Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: Full Circle

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 20, 2022, Reign of Christ C

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 1:68-79

Full Circle

This is the last Sunday of the lectionary year, a kind of liturgical New Year’s Eve as it were. Next Sunday when we show up here, provided the Worship & Music Committee does indeed get together this week and get it all started, you will see purple vestments, some greenery about, at least one banner hanging, and maybe even a manger scene – empty, of course; we’re still a long way off from that scene being full. One could magnify that fact of finality with the observation that, as the last Sunday of Year C, this is the end of not just a one-year liturgical observance but of the whole lectionary cycle; next Sunday brings us to the First Sunday of Advent, Year A – we really have come full circle. 

For much of the church’s relatively recent history this final Sunday of the liturgical year has been known as Christ the King Sunday, making it one of two Sundays of the year devoted as much to a doctrinal idea as to any event or sequence of events recorded in scripture. The other is Trinity Sunday, which falls directly after Pentecost Sunday, and is dedicated to the mystery that one God is also “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” as the hymn teaches us. 

Here the point is that Jesus, the one whose nativity we’ll be marching toward starting next week, and the one whose life and teaching takes up most of the gospel readings across the course of the liturgical year, is king. A few hymns take us there as well, like the one we’ll sing at the end of this morning’s service.

What is harder to come by, however, is a great deal of scripture that is quite so direct about making that point about Christ the King, at least not in the way that we have come to understand kingship and rule in human history.

Kings, or queens in such cases as they reign, often end up seeming horribly out of touch with those over whom they rule. A couple of theatrical examples might help us see this: think of the musical Camelot, as Arthur and his queen Guinevere wonder back and forth “what do the simple folk do?” Their answers, let’s say, aren’t great. Or for a more farcical example from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and its later very loose theatrical adaptation Spamalot) that same King Arthur travels through the countryside amongst many of his subjects who don’t even know who he is – “I didn’t know we had a king,” and other such exclamations. 

Real life offers the painful example, again from England, of the royal family’s utter disconnect from their people after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, twenty-five years ago. The royal family’s initial dismissiveness after the death was met with a wave of indignation and even anger, to the point that the Queen herself (yes, the same Queen so deeply lauded and grieved at her own death not too long ago) had to come forth with what amounted to a giant public mea culpa and a rather elaborate funeral with no less a star than Elton John involved. 

If one confines one’s search to the history of the people of Israel, it looks even worse. When you have some time to kill, take a trip through the books of Samuel and Kings and even Chronicles in the Old Testament and scan through the various kings of Israel and of Judah whose stories are told there, sometimes briefly, sometimes in greater detail. If you do this, take particular note of how many of those kings had their careers summarized in the words “they did evil in the sight of the Lord” or something similar. It’s a lot. You might specifically look at 1 Samuel 8, when the people of Israel demand a king from the prophet Samuel, setting in motion all that doing evil in the sight of the Lord.

To be blunt, calling someone a king in scripture isn’t necessarily all that complimentary. The office has to be respected, of course, but an awful lot of people who filled that office did not earn that respect. 

So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the readings selected for this Sunday do less going on about Jesus being a king and more about what Jesus was or was prophesied to be. 

Look at that reading from Luke. You might remember it from the season of Advent, of all things, a song of Zechariah upon the birth and naming of his son John, who would be the forerunner of the Messiah. This was what came some nine months after Zechariah had been struck speechless (and maybe unable to hear as well) upon his uncertain response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement of the birth to come. Once that muting has been lifted upon his announcement of his son’s name, this is what Zechariah has to say. 

There is a reference to being of “the house of David,” but if you’re looking for royalty or any suggestion of such, that’s about it. Instead Zechariah’s song speaks of a “savior,” one who would preserve the people of Israel from their enemies. The song goes on to sing of mercy and holy covenant, of being able to serve this savior “without fear” – not a way human kings typically work. At last Zechariah sings of a “dawn from on high” that will come “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” Not typical king-talk of the time. Or, to put it in modern terms, not exactly a winning campaign pitch for a major presidential candidate these days.

The passage from Jeremiah looks promising, until it becomes known that this passage isn’t necessarily referring to a divine Messiah, but a more earthly king. The earlier verses of the passage speak more of shepherds than kings, but then prophets of that era were inclined to compare a goodking to a shepherd in how that king would rule over, and care for, the people of his realm. Colossians comes the closest in speaking of God who has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son…“. From there, though, the passage takes a different direction with its description of “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” and going on to speak of God reconciling Godself to all humanity through this One. Close, but not quite.

Of course, I have left out one reading from the lectionary today, another passage from Luke. It starts off like this: 

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

That’s it: a man hanging on a cross, named mockingly as “the King of the Jews.”

For “Christ the King Sunday” to make any sense at all for us, and for it not to lead us off on some very un-Christlike rabbit trails that an awful lot of self-declared Christians are following these days, we have to get over our ideas of what a king is like. That’s not Christ. 

Think Good Shepherd.

Think of the teacher.

Think of the one who welcomed the children, and then told his disciples off when they tried to turn them away.

Think of the one who broke the bread and poured the cup. 

Think of the one who rode into Jerusalem on a mere colt.

Think of the one who raised Lazarus out of the tomb.

Think of the one who stilled the storm on the sea of Galilee.

Think of the one who was transfigured on that mountain with Moses and Elijah standing by.

Think of the one baptized, with the Holy Spirit crashing in to pronounce him as God’s beloved son.

Think of the one born to Mary, placed in a feed trough, with a bunch of shepherds as the main witnesses.

And yes, think of that one crucified, the one who did not stay dead.

There’s your King, the only king you want. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #109, Blest Be the God of Israel; #41, O Worship the King, All Glorious Above

Sermon: Saints in Glory

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 6, 2022, Pentecost 22C (All Saints’)

Luke 20:27-38

Saints in Glory

On the occasion of All Saints’ Day, officially marked this past Tuesday but commemorated in worship today, we remember those saints who have been part of our fellowship who have, in the old phrasing, passed from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant. In the past year we have felt the loss of John, Dorothy, Wally, and Marie from among us, losses which still create grief and regret within us even as we celebrate their passing into the life where death is past and pain ended, to borrow a line from the liturgy of the Service of Witness to the Resurrection. 

We have a lot of such lines about that eternity, both in our liturgies and in scripture itself, but in truth there is very little we can know about that realm. What does one do for all eternity, really? We get reminded in today’s reading from Luke that for all of our songs and hymns and sermon lines, we don’t really know what it’s like in life after death.

The setting here is in Jerusalem, as we approach the climax of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry. It’s the type of scriptural text that the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary like to slip in toward the end of the liturgical year, a text that at least in some way looks forward to the life not of this earth but of eternity, or heaven, or however one frames it.

In this case that particular framing comes from a faction in the religious society in which Jesus lived that didn’t even believe in such a thing. The Sadducees, a competing group to the Pharisees about whom we hear so much, are lingering on the edge of a conversation in which Jesus has just smacked down a group of scribes, or their lackeys as verse 20 suggests, with the response famous in its old King James rendering as “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” That group has beaten its hasty retreat, to the hooting and derision of the crowd, and this group of Sadducees steps up for its at-bat. 

As verse 27 informs us straightaway, the Sadducees “say there is no resurrection.” This puts them at odds with the Pharisees and is a product of their particular interpretation of what constituted “scripture.” While the Pharisees, for example, took the prophets and the Psalms as authoritative, the Sadducees read only the books of the Torah that way. The prophets and Psalms speak in at least some degree of resurrection, the Torah does not; therefore the Sadducees and Pharisees disagree. While Jesus butted heads with Pharisees often, on this point they were in agreement. 

