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

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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.

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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

The Present Time | Proper 15

Luke 12:49-56

49 “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! 50 I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. 52 From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three. 53 Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 Jesus also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed it does. 55 And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time? (CEB)

The Present Time

Last Sunday, the text we read from the Prophet Isaiah was a difficult one to hear. If you got here this morning and noticed that we’re reading from the Gospel of Luke and thought, thank goodness we get to hear about Jesus this Sunday… Sorry. This, also, is a difficult text. To us, these words of Jesus might even seem out character. “I came to bring fire…”? “I have come instead to bring division…”? “…a household… will be divided…”? And, Jesus resorts to name calling when he addresses us as “hypocrites”?

This sounds like grumpy Jesus. I didn’t even know there was a grumpy Jesus. I mean, isn’t Jesus supposed to be the Prince of Peace? How can he say that he came to bring division? It’s like Jesus got up on the wrong side of the bed, or stubbed his toe, or ate a bad fig for breakfast. It would be nice if we could attribute these harsh words of Jesus to a bad mood, or a mild heat stroke, and brush them off as something he didn’t really mean, but I think it’s probably better to take his words seriously.

Jesus certainly is the Prince of Peace. Let’s restate and affirm that much. Zechariah sang that, “Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace” (Luke 1:78-79 CEB). The angels sang the proclamation of Jesus’ birth by saying, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14 CEB). Throughout the Gospel story, Jesus offers peace to those whom he heals, and he talks about peace in his parables. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus offers peace to his disciples in the form of a benediction (c.f. 24:36).

Yet, there is a discordant strain that goes along with the peace of Jesus. When Jesus was dedicated at the temple, Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms, blessed Mary and Joseph, and said to Mary, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (Luke 2:34-35 CEB).

Hear that again. On his eighth day of life, it’s revealed that Jesus would be the cause of the falling and rising of many, that he would be a sign that generates opposition, and that opposition will reveal people’s inner thoughts.

I don’t know about you, but the thought that someone could reveal my inner thoughts is a little scary. I’m not always a very nice person inside my head, and I don’t really want that to be known. (So, just forget that I said that, okay?). But, isn’t it our own actions that reveal our inner thoughts? Isn’t it also our own spoken words that reveal our inner thoughts? Aren’t we the ones who reveal our inner thoughts by what we say and do in relation to the teaching of Jesus?

The first words of Jesus in our text are, “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed!” (Luke 12:49-50 CEB). In the original Greek, it comes across as more emphatic, because the first words of the first two sentences are fire and baptism: “Fire, I came to throw on the earth…” “[A] Baptism I now have to be baptized…”

Fire and baptism point to Jesus’ mission. Remember when John the Baptizer told people, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out” (Luke 3:16-17 CEB).

Fire, in Luke 12 and in Luke 3, is a multifaceted metaphor. In one sense it clearly points to the work of the Holy Spirit that burns in our hearts and fires us up to live according to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. It’s a fire that refines and purifies, that burns away the chaff. It’s also a fire that implies judgment. There is a separation of wheat from chaff, and the chaff is burned with unquenchable fire. Now, that unquenchable fire might mean what most people think it means: that those who are “the chaff” will burn in hell forever.

But I don’t think we can so readily separate the fire that burns the chaff from the fire that purifies and ignites faithful courage. I lean more toward God’s grace. I think that unquenchable fire can also suggest that God doesn’t give up on any of us. God’s purifying fire doesn’t go out. Ever. As much time as we require in the metaphorical furnace, God’s got patience.

As for baptism, it means immersion. When Jesus says he has a baptism with which to be baptized, he’s saying that he’s immersed in God plan. He’s all in. The moment Jesus turns his face to go to Jerusalem 9:51, he knows that it will lead to his death. When Jesus says, “How I am distressed until it’s completed!” (Luke 12:50 CEB), he’s not talking about anxiety. Rather, it’s about that baptism; that full immersion and total commitment to the mission of God which Jesus came to accomplish. Suffering and death for the sake of the whole world is part of the baptism into which Jesus is fully and completely immersed.

