Sermon on Colossians 3: 1-11

Colossians 3:1-11

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed [which is idolatry]. On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”

“In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is traditionally held to have been written sometime in the late 50’s AD. Paul is met, yet again, with a church having a Christological dispute. This particular church has been met with false teachers urging them towards asceticism and observance of specific Holy Times. Paul specifically addresses these issues by announcing, again, that Christ is in you, thereby denying the false teachings.

In two of my sermons this summer we have seen Paul, in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians, responding to similar problems with the same resounding answer. “Christ is in you!”

We then find ourselves wrestling with verses 2 and 3…

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

At first glance it appears that Paul is telling us that we need to keep our minds focused on heaven and not on earth. That God is up in the clouds and we are here stuck on the ground. That we are falling short of his expectations and need to put to death that which is earthly. Though we often succumb to the evil powers of fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, as Paul tells us… I think his words describing the separation of Heaven and Earth have been met with confusion and harmful interpretation over the centuries.

You see; taking Paul’s words literally, places God in the sky above. Yet, we all know that no spaceship could ever fly far enough to glimpse God. The ancient biblical writers of the Old Testament did not suppose that if they could have traveled into space that they would somehow come closer to the place where God lived; He is not an object within our perceived physical universe.

I often wrestle with this question of “where does God exist?” And as I began preparing this sermon I realized that many of my personal theological answers to this question confuse even me. In preparation for Duke Divinity this fall, all incoming M.Div students are required to read Bishop Tom Wright’s Simply Christian, which we read as a congregation a few years ago.  Bishop Wright’s book gives the best answer I have found.

There are three ways in which we can imagine God’s space and ours relating to one another:

Number 1: We slide both worlds together. God is everywhere and everywhere is God. God is everything and everything is God. Modern theologians refer to this belief system as Pantheism. [Pan meaning “everything” and Theos meaning “God”] Categorizing yourself in this belief set is quite demanding because it is often hard to literally imagine divinity in everything; wasps, cancer cells, hurricanes, earthquakes, the Dallas cowboys. This belief system makes it difficult to cope with evil; when everything lives in divinity there is no court of appeal when something bad happens. Nothing, nobody, can come rescue you.

Number 2: We completely separate both worlds as far apart as possible. God has no active part here on earth and watches us from far away. This belief system is known as Deism. Thomas Jefferson himself was a noted Deist. [Jeffersonian Bible- no miracles] If you have a relatively stable life this option makes sense, you can shrug your shoulders at God and hope to still remain okay. But for those who are underprivileged, you have no hope for attaining anything better; your only option is to ditch this world.

It makes sense to me why this option is so popular, and why many people believe that this is the way Paul is describing the world in his letter to the Colossians. If I believe that God is distant and far away, having no bearing on my life, I wouldn’t worry about living like Christ, I wouldn’t pray, and I certainly wouldn’t get out of bed on a Sunday morning to attend church.

Number 3: The worlds overlap and interlock in different ways. This may at first seem confusing, but with proper explanation I think it might prove to be the absolute truth. The Old Testament insists that God belongs in heaven and we on earth, yet there are plenty of stories where the two spheres overlap. When Moses discovers the burning bush he is told that he is on holy ground, literally in God’s presence; heaven and earth are intersecting. When the Israelites finally make it to Mt. Sinai God appears to Moses giving him the Ten Commandments. David builds the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where Israel’s God would make his home forever. In the Old Testament, the Temple was where Heaven and Earth met.

The New Testament itself offers us glimpses of when these two worlds combine as well.

Jesus is God incarnate. He is both fully human and fully divine simultaneously. He is the best interlocking example of God’s sphere and our sphere. Last week Dennis used the scripture from 1 John 4:

“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

If we love one another, God lives in us. This is to say that by loving one another we can literally bridge our world with God’s world. We can experience the divine by simply loving. Additionally when we partake in the Lord’s Supper we are experiencing the divine in the meal.

Truly I tell you, God’s sphere and our sphere overlap and interlock in amazing ways.

Two weeks ago I left National airport with Jason Micheli and five of my peers to begin our week in Guatemala. This was my third trip and I knew what to expect from the beginning, yet this trip was unlike any other.

