The Good Fight | Proper 21

1 Timothy 6:6-19

6 Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy with what you already have. 7 We didn’t bring anything into the world and so we can’t take anything out of it: 8 we’ll be happy with food and clothing. 9 But people who are trying to get rich fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.

11 But as for you, man of God, run away from all these things. Instead, pursue righteousness, holy living, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness. 12 Compete in the good fight of faith. Grab hold of eternal life—you were called to it, and you made a good confession of it in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I command you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and Christ Jesus, who made the good confession when testifying before Pontius Pilate. 14 Obey this order without fault or failure until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 The timing of this appearance is revealed by God alone, who is the blessed and only master, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 He alone has immortality and lives in light that no one can come near. No human being has ever seen or is able to see him. Honor and eternal power belong to him. Amen.

17 Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. 19 When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life. (CEB)

The Good Fight

On this Sunday, which is Proper 21 or the 26th Week of Ordinary Time, we’re just over two-thirds of the way through the Season after Pentecost, which is also known as Ordinary Time. Easter was twenty-three Sundays ago. Advent begins nine Sundays from now, which means that Christmas is only 13 weeks away. (I think I just heard the child in each of us squeal with delight while the adult in us gasped in panic).

The season of Ordinary Time gets its name, not because it’s ordinary and mundane, but because it’s counted using ordinal numbers. Yet, there is something mundane about this longest-of-seasons in the Christian Year. It’s a long lull of regular-old-Sundays that is bracketed between the high feasts of Easter and Pentecost and the Advent-Christmas celebrations just around the corner. Even the sanctuary is ordinary. It seems like the paraments and vestments have been green forever. Attendance hasn’t exactly been stellar. Giving over the summer has largely bottomed out. Coming to worship in this extended season can feel mundane or common and, at times, even rote or lackluster.

In this way, I think the church’s liturgical calendar mirrors life. Life is not all celebration. Sometimes life is just… ordinary. In fact, most of life is ordinary. So, it’s appropriate that, in the ordinary time of the church, we negotiate these mundane matters of the stuff-of-life. After all, we’re each still learning how to live in response to our baptism, and we’re each still learning how we might fully participate with God in the ordinary things of life.

Because God is in the ordinary stuff of life. That’s why our sacrament of holy communion uses elements as simple as bread and juice, and baptism uses something as common as water. It’s just ordinary stuff—stuff we can eat, drink, and wash in—but it’s stuff that we need to live. Ordinary, yet necessary.

Some Biblical scholars speculate that this text is reminding Timothy of the confession he made at his baptism when it states, “Grab hold of eternal life—you were called to it, and you made a good confession of it in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12 CEB). Baptism is the sign and seal that declares we have given our life to following the ways of God, and that we have grabbed hold of the eternal life to which God calls every person.

So, to what kind of life does God call the baptized to live? What does it mean to live our baptism?

We often think of eternal life as some future thing that we receive after we die. It’s something for which we hope. We hope to make the cut and gain entrance through the pearly gates. But we’re told to grab hold of eternal life. Maybe, eternal life can—to some degree—be taken hold of now. Jesus declared that the kingdom of God has come near (c.f. Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15). In Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God’s life-giving presence has been established in the world, now. God’s presence shapes our perspective on life and on the stuff of life. Things are passing. Things are fleeting. But God is not and, because of God’s presence with us, neither are we.

One of the matters the author of the letter addresses with Timothy is false teaching. Verse 5 says that certain teachers thought that godliness was a way to earn a profit. Maybe these people were the Joel Osteens, Benny Hinns, and Robert Tiltons of their day who preach a prosperity gospel and think that the practice of their faith is a way to financial success. Whatever their false teachings were, the author of 1 Timothy takes them to task. Godliness—which is faithful living—is profitable, but not in the way the false teachers think.

Faithful living is not about gaining wealth. I cringed when I recently heard a pastor say, “I found a way to monetize everything I do.” If money is the the goal, then it’s an impoverished life.

I’ve heard people misquote the statement in 1 Timothy 6:10 more times than I’ve heard it quoted correctly. Oftentimes, it comes out of people’s mouth as Money is the root of all evil. But money is not the root of all evil. Money is an inanimate object that, in and of itself, is incapable of evil. The text says, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10a CEB). Not the root of all evil, but a lot of different kinds of evil. Not money, itself, but where and how we hold money in our heart and mind—it’s if we have money rooted within us that it becomes the root of all kinds of evil. Money, itself, is neither good nor bad. It’s the love of money that results in many and various kinds of evil.