But another part of that baptism, that immersion, that mission of God is reconciliation. Ironically, it’s this part of Jesus’ ministry that leads to division! It’s this part of Jesus’ ministry that causes us to reveal our inner thoughts. It’s this part of Jesus’ ministry that makes him a sign that we, ourselves, can oppose just as so many others have done before us.

And I know you might be thinking, how can peace and reconciliation bring division? Peace and reconciliation bring division when we… don’t… believe… other… people… deserve… it. Jesus taught parable after parable about this. The reconciliation of God to humankind, and of us to each other, brings division.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of our favorites. A son basically tells his father that he wishes he was dead, and he wants his inheritance now. So, the father being the generous person he is, gives his son the inheritance. The son squanders it and ends up so destitute that he decides to go back to his father to see if he can be hired on as a servant. And he’s practicing what he’s going to say as he makes the journey, how he’ll confess his sin and beg for a job. But his father had been waiting by the door, and the father sees his son a long way off and runs to him, embraces him, kisses him. The son tries to say the lines he’s been rehearsing, but the father is already calling for a celebration and feasting because this reconciliation—this peace that is made—is so beautiful. To the father, peace with his son is worth a party to end all parties.

It’s a beautiful parable, isn’t it? It has a powerful message, and it means there’s hope for everyone.

But the parable isn’t over yet. The elder son, the faithful son, the son who never disobeyed, the son we usually forget about in the story, the son who is but a footnote at the end; he comes in from the field where he’s been faithfully laboring for years. He finds this party going on, and he finds out that this celebration is for his worthless, no good, younger brother who abandoned his family and wasted their resources. And he’s furious. He refuses to even go inside. When the father goes out to him, the elder son tells his father that his younger brother doesn’t deserve it. He’s the good son, but he never even got a goat, let alone the fatted calf! His worthless younger brother should be dead to them all! And the father says that the younger son was, indeed, dead. But we should celebrate because now he’s alive again. He was lost, but we celebrate because now he’s found.

Peace and reconciliation sow the seeds for division. And we who are faithful churchgoers have a tendency to play the role of the elder son more than that of the younger son, the father, or the others who were celebrating that new-found peace in the household that evening.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the workers in the vineyard highlights the same seed of division. In the early morning a landowner hired workers for his vineyard. Then, he went out and found more workers at 9:00, noon, 3:00, and 5:00, and he hired them all. When it was time to pay, everyone got the same wage. Those who were hired early, who had worked all day long, grumbled about that. They thought they deserved more. But the landowner responded, “I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?” (Matthew 20:14-15 CEB).

Again, peace and reconciliation sow the seeds of division. Jesus’ parables suggest that the division Jesus proclaims is descriptive of what happens when the mission of God’s dominion is carried out, not prescriptive of what must happen. Because we don’t have to be resentful at God’s generosity. When others come into the dominion of God, it doesn’t mean there’s less room for us. We don’t have to react in fury like the elder brother, or grumble like the early workers.

But our reaction to reconciliation and peace between others reveals our inner thoughts. It reveals our preference for those who are like us. It reveals our judgmental jealousies, and our habit of deciding who is a deserving recipient of God’s grace, our charity, and even who should be allowed to step foot into our building, let alone join our holy community.

“I have come instead to bring division” (Luke 12:51 CEB).

The ministry of Jesus was a ministry that makes peace between long-standing enemies. Such a ministry will inevitably cause division when certain relationships depend on those well-delineated lines. We don’t always appreciate the great reversals of God’s dominion. We don’t always like it when those we deem undeserving end up receiving the abundant grace of God. When we oppose the kind of reconciliation that Jesus preaches, we’re revealing our preference for our self and people like us.

We serve a God who was willing to die for us. Seems to me that God gets to choose who receives God’s mercy and grace. If we can see and interpret signs in the clouds and in the wind that tell us what’s happening with the weather, why can’t we see that God’s Son came to make peace with all people; that peace is our mission because God’s dominion is, itself, defined and known by peace? Why would any of us resist that peacemaking instead of rejoicing over it?

