Tag: Jesus

Bickering Siblings

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16hijab
Romans 4:13-25

Let me read to you something. It may sound a little familiar. It may sound a bit strange.

(Surah 45-67): The Angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.”

She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?”

He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

And [God] will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel.

[The] messenger [,Jesus, said] to the Children of Israel: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I heal the blind and the leprous, and I revive the dead, by God’s leave. And I inform you concerning what you eat, and what you store in your homes. In that is a sign for you, if you are believers. And verifying what lies before me of the Torah, and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God, and obey me. God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.”

When Jesus sensed disbelief on their part, he asked, “Who are my allies towards God?”

The disciples said, “We are God’s allies; we have believed in God, and bear witness that we submit. Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.”

They planned, and God planned; but God is the Best of planners.

God said, “O Jesus, I am terminating your life, and raising you to Me, and clearing you of those who disbelieve. And I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return; then I will judge between you regarding what you were disputing. As for those who disbelieve, I will punish them with a severe punishment, in this world and the next, and they will have no helpers. And as for those who believe and do good works, He will give them their rewards in full. God does not love the unjust.”

This is what We recite to you of the Verses and the Wise Reminder.

The likeness of Jesus in God’s sight is that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be,” and he was.

The truth is from your Lord, so do not be of those who doubt.

And if anyone disputes with you about him, after the knowledge that has come to you, say, “Come, let us call our children and your children, and our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves, and let us invoke God’s curse on the liars.”

This is the narrative of truth: there is no god but God. God is the Mighty, the Wise.

But if they turn away—God knows the corrupt.

Say, “O People of the Book, come to terms common between us and you: that we worship none but God, and that we associate nothing with Him, and that none of us takes others as lords besides God.” And if they turn away, say, “Bear witness that we have submitted.”

O People of the Book! Why do you argue about Abraham, when the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Will you not reason?

Here you are—you argue about things you know, but why do you argue about things you do not know? God knows, and you do not know.

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a Monotheist, a Muslim. And he was not of the Polytheists.


These are the translated words of the Quran. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus healed the blind and the leprous, and brought the dead back to life. Like Gospels we have dropped over the centuries, the Quran says Jesus made a bird out of clay and had it fly. Like our own Gospels today, the Quran says that Jesus was taken up into heaven and is with God.

Like the Jewish Torah, and the Christian Old Testament, the Quran says we are made by God out of dust. Says there are no gods but God, alone. This is called monotheism. Mono-one. Theism. God. One God. We are monotheists. Not polytheists. Not many-gods.

When the Quran says “O People of the Book,” it is speaking to us. To all the children of Abraham. Not his physical children – but the children our own Paul writes about to Romans: Abraham’s spiritual children.

Just like Paul, the Quran points out that Abraham followed and believed God long, long before there were the faiths of Judaism or Christianity or Islam; therefore, long before there was a Quran or Bible or Torah.

But he submitted. To submit is to be muslim. Muslim means a person who has submitted to God. In English it means a particular faith. But it has two meanings in Arabic – the faith, but also what it literally means – to submit.

Much like we are all democrats because we are all part of a democracy. Democrat, however, has two meanings: one – a person is part of a democracy. The second, a person is part of a particular political party in the United States of America.

Abraham couldn’t be Muslim-the-Faith because the Quran and The Prophet Mohammad had not come to be. But he could be Muslim-the-person-who-submits-to-God. Because, as all three faiths of the Book read, Abraham did submit.

You’re a democrat-the-government-citizen because you’re an United States citizen. I don’t know which party line you vote with, if any, and that is none of my business.

So why do we feud so much? Why do today’s Jews and Christians and Muslims bicker although we are all faith siblings? All brothers and sisters through the faith of Abraham, and all brothers and sisters literally because we all know, and affirm, God, God alone, creates all of us?

Because most of us don’t care about nirvana.

Here me out – I challenge any of you here to get into an argument with me about how to achieve enlightenment, and how to step out of samsara and into nirvana. Whatever position you take – Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayāna or Zen – I’ll take a different one and we can debate.

No one?

The truth is, here in Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, we don’t care much about Buddha or Bodhisattvas.

But we care an awful lot about what someone says about Jesus and God.

We’re not invested into koans and tantras and the holy books of Budhism.

But we’ve staked our whole lives and afterlives on the Bible, and our prayers, and traditions, and rites.

We argue with our siblings because they are the most like us. We argue with our siblings because we share the most interests, investments, and the most is at stake.

We argue with Jews and Muslims and especially other Christians because these groups are most like us. What they say, and how they say it differently, we greatly care about.

This is as true today as it was in the past when the words were set in the Surahs of the Quran translation I read; it is as true as when Jesus walked and said a prophet is never accepted in his home town. It is as true today as when the ancient Israelites and Samaritans – both ancient Jews to anyone else but themselves – argued. As true as when Sarah tossed out Ishmael and his mother because she didn’t want them around herself and her son… as true as when Cain slew Abel.

We fight – we hate – the people who are most like us because in those few, few ways we are different SO MUCH is invested, risked, and at stake.

Paul, writing to the Romans, was trying so hard for the Roman Christians and Roman Jews to see each other as family. You’re not enemies! You’re siblings! Of the same faith of Abraham. The mono-theists, the One God, faith. He goes over laws – laws like the law to have circumcision, or to keep Kosher, or to keep Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath, and says – if laws are making you lose faith, give them up!

We are alive in faith, faith gives us life. Faith – submitting to God, and trusting God will do as God promises – even if it looks impossible – keeping this hope against all hope – KEEP FAITH! Laws are good. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Laws and Prophets, not abolish them… but, in today’s language, if the Kings James Version is too difficult to read, get a different version of the Scripture. If Sunday Morning is too early for you to praise God, find another service time. Another church. Maybe not a church – praise in your house or car or with your friends over coffee. KEEP THE FAITH! The how and where and rules – the traditions – are good, but FAITH is what is essential.

What about our heads? All three books – The Torah, the Bible, the Quran – mention we ought to be covering our heads. No one here is wearing a hat. Why not?

Because, somewhere, our ancestors debated this. Our ancestors changed. They decided the FAITH was more important. The FAITH, the following, the trust, of God – than whether or not they covered their heads.

But other ancestors have chosen to keep following that law out of faith, out of submission, to God. And I’m not just talking about Muslima women who wear hijab; or Jewish men who wear yamakas, there are plenty of Christian churches and denominations where scarves still cover heads.

If Paul were writing to us, I think he’d write – don’t argue over whether or not to cover your heads. Argue – are you being faithful to the one and only God? Are you loving your neighbor? Are you loving God?

When we say things like “Don’t shop there, they jew you.” Or call someone a “towel-head,” we are not loving our neighbors. We are hating them.

When we refuse to speak with our siblings, out of fear, our of ignorance, out of hate – we are not being faithful to God who calls us to be the allies, the disciples, the-ones-who-submit to God who calls us to live our faith and preach to all nations.

When we believe that God of the Old Testament, YHWH, El-Shaddai, and the Lord, the God of the New Testament and Allah, are different gods… we forget our faith. We forget Abraham. We forget mono-theism. We forget there is but one god, and that is whom all of the faith children of Abraham are following.

