Saturday, June 27, 2015

Waving Hello and Goodbye

Waving Hello and Goodbye                           6/28/15
4th sermon in Praise the Lord with Symbols series
Hebrews 11:8-10, Revelation 5:9-10

This summer, we have been joining with various symbols to give praise to the Lord.  Symbols are visible signs of something invisible.  Bread and Wine are a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and also of his presence at the table.  The sanctuary is a symbol of the house of God.  Letters, like IHS, are symbolic of the name of Jesus, and the power of that name.  Today, we look to the flags which wave in our sanctuary.

Like a warm greeting we receive from someone as we walk along the street, flags greet with their symbol and send us away with their message.  They are a symbol of something greater, something invisible.   For nations, they embody the most enduring and endearing values, as well as the power of a nation’s story.

In many sanctuaries throughout our land, there are two flags, a flag of the United States of America, and a Christian Flag.  This might come as a surprise to you, but flags in the sanctuary have evoked a wide variety of responses among believers and literally decades of debate.   In a sentence, this is because there is a complex relationship between faith and state.  But, being a pastor, we can’t simply leave this at one sentence.  What are some of the dynamics as to why flags would evoke such strong passion and emotion?
   --The strange bedfellows of church and state, co-existing in the first amendment to the constitution
   --the history and foundation of our countries forefathers: were they Christian? Judeo-Christian? 
      Moral?  Religious?

   --the sins committed throughout history, both American and world sins, whenever government and
     religion confused their roles and partnered in various endeavors

   --the temporal and eternal nature of government (God rules forever, every other kingdom does not)

   --war and peace

   --right and wrong done by nations

   --Generational differences, which I will speak to in a moment

   --the feelings we have regarding how consistent the nation’s values and government’s actions are.

   --the historical idea of Manifest Destiny, which I also will speak to in a moment

   --the power of the word Allegiance

   --the many examples where Christian and American values overlap

   --our citizenship on earth and in heaven  (news flash:  we won’t be separated by national
      boundaries in heaven)

   --For Titusville, there is also the dynamic of how close we are to one of the most famous events of
    the Revolution, and how that event solidified the efforts of a young nation

   --For Americans, these last 10 days of intensified the debate over the Confederate Flag

 In short, flags evoke strong emotions because it speaks to who we are, and who God is.  If we dig deep enough, the question always becomes:  Who is in charge?  And for the Christian, the answer is simple, even if our practice isn’t so simple: God is in charge.  He is owed our ultimate allegiance.

At the end of the day, I would contend that our faith identity should be more important than our national identity.  Being Christian is more important than being American.

Now, before you reach for your cell phone to dial Joseph McCarthy, this doesn’t mean it isn’t a blessing to be an American, a gift from God, and something that personally, I treasure.  I prove this each November by voting, and 4 times a year, sending in my taxes.  I prove this singing God bless America whenever I watch a ball game, and by praying for our leaders, as Scripture commands us to.  I proved this when teaching history to the best of my ability, not resorting to revisionist history, and teaching students that rights should always be married to responsibilities.

This God and country dynamic is where Manifest Destiny is so interesting.  When we see prosperity and growth, is the author of that God?  In 1845, the United States was growing.  You could look out and see the evidence:  Numerical growth, fueled by immigration, economic growth and the growth of vision for what the nation could become.  John O’Sullivan, a newspaper editor, coined a term:  Manifest Destiny.  The term implied a mission for the citizens, that Providence had blessed them, and it was their duty to be responsible with that blessing, even to the point of securing land from sea to shining sea.  It was this spirit that justified the War with Mexico from 1845-1848.  And, if you are someone who looks for results, the results of growing American prosperity were hard to argue with.  America was on its way to becoming a world power.  Surely, God must have wanted that, proponents suggested.

 Although the term was debated and discussed from its inception, and struggled to be totally embraced by the population, the spirit of manifest destiny was alive.  In many ways, it stills lives today.  We too struggle with the relationship of success and providence.

