Those Who Bring | Proper 14

Romans 10:5-15

5 Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the Law: The person who does these things will live by them. 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith talks like this: Don’t say in your heart, “Who will go up into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or “Who will go down into the region below?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach). 9 Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. 11 The scripture says, All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame. 12 There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. 13 All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.

14 So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news. (CEB)

Those Who Bring

Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in order to introduce himself and his message of God’s good news to a local community he’d never visited before. While he knew several of the people in the house-churches (in fact, he greets a few by name), most of the Roman Christians were strangers to Paul. There were Gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome. The letter to the Romans addresses big questions about God’s purposes for Israel, for Gentiles and the human race as a whole, and for all of creation.

One of the points of his argument in our text was to help us understand the concept of righteousness. Since the days of Moses, Israel has understood righteousness as keeping the law. Paul points this out by quoting from Leviticus 18:5, where God said to Moses, “You must keep my rules and my regulations; by doing them one will live; I am the LORD” (CEB). That particular understanding of righteousness is defined by adhering to the law. If you obey the law, then you are righteous. If you do not obey the law, then you are not righteous.

It helps to back up a few verses to see what Paul said immediately before verse 5. Paul wrote about his people, the Jews, “I can vouch for them: they are enthusiastic about God. However, it isn’t informed by knowledge. They don’t submit to God’s righteousness because they don’t understand his righteousness, and they try to establish their own righteousness” (Romans 10:2-3 CEB). Now, how can Paul, who is himself a Jew, say that his people are not informed by knowledge about God? Further, how can he say that his people don’t understand God’s righteousness?

Surely Paul’s fellow Jews, above all other peoples of the earth, knew God’s saving power! They celebrated God’s saving power in their festivals. The entirety of their lives revolved around the knowledge that God chose them, that God rescued them over and over throughout their existence. To this day, Jews know and celebrate God’s saving power. It’s part of the Jewish identity. So, what does Paul mean here?

I think Paul is speaking from his own experience as a Jew and as a Pharisee. What Paul knew before his conversion experience when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus was that Israel understood their claim to righteousness as something that belonged exclusively to them. No other people had access to it. No other people could rightly claim it. Paul knew the Jewish theological mindset of his day because, before Jesus appeared to him, Paul shared it.

What Paul claims that his people sought to “establish” was nothing less than what God had already given to them. Paul’s criticism of his people is a criticism of a view that he, himself, once held. Namely, that his people insisted that God’s righteousness and God’s salvation were for Jews only. Paul strongly disagreed with the notion that observance of the law set his people apart and established a righteousness that was their own.

This was a criticism Paul had of some early Christians, too. The first people to accept Jesus as the Messiah were Jews, and some of those Jewish Christians insisted that the only way for Gentiles to be saved was for them to first become Jews. They believed that God’s grace only extended to Israel so, naturally, Gentiles had to become Jews before they could claim any part of the Jewish Messiah. God’s salvation was for Israel only.

So, Paul was not suggesting that his fellow Jews didn’t understand anything about God’s righteousness. He knew very well that they did. Rather, Paul argued that his fellow Jews had failed to grasp the full scope of God’s righteousness. While his fellow Jews celebrated Abraham’s faith which God recognized as righteousness, Paul points out a glaring disconnection: that righteousness is from faith, not from following the law. The law doesn’t make a person righteous. Abraham lived before the law existed, and Abraham’s righteousness came from his faith in God. From the beginning of righteousness itself, righteousness has come from faith in God. It always has and always will.

The righteousness of God was never meant to be exclusive to any particular people. God declared that all the nations of the earth would be blessed because of Abraham and Abraham’s descendants (c.f. Genesis 18:18, 22:18). The blessing of God was for all people. Righteousness through faith in God was always meant for all people. So, by seeking to establish righteousness as something that was exclusively Jewish, Paul argued that his people were actually pitting themselves against the nature, character, and purpose of God’s righteousness.

So, when Paul wrote, “Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the Law: The person who does these things will live by them” (Romans 10:5 CEB), he’s pointing out how his fellow Jews interpreted that text. He’s not pitting Scripture against Scripture. Rather, Paul argues against a particular interpretation of the Leviticus 18:5 text. He resolves the interpretation problem by providing an interpretation of Deuteronomy 30:12-14. That text reminded the people that the way to righteousness wasn’t difficult or far away. No one needs to set out on a spiritual quest to the heavens or to the depths of the abyss to find it. “But what does it say?” Paul wrote. “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach)” (Romans 10:8 CEB).

Just as the word of the law was near, easily recited, and easily understood, so is the message that Paul preached. Paul’s message was of faith in Jesus Christ. God sent Jesus to reveal that all peoples may have access to God’s righteousness through faith. God is always the one who declares us righteous. Righteousness is never our own apart from God. God has always made God’s righteousness available through faith. And God’s righteousness is available to everyone no matter their ancestry. Jesus Christ has now become the focal point of our faith and the fulfillment of the law.

Christ has, in fact, fulfilled the function of the law, which was to reconcile human beings to God. The giving of the law was an act of love by God. It allowed an entire people to walk with God so that the rest of the human race might learn of God’s willingness to save everyone. And the law still plays a role in Christian life. Christ fulfills the law, but Christ did not end the law. We still pay attention to what the law says, and our faith in God is deeper because we have the law. Paul wrote, “So the Law itself is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12 CEB).

Yet, Paul insists that faith takes precedence over everything. It’s actually similar to an old argument, so to speak, within Judaism. The role of the priesthood was to make sure the law was followed and to provide a way to repair things through sacrifice when the law was broken. The prophets argued that following the law didn’t matter if those who observed it were only going through the motions with no real love for or trust of God in their heart. Even with the law, the prophets insisted that faith was necessary; love of God was necessary. And they still are now that Christ has come. The righteous live their faith authentically by loving God and loving others. Faith exhibits itself in right living, which is defined by love and the fruit of the Spirit (c.f. Galatians 5:22-23; Ephesians 5:9; Philippians 1:11; Colossians 1:6-12).

Salvation isn’t based on the law, Paul argues, but on faith. We might ask what Paul means by saying, “Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation” (Romans 10:9-10 CEB). I think he’s describing faith that is, again, authentic. Faith is at once inward and outward. Faith is inside of us, it’s something we hold to in our hearts and minds. And faith impels us to reach out in loving concern to others around us. To bear Godly fruit in our living.

In Christ we no longer have to pay attention to who we think is “in” and who we think ought to be “out.” God has made righteousness available to everyone. This new word of salvation is for everyone. It’s not exclusive to Israel. That, Paul argues, is where his fellow Jews have missed the point. God’s righteousness, mercy, grace, salvation, and gift of faith don’t depend upon one’s ancestry or race. Paul insists that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek because the same Lord is Lord of all and gives richly to all who call on God. What matters is Christ, and those who have faith in God will not be put to shame (c.f. Isaiah 28:16).

Do we grasp the meaning of this radical inclusion? For the church, it means we don’t build walls to keep people out. Rather, we break down barriers. We know that if God has made room for us, then God has made room for everyone. We know God as the one who calls all people, claims all people, redeems all people, and loves all people. God’s love for the human race and desire to heal and save are infinite. That’s the message of God’s righteousness that Paul declares in Christ. This is the good news. In Christ, God has made room for everyone and, “All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved” (Romans 10:13 CEB; c.f. Joel 2:32).

Lastly, we get to the scary part of this text (at least for many Christians). Paul gets into the dreaded word, evangelism. But evangelism really ought not be so scary. Evangelism isn’t only for preachers and teachers. Evangelism is for every Christian. It’s not that we have to convince people of the rightness of our doctrine, our liturgy, our preferred style of worship, or the kinds of songs we like to sing. Evangelism is simply introducing people to Jesus, and that can happen in any number of ways. Sometimes we do that by talking with people, sometimes we do that by mission work.

When we embody the word of God’s righteousness for all in such a way that we express it in our deeds, that’s authentic faith. Authentic faith becomes a very real, very active kind of evangelism. When our confession and our actions agree, people take notice. In fact, my experience shows that people notice our faithful actions long before they find out about our confession of faith. They can see it in the way we live, the way we talk, and the way we treat others.

We who believe become messengers of the good news. We are sent, and that’s a privilege. Those who received this gift now get to pass it on so others can receive it, too. In a way, we can imagine how beautiful this is for those to whom we might be sent. And how beautiful it might be for us that we should get to share this good news. But I think the deeper beauty for all of us is that God is and has always been God’s own messenger of salvation to us. That’s how profoundly God loves us. God chooses to be God With Us every day. And there is beauty everywhere we look when we participate in God’s work.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Wrestling with God | Proper 13

Genesis 32:22-31

22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh. (CEB)

Wrestling with God

I have to admit that this text is not an easy text to preach on. One thing that makes preaching on this text difficult is its connectedness to what comes before it and what follows it. This particular part of the story of Jacob is critical to the entire story of Jacob: from the time he was still in his mother Rebekah’s womb to the end of his life. It’s not a stand-alone event that can be separated from everything else. This text is in-between the two appearances of God at Bethel in Genesis 28 and 35. So, just as God met Jacob when he fled the Promised Land, so God meets Jacob as he returns. And once again, the anger of Esau is on Jacob’s mind.

There are all kinds of interesting tidbits dangled before us in this story’s text. There’s a lot of word play in the Hebrew that’s completely lost in the English translation. Words like Jacob (יַעֲקֹ֖ב)[yaqob], Jabbok (יַבֹּֽק)[yabboq, wrestle (אָבֵ֥ק)[avaq], and struggle, strive, contend (from sara – שְׂרָה which is the name of Jacob’s grandmother and one of the two root words that make up the name Israel). The word play helps tie things in the story together.