One God. Understood differently. My perspective on my mom and dad is different than my brother’s perspective. But they are still the same mom and dad.

One God. Related to differently. I like doing crafts with my mom. My brother likes fishing with my mom. Still the same mom.

One God. We’re not the same religion. There are profound theological insights and beliefs that differ among us. I am not my brother. He is not me.

But we have the same parents.

And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have one God. We are all siblings. Bickering siblings, different siblings, but siblings.

Since I razzed on Buddhism a little, I want to end with a Zen Buddist passage… a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.

“I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.”

Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”

Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”

We don’t worship the Bible. Jews don’t worship the Torah. Muslims don’t worship the Quran.

We all worship the Truth, which is God. The Truth – who is larger, brighter, truer, and beyond what our words, traditions, or experiences can capture.

We all worship God.

And we are all siblings.

Amen.

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A Rainbow of Hope

169c6430c0941b6d00f7885d2bb1d7f0--noah-ark-art-partyGenesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22

Noah’s story is a strange one. I usually hear it in one of two ways. The first way is the cute animal ark story. In this, a zoo of animals ride a boat with little smiling Noah under a rainbow. You see it on nursery walls and stitched on baby blankets. Aww – giraffes and lions and zebras! It’s the story we sung for our children’s chat today.

The other way I hear Noah’s tale is as an awful story about God’s wrath and how terrible the Old Testament is. In this version, one day, God lost God’s temper, and so in a fit of rage, drowned every man, woman, child and even all the animals. Then God felt bad, and so like any successful abuser, lured God’s victims back with gifts and apologies until God lost God’s anger again in a generation or two.

Both of these versions of the Noah story the Bible doesn’t contain. The one handed to us to much more nuanced, and can’t be summarized neatly into either a story of wrath or of cuteness.

The story begins with how the world has gotten worse and worse. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were banned from the perfect garden. Then their son Cain murdered his brother Abel. And Cain’s son murdered another man. And chaos and violence and rape spread across the face of the earth as humans did.

Genesis 6:5 “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” Humans had become evil, all the time. The following verse reads, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”

It doesn’t read that God was wrathful and angry. Not that God wanted to punish humanity. But rather, God regretted. God was sorry. God’s heart was heavy and troubled. God was sad. Not angry.

Genesis 6:13-14a – “So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark.” God sought out the man who still honored God, who was not 100% evil, and before the evil could overcome him and his family, God told this guy God’s plan to save the world from absolute evil. God will make a new creation… but will save humanity, imperfect as it is, and give it a fresh slate to try again.

Genesis 6:17b-19: “Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.” Everything will die, and the evil will be washed away. But the seed of life that is still good – Noah’s family, these animals – will be released back into the world to cover it with goodness instead of evil. And a covenant — a promise — will be made. God says God will make the covenant, but does not tell Noah at this time what it will be.

So Noah builds the ark. And God God’s self seals him and the animals and Noah’s family into the ark (Genesis 7:16b). And we’re told that for 40 days it rained; and for 150 days the world was flooded. And still longer it took until the waters were down enough that Noah was able to leave the ark. Remember he send out a dove, and it comes back without anything. Noah knows there is no where to land, nothing growing. Later the dove is sent out and it comes with an olive branch – a sign today of peace! – and lastly the dove is released and it doesn’t come back. It has gone on to live in the recreated world.

And God tells Noah to leave the ark then, Genesis 8:17 “Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.” Does that sound familiar? In the Creation stories, God tells the world to do the same: be fruitful and multiply. Here, in this new creation, God tells them the same.

Then Noah makes an altar, and thanks God. God smells the cooking meat on the altar and says, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”

In other words – God knows we’re sinful. From childhood we start lying, harming ourselves and harming each other. God knows this – but accepts it. God will not destroy the world because of the sin of humanity. Whenever God intervenes again, it will be in a different way. God will recreate and redeem us from evil — the evils of our own hearts even — in a different way.

God tells Noah that we may eat all plants and all animals now – but that God will demand an accounting of our lives. And will demand an accounting of our animals’ lives. How have we treated one another? How have we been stewards of the earth and siblings to each other?

Noah’s ark story ends with God’s rainbow and God saying, Genesis 9:12-16 “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

I’ve heard it said before that the rain bow is like a bow — what you use with an arrow. And when a bow is hung up, like a rain bow, it is a sign of peace. God’s bow – God’s violence – is hung up. A new way of dealing with evil on earth will have to be used, now.

I’ve also heard of rainbows being like a bridge, connecting heaven and earth. It symbolizes how we affect one another. What happens in heaven changes things on earth, and what happens on earth changes things in heaven. God promises to keep that in mind, and to be with us working together.

In our communion, we ask God to make God’s church — which is all of us — a rainbow of hope in an uncertain world. When there are clouds, and doubts, and flooding rains… we are the rainbow that says this will not last forever. There is still hope. Even in the most violent, most awful, most terrifying situations… what is will not always be. We can keep hope.

We know humanity needed saved again. And again and again. And God intercedes in and finds new ways to address the evil.

Consider Moses. Just like Noah, water is used to save Moses from evil, but the water doesn’t cover the earth. But just like Noah, Moses is saved by an ark. (That’s the word used for his little basket!) And like Noah, Moses is given a new covenant… this one not sealed with a rainbow but written on stone tablets and seal with blood of an animal and put in — here’s that word again! — an ark. This ark is to carry the tablets and be the movable house for God.

And consider Jesus. Like Noah, and like Moses, water plays a major part in Jesus’ life. The water of baptism. The water turned into wine. The water Jesus stills and walks upon. There is no ark in Jesus’ story, and Jesus doesn’t refer to himself as an ark… but he is, in a way. He is protecting, carrying, humanity from evil and into the newest creation of God. Jesus does tell us the newest covenant is sealed not with stones or animals or rainbows – but with Jesus’ own blood: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

When God saves us from evil the next time around, we are saved through the covenant in Jesus, and sealed with the water of baptism and Holy Spirit.

The first letter of Peter writes to the struggling persecuted church to remember their baptisms. It’s not a bath for dirt. It does not make you stop sinning. It is an appeal to God to remember our covenant, and an appeal to us to remember our covenant. We are one people, many persons, but one people – belonging to one God. And it is together we’re all going to make it. Even those people who died in Noah’s days, says Peter, after disobeying God all their lives, even they – although dead – are offered to repent, apologize, and return to God through Christ.

In other words, says Peter, there’s hope. Even for the dead, there is hope of new life, new creation, new reconciliation and relationship with each other and with God. This is the covenant of Christ. A covenant of hope.

You don’t hope for things you have. You hope for what you don’t have. You don’t hope for sun on a day that is sunny. You hope for sun on rainy days. Rainbows of hope are visible only with storm clouds. Christ’s resurrection hope is only possible if Christ has died, and if we, too, physically die.

The hope is that the story of Noah doesn’t end with an ark. It continues. It ends with a rainbow, a promise, a new covenant.

The hope of Christ is that the tomb is empty. This symbol – a cross – is not just a reminder of our mortality, and of Christ’s death – but it is an EMPTY cross. Nobody hangs here. This is a cross of hope. There is more. The story continues. There is a resurrection.