Jesus has some harsh words for us. The Prince of Peace is going to make peace whether we’re on board with it or not. Jesus is fully immersed. He’s all in. What we need to reflect upon and examine within ourselves is, are we?

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Seek, Help, Defend, Plead | Proper 14

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

1 The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.

10 Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!

11 What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the LORD.

I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.

12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts?

13 Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me.

New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!

14 I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.

15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you.

Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.

Your hands are stained with blood.

16 Wash! Be clean!

Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; 17 learn to do good.

Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD.

Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.

If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool.

19 If you agree and obey, you will eat the best food of the land.

20 But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.

The LORD has said this. (CEB)

Seek, Help, Defend, Plead

There is some irony in reading a text that describes how God hates our worship while we’re among worshipers in the middle of a worship service. Isaiah spoke these words from outside the sanctuary, but we read them from inside the sanctuary. It’s almost a little embarrassing. But maybe that’s an appropriate response.

To put it mildly, this is not an easy text. Whenever Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned, you know judgment is right around the corner. So, when we read, “Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!” we know it’s bad news, (Isaiah 1:10 CEB). This is not an easy text for me to expound in a sermon, and it’s not an easy text for you to hear.

Yet, “Hear” is exactly what Isaiah encourages us to do. It would be a shame if the accusatory tone and difficulty of this text were to cause us to turn our attention elsewhere so we don’t hear the Lord’s word.

First, I should say that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably not what you think. I know one part of our culture has turned Sodom into an anti-gay rallying cry, and they use demonizing words like Sodomite, but the true crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah—the real wickedness—were greed and injustice. The prophet Ezekiel, when writing to the people of Judah about their own wickedness and how they had outstripped Sodom in it, wrote: “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy,” (Ezekiel 16:49 CEB).

“She didn’t help the poor and needy.” That was the sin of Sodom, and that was the sin of both Israel and of Judah.

Israel, and Judah failed to make the connection between their worship inside the sanctuary and their life outside the sanctuary walls. If we examine ourselves honestly, how well do we make the connection, ourselves?

Our congregation is doing and has done some really good things to care for poor and needy people recently. We support Thrive in order to support and care for kids who need help with their education. We made hundreds upon hundreds of lunches to feed kids through the summer so they wouldn’t go hungry. We’ve prepared meals for needy people during the holidays so they could have something a little more special than their everyday fare. We have an amazing nursery school program to give kids a start on their education. We have a fair trade store on campus. I know some members of our congregation volunteer at the Mission here in town. We’ve raised and donated thousands of dollars for relief and recovery efforts after natural disasters. We do, and we have done, some good things to meet immediate needs. At the same time, we could probably do more.

If we were to examine our complicity in systemic practices that negatively affect the poor and needy, however, we might not do so well on our grade card. Do we buy certified fairly traded goods, or do we get whatever’s cheapest regardless of how the poor might have been swindled or exploited so we could have inexpensive goods?

Do we shop at companies that pay their employees a fair and livable wage, or do we go to Walmart because what we want is cheaper there? A 2014 study showed that, because Walmart doesn’t pay their employees a livable wage, Walmart employees cost taxpayers 6.2 billion dollars in public assistance each year. This is America’s biggest employer, and it’s owned by America’s richest family. One Walmart in Ohio was found to be receiving donations of food for its employees because their employees couldn’t afford a Thanksgiving meal.

There are other systemic issues, too, regarding healthcare for the poor, education for the poor, incarceration rates for the poor, burdensome immigration processes for refugees and asylum-seekers, mistreatment of undocumented immigrants, and the list would go on.

We’re in the first chapter of the first book of the Prophets, and the first order of business is a blistering assault on our worship as it relates to everything outside of the sanctuary walls. It turns out that the first and most furious critic of religion is God.