Another reason this text is difficult is because its meaning is elusive. It’s been interpreted in a broad variety of ways by scholars, pastors, and commentators across the centuries. It’s one of the most interpreted texts in the Old Testament. Some of those interpretations are credible and others are less so.

One of the major interpretation issues has to do with the identity and nature of the person with whom Jacob wrestles all night long. Different interpreters have suggested that Jacob’s opponent is God, an angel, a man (maybe even a thief who sneaks up on Jacob in the dark of night).

Some assume that the story was borrowed from an even more ancient legend and have suggested that the person was originally a river demon of the Jabbok River. The Jewish sages of the Midrash suggest that the person is the spirit of Jacob’s brother, Esau. Others say that it was just another dream of Jacob’s (after all, he’s had interesting dreams before), or it’s all a metaphorical dark night of the soul where Jacob wrestles with his own sense of aloneness in a moment of spiritual crisis.

Origen, who lived in the second and third centuries, couldn’t imagine that God would wrestle against Jacob, and came up with the interpretation that God must have been wrestling with Jacob, as in alongside Jacob against some assailant. It isn’t just scholars, sages, and Bible nerds like me who try to identify this adversary. Everyone seems to have their own idea of who this wrestler is.

I think it’s best to look at the text for clues. For Jacob’s opponent, the Hebrew text uses the word אִישׁ (ish) in verse 24 (vs.25 in Hebrew text), which is a man. But Jacob also identifies this man as God. Jacob calls the place where they wrestled Peniel, which means face of God because he believes he has seen God face to face. Some suggest that Jacob is simply mistaken in what he thinks he saw; that he didn’t really see God. But I think that a guy who has already seen God once probably knows what he sees, even in the darkness of night. Jacob believed he had seen God; that this wrestler was God.

I think that the wrestler whom Jacob faced was God: a physical manifestation of God who has somehow graciously limited God’s self in order to meet Jacob where he is and on equal terms. God has stooped down to Jacob’s level for this encounter. O, many commentators like to suggest that at any moment God could have overwhelmed Jacob if God had chosen to do so. Some people feel the need to protect the idea that God is all-powerful and immutable (as if God needed our protection). But there’s really no indication of this in the text. God wasn’t playing games with Jacob, like Fezzik the Giant fighting The-Man-In-Black, God actually struggled with him. And it turned out that Jacob was equal to the task.

And why should we be surprised? Jacob had always been a wrestler. When Rebekah was pregnant with the twin boys, Esau and Jacob, we’re told, “The children struggled together within her” (Genesis 25:22). And when Esau was born first, we’re then told, “Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob” (Genesis 25:26). And of course, Jacob’s name can mean, heel gripper or supplanter, both of which proved true in his life. Jacob had always been a wrestler, a struggler, a contender, a person who was always at odds with someone, even his own children later in life.

So, when God shows up as a wrestler to struggle with Jacob, Jacob managed to hold his own. Even when God saw that he wasn’t winning and decided to knock Jacob’s hip out of joint, Jacob hung on, he wouldn’t let go, he wouldn’t give up the struggle!

But then the sun began to rise, and God the wrestler said to Jacob, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” You see, Jacob has been wrestling with God at night, in the dark, where Jacob couldn’t see God’s face clearly. But if the sun comes up and Jacob sees the face of God, there’s a problem. No one can see God’s face and live. If Jacob continued to hang on and see God in the full light, it might be the end of him.

But Jacob continued to hang on and said he wouldn’t let go until God blessed him. Jacob had already been wounded in the struggle, but now he showed that he was willing to risk death for the sake of receiving the divine blessing.

So, Jacob received the new name Israel, one who contends with God. The name itself set up the relationship between God and Jacob, but it also set up the relationship between God and the nation who would bear that new name. In many ways I think it also set up the relationship between God and us.

It’s through the struggle and woundedness from that struggle that made Jacob stronger. His wound that caused him to limp for the rest of his life doesn’t show us that Jacob failed, that he lost the fight, or that he was somehow less whole. On the contrary, his limping revealed that Jacob had grown, that he was stronger, more whole, more complete. Jacob’s wound signified his success, not his defeat or failure. He had struggled with God and prevailed.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returned to Ithica limping and leaning on a staff. His state didn’t suggest that Odysseus had failed, but that he had struggled against the gods themselves and prevailed!

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Kirk argued with McCoy about Sybok by saying, “I know my weaknesses, I don’t need Sybok to take me on a tour of them. Bones, you’re a doctor, you know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. We lose them, we lose our selves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain!”

In Αἰσχύλος (Aiskulos’s) play Agamemnon, he wrote,

“Wisdom comes through suffering.

Trouble, with its memories of pain,

Drips in our hearts as we try to sleep,

So, men against their will

Learn to practice moderation.

Favors come to us from gods.”

This idea of growth and maturity through struggle isn’t new. Jacob did gain a victory, and he limped every day after to show others—as well as himself—that there are no untroubled victories. Jacob may have been wounded, but he was blessed.

Our own struggles do the same for us. It’s through our wrestling that we learn and grow. We all have wounds from our wrestling with God. And our wounds signify our success, not our failure or defeat. Sometimes our Christian faith feels like a wrestling match between belief and doubt. There are times when we’ve wrestled with God.

I would wager that none of us can say that our Christian journey has been a cakewalk. None of us can say that we’ve never struggled with anything. We’ve all wrestled, struggled, and argued with God over many things. We’ve all experienced moments of vulnerability, loneliness, doubt, and pain. But it’s at those moments of our deepest vulnerability where God enters into the very depths of the struggle, binding God’s own self to us. When it comes to our own struggles, we can count on God to mix it up with us, challenge us, convict us, evaluate us, judge us, and remind us with each limp we take just how much we can face because God is with us.

You know, it’s interesting that we’re never told that Jacob let go of God, or that the wrestling match ended, or even that God left Jacob. Jacob limped away from Peniel, but he did so knowing that God was with him in such a way that he could face any obstacle. We’re never told that they let go of each other. The story simply moves on right into the confrontation with Esau in chapter 33.

In some sense this means that God and Jacob remain bound to each other, facing the future together. I think maybe Saint Paul put it best when he wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Being a Christian isn’t always easy. Sometimes we have to fight and contend and wrestle our way through it. We do wrestle with our faith and with the world around us. But God is a wrestler too, and God comes to us and meets us where we are. And we can count on God to face the future with us the rest of the way through.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Parables | Proper 12 A

Worship Video

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31 He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”

33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. 46 When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, they pulled it to the shore, where they sat down and put the good fish together into containers. But the bad fish they threw away. 49 That’s the way it will be at the end of the present age. The angels will go out and separate the evil people from the righteous people, 50 and will throw the evil ones into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

They said to him, “Yes.”

52 Then he said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.” (CEB)

Parables

In past sermons, I’ve mentioned how most people interpret the parables of Jesus as though they are about us. But I tend to believe that the Scriptures tell us stories about God, not necessarily stories about us. It’s no surprise, then, that when we look at the parables from a different perspective, things tend to get a little more complex. This selection from Matthew gives us five parables to consider, which is a lot for one sermon.

The first parable, which is about the Mustard seed and plant, contains some serious exaggeration. In one instance of somewhat-related Old Testament imagery, the prophet Daniel compared the kingdom of Babylon to a towering tree standing at the center of the earth. It was as tall as the sky itself, and it could be seen from everywhere on earth (c.f. Daniel 4:10-11). Obviously, this imagery predated our realization that the earth is a sphere. Daniel said of the tree: “Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant; it had enough food for everyone. Wild animals took shade under it; birds nested in its branches. All living things lived off that tree” (Daniel 4:12 CEB).

We need to understand that Jesus was using hyperbole here. Jesus was not trying to convince us of his superior botany. We know that because his descriptions of the Mustard seed and plant are not botanically accurate. They’re not meant to be. A Mustard seed is certainly a small seed. I mean, aren’t all seeds small? But Mustard seeds are not the smallest of all seeds. Also, Mustard plants do not grow into a tree that can attract flocks of birds. It just doesn’t happen. Most Mustard plants are less than 3 feet tall. I’m pretty sure that only the smallest of birds could rest in a Mustard plant’s branches, because it’s not very big.

So, what was Jesus trying to say in this parable? What kind of kingdom is like a Mustard seed and the underwhelming plant it grows into?

Maybe it’s a kingdom that flies under the radar. Mustards are a little insidious. They aren’t huge plants, but when they take hold of a patch of ground, Mustards can take over. Mustards can chemically change the soil in which they’re growing to keep other plants from taking root. They make that dirt their own.

Also, the Mustard is not the analogy we expect for an analogy of God’s dominion. This kingdom does not come in the form we expect or even want it to. We think that everything about God is supposed to be big, powerful, strong, unbendable, unshakable! But in this parable, Jesus hints to us that the kingdom of heaven is not what we expect. It isn’t what we want it to be. It doesn’t work the way we think God ought to work. Sometimes, what we really want is a Zeus-like god in the sky chucking lightning bolts at people (but only if it’s the people we don’t like).

It’s no wonder so many of Jesus’ peers rejected him as the Messiah. Jesus was not a conquering hero they expected. He didn’t re-established the Davidic line along with the Kingdom of Israel. But Jesus is the Messiah that the world got: a guy who taught stuff like peace, love, nonviolence, generosity, acceptance, and praying for enemies—stuff that runs counter to our human way of thinking. God does not act according to our human paradigms and expectations. And that is what Jesus teaches us in this parable of the mustard seed. God’s dominion is coming, so expect the unexpected. Even though it looks small and spindly, it really is big enough for flocks of birds to call it home.

The parable of the yeast has a similar twist to it. It might seem like a mere baking illustration, but there’s more to it. In Jesus’ day, yeast symbolized corruption. Later in the Gospel, Jesus warned the people about the corruption of the religious leaders by saying, “Watch out and be on your guard for the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6 CEB).