The love of money can plunge people into ruin and destruction. And, it’s important to note that the word people in verse 9 is general and inclusive. The author says that it’s not only to those who are attempting to gain wealth that are being plunged into ruin and destruction, but also other people whose lives are destroyed by a person’s pursuit of money. There is collateral damage to other people. Remember the movie You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks? The big, wealthy Fox Books company—owned by Tom Hanks’ character Joe Fox—was putting small, independent bookstores out of business. When Fox Books built a new store across the street, Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen, was worried and terrified that her bookstore would be next. Of course, the movie makes the destruction of Kathleen’s entire livelihood—and the livelihoods of her employees—okay in the end by having Kathleen and Joe Fox hook up. So goes the imagination of Hollywood.

It’s a story that has played out over and over in the real world. Walmart has put more small business out of business than can be counted. The pursuit of wealth and more wealth by the wealthy destroys livelihoods and plunges people into ruin. All for the sake of the love of money and trying to get rich. When we aren’t careful, when getting rich is our goal, such pursuits do ruin people and destroy community.

The love of money is idolatry. Idolatry is a sneaky kind of sin. It’s grip on us can be subtle, but it’s always choking. Caring too much about money, possessions, wealth, or property is idolatry. Idolatry doesn’t only come in the form of a love of money, it can be a love of any thing that gets in the way of our freedom to live fully as baptized people.

Idolatry can even sneak its way into the church. Every congregation I’ve served has struggled over what kind of ministry to allow in their building. On one hand, the congregation wants to protect and maintain its property. On the other hand, the congregation wants to use their property to do life-changing ministry. One of my previous congregations is arguing over their preschool program, of all things. On one side, some are complaining that it doesn’t make any money for the church while the church is subsidizing the use of space. On the other side of the argument, some congregation members are saying, Are you kidding? You’re worried about how many paper towels they’re using? This is ministry with kids!

Rev. Rudy Rasmus is a co-pastor at Saint John’s Downtown Church in Houston. I like what he once said about his church: “When we get new carpet, the first thing we do is eat on it. It’s hard for that carpet to become an idol when someone spills a plate of biscuits and gravy on it.” It’s important for every congregation to take care of its property. Yet, as Rudy Rasmus noted, if people care so much about the carpet that they don’t want to do ministry because it might get dirty or look used… we need to consider what’s really important in light of our baptism.

Museums are meant to look immaculate. Church buildings are meant to look lived in.

Idolatry can show up in many forms. When does patriotism blind us of our responsibility to love and care for people from other nations? When does the traveling sports team take precedence over our worship of and service to God? When does our worry about having enough money strangle our ability to give generously?

These questions don’t come with easy or simple answers. They require us to think and consider. One of my HazMat professors once said, “The difference between a poison and a remedy is dosage. I could kill you with sugar” (Prof. Dan Murray). It’s a point that runs kind of along the same lines as the difference between idolatry and faithfulness. At what point, in our caring for things, do those things become poisonous to our Christian life? That’s the matter to which we have to give careful and thoughtful evaluation. Different people are going to draw that line in different place. Nothing should come before God. God wants us to love God and love people. Anything that gets in the way of those two things is idolatry.

One misconception that I want to clear up about this text is that this is not condemnation for being rich. Wealth, itself, is not condemned. Rather, it’s an improper attitude toward wealth that’s problematic. Those who have wealth are instructed to make proper use of it. “Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19 CEB).

When those who are wealthy learn to give and give generously, then any love of money gets cut off at the root. Whether we’re wealthy or not, our pursuit as the baptized should be righteousness, holy living, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness. All of these things have their root in love for God and love for other people. When we compete in the good fight of faith, when we fight the good fight, by fleeing from a way of life that is destructive to ourselves and to others, that’s when we begin to grab hold of the eternal life to which we were called. It takes dedication and hard work, like an athlete training their body. But eternal life—life that really is life—is what we’re training ourselves to experience in this world and in the world to come.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Paul’s Story | Proper 19

1 Timothy 1:12-17

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So he appointed me to ministry 13 even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. 14 Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. 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. 16 But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.  (CEB)

Paul’s Story

This is, in brief, Paul’s story. It’s very personal and, in it, he reveals both his sin and his experience of God’s overflowing grace. Paul conveys to Timothy his own reflections on how and why God called him into ministry. Paul used to speak against Jesus Christ, attack Christian people, and acted violently and pridefully. Yet, even in his ignorance and unbelief, he received mercy from God. Paul, a sinner—who calls himself the worst of them all—received mercy. He tells Timothy that his story can serve as an example of the patience of Jesus Christ, and for those who will yet believe in Jesus Christ. If Jesus can show mercy to Saul of Tarsus, then we can be assured that the rest of us sinners can receive God’s mercy, too.