I want us to hear what God is saying through Isaiah. There is a disconnect when any people worship a God who states over and over and over how deeply God cares for the most vulnerable people in society when we, ourselves, are complicit or outright neglectful in showing care for those Vulnerable-Beloved-of-God. God declares that it’s not merely a disconnect, it actually turns our worship into an abomination. Our worship, itself, becomes false. Worship that is not concerned with justice and mercy for the vulnerable of our society is obscene and perverse.

Part of the disconnect might actually be worship, itself. When we come to this place to worship, what do we expect? What do we want? If we worship so we can get something out of it, or so we can feel good, or like some kind of catharsis has occurred now that the benediction has been offered, we might need to reevaluate. If, after worship, we feel like we’ve accomplished something, like we’ve met an obligation, or satisfied a commitment, we might need to reevaluate. Even if we discuss matters of justice and God’s love for everyone, if we feel a sense of closure at the end of worship, we may need to reevaluate.

We’re probably here in this sanctuary because we recognize that worship is essential for us. How else can we have a serious engagement with God that gives us life, that transforms our community, that changes the world? We need to give God our worship. We need to experience God’s transformative love through worship. We need the strength of God’s grace, which we receive in worship, so that we can go outside these walls and serve the world. We know that we need worship.

It might also be ironic that worship is what allowed us to hear this text.

So, the idea that God hates our worship… well… verses 10 through 14 are pretty tough to hear. They’re a withering indictment of our worship. The intent of our worship is many-fold, but its primary purpose is not self-serving. We don’t worship God so that we can feel good about ourselves. In worship, we bring to God all that we have and all that we are, and we offer the whole of it to God for God’s purposes alone.

The prayer after communion, which we pray every Sundaym is a plea to God to send us into the word in the strength of the Holy Spirit so that we can give ourselves to others. Do we really want to give ourselves for others? Do we really want to serve God and work for God’s dominion by living out and fighting for the values of God’s dominion? Do we really want to represent that?

As bad as those verse are, it actually gets worse. “When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood” (Isaiah 1:15 CEB). When there is a disconnect between what happens inside the sanctuary and what happens outside the sanctuary, God will not even listen to our pleas. We shouldn’t expect our confessions and prayers in the sanctuary to cover our willful neglect of justice. Repentance actually requires us to change.

On Sunday mornings, we worship a poor, wandering, homeless, brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, Jewish, asylum-seeking refugee named Jesus, who was birthed by an unwed mother. How, then, can we think or speak negatively about any person in any of those categories Monday through Saturday? How can we speak about denying basic necessities, God-given human dignity and value, or a chance at a better life to any person in any of these categories?

[[Or, do we even wait beyond Sunday afternoon?]]

“Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow. Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow. If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool” (Isaiah 1:16-18 CEB).

True worship—authentic worship—is how we live our lives before God. What we do in this or any other sanctuary is only a start to the worship we do on the outside. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.

I really don’t have a way to give any of you, or even myself, closure at the end of this sermon. There will be differences in how this looks for each of us. So, maybe a loose end is what we need. In fact, this sermon is a little shorter than what I usually preach. Maybe that’s not a bad thing either.

This part of God’s word might not be pleasing to our ears, our heart, or any of our sensibilities, but this is a word we need to keep chewing on. This is a word we need to hear in the sanctuary, and a word we need to consider while we’re outside of it.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Return | Proper 13

Hosea 11:1-11

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

2 The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols.

3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them.

4 I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.

5 They will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they have refused to return to me.

6 The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes.

7 My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up.

8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

9 I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment.

10 They will walk after the LORD, who roars like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.

11 They will come trembling like a bird, and like a dove from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD. (CEB)

Return

In some of the most deeply emotional poetry in all of Biblical prophetic literature, Hosea tells one of the oldest stories in human history. The story gets told in many different ways throughout the pages of the Bible, beginning in Genesis and continuing through Revelation.