In 1897, a Sunday School teacher didn’t show up for his job at Coney Island, and the substitute brought forth his idea that there should be a flag for the Christian Faith.  Within the next decade, this idea grew in popularity. In fact, by 1942, the flag was endorsed by the World Council of Churches.  The Christian Flag also was red, white and blue.  White stood for purity, and some even suggested that just as a white flag was waived to surrender, that Jesus surrendered his life on the cross.  Blue stood for faithfulness, and for some, the waters of baptism.  The red cross stood for the sacrifice of Jesus.  And just like the American flag, the Christian flag had a pledge associated with it.  Penned by Methodist minister Lynn Hough:

I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Saviour for whose kingdom it stands; one brotherhood, uniting all mankind in service and in love

But getting back to the American flag, an important dynamic in how people perceive the flag is found in generational differences.  As with all generational differences, we need to step back and put ourselves in the other’s shoes.  For there is usually a story and always a cultural context that serves as the basis for why ideas and feelings emerge:

If you are 90 years old, you were born in 1925, and were a young adult during WWII.  You might have even served in that war, or in war efforts.  Your background is that before you was the greatest threat western civilization had seen:  Fascism and Nazism.  Fighting for victory and the need to win created the greatest generation.

If you are 80 years old, you were a child during WWII.  And you probably have memories of what life was like during the war.  This includes the personal sacrifices that you and your neighbors had to make, in order to move the cause forward.

If you are 70 years old, you were born at the end of WWII, though you grew up during the beginnings of the Cold War, and the threat of Communism.

If you are 60 years old, you were born in 1955, when secret missions were being conducted in Vietnam, even if our official entrance into the war did not yet begin.  You were a teenager when America officially enters the War in Vietnam.  Society had to deal with the difficulty of how this war felt different than WWII.  Large pockets of people had questions.  Protests rocked towns and arguments took place at the dinner table.

If you are 50 years old, you were almost in double digits when the war in Vietnam ended. 

If you are 40 years old, you were born when Vietnam ended.  The first war that America participated in that you remember was the first war with Iraq.

If you are 30 years old, you were a teenager during September 11th.

If you are 20 years old, you were in 1st grade when September 11th occurred.
More of your life has occurred while at war with Afghanistan than not.

We’ve heard the stories of the sacrifices that were made during WWII by individuals and families.  But the world had changed. During the war with Afghanistan, many people worried more about the recession and their cell phone packages than the war.  There was a disconnect that our 80 year olds might have been shocked by. 

In many ways, the story of America is so fascinating.  Our story is perhaps the greatest success story of constitutional representative government in the history of the world.  America is a story of freedom, and prosperity, and goodness to neighbors throughout the world, rising up in the darkest of times to be a beacon of light.  Yet America is also a story for some throughout the generations of slavery, of survival, and the complexity of our relationship with other nations.  In this sense, America is a paradox.  And the American Flag engages the emotions of all its citizens, and ultimately, all people throughout the earth.  We’ll conclude our sermon in a few minutes with what to do with these flags that make home in this sanctuary.

But first, we should look at our morning Scriptures to remind us of the truth that God loves humanity.  God is in the business of blessing nations while building a trans-national being:  the kingdom of God.  The church has been called to be the primary speaker for announcing this kingdom.  The Bible is a story of two covenants:  one with a nation, Israel.  The New Covenant is with believers.  

With today’s theme of flags, and their symbolic praise to the Lord, there are no mentions of flags in the Scripture, though we come close with the idea of banners.  In Exodus, Moses calls God, The LORD is My Banner, after God helps Israel overcome battle with the Amalekites.  In the Song of Solomon, the woman speaks of her husband:  His banner over me is love.  Yes, the song we’ve taught our children is inspired by a romance story of biblical proportions.  And so we look to the message of the banners, that God protects his people, and that God is in love with his creation.

In Hebrews, we see the example of Abraham, whose faith justified him before God.  He understood the complexity of how this world is our home while we await our true, everlasting home.  For us, America is our home, while we wait for the eternal home of heaven. Abraham journeyed to a land that God had promised him.  He had faith in uncertain times.  Yet, he was never fully comfortable in this world, and considered himself a stranger even while entering the promise God had given him.  He chose a tent-dwelling life while future city life filled his mind.  He was an heir of a promise, and waited upon that promise by faith.  Even throughout all of Abraham’s prosperity, he looked to the city whose architectural plans were established by Almighty God.  God is architect and builder.

In Revelation, the heavenly scene is filled with living creatures, the Elders and the angels.  A new song gives praise to Jesus Christ, that lamb of God who was worthy to take God’s scroll and open it.  He had been slain and his blood redeemed us for his heavenly Father.  Who are the recipients of this gift of redemption, according to the song:  People from every tribe and language and people and nation.