In our Tuesday morning Bible study, the question was asked about whether or not we would believe it if someone we knew to be a rather horrible person suddenly said they’d seen the light and claimed a conversion experience. I don’t think we quite came to a conclusion in the study, but I think we’d know the truth of the person’s conversion claim by their words and actions following their experience of God’s mercy. After all, a tree is known by its fruit (c.f. Matthew 12:33; Luke 6:43-44; also Matthew 3:10, 7:17-19; Luke 3:9). Our faith is shown by our actions (c.f. James 2:18-26). So, much like Paul’s experience of the mercy of Jesus Christ, I’d expect that we’d begin to see some recognizable changes in the person.

Do you remember Paul’s conversion story? It begins in Acts 7 when Stephen was stoned to death by the Jerusalem Council. The people who murdered Stephen placed their coats in the care of Saul (c.f. Acts 7:58). Saul approved of Stephen’s murder (Acts 8:1), and he began to wreak havoc on the church by entering house after house to drag women and men off to prison because of their belief in Jesus Christ (c.f. Acts 8:3).

Ironically, Saul’s harassment of the church forced the Christians to scatter, which had the opposite effect Saul and the Jerusalem Council wanted. The Christians preached the good news of Jesus Christ everywhere they went. Saul went to the High Priest and obtained letters that granted him permission to arrest and take to Jerusalem anyone in Damascus whom he found that belonged to the Way, as the early church was described.

During his journey to Damascus, light from heaven surrounded him, and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” (Acts 9:4 CEB). The speaker of that voice identified himself as Jesus, and told Saul to go into the city where he’d be told what to do.

The others who were traveling with Saul stood there speechless. They heard the voice, but they didn’t see anyone. They picked Saul up from the ground, but he couldn’t see. For three days, Saul was blind. He didn’t eat. He didn’t drink. He only saw a vision of a man named Ananias laying hands on him to restore his sight.

Meanwhile, Ananias was less than thrilled about what Jesus instructed him to do. Everyone had heard about Saul. Everyone knew how dangerous he was. Everyone knew what he’d done to the church in Jerusalem, and everyone knew he’d arrived in Damascus—with the authority of the chief priests—to do the same thing to believers there. But the Lord told Ananias, “Go!” (Acts 9:15). So, Ananias walked into a potential Lion’s Den, laid his hands on Saul of Tarsus, and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17 CEB).

Flakes fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again, and Saul was baptized. From there, Saul went on to become one of the foremost evangelists and theologians of the church. He carried the name of Jesus “before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites” just as it had been declared (Acts 9:15 CEB).

But conversion is often a slow process of continuing to make mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Saul didn’t suddenly emerge from Damascus as the towering figure of Paul that we all think of when we think about him. No! As Dr. Mike Rynkiewich pointed out to me, look what Saul did in Damascus. We’re told he immediately started preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, declaring the truth of Jesus as God’s Son, and arguing his way across the city. He confused the Jews in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

Saul had this conversion experience where he changed his mind, but his heart was lagging behind in that change. He had come to know the truth about Jesus as God’s Son, but he didn’t yet understand how to love people as Jesus teaches his followers to do. Instead, Saul went around beating people over the head with his proofs and arguing people under the table.

In other words, he was still being an arrogant jerk. He was still very much the same Saul he’d been before his conversion. The only difference was the focus of his mission. Instead of beating up Christians and hauling them off to prison for being wrong, he was arguing Jews into submission for being wrong. Saul was right. He knew he was right. And by golly, if you dared to tangle with him, then you were going to find out just how right he was and how wrong you were. I imagine Saul walking around Damascus with a shirt that said, “COME AT ME, BRUH!” and a sign that said, “DECONSTRUCTION ZONE.”

Saul was so potent and abrasive in his arguments that he caused the Jews in Damascus to hatch a plot to kill him! The Jews were watching the city gates—‘cause they weren’t gonna let this punk go—so Saul had to be lowered through an opening in the city wall in a basket.

Saul escaped to Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples there, but they were all so afraid of him that they wouldn’t let him in. Saul was so bad, he’d caused such damage to the church in Jerusalem, that the disciples didn’t believe that Saul was really a disciple! It took Barnabas to vouch for Saul and speak on his behalf to even get Saul in the door.