As a storyteller, myself, I’ve heard experts in the field of fiction writing, at almost every writing conference I’ve attended, drill into our collective heads the phrase, Show, don’t tell. Show us what happens in the scene, don’t tell us. Don’t tell the reader what happened by saying, Christopher picked up his pen and notebook and began to write a story about another world. It might be exactly what happened, but it’s boring.

Instead, put the reader in the scene by showing what happened. Say, The saga of life on an alien world poured from Christopher’s mind as his black pen scrawled slanted letters, hurried and barely legible even to himself, across the pages of his notebook. Showing is much harder work than telling, but the result is worth it. Showing is painting a portrait with words. Showing allows the reader to see in their mind’s eye, feel in their heart, and perceive in their soul what’s unfolding on the page they’re reading.

This story is about God, who loves us completely. God created us. God provides for us and delivers us when we’re in trouble. But the more God pursues us, the more we turn away. This is a story about our shame. Yet, as much as this story is about our shame, it’s even more a story of God’s grace. Hosea proves himself a master storyteller who doesn’t tell us so much as he shows us. He puts us in the scenes of human existence from God’s perspective and allows us to feel the depth of God’s pain as the tragic story of divine love and human rejection unfolds.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:1 CEB).

Yet, it was God who taught Ephraim to walk. Hosea shows us a scene in which a mother and father hold out their arms to a child who can now stand and encourages them, “Come on. You can do it. Come to me.” The child grins and takes a step before crashing to the floor, wailing. That mother or father quickly scoops their child up in their arms and kisses the small hurts until their child is comforted and calm. The child won’t remember this moment: neither their fall nor their parent’s healing touch. But the mother and father will remember.

How many times did a scene like that unfold until the child could walk? How many of the child’s unremembered wounds would God kiss away?

The next scene shows a child who can now walk, and a mother and father who lead the child carefully, gripping the child’s chubby fingers as she or he toddles unsteadily at their parent’s sides. The parents walk at the child’s pace because that’s all the child can manage. Getting anywhere would be quicker if Mom or Dad simply picked the child up, but the child wants to walk, and the mother and father savor how their little one is growing and learning. Soon, their child will walk on their own, but mothers and fathers secretly hope their child will still want to hold their hand when their child is older; to maintain those cords of human kindness and bands of love throughout their lives.

Another scene shows us those tender moments when a mother and father pick up their child and hold them close against their cheek. Quiet snuggles. Soft kisses. Maybe even blowing gentle raspberries on the child’s chunky tummy rolls to get them giggling. It’s love that this scene portrays. Amazing, perfect, love.

The next scene shows a mother or father feeding their child, perhaps making a game of it with zooming noises as they move the spoon around and around until sticking it in their child’s mouth and laughing. Maybe it’s also the memory of a mother breastfeeding their child close-held to her body, or (for us more modern fathers) maybe it’s a father feeding their child with a bottle while the child is cradled in his arms.

These are scenes of deep intimacy that only an involved parent knows. These are scenes of parents who love their child in the most profound ways; parents who would do anything to protect and care for their beautiful child. This child is adored, and these parents have pledged everything for the child in their care. Because this child is theirs. Their love for their child flows in ways they never imagined possible, because the parents made this child. They’re a family.

Hosea shows us story after story in a child’s life that the child can’t remember when grown. But the mother and father remember. God is that mother and father. We are that child.

The next scenes are moments that we, as that child now grown, might want to not see again. Scenes of when we ran when God called. Scenes of the tantrums we threw, the hateful things we shouted in the heat of the moment. Scenes of the promises we broke. Scenes of the wreckage we made of our life and our relationships. Scenes of our violence, our hatred, our self-loathing, our often self-made despair.

We are children who were loved from the start. We’re also children who turned away from God. God, our loving mother and father, ran after us calling our name as we sped away but, in our rejection of the one who loves us more completely than we can possibly know, we kept going. We sought our own path. We are the children who broke God’s heart.

Verses five through seven show a God whose heart continues to break because God’s child has continued to rebel. Hosea describes how God sees the consequences the child will bear because of that rebellion. The child turned to other nations when God was right there in their midst. And those consequences are dire. “The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up” (Hosea 11:6-7 CEB).

We might wonder at the harshness of these words, that the God who loves so profoundly won’t raise the people up when they call. But, in reality, there comes a time in our rebellion when it’s too late. This is like finally realizing we should have listened to Mom and Dad only after the judge has slammed the gavel post-sentencing. We can call out all we want as the bailiff takes us away but, at that point, Mom and Dad are helpless and heartbroken. And we’re stuck paying for the consequences of our actions. In Hosea’s story, that’s exactly what God sees happening to Israel.

And God’s heart is shattered. God is in agony. God is the one who cries out now, saying, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment” (Hosea 11:8-9 CEB).

If you don’t recognize the two cities mentioned here, Admah and Zeboiim were two cities destroyed alongside Sodom and Gomorrah (c.f. Deuteronomy 29:23). How can God, as a loving parent, can give up God’s own child? The very idea causes God’s heart to recoil. God can’t give Ephraim up. Instead, God’s compassion grows warm and tender.

Yes, the portrait Hosea paints is one that shows God as angry. Every parent knows that anger is a part of being a loving parent.

God, in this moment, is deeply wounded by Israel’s rejection. God is ready to give Ephraim a spanking, but God pulls back and chooses not to come in wrath. That, too, is love.

One of the stories I wrote, The Sign of Psyche, is about young woman named Eupeithis who offends Eros, the god of love. Eros curses her to fall in love with the first man she sees, so the goddess, Psyche, protects Eupeithis with a blindfold. Eupeithis runs for freedom with a hunter she befriends, but Eros pursues her, and his pursuit—for a long time—looks to Eupeithis like hatred. But, eventually, Eupeithis changes her mind about Eros’s anger. Here’s an abridged excerpt of that moment of realization:

—–

“Why did Eros come to me?” I ask. “He was angry, I know, but what was the reason for his anger? Was he truly motivated by hatred and revenge, as I have most often thought, or was he motivated by what he, himself, is?”

“You mean love?” Orthios asks.

“Yes, exactly! Did Eros truly hate me, or was his anger a form of himself?”

“I’ve never thought of anger as a form of love,” Orthios says.

“What is anger but love at its most sorrowful moment?” I ask. “When our hearts are broken, what’s our response?”

“Ah. I see.” Orthios squeezes my hand. “Anger.”

“Yet, the hope of anger—love when it’s injured—is reconciliation. How can a child know the difference between anger borne of love and anger borne of hatred? Often, the child sees a parent’s anger as hatred because their understanding of love is too limited for them to see the true reason: that their parent loves them, wishes the best for them, and desires to teach them so they can grow out of childhood.” I sigh heavily.

Orthios stays silent.

I turn my face toward him. “If Eros had not come to me in his hot wrath, what would have become of me? I might even now be dead, having suffered some horrible end. I was so foolish, Orthios. As it is, his anger—and punishment—brought me to you.”

I touch my blindfold. “In one sense of the matter, Eros’s anger became my greatest protection. If his nature is love, then how can Eros hate me? Is hatred not counter to his very being? I’ve begun to think his anger came upon me as a shield, and that Love, himself, has given me you.”

—–

We shouldn’t be surprised when we read in Scripture that God gets angry. When someone loves as deeply as God loves, anger will happen when that love is wounded. But love pursues the beloved even through anger. That’s what God does for us. That’s why God came to us and continues to come to us every day.

While the consequences of our rejection and betrayal of God would inevitably lead to our own destruction, God’s compassion for us will not allow us to be destroyed, “for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst” (Hosea 11:9 CEB). So, God will call again. God will roar like a lion, and this time God’s children will hear and obey. This time, surely, they’ll come home.

And someday, so might we. God’s love will not let us go.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Father | Proper 12

Luke 11:1-13

1 Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 Jesus told them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name. Bring in your kingdom.

3 Give us the bread we need for today. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us. And don’t lead us into temptation.'”