The Sadducees’ question is deliberately an absurd one, which relies on a particular allowance of Mosaic or Torah law. If a man died childless, his wife was expected to be married off to the next available younger brother, in theory as a means to provide for the widow, but frankly mostly so that the brother might produce a son to ensure the first brother’s legacy. In this trap question, the poor woman was put through seven brothers, each of whom failed to produce a son; when the hypothetical woman died, the Sadducees ostensibly wanted to know, whose wife would she be in the resurrection?

One could point out a lot of things about the beliefs inherent in such a question. One thing that cannot be overlooked is that it’s pretty clear that to these questioners a woman in such a situation is little more than a piece of property, more a subjected and captive character from The Handmaid’s Tale than a living, breathing human being, child of God and daughter of Abraham. The only thing that matters about her, in the eyes of the Sadducees, is whose possession is she for all eternity.

This all has to be qualified with words like “hypothetical” and “ostensibly” because in fact this batch of Sadducees weren’t really all that concerned with the answer. At the risk of including a social media reference (or a reference to contemporary politics) in a sermon, they are trolling Jesus. The very asking of the question was its own end, namely mocking not even Jesus necessarily, but their Pharisee rivals and their oh-so-ridiculous beliefs about life after death. 

The trouble is that these Sadducees, unlike modern social media trolls who can disappear in an instant and not be held accountable for the evil that they do, could not get away fast enough. In the end, they were just as humiliated as the scribes who got tripped up on the tax question. In the world of social media, one of the most common and usually best pieces of advice is “don’t feed the trolls,” or in other words don’t give anyone who is clearly engaging in bad faith attacks a forum for their lies. Of course, Jesus isn’t “most people” and he is quite well-equipped to drive these trolls back under the bridge.

First comes the harder lesson, one that we modern Christians might well have trouble with. To sum up as best as possible, marriage is a mortal concern. Most people marry in this life because for most folks, going through life with a partner is easier and more pleasant than going through life alone. That’s a pretty succinct nutshell argument for why marriage is a thing at all in the eyes of God, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden and God’s remark that it wasn’t a good thing for Adam to be alone. This matters because, to put it in as stark a term as possible, we’re going to die, all of us at some point, and such time as we have to endure on this earth goes better, for most folks, if we can endure it with someone we love. 

Those who share in the resurrection, on the other hand, are never going to die. Life is eternal in the presence of the Eternal One. The concerns of that old past mortality, worries about property and legacy and all that implied in the Sadducees’ question, simply don’t matter. In that life the hypothetical woman is no less than a child of God and a daughter of Abraham, subject to no one else.

As much as we might not want to admit this, we don’t like the sound of this, not one bit.

Think about it. What kind of songs, for example, do we sing about Heaven? One example I can’t get out of my head is an old gospel number called “Mansion Over the Hilltop.” Perhaps you remember this one, maybe from Elvis’s version?

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below

A little silver, and a little gold

But in that city where the ransomed will shine

I want a gold one that’s silver lined


I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop

In that bright land where we’ll never grow old

And someday yonder we will never more wander

But walk on streets that are purest gold

The second verse goes on to talk about wanting “a mansion, a harp, and a crown”. 

The song does get one thing right; in that bright land we really will never grow old. Otherwise, the metaphor Jesus uses in John 14 (another King James concoction, the one about “In my father’s house are many mansions”), the one meant to communicate how the disciples do not have to worry about life after resurrection because all is provided and there’s room for everyone, gets hardened and fixed into a dogma that we can all pre-order our gold mansions for all eternity. I wish I were exaggerating more than I am, but I’ve seen it up close too many times. 

All such things miss the point. Whether the Sadducees intended it or not, this encounter really is about the resurrection, and the resurrection is about God, and being in communion with God and with all who are in communion with God. The life of the saints beyond the grave is not merely an extension of this life with better building materials; it is about being in resurrection with the God who has loved us and redeemed us in Christ. This is illustrated by the second part of Jesus’s response to the Pharisees, the one in which he uses their beloved “approved” scripture against them by citing the words of Exodus 3:6, right out of the Torah that the Sadducees cited as the only true scripture. When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, God doesn’t say “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob back when they were alive”; God puts it all in present tense. “am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Am. Present tense. Jesus elaborates that God is “God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” If God is their God, then they aren’t dead. Their lives are held in God, thus they live and shall live, and somehow that will hold true for us too.

How does that work? Beats me. Paul expended a lot of time and energy in his epistles trying to reassure the Thessalonians and the Corinthians about what resurrection meant and how it related to earthly life, which was to say not much. We get phrases like these from 1 Corinthians 15: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable”; “we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed”; or “for this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” How? Paul doesn’t even go there, nor does Luke, and I’m not going to either. But this is the work of God in us, redeeming us in Christ and preparing us through the Holy Spirit so that when our time comes, when death comes upon us, it will not be the final word. What is mortal puts on immortality, and lives in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, really forever and for all time. 

We are mortal creatures, subject to all the finitude and brokenness and decline that is the lot of all mortal creatures. But that is not our final fate, no matter whether we know how it works or not. 

For the God of the living, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #409, God Is Here!; #234, Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain; #326, For All the Saints

Sermon: Always Being Reformed: The Belhar Example

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 30, 2022, Reformation

Psalm 146; Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Luke 4:16-21

Always Being Reformed: The Belhar Example

Ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda.

“The church reformed and always reforming…”

This particular motto began to appear, in various formulations, in the earliest years of the Protestant Reformation, particularly in those churches in what came to be called the Reformed tradition, primarily under the influence of John Calvin and some of his contemporaries. It was a clear statement of two essential traits of that Reformed tradition:

1) Being “reformed” was not the work of human beings; those verbs in that motto are passive. Only God could or can reform the church by acting upon and leading the church. 

2) Being “reformed” was not a one-off; it was – it is – an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. 

But by the way many churches in the Reformed tradition (including the Presbyterian branch of that tradition) have conducted themselves over the five centuries or so since then, you’d think the motto went something like “Reformati semel et nunquam iterum,” or maybe “Reformata semel et pro omnibus.” Those would, very roughly (it’s been more than thirty years since I studied Latin), translate as “Reformed once and never again” and “Reformed once and for all.” We got it once and are therefore never to be changed or reformed again.

Doesn’t really seem to capture the whole reformata et semper reformanda spirit, does it? But note how many churches in the Reformed tradition, for example, admit no creeds or confessions or statements of faith any later than the Westminster Confession, which originated back in 1646. Sounds very “reformed once and for all,” doesn’t it? I mean, Westminster is a pretty impressive and thorough document, to be sure, but one hopes that God did not stop moving through and in the church after 1646. Note also that different denominations within the Reformed tradition have adapted or modified Westminster more than once, so that at this point it’s not really that unifying a document.

The number of documents in our own denomination’s Book of Confessions is, as best as I can tell, less about setting up some kind of doctrinal authority than about reflecting the fact that God continues to move through and in the church, at all points in its history, sometimes provoking remembrance and reflection and reassessment, sometimes provoking much more dramatic action – a real, tangible, un-missable act of being reformed. 

This is, in many ways, why the Confession of Belhar might be, after all, the most important – the most semper reformanda – of the statements in the Book of Confessions.