But Saul was still going around Jerusalem getting into debates and arguing people under the table. I mean, the guy might have had a conversion experience, but he didn’t learn quickly. The Jews in Jerusalem were out to kill Saul, too (big surprise!) so the church had to shuffle him out of the city. They escorted him to the harbor at Caesarea and sent him home to Tarsus. What’s hilarious is that, after Saul leaves the region, the very next verse says, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace” (Acts 9:31a CEB).

I mean, can you imagine this scenario? It’s like when Mom and Dad finally get the kids to sleep after grandma and grandpa got them all sugared up on soft drinks and candy, and they sit in the couch, put their feet up on the coffee table and both heave deep sighs of relief. Thank goodness that’s over!

Saul told Timothy, “I was proud” (1 Timothy 12:13 CEB). Other translations render that same word as violent, insulting, injurious, arrogant. Paul confesses that his sin was pride—the kind of arrogance that leads to violence, insult, and injury of others.

This is Paul’s story, and it’s important to remember that this is Paul’s story. Paul’s story is not everyone’s story. Other people’s encounters with God’s mercy and grace are just as potent and significant even as they are different. Paul needed to be set free from his acts of violent persecution, pride, and unbelief.

Martin Luther used Paul’s confession of arrogance, among other texts, to describe a courtroom drama where a man stands before God as the judge and attempts to attain his own salvation. Instead, the man is undone by God who reveals the man’s impotence and pride. But, instead of punishing the man, God extends mercy and declares the arrogant sinner to be righteous in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The root sin of humanity is arrogance.

Yet, this view is very one-sided. Theologians like Valerie Saiving have called our attention to the truth that some “forms of sin…have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as ‘pride’ and ‘will to power.’ They are better suggested by such terms as…distractibility, and diffuseness…dependence on others for one’s self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence…in short, underdevelopment or negation of the Self” (Feasting on the Word Year C, vol.4, 64).

Paul’s story illustrates how God’s mercy in Jesus Christ exposes and condemns the violence of the oppressor. For Saul, that violence was expressed outward. For many people that violence is expressed inward toward the self. It can be active or passive violence: accepting abuse from others, self-harming behaviors, or the squandering or dissipating of oneself for others. Women and men can both have self-effacing tendencies.

I know that’s one of my own struggles. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like it when the boat rocks. And I have a tendency to sacrifice my own desires and needs just to make sure there’s no turbulence shaking the appearance of my exterior placidity. That’s my default. And it can be downright self-harming, because inside, I’m neither placid nor peaceful. My self-effacing tendencies lead to anger toward myself and bitterness toward others.

Remember Martha in Luke 10:38-42? Stephanie Smith notes that “Martha dissipated herself when she accepted the social role as hostess and denied her true need. Jesus exposed her unbelief as it was expressed in her worry and distraction and challenged her to choose ‘the better part,’ even when it defied social norms” (Feasting on the Word Year C, vol.4, 64). Jesus called Martha to stop her activity because, unlike Paul, it was her activity that was an act of violence against herself. Martha’s activity was a denial of her need for the sake of the other. Such self-denial can become the very bars of a person’s prison cell that disallow their true need from ever being met. That is absolutely destructive.

While Saul experienced salvation as a move from active violence to passive acceptance, for many people, passive acceptance is the very means of their destruction. Abnegation, in that sense, is not virtuous, but violence. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his message. “By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:40-42 CEB).

Saul’s story serves as an example of how even the worst of sinners can experience God’s mercy and learn to become disciples of Jesus Christ. But it is not a one-size-fits-all story. We each experience God’s mercy in different ways because we, ourselves, are each different from the other. Yet, God’s mercy can free us of our pride and our violence, whether it’s directed outward or inward.

“This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’” (1 Timothy 1:15 CEB). How that salvation works its way through our lives: how it changes our minds, how it changes our hearts, how it changes our perceptions of others, and how it changes our perceptions of our self, will be different for each of us as it takes effect. We can have confidence that God will be patient with us. So, we should be patient with others as God is patient with others. Because we’re all on this journey together.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Potter | Proper 18

Jeremiah 18:1-11

1 Jeremiah received the LORD’s word: 2 Go down to the potter’s house, and I’ll give you instructions about what to do there. 3 So I went down to the potter’s house; he was working on the potter’s wheel. 4 But the piece he was making was flawed while still in his hands, so the potter started on another, as seemed best to him. 5 Then the LORD’s word came to me: 6 House of Israel, can’t I deal with you like this potter, declares the LORD? Like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, house of Israel! 7 At any time I may announce that I will dig up, pull down, and destroy a nation or kingdom; 8 but if that nation I warned turns from its evil, then I’ll relent and not carry out the harm I intended for it. 9 At the same time, I may announce that I will build and plant a nation or kingdom; 10 but if that nation displeases and disobeys me, then I’ll relent and not carry out the good I intended for it. 11 Now say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem: This is what the LORD says: I am a potter preparing a disaster for you; I’m working out a plan against you. So each one of you, turn from your evil ways; reform your ways and your actions. (CEB)

The Potter

My only experience with doing pottery was in shop class at Oak Hill Middle School where I made this dreadful blue blob. I think I tried to make a lid for it, but it didn’t work out at all. I mean, my dreadful blob works to hold stuff, but it’s not exactly a work of art. It’s not pretty. And, it’s only useful if you can stand the dreadful sight of it on your nightstand or coffee table. Yet, it does have one remarkable property. It’s so dreadful and blobby that, as a candy jar, it will actually keep kids out of your stash.

IMG_20190908_114412

Sometimes, the word of the Lord needs to be seen in order to understand it properly. Jeremiah does what many other prophets have done before him. God tells him to go somewhere, so he obediently goes. What Jeremiah sees is a potter bent over his potter’s wheel working a lump of clay. But something went wrong with the piece while the potter worked it. So, the potter lumped it together and started over on a new piece.

What Jeremiah sees becomes an illustration for the Lord’s word. House of Israel, can’t I deal with you like this potter, declares the LORD? Like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, house of Israel!” (Jeremiah 18:6 CEB).

As much as we might like the song, Change My Heart, O God, where we sing, “You are the potter. I am the clay. Mold me and make me. This is what I pray,” God’s word to Jeremiah is about the community of faith. Yet, while God’s word is focused on the community, it’s fair to say that any word about a community is also a word about the individuals who make up that community. In fact, when God calls for repentance, God says, “So each one of you, turn from your evil ways; reform your ways and your actions” (Jeremiah 18:11 CEB).

This is, very clearly, a call for the community of faith to repent. The context behind the oracle Jeremiah speaks is the covenant between God and the people of Judah and the faithfulness of the nation to that covenant. The political leadership of Judah knew there was the potential for trouble. Egypt and Babylon were the rising powers in the region. King Jehoiakim switched his allegiance back and forth between Egypt and Babylon. He killed the prophet Uriah and burned the scroll Jeremiah had written that contained the oracles of God.

While the king, the court, and the people were arguing politics, Jeremiah and the prophets reminded the people that a king still reigned. The allegiance of the people should be to God, Israel’s King, rather than other nations. By flirting with political alliances instead of choosing faithfulness to the covenant, Judah was not following through with their end of the covenant.

God warns the people, through Jeremiah, that disaster looms just over the horizon. The Babylonians are out there. And if Judah doesn’t shape up, they’ll come, the people will be taken captive, and Jerusalem will be destroyed. Maybe the leaders of the community were convinced that the blessing of God upon them was their entitlement rather than a gift. Maybe the leaders didn’t believe religious nonsense would do any good in the real world. Whatever their reasons for ignoring Jeremiah and the other prophets, the nation of Judah would learn a hard lesson through disastrous defeat and exile.

The people of Judah later understood their exile as a consequence of their own sin. They believed that the destruction of their nation happened because they didn’t abide by the covenant. In one sense, that’s kind of refreshing. When people admit they were wrong and, as a consequence of their past failures, determine to do what’s right. That’s refreshing. To some extent, it could be viewed as a sign of spiritual maturity.

There are people in the world—we all know someone—who are never wrong, who never make mistakes, and are never at fault. At least, according to them. They’ll never admit a mistake (even when the National Weather Service says they were wrong).

It’s easy for us to sit in judgment of Judah and think, Well, why didn’t they just choose faithfulness to God? But we do this, too. We Americans are often guilty of the very same activity. We might even feel that our blessing by God as a nation is an entitlement. Whether we identify as a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, or something else, some of us are guilty of putting more faith in our political parties than in adhering to God’s requirements.

In fact, what American Christians often do is substitute one or the other political party’s agendas for God’s requirements. We think that our party of choice is the so-called “Christian vote” while voting for the other party is patently “unchristian.” Somehow, we get our religious and our political values crossed and—somehow—we begin to think they’re the same thing.

Let me be clear. No vote for any political party or any individual representing a political party is the so-called “Christian vote.” We should each vote our conscience, yes, but we don’t get to compare our vote to a vote for Jesus. The politics of Jesus are beyond the ability—let alone the will—of any current political party to meet. The values of Jesus and the dominion of God are in direct conflict with some parts of every political party’s values and policies. Belong to a political party if you want to. There’s probably nothing wrong with that. Vote for your party of choice. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong when we walk away from whatever vote we cast feeling morally superior. When we do that, we have supplanted God’s values with the bent values of human politics. And they aren’t the same thing.

You’ll hear me preach against policies and policy makers of both major political parties. And, I know that some people don’t like that. I’ve even been told by a member of our congregation that pastors should stay out of politics. If anyone can find a Biblical precedent for it, I’ll be glad to stop. But Jeremiah and the other prophets were preaching against the King and the King’s policies, as did prophets throughout the Old and New Testaments (i.e. John the Baptist).

Jeremiah wanted the nation of Judah to stop worrying about politics, about which alliance to make with which nation, and just be faithful to God. Focus on what’s truly important. What if the people of the church in America were to do the same? What if, at the beginning and at the end of every day, we simply got to the business of living faithfully to God by living out the very things God requires of us?

God requires a lot. Not just a small part, but everything. Faithfulness requires our whole selves. The reason Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light is because his yoke and burden are love. But love isn’t some small thing. It takes all that we have and all that we are to really love, and to love well. I believe I’ve said in a previous sermon that some political policies might be perfectly legal, but they aren’t loving. If they aren’t loving, then those policies are out of alignment with God’s values and should be opposed even by members of the political party that put it forth. Standing up for what is right, and standing against what is wrong regardless of political affiliation: that’s Christian faithfulness.

Jeremiah’s oracle of the potter is loaded with Deuteronomic thought, which states that when we sin, we suffer, and when we suffer, it’s because we’ve sinned. Judah has failed to keep the covenant, so Judah will experience disaster.

Yet, there are other voices in the Scriptures that sing to a beat counter to Deuteronomic thought. Job was blameless, yet he suffered unimaginable loss. The Hebrew people became slaves in Egypt, not because of their sin, but because a new Pharaoh forgot Joseph and feared the Hebrews’ numbers. God delivered the Israelites from slavery not because the people were righteous, but because God is righteous.

The refugees from Syria and central American nations aren’t suffering because they’re “Bad hombres” or because they deserve it. Veterans of American wars don’t become homeless because they deserve it.

Bad things happen in the world because the world is fallen and evil reigns. The Scriptures describe “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4 CEB) and “the prince of this world” (John 12:31 KJV) as Satan, the one who opposes God. Our call as Christian people is to resist the evil that reigns, to align ourselves with God and God’s values, to live love in our every day, and to rely upon God’s grace to give us strength to do so.

Throughout the Old and the New Testaments, we have example after example that show us how God gives us what we need rather than what we deserve. God’s grace abounds even when we fail at faithfulness. We even state in our Communion liturgy that “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us.”

There is something beautiful about this analogy with the clay. When we don’t turn out quite the way God wants, God can gracefully reshape us into the vessel we’re supposed to be. Yet, questions we might ask ourselves are, are we still malleable enough to repent? Are we still soft clay, or have we hardened our hearts? If you read further into Jeremiah 19, the once soft clay is hardened into a clay pot that Jeremiah smashes as a sign of God’s judgment. Will we allow God to lovingly reshape us in the image of Divine love?

The message that John the Baptist preached during his ministry was, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 3:2 CEB). The message which Jesus preached at the beginning of his ministry was, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 4:17 CEB).

Even with the word of the disaster preached and proclaimed by God’s prophet, Jeremiah, there is a thread of hope for the people of Judah. As much as God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, it turns out that God’s plans are not fixed, determined, and unchangeable. God can change God’s mind. Human actions of either sin or repentance from sin can influence God. God takes all things into account.

God’s people are called to repent, and we have the opportunity to do so every day. God gives us grace. In the New Testament, Jesus calls us to repent because God’s realm and dominion is near. The full reign of God is near.

In what ways do we need to repent so that the reign of God might show forth in us? Through repentance, God can reshape dreadful blobs into useful vessels.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Like Family | Proper 17

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

1 Keep loving each other like family. 2 Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. 3 Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place. 4 Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery. 5 Your way of life should be free from the love of money, and you should be content with what you have. After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you. 6 This is why we can confidently say,

The Lord is my helper,

and I won’t be afraid.

What can people do to me?