And we need this hope, now. Our country is deeply divided. We’re told by our Federal Agents that this division, which has always been there, was exacerbated by another country.

The evil inclinations of our hearts were always there. The inclinations to distrust one another, to fear one another, to HATE one another. Those inclinations were incited, and we fell for it with glee. With glee, people passed on hate messages. With glee, we heard only the news we wanted to hear. With glee, we believed only what we wanted to believe. And with glee, we turned our own neighbors, our own brothers and sisters, into our enemies.

Lent is a time of making amends. A time of reflecting on our own sins, and building bridges – rainbows of hope – connecting ourselves to each other.

Lent is a time to reflect – what messages are we sharing? Are we seeking common ground and seeking the common good, or are we focusing on our differences, and focusing on just assisting ourselves?

Lent is a time to pray for forgiveness. A time to remember who we have issue with, and seek them out, to offer the olive branch of peace.

Jesus told us that a house divided soon falls in on itself.

Rebuild your house.

Rebuild your burned bridges.

The storm is happening, but we can be the rainbow of hope in this uncertain world.

Amen.

Do Not Fear

DSC_237012 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:26-38

Do not be afraid.

This is a strange greeting, isn’t it? Yet this is how Gabriel, in the Gospel of Luke, says hello to Mary and Zechariah both.

Do not be afraid – this is the greeting the Angels give the shepherds.

“Each word of assurance offered by the angel is not without cause. Indeed, each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel.” ((Shivey Smith))

Jesus will tell Simon – do not be afraid, from now on, you wish fish for people. To Jarius – do not be afraid! Just believe, and your daughter will be healed. And to the disciples, and to us, Jesus will say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”

Do not be afraid.

It’s a strange greeting, but maybe one we should use.

Do not be afraid, it is Christmas Eve and the very God who crafted your bones from atoms, and the cosmos from chaos, who has numbered your head hair and set breath in the lungs of dinosaurs and humans alike – has come to us as a helpless baby who can’t even find his fingers to put in his mouth let alone walk, talk, or rule as our prince of peace.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this.

Do not be afraid – Mary – you are favored with a child conceived out of wedlock, to be born in a barn, raised as a refugee, condemned as a criminal, and murdered before your eyes.

But God’s got this.

Do not be afraid, Saint Michael’s – we have God’s favor, too. And it isn’t good times, and wealth. God’s favor isn’t an easy life and endless happiness. God’s favor is messier.

Like – new born diaper messy.

Like – 3-days dead Lazarus messy.

Like – empty tombs and locked doors and miracles and crucifixions and martyrs and loving that person you’d love to hate messy.

God’s favor is an invite to be part of the very re-creation of the world.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this – and God wants you to be a part of it.

Do not be afraid “functions as an invitation for Mary to do the unusual and the bold for the sake of the entire world because “nothing will be impossible with God”” ((shivey smith))

Do not be afraid is our invitation to step out and do the unusual and the bold too – because the house and kin-dom of God are now forever sure.

The unusual – that which isn’t to be mentioned in polite company – we’re to bring up those topics and causes, and live out that unusual way of reaching out to the outcasts, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the hated. Do not be afraid – you’re going to get filthy on the outside, but inside, you’ll be whiter than snow. Do not be afraid – God is with you.

We’re invited to be bold. To speak the words people do not want to hear. To preach love when everyone is throwing stones. To be God’s advocate when that is anything but popular. But do not be afraid – God is with you.

Anything is possible for God… God does miracles in the Bible, and is doing miracles now. So why does God bother with the messiness of involving us? Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the UCC writes, “we suppose that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God’s promises of old all on God’s own; after all, nothing is impossible with God.

However, this humble but earth-shaking conversation [between Mary and Gabriel] tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it does): As Brian K. Peterson writes, “God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation” (New Proclamation Year B 2008).”

Think about it – if you’re not invested into the world, will you care for it?

If you don’t have ownership, will you protect it?

I hear this time of year many people complain that kids have too many belongings, that everything is handed to them, and they don’t appreciate what they have then.

I hear all the time that said about my own generation.

There’s some truth to this, and it has nothing to do with age or generation. It has to do with investment.

I care more about those things I have spent time on, loved, prayed over, hoped for, and fought for. I care more about what I have tangibly put my hands on than what I have only a dim understanding of.

I care more about people I know, then those I don’t know.

You’re likely the same.

Maybe, God comes with this strange greeting of ‘do not be afraid’ and then leaps into humanity on humanity’s terms as a messy baby to get us more invested, more involved, with the cares of God – with the cares of re-creating the world into a place of love, hope, peace and joy.

Maybe we have a hard time loving the hard to fathom God of the universe… but we know how to love a baby, a child, a person. And so, God in the flesh, invites us to start loving others here.

And, maybe you can’t really care about a billion people you’ve never met… but you can care very dearly for your neighbor. And God says – yes! Do it. Love them deeply. Do not be afraid – I got this – But I want you to be a part of it, doing your own small part.
Here we are – our last Sunday of Advent, on Christmas Eve it’sself – what charity am I going to speak about?

Our own. Where we are doing our small part.

I’m talking about the moms and dads, grandparents, and aunts and uncles and friends and cousins in Baltimore and around the city who are sitting down today to eat a meal you donated.

I’m talking about the kids who don’t have to worry about if there will be breakfast tomorrow on Christmas morning because of you.

The Baltimore Thurston Food Pantry is our charity for today. It is messy. It is chaotic. It is God’s work in our community. It is an unusual and bold way God invites us to work alongside God.

Yes, there are food stamps. These takes weeks to apply and receive. People tend to like to eat every day and not once every few weeks.

Yes, there is emergency assistance. What if your emergency lasts a month – or two – before you’re able to find another job?

Yes, there are people ‘cheating the system.’ What does Tabitha do to earn a resurrection? What does Lazarus do? What have you done to earn God’s love?

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

God just loves you. And we’re called to just love others.

No qualifications asked.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this – and wants us to get involved too.

Needing a gift for that hard-to-buy-for-person who has everything? Now? In the final hours? Consider donating in their name.

From manger to temple, and from senate and house to our local food pantry – from the lowly to high and high to lowly – God is working, and inviting us, to make the vertical world horizontal, to be bold, to be unusual, to love justice and walk humbly and let our lives be our message of God’s radical love.

Amen.

Sheep and Sheep

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24ararat-sheep-20

Matthew 25:31-46

Today is Christ the King Sunday – the day we proclaim Christ is King over all the world, the lord over all lords, the highest politician, highest ruler, over all rulers. Everyone and everything belongs under Christ’s rule and we anticipate the day this reign is fully actualized.

This sounds fantastic.

Until you consider there are 1.3 billion Muslims; 1.1 billion atheists, 900 million Hindus, not to mention a billion some more Buddhist, Pagans, Jews, Sikhs and hundreds of more religions. These people are not Christian.

If Jesus were to return right now, this very moment, would 70% of the world’s population be instantly damned – just because they were born in non-Christian areas, or to non-Christian families, or found a connection to God in a non-Christian religion?

Matthew’s gospel is addressed to early Christians living among all the non-Christians. And Matthew recounts Jesus talking about sheep and goats among the nations.

Nations. Peoples.

Not just the Jews Jesus was speaking with, but the nations – the gentiles – the non-Jewish, non-Christian, Romans or Grecians or Egyptians or Babylonians — people who did not confess Jesus as Christ. People like all the neighbors and communities, indeed, families, of the early Christians.

The neighbors and communities and families of ourselves.

Jesus says when he returns, the whole world will be judged.

Are all non-Christians going to hell and all Christians going to heaven?

Jesus’ parable says that to the shock of the nations – to the shock of Christians and non-Christians everywhere – there are blessed people among all nations. There are heaven-bound men and women and children who are Muslim, and who are spiritual but not religious. There are faithful Hindu priests and Buddhist monks in heaven.

And each and every one say, “Jesus – when did I serve you? I didn’t.”

And Jesus, in his parable, replies, “Whatever you did to the most vulnerable in your community, you did to me.”

And Jesus takes the sheep, the people who followed the Good Shepherd without even realizing it, and takes them into his heavenly flock.

And what of the goats? When Jesus talks about the nations — all peoples and all religions – this includes all religions, including Christianity. We’re the largest religion on the face of the Earth.

Jesus tells his disciples that the goats are just as shocked as the sheep to be NOT included. They thought they were sheep, thought they were following the Good Shepherd, but instead, they were following other lords and kings and gods while giving lip-service to Jesus. They ran with the flock of sheep here on earth, but their hearts and deeds didn’t reflect the heart and deeds of Jesus.

These Christians say, “Jesus, when did we not aid you?”

And Jesus replies to them, too, “Whatever you denied the most vulnerable in your communities, you denied to me.”

Jesus here is referencing but also advancing the words of the prophet Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel, the Israelites are scattered in exile across many lands. Why has this happened? Ezekiel says because the people have been exploited. The exploitation of the vulnerable, the weakest, the people have ruined communities and destroyed the nation. The shepherds of the people, their leaders, have failed them. The shepherds have gotten rich and changed rules to benefit themselves while the people have gotten poor and suffered injustices. As Ezekiel puts it, “Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (34:2b-3).

Ezekiel spoke about how God would go out and gather in God’s people from all the nations… and then God would separate the sheep from the sheep. They all look the same, but God sees a difference. A difference in who these sheep truly belong to. Remember – sheep follow the voice of the one who leads them – not a stranger.

Ezekiel says when God comes, God comes with justice. God reverses each wrong dealt to the people. Wounds are healed, bellies are filled, rest is given. God, God’s self, takes over and is in charge. And God separates the fat sheep from the lean. “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide… I will judge between sheep and sheep.” And the fat and strong sheep are destroyed, while the hurting ones are fed justice. Injustice has made them lost, injured and weak. Justice will make them strong, united, and healthy again.

Ezekiel is not speaking about Israelites and non-Israelites. He is speaking about all the Israelites. Among God’s own people – among the sheep and sheep – God is judging which of us have been bullies, and have led soft lives at the detriment of others. Which of us have gotten rich off the labor of the poor. Which of us use more resources than others. Which of us refuse to share and attack the starving, injured, or weak when they come to our areas.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, and he sits on the throne to judge all nations… the surprise is there are many non-Christian sheep, and many Christian goats. The surprise is there are many holy and good people who are not Christian; and there are many sinful and evil people who ARE Christian.

The judgement is, who has, in the words of Micah, done justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with God?

In Matthew, being a Christian does not make you good or bad; does not mean you are Saved or Unsaved; does not mean you are pleasing or displeasing God. What you believe, and how you act upon that belief, determines your destiny. If you believe in the goodness of the world, and you believe we are meant to love one another, and you act in loving deeds – you are a sheep, whether or not you know it. And if you believe its a dog-eat-dog world, and no kind deed goes unpunished, and you act in selfish ways – you are a goat, whether or not you go to church.

Now, in our country, it is rare to find any politician who says they are a religion other than Christian. Being ‘Christian’ gets you votes. It means you’re mainstream, respectable, trustworthy. Being ‘Christian’ means you can claim God is on your side, and if people don’t vote for you, they are voting against God. Being ‘Christian’ means you are above any wrongs.

These ‘Christians’ are fat sheep and goats. These Christians are the ones who cry ‘Lord, lord,’ but who never actually know Christ. You know who these false Christians are because the way they vote in the House or Senate, or their executive orders, or the policies they advocate, harm the most vulnerable.

The most vulnerable people in our country are illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, gays and lesbians, transgendered, unwed single mothers, children, teachers, and those with criminal records. The most vulnerable people in this country are blacks, women, Native Americans, the elderly and millennials. The most vulnerable people in this country have mental health issues. Physical ailments. Addictions.

The fat sheep in our country are born here, are sexually ‘straight’ or pass as heterosexual, they are white, married, and male. The fat sheep in our country have never been in trouble with the law – or if they have, had had their record expunged. They are affluent, educated, and are able to shape the world about them through their financial, political, or social sway. Instead of using all the power they were born into to be a wise leader, a good shepherd, a guide to make the world a better place… instead, they use their power to make sure they have more power, more money, more sway.

The Internet Freedom movement is anything but freedom for you and I. It permits the rich to have freedom to choose what the poor must pay to access websites. Sites that speak truth to power, sites that challenge the way things are – sites that advocate for the most vulnerable – may not be accessible because you don’t pay enough… or may be blocked all together.

The tax bill the House passed gives steep discounts to owners of private businesses — but makes teachers pay for their own teaching supplies. It drastically reduces the taxes on the most affluent in the country and raises the taxes on the poorest. In other words, it rewards the rich and punishes the poor.

Those fleeing the lack of infrastructure, intense crime and poverty, and earth quake after tsunami after hurricane of Haiti are kicked out of the country. Along with all who try to escape Sudan. Although, we are now free to import all the oil we want from Sudan… but its people are denied sanctuary from the Sudanese wars where 6,000 some children fight in Darfur and crucifixion is still a legal way to kill political prisoners.

If what we do to the most vulnerable, we do to Christ…

We are deporting Jesus.

We are forcing Jesus to pick between paying his water bill or eating today.

We are telling Jesus he was born evil, thinks evil, and the world would be better off if he killed himself.

We are cramming Jesus into little prison cells and giving him 2 cents a day for his slave labor.

We are punishing Jesus for being born not-White, for being not-Married, for being Middle Eastern, for being a refugee, for being an advocate of the poor and destitute, for being a promoter of women’s rights, for thinking children matter, for challenging authority and government, and for being a lean sheep.

We are only as Christian as how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Now… being white is not a sin. But it is being born with power. Born as a shepherd. Are you a good shepherd? Or are you a shepherd who’d rather ignore or harm the other sheep?

Being rich is not a sin. It is owning power. But it means we have a responsibility to generously and lavioushly share that wealth with others – so none are fat and none are thin.

Being straight, and/or male is not a sin. It means, however, responsibility as the ‘norm’ to invite the other in and LISTEN to how life is different. It means you are responsible to help make the world a better place for ALL PEOPLE.

This is Christ the King Sunday. We are celebrating the current reign of Christ, and anticipating the full reign.

Think of what that day will be — when the low are lifted and the high are lowered so all are equals.

Think of what that day will be – when we all eat justice. Will justice be sweet or bitter to you?

Do you look forward or do you fear that glorious day?

We are called to a radical life. Radical. Outside the norm. We are envisioning a radical future. A time of reversals. That time and day are ever closer – and we are invited to live into it now.

Come – live as Christ’s own and give up the selfish idols!

Come be a lamb of God! For God is seeking you, welcoming you.

Come, repent, change your ways, and return to the fold of Christ.

Come, follow the good shepherd, born in a barn, yet king over kings, yet lord over lords.

In your own hearts, recommit yourselves to being Christian.

Amen.

High on the Hog

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:14-30myklove-thanksgiving-devo1

How is gratitude related to these two passages? It seems like a stretch.

In Jesus’ parable, it is helpful to remember Jesus is talking about when the reign of God will come, and what it will be like. This is shortly before he, himself, is arrested and murdered, resurrected, and on a journey that is now 2000 years delayed. Perhaps Jesus is the man in the parable who goes away. We usually interpret this parable this way – but Jesus could easily be one of the slaves, too. There is no ‘right’ way to understand a parable.

So let’s imagine Jesus is the man leaving. He brings forward those who serve him — people like you and me — and gives us ‘talents.’ Normally, we understand this to be talents like singing, dancing, ministry, financial intelligence, hopefulness and helpfulness…. English literally takes the word ‘talent’ for these things from this Bible verse. In the old Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, however, a talent was an obscene amount of money. So the man gives hundreds of millions of dollars to his servants. More money than any of them have ever imagined.

But since we’re trying to understand this parable with the man as Jesus, we know Jesus doesn’t give us money. In fact, if we’re getting rich because we’re Christian – we’re doing Christianity wrong. So what DOES Jesus give?

Forgiveness.

Jesus gets in trouble because he is forgiving sins, and reconciling people with God. He gets in trouble because he is saying, through him, we all can have second and third and one-hundred-million chances to turn back to God. What is the insane amount of wealth Jesus is offering and leaving with us? God’s forgiveness. God’s love. God’s reign.

So Jesus leaves on his trip, leaving us variously with different amounts of sins forgiven, and grace, and love, and experiences of the reign of God.

The worst sinners among us take that 5 talents of grace — unearned forgiveness — and wholly live into it. Full living high on the hog. And those worse sinners, now forgiven, go out and forgive twice as many people, bring twice as many the good news of abundant life with God, and by the time Jesus returns, the 5 talents of grace have turned into 10 talents of grace. All kinds of lives touched and forever changed for the better by inclusion, welcome, acceptance, and love.

The middling sinners are forgiven a middling amount. But still, their faith brings double the amount of goodness to the world!

Lastly, there are some people who live with just a little bit of sin in their lives, but God offers them forgiveness too. These servants of God also hear the good news, also know how much God offers, and also receive forgiveness. They, also, could double the grace.

The difference in this parable is not about how much forgiveness we need – but what we do with it. The difference isn’t whether we live deeply or lightly sinful lives, but what we do with the grace and new lives God offers us.

In this story, the man who receives the single talent is terrified of losing that single iota of grace from God. He thinks God’s generosity is limited. He hides the forgiveness God has given him. Is he ashamed? One way or another, he doesn’t live life fully. He doesn’t permit himself to invest in others, or spread the wealth he’s been gifted around. He doesn’t even use it for himself. He just buries it. He doesn’t lose this forgiveness, but what good does it do?

When the man comes back, when Jesus returns, he finds the deeply forgiven person has doubled the grace given to him. So too, has the middling. But the person who was scared of God, who felt God took things that didn’t belong to God and was cruel, did nothing. They lived in terror of the return of the man. And Jesus, if he is the man in the story, chastises the scared servant. “Oh! You just KNEW I was cruel, huh? You could have at least given the talent to the bank!” You could have at least given the new life I gave you, the grace, the forgiveness, the time and money and skills, to another who could invest it and do good. Instead, you just lived isolated. You could have lived richly, but chose to live in poverty. You could have lived high on the hog and feasted on shoulder cuts, but instead, chose to barely get by with spam and hog feet.

We’re supposed to be like our master – supposed to be extravagantly generous. Supposed to take whatever talents we’re entrusted with, and invest them! In the words of Paul, we’re to always be encouraging one another! Praying for one another! Loving one another! Investing into one another. That is the holy life. That is the life living into the reign of God. That is the life that isn’t hiding the gift of Christ.

Thanksgiving is a time of generosity and extravagance. A time of feasting. WE are called to FEAST. Called to eat our fill, eat until our bellies are round and our pants too tight, on the bread of heaven. Our cups are literally overflowing – so full of the wine of life, the fruits of God, that they spill out all over us and splash onto those we encounter. God’s thanksgiving feast is such that hundred-million-dollars is a token amount. A tiny amount. This feast is spilling from our Bibles and Communions, our pews and hymnals, our deaths and our lives – like seed scattered, bread crumbs on the floor, coins tipped off a table and sheep let loose after a winter in the barn — this grace gets everywhere!

Unless we dig a hole and hide it.

Fear not, says Jesus. Do not be afraid, say the Angels. If you are scared, says Paul, you’ll want armor… but don’t take up arms and Kevlar. Don’t buy guns and glower at strangers. Instead, faith and love are your flak vest. Salvation is your helmet. And that is all you need to be secure. Whatever darkness comes, whatever makes you want to dig a hole and hide, you don’t need to be afraid. Extreme love has been shown to you and will continue to be shown to you. Hiding in the hole will not help. God knows us whether we are sleeping or awake, attentive or distracted. God seeks us wherever we wander. And God finds us to offer us forgiveness and love.

So do not fear.

Come on out of the hole you’ve dug. Bring out your talent, and let’s live high on the hog. Let’s celebrate. Let’s rejoice. Let’s give thanks that we are the beloved children of light, children of the day, children of God.

Let us celebrate! Let us give thanks!

What do these two passages have to do with gratitude? I believe they suggest that lives who have received forgiveness – and that is every person! – are best lived investing that forgiveness into others gratefully.

We are to double the love we’re given.

Amen.

Let Me Rest

Matthew 25:1-13 

jerusalem-israel-oil-lamps
Lamp, 100 CE, Israel – Palestine, Jerusalem dig

The disciples ask Jesus, What sign are we to watch for – what is the coming of the Kin-dom of Heaven like? And Jesus tells them several chapters about just that. Today, we hear the parable of the 10 bridesmaids, or 10 virgins, 10 young women.

It goes like this: The coming of the kin-dom of heaven is like ten women who have been asked to bring in the bridegroom. They are to guide him through the winding streets in a parade to the wedding banquet where the beautiful bride awaits. All of the women come with their lamps – these are the signs of the procession. Think of a lamp hung on a stick you carry up above your head for lighting the path. It makes quite the show. Five of those who came actually brought oil to light these showy parade items and make them functional – in case the groom comes over night. Five of these women brought the lamps to be part of the parade, but didn’t bother with the heavy lamp oil. Maybe they figured since they left in the daytime, the groom would be along shortly. Who wants a parade and wedding feast at an unexpected hour like 2 or 3 in the morning?

But, as we hear, the parade is delayed because the bridegroom is delayed. As night comes, all ten women fall asleep waiting. The wise and the foolish both sleep.

In the middle of the night, someone shouts, “Here comes the groom! Come on out to meet him!” Everyone got to their feet to ready for the celebratory parade. They got their lamps and hung them on their poles, trimmed up the wicks, and got ready to be the light to guide in the bridal parade to the party.

But only five of the women were actually ready to do this. They thought they had an easy and fun job only. They brought the lamps, the symbols of their roles, but not actually the heavy and messy oil to put IN the lamps. The other five women had brought the messy and heavy oil and are ready to do the job they were asked to do.

The foolish women who realize they actually needed to participate in this, and not just show up, ask for some of the oil. But the wise women reply, “There’s not enough to go around.” If all ten lamps are lit with the oil, the oil will run out before they guide the wedding party to the banquet hall. Better to have 5 lamps last the whole way than 10 lamps that die out half way there and leave everyone stumbling in the dark. So the wise say, “You best go prepare now.”

But while the foolish women were gone getting oil, the groom came close enough for the parade to start. And so it did. And the five guides lead the people along to the party.

Meanwhile, the foolish women get their lamps started and come running back to the party, late, saying, “We’re ready to help with the parade! Look! We have our guide lamps lit!”

But the groom said, “It’s too late. The time for that has already passed. I don’t need bridesmaids to guide people anymore for the party has already started.”

And the bridesmaids were very sad and cried.

Now, normally, I hear this preached with the punch line: therefore stay awake! Stay vigilant! Keep watch!

You never know when Christ will return!

NEVER REST! NEVER SLEEP! WATCH! KEEP ALERT!

But you know what, I’m tired.

Always being vigilant, always on edge – that means always stressing. People who are in war zones and who must always be alert suffer from all kinds of physical and mental harm from constantly being “on” and unable to turn off. Resting is one of the hard parts for our veterans coming home to adjust to, and do – because they’re so used to being “on.”

It works for a computer – turn it off, let it rest, plug it back in again – it works for us, too. We need rest. Does Jesus want us to wait with such expectation that we all start showing the Blue Screens of Death?

We need to sleep sometimes.

Always being in emergency mode means our minds begin to re-write themselves to thinking this over-load of adrenalin and cortisone – this load of stress hormones – is normal. So we freak out even more easily next time something stressful happens. Sometimes we even begin to crave chaos and stress.

Our bodies age rapidly from these strong chemicals and we get aches, pains, high blood pressure and low immune systems. We turn to self medication to help us get by – alcohol, cigarettes, another cup of coffee, eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little.

We get to feeling isolated, lonely, overwhelmed, angry.

Since Jesus is our good shepherd, who wants the best for us, and offers us to lie down in green pastures, who invites us to dine with him, I cannot think he was advocating we live our entire life in fear of the rapture, the End, and the return of Christ. I cannot think he was telling us to suffer from constant stress because we’re Christians.

The kindom of heaven is like ten bridesmaids… who fell asleep. Christ, the groom, came while they were sleeping.

So the difference is not who took a rest and who didn’t. All ten slept. The difference is who prepared for waiting and who didn’t. Who came ready to work, and who didn’t.

Some of the women came not just with the symbols of their job – the lamps – but also came with the hard part of the job, too – the oil.

Some Christians have the symbols of their faith – Easter, Christmas, maybe a cross – but wise Christians do the hard part of the faith too – the whole loving others bit.

When Christ arrives, it is too late to suddenly go “be” Christian. The time for action is now. The bridesmaids who remembered they are to be guides – day and night – with their lanterns are able to respond to the call. They can rise and go. The women who were only committed for the good parts aren’t able to rise and go and participate. They have to go get oil. They have to go prepare, although the time for preparing has already passed.

The wise Christians come at the call, guide with their lamps, and enter the wedding party. Enter into Christ’s presence. The foolish Christians are delayed in responding to the call, and by the time they get their act together and come saying “I’m ready to walk with Christ now and do all that love-your-neighbor-stuff!” Christ tells them, “The time for that is passed. The party is already going on now.”

Often I hear this talked about in terms of the Last Days. I had a great-uncle who liked to sit us kids down and somewhat terrify us with images of The Apocalypse: The Day of Judgment: THE return. Picture that in the strongest Appalachian accent you can, now. And he liked to tell us about how death comes suddenly, unexpectantly, and you need to get right with Jesus NOW. Because you can’t get right with Jesus after you die. And he’d tell us that the Final Day will be essentially the cutting off line for everyone. No more chances to get it right. You either are in the party, or you’re not. Either Saved or Not.

Yes – one can understand this parable that way.

I understand it a bit differently. See, Christ was, and Christ will come again… but Christ also IS. Christ IS Risen. Christ told this parable. Christ will one day bring the full reign of God on earth as it is in Heaven. But Christ also is here, right now, as near as our shadows.

I think the clarion, the call to action, to rise up from our sleep and trim our lamps, is happening every day; because we encounter Christ every day.

Where? Lord? I did not see you?

What you do to the least of these you do to me.

Every day, we see some chance to step up and guide the kin-dom of God into the world. Every day, we see Christ. Some of us are prepared to act. Prepared to guide. Prepared to minister and amplify the voices of the silenced and be present for one another. And some of us… are not.

I’m not saying we’re doing this because we’re mean. Nor are we doing this out of blindness and not aware of the needs in our community and world.

No.

We’re tired.

I bet those five bridesmaids who didn’t lug the heavy oil were tired.

Had they known the wait was going to be that long, they would have brought the oil. But they judged the odds, compared how likely it was that the groom would come in the day or the night, and chose. They chose wrong. But I don’t think it was that they meant to be wrong.

They just… are mortals. Fallible. And tire.

When we’re in constant stress mode, our reserves are all drained out. Not just our physical reserves, but our emotional and spiritual too. If we know someone really truly needs us, we’re there for them! … But it’s the casual encounters, the strangers, the hard to notice people who society makes invisible… it’s they we forget. They we don’t prepare for. But it is they who are Christ, the groom, coming into our lives at unexpected times.

They are the sick. Colds never come on our schedules. Dementia is not wrote on our calendar “Oh, Dec 2017, time for a stroke!” Those with long-term illnesses are the most forgotten. Those suffering from depression, lack of mobility, and… that one we hate to admit the most… being old.

They are the imprisoned. Where are our prisoners? Who tells them of Christ’s love and forgiveness and mercy? Who welcomes in people with criminal records and says, ‘Yes, you can work here,’ ‘Yes, you may have a loan,’ ‘Yes, you are welcome.’ Incarceration may last five years inside a prison, but it is a life-long sentence.

They are the naked and hungry. Poverty is one of those things we try to hide. We as a society shame people in poverty and tell them it is their fault so we don’t have to see them. Seeing them makes us feel badly about our own wealth. We pass rules banning people from loitering and panhandling and yet don’t provide shelters that are open 24/7. Where are these people to go? Work. Get a job. Ever been unemployed and looking for a job? Try looking for a job without a phone, a mailing address, shower, warm meal, and reliable transportation. Then add maybe a criminal record or a illness you can’t afford the medication to treat.

You and I – we can’t respond – can’t reach out and help others – when our lamps are empty. When we’re running on fumes. We need time to fill ourselves with oil so we can be lamps to others.

We need time to rest, to sleep, to be able to serve.

We are getting ready to enter the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years. Does the thought make you tired?

Then it is time for change. Time for rest. Time to build up those oil reserves.

For every day we are supposed to listen for the call – but we’ll only be able to respond if we’re ready.

Take time to be holy.

Take time to be still.

Take time to rest in the peace of God.

Amen.

Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone

luther95theses1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

 

Love a dead person? Worried they might be being tortured for their sins? Set those rests aside! Buy an Indulgence today! Only $5!

Tired of bad things happening to you? Buy an Indulgence today and get right with God! Piece of mind is priceless, right?

Planning a sin? Never fear! Buy your coverage for that sin now! Got a deal! Booklet of 5 for $5! Never be caught red-handed in a sin again!

See here? This is a Papal Bull – an official letter from the Pope – who is Jesus-on-Earth until Christ returns – and right here – for all you Germans who don’t read Latin – it says I – friar Tetzel, Grand Inquisitor, am telling the truth:

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings / The soul from Purgatory springs!”

What did you say? Oh the money? The money is to be used to build upon Saint Peter’s Basilica! A most beautiful building of God!

Don’t you want to honor God?

Don’t you want your loved ones to stop suffering?

Don’t you want to cure the current woes in your life?

Get out your money!


It’s 1517, and nearby, the professor and monk Martin Luther watches Friar Tetzel with growing fury. He knows exactly where that money is coming from. It is being collected from moms who can barely provide for their children, and dads struggling to find word, and grandparents sick and worried. And it comes from well meaning friends and scared, uninformed, normal people.

And he knows where it is going. It slips off to friar Tetzel’s two employers – yes, one is the Pope. But the other is the Archbishop of Mainz, Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg. He had to pay an extortionate amount to the Pope to be appointed Cardinal. And now he’s paying his debts back with half the money Tetzel raises.

Luther listens to Tetzel, growing more and more furious, and remembering his trip to Rome seven years prior.

His Monastic Order went to Rome to argue in favor of more stringent requirements on monks. Along the way Luther saw Christianity of all its types across Europe. In places churches were like his own rural Germany — poor, struggling, and rarely assigned leaders who were well educated. In other places were churches who lived out the command to help the poor – and set up orphanages and hospitals. And in other places were affluent churches with well educated leaders. All of them part of the One Holy Roman Empire, all of them part of the One Holy Roman Church.

At long last Martin reached Rome itself – where the Pope ruled as Christ’s Representative. It was (is?) known as the holiest city on Earth; where the place between heaven and earth is so thin you just may hear angels’ wings. The story back then was that the city was literally built over the blood of martyrs and saints who were murdered for their Christian faith. And that holiness of those people so permeated the stone, was so thick in the air, that just being in the city makes a person more holy.

Young Martin Luther is so excited he can barely stand himself.

But… what meets his eyes is not heaven on earth.

Rome wasn’t just the capital of the Church, it was a capital of the Empire. And the position of Pope was not just about the Church… since the Church was also the Empire… the Pope also helped choose the Emperor. Therefore, being pious, being religious, and godly was not a requirement to be Pope. Having money, having connections, and being crafty WAS required.

Clergy copied their Popes (Martin saw 9 over his life time. Some holy, and sadly, many very unholy.) Some of the Popes Martin Luther knew had children, so their clergy had children. Openly, their vows of celibacy were ignored. Some of Martin’s Popes held drunken parties that lasted for days and featured little boys coming out of cakes…. and so the clergy were drunk and at parties and victimizing children.

While some churches were focused on hospitals, and orphanages, or just making ends meet enough to have a copy of Holy Scripture… here in Rome were palaces of gold and silver and jewels for the cardinals and popes. Here in Rome the great cathedrals were full of art and silks and marble. The richness here would save lives if it were sent to other places in the church. But instead, the wealth gathers dust among all the other riches.

Martin was deeply disturbed.

Back at home, the disturbed monk continued to think about the greed and sin he saw in Rome… and the attempts to be generous and holy he saw here in rural Germany.

And seven years pass. During this time, Monk Martin began reading the newly translated and available writings of Saint Augustine from 300 AD. Augustine argued the Bible, rather than church officials, is the ultimate source of religion authority. Augustine resonated with Martin Luther. Here, someone respected by the church– St. Augustine is a church father – gives a way to critique the church and its leaders. He argues scripture – scripture! – is more important than traditions, or the words of church leaders, or credos or dogmas.

So Martin begins to tell his students this, and read to them the works of Augustine. Martin believes the Church can right itself if it returns to scripture and changes itself to reflect scripture. He’s hopeful and optimistic.

Then this fateful day occurs – October 31st, 1517. Let me give you the background: The current Pope has announced it is time to work on St. Peter’s Basilica and sent out friars into the whole Empire to collect money for this. The way they did so was to sell Indulgences, which is absolution — forgiveness — to sinners in return for money.

And THIS Friar – Friar Tetzel – is preaching not just reduction of time in purgatory, but full release from purgatory and forgiveness of sins not yet committed.

THIS Pope and THIS Friar and THIS Archbishop are all concerned about money. Not the poor at all.

Martin has had enough. He writes 95 arguments, 95 theses, and, as legend has it, nails them on the Wittenberg Castle church’s front door announcing he intended to argue these points, and invites people to come argue with him. This is a scholarly thing to do. Come! Join Professor Luther in debating the pros and cons of Indulgences!

Come! Let’s talk about how to use St. Augustine to correct our clergy and get back on the right path!

However, what Luther was arguing wasn’t just about Indulgences… it was about who has power and authority… Scripture, the Pope, the clergy, the traditions of the church? Who is in charge?

And Martin was not known for being… soft spoken. He was a lot like John the Baptist. He was prone to saying things VERY strongly. So when he publishes things like: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus,” the richest king, “build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” … word gets back to the Pope REAL quick.

And when Martin writes these things against Indulgences, and sends them to the Archbishop selling Indulgences…. Word gets back to the Pope about the heretic Martin Luther real quick.

Over the next several years, Luther would be examined, called to Rome, ordered to Recant, he’ll refuse. Still clinging to Scripture Alone, Martin will tell the people at the Diet of Worms, (not a literal eating of worms. It was a group of clergy called a Diet in the city of Worms): “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.”

Luther would be branded a heretic. (Teizel’s preaching would be branded heretical too.) But Luther would be on the run for his life the rest of his life. And he’ll write against corruption in the church and teach that Scripture Alone is the final authority all his life.


Scripture is who guides us, classical Protestantism teaches. Not fallible clergy, corruptible church institutions, or traditions whose meaning gets lost over time. Scripture is all we need and is, according to Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

This led to ideas and teachings that have forever changed our world and affects us right now.

Because Scripture Alone is all a Christian needs to come to God, we are all a priesthood of believers. Every person can come to God without a mediator. No need for saints, or angels, or clergy. You can go to God directly.

It means many churches select their own clergy, or have no clergy at all… because clergy are tutors, not your connection, to God. I stand here today because of the reformation. You, Saint Michael’s, have chosen a woman as your pastor instead of having people elsewhere in the world give you a male pastor. Other churches are picking men, women, transgendered, and genderless pastors. Some pick highly education, some pick highly spiritual, some pick elderly and some pick young. This is because clergy shepherd, but you don’t need them. All you need is the Bible.

Which means you need a Bible.

In Luther’s time, books were rare and precious. Think of all the work that goes into it: you have to cut a tree or collect cotton, and cut it tiny, and wet it, and spread it out, and press it flat, and dry it into sheets of paper. And then you need a goose quill and a knife, and a bottle of ink made of oils and pigments. And someone has to sit and handwrite out every single line, word, and letter…. From Genesis to Numbers to Isaiah to Luke to Revelations. And someone then takes animal skin or fur, makes a thread, and sews page after page together. And someone makes a wood or metal cover to protect the whole thing. THOUSANDS of hours go into making a book.

And when very few read, and even fewer write (they were considered separate skills), this specialist work is not around often and takes more money than most anyone has.

Books are treasures. Literal treasures.

And the Printing Press changed all that. Now hundreds of hours could produce a book. And the power of who had access to scripture changed from only the rich, to now the rich and the middle class.

And by our time, Bibles are free, and everywhere – hotel rooms and pews, our personal homes and offices – our purses, our phones – everywhere. Elevating scripture means scripture is now available to be read – everywhere.

But you have to know how to read.

And learning to read your own language takes years, let alone learning a dead language like Vulgate Latin.

So, in part because of the Protestant Revolution, Bibles have been translated into hundred of languages and are continuing to be translated into new languages. You no longer have to be a scholar to read scripture.

But you do have to be able to read.

Here is the next major change Martin Luther’s insistence on Augustine’s authority of scripture – public education. Why do we require kids to learn to read and write? Why did the early Protestants insist on free, public, school for every child? Because they believed you MUST be able to read your Bible.

Public schools, public libraries, English in common languages, clergy of all walks and styles, and diversity among churches… all of this is related to that fateful time 500 years ago.


Now… Correcting ourselves with scripture, and scripture alone as the final authority, sounds good until we get into using scripture practically… and we add in the claims that early Protestants like Luther did: that scripture is Perfect, Without Errors, the Word of God, and doesn’t contradict itself…

See, Protestants like Charles Wesley, whom you know from the Methodist, admitted that parts of the Bible are… in error.

Scripture, until about 250 years after Jesus’ death, was a combination of oral and written histories and stories. It changed, it was letters, it was midrash, and adapted to the time and place and situation. Jesus quotes things which are not in our Bible, but in Jewish oral history – and our scripture references details of history that aren’t in any of our books. Take Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, for example. Was Adam created and then Eve, or were both created simultaneously? Depends on which story you read. And among the gospels… how many angels, if any, were present in Jesus’ empty tomb?

Sometimes, the scripture seems wrong because times and morality have changed. Deut. 22:28 advises any man who rapes a woman or girl who is not pledged in marriage owes her father money and owes the victim a marriage. Then, this was a charity – the woman would still have a man to care for her and wouldn’t be murdered for the rape… as she would be if she were a wife or fiancée. But nowadays? Absolutely not going to force victims of sexual violence to STAY with their abuser!

Charles Wesley advised we balance scripture with tradition, experience, and reason.

Luther advised cutting out the books and sections of the Bible that he didn’t like… like all of James… Hebrews… Revelations… and all that seemed non-authoritative to him. Other Protestant Reformers said no – and compromised on tossing out some of the Old Testament books, like Bel and the Dragon which we read part of today for the Children’s Message, but keeping all of the New Testament. This is why the Protestant Bible is missing the books known as the Apocrypha.

This isn’t the first time the Church has argued over what scripture is authoritative. The Church had did this in 250 AD, which is why it is missing the many more books that the Ethiopian Christians use.

If Scripture Alone is all that matters… which scripture?

If Scripture Alone is all that matters… what happens when we understand the same passage in different ways? Who is right?

If Scripture Alone is all that matters… what happens when different translators use different words for the ancient Latin, Greek, or Aramaic? Or different words in English for the same word in Greek like…. is it forgive us our debts or forgive us our trespasses? Same word in one language. Two different words in English.


As I said, the authority of scripture is nothing new at all. Not even in 250 AD. In our reading today, Jesus and the educated citizens get into a debate over scripture. Those who like legalism, a lawyer, tries to catch Jesus in legal rules. He asks Jesus – what is the most important commandment out of all of them? As we hear, Jesus summarizes all scripture into a passage from scripture… and one of his own. He uses scripture, applies it, and shows he can draw its root meanings out… not just the legalities.

Jesus then uses scripture to debate back in the same manner since he is speaking with a lawyer. It is said that the messiah will be a Son of David – a descendant of King David. And yet, Jesus points out, when David writes the Psalms, he writes YHWH LORD speaks to my Adonai, my lord… meaning that the Messiah was around during King David’s reign, and more than just a child of David, since David calls him lord. The messiah isn’t just any ol’ human descendant.

Knowledge of tradition and scripture, and his audience, allows Jesus to communicate who he is – not just any ol’ human.

When Jesus faces Satan – he fights Satan with scripture… and Satan uses scripture back against Jesus.

Scripture is authoritative. Important. And often the only authority another holds over themselves.

Biblical literacy is necessary for Christians and non-Christians alike because these texts have shaped and are shaping our modern world. Everything from our fictional books to the way we organize ourselves to our modern debates on homosexuality, abortion, guns, and immigrants is infused with religion – all drawing on different parts of this book.

And we’re called to come to it as Jesus did – with fresh insights, open ears, and ready to not get caught up in ancient and culturally-specific laws, but rather get at the gestalt – the Holy Spirit – of the message. Listening, as we say in the United Church of Christ, for the Still Speaking God who placed a comma at the end of the Bible, and invites us to continue to interact, and engage with God and the world. Invites us to write our own Good News of the relationship we live with Christ. Invites us to creatively take the scriptures and traditions handed to us and apply them to the very real needs of people this very moment.

But we got to know those nuts and bolts parts too… for when we run into the lawyers.

Still, in our lives, this is not who we are called to be. Rev. Daryl Ward writes on sola scriptura, “The Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation. But it also contains much more. We should not be making an idol of it. And we should not be putting semantics and legalism above the fundamental gospel messages of love and mercy. Otherwise we are not being like Jesus. We are being like the Pharisees.” Being like lawyers. ((http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_aside_from_that))

Paul tells the Thessalonians, “…we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition… we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God.” Much like Luther, Paul and his aides were opposed, but, because they trusted in God and God’s good news, they carried the message on. They sure didn’t please mortals, but they pleased God.

We are challenged to do the same. To dig into the words about God for the Word of God. To dig into scripture, and traditions, and creeds and dogmas, and pull forth where the Spirit is still moving and working and guiding us to use our rich heritage to love today’s world.

May we always be a reformed and reforming, a united and uniting, a loved and loving church!

Amen.