The history that led to the creation of the Belhar Confession is an overwhelming one, inextricable from the dark and bloody history of apartheid in South Africa. Enacted after elections in 1948 installed an Afrikaaner-dominated National Party in power, apartheid was a system of laws designed to keep that Dutch-descended white minority (a minority by a substantial margin) in power over a large (and more diverse than you might think) nonwhite majority. 

 Perhaps more disturbing was the enthusiastic embrace of apartheid by many if not most of the churches of South Africa. It should not be a surprise, given the prior historical examples of German Christian acquiescence to Nazi power in Germany in the 1930s or even the splits over slavery that occurred in US denominations in the mid-19th century (including Presbyterianism). The degree to which South African churches participated in apartheid is striking, nonetheless. 

Take the Dutch Reformed Church as it existed in South Africa, for example. Clearly under apartheid blacks could not be allowed; hence the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa was formed as a segregated denomination. But apartheid was also strict enough that blacks were not to share with “coloreds,” or mixed-race persons; hence the Dutch Reformed Mission Church was formed as well. (These two bodies would be united in 1994.) Finally, due to an influx of immigration from India, the Reformed Church in Africa was created to keep that population separate as well. 

The international community, and churches around the world as well, were only goaded to react after violence against blacks at a protest in Sharpsville in 1960, and again at Soweto township in 1976. Even then, the impetus in the church came not from the outside, but from within the nonwhite South African Churches, particularly the Dutch Reformed Mission church, which challenged world Reformed bodies to call apartheid, a system that denied the possibility of reconciliation between peoples, for what it was: heresy. The good news of the gospel cannot be separated from the divine drive to reconcile all peoples unto Christ. Confronted with this argument from the DRMC, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches had to agree; as a result it was the white DRC that was excluded from that communion in 1982.

 In response to this international affirmation of their plight, the DRMC at its synod later that year drafted the Confession of Belhar, a response to the practice of apartheid and an affirmation of the hope of reconciliation in Christ. The DRMC submitted it to its member churches for four years of consideration, and it was formally approved in 1986

The Confession of Belhar is deliberately and consciously modeled on the Barmen Declaration, created by a portion of the German church in response to advancing Nazi domination of that country in the 1930s; a citation of scripture, an affirmation of the faith, and a rejection of false doctrine for each portion of the confession. It is divided into three parts, significantly ordered Unity, Reconciliation, and Justice. That order is indeed significant. The church desires unity in Christ, but unity cannot happen without reconciliation. The church desires reconciliation in Christ, but reconciliation cannot happen without justice – “justice rolling down like waters,” to echo Amos’s words. And the confession concludes with the unswerving resolve that the church must pursue these things, no matter how much state or even church authority persecutes them; a simple affirmation that “Jesus is Lord,” with its equal implied affirmation that no one else is; and finally a Trinitarian benediction. And the word “apartheid” appears not at all in the confession, yet it is thoroughly repudiated throughout.

Hear these affirmations on justice from the third section of Belhar:

  • that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
  • that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged;
  • that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.

One could argue, and some did during the PC(USA)’s debate on adoption of Belhar, that the themes articulated in Belhar are similar enough to themes in the Confession of 1967 that the later confession was somehow unnecessary or redundant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Belhar speaks without reservation. There is no trying to please differing parties. It is unequivocal in its denunciation of racial separation, particularly when practiced or enforced as somehow “holy” or sanctified by God. And most of all, it speaks these words not from a committee of white onlookers, but directly from those whose faces had met the boot heel of state enforcement of apartheid far too many times. For once in its history, the church responded to the cry of the oppressed. 

And this is why Belhar may be the most important confession in our book. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds were created for and sanctioned by emperors. The Reformation-era confessions also enjoyed the patronage of kings and princes. The Confession of 1967 was a product of a denomination with national reach and a rather high general level of affluence among its membership. And while the Barmen Declaration spoke out against wrongful church submission to state power in a way that Belhar’s framers deliberately echoed, none of its creators were in danger of the gas chambers or concentration camps.

For the first time, churches in the Reformed tradition listened to the persecuted, took their words to heart, and recognized them as inspired and meaningful for the whole church. Those churches also took a dramatic step towards recognizing the truly global scope of the church – rejecting a model that only listened to European and North American voices and hearing from a church from the global South, rather than dictating theological terms to it as had been its historical practice. For once, the church truly took on the submission of being reformed

This confession matters, a lot. Clearly the church has not successfully negotiated the true enactment of justice for all, reconciliation in Christ, and unity with God and one another that the confession demands. Even today there are those who claim that the conditions that apartheid imposed in South Africa should be reinstated in the American church; whites worship only with whites, blacks only with blacks, etc.

We have a lot of work to do, to be sure. But Amos still thunders at us, reminding us that short of insistently pursuing that justice, all else we do is in vain. 

For the charge of semper reformanda, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #757, Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples; #379, We Shall Overcome; #345, In an Age of Twisted Values

Sermon: Itching Ears

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 16, 2022, Pentecost 19C

2 Timothy 3:14-4:8

Itching Ears

For two seemingly slight letters tucked away near the end of the New Testament, 1 and 2 Timothy have a fair number of individual verses that have loomed large in the church’s collective imagination or memory. This week’s reading, the final one in this brief trip through the two letters, has another one that has been stuck in my head since childhood. I don’t think it has ever been turned into a hymn with great circulation, and I can’t be sure it ever came up in Bible drill, but it was definitely a Sunday school verse. As it was rendered in the King James Version of my childhood, 2 Timothy 3:16 went like this:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…

Aside from not entirely being sure what “reproof” meant, I could follow this one well enough, even acknowledging that what “scripture” meant in this verse was different than what I knew as scripture if only because this verse itself was now part of “scripture” as it presumably was not when its first readers were hearing it.

Unlike in the previous reading with its phrase “word of truth,” this verse really does refer to a set body of writings as scripture. The question then becomes: what is this body of writing? What constituted “scripture” to the writer and readers of this letter? 

A large part of that answer was certainly that body of Hebrew scripture that came to be labeled the Old Testament in the Christian tradition. The previous verse’s description of “sacred writings” that the reader has known from childhood strongly echoes the disciplined instruction in the Law, Prophets, and Writings that any child of Jewish upbringing (such as Jesus himself) would have received. 

There might have been other writings that were counted in that number. Books that today are known as part of the Apocrypha might have been included in that upbringing. Given that this letter was most likely written around the end of the first century, it’s at least somewhat possible that some of Paul’s earliest letters were being preserved as “sacred writings,” and that at least the gospel of Mark, the earliest of the gospels to be written, might have achieved such circulation as well. Matthew and Luke (as well as Luke’s partner book Acts), having been written somewhat later, might have achieved some circulation, while the last gospel written, John, might not have achieved so much reputation by this time. 

Whatever that body of writing was, our author impresses upon his readers that it was “inspired by God” – the word carrying the weight of something “God-breathed,” or even breathed upon by God – and that they have very specific uses. They are good for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, so that we followers of Christ can be properly equipped to do Christ’s work in God’s word. They are not objects of worship themselves – language about “inspired by God” notwithstanding; they are tools, not idols.

While that might be the “star verse” from today’s reading, there’s another verse that I submit needs to be taken to heart in the times in which we live. As the instruction to the reader continues and moves into the work of proclamation, we get this nugget of warning in verse 3 and 4 of chapter 4:

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but, having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

Sound familiar?

In a nation where a large swath of the church has allied itself so thoroughly with a political party and its aims that it might as well be a subsidiary, this is a warning that is way overdue to consider. 