After spending 2 days with the adult group, we left them in the valley near Quetzaltenango and we made our way up to Chiquisis at 13,000 ft. Arriving in the village was like being in a dream. The visibility was next to nothing because we were literally in the middle of a cloud. After spending a night in sleeping bags we awoke to a completely different sight. For the moment the clouds were gone and we could all the mountain chains and valleys around us. Lush greenery was everywhere and we could now see the clouds below us. It was at this moment that I began to realize that this trip would be different.

Typically when one goes to Guatemala to work for HSP they stay at a place called El Refugio, they are bussed from their lodging to their worksites, and rest comfortably at night in the hotel. We were staying feet away from our families, in the same conditions, and eating meals prepared on a stove built just like the ones we were to construct. The relationships that we formed with the families were stronger than in the past.  The children would follow us everywhere we walked in the village and would be waiting for us to wake up every morning. Because there is no running water on top of the mountain we each took a turn in a sweat lodge, bathing ourselves in the exact same way as the families around us. We completely immersed ourselves within the community and experienced a week of their lives. And we loved them: the children and their joyful smiles and the women who were so eager to welcome us into their homes.

And I know that they loved us back. Not for building stoves or playing with their children, but by simply showing them that we are equals, that by being made in the image of God we are all unique yet, connected.

I saw Heaven and Earth combined, God’s world interlocked with ours, in the love expressed between that village and us. If we love one another, God lives in us.

After we finished our stoves and made our way down the mountain, back to the valley with the adults we joined together for a worship service where Jason blessed the bread and the wine for communion. We congregated in a small class room, read scripture, performed hymns, and shared stories from our week. I have always enjoyed communion but some of Jason’s words that night made me appreciate in a new way.

“It was on the road to Emmaus that Jesus appeared to two of his disciples. They did not recognize him, but later that evening when he broke bread with them there eyes were opened.”

I will admit that I often limit my perception of the Eucharist to the Last Supper, the night before he found himself on the cross. Yet Jesus made himself known to his disciples, in the breaking of the bread on Easter, after the walk to Emmaus. Celebrating this meal should not be a sorrow filled venture. We should not limit its majesty to the forgiveness of our sins. This meal is joy. This meal is Easter. This meal bridges God’s world and our world.

In a few minutes each of us will be invited to partake in the Eucharist. Jesus will make himself known to you, again, in the breaking of the bread. He is the host of this meal.

You have a New Life in Christ, one where He lives and abides within you. So I ask you to look for where God’s world and our world interlock. Love one another so that God may live in us. And remember that you are all one in Jesus Christ.

Amen.

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Sermon on Amos 7: 7-17

Amos 7: 7-17

“This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, “Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from this land.” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am [was] no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am [was] a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following my flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

“Now therefore hear the Word of the Lord. You say, “Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” Therefore thus says the Lord: “Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.””

I have been invited to preach about a dozen and half times and I try to make each sermon end with a nice happy warm feeling. Given the scripture today that usual comfort becomes nearly impossible

“I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a shepherd, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following my flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

The Prophet Amos presents us with a distinct call and description of his role in communicating the Word of the Lord. He was no prophet, nor did he come from a family of prophets. He was a simple shepherd, a man plucked from his profession and way of life, to proclaim the judgment of God. I read chapter seven and I am left feeling uncomfortable and uncertain. Amos first presents us with an image of a plumb line, to my knowledge this is the only reference to a plumb line in the entirety of the bible, this plumb line is a device used to determine straight and even lines in a field. Think of it as a proverbial level used in construction. Now see, God sets a plumb line against Israel, using a divine standard to measure the fidelity of God’s people.

To fully appreciate Amos’ vision we need to understand Israel during this time…

Amos was called during the reigns of two kings: King Uzziah of Judah [south], and King Jeroboam II of Israel [north]. Amos was from Judah and was called to the northern kingdom to proclaim the Word of God. The reigns of Uzziah and Jeroboam were relatively peaceful. There were no major military conflicts and according to Amos it was a time of prosperity, at least for a few at the expense of the many. There seems to have been a breakdown in the old tribal and family systems of land ownership and the emergence of a wealthy class at the top of society. A generation  after Amos’ proclamation, the Assyrian empire invaded the Northern Kingdom and carried the people into exile. Amos repeatedly announces that because of Israel’s social injustice and religious arrogance, the Lord will punish them by means of a total military disaster. Amos was not introducing new moral laws, but rather holding people accountable for their transgressions.

