You Are the Salt of The Earth.

In Matthew, Jesus calls us “The Salt of the Earth.” What does that mean?

More than you think! It has implications about our value, and about how we are to live our lives.

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No More Knock-Offs

I missed the last couple of weeks with a cough and a cold, but I am back to sharing sermons. This is from last week at Rupert United Methodist. What happens when we choose to reject God’s spirit for something else? How do you think it makes God feel? And why?

The letter of James tells us.

Dinners with Sinners

dinner with sinners SMALL

It was a slow day at Rupert Methodist this week.

We had some people traveling. A couple who were sick. Our organist and his wife, who lost her father this past week and whose funeral was just yesterday afternoon were not with us. My own wife was down in Massachusetts to be with her daughter.

On top of that, the heating system was on the blink. It’s an automated thermostat, but for whatever reason, it did not fire up early this morning and so when we walked into the sanctuary at 8:30 this morning, we could still see our breath.

We could turn on the heat manually, and we did, but it’s a big open space and it takes a while. Fortunately, the back room, where we have coffee and conversation warms up quickly, so we packed our organless, small gathering into the back room and held services for the fifteen or so of us who were there.

It turned out to be nice. It was intimate in a way things aren’t when we are in the sanctuary. We sang a few simple hymns acappela. And I did not so much preach a sermon as simply talk my way through the sermon.

Being in a relaxed setting the sermon turned into sort of a discussion, from time to time someone asked a question. From time to time, someone made a comment. It was nice. It was intimate in the best possible way. And I think, it caused us to feel the sermon together in a way we normally don’t. I wasn’t talking at a congregation, we were learning together.

I began by reminding them that I don’t often talk about other faiths or denominations.  

In my day, I have spent significant time worshiping in other denominations. I grew up Methodist. I spent nearly 30 years worshiping and serving in Baptist Churches. I spent time in the Presbyterian church, and my mother worked at a Presbyterian seminary. The seminary I attended was non-denominational, but had Presbyterian tendencies.

Also, I’ve traveled a lot and in my travels, I have worshiped in a lot of places: Pentecostal churches, Lots of Catholic churches, here in the states and overseas. Rock and Roll churches, A snake-handling church once, and lots of Episcopal and Lutheran churches

Once I spent a night in a tiny village in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec, worshiping in a French Lutheran church. I didn’t understand a word, but I felt the spirit.

And that’s the thing. I feel the spirit in a lot of churches. While details are different – different Music, different order of service, formality or the lack of it. details of theology, how conservative they are, or how liberal – while all these things are different, I have still experienced joyful, reverential, worship.

Let me surprise you a little: I don’t agree with everything in any denomination. Not even ours. I love the Methodist Church dearly and my roots here run deep, But I see healthy, loving churches in many faiths.

And mostly I go out of my way NOT to draw comparisons or complain. It helps that this is the Methodist way as well, to recognize that there are lots of valid ways to worship.

But…..

You saw that coming, didn’t you? There’s always a “but”. And I have one too. But there is one tendency of some churches that drives me crazy and I want to talk about it this morning.

 First, some scripture

Mark 1:40-41And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.”

Mark 2:15-17  – Later, he was having dinner at Levi’s house. Many tax collectors and sinners were also eating with Jesus and his disciples, because there were many who were following him. When the scribes and the Pharisees saw him eating with sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard that, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a physician, but sick ones do. I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.”

 Luke 3:12-14 –  Some tax collectors came to be baptized.

Luke 15:7 –  Now all the tax collectors and sinners kept coming to listen to Jesus. But the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

John 4: 16-18    16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

Luke 15:1-2:   Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

These are all familiar scriptures

These are such familiar scriptures that sometimes we don’t think much about them. But when we look back at these things, all together, we see a pattern that I believe is important.

Looking back, we remember that in Jesus day, Rabbis and other spiritual leaders were the highest members of Jewish society. Everyone looked up to them. These religious leaders were strict adherents to the Jewish law and tradition, and they avoided those who they deemed unclean sinners.

Why? Because they had a clean image to maintain. And because there was a belief that sinners and the unfortunate in society were in their bad place because of sin. Mixing with these “wrong” people, sinners of all sorts, could taint you. Just their presences could make you unclean and unworthy.

Tax collectors, infamous for embezzlement and their cooperation with the hated Romans definitely fell into the sinner category. And the word for sinners, by the way, was a code word for prostitute.

So their reasoning was that they could not risk being tainted

And that belief came to permeate the religious society at the time. It was about self-protection. But let’s be honest, it was about pride as well. They could feel superior to “those people”. They could say “Thank goodness I am not like…..”

But Jesus did not live that way.

Dinner with Sinners was his norm. All the people that religion shunned, he spent time with. And this was not a single event. Today’s scripture is just a taste of how often he mingled.

I have always felt Jesus must have been good company. People seemed eager to have him around, even the worst of society. He was a welcome guest in people’s homes. They came to him in the streets. Children came up to him. So he must have been approachable.

So why wouldn’t people want him at the dinner table? He was good company. He was a good man. He was a godly man. And he accepted them as people, telling truth at times, but never in a denigrating way.

Sitting at Matthew the tax collectors table, Jesus may have broken some polite company, traditional taboos, but his regular presence there shows that he looked beyond cultural and religious norms. He looked into their hearts.

Where Pharisees and other religious leaders wrote people off simply because of their profession or their past or their mistakes, Jesus looked to their humanity and saw their need. Jesus looked past all that and saw their need.

Jesus saw… individuals. Not labels. Or th with some churcheseir failures. Or their status. He never let his righteousness keep him from treating the worst, well.

I believe that acceptance inspired them to know him better, and in many cases, come to know God better. They may have recognized his holiness, but they responded to his compassion and sincere regard. Even in their brokenness, perhaps because of their brokenness, they felt God’s love because they experienced God’s love.

Even when religion did not see them as worthwhile children of God. Jesus did.

Which brings us to my pet peeve.

You see, we all know this bit about all people have value. But the truth is that many churches are not welcoming of certain people. Not just overt sinners but because of race, or sexual orientation, or where they came from, or because they are an unmarried couple, or are poor, or because they are in a rock bottom place.

These churches drive me crazy. You see, as I read the bible, what I see is that Jesus’s love of people, his willingness to meet people where they were is so incredibly evident.

It’s not some obscure reference. It’s not a single event. It permeates his ministry, from the beginning to the end, when he hangs on the cross and blessed the thief that hangs beside him.

To Jesus, people mattered. All people. Not just people who fit this mold or that. Even sinners. Maybe especially sinners (since we all fit that mold.)

There are churches, and there are a lot of them, who give lip service to this idea until they are faced with it.

  • Until the homeless guy wanders into a service.
  • Until someone’s child comes out as gay
  • Until some young girl is pregnant at 15
  • Until…..

Then it’s condemnation. It’s about shame, not love. It’s Shooting our wounded. It is locking out, not physically, but by attitude, the sinner. “We have to keep our church pure,” they say.  Only the right kinds of people can come here they proclaim, not by pious Sunday proclamations, but by how people are treated.

Don’t get me wrong. Sin is sin. It needs to be acknowledged and treated. But the worst sin of all is to abandon and lock out people, the very people who need him, from God.

Jesus knew this.

He lived it, day in and day out. He took a lot of flack for it.  But he never hesitated. He never backed away. He gladly, joyfully, spent time with anyone

I don’t want us to ever become one of those churches. I will be bitterly disappointed if we ever do.

I don’t believe we are. I have seen your acceptance of people of all stripes grow. I have seen your kindness grow. Even when perhaps we struggle with some of the people who have wandered in and out of here – Broken. Different. Not quite the traditional churchgoer. You have treated them kindly. You don’t just tolerate. You love them.

But we all need reminders. It’s easy to fall into judgment instead of love. It makes us feel superior. And that’s a good feeling. But we aren’t called to be superior, or better than, or a club, or some secret society

We are called to love.

We are called to love as Jesus loved. We are called to love and let that love point the way to God. .Even the wild and crazy. The degenerate. The wrong color. The sexual orientation we do not understand. Whatever we think is wrong about a person, we are not called to avoid them but to treat them as individuals that matter.

We are called to love. And to trust God, to trust him to turn that love into something good for the people we touch. To trust him to do the work of healing and soul development that needs to be done. To trust him to protect us from becoming that same sinner. TO know he is stronger than what people may say. And his love is stronger….. when we put it to work.

So let’s look around our lives this week.

Is there someone we are avoiding because of what people might think? Maybe it’s time to do lunch with them. Is there someone we are avoiding bringing to church because they are different? Invite them. Is there someone we think is broken, would not fit in? Love them, and let them know we here, in this church, will love them too.

That’s really it.

Jesus came to save sinners. He has saved each of us.

Jesus came to save sinners. And it was never done by avoiding people of a certain kind, or locking people out by custom or words, or by protecting himself by avoiding the “wrong sort.”

It was done in love and acceptance and kindness. Every time. EVERY time. And love still works, when we let it. Remember that.

Love still works when we let it.

Be well. Travel wisely.

Tom

Dark Before Light

tenebrae

Last night I went to a Maundy Thursday service at another local congregation, a church a block or so (If we had blocks here in rural Vermont.) down the road from my own little church in Rupert.

They were doing a Maundy Thursday service and this year we were not, so it was a chance for me to worship instead of leading a service. (although in the end, the other pastor drew me into leading part of the worship.)  This other church has about 20 regular members, and my church has about the same. Last night there were 11 of us worshiping.

It was a traditional Tenebrae service. Tenebrae is a Latin word meaning “shadow”, and the Tenebrae service is a service focusing on the darkening days as Jesus approached his death on the cross. It marks the last supper, with its dramatic conversation between Jesus and Judas, the heart-wrenching night watch in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion. As each section of scripture is read, candles and lights are extinguished, marking the dark days before and including the crucifixion.

Dark stuff. No wonder there were so few of us there.

But important stuff too. Part of the message of Easter, a message that carries through the entire bible (when you pay attention), is that God can take the worst things and turn them around into something amazing and wonderful – that no matter how we mere humans can mess things up, he can lead us back to a place of grace and joy.

And to recognize joy to its fullest, we have to have experienced pain and darkness.

My life is nothing special. The older I get, the more I realize that. I’ve had loss, failure and tragedy. I’ve been betrayed. I’ve been trampled on. I’ve done my share of screwing my own life up. I’ve spent some of my life in the darkness of uncontrolled depression. Just like a lot of people, there’s a lot of messiness.

But God has largely led me out of my mess, again and again. I am in a good place these days, surrounded by people who love me, a new bride, meaningful work, and a deep spiritual life.  I appreciate the joy of this time more today, I think, because of my age and experience, and because of having lived in dark places.

That’s Easter.  A day of light. A day that takes all the dark mankind could throw out there, and make of it something beyond imagining. Light after dark. Life after death. Understood and appreciated more because of the darkness. The Tenebrae.

And so we note it. We understand that even in the dark, God is at work. We don’t deny the dark. In fact, we defy it. And on Easter, we push it back and dance in the light. God lives. Death is defeated. There is no power, certainly not the dark, that can escape our Lord’s love and ability to turn tragedy to good.