5 He also said to them, “Imagine that one of you has a friend and you go to that friend in the middle of the night. Imagine saying, ‘Friend, loan me three loaves of bread 6 because a friend of mine on a journey has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 Imagine further that he answers from within the house, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything.’ 8 I assure you, even if he wouldn’t get up and help because of his friendship, he will get up and give his friend whatever he needs because of his friend’s brashness. 9 And I tell you: Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.

11 “Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? 12 If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion? 13 If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (CEB)

Father

Prayer is something that we learn. We all have a prayer history. My earliest memories of prayer are of my mother helping me recite the nighttime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take. God bless Mommy, Daddy, Eric, Stephanie, my grandparents, all my aunts and all my uncles, all my cousins and all my friends. Amen.”

We also had our mealtime prayers. If we were at home or with our Methodist Romain family, we’d pray: “I fold my hands, I bow my head, to thank you God, for this good food. Amen.” Or, if we were with our Catholic Millay family, we’d pray: “Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.”

Those lessons stuck with me. I prayed every night, and I prayed before every meal; even at school. In college, I was part of a prayer group that met on Fridays at 5:00 p.m. Later, I discovered other ways of praying. Lexio Divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Breath Prayer, to name a few. Did you know there are short orders for daily prayer and praise on pages 876 and 878 in our United Methodist Hymnals? Methodists have a tradition of prayer, too, which is linked to the ancient traditions of the church.

We all have our prayer histories, but the Lord’s Prayer goes back to the very foundation of Christian prayer. The text from Luke begins by telling us that Jesus was praying. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is always praying. He constantly withdrew to deserted places or to mountains to pray. He spent nights in prayer. He prayed before choosing the apostles. He prayed before going to Jerusalem. He prayed before his Transfiguration. He prayed before he fed the 5,000. He prayed the night before he was killed. He prayed while hanging on the cross in tortured agony. He prayed with his disciples after his resurrection.

So, when his disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray as John had taught his disciples, it’s easy to see how their request to learn wasn’t some theoretical, disconnected inquiry, but it came from actually watching Jesus pray all the time.

When I was a student at The University of Findlay, I remember attending an event put on by Campus Ministry. One of the speakers told us about the first time she visited Calcutta, India, to volunteer with Mother Teresa. She noticed how, throughout the day, the nuns kept stopping their work to pray. So, she asked Mother Teresa why they did that. In her practical mind, she imagined the nuns could get a lot more work done if they didn’t stop to pray all the time. And Mother Teresa responded by saying, “How could we get anything done if we did not stop to pray? How could we care for the sick, diseased, and dying without prayer?”

So, the pattern Jesus gives us is prayer all the time. The disciples saw Jesus pray that way, and they wanted to learn how to pray like Jesus. First, the prayer in Luke’s Gospel is shorter than Matthew’s version. In either gospel, the prayer is short, which fits with Jesus admonition that we not “pour out a flood of empty words” (Matthew 6:7 CEB). Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is only five sentences long.

Our address to God is Father. But, fathers in any age and culture parent quite differently. Some of us are or were fortunate to have wonderful fathers who are or were nurturing and loving. Others among us are not (or were not) so fortunate and had fathers who really could have been better. For these persons, the address to God as Father does not provide happy or pleasant thoughts. So, the address to God as Father can’t be detached from the rest of the text. It’s the rest of the text which describes God as nurturing by giving us the Holy Spirit.

The first two sentences of the prayer are confessional. God, our Father and Mother, has indeed shown God’s name to be holy, and God upholds the holiness of God’s name. In Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the kingdom of God has been brought near. At the same time, we yearn for the full realization of God’s kingdom: that all people would honor God, and that God’s reign would be completely realized. We hope for God’s dominion because it’s the only way justice can truly prevail for everyone.

The next three sentences of the prayer address three essential needs that we all have. The word that we usually translate as daily is somewhat problematic because it doesn’t appear in any Greek literature before the Gospels. So, it’s difficult to know exactly what it means. It could mean daily, tomorrow’s, or necessary.