Yeast was one of the things households had to get rid of in preparation for certain holy days. Yeast puffs up and bloats a loaf of dough. Seems like a fitting symbol for corrupt officials to me.

The proverb, A little yeast leavens the whole loaf is like saying, One bad apple spoils the barrel. For Jesus to say that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast is like describing it as something insidious that works in hidden ways that we can’t easily see. When you get a little spot of rust on your car, you know you’re already in trouble because it’s going to spread.

One little virus can turn a strong, healthy person into someone who can barely get out of bed. It turns me into a whiny, needy blob-on-the-couch who can’t do anything for myself except call out for my wife to please bring me whatever I need in that moment. I admit it. I’m a baby when I get sick.

The kingdom corrupts what we thought was strong and healthy. But it’s sort of a reverse corruption. By corrupting what is already corrupt, the kingdom of heaven reverses the corruption into something that’s healthy again.

To put it another way, the kingdom of heaven is a hidden force working to “corrupt” the world from its sin. The kingdom of heaven works kind of like the Dark Side of the Force in Star Wars: in secret and silence right under the eyes of the Jedi. It pervades the whole world, secretly infecting and affecting everyone who comes into contact with it. It’s the righteousness of God’s kingdom that sneaks into our messed up lives and corrupts the evil of the world into righteousness.

To emphasize the secretive and insidious nature of what’s happening, Jesus tells us that the woman hid the yeast in the dough. She didn’t innocently mix yeast with the flour, she hid it! And she hid the yeast in three measures of flour. Three measures are equal to roughly 50 pounds of flour. Fifty pounds of bread will feed a lot of people.

People don’t know quite what they’re getting when they eat this bread any more than they know what they’re getting into when they become a Christian. Belief in Jesus Christ requires repentance. It requires change from within us; change in our hearts and lives. It requires change in our perspective, our thoughts, our speech, our relationships, and our actions. And that change is inevitable.

Then we come to the parables of the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great value. Like most parables, I think they’re less about us and every bit about God. Maybe these parables mean to impress upon us just how far God is willing to go in order to possess us. In God’s eyes, we are the treasure hidden in a field, we are the pearl of great value for which God has been searching long and diligently. God has given everything, even God’s own Son, to make us God’s own possession.

We have been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ. And it might just surprise us that God sees so much value in us, that God could see a treasure or a precious pearl in something so despicable and wretched as us. But that is how God sees us. We were lost treasure, and God found us. We were a priceless pearl for which God had been searching, and we have been found. We are God’s priceless treasures, and God has given everything to make us God’s own, to come close to us, to be God with us. Think about that for a minute. If this parable describes God’s love for us, then God’s love is beyond calculation.

Then, there’s the parable of the net. It’s as much about the kind of evangelism the church ought to be doing as it is about judgment. It tells the church what kind of evangelism we ought to be doing because it primarily tells us what kind of evangelism God has already been doing. We sometimes forget that salvation is about God, not us. God has opened repentance and healing from our sin to everyone.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish” (Matthew 13:47 CEB). When a fisher casts a net into the sea he or she doesn’t know with absolute certainty what kind of fish they’re going to catch. The net can catch any kind of fish, and they’re all gathered up together. Those who fish cast the net deep and wide and haul everything in. How those fish get sorted out is something they can’t even begin to deal with until after the fish are caught. But, in this case, we’re told that our job is to catch fish. Someone else will handle the sorting.

So it is with the kingdom; so it ought to be with the church. God’s net gets cast deep and wide, and it brings in an abundance of people with an abundance of motivations. Yet, everyone is welcome. And we each have to trust that God’s grace and love will be at work in everyone the proverbial net drags in, including us.

Sometimes we need to hear the reminder that salvation is God’s thing. Salvation is God’s story. It’s not our story. God is the main character, not us. And that’s a good thing! We too are fish, after all. God is the fisher. We’re just a part of the haul brought in by the net. And thank God the net of the kingdom has been cast so deep and so wide. If God’s net weren’t big enough to catch the whole world, some of us who are sitting here might have been left out.

After teaching all these parables, Jesus asks his disciples a simple question, “Have you understood all these things?” And they answer, “Yes.” But Jesus leaves us with one more saying. “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest” (Matthew 13:52 CEB).

I think Jesus is simply reminding us that, like anyone who might become a scribe, being a disciple of Jesus Christ takes work, effort, and a willingness to learn even when we think we’ve got it all figure out. There is a learning curve to such mastery. As we learn, we begin to understand that there is value in the old and the new. Even those of us who are sticklers for the way it was need to make room for what is coming. Scribes would also share their knowledge. They helped others understand and learn for the benefit of the whole community. There is room in God’s kingdom for both old and new.

These parables describe the Kingdom of Heaven. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. It works in strange ways that we can’t always see or understand. Those whom God finds for the kingdom are worth more than we can imagine. And everyone is welcome. Everyone is invited.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Sower | Proper 10

Worship Video for July 12, 2020

 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

1 That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore.

3 He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. 4 As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6 But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. 7 Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. 8 Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. 9 Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”

18 “Consider then the parable of the farmer. 19 Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. 20 As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 21 Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 22 As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 23 As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce—in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.” (CEB)

The Sower

On the grounds of Duke University’s East Campus (formerly Trinity College) is a bronze statue of a sower. With a bag of seed at his feet, and a full pouch slung across his waist, The Sower holds his hand out in the act of casting seed onto whatever soil it might find.

Sower HERO

Bishop John Carlisle Kilgo thought the statue would inspire students as they worked through their four years of higher education and prepared to face the inevitable challenges of the world. After all, one never knows what kind of soil knowledge might find in the mind of the student. The goal for the students, of course, was to have the kind of mind—the kind of soil—where knowledge might take root, flourish, and produce fruit.

But the students quickly found another use for the statue. In an era when the women on campus were only allowed to go on three dates per week (which honestly seems like a lot of dates to me), The Sower statue became a kind of Cupid-like figure. The students could stroll around the campus with each other without it counting as a proper date. And, at some point, students started placing pennies in the hand of the sower. If the penny disappeared, the student who placed it could claim a kiss from their partner. Sometimes the seeds of love fell on fertile soil, and sometimes they didn’t. But many of those relationships worked their way from the sower’s hand to the sanctuary of Duke Chapel. Not all, but many. As with anything, you’ll never know unless you give it a try.

Romantic Duke HERO 1

Like that statue of the sower, the parables of Jesus can sometimes take on unexpected meaning. While Matthew provides an interpretation in verses 18-23 that seems very straightforward, parables tend to not end up as neat and straightforward as they appear at first glance. We typically interpret the subjects of Jesus’ parables as us.

We do that with the parable of the Good Samaritan where we think of ourselves as the people who ought to act like the Good Samaritan (or that we already are the Good Samaritan). But we might really be the person lying half-dead on the side of the road. The Good Samaritan might really be God who comes to us and offers us healing and care at God’s own expense.

So, Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus’ parable describes how different people might receive or react to the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Those who hear the news and don’t understand it have what was sown in their heart snatched away by the evil one. That’s the seed sown on the path. The seed sown on the rocky ground is the person who hears the news and receives it with joy but falls away when trouble comes because they don’t have deep roots. The seed sown among thorns are those who hear but the cares of the world or the lure of wealth choke the good news out so it doesn’t grow and doesn’t yield anything. The seed sown on good soil is one who hears, understands, and grows in the news of the kingdom. They bear fruit and yield bountifully. So, it sounds like the parable is about the different soils and those who hear the gospel.

But parables can be difficult to nail down. How do we identify, with absolute certainty, the various elements of the parable? After all, we might be the sower of the parable, right? We might be the ones casting seeds to those around us, meaning we’re the evangelists sharing the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven with others. That’s what we’re supposed to do as Christians, right?

In Matthew’s day, the early church struggled in Judea. They were a small group in a good-sized segment of an even larger empire. And while they had some impressive gains a few times early on, it wasn’t always easy to be a Christian in first century Judea.

So, maybe the parable is about the perseverance we need to have when we preach the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven because, while many will hear and reject it, fall away, or have it choked out of them, a few will accept it. I say a few because the success rate here looks like 25% to me. Of course, that assumption only counts the four types of soil. We don’t know how many seeds were actually cast. The success rate might be far lower or higher than 25%. Yet, those who hear and accept the good news will bear their own fruit and start sowing more seeds about God’s good news. The success rate of the seeds falling on good soil is a yield of 100 to 1, 60 to 1, or 30 to 1. So, yeah, we might be the sower in the parable.

Or, we might be the soil receiving the seed, and the state of our hearts and minds will determine how the seed cast upon us—the seed sown in our hearts and minds—will grow or not. My problem is that the state of my soil seems to change here and there. My soil is a little finicky. Sometimes the seed seems to fall flat on a hard path, and I don’t understand things. There have been times in my life when I just didn’t understand why something happened the way it did, or how God allowed something to happen. There’s an entire genre of Biblical literature called Wisdom Literature, where answer to those questions about why bad things happen to good people is basically… We don’t know!

Sometimes my soil is a little rocky, and my growth feels stunted. Sometimes my soil gets a little choked with briars and weeds because life happens, and I worry about things, or I get swamped with important stuff. It might seem hard to believe, but I have been busier during the COVID-19 shut down than I ever remember being. I’ve had to learn how to use new technology, find new ways to connect to our congregation, write a grant for new technology, research CDC and Health Department guidelines, consult with medical professionals who know a lot more than I do, write guidelines for reopening that make sense, and make sure I’ve communicated everything in as many ways as I possibly could. I had never live-streamed anything before we closed in March. I have to admit that I might not be in the best spiritual shape right now. My soil might be a little choked.

If we’re honest, we’re all four of those soils at different times in our life, aren’t we? I really doubt I’m the only one who’s occasionally rocky, full of thorns, or broken at times.

The beauty of this parable, to me, is that—no matter the state of our soil—God sows the seed on us anyway. God cares enough about us, loves us enough, that it doesn’t matter what our soil looks like. God throws a handful of seeds at us anyway. We, ourselves, might not see any hope for growth or any kind of crop yield, but God sees what we can’t.

I think that’s why Matthew titles this, “the parable of the farmer” or “the parable of the sower,” depending on which translation you read (Matthew 13:18 CEB & NRSV). The world might reject Jesus—we might even have rejected Jesus at some time in our lives—but Jesus does not reject us. Jesus tells this parable right when the opposition toward himself is ramping up. Chapters 11 and 12, which precede our text, provide several encounters where Jesus is being actively opposed. Some of the religious authorities are, at this point in the story, working to “destroy” Jesus (c.f. Matthew 12:14).

I think this parable is primarily about God’s extravagance. Let’s look at the parable itself. “A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. Everyone who has ears should pay attention” (Matthew 13:3-9 CEB).

Jesus sows the seeds of the gospel with a great deal of generosity, a great deal of extravagance, a great deal of what some might even call wastefulness.

But nothing God does goes to waste. We’re told that God cast some of the seeds on the path and the birds came and ate it. Do you think that was an accident? Do you think that went to waste?

You see, there’s nothing in this parable that suggests the birds eating these seeds is a bad thing. There’s no suggestion that the seeds were thrown onto the path accidentally. There’s no suggestion that the farmer is being careless in his sowing. We’re simply told that some fell on the path and the birds ate them. It’s possible that the farmer meant to throw some seed on that solid path because that’s exactly what that seed needed to grow and produce fruit.

When we’re packed-down and unyielding, God still casts seed on us. Even when the seed bounces right off our noggin, it doesn’t go to waste. Think about the time when you were at your absolute worst moment in life, when you were hurt to the core, maybe you were angry at God, maybe you didn’t want to believe just out of spite. There were likely people around you who loved you through that hurt; people who picked up those seeds for you until you were healed enough to bear them. Before, through, and after that difficult time, God was still scattering seed right at you. To this extravagant God, we are always worth the effort and the possibility.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God doesn’t do things that are unproductive or futile. “Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and don’t return there without watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater, so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend” (Isaiah 55:10-11 CEB). If God bothered to sow that seed on the path, then something will happen that God intends to happen, even if we can’t see what it might be. God scatters seed extravagantly and with varying results.

Why would Jesus tell us a parable like this? When you read the stories and teachings of Jesus, you begin to note that Jesus was a practical guy. The Methodism of the Wesley brothers was practical divinity. Faith, itself, is practical. If we come to accept and understand faith in Jesus Christ, then we get to work living that faith out in our every day and in our every encounter with every person. Faith in God is an every-day thing that gets dirty with us.

Maybe Jesus told this parable to show all of us that—no matter who we are or how long we’ve claimed to be a Christian—there’s always some groundwork that needs to be done.

If some of the seed God sows is falling on unprepared ground, maybe it’s because we haven’t cleared and tended the soil as we ought. Maybe we’ve got some work to do. Maybe we need to step into those rocky and choked places of the world and get our hands dirty until even that soil can support life to its fullest potential.

We get to work alongside God to turn rocky soil into something fertile. We get to work alongside God to clear out the thorns and weeds that hinder the flourishing of the seed God has sown.

There is a lot of rocky and thorn-choked soil out there, my friends. Sometimes, it’s ours. There is ministry to be done. God is already sowing seed in every heart we’ll ever encounter. Our responsibility is to love those hearts so fiercely that the rocks and thorns are cleared away and all that’s left is good, fertile soil and the potential for a mighty harvest. “Everyone who has ears should pay attention!” (Matthew 13:9 CEB).

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Yokes and Burdens | Proper 9

Worship Video

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

16 “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have shown them to babies. 26 Indeed, Father, this brings you happiness.

27 “My Father has handed all things over to me. No one knows the Son except the Father. And nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wants to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. 29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. 30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (CEB)

Yokes and Burdens

Back in 2005 or 2006, my wife was convinced that we needed to take ballroom dance lessons together. I don’t recall that I was as convinced as she was, but I agreed to give it a go. So, she signed us up through Miami University of Ohio, and we drove over to Oxford for our dance lessons. The dances we would learn in this beginner class were swing, waltz, and rumba.

I remember that one of the first things our instructor said after arranging us all in our starting positions is that men always start the dance with their left foot. Women always start the dance with the opposite foot. Which of course means that, even when it comes to dancing, women are always right.

In those early lessons, we were only concerned with counting the beats of the music, in various ways, and trying to keep our steps and movements coordinated. For waltz, it was one-two-three, one-two-three. For East Coast Swing, it was step-step-rockstep, step-step-rockstep. Rumba was similar to waltz, with three steps but four beats, so it was slow, quick-quick slow quick-quick. It wasn’t always easy. In those first classes, I had plenty of missteps.

But, by the end of the class, when we had a big dance party as our final exam, we didn’t have to count the beat out, or pay attention to where our feet were at each moment. By then, I was comfortable with myself and confident enough that Joy and I could simply lose ourselves in the music and dance.

John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth were both, sent from God, yet they danced, so to speak, to very different tunes. Even within first century Judaism, John would have been considered old-school. John was the prophet who survived on a diet of insects and wild honey in the wide-open wilderness. John chose to wear clothes of camel’s hair and a leather belt, which would have been scratchy and uncomfortable. John could be rather scathing in his address to those who came to hear him preach, even calling Pharisees and Sadducees “children of snakes.” His message was often one of God’s judgment and wrath: “The axe is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire” (Matthew 3:10 CEB). John’s signature sermon in Matthew 3 was about angry judgment, changing our hearts and lives, producing good fruit—sifting, gathering, and burning with fire that can’t be put out.

Jesus, on the other hand, was the teacher who dined at many tables—some fine, some ordinary—with all manner of company—some with upstanding reputations, some with reputations that no one in this room would want. Jesus was the one who used his divine power to produce 80 or so gallons of particularly fine wine so the festivities at a wedding could continue (c.f. John 2:1-11). Jesus began his signature sermon in Matthew 5 with a congratulatory tone by saying, “Happy are people who….”

Jesus, himself, recognized how different he and John were, yet also how alike they were in rejection. Those who rejected John and Jesus are compared to children in a market place who keep changing the rules of their game, or changing the tune of their song, then complaining that the John and Jesus weren’t dancing the way they wanted them to dance.

John, in all of his stern severity, wouldn’t lighten up and dance to the children’s flute. They thought John was a little too demanding; a lot too hellfire and brimstone for their taste. They tried to change John’s tune to something with a little more pep to it. But stubborn old-school John refused to pretend everything was okay: as if God won’t judge us by the fruit our lives have produced. So, those who were offended by John dismissed him by saying he had a demon.

Jesus came eating, drinking, and celebrating; essentially dancing to the very tune the people wanted John to dance to. But they thought Jesus’ message of God’s love and God’s acceptance of people who were clearly beyond salvation was unreasonable. Jesus, in his excessive inclusiveness, refused to mourn when the children tried to change his tune to something a little more palatable. Nothing tones down exuberance like a funeral dirge. They insisted the dance must cease, that Jesus must fall in line with their music.

It’s like that scene in the movie, Strictly Ballroom, when Dance Federation President Barry Fife responds to rumors of new dance moves by declaring, “There are no new steps.” All dance moves had to meet the established guidelines, and anything else would earn a quick disqualification. But Jesus came to lead us in a party dance like we’ve never imagined in celebration of God’s extravagant salvation. Jesus danced new steps to an ancient music. Yet, Jesus was a little much in some people’s opinion. Too irrational. Too out of step with how the world really is. So, those who were offended by Jesus dismissed him by calling him a glutton and a drunkard.

In a tone similar to John’s demand that his hearers produce fruit that shows they’ve changed their hearts and lives (c.f. Matthew 3:8), Jesus says that wisdom is proved to be right her works. Our deeds, our speech, our actions in life matter. That’s not always comfortable to hear. It’s much easier to digest the idea that if we only believe certain things, or ascent to certain ideologies, or—in the case of some of John and Jesus’ detractors—claim a certain genealogy. That God would demand real change in our thoughts about others and our behavior toward others is… well, that will actually take some work.

The prayer of Jesus beginning in verse 25 reminds us that Jesus is the full revelation of God. It also suggests something odd about the way God does things. Sometimes it’s the infants of the world, those deprived of power, the innocent hearts and naïve souls who somehow understand the ways of God better than the wise, learned, and powerful. God always stands unconditionally on the side of the lowly.

This is a truth which Mary, the mother of Jesus, knew to the depths of her soul, though she was not one of the educated, pillars of wisdom in Nazareth. Yet, she was able to sing the deepest truth about God, “He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed “ (Luke 1:50-53 CEB).

Maybe God works this way because the lowly and the have-nots already understand something about humility. Maybe it’s the worldview of the powerful and the haves that runs contrary to the tune God sang at the founding of creation. Maybe the teaching of Jesus enables us to see the way things really are: that the world really was crafted with love as its first ingredient and forgiveness as both an expression and proof of that love.

There’s also something paradoxical in the yoke and burden Jesus mentions. A yoke implies work. Animals are yoked so the plow driver can keep them on a straight line and ensure the furrows don’t wander all over the place. So, how can Jesus claim that his work is easy, especially after preaching the incredibly difficult lessons in the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus even said, “…the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it” (Matthew 7:14 CEB).

Becoming a disciple of Jesus begins in at least as much discomfort as learning to dance to the music that is played. The teachings of Jesus are difficult. Anyone who thinks the teachings of Jesus aren’t difficult obviously hasn’t bothered to read what Jesus taught. His teachings run counter to what our culture declares.

Nothing of what Jesus teaches comes to us naturally. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies. See how popular that turns out when your homeland has been occupied and annexed by an empire. It’s not natural. We have to learn. We have to work at those lessons, which always require us to change something within ourselves. Repentance—changing our heart and mind—is difficult work. Forgiving those who have hurt and wronged us is hard work. Loving people we’ve been taught our whole lives to despise is challenging work.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay” (Mere Christianity, Touchstone: New York, NY, p39).

Learning the ways of God begins as a burden that, quite surprisingly, morphs into the gift of rest and comfort. The more we work at it, the lighter the burden feels until it no longer feels like a burden at all. Eventually, it feels less like work and more like the way this world ought to work.

It’s kind of like learning to dance. The more you work at it, the easier it comes. Before long, you can recognize what dance goes with what song, even within the first few notes of the music. You learn that can’t waltz to Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing (with A Swing), or swing to John Altman’s Under The Bridges of Paris. It takes practice but, eventually, you’re able to simply lose yourself in the music and join in the dance. What began with difficulty becomes a part of you, and you a part of it.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Welcome | Proper 8

Worship Video

 

Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me. 41 Those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (CEB)

Welcome

It is not lost on me that our preaching text today is about receiving or welcoming others when this is our first Sunday worshipping together in person in sixteen weeks. Sixteen weeks is a long time to be apart, and I am grateful that we have found ways to be the church to each other even when we couldn’t gather as we all would have liked.

These are the last few words of Jesus’ missionary discourse where he sent out the apostles like sheep among wolves (10:16), without money, without a backpack, without extra clothes, or so much as a walking stick (10:9-10). Jesus was talking about those who will potentially receive the apostles on their missionary journey. If we take these words strictly as-is, should the apostles arrive at your door, then make sure you receive them well. Then again, if the apostle’s show up at your door, then the Day of Resurrection is likely upon us and the Heavens are about to break loose.

We know from the context that Jesus is talking about hospitality, but interpreting verse 41 and 42 is a bit of a pain. It begs many questions about meaning and translation. Different translations render the Greek text in different ways. For example, the Common English Bible, which we use, says, “Those who receive a prophet as a prophet…” and “Those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person…” will receive the appropriate reward (c.f. Matthew 10:41 CEB).

The literal rendering of the Greek says that whoever receives a prophet or a righteous person in the name of those things will receive the proper reward. It could also mean because. Whoever welcomes a prophet or a righteous person simply because they are those things will receive the appropriate reward.

But what that means—how we’re supposed to understand this—is unclear. The reward in question isn’t clear either. It simply means proper payment for work or some deed that has been done. It can actually refer to either a reward or a punishment depending on that work or deed. It’s essentially getting what you deserve.

And, what is the reward? When is it given? Is it something in the future like heavenly treasures, or is it a more immediate reward, like when my children get a sucker after visiting the doctor’s office? (I often get a sucker, too, because you’re never too old for a Dum Dums pop).

There’s also the question about what’s meant by a righteous person and a prophet, especially in regard to the sending of the apostles. Do these labels, prophet and righteous person, apply to the apostles only or might they refer to others? And, who are the little ones?

Some suggest these little ones is a reference to the apostles because it’s a part of the Missionary Discourse. And that may well be the case. But I think it’s also important to recognize a connection to the other uses of this designation in Matthew’s Gospel, including the least of these in the parable of the sheep and the goats. (Matthew 25:31-46). In that sense, these little ones likely points to everyone we might encounter, especially the poor, marginalized, and powerless. The apostles, themselves, would not have held a particularly high social or religious standing except, perhaps, within the fledgling early church. They were just fishermen, a tax collector, and other everyday people.

On top of all these interpretive questions and difficulties, there’s also the problem that, as the readers of the text, we can’t really pin down our point of view. We might be the apostles who are being sent out. We might also be the ones to whom the apostles are sent. We seem to be the ones called to give a cup of water to the little ones. Yet, we might also be the little ones to whom the refreshing water is given.

For only being three verses, this passage brings up a lot of questions, and I know I’ve raised a lot of them. Probably too many for one sermon.

Despite all these questions, I believe there is something incredibly—profoundly—relevant for us to get from this. Because, even if these words of Jesus were meant specifically for the apostles in that moment of being sent out, the Gospel of Matthew, itself, was written for us. It was written for those of us who would read it later and learn the teaching of Jesus through its stories. So, here’s what I suggest.

First, I think it’s best if we recognize that the “littles ones” point to both the apostles and the marginalized. That’s what Jesus taught and it’s what Jesus did by example. Jesus welcomed everyone. Jesus was always inviting, receiving, and welcoming people, from religious big-wigs to prostitutes on the street. We are expected to show the same example of welcome to the same kinds of people, no matter who they are, where they’re from, how their past is complicated, what language they speak, or what they look like.

The hospitality which Jesus expected these little ones to receive was an extension of the hospitality that is rooted in God’s very nature. God is love. God is the very definition of welcome. God’s welcoming love surrounds us whether anyone else thinks we’re worthy of it or not, whether anyone would deem us righteous or not, whether anyone would consider us religious or not.

God is the one who hosts us every day. Everything we can see, touch, smell, feel, and taste belongs to God. Even the stuff we can’t sense was created by God. We are the recipients of God’s immense hospitality, and we have the immense privilege to show God how grateful we are by providing God-level hospitality and welcome to others no matter who they are, what their story is, or where they come from.

We see this throughout the Old Testament law, prophets, and writings. God commands God’s people to show hospitality and welcome to others. I know I’ve mentioned a few of these verses before, but I’ll mention them again. Exodus 22:21 says, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (CEB). God’s requirements here are pretty straightforward. Don’t mistreat or oppress people who are different from us.

Then, Leviticus 19:34 gets more specific. It says: “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (CEB). In fact, twice in Leviticus 19, God tells the people, “you must love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18 CEB). Love must be the primary characteristic of the Christian because love is the primary characteristic of our God.

The call to love our neighbor is taken up three times in Matthew’s Gospel. The first is in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:43-48 CEB). Love your neighbor is also mentioned in Matthew chapters 19 and 22, by the way.

If “these little ones” in Matthew 10 are connected to “the least of these” in Matthew 25, then Jesus means to tells us that giving a cup of cold water to a little one—showing mercy and compassion to the least among us—results in the highest reward. If you go and read Matthew 25, you’ll see that’s exactly what happens. The rewards there are “good things” and inheriting the kingdom that God has prepared for us.

Our responsibility to God and our command from God—maybe we could call it our job—is to love others. We’re even required to do the difficult work of loving those whom we consider our enemies! In one of Jesus’ parables that describes the matter of receiving others, Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a net that people cast into the sea to gather all kinds of fish. They hauled the catch ashore and started to separate the good fish from the bad fish. Then, he says it will be like that at the end of the present age. The angels will separate the good from the bad. Not us. We, the church, are the net. We’re to fling our arms open wide to receive and welcome anyone and everyone we can. If there’s any separating or sorting that needs doing, God will take care of that part. We don’t get to do it ourselves (c.f. Matthew 13:47-50).

If God’s hospitality is offered to everyone—even us—without limitation, then our hospitality should be, too. When it comes to welcoming prophets or righteous people, we can’t tell who they are by looking at them. Our call is to receive and welcome people with simple, basic acts of kindness. With each opportunity that presents itself, God invites us to extend genuine hospitality to a world that desperately needs all the love and compassion it can get. This kind of compassionate welcome is how we approach one another—and those who are not yet a part of our congregation—through the love of God.

When we put the grace-filled hospitality of God’s love at the center of our lives and our relationships—even the difficult relationships—we are living into God’s expectations of discipleship. When we do that, when we live into receiving others and showing hospitality—even something as insignificant as offering a cup of cold water to one who needs it—we are often the ones who feel rewarded by the experience.

“Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40 CEB). When we show hospitality and welcome, when we receive others, we are hosting Christ Jesus and the One who sent him into the world for our sake. It’s a significant responsibility. And, it’s very much a privilege of discipleship.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Remember | Holy Trinity A

Worship Video

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (CEB)

Remember

Trinity Sunday is kind of like the Church’s kickoff for summer vacation of sorts. It marks the end of that string of seasons filled with all the great holy days like Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. In fact, there are no more commemorations of Christ on the liturgical calendar until Christ the King, which is the Sunday before Advent begins, and we have half a year to go until Advent. Oh, we’ve got All Saints’ Day on November 1st, but other than that, the church calendar is relatively quiet.

Of all the church’s dogma’s, God as Trinity—Three-In-One; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is one of the more difficult ones to understand. Kind of like the infinite nature of God. Try to wrap your head around the idea that God is infinite, with no beginning and no end. God is a mystery, and a full understanding of God is very much beyond our cognitive abilities. God can neither be comprehended by our limited human imaginations nor defined by our limited human languages.

Leslie Newbigin, a Bishop of the Church of South India and one of the 20th century’s most prominent theologians, wrote, “In the ears of the vast majority of people, the word ‘God’ certainly does not evoke the thought of the triune God. The public image of God is unitarian. And this is, of course, not new. I remember a visit to the ruins of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, when, as we walked from one part of the site to another, a friend read the relevant text from the official guide at each point. When we reached the ruins of the Chapter House, the text was as follows: ‘Here the monks gathered every Sunday to hear a sermon from the Abbot, except on Trinity Sunday, owing to the difficulty of the subject’” (Newbigin, The Trinity as Public Truth, p2).

The Holy Trinity is, indeed, a difficult concept. But why should anyone think otherwise? Afterall, we’re talking about God. As I’ve already said, we can’t have a full understanding of God. All we know about God is what God has revealed to us. What we can know is God’s love, and God’s love is most fully revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ.

We know that our Holy Scriptures speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but what we read in Scripture is not the fully-defined Trinitarian Doctrine we have today and recite in the Nicene Creed. That didn’t develop until the fourth century, and only then because some really bad theology was threatening the church. What Matthew probably knew at the time he wrote his Gospel is that Christians speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and such speech did not run contrary to the theology that God is one, and the Lord alone is the true God (c.f. Deuteronomy 6:4). Well-defined Trinitarian doctrine was not something Matthew was concerned about.

Rather, Matthew was more concerned about how to get the relatively small, comparatively powerless, and somewhat apprehensive church to venture out into a rather frightening world and speak the Gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ—to the powers that be: powers that proved so often to be in opposition to the good news. The early church knew better than we do—because we don’t often think about it—that the story of Jesus Christ begins and ends with the violence of empire and the injustices and abuses associated with human power.

Think about this event, where Jesus speaks these final instructions to his disciples. They’re gathered on a mountain so insignificant that it isn’t even named in the text. They’re in Galilee, of all places, which was a backwater region of the empire. The number of disciples is down to eleven. Some of the disciples are doubtful even as this event unfolds. Even as they see the resurrected Jesus. Even as Jesus speaks to them. It’s not exactly a powerful beginning for the church. Yet, throughout the human story, God has chosen to show God’s glory, God’s redemption, God’s salvation, and God’s power in frailty and weakness. Especially—and always—the frailty, weakness, and vulnerability of love.

Paul talks about this enigma in 2 Corinthians 4: “God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies. We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying” (2 Cor. 4:6-11 CEB).

Love requires vulnerability and self-giving of the one who loves. Love acts in specific ways. Paul describes what love does and doesn’t do in 1 Corinthians 13, which I invite you to read again (before the next wedding you attend). Those with earthly power turn to violence and brutality out of fear and hate, but those who love act with confidence that God is more powerful than the so-called powers of the world.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is, at its very core, a doctrine of loving relationship. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a unity of love that is the definition of relationship and self-giving. That’s why John can say, “We have known and have believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them” (1 John 4:16 CEB).

In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus reminds us to carry the loving relationship we have with God and with each other out into the world so we can build even more relationships. That’s how we make disciples. We show people that we love them and build relationships. We can invite others to be in relationships with us, but really, we’re sent out to show others that we desire to be in relationships with them. Making disciples is an outwardly focused activity.

We’re to make disciples of all nations, but that word nation does not mean modern nation-states as we know them. The Greek word is ethnos. It means people who are not like you; foreigners. Tom Long notes that Biblical truths are easier to swallow when they’re nice thoughts in a prayer book. But when it’s something you’re expected to strap your boots on and get done, it can suddenly look intimidating (Feasting on the Word, A.3, p47). Kind of like loving your enemies and praying for those who harass you (c.f. Matthew 5:44). They’re nice thoughts, but to actually have to do them… that’s another matter.

Yet, Matthew reminds us that God is continually present with us. Jesus came to be Emmanuel, which means God with Us. Followers of Jesus Christ are never alone. We can have confidence in our work of disciple making and teaching because Jesus has all. The word all is used four times in verses 18-20. Jesus has all authority. We’re commanded by Jesus to make disciples of all peoples. We’re commanded by Jesus to teach them to obey all that Jesus has commanded us. And Jesus has all the days until the end of the age.

Matthew also reminds us that God’s authority makes human authority look like the fleeting and insignificant thing it really is. As much as the powerful try to hold on to their power by any means they can—including violence—power always slips from their grasp. Matthew assures us that all power belongs to God. And that power has been given to Jesus who is always with us.

It’s worth noting again that some of the disciples doubted even as they saw and worshiped Jesus. Doubt is a common theme for the disciples. The same disciples who followed Jesus were riddled with doubt. They sound a lot like us, I think. Yet, Jesus never belittles them for their doubt. Instead, Jesus encourages those with little faith. The disciples didn’t have a full understanding of God any more than we do. But it doesn’t require a full understanding to be faithful and obedient to the commandments and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Trinity Sunday reminds us that the Persons of the Trinity are connected to each other in intimate relationship, and we are invited into that relationship. God’s actions have shown us that we are loved. We are connected to each other in a loving community and we are compelled to love the people around us—people different from us. We’re to love others so relentlessly, in fact, that each person knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are loved.

Trinity Sunday is all about relationships. And we are invited to go deeper, to love better, to open our arms wider, to see more clearly how intimately connected we are to God, and to each other: those whom we know and those who are foreign to us. Our call is to go and love as the Triune God has loved us. Love is how we make disciples. More than anything else, our loving words and actions are what teach the commandments of Jesus.

While Trinity Sunday marks the end of those seasons packed full of great Holy days and festivals, there is also a sense that this Sunday hands us off to fulfill the commission of Jesus. This season acts like a reflection of the post-ascension lives of the disciples. With our Lord’s Great Commission still ringing in our ears, it’s time to go and make disciples of all.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay

One Spirit | Pentecost

The Scripture reading and sermon are posted below the videos.

Worship Service videos (Due to a camera issue, we had to post it in two parts).

 

CCLI #4051999 | One License #735189-A

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

3b no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. 4 There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; 5 and there are different ministries and the same Lord; 6 and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. 8 A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, 9 faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, 10 performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. 11 All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.

12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. (CEB)

One Spirit

I remember that, as a teenager and probably a few years into my 20s, I used to be a little worried about the idea of “Spiritual Gifts.” First, I wondered if I had any because I didn’t see anything in me that was particularly special. Yet, Paul seems to insist that we all have them.

I’d heard people talk about Spiritual Gift Inventories, which are questionnaires that you can fill out to determine what your supposed Spiritual gifts are. But I also wondered if God would really make it so difficult to figure these things out. I mean, really? A questionnaire? Let’s call it what it is: a test? I don’t like tests. I never did well on tests, so I didn’t bother with any of the inventories out there. But I was deeply curious to know what my Spiritual gift might be. (Also, do you only get one?).

Here’s what I knew. I couldn’t perform any miracles (believe me, I tried). I barely knew what wisdom was, let alone be able to utter it. I was still a student during those years, so knowledge, well, I was still working on that one. I thought I had faith, but I know I’m not the only one out there who tried that whole tell a tree to be uprooted and planted into the sea thing only to have the tree stay right where it was. Maybe part of the problem was that we don’t really have a sea in Evansville, so my attempt failed because of a technicality. I would have tried to move a mountain, but we didn’t have any mountains in Evansville, either. Speaking in tongues… heck, I barely passed high school German. Healing… I tried to heal myself of the need for glasses. I prayed for it many times, but it obviously didn’t work.

Still, I wondered. When was the Holy Spirit gonna hit me up with my gift? How would I know when I got it? What cool things would I be able to do? Personally, I was hoping for the ability to time travel and, maybe, manipulate matter with my mind.

But that’s where I was totally going wrong. I kind of thought about Spiritual gifts in terms of superpowers or, at least, extraordinarily cool things. I mean, it’s really Paul’s fault because he casually mentions the gift of “performance of miracles” in verse 10, and I’m like, Can I get that one, please?! I’m gonna miraculously find me a pot of gold.

And, just like the Christians at Corinth, that’s another part of this Spiritual gift thing that I was getting wrong. Spiritual gifts are not for me. They aren’t even mine. This gift cannot be separated from the giver. The gift isn’t about me. The gift isn’t even for me. That’s what took me so long to understand.

The Corinthians were so much like us in many ways. They were just as self-centered as any of us can be. They were just as divided about how they understood their Christian faith and how they were to live as followers of Jesus as we can be. They could see themselves, their faith, their ways, their beliefs, and their gifts, even their wealth, as superior to others just as readily as we do. In other words, they were just as flawed, just as broken, just as human as we are.

They exasperated Paul as much as we would exasperate Paul. And they really disliked Paul as much as we would dislike Paul if he were writing to us. Honestly, if you don’t think you would dislike Paul, then you aren’t reading First and Second Corinthians as if you’re on the receiving end of his tongue-lashing, criticism, and what’s essentially name-calling (he describes them as spiritual babies and milk-drinkers, remember).

But, mostly, Paul was upset with the Corinthian Christians because they failed to grow into a true community. In Chapter 11, Paul chewed them out for the way they ate the Lord’s meal—what was supposed to be a shared community meal. They didn’t wait for each other. Some ate privately, apart from the others and, therefore, not as a community. Some got drunk while others—always the poor—went hungry. They shared Holy Communion by not sharing in community. They partook of the Lord’s Supper separately, inequitably, and non-communally. What was supposed to be worshipful of God ended up humiliating the poor. Anyone who has ever read the Bible knows that God loves and takes extra particular care to mention over and over again God’s favor for the poor and vulnerable.

The Corinthians were not living as a God-centered community ought. Paul describes the church community in egalitarian terms, but the Corinthians weren’t living that way. They even bragged about their Spiritual gifts to the point that they were, apparently, setting up a hierarchy of which gifts were more important or desirable than others. Can you believe the arrogance? Yeah, we ought to because we see it all the time. Paul’s discussion of Spiritual matters in chapter 12 is a continuation of his pointing out exactly where the Corinthians—and often times we—have gone wrong.

Spiritual gifts, Paul says, are not for the sake of individuals. Spiritual gifts are given to each individual for the sake of the community, and for reaching others in the name of Jesus Christ. They’re given by God as a grace for the common good. They’re to unite us rather than cause division. No one gift is more important than another.

Paul’s use of the body metaphor wasn’t new. The Romans used that metaphor, which they called the Body Politic. The idea was that each person had their place. They should know their place and stay there. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy should do their job, no matter how menial, for the greater glory of the empire. Because, what really mattered was not you, the individual, but the empire. So, if you made your living by cleaning sewers, keep at it for the glory of Rome! Paul uses the idea but changes it to show how no one part is more or less important than another. All are equal in God—Greeks, Jews, Romans, slaves, citizens, women, men: all are equal. It was a radical concept.

Paul’s lists of Spiritual gifts, themselves (c.f. Romans 12), are not exhaustive. They’re simply a few of the gifts he saw at work among the early church communities. Part of me wonders if he didn’t throw the performance of miracles in there—in part—to shame those Corinthians who were boasting of the priority and loftiness of their cool gifts. Some Greek language scholars suggest that the word “gift,” as it’s translated into English, is slightly problematic, because we think of gifts as belonging to the one who receives it. In other words, we think the gift belongs to us. But we cannot separate what is received from the one who gave it.

While the Greek word in 12:4 does refer to something that is given or bestowed, the keyword is found in verse 7. These gifts are demonstrations or disclosures of the Spirit. Some translations use the word manifestation. These are demonstrations of God, not demonstrations of our own power. These are gifts with which God graces us for the sake of the church. In other words, the gifts are meant to reveal God to others and, in so doing, to build up the community of faith. Yet, the gifts aren’t necessarily superpowers.

Ironically, we live in a time when we wonder if any Spiritual gifts are real. We can doubt that the Holy Spirit still works and moves in ways that we might describe as miraculous or powerful. But why should we assume that Spiritual gifts are only miraculous or powerful?

Wisdom is simply practical instruction on how to live. Most of the book of Proverbs is instruction on how to make good choices so we can live well. We gain wisdom through life experience and through learning the ways of God. Yet, wisdom is a Spiritual gift because wisdom’s source is God. “The LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6 CEB).

Knowledge, too, is a gift from God. The ability to learn is wired into us. Knowledge and understanding about God and God’s ways come from God.

Faith is given by the Holy Spirit, too. Faith is our belief that God is reliable. Faith is acceptance that Jesus came from God. Faith is revealed in our actions and speech toward each other.

Healing can be many things, not only miraculous and instantaneous healing. More often than not, healing is a process. Sometimes, the process of healing begins with something as simple as listening to a person who needs to talk or being present with a person through their illness or difficulty.

Healing isn’t always physical. Sometimes, we need our hearts put back together, or we need our souls restored. When people walk with us through those trials, it can be incredibly healing. Healing was one of the main things Jesus came to do. He healed outcasts by restoring them to community. He healed sinners by offering them a new way to live, and telling then they were loved and accepted by God. Sometimes he resorted health and cured ailments, but physical healing was never the limit. Jesus welcomed prostitutes and tax collectors into God’s dominion. He gave the broken and rejected people of the world a home. That’s healing.

Paul also mentions performance of miracles as a Spiritual gift, which we see in various places throughout Scripture.

Prophecy is another gift, but prophecy is not foretelling the future. Prophecy and the role of prophets is to call people out for their misdeeds, and to call people back to the ways of faithfulness to God. Prophecy is to hold up a vision of the way things could be, to paint a vision of a better world. Prophets proclaim God’s word and ways to the world. Prophecy, therefore, is what I do every time I preach a sermon.

Discerning spirits, and speaking and interpreting languages are more gifts Paul mentions. In Romans 12, Paul mentions service, teaching, and encouragement as other Spiritual gifts. Note that performing a miraculous deed of power is only one of many Spiritual gifts. Paul says they’re all of equal importance. Whatever the gift might be, the gifts are for the common good. And, in the next chapter, Paul reminds us that without the exercise of love, all Spiritual gifts are meaningless.

Instead of trying to figure out what our God-imbued superpower is by taking a test (or even hoping for a God-imbued superpower at all), maybe a better way to discern our Spiritual gifts is by delving into the spiritual practices that connect us to God and to each other; practices that open us up to the movements and promptings of God. You might just find that you’ve been using your Spiritual gift for a long time.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, on which we celebrate the birthday of the Church. It’s the day the Holy Spirit came to a fledgling community-in-hiding and built that community into something beyond imagination. If you think about it, the church, itself, is a Spiritual gift, and everyone is invited to be an integral part of this egalitarian faith community. There are many gifts but the same Spirit; different ministries but the same Lord; many activities but the same God who produces them in everyone.

By God’s design, the church is wonderfully diverse. As it was for the Christians in Corinth, the matter of unity in the midst of that magnificent diversity is kind of up to us.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Believe in God | 5th of Easter

John 14:1-14

1 “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. 2 My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? 3 When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. 4 You know the way to the place I’m going.”

5 Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

6 Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.”

8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

9 Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. 12 I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. 14 When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it. (CEB)

Worship Video

Trust in God

John 14 is a text that we often hear at funerals or beside freshly dug graves. In fact, our pervasive use of this text during times of death and loss almost makes it strange for us to hear it read on the fifth Sunday of Easter. Afterall, the Season of Easter is about resurrection and life. So why would we read a passage from Scripture that is so deeply associated with death?

One reason might be that death is kind of a prerequisite to resurrection. We don’t get to experience the joy of Easter without the horror of Good Friday. Good Friday isn’t exactly a popular holy day. One can see that in the attendance record at Good Friday worship services. We can say we revere Good Friday, but very few people actually show up to bear witness to the agony of our God as we walk through the account in Scripture. That’s one of the reasons why the church has moved to include the Passion narratives on Palm Sunday. We call it Palm/Passion Sunday now. We slip the Passion in there because we know most people are not going to experience it during Holy Week.

Another reason why we read this text during the Easter season might be that the church today finds itself in the same predicament that the disciples were about to find themselves in of Jesus-in-absentia (at least physically absent). John 14 begins Jesus’ lengthy farewell discourse in which he prepares his followers for his absence. Things are about to radically change. Jesus knows he’s going to die. But he also knows he’ll rise from death and ascend to glory. He’ll return to God whence he came. He also knows that we will follow him in this pattern. Jesus, in this passage, is about to go ahead of us. But the relationship doesn’t end with death.

Still, the hearts of his disciples are troubled. Remember, all of this is taking place in the upper room. Jesus has just washed the feet of his disciples. He has just announced that he will be betrayed. He has just finished telling Peter that he will deny him three times before the rooster crows. The growing anxiety in the room must have been thick enough to cut with a knife. And Jesus next words to this group of troubled disciples is, “Don’t be troubled” (John 14:1a CEB).

Now, this feels a little like being told to calm down. I saw a meme once that said, “Never in the history of calm down has anyone who was told to calm down ever actually calmed down.” Being told to calm down usually raises our hackles, doesn’t it? Unless the person speaking is someone we know, love, and trust. If it’s a random person, them’s fightin’ words. If it’s a parent or spouse or loved one whom we know and trust is in solidarity with us, who is ready to walk through fire and flood with us, that trust enables us to listen instead of react.

I don’t know whether the disciples were able to listen right away, but it seems by their questions and comments that they were struggling to understand their present and their future. They had just been told that they would betray, deny, and abandon Jesus. Their hearts were definitely troubled. So, Jesus tells them to trust; to believe. “Trust in God. Trust also in me” (John 14:1b CEB).

In John’s writings, trust, belief, or faith, however the Greek word is translated, is never a person’s inner intellectual assent or agreement. Faith, belief, trust is almost exclusively an active commitment that is outwardly displayed in how we behave. If we believe, trust, have faith in Jesus, then our actions will display the love and compassion of Jesus. The well-dressed words that come out of our mouth matter very little if our actions fail to live up to the standard Jesus set by his example. Jesus didn’t teach intellectual agreement. Jesus taught love, acceptance, and forgiveness by loving, accepting, and forgiving.

So, when Jesus tells his disciples to trust in God and trust in him, he’s telling them to live like they trust in God and in him. Again, it’s important for us to remember the context of Jesus’ words. “After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, ‘Do you know what I’ve done for you? You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do’” (John 13:12-15 CEB). We have faith, belief, or trust in Jesus by continuing to serve each other and those outside our community of faith as Jesus served. “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (John 13:34-35 CEB).

What are the things that trouble our hearts? The whole world is in a difficult season of life right now. The pandemic we’re facing has caused innumerable fears and concerns. Some of us are worried about paying our bills. Some of us are worried about our health. Some of us are worried about loved ones and friends who are in medical professions. Some of us are worried about our retirement accounts and whether we’ll have enough to sustain us in the coming years. Some of us are simply struggling with the isolation, itself. The Indiana 211 hotline has gone from about 1,000 calls a day to 25,000 calls a day. I read that the national suicide hotline saw an 891% increase in calls. People are struggling to cope. We can get through this difficult time by living out our trust in God. That means we continue to love each other and continue to serve as Jesus taught us.

As Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure, he reminded them that he was going ahead of them to prepare a place. He says his Father’s house has room to spare. There’s a lot of room in God. God is eternally roomy. God is expansively available. Eternal life is entrance into God’s vast and roomy being. Our place, the place to which Jesus will gather us in resurrection from death, is eternal life in God. The place to which Jesus will gather us is God’s own self. Probably less a location than a relational presence. It’s impossible to know the fullness of what this means, but we can trust that where Jesus is, we will be also.

This is ancient Jewish wedding imagery. A groom would go and prepare a place for his bride. Then, he would formally come to her parents’ house and take her to where he lives, so she can live with him as part of his larger family. Jesus makes room for us as part of his extremely large family. He gathers us together in a new household.

Yet, like Thomas, there are times in our lives where we find ourselves lost enough to say, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5 CEB). That’s when Jesus reminds us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 CEB). Now, there are some who take this to point to a kind of Christian exclusivity or triumphalism. But that’s not what this means. God can save anyone that God wants to save. God can invite anyone into God’s household that God wants to invite, and there’s not a dang thing that you and I can do about it. Except, perhaps, rejoice.

If Jesus wanted the disciples to aim for a narrow exclusivity, then he would have told us how his Father’s house has only a few rooms, and those will be set aside only for those who are good enough. After all, Jesus can’t let just any old riffraff into his Father’s house. What would the neighbors think?

No! Jesus said that his Father’s house has room to spare. Jesus came to save the riffraff: people like you and me, if we’re honest about ourselves. There’s room for all of us, and Jesus will come and take us to that place. We have a home in God, so there’s no reason for us to be troubled.

Or, like Philip, we might ask Jesus for more specific directions: “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us” (John 14:8 CEB). That’s when Jesus reminds us of his oneness with the Father. “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves” (John 14:9-11 CEB).

What we are invited to hear as we read through this passage is God’s initiative in Jesus Christ for us to come to God. None of this is our doing. None of this is our acting. God has acted in Jesus Christ on our behalf. Salvation is God’s initiative. God has revealed God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. God’s self-knowledge is revealed in God’s love, God’s self-emptying, God’s self-sacrifice in Jesus Christ.

Jesus came to be Emmanuel, which is God With Us. It should be a source of amazement and comfort to know that God has unequivocally chosen not to be God Without Us. Trust that God has space for you. God has prepared room for you, no matter how messed up, troubled, hurting, broken down, or unfinished you may be. We are invited to trust in God and trust in Jesus: to live as a member of God’s house according to the ways members of this household ought to act.

The way we follow the way, the truth, and the life, is by living the way Jesus lived. It means we embody the values he embodied. It means we hold fast to the truth he exemplified. It means that we spend our lives giving of ourselves and sharing with the world this life-altering, love-centered, abundantly roomy good news.

Jesus said that whoever believes in him will do the works that he does (c.f. John 14:12). Following Jesus means we live our story as if it’s Christ’s story. We live as though we’re family. We welcome others and make room for them the same way God has welcomed us and made room for us. We get to create space for others the same way Christ has made space for us. This is the greater work to which we’re called. God is always making room. And since we’re people of God’s expansive and ever-expanding household, that’s what we’re called to do as well.

It’s fitting that this is a text we use so often at funerals, because it’s a text that invites us to new, abundant, and eternal life.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Devoted | 4th Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:42-47

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (CEB)

Devoted

The first verse of this text highlights four important things that we Christians need. The first need is the Apostles’ Teaching. The teaching of the apostles was a continuation of the teaching of Jesus. The teaching of Jesus—who is God—was a continuation of what God had already told us through the Law and the Prophets.

And, just like the Law and the Prophets and Jesus, the teaching of the apostles is primarily about our ethics: it’s about how we act, especially toward others. How we treat other people matters profoundly to God.

The apostle John taught that we should love each other, not with word or speech, but with action and truth (c.f. 1 John 3:18). The apostle James taught that our actions show whether we really have faith or not (c.f. James 2:1-26). The apostle Peter taught that we should set ourselves apart by our obedience to the truth, which results in genuine affection and loving each other deeply (c.f. 1 Peter 1:22). He also taught that, above all, we should show sincere love to each other because love brings about forgiveness (c.f. 1 Peter 4:8).

Jesus, himself, kind of boiled everything down to love. If we love God and if we love our neighbor, we’re fulfilling what God requires of us. That “love your neighbor as yourself” thing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke came from Leviticus 19:18. In both Leviticus and according to Jesus, the definition of neighbor was expanded to include people we might not want to include if we were left to our own preferences.

In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, the legal expert who questioned Jesus about the greatest commandment agreed that loving God and loving our neighbors is more important than all the other religious stuff we might do. It does not mean that our religious stuff—our activities, rituals, tithing, or whatever else we might do—are unimportant. They are important. But how well we love each other—or not—matters more. It’s exactly what the prophet Micah taught when he said, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB).

The first forty-one verse of Acts chapter 2 describe the Day of Pentecost: the sound of rushing wind, the tongues of flame, the disciples speaking in other languages, and Peter’s sermon that brought three-thousand people into the church. It was a day of great enthusiasm. But enthusiasm for anything has a tendency to burn out in a short while. In seminary, I was enthusiastic about mastering Biblical Hebrew…until about chapter 3. If the disciples hadn’t done something to encourage and enable long-term commitment to Jesus, the enthusiasm of Pentecost would have been a short-term high, and a mighty letdown.

But, led by the Holy Spirit, the people of the church devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. They moved right into the task of teaching what the church is, how the church ought to act, and what the church ought to do. And remember, we are the church. Church is not a building. Church is people. Church is us. Without us, this building is not a church. Even without a building, we are the church.

The second need in verse 42 is the Community. We live together in community. We’re all part of many different communities: our local church community, our school community, our broader civic community, our Girl Scout or Scouts community. When I lived in Fort Wayne, my family had a Taekwondo community. Community is about people relating to other people. Sometimes we do that well, and sometimes we don’t do that so well. In the church, we’re Christian people, yes, but we’re still people. And people don’t always get along. Jesus taught the apostles two important matters about community.

The first is about when we mess up and maybe do something to hurt someone else. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus said: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift” (CEB). In other words, if you messed up, and you realize you’ve messed up, then you go make your relationship with that person right again. The reconciliation of that relationship is more important to God than bringing our gifts to the altar.

The second is about when others hurt us. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus said, “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector” (CEB).

Now, a lot of people who read this text think, well, I did A, B, and C, and the jerk didn’t repent, so now I’m done with them. Jesus said I get to cut them out of my life and treat them like a tax collector and a sinner. But, if you think about it, that interpretation doesn’t quite jive with Jesus. How did Jesus treat tax collectors and sinners? Jesus offered invitations for all people, including those tax collectors and sinners, to be in relationship with him.

With broken relationships, we only have broken community. Relationships within a community are incredibly important, and in most cases we ought to try for reconciliation.

Now, I say, in most cases because there is a pastoral caveat here. If a relationship is abusive, get out of it. Whether it’s emotional abuse, mental abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse, get out. Get out of that relationship and get help from people who love you and will protect you. That’s what Jesus wants for you. We don’t stay in abusive relationships to try to save the abuser. I was ordained in 2006, commissioned to full-time pastoral ministry in 2003, and I’ve been doing professional ministry since 1999. In my 21 years of professional ministry, I’ve never saved anyone. Saving people is what Jesus does, not us. We aren’t allowed to be that arrogant.

If you’ve suffered abuse, it is not your fault. Get out of that relationship and get help. The problem in that relationship is the abuser, not the abused. I can say with absolute certainty that Jesus wants each of us to be healthy and whole, and you will never be healthy and whole in an abusive relationship. Honestly, neither will the abuser.

Being a community together demands that we take care of each other—and ourselves. It demands that we check in with each other and treat each other with love, respect, dignity, concern, and care. We’re responsible for our own loving actions—or lack thereof—toward each other. The Holy Spirit generated this thing the New Testament calls koinonia, which is community. It’s a kind of Spirit-induced fellowship that produces real solidarity. And, I’ll say again, a lot of people in our congregation have exemplified this kind of care very well during this COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it matters to you or not, you have a proud pastor.

The third need in verse 42 is their Shared Meals. Some scholars point to this as a reference to Holy Communion, and it might be. But I think it’s also about being present with each other. When we get together for anything, are we present? Or, are we kind of physically there but mentally somewhere else? Being present with each other is how we build and solidify the relationships of our community.

Think about the times Jesus shared meals with people. He was bad-mouthed because he broke bread with known sinners. He ate and drank with the dregs of society. He welcomed broken people to his table, and joined broken people at their tables. Jesus promised that we will one day eat and drink with him at his table (c.f. Luke 22:30). This is about hospitality and presence. When we receive Holy Communion together, we are guests at God’s table.

I miss our shared meals together. I wish we had a mission meal after worship today. I miss being present with my congregation. So, when we are able to gather together again, commit to being present. While we’re stuck at home, be present with those who are with you. Commit to taking time for conversation with each other. Learn about each other. Listen to each other. It shows others that we care. It shows that our love for each other is genuine.

The fourth need in verse 42 is their Prayers. They prayed together and they prayed individually. Prayer links us to God in a powerful way. Prayer is a means of receiving God’s grace. And, prayer connects us to each other. After all, if I’m praying for someone, I’ll probably follow up with them to see how they’re doing. I want to follow their story so I know how to continue praying for them. That’s love. That’s community. And that’s being present. Prayer matters, also, because it’s one of the ways we build up our relationship with God. Verse 46 tells us that the community gathered daily in the Temple.

So, how might we be more intentional about devoting ourselves to the teaching of the Apostles? Someone once called the Bible the most revered, yet least-read book in America. Do we study our Scripture? Do we say our prayers? Do we treat others—especially the outcasts of our local and world community—with love and respect?

We need to remember to devote ourselves to the teachings of the Apostles, which are the teachings of Jesus, which are the teachings of God.

We need to take care of each other and check in with each other, because our relationships matter. God requires us to treat each other with faithful love. God cares more about how we treat each other than pretty much anything else.

We need to be present with each other. Maybe that’s sharing a meal together. Maybe that’s something else for you. But we should be intentional about being present with each other.

We need to pray for each other, and we need to pray for our own needs. Prayer builds our relationship with God. In fact, I imagine God craves that time of prayer with us as much as we need it.

What we glimpse in these verses—the devotion to the teaching of the apostles, and to the community, and to their shared meals, and to their prayers—are the marks of an authentic embodiment of the Holy Spirit in the church. May God’s Spirit work in us and renew our devotion to these things, so that we might embody the Holy Spirit in the same way.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

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