Find time Sunday to worship Easter. Recall, Remember and Rejoice in our God’s love and his power of light. Celebrate the eternal life he promises and shows to us in the central event of our faith.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

Lent as Spiritual Rehab

rehab

Do you ever think of Lent as Spiritual Rehab? I think there is an argument for it.
Rehab, of course, is working on the parts of us that are weak, either from injury or wear and tear. We focus on that broken part to make it strong again.  Rehab comes in all kinds of flavors: Physical, Emotional, Psychological and of yes, spiritual.
This week in the lectionary, one of the scripture came from John 3:14-21, which includes that almost ubiquitous verse, John 3:16. We Christians love John 3:16. It sums up so much of the good news for us. It is a verse that reminds us of God’s love (“God so loved the world..”), and his sacrifice (“That he gave his only begotten son.”) and the reward (“that we might have eternal life.”). No wonder it is one of such a small group of verses that most of us know by heart!
But we forget sometimes the context of John 3:16. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, that Pharisee and member of the religious council who came to Jesus in the night because he knew that for all his learning and all his religion, something was missing. And Jesus reminded him what. He had lost the heart of the gospel, God’s love, in all the rigamarole and rules. And the only way for Nicodemus to get back to where he needed to be spiritually was to fill his heart with this message of God’s love for him. He needed….. spiritual rehab.
We often need the same spiritual rehab. Life beats up on our faith and our spirituality. A tumultuous world. A society that largely does not believe or act on their belief in God. A media that distracts us from time with God. We are a battered people. By the time Easter rolls around, it’s impossible for one day to lift our spirits. And so… we have lent, a 40 day season of remembering and introspection. A 40 day period of prayer, and opening ourselves to the miracle of the resurrection, and what it means for us. Anything we might give up is secondary. The real power in lent is spending more time remembering and drawing closer to the God that loves us.
Lent is not over. If you are not spending extra time each day talking with God, there’s time. He’s right next to you, waiting. ready to start rehab. 
Have a blessed week!
Tom

Preaching to Myself

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I preach to myself.

That’s because mostly I am never comfortable preaching at others. Even to others. I wasn’t when I started this journey and years later I still feel uncomfortable preaching. It’s probably kind of silly. I know that. But as a young person, preachers were like, next to God. I had them on pedestals as men (and later, women) closer to God than I’d ever hope to be. More righteous. More Godly. More plugged into God’s power. Wiser. Holy men.

I am old enough now, and I have a lot of preacher friends now, gained over a lifetime of church going, and so I know better. Preachers, most of us anyway, are just people. We have the same struggles as everyone. We fail. We blow the mission. We’re nowhere as good as other people think we are, and no where nearly as good as we think we ought to be.

We’re just people, trying to use our talents and spiritual gifts to serve the God who gave them to us, and the people who trust us in our congregations. Nothing more. We answer what we believe is a call and we struggle with being good enough. Because we we rarely feel good enough. Your preacher won’t tell you that. Because we are all trying hard to meet your expectations. We think somehow it is part of our job. But still, when I stand up in the pulpit, I often ask myself what the heck I am doing there.

So I preach to myself.

I am after all, old enough to have made most of the mistakes, sin most of the sins, struggle through most of the struggles that the average person has in a lifetime. I figure that if I am working through something, likely someone else in the congregation is as well. If it touches me, it will touch someone out there. And mostly that proves true. Hardly a Sunday goes by that someone in my two tiny churches doesn’t tell me that I was preaching to them that morning.

No, I wasn’t. I was preaching to myself, because I needed something. But that’s the thing isn’t it? We’re way more alike than we are different. Most of our struggles and journeys have more in common than not. That’s part of why the bible remains so relevant – things change. But human nature and needs don’t.

I’ve muddled through with this blog for some time. It began as an experiment, because people who visited my church asked me to publish my sermons. I’ve put those sermons out a lot of ways – written them (hard actually, because I preach from notes, not a written sermon), I did audio recordings. I did video recordings. All of it was OK I guess. There’s about 60 of you who follow this blog now – more people than actually come to my two tiny churches. But none of it came natural to me. No more natural than doing sermons. I don’t think I will ever be comfortable telling people what to do from a pulpit, even an internet based one.

One of the things I talk about a lot in my ministry are spiritual gifts. These are gifts that God gives us to do his work. We all get a few of them. If we want to know what God’s will is for our lives, all we have to do is pay attention to the gifts he gives us. Most of us don’t though. We do what we think we want to do, ignoring what God made us to do. And wonder why it doesn’t work out so well.

Duh, right?

We, I have been doing that here. I was made a writer. Not a great preacher, reader, TV/YOU Tube star. I write. It’s my gift and my craft. I am a teacher. It’s my gift and my craft. Dumb me needs to use those gifts, be what God made me to be, and stop wasting my energy trying to be something I’m not. So I have been preaching to myself over this for the last few weeks. And I’l give this blog another go. As myself.

It may not be the sermons that my visitors want. It likely won’t be sermons at all, though perhaps a tidbit from my sermons might stumble in the mix. But it will be honest. It will be me. And because I’ve made most of the mistakes, it might even touch you.

I preach to myself.

Tom

Doubt

faith-and-doubt

Matthew 28:16-20 New International Version (NIV)

The Great Commission

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Last week it was Trinty Sunday and all around the world, preachers are trying to explain the trinity, the idea that there are three distinct things, the father (God), the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit, and despite their separateness, they are somehow one.

I’ve tried explaining it myself a few times on Trinity Sunday, but the truth is, that this is one of the mysteries of the faith, part of the Otherness of God, something so unlike what we can experience or imagine that we may never fully “get it”

It becomes an act of faith, bolstered by a few verses like today’s scripture where Jesus tells us to make people disciples in the name of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.

Our scripture is a familiar one. These are last words of Christ on this earth. He has been crucified and resurrected. He has spent forty days since his resurrection coming and going out of the Disciples lives, eating with them, teaching and now he is about to ascend into heaven until the day that he comes again.

Up to this point, most of his contact after the resurrection has been in and around Jerusalem, but now, for this last moment together, they are in Galilee on an un-named mountain.

This happens often in the Book of Matthew. Jesus goes to unnamed mountains to pray or connect with God and to have time away from the crowds to be with his inner circle of friends and disciples. And on this day, he goes to the mountain as he prepares to go to heaven.

And he gives them what has become known as The Great Commission:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Today’s scripture comes from the Lectionary, a three year cycle of scripture readings that take us through the important scriptures of the entire bible. Every week, people of every denomination read the same scriptures. Preachers worldwide are today preach from the lectionary scripture, just as I did Sunday. And generally, when they encounter this scripture they are focus either on The Great Commission or the idea of the trinity

 These two things are the clear focal points of the scripture – The final command to spread God’s story and bring people into the family of Christ’s love, and the idea of the three, father, son and holy spirit are distinct and separate.

Both speak to important doctrines of the church.  Both are central commands an drivers of the church and its mission. Both are preached and taught and beaten into us until we are numb. All of which makes it hard for us preacher types who have to do a sermon on something you’ve heard before? How to make it new? How to cut through the familiarness to make an impact?

Fortunately I was spared that task, because, as I was reading and studying,  suddenly something jumped out at me that had gotten lost in past readings and studying of this verse. And that something was in verses 16-17:  “16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

So the 11 remaining disciples go up on this mountain. The disciples, without Judas, and without Mathias, who was chosen to replace Judas. Just the 11 origional disciples. His dearest friends.

And they worshiped him, but some DOUBTED.

Does that surprise you as much as it surprised me? Think about all these men had been through with Jesus, his Baptism, his ministry, the healings, the miracles, The casting out of demons, the raising of Lazarus, and his own resurrection. They had seen him walk through walls after his resurrection, and walk on water before it.

They have seen all this, time and time again, for more than three years, and yet, they doubted? How in the world could this be?

Well, the bible doesn’t tell us how it can be. And it doesn’t say what they doubted. Was it Jesus? His messiah hood? Their own sanity in what they were seeing? Or was it their future? How were they going to do this, keep the great commission. What was the next act? How were they going to complete this Herculean task?  They were after all, simple people. Limited in influence. Limited in education. Not the obvious choices to change the world.

We don’t know what they doubted. Only that they did.

 And we know this: They were never chastised for their doubt. Never put down. Never told they were “bad” believers because of it.

 Think about that a minute.  This is a holy moment. And yet, they were, after all they had seen, doubting. But not chastised for that doubt. It is simply recognized.

A lot of times we think we have to be always positive, always up, always declairing how perfect God is and how we feel about him.

Go to a Christian convention, or even to many churches, or a bible study – any place where a lot of Christian’s are gathered together. Go to such a place and all you hear is how great everything is. How everyone’s faith is great. How everyone’s life is great. How perfect everyone’s Christian life is.

When we go to Bible Study or Sunday School, we are asked a question and we have what I call “The Sunday School answer” right at hand. We know the answer should be.  It’s easy to think that everyone around us in a holy setting has a crazy deep faith, with no doubt whatsoever.

But I am here to tell you, almost everyone with a real faith, has times of doubt. It comes in times of  sickness or death or loss. It comes in the face of evil, in the face of things that don’t make sense. We doubt. It is a human thing and all of us do it.

Think about this – If Christ could live with his disciples having doubt after all they had seen and all they had experienced, then maybe it’s time we admit that faith is hard, that doubt is natural.

And if it is an honest doubt, a searching doubt, it’s not all bad. It is simply human nature. When we don’t know, we begin to doubt.  And, maybe, just maybe, we should follow Christ’s approach and not condemn doubt or doubters. Make it OK to doubt and to express that doubt, and make church a safe place to say “I have a hard time with….”

Now, I have to tell you, If I were Jesus at that moment, I likely would  have thrown up my arms in frustration. I would have been angry. I would have screamed at them, “What in the holy heck do I have to do to make you confident?!!!!!”

But he doesn’t.

I can’t tell you exactly how to banish doubt.  We all have our own needs to help us move past it. But these verses give us one suggestion.  Let’s go to Verse 17 again:  “17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

They worshiped him. Even in their doubt, they worshiped. They continued to worship. They lived with a lens of belief, and in that lens, in that approach, their doubt became a searching, not a rejection. They were looking for reasons to believe instead of reasons to disbelieve.

Too often, when we doubt our faith, we leave.  We walk away. We begin to act as if whatever we doubt is false. We look for reasons for it to be false. And for other things to be true, instead of considering that maybe, just maybe, it is our knowledge and understanding that is lacking, not our God.

But when we doubt and stay; if we doubt, but stick with it. If we stay, and seek for reasons TO believe, worship and study, admitting that maybe we are lacking in understanding, we are likely to find the answers.

Why? Because they are there.

Think of it as an Easter egg hunt.

We are told that the field to our left is full of Easter eggs. So we take our basket and go looking. But when we go to the field on the left, the grass is high and we don’t immediately see Easter eggs, so you begin to doubt there are any.

That doubt leaves you have two choices. You can continue to search in the field to the left, where you will eventually find the eggs (because they are there). Or you can go to the other field, the one to the right, and search and guess what – you will never find any Easter eggs. Because they are not there. They are all right where you were told they are.

God is not afraid of our doubt.  And we in the church should not be either. He knows the answers are here (in the bible). And if we stay in the faith, stay searching, we will find them.

He knows that the things we learn through our searching through doubt are lessons that are strong and enduring. They stick with us.

Are you doubting something about your faith right now? Join the club. You can’t be in any better company of doubters than the disciples. Keep searching. Don’t run away from the answers. Read your bible. Find mentors and teachers. Ask. Be open about your doubts. Give God a chance.

That is the way to push past doubt to understanding and even stronger belief.

Be well, my friends. Travel wisely.

Tom