Kristin Kobes du Mez writes in the awfully important book Jesus and John Wayne of how exactly this process has taken place in American evangelicalism, particularly in white churches, over the course of much of the twentieth century and come to a head in the twenty-first century. Motivated by a mix of motivations (including an unhealthy dose of racial animosity and hypermasculine desire for power), both men in the church and a number of pastors and authors and other leaders so promulgated alternate models of “manhood” (including the titular John Wayne) through numerous books and events that, by the time this century had rolled around: 

little separated Jesus from John Wayne. Jesus had become a Warrior Leader, an ultimate fighter, a knight in shining armor, a William Wallace [ed. note: they guy Mel Gibson played in Braveheart], a General Patton, a never-say-die kind of guy, a rural laborer with calluses on his hands and muscles on his frame, the sort you’d find hanging out at the NRA convention. Jesus was a bad— [the rest of the word has three letters, and the last two are “s”; figure it out].

Kind of hard to find anything about Jesus in the gospels that would match such a description. The closest one might find is in Jesus’s disrupting of the Temple, an event ironically targeted at the very kind of religious leaders who were propagating this revisionist version of Jesus.

Du Mez continues:

This Jesus was over a half century in the making. Inspired by images of heroic white manhood, evangelicals had fashioned a savior who would lead them into the battles of their own choosing [emphasis mine]. This new, rugged Christ transformed Christian manhood, and Christianity itself.

Itching ears” at their itchiest, one might say.

That’s the biggest challenge: it isn’t the false leaders who jump in to satisfy those biases and bigotries and hatreds, it is the people with “itching ears” who only listen to what they want to hear. It’s the thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people who want only leaders who will tell them what they want to hear and who will make a show of hating the people they hate; if you want to understand division in society or church, you have to look there.

It is in the face of this “turning away to myths” that the continuously repeated instruction of this letter is most vital. Keep proclaiming the message – the “word of truth” from last week’s reading. Be persistent in favorable or unfavorable conditions. Be patient. Be sober-minded. Endure the suffering that will come. Do the work. 

The last three verses we read today return to the image of the imprisoned Paul writing his last testament. In fact there is one more famous biblical image found here, in verse 7: “I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith.” What is here translated as “fought the good fight” does not come from a word for military action, but of athletic competition. 

One might think of the ancient version of the Olympic games, which had been going on for about eight hundred years by the time of this letter, which included both wrestling (“fight the good fight“) and running as competitive events. Notice that this verse doesn’t even say anything about winning the fight or the race; our call is simply to do what is set before us. Persevere. Do the work. 

These two letters to Timothy, whoever wrote them or read them, can frankly be difficult reads with the constant references to suffering, either the author’s or the reader’s. It’s not easy to wade through it all, and sometimes it can probably come off as self-pitying. But the encouragement still stands: endure, persevere, be persistent, keep doing the work. While the letter is structured as teaching to a young man in the work of leading the church, it holds for everybody. And in a time of “itching ears” that won’t listen to anything but what they want to hear, that persistence, that endurance, that perseverance has never been more important.

For the call to keep doing the work, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #289, Lead On, O King Eternal; #104, O Lord, How Shall I Meet You; #846, Fight the Good Fight

Sermon: Rightly Dividing the Word?

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 9, 2022, Pentecost 18C

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Rightly Dividing the Word?

Study to shew thyself approved unto God,

a workman that needeth not to be ashamed,

rightly dividing the word of truth.

Where last week I ran into a verse I had learned from a gospel hymn refrain from my childhood, this week’s reading contains that verse, rendered in the King James Version with which I grew up, that was imprinted on my brain from another source: Bible drill. (This is where I mention again that in the Georgia Baptist Convention’s competition in 1980, I finished second in the entire state…by one stinkin’ point. No, I’m not traumatized by it at all.) I don’t remember if this was a verse I was called upon to memorize or just one that came up a lot in the searching part of the drill, but it is still highly imprinted on my brain, idiosyncracies and all. That third word of the verse, that we pronounce “show,” is in fact spelled s-h-e-w. That always freaked me out to no end; it was everything I could do not to read it out as “study to shoe thyself approved unto God…“. 

The other part that weirded me out was the ending. I absolutely could not make sense of that verse concluding with the description of the “workman that needeth not to be ashamed” as “rightly dividing the word of truth.” It was so strange to me that I couldn’t even joke about it. I am so, so grateful for the NRSV’s more comprehensible “rightly explaining“. That I can understand.

This is, of course, part of the instruction here: proclaim the “word of truth” so that it can be understood. But there are other things that need to be addressed here, such as “what does it mean, this ‘word of truth’?” And what about all that stuff that comes before that verse?

The passage begins with another reminder of the author’s imprisonment, which has appeared in every passage we’re read from this letter so far. Again comes the reminder of enduring for the sake of those to whom God’s call is extended, and that our ultimate salvation is in Christ Jesus. 

What follows is possibly an excerpt from a liturgical formula, or possibly a hymn, that was already in use in the churches of this period, again the late first or possibly early second century. It’s a challenging read, one that would probably catch us short if it appeared in our liturgy.

“If we have died with him, we will also live with him”; a not-uncommon expression, especially when one remembers that baptism was in this era described with the metaphor of “dying with Christ.” 

“If we endure, we will also reign with him”; again, not a new idea in the church. The New Testament letters instruct readers that their job is to endure or stand firm, such as 1 Corinthians 16:13 or Galatians 5:1 or Ephesians 6:11-14. The instruction to go looking for a fight, so much an emphasis in certain contemporary theology, isn’t there; the call is to stand, to endure.

“If we deny him, he will also deny us” – wait, what? On one level this might seem logical; how can Christ claim as his own one who does not claim Christ as their own? 

And yet, we have right in scripture at least one clear example in which one who flat-out denied Jesus was still claimed as Jesus’s own, no less a figure than Peter. It might be worth remembering that to deny with one’s words, as bad as that was for Peter to do, is a different thing altogether than to deny with one’s life. It might be that this is what is implied here; a life lived in rebellion against Christ will not be claimed by Christ. Or, it might be that the next statement clarifies this:

“If we are faithless, he remains faithful” – it sounds possibly confusing again, but the added clarification makes a difference; “for he cannot deny himself.” Christ cannot be unfaithful to Christ’s own Christ-ness; our infidelity cannot sway Christ from being the Son of God. We do not change Christ, no matter how much we might test him. And part of that faithfulness to Christ is enduring with Christ.

Curiously, the lectionary reading straddles the boundary between two different strains of thought here, although the introductory instruction to “remind them of this” does at least offer a connecting thread. Here, though, the emphasis shifts from the author’s own suffering and endurance to more direct and practical instruction to his readers. Verse 14, frankly, is just good advice, and not just in ministering to the church. Really, who loves “wrangling over words” at all, aside from some thoroughly unpleasant people? I’m not sure anyone would consider it an exaggeration to say that it “ruins those who are listening.” 

And that brings us again to that initial verse.

No matter how I tried in my youth, I could not make “rightly dividing the word of truth” make a bit of sense to me. Dividing the word? To be honest, I didn’t really know anyone who could make that particular phrase make sense. So yes, I am glad for a good straightforward word like “explaining“. 

OK, all fine and good, but that doesn’t quite answer everything. What exactly is it that we’re “rightly explaining“? 

As much as it might sound all Bible-like and churchy, this phrase “word of truth” is not actually all that common across scripture. In fact, most of its use is right here in these three letters, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. So in this case it’s probably best to look within this trifecta to understand just what is meant by this phrase. And when we do so, it doesn’t end up quite meaning what I was taught in my childhood. 

Even as a child I knew enough to understand that the Bible didn’t drop fully-formed out of heaven; a lot of different “books” – sixty-six in all – were compiled and gathered up across a lot of different decades and centuries. This book of 2 Timothy was part of that process, naturally, which made it hard for me to figure out how this verse could be talking about all of the Bible (which is what I got taught in Sunday school) when the Bible hadn’t actually been “finished” yet.

What we’re talking about here would be better summarized as “the gospel” or the good news of Jesus Christ – this is what is consistently proclaimed across all of the New Testament letters, including this set of three. Paul’s letters are clearly focused here, as he describes in 1 Corinthians 2:2 where says that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” The other letters of the New Testament, while they differ from the Pauline body of writings in more than a few ways, are consistent on this message as well; what we proclaim is the saving work of Christ.

This leaves us with a hard question: do we “rightly explain the word of truth“? Do we tell the good news? Do we, to use a modern word borrowed from an old Greek word, evangelize?

Ooh, this gets uncomfortable. Talking about religion is so taboo, such a good way to get in trouble. Talk about “rightly dividing” – trying to talk about religion is a most effective way to divide, and not in the way this verse means.

And yet, maybe that’s the point. In an age where an awful lot of self-professed Christians or even self-professed leaders or teachers in the church have become quite proficient at “wrangling about words” and turning cherry-picked bits of scripture into bad news with which to bludgeon those they don’t like, are we telling good news? Do we rightly explain the word of truth?

And if we don’t, how do we start?

For a hard question to answer, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #681, This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made; #481, I Believe in God the Father; #394, Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation

Quite honestly this is what my youthful brain came up with when I read “rightly dividing”…

Sermon: Not Ashamed

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 2, 2022, Pentecost 17C

2 Timothy 1:8-14

Not Ashamed

{sing} I know whom I have belie-ved

and am persuaded that he is able 

to keep that which I’ve committed 

unto Him against that day

That’s one I remember from my childhood. I’m going to be honest with you; I had no clue in the world what that was supposed to be about. It made no sense to young me whatsoever. I know people get all sentimental and attached to the King James Version of the Bible (and some folks more than that, quite viciously combative about it), but had you showed the young me verse 12 from today’s reading and said that this was the verse that this old gospel refrain came from, I wouldn’t have believed you one bit. This is one case where I’m quite grateful for modern translations.

This comes to us in a strong and admirable bit of testimony from the author of this letter, acknowledging the struggles he has faced and yet declaring his continuing trust in God and encouraging his reader(s) to do the same. But getting to this testimony takes us through some challenging territory.

[Quick note: even though Paul’s name and Timothy’s are both on the letter, it is extremely unlikely that Paul actually wrote this letter or 1 Timothy. The roles of bishop and other church leaders described in 1 Timothy simply didn’t exist by the time Paul had died, and the writing style is frankly alien to the rest of Paul’s letters. This was not uncommon practice at the time. For the sake of convenience in the rest of ths sermon, I will refer to writer and reader as “Paul” and “Timothy” anyway.]

The author, who we’re calling Paul, seems to want to make a big deal of his imprisonment, and seems awfully concerned that his young reader might be feeling some shame over Paul’s situation, whether for Paul directly or for how it might reflect on himself to have his teacher and mentor in jail. Perhaps as a result, this dynamic duo of “shame” and “suffering” pops up twice in this brief passage. First, in verse 8, Paul is encouraging Timothy not to be ashamed of Paul’s testimony or of Paul himself, but to “join with me in suffering for the gospel.” Later, in verse 12, Paul, having spoken of his call to apostleship, acknowledges that he suffers for this, but again encourages Timothy not to be ashamed. 

For anyone who knew Paul’s career, suffering was almost a given. Paul had been jailed so many times that under modern marketing practices he would probably have earned a free stay somewhere. He had faced any number of arrests, tortures, and harsh punishments for his proclamation work. Speaking of suffering simply was talking about life for Paul. This business of shame, though, is something different. 

Paul’s most well-known statement on suffering came back in Romans, where he proclaimed that “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of salvation…“. In other epistle passages there is talk of others being ashamed for various misdeeds they might have done. This business of whether Paul might feel shame over his imprisonment is new, and frankly odd. 

The idea that Timothy (or whatever reader might see this) might be ashamed of Paul for this is still farther afield. Actually this might make a decent argument for why Paul did not write these letters, as such attitudes about Paul (while not unheard of in his lifetime) became much stronger after his death, as different leaders with different ideas and attitudes came to the fore in the church. 

Still, whatever its sources, this does raise some questions that it’s worthwhile for the church today to consider. What brings about shame these days? 

You would think that, say, reports of rampant sexual abuse and subsequent coverups by Roman Catholic priests some years ago, and Southern Baptist pastors more recently, would be the kind of thing that might provoke some degree of shame. But no, the only responses seem to be more coverup, more hiding, or sometimes “doubling down” and endorsing the leaders exposed for their wrongdoings. Somehow, shame at the abuse of other human beings doesn’t seem to enter the picture.

One might think the church’s past complicity in the eradication of Native American peoples from their lands and erasure of their Native identities might also be an object of shame. While some fitful and tentative gestures towards acknowledgement and apology – and Pope Francis even used the word “shame” to describe his feelings about such abuse on his recent trip to Canada – there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that any church so involved has experienced much shame for their actions in those times. 

So what do churches “get shamed” for these days?

Well, up in Birmingham, two campus ministry staffers – one PC(USA), one Episcopalian – were disinvited from a “Church and Ministry Expo” fair on the campus of Samford University, apparently over those denominations’ failure to exclude LGBTQ+ persons from their fellowship and ministry, specifically because both denominations allow same-sex marriage[1]. Admittedly I’m looking on from a distance, but it does seem odd for a church organization to shame another organization for not being “biblically orthodox” in a situation where those organizations are in fact being biblically Christlike. But that’s just me, I guess.

What else do churches get shamed for these days? 

Maybe for being small? 

You ever see that? Someone affiliated with a larger church maybe being a little bit pitying, a little bit patronizing toward someone who goes to a smaller church? What are the automatic assumptions about a small church, the default words used to describe it? Maybe “struggling”? Maybe even “dying”? Maybe the higher-ups in that church’s denominational struggle get into hushed conversations about how to gracefully ease that church aside and devote more resources to the bigger, more “successful” churches? 

Well, for one thing, small churches are trendy now. There’s even a book on the subject of the trend towards very small churches – even smaller than us in some cases[2]. For another,  small ain’t necessarily dead. I’ve been in small churches that crackle with activity and mission, and large churches that are – bluntly put – dead as a doornail. Seems from here that one church shaming another over size needs to worry less over the one finger pointing at the small church, and the three others pointing right back at them.

In short, there are reasons churches should be ashamed, but they seldom are. And there are things about which churches don’t need to be ashamed, but sometimes get told they ought to be. Neither is good – the first because something very bad has clearly happened, and the second because one church trying to shame another is, well, frankly, something to be ashamed of. 

Whatever shame was being experienced by Timothy (or whatever reader of this letter) was doing no good, and probably distracting from the work that needed to be done. The same can be said for us. Getting caught up in shame over being small or over being ostracized by some fundamentalist church types doesn’t help anything, and probably gets in the way of the work that is before us. So let’s not waste time with that, okay?