The people of Israel during Amos’ time had forgotten what the Lord had done for them. They ignored the Mosaic exodus and turned away from their own deliverance, only to begin subjugating people repeating the events of bondage in Egypt. The elite increased their wealth and became stratified from all others in society. According to Amos, the elite along with the rest of society had rejected the laws of the lord, forgotten their past and ignored God’s greatest commandments. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart with all your soul with all you mind and all your strength, AND you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

God sets a plumb line against Israel, judging people by His standards.

Can you imagine what Amos was called to do? Leave his home and way of life, to go into a different kingdom to announce that they will be destroyed because of their actions? I am not surprised to find that Amaziah, priest of Bethel, responds to Amos’ words by telling King Jeroboam “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel.”

God’s judgment is not limited to the King; this is a judgment against all of God’s people.

GUATEMALA

Next Saturday I will be traveling with other college age students to Guatemala for our annual international mission trip. When I first read the scripture for this Sunday I realized how well it matched with the Guatemalan Missional experience… The social injustices of Amos’ time are eerily similar to the injustices still seen in Guatemala today.

Just a little history to establish context:

The Spanish invaded Guatemala in 1519, bringing with them disease and dominion. An epidemic swept across the land; many lost their lives and Guatemala was eventually colonized for its jade, lumber and dye. Many of the indigenous Mayans were pacified and removed from their land. The Spanish also brought the Guatemalans their own religion: Christianity. The Church in Guatemala officially labeled the Mayans as “Naturales” which literally meant that they were primitive. They were considered a lower species, somewhere above animals but below Adam and Eve. This prejudice continued through the 19th century when non-Spanish corporations moved into the country to exploit its fertile lands for fruit and coffee. Again Mayans were displaced and the distinction of “naturales” continued to be used. Imagine being told for over 500 years that you were a lesser creature created by God.

After World War II through 1996 Guatemala was consistently in a state of civil war. Throughout the 1980’s the Military dictator commissioned death squads to seek out indigenous Mayans for their unwillingness to takes sides in the conflict.

So, the people that we are going to serve have experienced 5 centuries of persecution and oppression, they do not have the education or resources to thrive today.

The very few elite in Guatemala have thrived off of the suppression of the Mayan culture. To me this sounds a lot like Amos’ Israel.

The Mission organization that we will be partnering with is called HSP for Highland Support Project; established by Ben and Lupe Blevins. After graduating from the University of Richmond in the 80’s Ben traveled to Guatemala to participate in community organizing and acted as a human shield during the Civil War. It was during this time that me met his wife Lupe and they have been organizing this effort ever since.

The first summer I went to Guatemala, Lupe offered me a story of two villages to explain why HSP does what they do:

Lupe’s village saw the arrival of missionaries when she was a child and they refused to give handouts to the people. Instead of establishing a health clinic they taught the people how to heal one another. Instead of handing out boxes of food they taught the people how to be more efficient with their cooking to sustain their existence. This relationship eventually allowed the missionaries to leave the village because it had become empowered and was able to truly thrive on its own.

The next village over also saw the arrival of missionaries at about the same time. Yet these missionaries brought handouts, brought boxes of food, brought medicine, and then left. Although initially endowed, the materials did not last and the village was unable to sustain itself.

Ben and Lupe believe in attacking injustice by teaching and allowing the indigenous Mayans to thrive on their own, offering empowerment instead of charity.

So what do we do when we go to Guatemala?

We spend the majority of the week building stoves for local Mayan families and finish by helping plant new trees in an attempt at reforestation.  The stoves are necessary because most families cook over an open fire within their home, and this creates massive respiratory problems for the children. The stove is incredibly efficient and uses a chimney to draw the smoke outside. The families now use less wood, and have more time to spend with their families. It also helps to empower the local women by giving them more time to work things such as weavings, which they later sell in the market.

But more important than the stoves are the relationships that we are creating with the families we serve. Through our relationships we hope to show these people that we are all equal, that they deserve to be treated fairly, that they are loved. This will mean more than any stove ever could.

Now I did not come all the way to Harmony UMC this morning to tell you that you need to go to Guatemala or any mission trip for that matter. What I offer to you is a new way to live your life. A way handed to us through the bible over the last 2000 years, one where we live for others rather than for ourselves. Knowing that even the Son of God came not to be served but to serve. You do not need to go to a foreign country to do this. Look at your neighbors, look at your community, and look at your church.

When Amos preached his message to the people of Israel it was already too late. They had all settled for the status quo and accepted an unrighteous life. Amos never even calls the people to change their actions; God’s judgment had already been decided.

We still have hope. For us it is not too late. We know from the gift of Jesus Christ what it is that God is calling us to do. So are you willing to settle for mediocrity? Are you content to live an unrighteous life? Truly I tell you we are Israel. Where do you measure up on God’s plumb line?

Amen

Sermon on Galatians 2:15-21

Galatians 2:15-21

“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified by Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of Sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the Law, I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the Law, then Christ died for nothing.”

[Taylor Mertins] “For through the Law, I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written around 50 AD, offers a window into the formation of what we know as Christianity. As I noted in my sermon on Romans 5 two weeks ago, one of the largest debates in the 1st century was delineated between the validity Jewish-Christians and Gentile Christians. I tried to raise Paul’s admonition that is does not matter WHO you are, Gentile or Jew, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul addresses yet another debate on what it means to be a follower of Christ. Paul had founded the churches in Galatia and after his departure some Jewish-Christian teachers urged his converts to adopt Jewish laws and customs including circumcision, Sabbath observance, dietary laws, and Jewish festivals. Paul rebukes these claims and attempts to show the people of Galatia that is does not matter WHO you are, or WHAT you do.

Paul contends later in chapter 6, that all who live under the cross of Christ in the new creation are members of the “Israel of God.” He also notes in chapter 3 that the Jewish Law was “our disciplinarian” until Christ came, so that we may be justified by faith.” The late and great theologian Jaroslav Pelikan described the Jewish law as the custodian or tutor of the Jews until Christ came.

Because Christ gave himself up for us, because the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts, we are justified by our faith, not by what we do. God loves us no matter what, unconditionally. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul knew that even with his past, persecuting Christians before his CONVERSION on the road to Damascus, Christ lived in him. I think what Paul was trying to tell the Galatians could be summarized this way:

It does not matter who you are.

It does not matter what you do.

But what does matter, is WHY you do it.

[Jake McConville]

  • I attended church regularly as a child/youth
    • Went every Sunday with my family [Sue a day school teacher + jay as Sunday school and commitment campaign]
    • Active youth group member
    • Went because I was told

–       Puerto Rico Mission trip

  • Was not really interested in going
    • Wanted to hang out all summer
    • School was over – I didn’t want to work
      • Pool
      • Friends

–       Of course my Mother had other plans

  • Cannot argue with her
    • Ended up going on this mission
    • LITTLE DID I KNOW BUT THE PERSON THAT BOARDED THAT PLAN WAS NOT BE THE ONE COMING BACK

–       Arriving Puerto Rico

  • Hot, Humid,
  • Poverty
  • Split into groups of people we have never met before
  • Showed our worksite
    • Old woman confined to a wheel chair lived there
      • Made me realize everything was going to be ok

–       Time went on relationships developed

  • Attempts to communicate in Spanish
  • (Painted houses, tarred roofs, fixed up property)
  • Made close friends with others in my group
  • Found the light of Christ
  • Did not want to leave
  • Came home a changed young man
  • Christ did not come into me while I was in Puerto Rico… He was within he all along.

–       Who is about to kneel at the altar?

  • Hope is that they will be truly transformed and find that Christ lives and has always lived in everyone of them
  • Some already know scripture, some come to church everyday
    • Our hope is that they will extend their Christianity beyond simply following the Christian guidelines
    • No longer an obligation – but the right thing to do
    • Christianity is not a tally system
      • There are not a certain amount of marks you need to attain during your life in order to get into heaven
      • It is Christ’s love and Christ’s warmth within you that will unlock your heart – allowing you to see the kingdom at hand.

[Taylor Mertins] What Jake and I are talking about is not limited to those who are going on mission trips. Each and every one of us is called to help and to serve your neighbors.

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me; who lives in you.

Amen.