Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: Division!!??

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 14, 2022, Pentecost 10C

Hebrews 12:1-2; Luke 12:49-56


Just one week ago, we were hearing Jesus talk about how “it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” and how our true task was to be “dressed for action and keep your lamps lit,” but to wait for our Master to come to us. 

That’s all fine and good and even kind of encouraging. But no, it’s not so easy as it sounds. Situated here in Gainesville, Florida, as this church is, we are inevitably drawn to hear the words of the patron saint of this town’s musical history, Tom Petty, who reminded us in the chorus of one of his popular hits that “the waiting is the hardest part“: 

The waiting is the hardest part

Every day you get one more yard

You take it on faith, you take it to the heart

The waiting is the hardest part

If Tom Petty doesn’t convince you, then Jesus’s words in today’s reading from Luke, just a few verses after last week’s reading, will make it terribly clear that the waiting to which we are called won’t be easy.

It isn’t necessarily all that clear just what got Jesus onto this theme; his discourse turns rather suddenly here, and even verses 41-48 don’t really give a great clue as to where this sudden outburst of frustration comes from. And that’s really the best word for what is happening here; Jesus is charged with the urgent task “to bring fire to the earth” and “a baptism with which to be baptized.”

Even for Jesus, the waiting is the hardest part. 

From there comes the verse that will scandalize countless hearers this morning: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” 

Wait, what? 

This from the one hailed as the Prince of Peace, the one who said “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and all that. Divison!!?? 

The two verses that follow amplify that point by the example of the core family, held to be the irrefutable building block of Roman society and Judean society and pretty much any society you might name, then or now. In this case, the family relationships highlighted here were considered most crucial to the harmonious working of the household. The challenge of father/son relationships gone wrong might be demonstrated by the parable of the prodigal son. Mother/daughter and mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships pointed to the business of family and marriage, the letting go of daughters who marry into other families and welcoming of daughters-in-law who marry into the family. To cite these as locus of division wasn’t only to suggest division within the family itself; such division destabilized the very presumed basis of society.

One of the more noteworthy characteristics of Jesus as described in Luke’s gospel is that, where the end of his human ministry is concerned, Jesus knows what’s coming. From back in Luke 9, when Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem,” he has been painstakingly clear that what is ahead is going to be ugly and divisive and confrontational and he is headed right into it anyway.

He knows that his ministry has set some folks against him, religious authorities being chief among them. He knows that Roman authorities, while they don’t care about intra-Jewish doctrinal disputes, are absolutely intent on preserving that false peace that came to be known as the “pax Romana,” and will quash anything or anyone that threatens to disrupt it. Let’s not forget that his very first preaching appearance in his hometown almost ended up with him being thrown off a cliff. He knows there is opposition, and keeps going anyway.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed that the greatest vexation to the work that he and his colleagues in the civil rights movement were doing was not the extremist. He said, quote;

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…

Don’t overlook what Dr. King has to say about “negative peace” and “positive peace.” The former is basically nobody fighting, but justice still denied to so many people and oppression running rampant. The so-called “Pax Romana” of Jesus’s time, in which no one could challenge the Roman Empire but countless thousands lived under its heel, was a prime example of “negative peace,” which, to say the least, is not what we are called to settle for. If that’s the only kind of peace we are interested in seeking, we should probably not look to Jesus for that, and it probably should not take up space in our prayers. There’s a reason that our Affirmation of Faith, taken from the PC(USA)’s A Brief Statement of Faith, orders its words the way it does when it declares that the Holy Spirit “gives us courage … to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” 

I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

The “baptism” here seems a direct reference to his forthcoming crucifixion; the “fire” might be a reference to the prophet Malachi’s words: “but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…” The fire that purifies, that burns away corruption and spoilage, that makes whole what is left; this seems a likely reference in this case, Jesus longing to purge away what corrupts and ruins and harms and oppresses.

Now here’s where that “waiting” part from last week comes in: the call to be “dressed for action” and “have your lamps lit” doesn’t involve sitting at home with the lights on wearing a cool tracksuit. It means doing the things Jesus taught us to do and showed us how to do. It means the stuff in that parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew 25 – feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, all that stuff. It means being the things named in the Beatitudes – even being a peacemaker, with the seeming contradiction implied with today’s verses. It means living the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness. 

The waiting we do is not a passive, unobtrusive thing. It compels us to live and act in ways that somebody out there is not going to like. I say “somebody out there,” but let’s be honest; clearly we don’t have only disagreement from outside the church to worry about. If we’re going to do the real Christlike waiting, large numbers of people who call themselves Christians are going to come after us, in word or maybe even in deed. 

And if you’re thinking this can’t possibly be true, remember this: even Mr. Rogers had protesters show up at his memorial. Back in 2003, when the children’s television host (and, never forget, ordained Presbyterian minister) was buried in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Rev. Fred Phelps led a group from his Westboro Baptist “Church” near Topeka, Kansas to protest Rogers because he never did publicly condemn homosexuality. I don’t know that Fred Rogers ever said much of anything about homosexuality publicly, but he never did hate it, so Fred Phelps and his bunch hated him.

I don’t enjoy saying this, but there isn’t anything Christlike you can do that somebody won’t give you grief for doing it. We won’t have peace just because we do good things.

Five years ago I preached from a parallel passage in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, in which Jesus says he came to bring “not peace but a sword” – a different but no less disturbing image. What applied about Jesus’s message there applies to Jesus’s message here as well: if you follow me, if you truly follow me and do the will of God and live into the kingdom of Heaven, the sword (or division, in this case) will find you. It’s not about creating division; it’s about doing what Jesus calls us to do, and division happens because of that. Ultimately it’s kinda foolish not to expect that.

As for the last verses, about not being able to read the signs of the times? Clearly we see that still being the case in everything from modern political punditry to our vastly worsening weather and the lack of will to do what must be done to put the brakes on a disastrously careening climate. We don’t know how to read the signs either. 

Folks, our job is to do what God calls us to do. If people attack us for it, so be it. That doesn’t mean we stop. After all, Jesus didn’t.

For a Jesus who warns us of what is coming when we do the will of God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #365. God Reigns! Let Earth Rejoice!; #—, Do not pray for peace; #718, Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said

Sermon: Dressed for Action

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 7, 2022, Pentecost 9C

Luke 12:32-40

Dressed for Action

Back in 1986, an unknown author by the name of Frank Peretti got a novel published that would create quite a sensation in the then fairly staid world of “Christian” literature. Titled This Present Darkness, the book took events in a stereotypical American small town as a shadowing of grand and epic battles between the angels of God and demon hordes intent on overthrowing the kingdom of God. 

The book spawned a sequel, Piercing the Darkness, and in one of the two books (I can’t remember for sure which, but I think it must have been the second) came a scene that, even at the still-youthful age I was then, made me stop, blanch with horror at what I had just read, and gather up both books and throw them away. 

In the scene, the aforementioned heavenly battle seems to be going badly for the angelic good guys. One of the angelic captains begins to sound an awful lot like he’s despairing and pleads out loud for the Christians in that small town to pray harder, lest the battle be lost and God’s forces overthrown. 

Think about that, folks. The kingdom of God would be overthrown unless one person started praying harder, whatever that means. I lack the words to emphasize how theologically and biblically wrong that is without resorting to words like “heresy.” 

I could remind you of our little jaunt through the book of Revelation in the Sundays after Easter, which pointed to the ultimate conclusion that no matter how badly things might seem to be going at any given point, God wins in the end. The Lamb is on the throne, the Holy City comes down, all that good stuff.