Maybe it’s intentionally ambiguous because it’s suggesting all three. On one hand, we are praying for God’s dominion to come in its fullness, so the word could suggest that we hope for tomorrow’s bread: the bread of God’s dominion, and our hope to participate in the messianic wedding banquet. Yet, on the other hand, it’s also an acknowledgement that God provides our daily sustenance. God gives us what we need—our necessities—to live each day.

The next need which Jesus mentions is forgiveness. We ask God to forgive us of our sins. But, God’s forgiveness of our sins serves as a reminder that we also need to forgive those indebted to us. Not only those who sin or trespass against us, but those who are indebted to us. Our request for God’s forgiveness is in a Greek tense (aorist imperative) that expects that forgiveness from God to be definitive. But the tense for our forgiveness of others (present) suggests that our forgiving is a never-ending process. Forgiving others is something we must do all the time. Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that we’re trying to forgive others for what they’ve done. Forgiveness isn’t easy for us, and the prayer subtly acknowledges that.

The final petition is about preservation. The “don’t lead us into temptation” (CEB) is misleading because God doesn’t lead us by the hand to temptation’s door. The NRSV provides a better translation by rendering it: “do not bring us to the time of trial.” In any case, it’s not about temptation as we normally think of it, which is an enticement to do evil. What we’re really asking for is protection and preservation from circumstances that test or imperil our faith.

We’ve all experienced situations where our faith has been deeply tested. For some of us, it was the death of a family member. For others, it was an unwanted transition. For others, it was the loss of a job and the security that disappeared with it. For some Christians around the world and throughout history, it’s been persecution, violence, or warfare among nations. Those moments, those times of trial, are troubling and full of stress. They can test our faith in God and make us wonder if God really cares about anything or anyone.

That’s probably why Jesus continues his lesson on prayer with the story of the friend at midnight. Jesus means to describe an unlikely scenario by asking, essentially, Could you imagine something like this happening? And the question—as asked in Greek—expects a negative answer. No one of Jesus day would have expected a friend to say, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything” (Luke 11:7 CEB). An answer like that would violate the conventions of hospitality and bring shame on the one who said it.

So, what Jesus presents is an absurd scenario in which even the important social and religious obligations of friendship and hospitality can’t compel a friend to get out of bed and respond to the need. But, even if a friend won’t do that, the friend will respond to the persistent pounding on the door. God, unlike the friend, is an eager giver. But, we still need to ask ourselves what God gives.

Jesus tells us that we should ask, and it will be given; search, and we will find; knock and the door will be opened. Yet, I think what God gives us is what we actually need, not necessarily what we want or desire. God gives us what is necessary and beneficial, like sustenance, forgiveness, and preservation. More than that, the direction we receive from Jesus in this prayer tells us that the establishment of God’s reign should be the primary focus of our prayers. Like a good and attentive parent, God gives us what we need. Most of us aren’t cruel enough to give our children snakes or scorpions when they’re hungry. (I mean, maybe you’re into those things as pets, but as a meal, I have my doubts).

One of my seminary professors, Geoffrey Wainwright, liked to use the terms Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: what we pray is what we believe. What we pray—especially the prayers of the church, like the Lord’s Prayer—both reveals and influences what we believe about the one to whom we pray. But we can also swap those phrases around. What we believe can improperly influence what we pray. If we think of God as a divine vending machine who dispenses whatever we ask for, then we’re going to be disappointed. That’s not what God is, and that’s not what the promise that God will answer our prayers is about.

Christians should not pray for whatever we want and expect to get it. Christians should pray for God to bring in the fullness of God’s reign and realm. That’s what it’s all about. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he stated what he wanted, but he also prayed for God’s will, not his own.

God is committed to accomplishing the establishment of God’s dominion. Those who pray as Jesus taught should expect that God intends to use us as a means toward that goal. Remember what Jesus said: “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13 CEB). It’s the Holy Spirit who helps us become instruments of and participants in God’s reign. In that sense, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate answer to our prayers.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay