Sunday, January 24, 2016

What Are Your Credentials?

Luke 4:14-21 January 24, 2016 Upper Rogue UMC

Having been baptized by John in the Jordan, and spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness where he argued with the devil and won, Jesus now turns his attention to the task for which he was sent. He begins in Galilee, his old stomping grounds, and soon found himself in his hometown of Nazareth. As both a local boy who achieved some degree of notoriety, and a visiting rabbi, he was, as custom dictated, invited to speak to the home congregation. They handed him the scroll of Isaiah, and he read:
Luk 4:18-19 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed (19) and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people."
It was traditional, in those times, to read the scriptures standing, and to preach sitting. So after reading the scroll, Jesus handed it back to the attendant charged with its care and keeping, sat down, and announced to all: "This passage came true today when you heard me read it." This announcement, and the interaction which follows, serves two purposes.

First, Jesus answers the unspoken questions of the local leaders: “Who do you think you are.?” “Who gives you the authority to preach?” “Show us your credentials!” When you go to your doctor, he or she probably has their diploma and license from the state in a frame on the wall. Lawyers must pass the Bar, and meet other state requirements before setting up shop. The C in CPA stands for the certification they have from the state; Our daughter Dannielle is certified to prepare taxes; I am credentialed by the church. I have been trained at a seminary, examined by the Board of Ordained Ministry, served my probationary period, and was ordained to a life of word, service and order by Bishop Dew, representing the church. I even have a certificate I can present to verify my status.

In Jesus' times, things were different. There were no seminaries to train young rabbis; no universities to grant diplomas. One's actions and teachings were the only credentials one could offer; and so our Lord offers the credentials of Isaiah, which he claims for himself; the credentials of concern for others, and care for the POP, the poor, the oppressed, and the powerless. These are still the credentials of the People of God. Where the Spirit of God is at work, the care and concern for the P.O.P. are being practiced. The work of the Spirit is the work of caring, feeding, housing, healing, and loving. These are our real credentials; these are the proof of who and who's we are.

When we visited Tennessee, we walked past a bar with a sign promising: “Free beer tomorrow.” I would guess there has never been a free beer poured in that beer tomorrow is no free beer. In much the same way, when we Christians start living in some “Pie in the sky in the sweet by and by” world; simply waiting for a future eternity. Jesus steps into the synagogue, and into our lives proclaiming that eternity is here, eternity is now...or, rather, now is part of eternity. Like too many modern churches, the synagogues had lost relevance in the daily lives of the people, concentrating instead on finding God through praise, and study. Far too often entertainment has replaced worship, and there is little, if any, time for prayer. It was much the same when Jesus walked into the synagogue and spoke of God in the here and now...and that's uncomfortable. It's far easier to speak, and hear of God in the distant past of Jesus' day and before; or in the far off future of the second coming and Revelation. the reality is that if God is only the God of creation and the God of the Eschaton—the final days, there is no God. When Jesus announced: “What you have just heard me read has come true today,” he was announcing that God is present among us in the here and now. God is real.

And a real God demands a real response. As long as we can keep God in his little box of Sunday morning and past and future glories, we are in control; and we like being in control. But Jesus calls us to be under God's control, to break down those barriers and confront the uncomfortable reality of God in our daily lives.

God in our daily lives. God in control of our daily lives. What would that mean? What does that mean? If we start where Jesus started, then it begins with service to others; good old fashioned Christian works. Service performed not for our self-aggrandizement, but solely for others; solely for God. Richard Foster tells us: Self-righteous service comes through human effort. True service comes from a relationship with the divine Other deep inside.
Self-righteous service is impressed with the "big deal." True service finds it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large service.
Self-righteous service requires external rewards. True service rests contented in hiddenness.
Self-righteous service is highly concerned about results. True service is free of the need to calculate results.
Self-righteous service picks and chooses whom to serve. True service is indiscriminate in its ministry.
Self-righteous service is affected by moods and whims. True service ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need.
Self-righteous service is temporary. True service is a life-style.
Self-righteous service is without sensitivity. It insists on meeting the need even when to do so would be destructive. True service can withhold the service as freely as perform it.
Self-righteous service fractures community. True service, on the other hand, builds community.

Or, as A.T. Pierson wrote in The Truth: Whatever is done for God, without respect of its comparative character as related to other acts, is service, and only that is service. Service is, comprehensively speaking, doing the will of God. He is the object. All is for Him, for His sake, as unto the Lord, not as unto man. Hence, even the humblest act of humblest disciple acquires a certain divine quality by its being done with reference to Him.

The supreme test of service is this: 'For whom am I doing this?' Much that we call service to Christ is not such at all....If we are doing this for Christ, we shall not care for human reward or even recognition. Our work must again be tested by three propositions: Is it work from God, as given us to do from Him; for God, as finding in Him its secret of power; and with God, as only a part of His work in which we engage as co-workers with Him."

Service to others is at the root of all Christian living, all Christian mission, and all Christian evangelism. In serving others, our lives proclaim our faith, and, at the same time, our faith is strengthen. Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, tells about the Roman aqueduct at Segovia, in his native Spain. It was built in 109 A.D. For eighteen hundred years, it carried cool water from the mountains to the hot and thirsty city. Nearly sixty generations of men drank from its flow. Then came another generation, a recent one, who said, "This aqueduct is so great a marvel that it ought to be preserved for our children, as a museum piece. We shall relieve it of its centuries-long labor."
They did; they laid modern iron pipes. They gave the ancient bricks and mortar a reverent rest. And the aqueduct began to fall apart. The sun beating on the dry mortar caused it to crumble. The bricks and stone sagged and threatened to fall. What ages of service could not destroy idleness disintegrated.

Faith unlived is only belief. It is when our actions preach good news to the poor, when we work to relieve the oppressed, when we heal the sick and bring sight to the blind, that we present out true credentials. It is in acts of serving, both big and small, that we walk through this part of eternity with the eternal God, and we proclaim the acceptable Year of The Lord. AMEN

Monday, January 11, 2016

Wild John

Luke 3:15-22
January 10, 2016 Upper Rogue UMC

Everybody had heard about John. Talk about him, and the coming judgment of God, was on everyone's tongue, and folks from all over were flocking to the lower Jordan valley to hear him; and even be baptized by him. Nobody seemed to know much about him, except that he was apparently of the tribe of Levi. Rumors said that he was the child of he priest Zechariah an his wife Elizabeth who was far beyond child bearing years when he was born.

John was wild and unrestrained in his preaching. Unlike the Priests and scribes from the temple who urged us to remain under Rome's rule until God intervened: John proclaimed that God was intervening now, and we had better be ready! Personally I didn't see any signs of God's intervention. Tiberius was keeping a tight rein on us through Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea. Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip was ruler of the territory of Iturea and Trachonitis; and Lysanias was ruler of Abilene. Roman soldiers were everywhere, and so were the tax collectors. Between taxes to Rome and tithes and taxes to the temple, most of us were lucky to have enough to eat. It sure didn't seem like a Godly involvement to me. Maybe his diet of locusts and honey was getting to him. My friend Levi joked that his camel hair coat was giving him a brain itch.

Whatever the reason, I guess John saw things differently. He went throughout the whole territory of the Jordan River, preaching, "Turn away from your sins and be baptized, and God will forgive your sins.... Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel! Fill every valley, level every mountain, make the winding road straight! Smooth over the rough paths and get ready. The whole human race will see God's salvation!' " A lot of us thought he was talking about getting the road to Jerusalem ready for God's army. To prepare an entryway to the city that was fit for a king. But John wanted more than that. At least he did on the day my friend Levi and I went out to see for ourselves what he was up too.

We got there just in time. With all the fuss about him the Priests and Levites had sent a delegation from Jerusalem to find out just who this John was. Just as we arrived, John was calling them a “brood of snakes who were running from the fires of judgment.” When the Jews asked him, "Who are you?" John didn't refuse to answer. He told them clearly, "I'm not the Messiah." So They asked him, "Well, are you Elijah?"
"No, I'm not."
Then they asked, "Are you the prophet?"
Finally they asked: “Then Who are you and what do you say about yourself?"
John said, "I'm a voice crying out in the desert, 'Make the way for the Lord straight,' as the prophet Isaiah said."