7 Remember your leaders who spoke God’s word to you. Imitate their faith as you consider the way their lives turned out. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!

15 So let’s continually offer up a sacrifice of praise through him, which is the fruit from our lips that confess his name. 16 Don’t forget to do good and to share what you have because God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices. (CEB)

Like Family

The final chapter of Hebrews might as well be labeled Discipleship 101. If we were to give the class a title, it might be: It All Starts with Love. In fact, in Greek, the word in the first sentence is (φιλαδελφία) philadelphia. You may have heard of it before. There’s a city in Pennsylvania that houses a broken bell that goes by that name. Rocky Balboa was from there, too, if you need a more recent cultural reference from the last five decades.

There was also an ancient city in the Decapolis called Philadelphia, which is now called Amman, Jordan. (I’ve been to that one. I’ve even eaten at the Hard Rock Café in that one. But I haven’t been to the one in Pennsylvania).

The word philadelphia is a compound word of philos, which means love or beloved, and adelphos, which means brother or a person viewed as a sibling. Philadelphia is brotherly love, familial love, love between people who know each other well.

Philadelphia defines a kind of love between people within a certain delineation, whether it’s within a family, close friendships, or a religious community. So, when the author of Hebrews tells us to keep loving each other like family, that word philadelphia is pointing to those within the church. We Christians are to love each other and commit ourselves to loving each other continually. Yes, there will be breakdowns and disagreements, arguments and divisions over certain issues, but those matters are not an excuse for us to let our love for each other falter or fail.

Our congregation members do a fairly good job of loving each other like family. There’s always room for improvement, but we do pretty well. We keep each other uplifted in prayer through an email prayer chain. We really like to get together to eat, whether it’s hosting a dinner for grieving families, enjoying one another’s fellowship at a pig roast, breakfasting together on Saturdays, breaking bread for a mission meal, a fish fry, a Wonderful Wednesday, or a Terrific Tuesday.

I think we could easily add a Fried Chicken Friday to that list. We even have a meal at a Sunday School seminar series. You all let Dr. Mike and me lecture to you because you get to eat. I think some of us would sit through anything as long as we got to eat.

But eating together is only one part of how we love each other like family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of church members giving other church members rides to the hospital or to doctor appointments. You write cards and letters to shut-ins. You visit people in the hospitals and nursing homes. You genuinely care about the people sitting around you in this room.

“Keep loving each other like family” (Hebrews 13:1 CEB).

I know I’ve already mentioned some Greek language stuff—and this sermon is just getting started—but I have a reason for doing so. In verse 2, there is one more Greek word that we need to examine. The Common English Bible translates the beginning of verse 2 as “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests.” The New Revised Standard Version translates it as “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”

The word in question is another one of those compound words, (φιλοξενίας) philoxenias. You already know that philos means love. Xenia, in Greek, is hospitality, and it’s derived from the word xenos, which is foreigner, alien, stranger. A love for hospitality—philoxenias—is what we are required to display on behalf of foreigners, strangers, and aliens—xenos. So, we’re told by the author of Hebrews that our mutual love—our love as family—must extend beyond our inner circle to those who are strangers, foreigners, and aliens. We’re reminded not to neglect a love for hospitality. This is a love that aims us outward, beyond our communal family.

By showing such love to foreigners, aliens, and strangers, we might well serve as host to God’s messengers without even realizing it. There are stories of such encounters throughout the Biblical narrative: Abraham in Genesis 18, Lot in Genesis 19, Gideon in Judges 6, Samson’s mother in Judges 13, and, if you have a Bible that includes the Apocrypha, you can read about the angels Tobit and Tobias encounter. Hospitality that is given without a hope or expectation of a return is faithful behavior, and we might not realize just who we’re extending our love of others to when we offer it.

When we host these incredible little kids at the nursery school, do we realize how beautiful the love and care our staff pours into those children really is? When we host kids at Thrive, do we fully grasp how profoundly our hospitality as a church is affecting them? Some of them come from situations that we, in our comfort, can scarcely imagine. Hospitality—and not mere hospitality, but a love for hospitality—philoxenias is exactly what Disciples of Jesus Christ are required to offer.

And, I almost hesitate to use the word required because when you, personally, see the results of these ministries in the lives of Mount Vernon children, it doesn’t feel like an obligation at all. A love of hospitality, itself, becomes a source of joy that fills and nourishes us as well as those whom we host.