For not getting caught up in pointless shame, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: (from Glory to God: the Presbyterian Hymnal): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #720, Jesus Calls Us; #840, When Peace Like a River



Sermon: A Root of All Kinds of Evil

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 25, 2022, Pentecost 16C

1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

A Root of All Kinds of Evil

The opening of Douglas Adams’s science-fiction satire The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an introductory look at a small, sad planet (which is of course Earth) as viewed from the outside. One of the observations from this outside perspective is pretty stinging:

This planet has … a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

Indeed, if we look around it does seem as if most everyone associates happiness or contentment or pleasure or power or all manner of presumed good things with the movement of those small green pieces of paper or with the things acquired by doing so. And historically, even if those small green pieces of paper were actually gold or silver or copper coins or some other form of currency, the same holds true. The concept of “enough” seems to be widely lacking.

Both of today’s main scripture readings hit on this subject, albeit from slightly different directions. The parable read from Luke 16 is probably at least familiar sounding to most of us; the rich man enjoying what his wealth gains him, while the poor man Lazarus is at the gate longing for anything he can eat at all. Both men die, and let’s just say they go opposite directions. 

The striking thing about that ending is just how un-self-aware the rich man seems to be, even after he ends up in The Bad Place. He seems to think that Lazarus is somehow at his beck and call, first calling out for him to come dip his finger and water and cool the rich man’s tongue – which, ewwwww – and then thinking that Lazarus could still be used as some kind of supernatural apparition to scare his brothers into getting right with God. Even in his Hadean state, the rich man of the parable somehow seems to think of himself from that point of view of wealth and the power that comes with it; I tell others what to do and they do it. Clearly the man had no concept of “enough” and no contentment at all.

At this point it’s useful to jump over to the epistle reading and the oft-misquoted verse 10. How often have you heard it simply as “money is the root of all evil“? It’s well-known enough that some users of the saying might have no idea that it has its roots in this scripture reading. And to be honest, the short form just quoted is such a deformation of the verse that it really shouldn’t beassociated with the scripture reading. 

First of all, it isn’t money that is the root of anything. To recall the Douglas Adams quote from the beginning of this sermon, it isn’t the small green pieces of paper that are unhappy. No, it’s not about the money, it’s about our attitude towards it. The desire for it, or the desire for the things it can bring us in large quantities. Or, to put it bluntly, greed. Being unable to know what “enough” is, not being able to be content, is always on the bad side of scripture; the Bible never has anything good to say about greed. It is a corrosive thing; no wonder it ends up as one of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. 

Note also what follows: “the love of money is a root…“. Not “the” root. Love of wealth, or greed, isn’t the only way for the soul to be corrupted. It’s a big one, yes, but not the only one. 

Finally, note how this saying ends; this love of money of which we are being warned is a root “of all kinds of evil.” There is more than one way to do bad or to go bad or to be bad in this world; the unpleasant truth is that greed ties into many of them. Take a look at what’s happened over in Mississippi, where a certain famous former NFL quarterback got involved in a scam to redirect funds directed towards the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families anti-poverty program (this in one of the poorest states in the country) to him, first for some speeches he never gave, and then for a volleyball facility at the university where – who’da thunk it? – his daughter happens to play volleyball. Sometimes love of money is about keeping it away from those who don’t have it, just for spite. That is a kind of evil, to be sure.

But there are other kinds of evil that the love of money gets tied up in. We live in a state where perhaps the truest pandemic is of wealthy business interests using the clout their wealth brings to get laws written to benefit them – shady development deals in places that should not be developed, making sure the earliest Covid vaccines to get to the state went to wealthy enclaves well south of here, or, to be blunt, just flat-out buying and owning politicians to do their bidding. Lots of people for whom enough is never enough, just loving that wealth and making absolutely sure it never gets to those who don’t have it. Those people are just tools, like Lazarus was to the rich man in the parable.

Maybe one of the more subtle signs of this excess loving of wealth can be found in a bumper sticker you can see around town. It’s one that seems harmless or even humorous on first sight but betrays perhaps one of the most insidious “kinds of evil” of which the love of money can be a root. Maybe you’ve seen it? It says, “If 10% is good enough for God, it’s good enough for the IRS.” 

I have no interest in addressing the IRS at all here, but the first half of that sentence has got to be beaten down for the horrible theology it foists upon the world. What distorted scripture are you reading if you think that 10% of anything about your life is “good enough for God”? 

No. One might even have to be brash enough to say “Hell, no” in recognition of the fact that Hell would be exactly where such an idea would come from.

If you are going to be calling yourself a follower of Christ in any way at all, the only percentage of anything of yours that can even remotely be called “enough” is 100%. No less. 

The beginning of the reading from 1 Timothy reminds us that “we brought nothing into this world, so that we can take nothing out of it.” The later portion of the reading puts it plainly that it is God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment,” and that our business with whatever wealth we have is “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future [that is, eternity],so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” It all comes from God and all goes to God for the doing of God’s work here on this earth.

Since we are approaching that time when we are called upon to reckon with the finances of the church and how we will support the work of the church, we should go ahead and say that giving to the church certainly should be a part of that all belonging to God – not merely for the sake of propping up the church itself or making sure we have big shiny things to show off, but to keep the work of the church going. Besides missions like Family Promise, St. Francis House, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (had to mention that one right now with Ian on the way), Heifer International, and others we support, the plain fact is that our building itself is a venue of community outreach and service. We’ll hopefully have a lot of folks passing through our grounds this Friday evening to take in the artworks of the members of Art Studios of Grace (including our own resident artist Jay Winter Collins). We have some community organization or other in our fellowship hall pretty much every night of the week, from AA groups to community choirs to Girl Scouts and more. And one reason we try not to linger too long in here is so that the Korean Presbyterian Church can gather at 1:00 for worship. Right now, our facilities are one of our biggest means of serving others. So yeah, contributing to the church counts for that 100% belonging to God.

What wealth we have, great or small, is God’s, if we claim to be God’s. The rich man of the parable clearly didn’t get it, and others too if the epistle reading is any indication. The world around us seems to need reminding as well. 

For the call to be rich towards God and content with what God gives, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #806, I’ll Praise My Maker; #—, God, grant us the contentment; #541, God Be With You Till We Meet Again

Sermon: Everyone

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 18, 2022, Pentecost 15C

1 Timothy 2:1-7



Kind of a definitive word, isn’t it?

I mean, how do you put up an argument against something being for or about “everyone” without sounding like an idiot (“you really mean everyone?“) or a hatemonger (“surely you can’t mean them???“) or worse? 

So it had to be a bit bracing for the readers of this letter, whoever they were, to see in this brief passage “everyone” invoked three times, in idea if not in exact word. In a time when the persecution of those identified as “Christians” or “followers of the Way” was beginning to intensify, around the end of the first century, this was going to be a hard pill to swallow.

So what exactly is being applied to “everyone“?

1. Right away, in verse 1, we see the instruction begin: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone“. 

In case it wasn’t clear the author continues, “for kings and all who are in high positions…“. Exactly the folks who would be in charge, the emperors claiming divine authority and moving to squelch small, nonconforming movements like the church; pray for them. Even if you do so with gritted teeth, pray for them.

An attempt to sweeten the medicine follows: “…so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” This is frankly a strange phrase; those last two words – “godliness” and “dignity” – do not appear at all in the New Testament aside from this letter and the two following, 2 Timothy and Titus. This is not Paul-like language at all, for that matter; “dignity” in particular is about as antithetical to Paul’s body of writing as anything can be. Outside of these three so-called “pastoral epistles,” so named because of their evident direction toward those in charge in the local body, New Testament writers simply don’t talk like this. Paul in particular isn’t all that interested in the followers of Christ living quiet, peaceable lives. 

No, the real kicker here is in the second invocation of “everyone,” that follows next.

2. “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 

Let’s strip this down and clarify this: God wants everyone to be saved. Everybody. To put it in good Southern terms, “all y’all.” The most elemental, basic reason Christians would be called to play for everyone is simply that God wants everyone to be saved. God wants everyone to know that truth. God has zero interest in the lines we draw between ourselves and others. God wants everybody to be God’s. 

When we’re most honest with ourselves, can we really say this? Can we really desire the salvation of those who torment us? And we’re not talking in some sarcastic kind of “I really wish God would call this one home already…” wish, but truly desiring God’s truth and salvation for them? Do we have that within us, wishing for the salvation – wishing the good – for those who harm us? That’s what’s being asked of these readers here, let’s not miss that.

The word “everyone” doesn’t appear again in this passage, but the meaning certainly does when the author adds this:

3. “…there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all (which is to say, everyone).” 

That’s pretty complete. We are called to pray for it, God wants it, and Christ gave himself for it: the salvation of “everyone.” 

This passage isn’t the entire Bible, though, and we do have to remember that other passages of scripture offer words that caution us from getting too excited about this. Take Matthew 7:21, for example, in which Jesus cautions his disciples that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my father in Heaven.” No matter how much God may want it, it takes a response, and a response that is more than words at that. Being saved involves a changed life, one given to doing God’s will more than to big empty words. To put it most bluntly, it’s entirely possible that the biggest talkers out there, the ones who have the most to say about who is and who isn’t saved, are themselves nowhere near being saved. 

To put it bluntly, not everyone says “yes.” 

That doesn’t make it any less what God desires for all of humanity, for “everyone.” 

That doesn’t make Christ any less a ransom for “everyone.” 

That doesn’t make it any less our call to pray for “everyone.” 

That’s our job. That’s what God calls us to do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #42, Your Faithfulness, O Lord, Is Sure; #708, We Give Thee But Thine Own; #697, Take My Life

Sermon that would have been preached: One Really Disruptive Letter

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 4, 2022, Pentecost 13C


One Really Disruptive Letter

There are four books of the Bible, across the Old and New Testaments, that were not in the course of history subdivided into chapters. The lone such example in the OT, the book of the prophet Obadiah, is not wildly different than its longer prophetic siblings. The letters named 2 John and 3 John are likewise similar to the general epistles found towards the end of the New Testament, if not nearly so long and a bit more vague in their address. None of those books appear in the Revised Common Lectionary. Today’s book, however (which does appear in the RCL), is significantly different.

It’s a letter that should not be overlooked, as the book has had an influence out of proportion to its size across the history of both the church universal and the church particular in this country, especially in the US South. That influence was not good, largely because those who interpreted it did so more for convenience than from any genuine desire to learn from it. 

You see, this little letter became, in such empires or nations as sanctioned the practice, a primary scriptural justification for the institution of slavery. That list of such nations, of course, includes the USA for about the first two hundred-plus years of its colonial and national history. To be blunt, the only reason you’d have ever heard a sermon on Philemon was in order to support or prop up slavery as “biblical,” frequently (although not exclusively) in the southern part of the country, in churches that separated from their northern fellow churches over slavery – including, yes, Presbyterians.*

The tragedy of it is that this could only be done by emphasizing something that is not in the letter. For all that Paul says in the letter, there is one thing he does not say: “Slavery is wrong.” (He also doesn’t say “slavery is right.”) Neither does he explicitly order Philemon to free the slave Onesimus (although in verse 8 Paul does claim the spiritual authority to do so). And hey, if Paul doesn’t say slavery is wrong, then slavery must be OK, right?

This was not the only such passage of scripture that preachers of the past would have used to justify slavery, but it made this letter damaging all out of proportion to its size, and was also completely contrary to the spirit of the burden that Paul laid upon his “dear friend and coworker” Philemon.

I could have left off some of the preliminary and concluding verses of this chapter in the interest of shortening the reading and focusing on the “important stuff” in this little letter. In the case of this letter, though, the preliminary and concluding verses of the chapter are really part of the “important stuff.” The salutation of this letter names other members of the “church that meets in your house,” specifically “Apphia our sister” and “Archippus our fellow soldier”. This wasn’t a true ‘private’ letter; the whole community is being addressed and included here, and what Paul asks of Philemon is in effect being asked of the entire community, not just the one who actually owns the slave in question.

That brings us to the central character, or ‘object’, of the letter. Onesimus was a slave, this much is clear. Even if there were no other clues about his identity his name itself would be a giveaway; the name ‘Onesimus,’ which translates as ‘useful,’ was not given to a free-born person in the Roman Empire. Would you name your child ‘Useful’? (And yes, this makes a pun of Paul’s words in v. 10 about Onesimus being formerly “useless” but now “useful”.)

Onesimus’s situation is less clear. Most interpreters of this letter believe that Onesimus had run away from his master. Others suggest that possibly Onesimus was guilty of some other wrong against Philemon, maybe some kind of theft or some mistake that had cost Philemon. Aside from the “useless” pun in verse 10, we don’t know what’s going on, but there is some reason Onesimus doesn’t want to return to Philemon and Paul is interceding on his behalf, via letter (he can’t do so in person because he’s in prison, remember). It might be simply that Paul wants Onesimus to work with him, and Onesimus wants that too. It could just be as simple as a slave wanting to be free, maybe even free to do a work God is calling him to do.

As is the case when you only hear one half of a conversation, we can’t be sure about much. But one thing is inescapable; how Paul envisions Onesimus being received by Philemon (and Apphia, Archippus, and the church in his house) is dramatically, life-alteringly, status-threateningly different than the way Onesimus had functioned in Philemon’s household before, and Paul gets that Philemon has to choose, himself, to take this radical step.

Paul is not asking Philemon to readmit Onesimus to his former slave status. A reset, a return to status quo would not require words like these:

  • Paul calling Onesimus “my child” “whose father I have become during my imprisonment” (v. 10);
  • Paul telling Philemon “I am sending him, my own heart, back to you” (v. 11);
  • Paul encouraging Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother … both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16);
  • Paul charging Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17).

This isn’t “take him back and I’ll make up your loss and nothing changes,” even if Paul does promise in verse 19 to make up any loss Philemon has sustained due to Onesimus. This is “change everything,” “totally turn things upside down.” And it’s not how any self-respecting Roman citizen treats a slave. If you can figure out how to treat a piece of property with no legal human status as a beloved brother or sister, the way you would treat the man who brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to you, well, you’re evidently cleverer than me.

What Paul asks is not without consequence for Philemon; you didn’t just free your slaves all willy-nilly and get away with it. Besides the social stigma and cultural backlash such an act likely to face, Philemon could face even legal consequences for such treatment of Onesimus, even if he did not technically “free” Onesimus. Anything that had the potential of setting off unrest among slaves or upsetting the social order could be punished by Roman authority; and seeing Onesimus gaining status and acceptance in Philemon’s household could very well provoke such disruption. Paul does not care and engages in monumental arm-twisting to persuade Philemon while in every technical respect leaving the choice in Philemon’s hands (in the context of the community of faith in which Philemon lived and moved; Apphia and Archippus and the church).

An aside: one of the great wrongs of slaveholding societies is their utterly misguided and destructive attitude towards work. Work was, in such societies, beneath the well-off. Work was for other people – those people, whoever that society demeaned with such a label. It seems needful on a Labor Day weekend to note that labor of whatever sort is an honored thing in God’s eyes. Remember the words of Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes, about how there’s really nothing better than to do one’s work and enjoy the fruits of it. The business of exploiting the labor of others for one’s own convenience simply has no place in the kingdom of God, where any human being is a fellow child of God; this is part of what Philemon is now charged to learn.

While I hope there aren’t many today who would seek to restore the discredited practice of using this letter to justify slavery, plenty of forms of oppression fall under the ban if we take this letter seriously. Racism simply cannot stand in the face of a call to love others as beloved siblings in Christ. Any kind of bigotry at all, any claim that the world would be just fine if they would just “stay in their place” or “not rock the boat” or simply stay quiet and out of the way, has no place in the mind of a follower of Christ, no matter how entrenched or enmeshed in our culture such an attitude may be. “That’s just the way it is” might have made a great song for Bruce Hornsby back in the 80s, but it can never be the response of a follower of Christ in the face of any injustice or oppression. (And if you remember the song, even Hornsby wraps that “just the way it is” chorus with the imperative “but don’t you believe it”.) 

If it is a coincidence that this scripture happened to fall on a Sunday when the Lord’s Supper is being observed, it is a happy one indeed. The table of the Lord is decidedly non-selective about who is welcomed. Anyone – anyone – who calls upon the name of the Lord is welcomed as beloved brother or sister. And if that fact produces anything other than an “amen” from us, it might be well for us to remember that this radical openness might just be to our benefit as anyone else’s. 

We don’t know what Philemon did in response to Paul’s letter. It seems unlikely that such a personal and particular letter would have come into the canon of scripture, even under the Holy Spirit, if Philemon had responded to Onesimus’s return with thirty lashes and an order to “get back to work, Useless.” We do know that later in the century, a bishop named Onesimus served in the city of Ephesus and may have even been responsible for the preservation of many of Paul’s letters. Even if not the same Onesimus, somebody’s slave became a “beloved brother” along the way. And we should note that evidence suggests that in the communities touched by Paul’s preaching, all who were part of that church – rich and poor, male and female, slave and free – were really together in community, just as Paul is instructing Philemon and all the church in his house to be.

But in a way, not knowing the outcome places the burden of answer on us. How do we respond to one who, like Onesimus, of no status or even humanity in the eyes of the world, is set before us as beloved in Christ, one of God’s own children, no matter how vexing it might be to us?

For the call to answer that question, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #36, For the Fruit of All Creation; #300, We Are One in the Spirit

Sermon: Table Games

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 28, 2022, Pentecost 12C

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Table Games

One of the great points of intrigue in such period-based (and frequently British) TV shows such as Downton Abbey, or even reaching way back to Upstairs, Downstairs, is the intrigue that surrounds the dinner table. Everyone has their place to sit, and violation of such order is the worst possible offense. Serving takes place in a very precise and ordered way, and again, no violation of such order is to be tolerated. Silverware is placed exactly so; each course of the meal is presented with precise and inflexible timing; everyone is dressed impeccably. Even the servants’ quarters down below, while significantly more relaxed than in the main dining room, sees its meals happen in a quite regular and orderly fashion.

“Table games,” it seems, have been a part of meals for almost as long as there have been meals, particularly among the more powerful and well-off of most every society. The arrangement of guests at the table, the serving of the different courses or parts of the meal, the very fact of who is invited and who is not all become part of a larger project of keeping or imposing a fixed and immutable order upon not only those gathered at any particular table, but upon the society as a whole. You found out where you “belonged” in society by where you were seated at the table – that is, if you were seated at all, which was an even more explicit statement about your place in that society.

In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus has been invited into a great meal at the home of a member of the Pharisees. We are conditioned automatically to equate “Pharisee” with “enemy of Jesus,” but that was not always the case; some were at least intrigued by his teaching and were sincerely interested in hearing more, and at least some, only a few verses ago in 13:31, were concerned enough to warn Jesus that he should get out of town as Herod had designs on killing him. Whether this invitation was reflective of such concern or was perhaps more of a means of keeping an eye on Jesus, we can’t say for certain, though we are informed in 14:1 that they “were watching him closely.”

The verses we skipped over in chapter 14 tell of yet another healing on the Sabbath, in this case of a man with a withered hand. It plays out very much like the event from last week’s reading, except this time none of the religious leaders present even dared say anything at all. It is from this event that Jesus proceeds to talk about how the “table games” of this event were playing out. The guests at the meal may have been “watching him closely,” but it turns out Jesus was watching them closely too.

What he saw was, in short, a lot of guests trying to make a place for themselves among the seats of greatest honor at the table, namely those seats closest to the host. One could almost argue that Jesus’s observations about these seating maneuvers were almost not spiritual at all, or only barely so; on the surface, it sounds like savvy business advice for the one trying to climb the corporate or social ladder. Don’t try to weasel your way up the table; that’s just a good way to get humiliated. Let the host seek you out and elevate you

You could almost see that advice being handed out on some kind of reality TV show about corporate boardroom maneuvering. That counsel, though, did have clear roots in much of Hebrew scripture, particularly in the book of Proverbs 25:6-7, which instructs the young learner:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence 

or stand in the place of the great;

for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,

than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

In other words, there were very likely many of those at this meal who would have quickly recognized exactly what Jesus was talking about and probably could cite the source of his statement. You could imagine a few of the wiser guests nodding knowingly or perhaps even chuckling at his remarks so far, maybe even Jesus himself. Even within their own religious tradition, their values had become rather skewed or even twisted all out of shape.

It’s what comes next, though, that blows up the whole event. When Jesus turns to the host of the meal, what he says there is at least as vigorous a metaphorical “flipping tables” as Jesus would do literally in the Temple marketplace during the last week he spent in Jerusalem.

Another corner of the “table games” mentality, again like in many societies across history, had more to do with who got invited to a meal, and what that inviter might in turn expect from his invitees (and in this society, the one doing the inviting was always ‘he’). The expectation was simple; I invite you to a meal at my house, and in return you invite me to a meal at your house. Honor was thus repaid. To fail to reciprocate such an invitation was a grotesque social faux pas and not easily forgiven or forgotten.

It is into this extremely rigid and inviolable social order that Jesus tosses something like a verbal hand grenade. Don’t invite the ones who will invite you back. All you get out of that is one dinner. Invite the people who will not be able to return the invitation to you; the poor, the ones who are hindered in some way. That’s when your great and ultimate reward comes in. 

The ones who were nodding along or chuckling along after Jesus’s first observations were probably now feeling their chins hit the floor in shock. One of them did try to change the topic, sort of, in verse 15 (after our day’s reading), with something of a generic blessing, only for Jesus to come up a parable that illustrates a man doing exactly what Jesus has just instructed, although in this case it was because the invited guests begged off and made excuses not to come. Given the chance to back off or at least change the subject, Jesus doubled down on his teaching. 

You get the feeling that if Jesus were to show up in Gainesville looking for a good crowd with which to have dinner, he’d most likely go to St. Francis House [NOTE: a local homeless shelter]. 

Are we in it for social reward? Are we in it for honor? Are we in it to boost our reputation, to climb the ladder of success? Or are we in it to serve the ones called “the least of these” in Matthew 25? Are we in it to serve those Jesus calls us to invite and serve? Are we about “table games,” or about Christ’s table?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #722, Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak; #435, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy; #345, In an Age of Twisted Values