to strike—not to ask, not to touch, but to strike the rock with his staff. Even this good thing, this necessary thing for God’s own people, comes at the expense of another part of creation. The rock must be struck.

            The rock must be struck for water so that they people may drink. The ground must be furrowed to plant food so they can eat. The trees must be cleared so that they can build shelter against the elements. It seems that we human beings can have nothing without attacking some other part of creation. In fact, I heard recently that with every major human migration has come an equally significant event of species extinction—whenever a large group of human beings moves from one place to another, we inevitably destroy a species that had been thriving in our new location. Wherever we go, we strike the rock—or whatever else is at hand—for our own needs.

            Friends, this is not how things ought to be. God did not create the world so that human beings could destroy it. In fact, I imagine that if the Israelites had found themselves in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, instead of in the wilderness, Moses could have walked right up to the rock and said, “Excuse me, rock, but could I trouble you for some water?” and the rock would have gladly bubbled forth streams delicious and refreshing. The world of Moses and the Israelites, however, is not the Garden of Eden. Their world is our world, the world after sin has entered. Moses must strike the rock.

            The reality of human sin is three dimensional. Sure, our sin messed things up pretty badly between us and God—the first dimension. But it also dramatically altered the way we relate to other human beings—the second dimension—and to the rest of creation (the third dimension). We see all three dimensions even in the seven verses out of Exodus 17 we just read. The Israelites, who can’t seem to go forty-eight hours without finding a reason to doubt the Lord, start complaining that they are just dying of thirst. You’ve heard of doubting Thomas, right? Here we have doubting Judah, doubting Manasseh, doubting Benjamin, doubting Israel. It’s as if they’re saying, “There’s no way God could save us now.” Sin, in the form of stupid doubt, has crept in again, rupturing the relationship between Israel and the Lord. The first dimension of sin.

            Israel’s complaining targets Moses, too. Moses, their leader, the one who stood up to Pharaoh, the one by whose arms the sea parted for them and then swallowed up the Egyptians, Moses the great prophet; the Israelites say he’s brought them into the wilderness to die. They’re angry. So angry that Moses tells God he’s afraid the Israelites will stone him to death if something doesn’t change quickly. Relationships among human beings, damaged almost beyond repair. The second dimension of sin.

            Then there is the rock Moses strikes. The third dimension of sin.

            It’s unfortunate that environmentalism has become such a political football. For Christians, the matter should be pretty straightforward: first, we are called to good stewardship of creation; second, because of our sin, we cannot completely avoid damaging other parts of creation in this life. And when we do harm creation, we shouldn’t celebrate it as if God had made us to be tyrants of his creation. At least the Israelites have the sense to name the rock Massah and Meribah, an enduring reminder of Israel’s sin in the wilderness. Lament is also faithful worship.

            There’s one more thing about this story, something that really gets me. Did you notice where the Lord is in this story? Not what God says or does—whereGod is. God doesn’t remain in heaven, distant from all that’s taking place in his creation. The Lord says to Moses, “Go ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.” God places himself directly in Moses’ path, on the very rock Moses must strike for the people to drink. As he always does, God places himself on the side of his creation, taking on the same burden that fallen creation must bear.

            Imagine. Moses is in the middle of the wilderness with a weary people, a people parched and impatient. They have risen up against him, demanding something to drink. Moses doesn’t have a drop more of water than anyone else—they are in a desert, after all. He turns to the Lord, afraid and frustrated. God responds to Moses and to his people’s bitter complaints with a generous offer of water. All Moses has to do is walk over to a rock, accompanied by a few of Israel’s other leaders, and hit the rock with his staff.

            So Moses chooses elders, good people who can witness to God’s faithfulness and calm things down. He gathers them together; they walk toward the rock. And there, standing between them and the font they so desperately need, is the Lord. There’s no way around. If Moses wants to save his people, he’ll have to strike the rock. And if he strikes the rock, he’ll have to strike the Lord first. So Moses walks up to the rock, looks his God in the face, raises his staff, and strikes the rock of his salvation. Water—just water this time, though one day it will be water and blood—water gushes forth, streams in the desert run as never before, fountains pour out from the rock for the sake of the people of God. And that rock was Christ.
Aug 04

You Give Them Something to Eat

            In the middle of the lush fields and summer green of Forest Hill, the desert can seem a long way off. The closest desert, as far as I can tell, is somewhere out west, Texas, maybe, or New Mexico or Colorado. Here it’s easy to forget what deserts are like—or to pretend that they don’t exist.

            The truth is, deserts are a lot closer than we care to think. In fact, I imagine just about all of us have been in some kind of a desert at some point: the desert of loneliness, the desert of despair, the desert of depression, the desert of sin. One of the scariest deserts to face is the food desert. Recently, the term “food desert” has been used to name neighborhoods and towns that have no easy access to food, or at least to good food, because grocery stores and other food providers won’t set up shop. Often these food deserts are in urban areas like Baltimore or Philadelphia. As close as these cities and their food deserts are, they still seem a million miles from Forest Hill, a small town of a few thousand people that has at least three large, well-stocked grocery stores, not to mention produce stands and even farms. But food deserts aren’t just found in the cities. Every time a person goes hungry, she finds herself in a food desert. Every time someone must choose between paying the electric bill and buying groceries, he finds himself in a food desert. Every time children arrive at school without having breakfast, they and their families find themselves in a food desert. Friends, we are surrounded by the desert.

            In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus enters his own desert—well, wilderness, really, not, strictly speaking, a desert. Jesus finds himself in the desert for the same reason Moses enters the desert a thousand years earlier—he’s fleeing from a Pharaoh. In Moses’ day, it was an actual Pharaoh, an iron-fisted ruler who cruelly sought to destroy the Israelites. We’ll be hearing more about this Pharaoh in just a few more weeks. In Jesus’ day, the “Pharaoh” is King Herod, not an Egyptian but a puppet of the Roman Empire. In the passage just before our gospel reading this morning, Pharaoh, I mean King Herod, has executed John the Baptist. Jesus hears about John’s death and heads for the hills near the Sea of Galilee.

            Like Moses, however, Jesus does not enter the desert alone. Oh, he means to. He’s escaping, seeking some time to himself to recover from the news of the Baptist’s death. But Israel follows Jesus into the wilderness as surely as they followed Moses across the Red Sea, disrupting Jesus’ plans for some needed respite.

            Jesus, of course, does not send them away: he saw them “and he had compassion for them,” Matthew tells us. Jesus doesn’t accept their presence reluctantly; he feels for them. He loves them. He heals them. And then he feeds them.

            This last part is the part most of us probably know, the feeding of the 5000. The disciples come to Jesus near the end of the day and say, “Jesus, it’s getting late. Send them away; they need food. The roads aren’t safe at night.” The disciples realize that they and the crowds are in the middle of a food desert.

            Jesus says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” You can imagine how the disciples would have panicked—where could twelve men find food for 10, 15, maybe even 20,000 people? After all, they are in the middle of a food desert. There’s nothing here. We have nothing to offer them; only these five loaves of bread and two fish.

            “It’s enough,” Jesus says.

            “Enough? For 20,000 people?! It’s not even enough for us twelve!”

            “Bring them here to me.”

Last spring, when I learned that I would be appointed to Centre, two things got me excited about serving here. First, the District Superintendent told me that you have weekly communion. I love that. I became a pastor so that I could preside at the Eucharist. Second, the District Superintendent told me you had a food pantry. Feeding hungry people is so important to the church’s witness and mission in the world. I’ve been to the food pantry twice already, and I am so proud of how our church dedicates a space in our community building to share food with people from our community who are lost in food deserts. And it’s not just our own pantry. We have members who serve those without homes at local shelters and who work with Mason-Dixon Community Services. I’m excited about the ways we serve our community.

Maybe you don’t see a connection between celebrating communion every week and serving our hungry neighbors every week, but I do. And so does Jesus. Look at what happens when the disciples give him the five loaves and two fish: Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples.” Sound familiar? It’s the same thing Jesus does in the Upper Room. Matthew 26:26 reads, “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’”

It’s also the same thing that happens every Sunday here at Centre: we offer to our Lord bread and the cup, we give thanks, and we break the bread, trusting by faith that it somehow is Christ’s body, broken for us. The bread for the 5,000 and the bread for Holy Communion are united in Christ’s acts of thanksgiving and sacrifice.

The past few weeks we listened to parables from Jesus about life in the garden. We heard about weeds and wheat, fields and seeds, treasure and pearls. All of it leads up to the feeding of the 5000. Matthew places this story just after these parables. It’s as if he—and, of course, the Holy Spirit—was trying to tell us, “The bounty of God’s garden is for the good of God’s people. God’s bounty is for the physical and spiritual needs of his people. Feed on Christ in thanksgiving at his Supper; then, go and feed his people, your neighbors. Offer to Christ what you have received from God, and he will bless it and return it to you, for the sake of others.”

            Two weeks ago, at the pantry, our church served three families who found themselves in food deserts. Last week we waited two hours, and nobody came by. If our pantry only reached one family for the entire year, it would still be worthwhile.

And yet I am haunted by Jesus’ words: “You give them something to eat.” Is God calling us to do even more with our pantry? Is Jesus heading out into nearby deserts ahead of us? Do we feel compelled to follow him? In our weekly communion service, where all who come are fed, all receive the same thing, and all are given enough of what they need, is God giving us a glimpse of his vision for this vital ministry?

Jesus had compassion for the crowd. “He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking up the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” So may it be with us. Amen.