It would be remiss of me, however, to overlook the words of today’s reading from Luke’s gospel pointing us to the same basic thought. Indeed, the very first sentence found in verse 32 illustrates just how untenable and unviable that Present Darkness scenario is. 

Do not be afraid.” You can easily lose count of the number of times that God, or an angel, or Jesus (as in this case) says these words in Luke’s gospel, going back to the beginning of the book in which it has to be repeated multiple times to folks like Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds in the field. This sentence is good counsel enough, to be sure, but what follows is jaw-dropping, if we stop and think about it.

…for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

Listen to that again: 

…for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

Just give it away, apparently. It gives God pleasure to give us everything that is God’s. Let your mind be blown. And let this sentence inform those seemingly unbearably radical instructions that follow; if God is pleased to give away everything to us, can we not do the same for the world around us?

Does that sound like a kingdom that is going to be overthrown by some human weakness?

Or take the next section of the reading, the call to … waiting?

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…” is reminiscent of one of those late parables in Matthew’s gospel, the one with the young women waiting for the wedding party when their lamps run out of oil. But, while “Dressed for Action” could probably be sold as a Hollywood action title, it’s also not exactly a call to storm the battlements. Jesus then follows this with a parable about slaves waiting for their master to return from such a banquet, with the wildly unfathomable promise that the master who finds those slaves waiting and ready would turn around and play the role of the servant and serve those slaves. If you ever visit Monticello, ask the docents how many times Thomas Jefferson did that for his slaves. 

But again, this outlandish reward is not for any harebrained act of whatever, but for nothing more than waiting and being ready – dressed for action and lamps lit. Not storming the Capitol or taking over the legislature to pass all manner of religious-oppression laws; only to wait for our Lord to come to us. Maybe even to give us the Kingdom since that apparently gives God pleasure to do. But the faithful response is to wait to be led by the Lord. 

For a God whose good pleasure it is to give us the Kingdom, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #396, Brethren, We Have Met to Worship; #402, How Lovely, Lord; #350, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning

Sermon: Do You Own, or Are You Owned?

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 31, 2022, Pentecost 8C

Luke 12:13-21

Do You Own, or Are You Owned?

Six years ago when this reading showed up in the lectionary and I didn’t choose another reading, I started with the question of whether anyone remembered the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the show with the host with the extreme British accent and lots of insanely wealthy people being paraded before viewers for little other reason than being insanely wealthy and willing to parade before viewers with all that wealth on display. Even the closing theme music – a tune called “Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams” – was designed to make you the viewer jealous of what you saw. It ran for twelve years and featured all manner of very rich people, from celebrities to the more obscure but still wealthy to even a future President of the United States among its featured rich people. 

Anyway, that show itself (to its credit, I suppose) didn’t really pretend to be about anything other than ogling all the stuff. Sadly, though, the show proved to be a foretaste of future TV trends; the number of rich people who get on TV mostly for being rich has only gotten larger on more shows, although nowadays you’re likely to see more of their private lives than is frankly desirable. One such example is the so-called “reality TV” series Chrisley Knows Best, featuring an originally Georgia-based real estate sharpie and his family and their exploits in being rich and increasingly famous. As to the “reality” part, now that the husband and wife at the lead of the show have been convicted of bank fraud and tax evasion, I suppose we’ll see how much longer the publicity is something the family wants to seek. How much can you pass yourself off as a wise and trustworthy individual or role model with that particular conviction looming over you?

Maybe the lead character of the parable Jesus tells in today’s reading from Luke isn’t quite on the level of a featured rich person on that show, but he is rich, and we are told this by Jesus before we even know that he got such a super-abundant harvest. And in Luke, to be honest, “rich” isn’t always a good thing.

For example: even at the very beginning of this gospel, in the Song of Mary upon her meeting with Elizabeth, we hear that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). In chapter 6, Jesus proclaims a woe” on the rich, “for they have received their consolation” (6:24). The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in chapter 16, is particularly harsh. And then there’s the rich ruler of chapter 18 who, when challenged by Jesus to give it all away and follow, “became sad, for he was very rich” (18:23), an event that prompts Jesus to exclaim “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (18:24), comparing the feat to getting a camel through the eye of a needle, but finally offering the hope that “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (18:27). Frankly the only rich person that really comes off well in this gospel is Zacchaeus, the tax collector in chapter 19, who pledges to give away for the poor and pay back any who have been defrauded.

So it’s not a surprise that this rich man here in Luke 12 is not going to turn out to be a good guy, but he does seem particularly tone-deaf, with his resolve to tear down perfectly good barns and build bigger and better, showier barns. Seriously, simply adding another barn would be a lot easier and quicker, and that’s before the moral calculus about a person’s responsibility with wealth. 

Note that Jesus tells this parable in response to a man from the crowd calling out to Jesus to settle a dispute with his brother over the family inheritance. After an initial “who do you think I am?” rebuff warning the young man not to expect Jesus to be a tool against his own family, Jesus turns quickly to warning the crowd against greed, saying “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15). Immediately after the parable Jesus launches into teaching that is very specific in its extension of this warning, inviting his hearers and us to look at the ravens who don’t plant or harvest, the lilies that “neither toil nor spin” (12:27) and yet are more glorious than Solomon at his most glorious. At last Jesus gets to the point: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:34). All of these taken together seem to point toward one harsh but fair conclusion: those who own great possessions tend to be owned by those possessions.

Now by this point, you may have already begun to draw a conclusion about where this sermon is going to end up. Ugh, another sermon bashing rich people. And there is definitely a moral peril expressed in this parable. The more wealth and possessions one has, it seems, the greater the danger of becoming attached to that wealth and those possessions in a way that clouds one’s spiritual judgment so that one forgets (as our last hymn today will remind us) that it’s all God’s anyway, a lesson we also see in Ecclesiastes 5:18-19. It may be a cliché to say that “money can’t buy happiness,” but clichés tend to become clichés because they are true enough often enough to get repeated over and over again, which seems the case here.`

Perhaps more significant than simply the insufficiency of money to procure happiness is the utter inadequacy of money as a substitute for a relationship with God, which seems to be where the man who decides to build bigger barns goes off the rails. As Presbyterian minister Meda Stamper puts it, “The parable of the rich fool … illustrates simply and memorably the futility of choices made in isolation from the love of God and neighbor.” Stamper continues to describe what is a central theme, not just in this parable but in the whole gospel of Luke: “the problem of wealth in the context of the holy kingdom where closeness to God is life and attachment to things reflects soul-stifling anxiety and fear.” 

The particularly damning part of the choice the “barn man” makes in this parable is that only one person seems to factor into it: himself. He doesn’t seem to get that there might be others in his town in need, no clue that his workers (which he would have had to have if the harvest was that plentiful; he wasn’t bringing in all that by himself) might benefit from some portion of that harvest. He sounds like a man who most definitely has come to be owned by his possessions, who never learned the basic lesson we expect our kids to learn by kindergarten: the lesson of how to share. You might recall the brief snippet from Colossians read earlier here and its blunt equation of greed with idolatry. 

But of course, this being a parable of Jesus, the simple answer is not quite the whole answer. The dirty little secret about us moderns, even us modern Christians, is that we don’t have to be “rich” by the standards of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or Chrisley Knows Best or other such popular measures to become attached to our stuff in a way that hinders closeness to God. Heck, you can even be homeless and be powerfully attached to your stuff. We can all find some element of that unhealthy attachment in ourselves.

For myself, my downfall would be books or music, of which I just added several more at that conference I attended a week ago. For you it might be some other possession – not necessarily a pricey thing, but some thing or things to which the attachment might be so strong that it has the power to cloud one’s spiritual discernment. Whatever might be the case, attachment to the things of the earth is a moral peril to the degree that it precludes or hinders attachment to the things of God, to the “treasures in heaven” we are encouraged to store up, to the neighbors around us whom God calls us to serve. 

Sometime soon, or at least some time this fall, you’ll be hearing from the Finance and Stewardship Committee, beginnng the process of discerning how we will steward our resources for the forthcoming year. The word “stewardship” can feel loaded and burdensome to us, but at its most basic it describes how we participate in the kingdom of God, as a church and as individuals, and how we make use of the resources we have been given – the harvest we have gathered, so to speak – to participate in that kingdom and its work. In that process the challenge before us is to do so without becoming attached to those possessions or resources themselves – not to be owned by those possessions – but to see them as gifts from God to be given in service to God and neighbor, the thing that “barn man” never seems to have grasped.

We don’t need to have crazy luxury around us, or Robin Leach ogling our stuff on behalf of millions of TV viewers, to fall into the trap of attachment to things that cannot give life. No one is beyond that trap. Only when we see what we have through the eyes of the kingdom, fully recognizing God and neighbor in our decision-making, do we begin to get free of that trap. Only then do we see that building bigger barns is not the answer.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #41, O Worship the King, All Glorious Above; #—, What things we own cannot give life; #708, We Give Thee But Thine Own

Sermon: The One Who Showed Mercy

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 10, 2022, Pentecost 5C

Luke 10:25-37

The One Who Showed Mercy

It is such a familiar story, what’s a pastor to do with it? 

It is maybe the most well-known parable Jesus told, rivaled only by the parable of the prodigal son. It’s a full-fledged story, with plot and development and conflict and all the good stuff that makes a story compelling enough to hear. 

Well, one thing we can do is back up and remind ourselves that the story didn’t just come out of thin air; Jesus is – cue the dramatic music – being interrogated. By a lawyer. 

The lawyer is, as Luke tells the story, testing Jesus. Throughout the different gospels different parties at different times do just that, trying to trap Jesus in some kind of bind that would either set him up to be found in error theologically or cause him to fall out of favor with the people. The lawyer (not the kind of lawyer we think of nowadays but an interpreter of the law) seems to be probing Jesus for some kind of theological misstep about the commandments. 

Instead, Jesus (as he so often does) turns the question on his interrogator, who could hardly get away with declining to answer – it was his job to answer questions about the law. So, he answered, and did so appropriately, turning to words from Deuteronomy 6 (with the “mind” added to the heart and soul and might – here given as “strength” – found in that passage). That’s the part of the scripture reading covered in that first hymn we sang, and it also shows up in different contexts in the gospels of Matthew and Mark

In this case, with the famous parable coming right after it, it’s easy to overlook this summation of the “greatest commandment,” but we shouldn’t. While here it is quoted by Jesus’s interrogator, in those other gospel context Jesus himself states it as “the greatest commandment” and “one like unto it,” to use the King James style of speech. If you were seeking to summarize the faith in as few words as possible, this isn’t your worst possibility. 

Jesus more or less congratulated him and invited him to go his way in peace and security. This of course left the lawyer stewing in the same kind of humiliation that Jesus’s would-be interlocutors typically endured; their questioning turned against them, their duplicity exposed. 

But in this case the interrogator can’t leave well enough alone, and – using a long-favored legal tactic – tries to recover himself by questioning the terminology in the answer: “And who is my neighbor?” 

The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner offers this take on the lawyer and his question:

He presumably wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”

Instead Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyer’s response is left unrecorded.

Well, not that I want to be in the position of questioning a Pulitzer Prize nominee like Buechner, but one small part of the lawyer’s response actually is recorded for us. And it’s a pretty revealing answer. 

Upon finishing the parable, Jesus again turns on his would-be interrogator. Having told the story in which a Samaritan steps up, above and beyond the call of duty, to aid a badly wounded man who had been passed over by members of the religious elite, he again questions the lawyer, asking him to identify which of the three travelers in the story had been a neighbor to the wounded traveler. Do pay attention to the lawyer’s response:

The one who showed him mercy.

On one level, of course, the lawyer has answered rightly. Now the way the Greek is constructed in this particular sentence, a more literal translation would read something like “the one who did mercy to him.” That’s actually a theologically superior way to put it, if not so wonderful grammatically. “Mercy”, like so many of the loaded theological words we use, is active. It’s not a feeling or emotion or empathetic reaction. Mercy is, even if English doesn’t quite capture it, something you do. And this traveler had indeed “done mercy” to the wounded man, unmistakably so. And Jesus’s answer to the lawyer acknowledges this, as he leaves him with the command “Go and do likewise.”

But notice the lawyer’s answer again, even in the theologically superior but grammatically awkward version:

The one who did mercy to him.”

The three passing travelers in this story didn’t get names, but they did get pretty clear identifiers that Jesus’s listeners would have immediately recognized. One was a priest, a religious authority, and the second was a Levite, a member of that tribe set apart since Moses’s time for service in the Temple. Two figures to whom would be attributed qualities of righteousness as a part of their standing among the people.

The third man was a Samaritan. And the lawyer couldn’t even say the word.

In the time of Elijah and Elisha, the prophets who figured into the scriptures and sermons the past three weeks, Samaria was simply a region of Israel, the northern of the two kingdoms that had resulted from the machinations of those who succeeded Solomon as king after his death (the other kingdom was Judah, which was centered in Jerusalem). The city of Samaria sometimes served as the seat of government of that northern kingdom, and a lot of Elijah’s activity was concentrated there. By the time of today’s story, though, all of the region is simply lumped into a larger Roman province called Palestine. Yet over the centuries a virulent schism had erupted between those Jews (whose worship was centered on the Temple in Jerusalem) and the Samaritans, who were, technically, Jews, but whose practice had evolved to worship on Mount Gerizim in their own territory. That site was, they claimed, the original holy place in Israel, dating to the time of Joshua, as opposed to Jerusalem, which only became prominent during the era of King David. In short, a disagreement over what might seem to outsiders an arcane theological point had become a hard-and-fast schism, with Jerusalem Jews literally going out of their way to avoid even passing through the region of Samaria, much less actually having anything to do with Samaritans.

For Jesus to invoke the third, merciful traveler as a Samaritan no doubt provoked agitated bristling, and probably an oath or two, among his listeners. That’s if they were a well-behaved group. And let’s be clear; had the parable been told in Samaria, and the identity of the third passerby been Judean, reactions would most likely have been extremely similar. Vitriol ran both ways.

It was a two-sided provocation that Jesus put before his listeners. By no means would any self-respecting Jew of what we might call the Jerusalem party even think of defiling himself by dealing with a Samaritan at all; being a neighbor to a Samaritan was out of the question. At the same time, no such self-respecting Jew would conceive of a Samaritan being a neighbor to a Jew. It would never happen, they might say, the way a plantation overseer of the 1850s might say that a member of the same skin color as the slaves he ruled over would never be President of the United States. 

Such was the vitriol that our lawyer couldn’t even vocalize that “the one who did mercy” could even possibly be a Samaritan. 

It’s easy enough for us to grasp the main point of the parable, and to apply to it Frederick Buechner’s point that a neighbor is basically anybody who needs you. But it’s not always easy or comfortable – or, frankly, desirable to us – to get Jesus’s point that “anybody” really does mean anybody. We live in a world that isn’t prepared to give up our grudges, our ancient hostilities, our prejudices or superior attitudes or whatever ruses we use to divide ourselves and keep ourselves set apart from and above others. It would never happen. It can’t happen. 

I won’t let it happen.

Our society is pretty good at demeaning and dehumanizing “the other.” The world out there calls them job-stealers and threatens to build a great big wall to keep them out, never mind who’s going to pick all those tomatoes and strawberries in south Florida. Or people call them terrorists and yell “go back where you came from” even if they were born here, never mind that they are much more likely to be the ones that the actual terrorists kill first.

Or, when they get shot, people just call them thugs.

Jesus has this nasty habit of not caring one whit about our preferences or prejudices or whatnot. The world tries to respond with “but Jesus, they’re…” and Jesus cuts us off and finishes the sentence “your neighbor.” Society protests “but he’s a…” and Jesus won’t let us finish but says “the one you should imitate.” See, the kingdom of God doesn’t honor those divisions we create. The kingdom of God sees need and moves to meet it. End of discussion. If we want to claim to be part of that kingdom of God, if we call ourselves disciples, we’d better move that way.

Which one … was a neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves?

The one who did mercy to him.

Go and do likewise.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #—, O love your God with all your heart; #707, Take Thou Our Minds, Dear Lord; #757, Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples

Sermon: Don’t Look Away

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 26, 2022, Pentecost 4C

2 Kings 2:1-14; Luke 9:51-62

 Don’t Look Away

When last we left Elijah, the prophet had just been rebuked (mildly, to say the least) by the Lord for his pronounced myopia and “I alone am left” whine, not least by being ordered by God to go anoint his successor, a man named Elisha who at the time was apparently living with his parents tending their fields and livestock. Whether enthusiastically or not (after all, we don’t know if Elijah even knew Elisha at this point), Elijah at least obeyed that command by throwing his cloak at him, upon which Elisha left the farm and family (slaughtering twenty-four oxen on his way out and giving the meat as a feast for the locals) to follow Elijah. Elijah did have a couple more prophetic encounters left in him, including his dramatic condemnation of King Ahab over his theft of the vineyard of a neighbor and one more destructive conflict with Ahab’s successor, Ahaziah. By the time we get to today’s reading, though, Elijah’s time is up, and Elisha seems to know it.

Our narrator certainly knows it, and is almost blasé about it at the beginning of our reading. How often do you see a sentence that begins “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind” and continues in blasé fashion about Elijah and Elisha’s journey? I suppose after all the over-the-top things that have happened in Elijah’s term on earth, one more crazy thing doesn’t seem like much, but we are talking about a man who is going to be gathered up by a chariot of fire and whisked away. That seems worth a little bit of excitement. At any rate, it seems like everybody, including Elisha, knows that something extraordinary is about to happen.

And if he didn’t know it, there were plenty of others along the way to clue him in on the subject. As they travel, they encounter companies of prophets, (more refutation of Elijah’s “I alone am left” ranting) and in each case members of those prophet groups take Elisha aside and say “you know he’s going away, don’t you?” and each time Elisha responds “yeah, yeah, I know, just hush” and determinedly plugs along with Elijah, even though Elijah keeps trying to put him off as well.

Remember, Elisha hasn’t really been the prophet yet. He has so far been functioning like an understudy, or perhaps like an Assistant Prophet of Yahwistic Theology still awaiting tenure. Even though God specifically commanded Elijah to go anoint Elisha as his successor, it’s not even clear that Elisha was a prophet at all before Elijah showed up and ordained him, so to speak. At the end of 1 Kings 19, when Elijah comes to anoint him, Elisha was plowing in the fields (his parents’ fields, evidently) with twelve yoke of oxen. And before following Elijah, Elisha wants to return home to say goodbye to mom and dad and to slaughter those oxen for a great feast. Doesn’t sound much like a prophet in the making, and his name doesn’t appear again in the Kings narrative until today’s reading, and yet here Elisha is, doggedly following his apparent prophetic mentor to the last. 

And this most likely wasn’t an easy life for which he was signing up. You might remember the gospel reading for today, in which Jesus warns those who say they want to follow him. “Nowhere to lay his head.” For that matter, no turning back – sounds like Jesus would have been less inclined to indulge Elisha’s wish to say goodbye to his parents and throw that going-away party. This is not a glamorous life. We have elevated these characters from the Bible to the status of heroes, but that wasn’t necessarily how they experienced life. It wasn’t easy, particularly when you had an angry king and queen hounding you as did Elijah. But, still, Elisha was there, following Elijah to the end.

So, let’s follow what he sees.

With some of those other prophets following at a distance, Elijah and Elisha come to the Jordan River. Ii isn’t one of the Great Rivers of the World, but it’s not small. One doesn’t just wade across it, or swim across for that matter. Elisha watches as Elijah takes his mantle (the same one he had wrapped around his face on Horeb the mount of God, at the “sound of sheer silence”) and rolls it up to strike the water, and the water parts. No doubt Elisha and the others recall the Hebrew people crossing the Jordan under Joshua’s leadership as they finally approached their promised land after years in the wilderness. Elijah and Elisha cross, as the other prophets watch.

Finally Elijah gives up and asks Elisha what he wants. What do you say in such a situation? Many years before, the newly elevated king Solomon was asked this question by no less than God and had chosen to ask for wisdom. Here Elisha, asked by his prophetic mentor, chooses to ask for what he sees in Elijah, only more. Given what we’ve seen of Elijah this might seem a truly frightening prospect, but Elisha nonetheless sees in Elijah what he needs to step into his call. Except he doesn’t just ask for it, he asks for a “double portion,” language that recalls the share of an inheritance typically bequeathed to an eldest son. He asks for more, for beyond. What makes a “double portion”? Is it more power, more ability to do great feats, more discernment about God’s call to a prophet? We don’t get an explanation. Nonetheless Elijah allows that Elisha’s request will be granted, but only if Elisha sees Elijah is he is taken away. 

In other words, don’t look away at all. Don’t even blink. And certainly don’t look down at your cell phone. No pressure there, right?

And yet Elisha, determined as ever to fulfill this call he never expected, manages to keep his eyes on Elijah, until the fiery chariot and whirlwind sweep him away, finally fading from sight.

In a story like this one, with some utterly fantastic elements and a setting clearly unlike anything we will ever know, it can be difficult to relate. Chariots of Fire is a movie about Olympic runners, not something we actually expect to see in real life. But Elisha does show us something we need to see, something we can in fact learn from even in our own very different modern times. 

Elisha is wise enough to seek what his mentor had. It’s not that we need to think Elisha saw Elijah as perfect. We’ve seen the ways in which Elijah’s zeal sometimes outstripped his willingness to rely on God’s leading. And yet for all his excess, Elijah was still in touch with God, still a servant of Yahweh, and Elisha knew he needed that if he were to step into Elijah’s prophetic office. 

But even at the same time he asked for Elijah’s blessing, he knew that wasn’t enough. He needed more. Elijah’s world was already shifting away. Ahab was no longer on the scene, and even his successor Ahaziah’s reign was short-lived. Israel would be challenged by different enemies. Elijah’s way wasn’t going to be sufficient. Elisha’s prophetic ministry was going to be a different one than Elijah’s, and in his request he was wise enough to grasp that. 

We can learn from this. We, the modern church here in Gainesville and around the world, cannot cavalierly dispense with the foundation that our ancestors in the faith have built. It is not perfect. It is not foolproof. We as Christ’s church in God’s world have failed too many times in too many places in too many cases to think we’ve ever been perfect. We’ve endorsed too many evils in the name of our convenience or our status in society. We managed to read the Bible in such a way that we decided keeping slaves was o.k., for perhaps the most egregious example. That’s in our history. 

But still, flawed as those saints may have been, they are the ones who have built the foundation on which we stand, and we cannot dispense with that. Neither, however, can we be bound to it or limited to it. 

The church of the nineteenth century was not sufficient to witness to the world of the twentieth century, and neither would the twentieth-century church ever be the church that successfully witnesses to the world of the twenty-first century. Just try telling someone they ought to be in church. They’ll ask you “why?” point blank, as if you had suggested they should sprout horns. And if you don’t have a real, honest, authentic answer, you’ve lost them, probably for good. We don’t get to throw open the doors and just expect them to come. Doesn’t work.

We need more. We need things we’ve never understood before. Our challenges are different than those our fathers and mothers, or grandmothers and grandfathers, or any of the generations before us ever faced, and we need to be equipped and prepared to witness to unchanging truth in an ever-changing world. 

Elisha did indeed step into Elijah’s prophetic call. Yet his prophetic ministry would be quite different from Elijah’s. No rash challenges to a horde of Baal prophets, no running from Israel to Sinai. And mind you, his own prophetic career wasn’t free of fits of wrath; only a few verses after this story, Elisha curses a bunch of unruly boys basically for calling him “Baldy,” and a bear comes out of the woods and mauls them. And yet his work would see healings, health restored to barren and poisoned lands and wells, and even a powerful foreign general converted to the worship of Yahweh. Not bad. 

Can we as a church, both local and universal, rise to that challenge? Can we be a church that witnesses to the eternal in an age like none we’ve known before? Can we speak truth, bear witness, tell good news to a world or a country or a city that is dramatically different that the one in which we grew up? 

We would do well indeed to ask for a double portion of the Spirit. Just be careful what you ask for. 

For the audacity and the persistence of Elisha, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless indicated): #432, How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord; #—, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; #726, Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons)

Sermon: The Prophet With John Wayne Syndrome

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 19, 2022, Pentecost 2C

Psalm 42; 1 Kings 19:1-16; Romans 11:1-6

The Prophet With John Wayne Syndrome

There is a type in American film, particularly but not exclusively found in the genre of the Western. The image is of the lone hero, trusted and revered six-shooter at his hip, who confronts the evil horde all on his own, winning the day in the name of truth or justice or whatever was seemingly under threat. Let’s be honest, many of those lone heroes were played by the likes of John Wayne, or maybe even more Clint Eastwood in later years: tough, taciturn, and unafraid of whatever level of violence was necessary to triumph. 

That type has of course spread out from the Western genre, and is found in cop shows or movies, superhero movies, and many other different kinds of action-adventure movies. Such characters also show up in various types of novels, comic books or graphic novels, and frankly a lot of different types of media consumed by an awful lot of readers or listeners or viewers. Just this weekend the animated feature film Lightyear, the one based on the character from the Toy Story movies, shows that lead character in exactly this light, determined that he is the only one who can “finish the mission” and make things right, and in the process tearing himself away from the community around him.

Though he lived innumerable centuries before anything Hollywood ever produced, the prophet Elijah seems sometimes to fall prey to the mindset of “going it alone.” He first shows up only back in Chapter 17, out of nowhere to announce to King Ahab that a drought would be upon the land for three years. In fact, even there it is not recorded that God spoke to Elijah until verse 2, after the prophet had made his announcement to the king. The drought does indeed come, and Elijah spends time in a remote place with a widow and her son, where a couple of miracles are involved. 

The events of today’s reading have their roots in the events of Chapter 18. Elijah took a simple command from God to announce the end of a drought and drew it out into an elaborate contest with the prophets of the false god Baal, culminating in the spectacular display of fire from heaven coming down and consuming all the waterlogged altars and soaked sacrifices. At the end of that episode Elijah had the 450 prophets of Baal gathered up and slaughtered. Keep in mind here that the only command God has given Elijah in this account at all was to announce the end of the drought to Ahab; even the great contest was not commanded by God as much as this scripture reads, much less killing all those Baal prophets.

Afterwards, as the prophesied rain approached, Elijah (apparently now possessed by the super-speed of the modern superhero The Flash) ran ahead of King Ahab’s fully equipped chariot to the town of Jezreel, serving then as the seat of power in Israel.

And that’s where today’s reading kicks off, with Ahab whining to his wife Jezebel about what Elijah had done, and Jezebel issuing (via messenger) a not too veiled threat to Elijah: what you did to my Baal prophets, I’m gonna do to you.

And Elijah, the man who had been sustained in the wilderness by ravens, who had seen God miraculously extend meal and oil for weeks for the widow and her son, who had challenged the Baal prophets and won, who had slaughtered all those prophets in triumph, humiliated the king … now, Elijah was scared and ran.

You can see the account of Elijah’s flight, falling asleep in despair only to be awakened, fed, and sent on his way (not once, but twice); arriving at Horeb the mount of God (in Exodus, that mountain was called Sinai), and repeating what almost sounds like a rehearsed, pre-packaged answer to God:

I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

Elijah says this two times. He says it first when he comes to the cave on Horeb the mount of God, and again after the progression described in verses 11-12; a great wind, a strong earthquake, and a mighty fire. All of these would have been recognizable signs of the presence of God throughout Hebrew scriptue, dating back as far as the Exodus and Moses’s time with God on this same mountain on which Elijah now stands. These happenings would seem to be a clear set-up, a deliberate echo of the past presence of God in this place. But no, in this case God was in none of those; only in the “sound of sheer silence” did Elijah discern the presence of the Lord.

So somehow, the bombast and tumult of the mountaintop display, not completely unlike the bombast and tumult Elijah himself had initiated back at Mount Carmel, somehow doesn’t seem to get through to Elijah, for afterwards when he is asked a second time “what are you doing here, Elijah?” he responds the exact same way as before:

I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

He doesn’t get it. Elijah doesn’t get it, so God has to hit him over the head with it if Elijah is ever going to get over his severe case of John Wayne Syndrome.

First of all, we the reader know that Elijah has been fundamentally incorrect all along – and this is where that Lightyear movie tracks with Elijah pretty well. Back in the first verses of chapter 18 we read of Obadiah, a servant in Ahab’s court who despite the threats of the royal family had secreted away a hundred prophets loyal to the Lord, hiding them in caves to thwart Jezebel’s plans to kill them. That’s at least a hundred and one examples of how Elijah was wrong when he claimed that “he alone was left,” and Elijah knows this because Obadiah told him to his face in 18:13. God then, in 19:18 just outside our reading, points to seven thousand loyal Israelites who have not bowed the knee to Baal, seven thousand faithful that God would preserve. Elijah had so obsessed on being the only one who could fix things that he had torn himself apart from any community at all.

But maybe the unkindest cut of all comes in verse 16. Not only was Elijah not the lone hero, but he wasn’t even irreplaceable. Another prophet would take his place, and it was Elijah’s job to go anoint him. If that’s not a direct slap in the face against Elijah’s pity party I don’t know what else it could be.

Now God still had work for Elijah to do, but God needed Elijah focused on God’s call to him, and not hung up on his self-obsessed and self-possessed despair or his need to be some kind of superhero or John Wayne or whatever. It’s not hard to extrapolate the lesson for us from such a story: this applies to us too.

It’s not uncommon for us to fall into that pit. Australian biblical scholar and pastor Howard Wallace points out that Elijah needs to be released from the zealousness and self-control that had ruled his previous service and learn that it was the word of the Lord, which sometimes did not speak in the wind or earthquake or fire, to which he needed to submit his prophetic witness. Sometimes it’s the silence that contains the word we await from the Spirit. 

Without that listening, we get crosswise with what God is calling us to do. We’re convinced it’s all up to “me”. No one else is going to step up, it’s all on our shoulders. Yes, it’s easy to slip into that particular quality of despair, but it can often be the worst place for a follower of Christ to end up, It can go either of two different ways, both disastrous and potentially destructive.

Six years ago I preached on this passage in the wake of the horrific murders of forty-nine patrons in a nightclub in Orlando patronized primarily by gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or queer persons (and primary a Latino/Latina audience on that particular night). That event happened only a few days from the first anniversary of another infamous shooting, of nine members of an African-American congregation in Charleston. It is seemingly impossible to keep up with how many mass shootings have taken place since then, with the shootings in Buffalo supermarket and the murders of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas only the latest and loudest. In the face of such horrific evil, it’s not hard to slip into that despair that no one is faithful anymore, no one will stand up and do what needs to be done. 

Of course, on the flip side of that “I alone am left” mentality is the misguided, vengeful would-be hero who takes up weapons to commit the murders, because he believes blacks are inferior or gets offended by the sight of two men kissing. “I alone am left” is not just a despairing place; it can be a pathway to acts of unspeakable evil. Elijah has already shown himself capable of grotesque violence in the throes of this mindset, commanding the slaughter of all those Baal prophets back in verse 18. Only the silence of God’s speaking seems to finally get through, even if not completely. 

We can’t go there. We (and the plural is important, we)  must not fall into that noisy mindset (which has nothing of God in it) that the problems of the world are ours to fix by any means necessary. We also can’t be the one who is paralyzed by grief and despair, unable to take up the work of God’s kingdom. We need to engage sometimes in the holy act of shutting up and listening and waiting. 

Listen, not just to the earthquake or the whirlwind or the fire. Listen to the silence. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #4, Holy God, We Praise Your Name; #410, God is Calling Through the Whisper; #169, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

Sermon: Wisdom and Trinity

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 12, 2022, Trinity C

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Wisdom and Trinity

It’s an almost stereotypical image, one found in comic strips or editorial cartoons or any number of other visual media. In it you see a lone sojourner, or maybe a pair, hiking or even climbing their way up a mountainside or cliff. When they get to the top, they find a lone figure, typically an elderly man, probably seated with legs crossed, appearing as a guru or sage of some sort prepared to dispense wisdom. [Here’s a recent comic that offers a different spin on that typical image.]

The scene is often used for comic effect, but it trades on something of a traditional image of a seeker of wisdom as being one who is cut off from society, engaged in solitary contemplation in that withdrawn setting. The writer of today’s reading from Proverbs would not necessarily agree with this image of withdrawal in search of wisdom.

Today’s reading is part of a more extended rhapsody (my word) on wisdom, briefly touched on in chapter 7 and then taking up most of chapters 8 and 9. It follows a discourse on a different character, one who would lead astray (in many different ways) the young student to which Proverbs is directed. In this rhapsody Wisdom is personified; most of chapters 8 and 9 are depicted as wisdom speaking to that young student. 

Let’s go ahead and make this clear: yes, Wisdom really is personified in this rhapsody as a woman. Take that, guys. In context, the character in the previous discourse who would lead the young student astray is also a woman, so the passage works as a clever literary device to present the two different paths set before the young student. Still, Wisdom (divine wisdom, clearly, as the rest of the discourse makes clear) is personified as female. Right out of the Bible, folks.

The opening four verses of the chapter set the character (sometimes called Woman Wisdom in the scholarly literature) forth, and our author’s depiction of Wisdom at work doesn’t quite square up with the mountaintop guru of comic-strip notoriety. Far from having to be sought out in some isolated place, Wisdom is out in the world, calling to anyone who would listen:

On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; besides the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out…

This isn’t wisdom in hiding or in secret. She’s out there, calling out for all to hear. 

All fine and good,” you may say, while either being excited or offended to see something of the divine being portrayed as a woman. “All fine and good,” you may say, “but what does any of this have to do with Trinity Sunday? Why is this in the readings for today?” That’s where verses 22-31 come in.

That section opens with Wisdom’s declaration that “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.” It may surprise you to hear that this description was the subject of heated debate at no less than the Council of Nicaea, the first meeting of which took place way back in the year 325, and which was the initiator of that statement of faith we know as the Nicene Creed (we tend to say it in worship on Sundays when the Lord’s Supper happens). In their extensive and often testy debates over the nature of the Trinity, this passage, with its confusing Hebrew about being “created” or is it being “begotten” or “made” or “born” became a shorthand for discussing whether the second Person of the Trinity – the one we call God the Son, or Jesus – was “created” or “begotten” or “made” or “born” in John 1. Indeed, for some years, this character of Wisdom was sometimes discussed as a foreshadowing of the Son of God (notwithstanding Wisdom being personified as a woman here!) and of that Son’s being “in the beginning with God,” as John 1 says, or being one through whom “all things were made” as the Nicene Creed ends up saying.

If that’s how the second Person of the Trinity is involved here, the largest part of the reading names the first Person of the Trinity as the great Creator of all. Most of the text describes Wisdom’s bearing witness as God engages in the various acts of creation and even being God’s “delight, rejoicing before Him always” and also “delighting in the human race.” 

While the third Person of the Trinity is less directly invoked here, it has not escaped notice that the way Wisdom is described in this rhapsody looks and sounds a lot like the way the Holy Spirit gets described in various other corners of scripture. All that business about not being hidden off on some mountaintop but being out in the streets and at the gates of the city is awfully similar to the doings of the Spirit, after Pentecost in particular.

None of this should be taken as a “proof” of anything. Obviously this was written many, many years before the Nativity or Pentecost. What this quite exuberant passage does show us is that God’s people have been, literally for centuries, seeking ways to understand and comprehend how God moves in God’s world. We aren’t the first to struggle with it. The Council of Nicaea wasn’t the first to struggle with it. And no doubt even the writer of Proverbs wasn’t the first either. Outside of the more dramatic interventions revealed in scripture – say, the Exodus, or Pentecost, or the very life of Jesus – God’s people have been challenged by the work of putting together all that we have been shown and instructed in order, if not to have God completely figured out, at least not get God egregiously and harmfully wrong. 

In the end, perhaps such words as “wonder,” or even the “delight” that Wisdom herself invokes in today’s reading, might be at the last the last best place to end up in such pursuits. To borrow the Apostle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians, we are still in that place where we see “in a mirror, dimly“; the time when we “will see face to face” is not yet here. May this age of contemplation be, rather than a source of dispute and anger over the nature of God, be a source of delight, perhaps with the help of good old Woman Wisdom.

For wisdom and her delight, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty; #—, We sing of God; #2, Come, Thou Almighty King

Sermon: The Spirit Poured Out

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 5, 2022, Pentecost C

Acts 2:1-21

The Spirit Poured Out

Here we are again, at one of those passages of scripture that we may not hear very often, but we do hear it at least once every year. It’s the kind of scripture reading that we recognize almost immediately upon hearing, but that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t really know all that well.

We know the basic beats of the story:

  • All of Jesus’s followers, gathered in a room, waiting for…who knows?
  • The sound of a great wind, “divided tongues as of fire“, suddenly speaking languages they’d never learned or known before;
  • The great crowd, in Jerusalem but from everywhere (a detailed list follows, representing the entire known world) in a way reminiscent of that great multitude from every tribe and nation and language we heard in Revelation a few weeks ago; that crowd hearing all the commotion and wondering what was going on up there;
  • Some terminally clever oaf in the crowd cracking wise about their being drunk;
  • Peter responding that it’s only nine o’clock in the morning, and that nobody’s drunk, but here’s what’s happening; and then quoting some spooky stuff from the prophet Joel, launching into a sermon from there (that we only get part of in today’s reading).

Sometimes those familiar phrases, though, can get a little bit dull from repetition, so familiar that we don’t really hear them. We might just slip into the thought, “oh, yeah, the Pentecost story” and go on autopilot, not really hearing.

For example: what does it suggest when Peter, following Joel 2:28-32 pretty directly, quotes God as saying “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh“? Does that strike up any particular image in your mind? Or has it become so familiar that it doesn’t really strike up anything? 

Sometimes when I find myself in this rut I turn to the Cotton Patch Gospel, the work of biblical scholar Clarence Jordan, who not only translated much of the New Testament but created a version set in the Georgia of his day, namely the late 1950s. Jerusalem became Atlanta, the baby Jesus was born in Gainesville (Georgia, not here!), and so forth. Being born and raised in Georgia, this naturally got my attention. Jordan’s colorful and evocative language can be at times illuminating. It’s not a substitute for a more straightforward translation, but it can be an interesting supplement at times.

And for this passage, Clarence Jordan offers “I will share my spirit with all mankind.” OK, there’s the dated language “mankind,” as if women weren’t included, but the main verb is “share.” It’s an effective enough verb, to be sure, and it’s definitely accurate enough in this context, but for those who respond to imagery and vividness of language, it perhaps doesn’t offer as much help. 

Another, much more recent reading of the scriptures in a different cultural context is First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, published only last year. This work, produced by a council of Native religious leaders and teachers and scholars, sought to perform a task not unlike Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, but not exactly the same; the setting is not changed, but the names of places and persons are given in a Native idiom and the style of the account is rendered as much as possible in the style of a storyteller in the oral tradition of the many nations and tribes of North America. 

In this reading, after the “sound of a great windstorm” and “flames of fire” have come and the crowd is hearing in their many languages, Peter’s reading of Joel is rendered as “‘In the last days,’ says Creator, ‘I will rain down my Spirit upon all human beings…’.”

Now there’s something. 

The thing about something being poured out is that if you’re not directly under whatever is being poured from, you might well miss it. Rain, on the other hand, is not so easy to escape. If you’re outside when it starts to rain, you get wet. There’s no sidestepping the rain or jump out of the way of it. You get wet. 

Maybe this helps drive home the fact of the Spirit being poured out on everyone. No one is left out. Everyone gets wet. 

This doesn’t go down well for a lot of people. It’s been true in every age and it’s most definitely true now; too much of the church wants this pouring out of the Spirit to be for just us, or maybe more specifically not them. We’re the “special” ones, they insist; we’re God’s chosen, God’s favorites. Not those people who don’t look like us, who don’t sound like us, who don’t flatter us or cozy up to us or make us feel important. Not them. The Spirit doesn’t pour down on them. That’s how an awful lot of people want it to be.

But when we think of the Spirit raining down? As the old verse from Matthew says, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. It doesn’t miss anybody. There’s no getting left out, there’s no Great Replacement anything, there’s no “for me but not for thee,” none of that. The Spirit rains down on everyone, whether we like it or not. Everybody gets wet.

Does everybody respond to the Spirit the same way? No, they don’t. Think again about the rain; your first impulse is to seek shelter, yes? Or perhaps pull out an umbrella? For some people, the Spirit is a disruption, maybe even a threat. You never know what’s going to happen when the Holy Spirit gets loose. Life might get uncomfortable. We might be led places we’re not comfortable going. Best get out of the rain before you get wet. 

But no, this is one rainstorm from which we don’t need to take shelter. The Holy Spirit, raining down on all humanity? In the dried-up wilderness that is increasingly the world in which we live, that raining down is nothing less than life itself. The church, big or small, local or global, dare not try to shelter against this rain, not if we want to live up to the label “Christian,” or (even better) terms like “Christlike,” or “follower of Christ.” 

One more thing: the Holy Spirit didn’t go away after Pentecost. It keeps raining all through the book of Acts. Even more, that same Spirit is still raining down on all human beings. The Holy Spirit – third person of the Trinity, remember; in other words, God – continues to rain down upon humanity, seeking to wash us and renew us and fill us with what we need to do Christlike things in a decidedly non-Christlike world.

This is one rain from which you don’t want to seek shelter or pop up an umbrella.

It’s time to let it rain. 

It’s time to get wet.

For the raining down of the Holy Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #289, On Pentecost They Gathered; #—, We trust in God, the loving Holy Spirit; #292, As the Wind Song


Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, the Complete Collection. Macon: Smith & Helwys Publishing, 2012.

First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021. 

Sermon: Last Words

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 29, 2022, Easter 7C

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Last Words

At last, the end of the book. Not just of Revelation, but of our whole canonical corpus of scripture.

For those of you familiar with scholarly or professional writing, there are a few traits of this conclusion that will be familiar. There is definitely some recapitulation going on, especially in verses 13 and 14. First we hear again the “Alpha and Omega” reference that first appeared way back in chapter 1. In this case, though, there is a different “I” speaking this phrase. Back in 1:8, the speaker was “the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” However, here in chapter 22, at some point we’ve switched speakers (John isn’t always great at keeping track of who is saying what), but by verse 16 it has been made clear that it is Jesus pronouncing these final words. While this may be an interesting rhetorical device, to bring back the same identification in a different “character,” for those of us with a functional understanding of the Trinity, it should not be particularly bothersome.

Verse 14 brings the other noteworthy recapitulation, in this case referring back to chapter 7. You might remember that the reading from three weeks ago came from an interlude in the narrative about the breaking of the seven seals on a scroll, the breaking of which unleashed particular plagues or terrors upon the unrepentant world. 

After the breaking of the sixth seal, John detours in his vision to a scene yet to come, his own “skipping to the end of the book” sequence in which we are introduced in 7:9 to “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” who we are told later are “they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Numerous biblical scholars and commentators remind us that this image is John’s coded way of referring to who have kept the faith in their times of persecution, continuing to bear witness to God and against the empire that persecutes them. Some of you might remember this image from an old gospel hymn:

Are you washed in the blood,

in the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?

Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

While the image is rather grotesque especially when divorced from its scriptural context, it does serve here to remind us that, for all of the dragons and monsters and plagues and terrors that populate this book, this call keep faith and keep bearing witness is the whole point of this vision and this book. All of this fantastic vison of the new Jerusalem coming down in glory and the springs of living water and the tree of life, from these last two chapters? Guess who is invited into the gates of that city?

While the organizers of the Revised Common Lectionary would prefer that we didn’t, understanding this passage most completely requires that we acknowledge and deal with the verses that got skipped in this reading. While the seeming threats of verses 18-19 sound rough, such language is frankly commonplace in literature of this type; in an age with no such thing as copyright protection altering such a text wouldn’t have been uncommon, and had the book been intercepted by, say, someone allied with the imperial power structure who understood John’s codes and metaphors, altering the book into an empire-supporting treatise wouldn’t have been difficult. Such warnings as in these two verses were so common as to be virtually boilerplate, ugly as they might seem.

Verse 15 is the harder one to stomach. It is worth remembering that, like 21:27 and 22:3, this verse serves as something of a reassurance to John’s readers and hearers; those who persecute you will not be able to get to you there. Still, though, the language isn’t good, especially referring to people as “dogs.” For one thing, that term was a common derogatory slur against Jews in much literature over the course of many centuries, and John does himself no good resorting to it here. Second, John here goes needlessly beyond the language of those earlier warning verses, which concentrated on the purveyors of falsehood who helped bring down official oppression on John’s readers and hearers. In this brief between words from Jesus, John goes a bit off-the-beam in his own human frustration. That happens; even the most divinely inspired scribe is still a human being, subject to all of the frailties caught up in that description.

At the same time, though, such digression also reminds us of our own inability and frankly unworthiness to make such judgments – “don’t do what John did.” . As much as we can take some comfort in that image of garments being washed and its reminder of faithful witness, it’s not a pass for us to judge who is and isn’t being sufficiently faithful in their witness. The Lord God and the Lamb are the ones who know the names in that Book of Life, not us, and we’d best remember that.

What we are charged with is that business of bearing faithful witness. To borrow an old expression attributed to various old saints at different times, we are charged to keep proclaiming the gospel, even using words at times when necessary. That leaves us charged to examine just how we, as a people of God and one part of the body of Christ, are bearing witness. 

There are ways in which we do well. In cooperation with others in our town we provide aid to populations in need here, through meals or other provision. We’re a welcoming church. We provide, through the art studios in the next building over, a place for the community to gather and find a respite from the world’s garbage; this past Friday evening was such an example. For a church our size, we don’t do badly at all. 

Is there more that we could do, though? In an age where a young white man feels entitled to go into a supermarket in Buffalo patronized mostly by black shoppers and shoot them dead for the “crime” of being black, are we bearing witness against such rank racism as an abomination against God? In the wake of a major scandal of sexual abuse and dehumanization in one of the largest church denominations in this country, are we bearing witness to the God-given worth and dignity of women and children set upon by predators in positions of power? 

And how would we, as a small congregation, do that? These are questions we are called to consider as this book comes to a close. We do, frankly, bear good witness, if rather quiet witness in some ways. What else can we do? How can we bear witness against the various empires that put forth various idols and false prophets to distract us and claim our attention and allegiance? What role do we play? 

Our work here is not done, not by a long shot. Headlines remind us daily that this world is not recognizing the kingdom of God’s reign on earth. And yet that’s the kingdom we’re called to serve. Otherwise, forget that new Jerusalem. 

So, now that we’ve skipped to the end of the book and seen the good stuff that awaits those who keep faith, how do we go forward? 

For the end of the book, and the questions it leads us to ask, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #630, Fairest Lord Jesus; #485, We Know That Christ Is Raised; #81, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken

Sermon: They Need No Light of Lamp or Sun

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 22, 2022, Easter 6C

Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5

They Need No Light of Lamp or Sun

The problem with the whole “skip to the end of the book” idea about reading and hearing from the book of Revelation in this season is that inevitably things happen out there that drag us back to the dark places of this world, the things that drove us to look for that good ending in the first place. 

The news of mass shootings last Saturday and Sunday – one in Buffalo, NY, and the second in Laguna Hills, CA – gashed through the headlines and consciences of readers and watchers like a blast of cold air on a hot day, a wake-up call that has had to be sounded too many times for too many years now. As more news emerged about each attack, it became clear that both of them were acts of hatred: the Buffalo shooter, was an all-too-familiar figure, a white man killing blacks out of racial hatred; the California shooter, while fewer details are clear yet, was apparently of Chinese background and apparentlyacted out of hatred against Taiwan in attacking the members of a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church housed in the facility of a larger PC(USA) church in Laguna Hills. 

If we ever needed a reminder that we have not drawn all that near to the Holy City of John’s vision in these final chapters of Revelation, there’s one for you.

While the reading for today continues in describing this new Jerusalem, much of the more detailed stuff is omitted from the lectionary selection – detail about the measurements of the city and the specific precious stones that parts of the city were made of. These had meaning to John and his immediate readers, but are less significant for our modern understanding of this passage, frankly. 

The arresting detail is introduced in 21:22, one which provides the thematic backbone of the whole reading. In surveying this Holy City coming down from on high, the vision-receiver John sees no temple. 

In that age gods lived in temples. No matter what religion or cult you spoke of, one could point to some kind of temple, whether a place in nature or a human-built edifice, gods lived in temples. Even among the people of Israel the capital-T Temple in Jerusalem had come to be regarded as the earthly dwelling place of Yahweh, God Most High, even if God’s own self sometimes protested against this in their history. That particular interpretation of the Temple suffered a tremendous blow in the year 70 after the Roman destruction of that Temple. To borrow from Psalm 42, “where is your God now?” 

Instead of any building, John reports, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” To borrow a phrase from Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, “God’s promise is not place; it’s presence.” The point of this new Jerusalem is not a building to which we go and perform all our religious rituals; the point is living directly, without mediation or obstruction, in the presence of God. 

The next verse amplifies this one: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” The direct presence of God, it seems, is without darkness; the light of God pervades everywhere, in every place in this new Jerusalem.

Chapter 22 introduces more features of this city, one of which helps fill in references earlier in the book such as 7:17 or 21:6; we now see the “river of the water of life,” the same river that provided the inspiration for the last hymn we’ll sing today. The tree of life, with its multiplicity of fruit and leaves “for the healing of the nations,” is also there. At the absolute minimum these do remind us that just because we’re in the Holy City and not the Garden of Eden doesn’t mean that creation has no place in it. They also remind us of the harmony of humanity and creation that was meant to be, before human fallenness and corruption spoiled that harmony, and creation with it. 

Amidst all these scenes of splendor there are a couple of cautionary notes sounded. Back in 21:27 we are instructed of this city that “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood…“. Then, in 22:3, we see that “nothing accursed will be found there any more…“. This is the kind of passage that some preachers might be tempted to use as a pivot to a lengthy discourse on Hell or something like that, but here in this reading we are told nothing of what becomes of “anyone who practices abomination or falsehood“; we simply learn that such cannot enter the Holy City.

This probably sounds like warning enough, but in fact to John’s readers this also serves as reassurance. Remember, we are speaking of John’s audience as people who live under the increasing threat of oppression, either from Rome directly or from their own neighbors seeking to prove their allegiance to Rome. Either way, this word comes as reassurance that the oppression and persecution looming now will not be able to enter the new Jerusalem. One can safely interpret that those of later times and even our own time who faced such trials can take the same comfort from this vision. One might also suppose that those who practice such persecution or oppression (those who seek to bind and punish others based on their own religious beliefs, for example) would be among those who cannot enter the Holy City. What is unclean, what is accursed or abomination or falsehood, simply cannot exist in the direct, unmediated presence of God.

What we read here in the remainder of this passage recapitulates some of the greatest glories of John’s vision so far. God’s servants see God’s face and worship God, with nothing in the way, with no temple to hold in God’s glory. Night is no more; “they need no light of lamp or sun,” as John describes with great poetic flourish. “The Lord God will be their light,” John tells us. 

So is the glorious hope awaiting us, the ones who endure and (as we were reminded in chapter 7) keep bearing faithful witness, not dissuaded or distracted by the pressures or the lures of the empires around us vying for our worship. 

Amidst the darkness and abomination around us, amidst the falsehood glorified in everything from our politics to our leisure to, frankly, our practice of Christianity in far too many cases these days, we are called to bear witness. That’s what gets into the Lamb’s book of life that comes up in 21:27. It is not about going out and conquering anything; it isn’t about being warriors or conquerors or any of that stuff; again, it is about bearing witness. And we have hope for what awaits us when we do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #403, Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty; #375, Shall We Gather at the River