Because he was baptizing people, something we usually do only to make someone ritually pure, like the Essenes do, the Pharisees asked John why, if he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, he was baptizing, he responded: "I baptize you with water. But the one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie his sandal straps. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
He went on to tell us that it wasn't enough to be descended from Abraham: “God can raise up descendants of Abraham from these stones.”
Luk 3:10-14 The people asked him, "What are we to do, then?" (11) He answered, "Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it." (12) Some tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what are we to do?" (13) "Don't collect more than is legal," he told them. (14) Some soldiers also asked him, "What about us? What are we to do?" He said to them, "Don't take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely. Be content with your pay."

After a whole bunch of people cried out their sins and were baptized by John, a fellow named Jesus showed up. A few of he folks knew him, or at leas knew of him. He was a carpenter from Nazareth, the Son of Joseph and Mary. One fellow standing close by said: 'Well, this is no surprise. I grew up with that guy” he said pointing at Jesus, “He's a lot more religious than the rest of us. He never missed a Sabbath class or a festival. Sometimes he even knew the scriptures better than the Rabbis.” But when this Jesus stepped into the river to be baptized it surprised John who said: "I need to be baptized by you. Why are you coming to me?"
We couldn't hear most of what they said to each other, but they talked together for quite a while before we heard Jesus say:"This is the way it has to be now. This is the proper way to do everything that God requires of us." Then John gave in to him.

That's when things got spooky. As Jesus came up from the water, the sky was suddenly covered in heavy, dark grey clouds that darkened the sun. Then, with what sounded like a loud clap of thunder, the clouds separated, and a dove flew down and landed on him as a loud voice came from above the clouds: "This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with him." And then Jesus just wandered off into the wilderness.

I sure didn't know what that was all about, and neither did Levi. We wondered and talked about what had happened as we walked back home. Later we learned that John had accused Herod of adultery for marrying his brother's wife, Herodias, and had been put in prison for it. As for Jesus, we heard that he began wandering around Galilee preaching and healing the sick, the lame and the blind. There were a lot of stories, I don't know if they were true or not, about his performing miracles. It was said he had turned water into wine at a wedding, that he had fed 5000 plus people with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread. Other stories told how he had stilled a storm on the lake, and how he had driven out demons, given sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf. It was even said that he had healed 10 lepers without even getting close to them. That was the kind of stories that circulated for the next few years. Then, one Passover, the priests final managed to quiet him. They manipulated the crowd to call for his crucifixion, and had the Romans execute him.

But you know, the story didn't end there; in fact it was just getting started. Jesus' followers left Jerusalem and went all over the world with the news that he had risen from the dead, and that, through him we are now forgiven, restored, and reconciled with God. And like Jesus, they were healing people and working other miracles; and, like John, they were urging us to be baptized. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think maybe John was right when he said God was intervening, maybe God just wasn't intervening the way we thought he would. And I guess that means that when Jesus returns, and his disciples say he will, folks then probably won't recognize it either. In the meantime though, I would suggest that you do as John advised:
Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins. " "Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it." "Don't collect more than is legal," he "Don't take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely. Be content with your pay."
And above all else, do as Jesus said: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' and 'Love your neighbor as you love yourself.'

If we all did this, the Kingdom would surely come.

Surprise and Search

Matthew 2:1-12
Upper Rogue United Methodist Church January 3, 2016

It seems to me that there are two basic ways people come to Christ: those whom Christ just surprises one day, and those who start a journey that may take years to finish. Some people get surprised—you might even say ambushed—by Jesus. One day Jesus shows up and says hello. These are the folks who can often tell you the exact date and time they came to know Jesus. The shepherds in the field were like that. They were just minding their business, trying to get through the night, hoping some storm wouldn't blow in and wreak havoc or some predator wouldn't creep down and attack the flock. They were having a little chit chat: "Hey, how's the wife?" "Good, good. How about you?" They weren't expecting anything. And then the sky lit up and a song broke forth and the news was announced, "For unto you, a Savior has been born in Bethlehem." And they spontaneously responded to that news: "Let's go
and see this thing that has happened." Jesus just showed up, in a sense. The glory of God unexpected, unbidden, unsought, suddenly was in their face. A lot of people have experienced that. They're minding their business, and then they meet somebody who tells them about Christ and something in their heart wakes up. They aren't on a spiritual search at all, but when they hear the news, everything in them says yes.

But then there is the kind of people the Magi represent. Those who are looking for Christ, even though they may not realize it is Christ they seek. These people are not just hoping to get through the night; they can't wait for the night, because when the night comes they look at the stars. They scour them and study their configurations; they plot them on charts. They study sacred books to learn about prophecies. They go to Egypt, and they go to the Greek prophets and the Hebrew prophets. They go all over the place, because they are gripped by a lifelong quest to find the meaning of life. They've been spiritually hungry from birth. Like the first group, they're minding their business, but their business is finding out if there is some truth out there worth living for and dying for.

As we come to the Epiphany, (which means “an appearance of the divine”) we, of course, come to the story of the Magi, the wise men, the visitors from the east who bring gifts to the Christ child. The magi first appear in history in the seventh century BC. as a tribe within the Median nation in eastern Mesopotamia.  Later they adopted, and were adopted into the priesthood of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion founded about 3500 years ago in what is now Iran. It later spread to Persia and throughout the middle east. . It was undoubtedly their training and knowledge in astronomy and astrology (the two were closely associated in those times) that led them to examine the meaning of the star they saw rising in the west.

Which raises an interesting point. The Magi recognized the birth of the Messiah using a practice that was illegal for the Jews. In Leviticus 19 the Hebrews are told:
"Don't turn to psychics or mediums to get help. That will make you unclean. I am the LORD your God.” And, again, in Deuteronomy 18, God spoke to Moses saying: “ “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, never learn the disgusting practices of those nations. (10) You must never sacrifice your sons or daughters by burning them alive, practice black magic, be a fortuneteller, witch, or sorcerer, (11) cast spells, ask ghosts or spirits for help, or consult the dead.” The art used by the Magi to find the Christ child was forbidden to the Jews.

On the other hand, because they weren't very familiar with Jewish scriptures, the Magi did not know exactly where the baby would be. So, after a long and arduous journey, they find themselves wandering around Jerusalem, asking anyone who would listen: “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews. Because their practice of Genethlialogy, That's your 50 cent word for today,the science of calculating the position of heavenly bodies on nativities had told them the child was
born, they assumed that just about everyone in Jerusalem would also know, and be able to answer their question. I can imagine their consternation at the blank looks they received. It seemed know one in the city knew what they were talking about.

Being the tyrant he was, it didn't take long for word of these strangers, and the report of a newborn king to reach Herod. This was clearly not good news for the monarch, of whom it was said: “It's safer to be Herod's Dog than Herod's son.” A new king could only be a threat. But who was it? And where was he hiding? Herod had to find out.
As a Jew, (at least nominally,) Herod should have known the the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem; so he called in his experts; the chief priests and scribes who told him "In Bethlehem in Judea. The prophet wrote about this: Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah. A leader will come from you. He will shepherd my people Israel."

So here we have the foreign fortunetellers, who learned of he birth by means illegal for the Jews knowing that he new King has been born. While the earthly king, and the leaders of the temple, who should have seen and recognized the signs, are clueless. Meanwhile, for Herod, the birth of a “new king” could only be seen as a threat. So, being the sly, cheating, ignoble ruler he is, Herod sends the Magi on their way with instructions to let him know where they find the babe, so that he too could worship him. Right! If you define worship as murder.

Herod may have had all his cunning, all the power of his armies, all the power of the temple leadership, and even all the power of Rome on his side; but like the Pharaoh so many years earlier, he didn't have God, and without God, there was no way he could win.

The magi continued joyfully went on their way, and still led by the star came to the place where the holy family lived. Entering the house, they fell on their knees, and presented their gifts of Gold, incense, and myrrh (Royalty, Deity, and Death). And having been told by God in a dream not to go back to Jerusalem, they took another route out of Judea and out of history.

As I said at the beginning of this sermon, there are two basic ways to come to Christ: One is to seek him, as the Magi did; the other is to be surprised by him, as the shepherds were. If you've been surprised, Welcome! If you have sought and found, Welcome! If you are still searching, Welcome! The One who surprised the shepherds, the One the Magi sought and found, the One who was, and is royalty and deity, the One who died and rose, conquering death, has prepared this meal for you. His table is set, come, feast, rejoice, and give thanks. AMEN.