It is this offer to all people that ultimately makes the redeemed into a kingdom, and into priests who serve the Lord and who reign on the earth.  We have a good future because we belong to Christ, and will join with brothers and sisters from throughout the world in our praise to the Lord.

My word of caution is this:  we should have a deeper love for our brothers and sisters throughout the world who claim faith in Jesus Christ than we should fellow citizens of a nation.  Is this true for you?  Do you have more comfort with a godless neighbor than you do a family member of a different tongue or skin color who you will sing alongside for eternity?

So what do we do with these flags?  Both of them lift up great values, and remind us of shortcomings.   These flags join in praise to the Lord.  Just like the bread and juice praise the Lord, and this sanctuary space praises the Lord, and the letters on our paramounts praise the Lord, these flags do as well.  The United States flag is referenced as a living entity, if it is, it must speak some praise to the Lord.

Like that wave you receive from a neighbor as you walk down the street, these flags wave to us a welcome:  they speak of values and goodness and ideals.  When we look at the flag, we should think of greetings and prayers we can send forth:

·         We pray for our nation, its leaders and citizens

·         We ask for humility as a nation, for wisdom and grace, for forgiveness and mercy.

·         We thank God for how we have experienced freedom that millions throughout the world crave and many throughout history craved.

·         We give thanks to God for all the blessings we know and the abundance we experience

·         We pray for the generations to come, and for a good way of life.


When we look at the Christian Flag, it also welcomes us:

  • To pray for our brothers and sisters throughout the world
  • To thank God for our good future in his kingdom
  • To bless the Lord for his plan, his surprises that await us, and his wonder that will fill all the redeemed.
  • To pray for peace, justice, food, clean water, and blessing for humanity.
  • To give our utmost allegiance to God
The Flags greet us, and they also wave goodbye to us:  As we go into the world, Christians living in America should remember to be good, model citizens, to be leaders in our realms and to be our best for our neighbors.  We should participate in the ways of constitutional representative government, but to do so differently, not feeling that our ultimate hope comes from any temporal government, but from the Lord of All, the King of the nations, The Redeemer of peoples from all tribes and languages, and peoples and nations.  We give our praise first to God.  Everything else, including our way of life in America, should be shaped by praise to God.  As Jesus Christ the Lord, our Savior, teaches us, “Seek first the kingdom of God”.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Alphabet Soup

Alphabet Soup                                                6/21/15

3rd sermon in the series Praise the Lord with Symbols

Acts 3-4:22, Philippians 2:6-11

There is power in the name.   We see this all of the time.  When I was dating my wife, we were over mother in law’s house when she placed on the table a bottle of catsup.  In her mind, this was simply a cheaper alternative to a condiment that she did not feel vital to family palate.  I, on the other hand, thought the whole event almost treasonous :).  The only ketchup is Heinz.  Sure, there might be other names on bottles, but those aren’t really ketchup.  Heinz is the only ketchup.  There is power in a name, and we see this from ketchup bottles to cars to any variety of products we use and give allegiance to.

Human beings like names.  It goes way back in our story.  God gave Adam the job of naming the animals. 

The LORD God brought the animals to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

This surely involved time and effort for observation and comparison.  An appropriate name aligned with characteristics.   In Scripture, the names of children were sometimes given because of early behaviors.  Sometimes in Scripture, people were given new names to match the call of God upon their lives. 

Today, not everyone always gives such care to naming a child.  I will often talk with people about what their name means.  Often, people do not know.

Do you know what your name means?  Do you know why you were given that name?

Today, we celebrate the name of Jesus Christ.  Jesus means “salvation”.  Christ is a title, not the last name of the Lord.  Christ is the Greek word for Messiah.  The name of Jesus makes interesting appearances in this place.  His name is read each week from Scripture, and liturgy.  We pray in Jesus name.  Our hymns often praise Jesus.  But there is also some less known ways the name of Jesus appears in the sanctuary.

This summer, we are praising the Lord with symbols.  A symbol is a visible sign of something invisible.  We talked of bread and wine, symbols of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and his presence at the table.  We have talked of the sanctuary, which points us to the House of God.  Today, we talk about the letters that appear on some of the furnishings of the sanctuary.  These letters that form words are Christograms, abbreviations for the name of Jesus.  There are four popular Christograms.

  1. A&Z, or in the more familiar Greek:  Alpha and Omega.  This is one of the names of Jesus Christ that describes his eternal nature.  He is the first and the last.
  2. INRI, which is Latin abbreviation of the phrase Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.  This phrase is used mockingly by Pontius Pilate and his soldiers, as they ascribe the name on wood to the top of the cross.  But it is also used by the Magi, as they search for Jesus. 
  3. IHS is the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek.  A generation or two ago, it became popular to identify this phrase as In His Service, but that is not what the letters mean (though it isn’t wrong in spirit). 
  4. XP, or Chi Rho, which is the first 3 letters in Greek of Christ.  The Chi is an X and the Rho similar to an English P were transposed upon one another to make an early version of a Cross.  In fact, this symbol was carved into the early tombs to show believers where Christians were buried, or where a Christian home was for those needing hospitality.   As a quick side, Chi (X) is why I never was one to get to upset about the term “X-mas”.  Ironically, this shortening keeps Christ in the holiday, at least via Greek letters.
And so on a paramount, or a communion table, these letters, A&Z, INRI, HIS and XP all speak to the name of Jesus.  They call upon important languages in the history of the church:  Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus, almost like the role English plays in today’s world.  Latin, the Roman language, which survives via the Catholic church.

These letters remind us of important words, and the power of THE preeminent name in history:  Jesus.  There is power in his name.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul speaks to the powerful name of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the name above every name.  The name of Jesus is used by God in human flesh.  To his name we bow; heaven bows, earth bows, under the earth bows.  And if we don’t bow now, we will someday.  We bow and we declare the name of Jesus Christ as Lord.  God the Father is glorified by this.

In the Acts reading, it is fascinating how many times the word “name” appears.  Our story starts out with Peter and John going to the temple for the time of prayer.  This is the background to the healing.  This is a wonderful and simple phrase, easily glanced over.  They were walking to prayer time when they were used to bring healing.  This sentence is the perfect blend of the mundane and the spiritual.  This routine of walking to the temple allowed them to see a need which the name of Jesus could heal.

And so when this man who was crippled called out, hoping for a donation, the two disciples stopped their walking to deal as authentically with this man as they knew how:  (3:6) In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.

And the man walked. He became strong, instantly. Jumping to his feet, he walked some more and jumped some more, and he praised God.  And all this walking and jumping and praising caused a little stir.  People stopped to look:  Wasn’t that?  No, it couldn’t be.  It is.  And so the people join in the praise and wonder and amazement regarding this strong name of Jesus Christ.  Approximately two thousand people are converted that day (compare 3:41, 3:47 and 4:4).

Why does this surprise you?  That is Peter and John’s question to those who saw the miracle.  It is also a good question for you and I.  Why does this surprise you?  The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had glorified Jesus.  God had raised him from the dead.  By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see” (3:16).

The religious establishment understands the complexity of this power.  (4:7) “By what power or what name did you do this?”

The unschooled, ordinary disciples answer by the power of the Holy Spirit. (4:10) It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed”

(4:12) Jesus is the name of salvation.  It means salvation.  He is salvation.  He is the only salvation.  There is no other name given to human beings by which we can be saved.  This is one powerful name.

Those with some power, or power limited by time, command the two not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (4:17-18).  But really, when you have seen the power of Jesus Christ, how small and temporal do these empty threats seem.  The disciples reply that they can discuss amongst themselves who should be obeyed:  them or God.  Peter and John had seen and heard the powerful name of Jesus Christ.  Nothing else compared.

Why does this matter?  These letters in Greek and Latin, these stories of disciples calling upon their Lord’s name, with the miraculous happening as a result:  what does it mean for us?  What does the name of Jesus matter in 2015?

  1. The name of Jesus is the primary reason for the existence of the church.  You have gathered in a sanctuary today.  You have done so because you find support in community, because you want to pray, or sing, or talk or listen.  You come because you felt you should, or you needed to, or you wanted to.  We can do good things together.  We can reach out with a message and help people.  This is all good.  But all of this is secondary to the most important thing:  we gather to praise the name of Jesus Christ.  Jesus taught his disciples, “Again I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:19-20).
  2. We bear Christ’s name.  We might use some other names to describe ourselves:  disciples, believers, faithful, Presbyterian, spiritual, religious.  But first and foremost, we are Christians.  We take Christ’s name, because we belong to him.  We are to live to tell about his name.  The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26).
  3. Jesus name is the source of our faith.  It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to the beggar”.   Our faith isn’t in happiness, or entertainment, or experiences, or history.  Our faith is in the name of Jesus Christ.
  4. The name of Jesus will endure forever.  This is the testimony:  God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  The one who has the Son has life, the one who does not have the Son of God does not have life.  I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (I John 5:11-13)
The name of Jesus is the source of power for our life before God.  I want to offer some caution though, as we conclude this sermon:  The name of Jesus is not a magic trick.  We should handle it with respect and not casually.  Certainly, we should not take the Lord’s name in vain.  But also, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves that we say his name three times and tap our toes, that everything bad will go away or we’ll get everything we want.  When we ask in the name of Jesus for something, we should believe in his name, and be seeking his name and glory through our request.  In the Book of Acts, there is a story of caution for those who feel the name of the Lord can be mocked, misused or manipulated:

God gave Paul the power to perform unusual miracles. 12 When handkerchiefs or aprons that had merely touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases, and evil spirits were expelled.

13 A group of Jews was traveling from town to town casting out evil spirits. They tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus in their incantation, saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out!” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a leading priest, were doing this. 15 But one time when they tried it, the evil spirit replied, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” 16 Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them, and attacked them with such violence that they fled from the house, naked and battered.

17 The story of what happened spread quickly all through Ephesus, to Jews and Greeks alike. A solemn fear descended on the city, and the name of the Lord Jesus was greatly honored. 18 Many who became believers confessed their sinful practices. 19 A number of them who had been practicing sorcery brought their incantation books and burned them at a public bonfire. The value of the books was several million dollars. 20 So the message about the Lord spread widely and had a powerful effect.   Acts 19:11-20

As Jesus taught his disciples, “hallowed by Thy name”.   I hope you find the meaning and story of your name, both the name given to you by your parents, but also the name given to you by the Lord.  The name of Jesus Christ, is strong, and good, and will endure forever.  May we love this name, and cherish it, and defend it, because we will all answer to it:  For those who love the name of Jesus, bowing before him to declare him Lord is truly good news, and a good future, sure and certain.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Praise the Lord with Symbols: The Sanctuary

Offering Spiritual Sacrifices                           6/14/15

2nd sermon in Praise the Lord with Symbols series

Exodus 40, I Peter 2:4-12


My first call was to the East Bethany, New York Presbyterian Church.  East Bethany is rural land, half way between Rochester and Buffalo, NY.  There was a post office, and a general store, and a few hundred people, but more cows that lived in East Bethany than people.


One day, as part of my presbytery responsibilities, I had to drive down to the church in Ossian.  Ossian was in the hills about 40 miles south of East Bethany.  I found the church, a building on top of a hill, also in rural land.  I went in the building and was introduced to the people at the table.  When going around the table introducing ourselves, one elderly woman proudly told me:  Welcome to Ossian, this is God’s country.


I didn’t disagree with her, but I often wondered where she thought I had come from:  East Bethany was no city, unless, having a post office and a general store made one a city slicker.  And maybe to this women, I was just that J.


There are times when the landscape is so beautiful that I join my kindred spirit from Ossian:  Yes, this is God’s country.  Jacob called it Beth-El; the House of God.


This summer, we will be looking at different symbols from Scripture.  Last week we talked of bread and wine, the symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his presence at his table.  Today, we are talking about the sanctuary.  When we think of a sanctuary, we think of the place where God dwells.  We think of God’s house.


Webster’s defines the word symbol in this way:

--A token of identity verified by comparing its other half

--A symbol is a visible sign of something invisible


Sanctuary is defined as

--a place of refuge or safety

--a sacred or holy place

--a consecrated place


For believers, sanctuaries become space devoted to worship and praise.  It is a place we can go to meet the Lord.  We know that God doesn’t need these spaces:  the whole heavens cannot contain him, let alone the small dimensions of any worship space.  We also know that the Lord is omnipresent, everywhere:  God is with us in the different places we go to work and play and relate and relax.  God is always with us: not just when we go to a building to worship.


 The invisible reality is that God is holy, set apart, special and different than anything else that we know.  The sanctuary becomes a place we can see, and sit and stand, and cry and laugh, rejoice and pray.  It is a place where we meet the Lord.  The sanctuary is consecrated space that helps you and your neighbor, and all that the Lord God will call, to worship, serve and adore.


In the story of Scripture; there are 5 main ways that we see consecrated, holy space:

  • In many of the patriarchal stories of Genesis, we see people setting up stones as a commemoration of where people had met God.  Jacob sets up one such pillar and names it Bethel, the house of God.
  • Israel, after it leaves Egypt, is given a tabernacle, the tent of Meeting, which also becomes the model for the temple.  There was the temple built by Solomon, rebuilt during the return from exile, and rebuilt once again by Herod, Roman ruler.
  • The synagogue, which emerges after the destruction of the temple, and the early Christian Churches, are very similar in their understanding of the use of space.
  • Congregation’s, not the physical structure, but the people who make them up, are like sanctuaries to those they help.  The congregation becomes a people of welcome to those who hurt, and need rest from the storms of life.
  • Finally, each individual believer is like a sanctuary.  The Holy Spirit dwells in each person when they acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Our lives become consecrated to the Lord, and the Lord lives alongside of us throughout our days.


The Exodus story tells of the first set up of the Tabernacle.  Israel had been led out of the slavery from Egypt.  They had crossed the sea, they had started their journey.  Moses receives the Law from God, and God confirms his covenant with his people.  All of these events take place in Exodus 1-24.  Exodus 25-40 is the description of how to build and construct the pieces of the Tabernacle. 


The Tabernacle will become the visible sign of the invisible LORD.  The Lord took great care in explaining how this space was to be constructed.  Each detail seems to tell a story.  And when the pieces are constructed, and the walls are ready to go up, everything had its place and importance.  Moses put the space together as the LORD commanded him.  Did you hear the richness of these symbols in our morning reading?


Within the courtyard of the tabernacle, but not yet in the inner tent of meeting, there was a place for preparing the offerings, and there was space for a basin.  Upon entering, offerings were made to the Lord, and worshippers would wash themselves.  They were to be clean as they worshipped.  There was a table with bread, God wanted to share meal with his people.  God is a God of fellowship, not isolation.  There was a lamp stand with lamps:  God is light, he isn’t darkness.  An altar of incense went up continually before the Ark, just as our prayers go up continually before God.  And the Ark, stationed within the curtain of the tent, held the law (it would later hold some of the manna that God provided the people).  The Ark could not touched directly, but rather poles were used to carry it.  And an atonement cover was put over the ark itself  (Jesus provides our atonement from our transgression against the law).   The space told a story; of the God who had made covenant with his people, who was in relationship with his people, who had a plan for salvation for his people. 


The Christian faith is about approaching God, breaking bread and celebrating his light, and offering ourselves to live purely.  The Christian faith is about offering up all our prayers to the Lord, and acknowledging the law, but also falling upon the grace of Christ’s work of salvation.  The Tabernacle is a symbol of the life that God wants his people to live.


And when Moses did everything that the LORD commanded, the glory of God stayed in that place.  It filled the space completely.  The cloud by day, and the fire within the cloud by night stay over the tabernacle--both are noticeable because of how they contrast with their surroundings.  And as long as God’s power and Spirit stay in that place, the people stay.  When God’s power and Spirit go to another place, the people follow.  The cloud and fire were accessible to everyone:  “in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels”.  What a wonderful symbol of our life of faith. 


In Christ, the tabernacle found its fulfillment.  Jesus was the consecrated and holy presence of his heavenly Father.  And after his resurrection, the plan expands.  No longer will the tabernacle (temple) be the primary expression of worship.  God’s people will become the temple, the tabernacle, the sanctuary, the holy and consecrated.  Built upon the solid foundation of Jesus Christ, we become the living stones that fit together and are built upon Christ, and He is the cornerstone.  We are not our own buildings.  We work alongside each other to fit together as a expression of praise.  We offer the spiritual sacrifices that God accepts because he accepted Jesus Christ.  We belong to God and give our praise.  We are chosen by grace and are a holy nation living within historical and national boundaries.  Because of God’s all consuming call upon our lives, we even become aliens and strangers within this world, because our eternal home is with the Lord.


Through the Lord’s kindness, and by the roots of Christian faith that have grown throughout world history and American history, we have spaces that exist as sanctuaries.  They are visible:  for worship isn’t simply a private, personal experience, but a public expression of God’s praise and glory.  Stockton has three buildings, each with their own stories.  Our story will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017.  Praise to God!


150 years is some significant staying power.  And that is what a sanctuary does while it exists:  it stays in one place, even as the world around it changes.  People drive by and think about their lives as they glance at the building.  People come in occasionally for celebrations and funerals.  People come Sunday after Sunday for that most important time of public worship.  People come in alone during quiet times to pray and cry out to God.  This staying power gives its own praise to the Lord, and its story joins together with our witness as a congregation, and our individual stories of God’s praise.


My reflections on the space might not be much different than yours.  It is the place where I pray.  Our daughters have been baptized here, and our son will soon be.  There hasn’t been a significant challenge, obstacle, anxiety or triumph during the last 7 years that did not receive at least some consideration while in this space.  I have had conversations with people dear to me.  We’ve had a variety of experiences, some are memorable, and many are ordinary.  The main character in all of these memories and experiences is the Lord God Almighty!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Come Gather at Our Table

Come Gather at Our Table                                                      6/7/15
First sermon in Praise the Lord with Symbols series
Genesis 18:1-15, Luke 24:28-35

There is a wooden sign that we have above our dining room table that says “Come Gather at Our Table”.  The saying perfectly embodies the beauty and design of what a table and meal should be.  A meal gathers people together.  It gathers loved ones together.  The meal is an invitation to eat of goodness and life and beauty.  The table is a place where stories are told, memories are fostered and God’s grace and goodness become desired and appreciated.  The table is a place where thanksgiving ascends, counsel is offered, correction is administered and God is celebrated.  Meals accompany all the seasons of life, and all the emotions we find ourselves feeling.  Most of us have never really been hungry, or hungry for sustained periods of time.  Our tables have been full of blessing.  All praise to God for his goodness.

This summer, the 3 Shared Staff partner churches will be reviewing symbols in the Bible.  We will praise the Lord with symbols, a pun on the psalmist’s command to praise the Lord with loud cymbals, alongside other instruments.  We all are to give praise to the Lord.  We join all creation in giving praise.   We also join with all the visible signs that speak to something greater than themselves.   In this sense, bread and wine, the sanctuary, the flags, the colors of the church season give praise to God, and we come alongside of them with our praise.

Webster’s defines the word symbol in this way:
A token of identity verified by comparing its other half
The word’s origin is To throw together, compare
A symbol is a visible sign of something invisible

Today, we look at our first symbol:  Bread and wine.  They are visible signs that speak of something invisible:  the presence of Jesus Christ, as well as the promise of the Lord’s presence.

Bread is sustenance.  Bread is one of the few things in this world that is absolutely essential for survival.  Yet Scripture proclaims:  Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  Bread is essential, but not as essential as the word of God.

Wine, or for many modern protestants, juice, is the fruit of the vine.  The vine produces grapes because it is connected with the branch.  We live because of the Christ.

The bread and the wine bear witness to the body and blood of Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God and God’s sacrifice for the sins of the world.  Jesus gave his body and blood, and used his last meal on earth to remind his disciples that they should always remember him.

We have two amazing stories today that revolve around eating, and what comes when people eat together.  We have Abraham, Sarah and the three visitors, with the language of the story playing between “they” and “the LORD”.    The second story is of two disciples eating with Jesus after his resurrection.  The disciples didn’t quite understand the depth of the moment, but after coming to their senses, bear witness to Jesus Christ, the bread of life.

But first, let us go back to the great trees of Mamre.  Oaks that were mighty in height, wide and strong branches, providing shade and shelter.  In this case, Mamre is a person, so we could say “Mamre’s trees”.  He is in alliance with Abraham.  But the trees outlive Mamre, and the person becomes a place over time.  Imagine putting home base under the great oaks (just a quick side note, there are 320 references to trees and forests in the Bible—that fact challenges our perception that the Bible only takes place in a desert).

You are the leader of your tribe, which includes a large amount of servants, for your life has been blessed, you have become wealthy and have much material prosperity.  But the one thing you don’t have is a child.  Some 24 years before, God had come to you and told you that you and your wife would have a child, a child from Sarah’s womb.  You were old some 24 years ago, but now it seems that God’s promise was misunderstood.

You waited eleven years after you had received that promise, but nothing came.  And so you took matters into your own hands, and, as was allowed by the custom of the day, had relations with a maid servant, who conceived and gave birth.  All of the people living under your tents understood the culturally accepted law that Ishmael was now your son.  But this wasn’t what God had meant.  A child will come from you and Sarah. 

In your 99th year, God comes to you again.  He is ready to validate the covenant with a sign.  Circumcision is that sign for you, Ishmael and all males in your tents, and all of those who will come from you.  Yes, all the children that will descend from you.  At this point, God tells you these words:
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. (Genesis 17:15-19).

You laughed.  But there is one thing you didn’t do:  You didn’t tell Sarah what God had said to you.  Did it hurt too much?  Did you feel that God had said this to you before?  Why hadn’t it already happened?  Did you doubt?  Had time hardened you, or beat your confidence down until you were too afraid to talk with your wife?  Perhaps you were trying to protect her, and didn’t want her to be hurt. 
And one day, as you sat near the great trees of Mamre, the LORD appears.   Three men are at your tent, and you, a good man, show the kindest hospitality.  You are a perfect gentlemen, and your reputation is validated by this kindness to strangers.  As a man of faith, you understand that this story that has come before you is different.  It is holy. These visitors are holy. And you will pay attention.  Your awareness is shown because you make the table full of food, offering your best creations for your guests.   Out of this meal will come a promise.
The three visitors ask where Sarah is.  You tell them.  The LORD then says again what he told you when he made the covenant with you.  This time next year, you will have a son.  Only this time, Sarah is listening.  And she hears it with her own ears.
Sarah laughs.  You both had laughed.  We don’t know why.  My guess it was just too difficult to believe.  But the LORD speaks at that moment:
Is anything too hard for the LORD?

Is anything too hard for the LORD?

Walter Brueggemann writes:
Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness.  They are resigned to their closed future.  They have accepted that hopelessness as ‘normal’.  The gospel promise does not meet them in receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness.
(Genesis, Intepretation Series, John Knox Press, 1982, pg 159)

The Lord’s promise didn’t come when everything was perfect.  It came in the midst of ordinary life, with all of its struggles, challenges, triumphs and beauty.  The Lord’s promise wasn’t and isn’t always received with open arms.  But the truth of the matter comes to us in a question:  Is anything too hard for the LORD?

In this moment of shared table, God speaks his answer to Abraham with his promise.  Grace is present.  We also see grace to Sarah in her response:  Out of embarrassment she lies to God.  But God cannot be lied to.  In fact, it is at the table before us, that we gladly acknowledge that we can’t lie to God.  God has come to us, just like he came to those saints of old.  The table invites us to acknowledge that God has visited us.  Like Sarah, if we are honest, and truthful, we can be right with God, ready to hear his will.

This honesty about reality is what happened to the two disciples who walked along the road with a hidden Jesus, shortly after his resurrection.  They talked, they talked about Jesus, the resurrection, all the Hebrew Scriptures that spoke about resurrection.  Then when it was dark, they went inside and talked some more.  They started to talk over a meal.  When the bread was broken, and thanks to God was given, the disciples understood they were in the Lord’s presence.  They had missed this reality of Christ’s presence several times throughout their day.  It was there before them all along.  After Jesus reveals himself, they understand that God was there all along.

And because of the meal, and the bread and the thanksgiving that took place, these two men go back to the disciples.  They get up and go and speak to the scared 11:  what you have heard is true.  Jesus is alive! 

Pilate asked “what is truth?”  The answer is simple:  Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.  He is also the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

We have before us bread and fruit of the vine.  What are we to do with these symbols?  The key phrases from these two stories should be acknowledged and practiced by us:  hospitality, closeness, right relationship, promise, forgiveness, gratitude, testimony.  The table allows for all of these.  This table allows for them, and your table at home should also nurture them.

Going back to the Abraham and Sarah story, Brueggemann writes:
The word had been uttered.  Sarah and Abraham and the listening community can never again live pre-promise.  All their lives are now impacted by this promissory word which will find its own fulfillment.
(Genesis, 160)

This is a really powerful statement.  Once God speaks, you can’t pretend that he hasn’t.  You might have to wait (for the father and mother of many nations, the wait lasted a quarter of a century).  You might not yet fully understand what the promise means.  You might still be coming to grips with what God has said his will is for the creation, for the nations, for you and your neighbor.  But we can’t pretend it hasn’t been spoken. 

The bread and the cup speak to what God has said: 
Nothing is impossible with God.  (Luke 1:37)
I am with you always, even to the end of the age.  (Matthew 28:20) 
Where can I flee from God’s presence?  (Psalm 139)
In the shelter of your presence you hide them. (Psalm 21:30)
My presence will go with you.  (Exodus 33:14)
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy to the only God our Savior be glory , majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  (Jude 24)
This is my body, broken for you.
This is my blood, shed for you.