The next verse, verse 3, shows us how far this love for showing hospitality must be willing to go. In today’s world, whenever something bad happens, we always hear about how “thoughts and prayers” are with those afflicted by the tragedy of the day. But the author of Hebrews lets us know that “thoughts and prayers” alone don’t cut the mustard. Instead, the writer is clear that we need to ask ourselves how we might meet the immediate, physical needs of those for whom we’re praying and thinking. For the author of Hebrews, it gets down to very flesh-and-blood stuff.

We’re told to remember prisoners as if we are in prison with them, and to remember those who are tortured as if we, ourselves, are being tortured. There is something co-carnational even syn-carnational about those who make up the body of Christ Jesus and those outside of it. (And yes, I just made those words up). Remember, being a Christian is about showing love for those inside and for those outside the Christian community. The implication is that, in all of humanity, we must see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. Each member of the body that makes up the whole human race is not only a brother or sister, but our very own flesh and blood. When they hurt, we hurt—whether we feel it directly or not. When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.

One question we might consider is how are Christians still failing to act not only as brothers and sisters but as one, singular, undivided body?

One thing that got me in recent headlines is how some big names on the Christian Right—leaders who call themselves Evangelicals, those who proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ—are all up in arms because the president has been using the Lord’s name in vain at campaign rallies. These same leaders didn’t say anything about the “Send her back!” chant at the rallies, and I’ve barely heard a word from these same leaders about the profound mistreatment of human beings on our southern border, or the resident aliens in our midst. But they sure got riled up because of what some of them described as the president’s blasphemy because he said a certain word.

And I’m not criticizing the President by mentioning this, I’m criticizing these leaders of the church.

When we care more about the illusion of propriety than we care about members of our human family whom we must view as our own flesh and blood… it takes a lot of theological blindness to do that. It takes a lot of theological blindness for a person to identify themselves as a follower of Jesus Christ and be fine with the violation and mass incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers on our border. It takes a lot of theological blindness to call oneself a Christian and be silent about the evils of white supremacy and racist ideology. It takes a lot of theological blindness to put country or politics ahead of any part of our human family.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to bring God’s kingdom, God’s dominion, God’s rule and reign. If that’s what we’re praying for—if that’s what we really desire—then we cannot, at the same time, support policies or ideologies that are antithetical to God’s values. We will find ourselves on the wrong side of judgment if we do.

Speaking of judgment, the author of Hebrews reminds us that even the most intimate parts of our lives are connected to the rule of love and the reign of God. Verse four turns to the subject of marriage and covenant within our communities. “Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery” (Hebrews 13:4 CEB). If we make a vow before God, we’d better keep it. After all, if we can’t honor our commitment to our own spouse whom we see every day, how can we honor our commitment to God whom we can’t see? How can we profess to love God if we cheat on our spouse and dishonor our marriage?

The love of money, too, is mentioned. Paul described the love of money as the root of all kinds of evil (c.f. 1 Timothy 6:10). When our love is attached to the wrong things—or to things instead of people—then we’re going to make decisions that benefit our acquisition of money over and against the right kind of care, love, and hospitality for other members of our human family.

We don’t need to put our love or our trust in money because, as Deuteronomy 31:6 states, God will never leave us or forsake us. We can sing with the Psalmist, “The LORD is for me—I won’t be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Psalm 118:6 CEB). We can and should put our confidence in the Lord and find satisfaction in God’s providence for us. That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to seek a better life for ourselves, but it does mean that money and wealth are not our end goals. Discipleship 101 teaches us that love is our end and our beginning.

And, as if the author of Hebrews knows that these words aren’t going to be pleasing to some people’s ears, he reminds us to remember our leaders and those who preach the word of God to us. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. This is not the place where I get to say my congregation, Hey, look at me! Listen to me! Look how great a Christian I am! I’m all too familiar with my own failings.

Nope. This is where I can only hope that my dedication to God’s realm, the way I love, and the way I live is somehow acceptable to God and a faithful example to the church I serve. Jesus Christ doesn’t change with time, nor do God’s values change. Jesus is the same now and will be the same always. Love matters. How we worship and praise God, matters.

Verses 15 and 16 connect our praise of God with our lips, and our worship of God in the way we love by doing good deeds. That has been a theme in the Scripture texts over the last several weeks. We cannot separate word from action. We can’t forget to love those inside the community, and we can’t forget to love those outside the community. The Lord is over every aspect of our lives. Family love, love for hospitality, faithfulness, contentment with what we have, humility to remember our leaders and learn from them: these are the lessons covered in Discipleship 101.

So, if you had to give yourself a grade today, what would it be?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay