Advent Devotional: Dec. 4, 2019

Learn to Know Christ

by Sean Beckwith
December 4, 2019

Read Philippians 2:1-11

“Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Philippians 2:2 (ESV)

Learn to know Christ and Him crucified.
Learn to sing to Him, and say,
“Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am Your sin.
You have taken upon Yourself what is mine and given me what is Yours.
You have become what You were not,
so that I might become what I was not.”
-Martin Luther, 16th century

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Save us, we pray, from ordinary religion;
give us the peculiar grace of a peculiar people.
May we abide in Christ, may we live near to God.
-Charles Spurgeon, 19th century

Sermon: You’re Invited!

You’re Invited!
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Matthew 22:1-14; Philippians 4:4-9
Oct. 12, 2014

Audio of sermon not available. 

I am a great believer in the love, mercy, and grace of God, for if it were not for those things, I surely would not be standing here today, presuming to talk to you. I love the hymns that speak of God’s love and grace – “Love Lifted Me,” Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done,” There’s Wideness in God’s Mercy,” and the list goes on and on. You have your favorites too.. I love the Bible stories and the verses that tell about god’s love – “the Prodigal son,” “the Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” John 3:16, the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians. In personal devotional reading, I prefer to read from Luke’s gospel rather than Matthew’s because of its emphasis on God’s inclusive love for all people is evident in practically every verse. Matthew, on the other hand, scolds and is often cautionary, focusing on judgment more than I would prefer!

You can see the difference between Matthew and Luke in this story of the great banquet, which in Matthew has become a wedding feast. Luke’s version is simpler, kinder, gentler, emphasizing concern for the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame and the inclusiveness of God’s banquet table where everyone is welcomed and no one is asked to leave. Matthew’s tale adds various components that take it out of the realm of parable and into the arena of allegory. It is over the top, bizarre in some aspects and downright violent. An invitation to a feast in honor of the king’s son is met with rejection, which is a disappointing response to a royal summons. A second invitation, not included in Luke’s version, is similarly rejected, but this time the rejection is accompanied by violence. In retaliation the king goes to war against his own people, murders them, and burns the city – presumably his own city.

But it gets weirder still. The dinner has been kept warm all the while, and the invitation is issued once again, but this time to commoners on the “main streets” of the city which supposedly had been destroyed just a few verses ago. Finally guest from all walks and station of life arrive at the dinner, some of them probably dragged in off the streets with a very hurried, last minute invitation. And among them is a person not appropriately dressed for such a gala occasion, whom the King banishes to outer darkness for his disrespectful appearance.

It’s no wonder that messages based on Matthew’s version of the banquet story rarely make it into collections of published sermons. And I’ve checked. There is nothing as far as I could find from William Sloan Coffin, Fred Craddock, Walter Bruggeman, or Will Willimon (whom some say has never had an unpublished thought). And a number of interpreters, I have found, have immediately linked Matthew and Luke together, saying Luke’s version of the parable surely more closely reflects the original structure of the story, and “accordingly, we will focus our analysis on Luke.” That’s actually a quote from a book entitled of all things, Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus.     But there’s a reason Matthew tells his story the way he does rather than as Luke does.   And to understand what Matthew is doing, we have to understand when and where and why he was writing. Too often we like to jump to broad universal conclusions or sweeping moral assertions when reading scripture, but these can be way off base if we don’t understand the context in which it was written.

Matthew’s story of the wedding banquet has been called “an allegory of salvation history,”[i] spanning the time from the original covenant of God with the Israelites in the long ago past to God’s Final Judgment which was yet anticipated to come. And within the context of this gospel’s structure, it is the third and strongest rerply to the Pharisees’ questions about Jesus’s authority.

The gospel of Matthew was written during a time of great change, a time when Christians were a persecuted minority. Even though they believed Jesus was God’s Son, the awaited Messiah, not many people were convinced enough to leave tradition behind and celebrate this revelation. Writing for a predominantly Jewish audience that followed Jesus, Matthew reminds them of the tradition of the prophets who came to them many times over with an invitation to the kingdom of god, but often were killed by the people for the message they brought, even Jesus himself, who tells this banquet parable in the last week of his life, was killed because of his message.

Then in the year 70, Jerusalem was burned by Rome and the temple was destroyed. Many at the time interpreted this as fire coming from heaven, as divine judgment against those who ignored God’s invitation. And we still do the same thing today, don’t we – whenever a great catastrophe occurs, there are always those who immediately try to make sense of the chaos by interpreting the event as an act of God or a message from God, even though what that interpretation does to God’s character is awful.   Pat Robertson attributed the Haitian earthquake some years ago to God’s judgment on the Haitian people for having, he thought, made a pact with the devil to overthrow their colonial oppressors. And there were others, I thankfully have forgotten whom exactly, who blamed the “immoral lifestyle” of the city of New Orleans for the bullseye hit of Hurricane Katrina. Generally, it’s not good theology to try to make sense of natural or man-made disasters by putting the blame on God, but God is a very convenient scapegoat to support our fears and our prejudices.

Matthew may have been writing with and for those who sought to see some divine reason behind the sacking of Jerusalem, and some hope within that devastation for them as they struggled with persecution. By the time Matthew was writing for his struggling congregation, through the efforts of Paul and others in earlier years, the Jewish community that followed The Way of Jesus, had been opened to a second group of invited guests – the gentiles, who had no knowledge of the God of Israel or of God’s laws. They were convicted by the gift of the love and grace of God in Christ, but some interpreted this as permission to live anyway they wanted to because Jesus had settled humanity’s account with God forever. For some of them Communion became a kind of “come as you are party,” while other groups who leaned to heavily on tradition and the Law, tried to figure out how to honor both and yet make room for God in Christ as the final arbiter.

So first, we have to understand that Matthew is speaking to these particular controversies. He is answering several important questions about the kingdom of heaven – the banquet of the Lord — which Old Testament scripture had often described as a wedding feast. First of all, everyone is invited, but many of the original guests for whom the banquet was intended were not interested, or saw the invitation as getting in the way of their own agendas. But the king didn’t call off the party because his original invitation was refused, but instead expanded the invitation list, sending out his servant to any and all, inviting the good and the bad so that the wedding hall would be filled with guests.

One guest arrived inappropriately dressed for the occasion. It was, after all, an invitation from the King, which out of respect required a little sprucing up. If we were invited to a state dinner at the White House, we’d probably make a special effort to wear our best clothes in honor of the occasion and leave our jeans and flip flops at home. In Matthew’s time, appropriate wedding attire was important enough that some historian say special clothing was made available to guests who showed up at events dressed improperly, sort of like a fancy restaurant today having a coat or tie ready for a gentleman if he arrives dressed to casually for dining there. But for whatever reasons, the inappropriately dressed wedding guest was evicted from the party because he was not properly dressed; he did not rise to the occasion and the king has him removed from the party and cast into outer darkness!

Before we who are prone to dress casually get too offended by this unfortunate guest’s departure, there are a couple of things to note here – first, Matthew isn’t just talking about outer clothing, and it doesn’t take a great theologian to figure out that the wedding robe has a deeper and more symbolic meaning – it is not just a white linen tunic or a tuxedo; it is a whole way of life, one that honors the king and recognizes the privilege of being called into his presence. And secondly, it is the king who makes the call on who is appropriately dressed and who isn’t. it is not the place of the servants who offered the invitation and it is not the place of the other guests in attendance – only the king is in a position to decide.

These two observations make this very strange, unsettling, and over the top story important for us as well as for Matthew’s original audience even though our social and political contexts are so different. First of all, no matter what century we live in, God has offered us the most significant invitation of our lives; it is not to be treated as one option among many to be declined now and deferred until later at a more convenient time as those first guests did. How we respond to the grace of God and how willing we are to live now in obedience to God’s love and grace are not small side issues. They define who we are and how we will live in the world. How we treat other people, what we do with our resources, our time, our money, our talents, and our interests show our level of commitment and our awareness of our responsibilities to God and God’s kingdom. And as we become more and more committed, we will see that some of our “old clothes,” so to speak, aren’t comfortable anymore; they just don’t fit the occasion.

And also, we are reminded that this is God’s party, given on God’s terms. A long time ago I saw a church sign that said, “God calls us to be players in the game of life, not referees.” Maybe we could restate that for today as “God invites us to be guests at the wedding banquet, not hosts.” We aren’t in charge of the invitation list; we aren’t in charge of determining who is in and who is out; who is appropriately dressed and who isn’t. We overstep our bounds and get ourselves and others into a whole lot of trouble and cause great pain and hurt when we think we speak authoritatively for God, especially when we speak an exclusive rather than an inclusive word. We need to know our rightful place.

On the one hand, we are the servants of God, who are commanded to share the invitation with anyone we meet. There’s a party going on at Oconee St. United Methodist Church and you’re invited! And on the other hand, we are also among the invited guests, graced with an invitation through no great merit of our own. And thankfully, it’s God’s job, not ours, to sort us all out!

I read one commentary this week that attributed the ejection of the one guest not to his inappropriate dress, but that he failed to party! The kingdom of heaven is a banquet, after all, and “you’ve got to put on your party dress and get with the program. The kingdom music is playing and it’s time to get up on the dance floor.” In a more sober tone, the theologian Karl Barth put it this way, “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”[ii]

So God’s throwing a party, the party of a lifetime, and we’re all invited. The only thing required is that we participate with our whole heart in the festivities. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Lance Pape, “Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14,” www.workingpreacher.com, 10/7/2014

[ii] Lance Pape

Sermon: God at Work in You

God at Work in You
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Luke 10:25-37 & Philippians 2:1-13
Sept. 14, 2014

Audio not available for this sermon.

This morning the choir sang that the people of God care and share God’s love in the world. In other words, they are compassionate people.” But what exactly is compassion? What words would you use to define it? Some synonyms might be– Love, Sympathy, Empathy, Concern, Kindness, Mercy. It’s not quite the same thing as pity, is it? It is more than feeling sorry for someone. And it’s not exactly the same as tolerance. It is more than simply allowing or enduring someone or something. Besides, there are limits to tolerance, and when the going gets rough. tolerance gets short. The ability of compassion to endure in hard times is much greater than that of tolerance. [i]

What makes compassion real? Is it real if we only give intellectual assent to it? Is it enough just to believe in compassion? Or is there more to it than head stuff, than believing? Is it something we do? Something that affects our behavior, and is not only a matter of assent, but also an experience of the heart, and a way, not only of being, but of doing in and for the world? What does it look like when we see it?

Sometimes the only way to get at the meaning of an abstract word is by looking at a concrete example of it. Paul gives the example of Jesus himself as he writes to his beloved Philippian congregation., encouraging them to do nothing from selfish ambition, and to look to the interests of others and not of themselves.   Look at Jesus, he says, humbled himself, the way he served others, the way he was willing to die rather than be false to God in him. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” I wonder how they responded to that? It is a rather daunting challenge and it would be easy to say, “but I’m not Jesus!”

In our gospel reading for today, the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus gives a example of compassion when he is asked by a lawyer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And in order to answer his question, Jesus tells a story of someone who is beaten and robbed and the Samaritan who goes to his aid. The lawyer probably didn’t want a real life example; he probably meant to ask a question of belief, and Jesus gave him an answer about practice. He probably meant to ask, “What must I believe to inherit eternal life,” but he misspoke, and once he said “what must I do,” Jesus gave him an answer about behavior, about practice, and not about belief.

Jesus first asks him what is written in the law, and they both know the answer to that question. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all our mind,” the lawyer says, “and your neighbor as yourself.” I wonder if he didn’t just rattle it off; probably learned it as a boy, could say it in his sleep, maybe the way we say the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer sometimes. Barbara Brown Taylor makes an interesting observation about this conversation. She notes that “in Luke’s gospel, it is the lawyer who gets to give the summary of the law, not Jesus. Jesus just stands there quietly, waiting to hear what the lawyer has to say. It is almost as if Luke is standing behind each of them with a sign on a stick. The sign over the lawyer’s head says, ‘The Word.’ The sign over Jesus’ head says, ‘Made Flesh.’” Here’s how it sounds. Here’s how it acts.”[ii]

Jesus’ response underlines this contrast between word and action. “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” He is telling the lawyer that giving the right answer, having all the right words, believing the right things, is not the same thing as giving flesh to that belief and that answer. Right answers don’t house homeless people. Right answers don’t run soup kitchens. Right answers don’t open shelters, or offer hospitality and sanctuary. Religious people spend a lot of time on right answers and right belief, and various groups like to think they have the corner on truth and that others don’t understand correctly (and may go to hell for that), but actually right answers and right belief in and of themselves never made anything better or changed one thing. Marcus Borg has suggested that when we say we believe, we should be attesting to what we love, what we give our loyalty, commitment, and trust to. So that we could as easily say we “belove” as we “believe”.[iii]

Jesus is saying, “Do love. Don’t just think love, say love, have faith in love, or believe that God is love. . . . Give up the idea that your ideas alone can save you. If you know the right words, then bring those words to life by giving them your own flesh. Put them into practice. Do love, and you will live.”[iv]

Jesus asks the lawyer who was the neighbor to the man who was beaten, and grudgingly the lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy”, and Jesus responds, “go and do likewise.” Jesus’ command to “do likewise” rather than to “believe likewise” or “think likewise” kind of messes with our Protestant belief in salvation through faith, not works. But it’s not just here, that he talks that way. You remember in Matthew’s gospel where he says ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirsty and you gave me something to drink; a stranger, and you welcomed me.” And everybody says, “Master when did we see you?” and he answers, “when you did it unto the least of these you did it unto me.” When you did it – not when you thought about it.

The relationship between faith and works is complicated, but somehow these two things are intimately and intricately intertwined. Acting is important, and without it, belief is powerless. “Faith without works is dead,” the book of James says. In defense of the lawyer, though and by extension of us, while loving God is a clear command, it really gets sticky when it comes to loving our neighbor, or having compassion for our neighbor, and actually doing something about it more than thinking loving, compassionate thoughts.

The lawyer’s question is quite contemporary and relevant. Who, after all, is our neighbor? Are there any limits? In our global society, it can be an overwhelming and even frightening thought. Do we have to love everybody? Do we have to be merciful and compassionate to everybody? What about ISIS? Aren’t there some limits, some exceptions, somewhere?

In Jesus’ time, the world was a bit smaller; the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan all knew their groups, their neighbors, by profession, or tribe, or class, or belief, and these things set them apart from one another. Cultural issues, fear of contamination, a desire to maintain ritual purity may have been motivation for the Levite and the Priest to pass by on the other side, leaving unaided the beaten and robbed man lying half dead in the ditch. Maybe they were afraid that he was faking his injuries and was a robber too, hoping to prey on their sympathies if they drew closer. The Samaritan may have had his reasons too, not to become involved. After all, the man in the ditch was probably a Jew, and Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along, didn’t like each other; they disagreed about where God’s temple is and who bearers of the true faith really are.

But Jesus seems to be saying that it’s not about who has all the right answers. It’s not about our class or our station in life. It’s about actions. There are fourteen different actions that the Samaritan performs in relation to the beaten man; only two for the Levite and priest? In which person, then did the word become flesh?

God cares how we treat one another, how close we get to one another, how willing we are to reach out and touch one another and offer love and compassion. If we want to know the living God, Jesus is saying, we have to get involved with living people because that is where God is found. The Samaritan came near the stranger in the ditch. He ignored the immediate dangers of the situation, and he ignored the traditional hostilities that existed between his people and the Jewish people. He didn’t let their differences inhibit his response. He comes near enough to see him, to be moved with compassion for him, and to show him mercy.

It is easy to brush off concepts and generalities. For some, it is easy to speak dismissively of “the unemployed” or the “uninsured.” It is easy to cast judgment on the “illegals.” It is easy to say, “later” rather than, “now” to the plight of refugees. But if we ever give these concepts a face, a name, an address, it is very difficult to speak in vague generalities about them, or to stereotype them with a single word. If we come near, we have to act with love, with kindness, with compassion.

Karen Armstrong writes that compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves and impelling us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of others, to dethrone ourselves from the center of the world and put another there, to honor the sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. She adds that it is about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.[v]

But Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Philippians, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Will and work. Think and act. Whether it’s down the street or half way across the world, if we are the people of God, we are called to love, to compassion, to acts of mercy both large and small. We have to draw near – near enough to see, to feel, to recognize a neighbor in someone who is in need of a neighbor, and to respond. After all, that is what God has done in Jesus. As God presents us with opportunities, as God works in us, we will no longer be able just to see and walk on by, or think kind thoughts from a distance. We will have to stop, come near, and find ourselves filled with love and compassion. And when that happens, God’s word will become flesh in us, we will become the people of God, and eternal life will be all around. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Krista Tippett, https://www.ted.com/talks/krista_tippett_reconnecting_with_compassion.html

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Do This and You Will Live,” Festival of Homiletics, Atlanta, GA, April 17, 2006.

[iii] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 2003, 40.

[iv] Taylor.

[v] Karen Armstrong, http://charterforcompassion.org/the-charter

Lenten Devotional: Friday, March 14

Every day during Lent, members of Oconee Street UMC will write a Lenten devotional and share with the congregation.

by Carla Dennis
March 14, 2014

Psalm 46:1
God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble.

Philippians 4:13
I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.

I love reading Bible verses that remind me God is always with me during difficult times and has given me strength to overcome obstacles. It is a great source of comfort to know I’m not facing life alone when things feel out of control, and lately, I have felt out of control. But I’m sure I’m not alone.

On any given day, we might be taking kids to school, working a full day, taking kids to sports practices or music lessons, attending a church meeting, preparing dinner, putting the kids to bed, and then if we’re lucky, finding some time to catch up on our favorite television show. During my time in writing this devotional alone, I have been asked to help with homework, listen to a rendition of the Itsy Bitsy Spider, mediate a conflict between brothers, watch a Lego demonstration, and answer random questions about a houseplant.

Our culture promotes this busy life style, in fact, praises us for our multitasking. We impatiently wait for the stoplight to turn green in order to race to our next destination. To help us keep up with our fast-paced lives we have “express oil changes,” “high-speed internet,” “fast food,” and even “instant oatmeal.” We find ourselves at times more connected to our technology than to each other, our children or God. Even if we manage to find a place to have a few minutes of peace, there is still the voice inside our own head that reminds us of a project yet to be completed, a deadline yet to be met or even dishes yet to be washed.

There is a price we pay for this accelerated life-style that is beyond just stress, high blood pressure or an ulcer. If we are not careful, we run the risk of losing our connection with ourselves, each other and God. In our haste, we miss the ability to see the beauty of God’s creation in individuals and in the world around us. As Rev. Roger Lynn (2007) states, our lives can become filled with the spiritual equivalent of noise pollution. So how do we reconnect with God to feel his presence in our lives, especially when we need God’s strength to help us overcome obstacles?

The hymn we are singing in church throughout Lent, “Come and Find the Quiet Center,” invites all to pause, reflect and connect with God.

Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead,
find a room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed:
Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.

The words are personal and encourage each of us to make a connection with God a priority. Although this can be a challenge in our crazy, busy world, in order to feel God’s presence in our lives daily, we need to find that quiet center – that place reserved for God alone. A place where God can be our focus and the steadiness we need to help us through our days. In the quiet center, we find that God is sufficient. We can live in the Kingdom of God now rather than waiting on the future. In the quiet center, we can be who we were created to be – unique children of God.

The Bible gives plenty of examples where Jesus paused and took some time away from his day-to-day responsibilities (e.g., Mark 1:35). It didn’t matter that there were still parables to be taught or people who needed healing. Pausing to strengthen our connection with God brings meaning and purpose to our lives. Using Jesus as a model, we too, should strive to find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead.

Loving God, help me holdfast to you when life seems to get out of hand. May my heart and mind be focused on you, and may I find the quiet center. Fill me with the energy and the spirit to faithfully be what you have called me to be.  Amen.